...of a practical character. They do not discuss purely hypothetical cases which would merely exhibit the writer's erudition and acumen, but are replies to actual questions put by Rabbis or laymen on points on which definite decisions were sought. The replies are clear, terse and usually brief, varying from two or three lines to a few pages
Dr. Hoffmann's Responses, though concise, are not peremptory decisions but reasoned judgments, supported by proofs and arguments and setting forth the pertinent references to an exceedingly wide range of authorities from the Talmud and earliest decisionists to the most recent summaries and expositions of Jewish Law.
Dr. Hoffmann is exceedingly rigid where no serious inconvenience would result. But where real hardship would follow from a rigorous construction of the law, he tries to find a way out. This is in accord with the principles that have ever guided the great commenta tors and decisionists, expressed in the biblical text (Prov. 3: 17) "Its ways are ways of pleasantness," and in the talmudical maxim כחא שהיתירא עדיף
(JQR 19,3 275-280)
The majority of scholarship on Melamed L' Ho'il has focused on the question of the interelationship of historical/socio-economic factors in the writing of the responsa.
Thus we have Daniel Gordis's - Dialectics of community, continuity and compassion: the legal writings of Rabbi David Zevi Hoffmann(abstract):
This dissertation discusses the legal writings of Rabbi David Zevi Hoffmann (1843-1921) in light of the work of several modern philosophers of law. It demonstrates that despite the widely accepted view that halakhah reflects the commitments of jurisprudential positivism, a close reading of Hoffmann's Melamed le-Ho'il suggests otherwise.
This study focuses specifically on judicial discretion in Jewish law. The first section of the dissertation summarizes the views of jurisprudential positivists such as Kelsen and Hart, who insist that judges must apply precedent without regard to their own evaluation of the ethical, social or political merits of the case.
The dissertation then introduces the competing "naturalist" positions of Ronald Dworkin and Robert Cover, among others. It focuses on Dworkin's "right answer thesis," his distinction between policy and principle and his "chain-novel" model of adjudication. After discussing Dworkin, the argument addresses Robert Cover and his conception of the interplay of nomos and narrative.
The second section of the dissertation establishes that most descriptions of halakhic adjudication assume a positivist orientation for Jewish law. Even those scholars who argue for a broader sense of halakhic judicial discretion have failed to articulate with sufficient clarity the non-positivist parameters they find operative in Jewish law. This project suggests that analysis of Hoffmann's opinions supports the views of halakhic naturalists, but further submits that analysis of Hoffmann's work in light of the vocabulary provided by Dworkin and Cover yields greater precision in descriptions of halakhic adjudication.
The latter half of the dissertation examines approximately forty of Hoffmann's responsa in detail, arguing that in a variety of socially or morally urgent cases, Hoffmann implicitly rejects positivist limitations on judicial discretion. Instead, his opinions reflect a Dworkinian commitment to the "principle" of the socio-political survival of traditional Judaism; many of his responsa reflect the narrative-oriented adjudication described by Cover.
The dissertation concludes with the suggestion that analysis of other posekim (halakhic authorities) in light of western jurisprudential thought has the potential to vastly enrich the continuing discussion of the fundamental theological, ethical and political commitments of Jewish law.
See also his article in Modern Judaism - DAVID ZEVI HOFFMANN ON CIVIL MARRIAGE: EVIDENCE OF A TRADITIONAL COMMUNITY UNDER SIEGE , David Ellenson's - Sociology and Halacha, its review by Marc Shapiro in Tradition and the subsequent communication.
As interesting as this issue might be its discussion hardly brings forth that which is unique about Melamed L' Ho'il. I'd like to discuss a point from T. No. 16 - Here is how Hyamson describes the Teshuva:
No. 16. Another congregation actually decided to introduce the organ. The religious head of that community states that he would be inclined to permit the innovation provided that the instrument be only used on week days, and then only at weddings, on the king's birthday or similar gala occasions. Would this permission be correct, the correspondent asks, and adds that if he leaves, his successor will most probably allow more radical changes. The Response, covering nine pages, summarizes the entire literature on the subject, gives the various opinions pro and con, and refers to the organ in the old synagogue in Prague, on which melodies were played every Friday afternoon before Lekah Dodi. The writer also quotes a hymn, brought to his notice by Jacob Wagner in a Siddur dated 5438, and afterwards also by Dr. Alexander Marx (this was before he became his son-inn-law W.), who found it in a prayer book printed at Amsterdam in the year 5440.
The hymn has the superscription "A beautiful song by the late Rabbi Solomon Singer, sung in Prague in the Meisel Synagogue to the accompaniment of organ and flutes before Lekah Dodi." The decision finally arrived at is in line with decisions given in the early part of the 19th century, namely, that the organ, primarily dedicated to church use, should never be used in Jewish places of worship. Even at weddings and other festivals on week days, other musical instruments are to be employed. Then in his lenient way, Dr. Hoffmann concludes: "A graduate from the Rabbiner Seminar will not have his diploma with- drawn if he is forced to sanction the use of the organ on week days at weddings, etc. But it is his express duty to make public the restrictions on the permission." Before the Response was issued, it was sent to five prominent rabbis of Germany with a covering note stating that the Rector of the seminary, Dr. Hildesheimer, had approved of its tenor. Four of these rabbis expressed their dissent. Horowitz of Frankfurt would not give any opinion out of deference to Dr. Hildesheimer's view.
Also worthy of note is responsa no. 101 in which he responds to a "critic" who attempted to argue based on the psuedo-epigraphical work Susannah that in pre-rabbinic times the parsha of עדים זוממים was understood literally. R' Hoffmann refutes this by pointing out that Susannah was originally written in Greek (see wiki) which shows that its author didn't know Hebrew and was most likely an ignoramus who wouldn't have know the complexities of Jewish law.
Responsa 57 (p. 98) is a work of pure genius in which an issue is analysed according to all the different positions in oredr to avoid a claim of "kim li". This excellent combination of critical scholarship and classical rabbinics is almost unique in the literature. Highly interesting is one of the letters published by Marc Shapiro in Ha'Mayaan involving a philosophical enquiry in which R' Hoffmann shows his complete proficiency in that literature as well. In the letters in Parnes L' Doro we have several queries involving the Arabic original of the Rambam's commentary to the Mishna, in which R' Hoffmann shows his expertise in that language.
Note: There should be enough material to create another volume of Melamed L' Ho'il. In addition to the letters in Ha'mayaan, the letters in Parnes L' Doro, a responsum on Yayin Nesekh printed in a booklet Ner L' Menachem (there is mention of some other responsa in manuscript in the posession of the family) , the piece from Daiches's Beit Va'ad L' Chachomim and some German articles in Jeschurun (and perhaps in some of the other German periodicals) that deserve translation (A Gilyon Rashi was printed in Sefer Zikkaron of R' Yitzchok Isaac Halevi but I don't think it needs to be reprinted). Publication of these works would be of great value for all students of Rabbinic literature and to the memory of R' Hoffmann.
The Seridei Eish has some Teshuvos along this line - most notably his teshuva on "Get she'nimtzo b'archaos"