Sunday 16 February 2020


Dreams as a Basis for Halacha; Part II:


The practice of posing Halachic questions to G-d, and then waiting for alleged angelic responses became quite popular during the 12th and 13th-centuries.

One work of great interest is She’elot uTeshuvot min haShamayim, or Questions and Answers from Heaven.

In this article, we will look at some of the background to, and features of this work. I have drawn extensively from the writings of Dr Pinchas Roth[1] of the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University.


The notion of questioners from faraway places writing to Gaonic authorities (i.e., rabbis from the Gaonic Period 589-1038) in Babylonia - in request of guidance - emanated around the 9th-century. The anthology of questions and answers became known as Responsa literature.[2]

At that time, the Babylonian Jews were beginning to disperse to other centres in Europe and North Africa and according to Roth, this genre of Responsa literature was:

“...part of their [i.e., the Gaonim’s][3] campaign to increase their influence on Jewish life throughout the Diaspora.”

After the Gaonic Period, the practice continued, with questions being sent to rabbinic authorities now in other centres in the expanded Diaspora - and it still prevalent to this day.


In the midst of this flourishing Responsa Literature, a strange work surfaced where suddenly G-d - not rabbis - became the address to which the questions were sent. This was the She’elot uTeshuvot min haShamayim. (Henceforth referred to as She’elot.)


Roth analyzed the extant manuscripts of this work and he noticed that the author, a certain R. Yaakov was recorded by different names in the various texts. In some cases, the author was Yaakov ben Levi, in others he was Yaakov haLevi.

One manuscript, copied in around 1388, identifies him as R. Yaakov ben Meir[4], the famous Tosafist known as Rabbenu Tam. 

Other manuscripts[5] refer to him as R. Yaakov of Corbeil (the author of Semak or Sefer Mitzvot Katan). He is even identified as R. Eleazar Rokeah of Worms (the last leader of the mystical Chasidei Ashkenaz.)

However, traditionally the author is considered to be the Tosafist R. Yaakov of Marvège and he has been given the mystical epithets Chasid, Kadosh and Mekubal[6]. As to where exactly he comes from is also very confusing. Roth shows how the manuscripts depict him as hailing variously from ten different places:

To confuse matters even further, in the printed edition shown above, he is called R. Yaakov haLevi and is said to have come from both Marvège as well as from Corbeil

A clue as to when and where the She’elot was written, is a reference[7] in the work, to an incident which took place in 1203 which also names certain other identifiable rabbis, indicating that the book was produced in Languedoc[8], Southern France.


Most sections of the She’elot begin with the author citing the phrase “I asked [G-d]” followed by the relevant question.

The responses begin with “They [i.e., the angels] answered.”


According to some manuscripts, R. Yaakov practised a Kabbalistic technique known as she’elat chalom or dream questioning.

In one responsum, R. Yaakov writes:

"O Supreme King, great, mighty, and revered God… command the holy angels charged with replying to questions in a dream to give a true and correct reply to the question I ask before Thy throne of Glory"[9]

According to Abraham Joshua Heschel:

“He would do this by isolating himself through prayer and pronouncement of the divine names. He would then receive answers to his questions...

This was his normal procedure whenever there was doubt concerning a halakhah:

He would command that the doors of the study house be locked, then God would appear to him in a vision and resolve the difficulties. Thus anyone seeking the solution to a problem would have it answered by God.

And this was known to everyone, for he was in a trancelike state until some specific matter was brought to the entrance of his study and immediately he was awakened from his sleep.”[10]


The following is an example of a question addressed to G-d. It asks for clarity on the issue of the correct order of the biblical scrolls which are inserted into the Tefillin (phylacteries):

“And I asked about the order of passages in the phylacteries, and this was my question.
 Please, O great, brave and awesome King, sage of the secrets, revealer of the concealed, teller of the hidden, keeper of the covenant and the kindness. Increase your kindness to us today and command your holy angels to inform me regarding our uncertainty in the order of the passages of the phylacteries.

For there are sages who say that the ‘And it shall be’ passages must be in the middle and otherwise it is invalid, and there are sages who say that the ‘And it shall be’ passages should appear in order and otherwise it is invalid.

Now, King of Kings, command your holy angels to tell me whom the law follows, and whose words you prefer.”[11]

According to both Rashi and Maimonides the four biblical passages must follow the order in which they occur in the Torah, while according to Rabbeinu Tam, the two passages beginning with the words ‘And it shall be’ are to be placed together in the middle.

His question was a weighty one because in R. Yaakov’s home region of Languedoc in Southern France, the custom was to follow the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam over the opinion of the latter’s grandfather, Rashi, which was upheld in Northern France.

Although the answers from the angels in the She’elot usually happened to correspond to the local customs of Southern France, in this instance the answer was more moot:

These are both the words of the living God. As they dispute this below (i.e., in human academies) so they do above (in the Heavenly academy). God says ‘And it shall be’ is in the middle, and the entire Heavenly entourage says they appear in order.”

Nevertheless, while the answer remains technically 'blowing in the wind,' it is still significant that G-d’s view corresponds to that of Rabbeinu Tam whose custom was followed in Southern France.

However, many times the answer was indeed directly in favour of the local customs of Southern France. Thus we see that the angels often answered in accordance with R. Yitzchak Alfasi, known as the Rif, whose views happened to be extremely popular in Languedoc at that time.

But sometimes the angels ruled in favour of Rabbeinu Tam of Northern France. A case in point is the angelic ruling[12] that a woman may recite the blessing asher kideshanu...vetzivanu (who has commanded us) even in instances where the woman has no direct obligation to fulfil the mitzvah:

In another Responsum,[13] a question was asked about the composition of a minyan (a quorum of ten males over the age of thirteen required for prayer). The answer came back that if a boy is eleven or twelve and has begun his studies, he may be included as the tenth person to make up the minyan.


In three instances, a section of Responsa carefully written in a similar style and format to the original (approximately) twenty-five extant manuscripts, was somehow added to the work. 

Interestingly these added sections contain some content very similar to that of the Zohar (which was published around 1280).

This zoharic content was very similar to another forged addition which was also somehow inserted into an earlier Gaonic Responsa work, known as Sha’arei Teshuva.[14] 

It is the view of Professor Israel Ta-Shma that these ‘additional’ Responsa were forged by R. Moshe de León to reinforce the notion that the Zohar was a divinely sanctioned work. 


The first printed version of the She’elot appeared in Livorno in 1818 as an appendix to another work (the fifth volume of the Responsa of R. David ibn Zimra, known as Radbaz). However, according to Roth, for some reason:

“[T]he text of the responsa has not yet been subjected to any systematic comparison with the manuscripts.”


In one of the manuscripts[15], not as part of the official text but in a blank space, we find a magical incantation. To be clear, this is not part of the original She’elot collection but was written into the manuscript in an empty space, probably by one of its owners. This was a common practice with manuscripts.

I have decided to include it only because it may serve as an example of the magical sentiment of some of the readers and owners of the She’elot manuscripts.

To put it in Roth’s words:

“Whatever the intentions of this worried owner, the... magic...on the final page is symbolic of the unique nature of the ‘Responsa from Heaven’ which harnesses mystical power to the needs of Halakhic inquiry.”

The translation of the incantation which follows is from Dr Pinchas Roth and it makes for some interesting reading:

“And any people who hurt me will be sworn by the name Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh that I will see them and they will not see me, not to harm me and not any of those with me.

With the explicit name revealed to Moses at the bush, with the name that was revealed to Elijah at Mt. Carmel they will be… any people… that hurt that I will see… and they will not see me not to hurt me … those with me.

With the great holy name… Akatriel… They will not see me, not to harm me and not any of those with me...”[16]


Getting back to the notion of dream requests in general and the She’elot uTeshuvot Min haShamayim in particular, it should be noted that Maimonides and even certain Kabbalists like Nachmanides were opposed to this type of practice. 

Nevertheless, as we have seen, this did not hinder some leading Tosafists and other rabbinical authorities from insisting on making use of these expediencies.

[1] Pinchas Roth, Responsa from Heaven: Fragments of a New Manuscript of She’lot U-Teshuvot Min Ha-Shamayim from Gerona.
[2] In Hebrew ‘Shut’ or She’elot uTeshuvot.
[3] Parenthesis mine.
[4] MS Oxford 2274.
[5] Such as MS Moscow, Russian State Library, Schneersohn collection, Yevr. 51, fol, 39r.

[6] According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, he was also known as the Tzadik of Marvège. (See: Prophetic Inspiration After the Prophets, p. 51.)

[7] Responsum no. 69.
[9] Yehoshua Horowitz, Jacob of Marvège, Encyclopaedia Judaica.
[10] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Prophetic Inspiration After the Prophets, p. 52.
[11] Text from Pinchas Roth: Responsa from Heaven. Responsum no. 3.
[12] Responsum no. 1.
[13] Responsum no. 53.
[14] There are a number of books which also go by this title.
[15] MS Munich Responsum no. 16.
[16] For brevity, I have omitted a following section of Psalms and an extract from the Talmud Yerushalmi.

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