Originally published in The Jewish Echo, 30th January 1976.
Theology in the Responsa. By Louis Jacobs. (Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation, Routledge and Kegan Paul £6).
Pre-judging a book by its day title—or, for the matter of that, by the blurb on the jacket—has its disadvantages. At first sight this delightful work by the erudite minister of the New Synagogue, London, might suggest a laboured, if learned, series of theological reasonings. In reality, as the author indicates, the Responsa explain themselves as:
“the replies given by prominent rabbinic authorities to questions put to them by other scholars, asking for judgment on specific issues, generally of a practical nature.”
This Responsa literature, extending over a period of more than a thousand years, reveals an astonishing variety of topics on which rabbis of the past have sharpened their wits, from the Gaonic period to the 20th century.
In a succinct preface Rabbi Jacobs explains:
“The majority of the questions to which the authors addressed themselves concerned Jewish law in all its ramifications. New situations and circumstances, different in many ways from those which obtained in former ages, posed problems of conduct for which no direct guidance could have been expected in the classical sources. . .”
The central theme of this Responsa literature is an attempt to define “the right way for a Jew to behave; what it is that God would have him do.”
These sages of the past had been endowed with amazing versatility, so wide-ranging, at times curious, were the problems they were beseeched to unravel—every day perplexities such as beset the average Jew, even in these sophisticated ‘seventies.
Cast an eye over the copious index and choose at random a reference to the Holy Land: The famous 14th century sage Rabbi Simeon B. Duran was asked to decide as to the truth of the belief “that one who goes to live in the Holy Land has all his sins pardoned as soon as he enters its borders, provided he repents of them.” Relying on a passage in tractate Ketubot Duran upholds his enquirer’s belief. But it seems his questioner isn’t satisfied. Suppose, he argued, the would-be settler in eretz dies on the way to his sacred goal? What then? Duran is equally comforting: “Even if the man did not actually arrive in the Holy Land but had the intention of so doing, his sins are forgiven.”
In somewhat lighter vein—for even our pundits of the past welcomed a break from pure theology—our 13th century rabbis wrested occasionally with the problem of drams—good and bad. In the latter case their judgment seems to have been influenced by Talmudic precedent: Two methods of neutralising a bad dream were fasting (even on the Sabbath!) and “bringing together three persons and saying to them ‘I have had a good dream, and they should reply: God it is, and good may it be’.”
The Responsa of the Gaonic period abound in curiosa, for this, apparently, was an epoch riddled with superstition.
Recipe for Invisibility!
Hai Gaon (939-1038) was questioned as to the veracity of reports “concerning the use of various divine names for the performance of white magic . . . whether there is any truth in the reports that the saints can use divine names in order to perform such marvels as making themselves invisible.” Although the sage curtly replied that the belief had no foundation, that “these things could not possibly happen,” Hai’s rebuttal, according to Dr Jacobs:
“contradicts the testimony of many reliable reporters who claim themselves to have witnessed the saints performing such miracles. There are reliable reports of sages writing a divine name on an olive leaf and then throwing it at robbers, causing them to become rooted to the ground unable to move. There are also many tales of men travelling great distances in the twinkling of an eye. These ‘masters of the name’ (baale shem) have been observed by trustworthy witnesses in one place on the eve of the sabbath, and in another place, many days distant, the same day.”
A model of lucidity, clearly the fruits of immense enthusiasm and research, the lay reader will find himself the richer and wiser for this uniquely entertaining reappraisal of the wisdom of sages . . . [illegible].