The Torah that G-d gave the Jewish people at Mount Sinai over 3300 years ago was intended to be a manual or user’s guide for life, helping us deal with everything that comes our way. The 37-volume Babylonian Talmud, which is the recorded version of the Oral Tradition that came along with the Torah, discusses virtually every conceivable scenario that might arise in our lives and rules how a Jew should act.
The problem is that the Talmud was sealed over 1700 years ago, so how is a Jew supposed to know the Halachah (Jewish law) on issues and scenarios that arise in the post-Talmudic era up until today.
Indeed, many Jews have claimed that turning on an electric light on Shabbos couldn’t possibly be forbidden by Torah law because when the Torah was written, electricity had not yet been invented.
However, this argument makes absolutely no sense. It is illogical to believe that G-d would give His people a manual for life that would only provide guidance for the early generations and not for the rest of us. After all, G-d certainly knew that electricity would be invented, so why wouldn’t He give later generations a way to divine His will and to know the Halachah with regard to modern inventions?
Of course, the answer is that He did give us a way to know the Halachah in the post-Talmudic era. For that we have the entire collection of She’eilos U’Teshuvos (lit. “Questions and Answers”), otherwise known as Responsa.
Basically, Responsa are the answers given by authorities in Jewish law to questions put to them. Essentially, the questions in the Responsa concern problems which arose out of new conditions, for which no direct answers could be found in the Talmud, the final authority for Jewish law. The leading Respondents through the ages, faced with new questions, tried to discover analogies in the Talmud and the later Codes.
Two examples, among many, can be given of how the process works. When printing was invented, the question arose of whether it should be considered as writing for the purposes of Jewish law. Was a printed bill of divorce (get) valid, since the Talmud speaks of a written document? Do printed copies of the Bible enjoy the same sanctity as a hand-written text?
Since printing was unknown in Talmudic times no direct guidance on these questions could be forthcoming from the Talmud. The Respondents had to arrive at their rulings by careful study of the Talmudic definition of ‘writing’.
Similarly, when electricity was discovered and harnessed to human needs, the question arose of whether switching on an electric light constitutes making fire and is therefore forbidden on the Sabbath. This, too, was considered by the Respondents by an examination of the Talmudic definition of making fire.
In addition to their importance for Jewish law, the Responsa collections (which span over 1700 years and of which around two thousand have now been published) are not only important for Jewish law but serve historians as a rich source for the study of the social life of Jews reflected in them – a particularly reliable source since the details are mentioned in an incidental manner.
Among questions to which contemporary Respondents address themselves are: artificial insemination; riding in an automobile on the Sabbath; autopsies; heart transplants; switching off a life-supporting machine; and stem cell therapy.
The collection of Responsa by Rabbi Ezekiel Landau of Prague (1713-1793), known as "Noda Bi-Yehudah”, was esteemed by rabbis and scholars, as distinguished both for its logical discussion and for its independence with regard to the rulings of later authorities as contrasted with its adherence to the writings of earlier scholars
In one of his more famous published Responsa (see Noda Bi-Yehudah Volume II Yoreh Deiah Responsum #9), Rabbi Ezekiel Landau is asked whether or not one is allowed to hunt merely for sport. He discusses two possible Halachic issues with hunting for sport – the prohibition of Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim, causing unnecessary pain and suffering to animals, and the prohibition of Bal Tashchis, unnecessary wasting and destroying.
After a lengthy discussion with proofs from the Talmud and the later Codes, Rabbi Landau concludes that hunting would not be considered cruelty to animals insofar as the animal is generally killed quickly and not tortured. As well, he rules that hunting animals is not called ‘wasting’ as one can benefit from the hide and flesh of the animal.
Rabbi Landau then adds that although hunting for sport might be allowed from a technical Halachic standpoint, it is not the way of the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. After all, he asks rhetorically, who are the only hunters mentioned in the Torah? Nimrod and Esau – two extremely wicked individuals [see Rashi’s commentary to Genesis 26:34 where he writes that Esau not only hunted for animals. He spent the first 40 years of his life hunting and raping married women!].
Rabbi Landau also calls attention to the Jewish custom (quoted by the Rem”a in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 223:6) of wishing someone who wears a new article of clothing that he live to see it wear out and be replaced by another ("tibaleh vetischadesh"). This blessing is withheld, however, in regard to items made of leather, such as shoes, because it implies the death of an animal to make such renewal possible. If such compassion for animals is expected of us in the blessing we offer, he concludes, how much more so in regard to refraining from slaying them simply for the sake of pleasure.
After stating this reason based on mussar (ethics) Rabbi Landau issues his ruling that hunting is forbidden because of the risk which it presents to the hunter. If someone hunts for his livelihood he is permitted to expose himself to this level of risk just as the Torah permitted one to climb high fruit trees, cross oceans and travel deserts for his livelihood despite the fact that each of these carries with it a degree of risk. But if hunting is done simply as a form of sport one is guilty of exposing himself unnecessarily to such a degree of risk and therefore violates the Torah command to guard against danger to life.
So I guess hunting for sport is no job for a nice Jewish boy. I mean, can you see a Jewish mother proudly showing her friends a photo of her son wearing hunters clothing and carrying a spear, and saying “my son, the hunter”?!
[Sources: Hunter and Hunted by Rabbi Mendel Weinbach ZT”L on Ohr Somayach’s website at http://ohr.edu/1443 ]