Posek (Hebrew: פוסק [poˈsek], pl. poskim, פוסקים [pos'kim]) is the term in Jewish law for a "decisor" — a legal scholar who determines the position of Halakha – the Jewish religious laws derived from the written and Oral Torah – in cases of Jewish law where previous authorities are inconclusive, or in those situations where no clear halakhic precedent exists.
The decision of a posek is known as a psak din or psak halakha ("ruling of law"; pl. piskei din, piskei halakha) or simply a "psak". In Hebrew, פסק is the root implying to "stop" or "cease"— the posek finalizes the process of legal debate. Piskei din are generally recorded in the responsa literature.
Formulating a ruling (psak din)
In formulating a ruling, a posek will base the psak din on a careful analysis of the relevant underlying legal principles, as well as a careful study of the application of these principles. A posek must therefore be thoroughly versed in rabbinic literature, from the Babylonian Talmud, through the major medieval codifications of the Law and up to recent decisions.
The process of analysis usually entails:
- an initial study of the relevant Talmudic Sugyas with commentaries;
- tracing the development of all related material in the Rishonim (medieval rabbinic authorities prior to the Shulkhan Aruch) through the Arba'ah Turim and Shulkhan Arukh;
- and finally, a close analysis of the works of the Acharonim (rabbinic authorities from about the 16th century onwards) discussing the Halakha as recorded in the literature of the Rishonim (and earlier Acharonim).
The ruling itself is an attempt to apply the precedents and principles of the tradition to the question being asked. One common goal of poskim in this regard is, as far as possible, to be consistent with the codified law, as well as with the maximal relevant legal precedents, generally being decisions recorded in the Responsa literature (שאלות ותשובות).
Philosopher and biblical scholar, Maimonides (1138–1204), laid down a guiding principle when rendering halakhic decisions:
When the High Court (Sanhedrin) was abolished, disputes flourished in Israel; one rendering a thing unclean with plausible arguments for his words, while the other rendering it clean, giving plausible arguments for his words, the one prohibiting [a certain thing] while the other permitting it. Had there been two wise men or two courts of Jewish law at a time when there was no Sanhedrin, if one declared a thing to be defiled and another declared the same thing to be clean, [or] one prohibiting [a thing] while the other permitting it – before their case had come before them (i.e. the High Court) – whether they had gone there together or had gone there one after the other, if you do not know where the judgment lists, if it is a matter pertaining to the written Law, go after the more stringent ruling. However, if it is a matter pertaining to the words of the teachers of our laws (lit. scribes), go after the lenient ruling.
- In the Haredi world, each community will regard one of its poskim as its Posek HaDor ("Posek of the present Generation").
- Hasidic Jews rely on the Rov in their community (sometimes but not always Rebbes also get the position as Rov) or leading posek recommended by their Rebbe. Yet there are some hassidim (Jews who are hasidic), but not part of a specific movement. These hassidim will vary in who they follow, sometimes following generic hassid-style poskim like Rav Shmuel Wosner.
- Modern Orthodox Jews may select a posek on a more individual rather than a communal basis, although customs vary.
The approach taken here will, generally, be as above. Thus poskim will not overrule a specific law unless based on an earlier authority: a posek will generally extend a law to new situations but will not change the Halakhah; see the article on Orthodox Judaism.
Conservative Judaism approaches the idea of posek, and Halakha in general, somewhat differently, poskim here apply a relatively lower weighting to precedent, and will thus frequently re-interpret (or even change) a previous ruling through a formal argument; see Conservative Halakha. Although there are some "poskim" in the Conservative movement - e.g. Rabbis Louis Ginzberg, David Golinkin, Joel Roth, and Elliot Dorff - the rulings of any one individual rabbi are considered less authoritative than a consensus ruling. Thus, the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly maintains a Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, whose decisions are accepted as authoritative within the American Conservative movement. At the same time, every Conservative rabbi has the right as mara d'atra to interpret Jewish law for his own community, regardless of the responsa of the Law Committee.
Although Reform stresses the individual autonomy of its membership, it never completely abandoned the field of responsa literature, if only to counter its rivals' demands. Even Classical Reformers such as Rabbi David Einhorn composed some. Rabbi Solomon Freehof, and his successor Rabbi Walter Jacob, attempted to create a concept of "Progressive Halacha", authoring numerous responsa based on a methodology laying great emphasis on current sensibilities and ethical ideals. Full text collections of Reform responsa are available on the website of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
The Reconstructionist position is that if Jews would have formed cohesive communities again, their rulings would be binding, yet presently Judaism is in a "post-Halakhic state". Therefore, their basic policy is to allow tradition "a vote, not a veto" in communal and personal affairs.
List of poskim and major works
In chronological order, by the year of birth, and if needed, secondarily, by year of death and surname.
Poskim of past years
- Yoel Sirkis (1561–1640), Bach
- David HaLevi Segal (1586–1667), Turei Zahav
- Sabbatai ha-Kohen (1621–1662), Shach
- Avraham Gombiner (c.1633–c.1683), Magen Avraham
- Yechezkel Landau (1713–1793), Noda Bihudah
- Vilna Gaon (1720–1797), Gra
- Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812), Shulchan Aruch HaRav
- Avraham Danzig (1748–1820), Chayei Adam
- Moses Sofer (1762–1839), Chasam Sofer
- Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1789–1866), Tzemach Tzedek
- Shlomo Ganzfried (1804–1886), Kitzur Shulchan Aruch
- Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor (1817–1896)
- Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829–1907), Aruch HaShulchan
- Yoseph Chaim of Bagdad (1832–1909), Ben Ish Chai, Rav Pealim
- Yisrael Meir Kagan (1838–1933), Mishnah Berurah, Chafetz Chaim
- Moshe Greenwald (1853–1910), Arugath HaBosem
- Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (1863–1940), Achiezer
- Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935)
- Eliezer David Greenwald (1867–1928), Keren L'Dovid
- Yaakov Chaim Sofer (1870–1939), Kaf HaChaim
- Avraham Duber Kahana Shapiro (1870–1943)
- Yonasan Steif, (1877–1958)
- Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (1878–1953), Chazon Ish
- Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (1878–1966), Seridei Eish
- Yosef Eliyahu Henkin (1881–1973)
- Eliezer Silver (1882–1968)
- Yehezkel Abramsky (1886–1976)
- Yoel Teitelbaum (1887–1979), Vayoel Moshe, Divrei Yoel
- Avraham Chaim Naeh (1890–1954) Ketzos HaShulchan, Shiurei Mikveh, Shiurei Torah
- Zvi Yehuda Kook (1891–1982)
- Yaakov Kamenetsky (1891–1986)
- Aharon Kotler (1892–1962)
- Moshe Feinstein (1895–1986), Igrot Moshe
- Yitzchok Yaakov Weiss (1902–1989), Minchas Yitzchak
- Yosef Greenwald (1903–1984), Vayaan Yosef
- Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903–1993)
- Yitzchok Hutner (1906–1980)
- Chanoch Dov Padwa (1908–2000), Cheishev Ho'Ephod
- Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910–1995), Minchat Shlomo
- Yosef Shalom Eliashiv (1910–2012)
- Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg (1910–2012)
- Pinhas Hirschprung (1912–1998)
- Shmuel Wosner (1913–2015), Shevet HaLevi
- Aharon Leib Shteinman (c. 1913–2017)
- Ephraim Oshry (1914–2003)
- Avraham Shapira (c. 1914–2007)
- Eliezer Waldenberg (1917–2006), Tzitz Eliezer
- Shlomo Goren (1918–1994)
- Chaim Kreiswirth (1918–2001)
- Yaakov Yitzhak Neumann (1920–2007), Ogiro Be'Oholcho
- Ovadia Yosef (1920–2013), Yabbia Omer
- Baruch Ben Haim (1921–2005)
- Fishel Hershkowitz (1922–2017), Klausenburger dayan in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York
- Hayim David HaLevi (1924–1998), Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, author of the set of halakha Mekor Hayim
- Menashe Klein (1924–2011), Ungvarer Rav; Mishneh Halachos
- Nissim Karelitz (1926-2019)
- Nahum Rabinovitch, (1928-2020) rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe
- Mordechai Eliyahu (1929–2010)
- Ephraim Greenblatt (1932-2014), Rivivos Efraim
- Aaron Lichtenstein (1933–2015), rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion
- Meir Brandsdorfer (1934–2009), Kaneh Bosem
- Shimon Eider (1938-2007)
- Yisroel Belsky (1938–2016)
- Zalman Nechemia Goldberg (1932- 2020), av beit din, rosh yeshiva of Machon Lev, editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia Talmudit
- Dovid Feinstein (1929-2020)
- Gedalia Dov Schwartz(1925-2020), av beit din of Beth Din of America and the Chicago Rabbinical Council
- Yechezkel Roth (1936-2021) Karlsburger Rav, author of Emek HaTeshuvah
Conservative and Reform
- Jacob Zallel Lauterbach (1873–1942)
- Louis Ginzberg (1873–1953), The Responsa of Professor Louis Ginzberg
- Solomon Freehof (1892–1990), Reform Jewish Practice and its Rabbinic Background
- Isaac Klein (1905–1979), A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice
- Jacob Agus (1911–1986), Dialogue and Tradition
- Shmuel Kamenetsky (1924- ), rosh yeshiva, Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia
- Chaim Kanievsky (1928- )
- Haim Drukman (1932- )
- Yitzchak Abadi (1933- )
- Dov Lior (1933- )
- Avigdor Nebenzahl (1935- )
- Yaakov Ariel (1937- )
- Zephaniah Drori (1937- )
- Zalman Baruch Melamed (1937- )
- Yisrael Ariel (1939- )
- Eliyahu Ben Haim (1940- )
- Hershel Schachter (1941- ), rosh yeshiva at RIETS
- Shlomo Aviner (1943- )
- Yehuda Henkin (1945- )
- Mordechai Willig (1947- ), rosh yeshiva at RIETS
- Yitzhak Yosef (1952- ), Chief Sephardic Rabbi of the State of Israel, author of the set Yalkut Yosef
- Yitzchak Berkovits (1953- ), rosh kollel The Jerusalem Kollel
- Osher Weiss (1953- ), Minchas Osher
- Eliezer Melamed (1961- )
- Simcha Bunim Cohen, prolific author and pulpit rabbi in Lakewood, New Jersey
- Yisroel Dovid Harfenes author of Yisroel Vehazmanim, Mekadesh Yisroel and Nishmas Shabos
- Ephraim Padwa rabbi of Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations
- Pinchas Toledano, hakham of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews of the Netherlands
- Gavriel Zinner author of the Nitei Gavriel series on halakha
- "The Kosher Get: A Halakhic Story of Divorce".
trained in halakhic psak ... proper subject of analysis ... embody the individual posek's ..
- "Contemporary Halakhic Problems, Vol V, Introduction".
The decisor .. understanding .. underlying principles and postulates of Halakhah
- Maimonides, Mishne Torah (Hil. Mamrim 1:5 )
- Jacob, Walter (1988). Liberal Judaism and Halakhah. Rodef Shalom Press. pp. 90–94. ISBN 0-929699-00-9.
- Meyer, Michael A. (1993). "Changing Attitudes of Liberal Judaism toward Halakhah and Minhag". Proceedings of the World Congress of Jewish Studies. JSTOR 23536120. See a collection of CCAR Responsa.
- Sacks, Jonathan (1992). Crisis and Covenant: Jewish Thought After the Holocaust. Manchester University Press. p. 158. ISBN 0-7190-4203-8.
- Hecht, N. S.; et al. (eds.). An Introduction to the History and Sources of Jewish Law. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-826262-0.
- Jacobs, Louis (1999). A Tree of Life: Diversity, Creativity, and Flexibility in Jewish Law. Littman Library of Jewish Civilization (Second ed.). ISBN 1-874774-48-X.
- Lewittes, Mendell (1994). Jewish Law: An Introduction. Jason Aronson. ISBN 1-56821-302-6.
- An introduction to the system of Jewish Law, aish.com
- AskMoses.com, Live answers
- Authority and Autonomy in Pesikat HaHalacha at the Wayback Machine (archived February 20, 2009), archived from the 2004 original at nishmat.net
- Jewish Law Research Guide, University of Miami Law Library
- Jewish Law: Examining Halacha, Jewish Issues and Secular Law (online journal)