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Rabbeinu Gershom (also known as Me'or Hagolah, the "Light of the Diaspora" - a Rishon who lived approximately 1000 years ago) issued a Cherem (ban) on unauthorized reading of private letters. This prohibition applies even if the reader does not take the letter to his own domain. However, if the owner of the letter threw it into the trash, it is permissible to read it.

This Cherem is still effective today, and must be considered with the same gravity as any other Torah prohibition. It was embraced and accepted at the time that it was issued by all Jewish communities throughout the world. There was no time limitation placed on this ban.

— from http://www.torah.org/advanced/business-halacha/5757/vol2no17.html with internal footnotes omitted


Many a sidur includes a copy of a letter that the Ramban (Nachmanides) wrote to his son, including exhortations on character improvement. Similarly, people sometimes republish unearthed halachic or other responsa of long-dead rabbis without the permission of either party to the communication and (I assume) without knowing that the recipient discarded the letter.

How are such practices allowed?

marked as duplicate by mevaqesh, Community Mar 17 '16 at 16:34

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  • One can add that many books have been written for a son or a high as well as the author mentions in the introduction. Sheiltoth, Chinuch, More Nevuchim, Shney Luchoth Habrith... But obviously when there is no personal message, but Torah learning, it is the Heritage of the Clal. May be an other idea, that is like testament, the testament if public by definition, because financial parts, despite personal fragments. – kouty Mar 14 '16 at 6:21
  • Perhaps the son of the Ramban released the letter his father sent him, to the public. Perhaps there is no Cherem after the receiver's death. – Gershon Gold Mar 14 '16 at 19:58
  • This Cherem is still effective today, and must be considered with the same gravity as any other Torah prohibition ??? – mevaqesh Mar 17 '16 at 16:06
  • ` It was embraced and accepted at the time that it was issued by all Jewish communities throughout the world` So no Jews practiced polygamy for the last millennium? – mevaqesh Mar 17 '16 at 16:07
  • @mevaqesh re your comment on polygamy: the block quotation says nothing about his ban on polygamy. – msh210 Mar 17 '16 at 16:27
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First some background from here

[In 1997, there was a significant controversy when] Dr Marc Shapiro published an article called Scholars and Friends: R' Yechiel Ya'akov Weinberg and Prof. Samuel Atlas. The piece included private correspondence between the Seridei Esh (R Weinberg) and his friend Prof. Samuel Atlas of Hebrew Union College. A lot of people were upset that this private correspondence was published, both because of what it was in itself: letters between a גדול and his friend who was a professor at a Reform university, but also because of the content of those letters. Of course other people felt that this is the truth, and the truth is not upsetting, but just true.

In the next volume, journal editor R Dr. J.J. Schachter published a piece called Facing the Truths of History in which he basically questioned his decision to publish Shapiro's article, but also defended it.

Starting on p. 242 R Schachter discusses the herem of R Gershom and specifically various caveats that would enable one to publish letters. See the full article for details but here is a summary of some of the caveats

  • 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

  • on p. 245, R Schachter brings arguments showing the herem wouldn't apply to a deceased person

He concludes by writing

Finally, my most significant proof for the inapplicability of this herem to our context and the permissibility of generally printing divrei Torah after their author’s death is simply ma‘aseh rav. Significant precedent is, indeed, available for both these activities. What is the essential content of Torah journals like Moriah and Kerem Shlomoh, for example, and countless memorial volumes for deceased gedolim if not precisely this, 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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