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Rabbeinu Gershom issued a Cherem (ban) on unauthorized reading of private letters.

I would like to know how books which contain private correspondence or sh'elos us'shuvos between Rabbis and other people are published?

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  • The sefer Igros Moshe is just the responses; the original questions are omitted for assumedly precisely this reason.
    – Tatpurusha
    Apr 24 '14 at 18:48
  • @Tatpurusha and the assumption is that Rav Moshe gave expressed permission to publish all these letters even those which were subsequently published after he passed away?
    – user5092
    Apr 24 '14 at 19:39
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    I sure hope so...
    – Tatpurusha
    Apr 24 '14 at 21:14
  • Books that publish letters are done so by people who submit their letters to be published
    – Dude
    Jan 22 '19 at 2:25
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I answered this question to a larger extent here, using this article from R J J Schachter (I read the article years ago - it is wonderful).

To quote the reasons most relevant to this question

  • Some formulations of the original herem are phrased "if [the recipient] threw away the letter it is permitted [to read it]"

  • R Hayim Palaggi states the herem only applies if the letter includes a prohibition to further broadcast it

  • R Moshe ben Habib felt the sender needed in addition to verbally articulate that the herem applies to his letter, in addition he felt the herem applied only to the one opening the letter, not to one who reads an already opened one -- and so write the Shiltei ha-Gibborim and the Birkei Yosef

  • ma‘aseh rav: significant precedent is indeed available, i.e., Torah journals, countless memorial volumes for deceased gedolim are publishing private letters and divrei Torah of gedolei Yisrael after their deaths when neither they nor members of their family are available to grant permission. Furthermore, dozens of collections of letters of gedolei Yisrael—including much personal material as well—have been published without permission

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Though he does not address the ban directly one may be able to extrapolate from the halakhic argument offered by Rabbi Shlomo Goren in the journal Techumin, vol. 4 pp. 354-360. Here are some of the sources and arguments.

Rav Goren begins with two texts that seems to contradict each other:

  1. The Gemara in Yoma(4b) learns that you may not repeat something that you hear because it says (Lev. 1:1), “Now the Lord called to Moses, and spoke to him from the tabernacle of meeting, saying.” The last word — “saying” (leimor) — seems redundant because the next verse begins with “speak” (dabeir). The Gemara explains that “leimor” teaches us that you have to receive explicit permission in order to repeat something you are told. This is quoted in the Magen Avraham(156:2). Presumably, one would therefore not be allowed to publish a letter without permission.

  2. However, the Tosefta (Bava Kammach. 7) states that someone who “steals” (overhears) someone else’s teachings may go and repeat the teachings. The Shakh(Yoreh De’ah 292:35) rules, based on this, that you may copy Torah insights from someone else’s book even if he doesn’t want you to do so. Therefore, it would seem that one would be allowed to publish a letter of Torah insights without permission.

To explain the contradiction between the above two sources, Rav Goren posits that the Gemara in Yoma was referring to non-Torah related material while the Tosefta deals with Torah. You need permission to tell someone general information you hear. However, Torah belongs to the entire Jewish people. It is something for which we all have a mitzvah to learn and teach. You do not need permission to repeat a Torah insight that you hear from someone else – in fact, doing so is a mitzvah. Therefore, technically you are allowed to publish a letter of Torah insights without permission. However, as a matter of politeness, it is always best to obtain explicit permission.

Source with emphasis added

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I have now seen that R Moishe Dovid Lebovits answered your question here pp. 8-9. He writes

One could argue that maybe since the person is not alive the many reasons of the cherem would not apply. In addition, one can say that if the letters do not say the Hebrew words on it mentioned above ["pey gimmel yud nun daled reish gimel mem hey” which is an abbreviation of the following posuk פרץ גדר ישכנו נחש, see p. 2] it may not apply.

Furthermore, a public figure may be dealt in a different way than an ordinary person and if the letter is something that one can learn Torah from (i.e. a collection of teshuvas) then it may be permitted since it will not be hurting the individual who wrote them. In addition if these letters were made public already by being placed in a library then one may be able to print them all in one book.

The above reasoning may not apply to writing a biography of a person if there will be derogatory information presented in the book.

Some Gedolim did not want certain teshuovs of theirs printed.

Nonetheless, there were those when they wrote teshuvos who did not publish the name of those who asked the question since the recipient of the letter was not sure if their sender wanted the name to be seen in the response if it would be published in a sefer. This was common among the writings of Harav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, in the Igros Moshe and other works of other Gedolim. [...]

One who receives a letter is not allowed to publicize it without permission. However, if it is Torah it is permitted since we know that Torah belongs to everyone. Therefore, the cherem does not apply.

See the original for further references and sources.

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