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Shulkhan Arukh

The Shulkhan Arukh (Hebrew, "Prepared Table"), by Rabbi Yosef Karo is considered the most authoritative compilation of Jewish law since the Talmud.

Table of contents
1 The Bet Yosef
2 The Standard Authorities
3 The Shulkhan Arukh
4 Isserles' Opposition to Caro

The Bet Yosef

The Shulkhan Arukh is actually an abridgement of a much larger work by Rabbi Karo, the Bet Yosef (Hebrew, "House of Joseph"). Rabbi Karo began the Bet Yosef in 1522 at Adrianople, finished it in 1542 at Safed, and published it in 1550-59. In form it is a commentary upon Jacob ben Asher's "Arbah Turim"; but it is really much more comprehensive, going back to the Talmud and the Midrash compilations relating to Jewish law. This work dicusses the pros and cons of the authorities cited by the "Tur," and examines the opinions of the authorities not mentioned by the latter.

Thirty-two authorities, beginning with the Talmud and ending with the works of Isserlein, are briefly summed up and critically discussed in "Bet Yosef." No other rabbinical work compares with it in wealth of material. Karo evidences not only an astonishing range of reading, covering almost the whole of rabbinic literature, but also very remarkable powers of critical investigation. He shows no disposition to accept blindly the opinions of the ancient authorities, notwithstanding his great respect for them.

In the introduction to his monumental compilation, Caro clearly states the necessity of and his reasons for undertaking such a work. The expulsion of the Jews from the Pyrenean peninsula and the invention of printing endangered the stability of religious observances on their legal and ritual sides. In Spain and Portugal questions were generally decided by the "customs of the country"; the different districts had their standard authorities to which they appealed in doubtful cases. The most prominent of these were Maimonides, Nahmanides, and Asher ben Jehiel. When the Spanish-Portuguese exiles came to the various communities in the East and West, where usages entirely different from those to which they had been accustomed prevailed, the question naturally arose whether the newcomers, the majority of whom were men of greater learning than the members of the invaded communities, should be ruled by the latter, or vice versa. The increase of printed books, moreover, spread broadcast the products of halakhic literature; so that many half-educated persons, finding themselves in possession of legal treatises, felt justified in following any ancient authority at will. Caro undertook his Bet Yosef to remedy this evil, quoting and critically examining in his book the opinions of all the authorities then known.

The Standard Authorities

Caro at first intended to follow his own judgment in cases of differences of opinion between the various authorities, especially where he could support his own view by the Talmud. But he gave up this idea because, as he says, "Who has the courage to rear his head aloft among mountains, the heights of God?" and also because he correctly thought, though he does not mention his conclusion, that he could gain no following if he set up his authority against that of the ancient scholars. Hence Caro took Alfasi, Maimonides, and Asher ben Jehiel as his standards; accepting as authoritative the opinion of two of the three, except in cases where most of the ancient authorities were against them. Karo very often decides disputed cases without regard to the age and importance of the authority in question, expressing simply his own views. He follows Maimonides' example, as seen in "Yad," rather than that of Jacob ben Asher, who seldom decides between ancient authorities.

In its form, Karo's Bet Yosef follows Jacob ben Asher's "Tur". Several reasons induced Caro to connect his work with the "Tur," instead of with Maimonides' code. In the first place, the "Tur," although not considered so great an authority as Maimonides' code, was much more widely known; the latter being recognized only among the Spanish Jews, while the former enjoyed a high reputation among the Ashkenazim and Sephardim, as well as the Italians. Secondly, it was not Caro's intention to write a code similar in form to Maimonides' work; he intended to give not merely the results of his investigations, but also the investigations themselves. He wished not only to aid the officiating rabbi in the performance of his duties, but also to trace for the student the development of particular laws from the Talmud through later rabbinical literature. The study of Talmudic literature was not for Caro, as for Maimonides, merely a means toward an end—namely, for religious observances—but an end in itself; he, therefore, did not favor codes that contained only decisions, without giving any reasons for them.

The Shulkhan Arukh

Karo wrote the Shulkhan Arukh in his old age, for the benefit of those who did not possess the education necessary to understand the "Bet Yosef." The arrangement of this work is the same as that adopted by Jacob ben Asher in his "Arba'ah Turim," but more concise; nor are any authorities given. This book, which for centuries was, and in part still is, "the code" of rabbinical Judaism for all ritual and legal questions that obtained after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, has a remarkable history. The author himself had no very high opinion of the work, remarking that he had written it chiefly for "young students," (Shulkhan Arukh, Introduction). He never refers to it in his responsa, but always to the "Bet Yosef." The Shulkhan Arukh, achieved its reputation and popularity not only against the wishes of the author, but, curiously enough, through the very scholars who attacked it.

The history of the Shulkhan Arukh is, in a way, identical with the history of rabbinical literature in Poland for a period of two centuries. Recognition or denial of Caro's authority lay entirely with the Polish Talmudists. Germany had been forced to give way to Poland as early as the beginning of the sixteenth century; and in the last third of that century the East had become so entirely absorbed in the new cabalistic school of Luria that the study of the Talmud was greatly neglected. Caro was opposed in the East only by his contemporaries, Yom-Ṭob Zahalon, who designated the Shulkhan Arukh as a book for "children and ignoramuses" (see his Responsa, No. 67, beginning), and Jacob Castro, whose work Erek ha-Shulkha consists of critical glosses to the Shulkhan Arukh. Isserles and Solomon Luria were Caro's first important adversaries. Although the opposition of these two men was different in kind and due to different motives, it may be regarded in a measure as the protest of the Ashkenazim against the supremacy of the Sephardim. The Ashkenazim were more scrupulous in matters of ritual than their Spanish-Portuguese brethren; hence they considered that Caro's "Bet Yosef" contained dangerous innovations, as the authorities he followed were chiefly Sephardim, whose opinions did not prevail among the Ashkenazim.

Isserles' Opposition to Caro

Immediately upon the appearance of Caro's "Bet Yosef," Isserles wrote his "Darke Mosheh," a moderately expressed but severe criticism of Caro's great work. In place of Caro's three standard authorities, Isserles brings forward the ("the later authorities"), together with the Franco-German Tosafists as criteria of opinion ("Darke Mosheh" to Yoreh De'ah, 35). The importance of the Minhag ("prevailing local custom") is also a point of dispute between Caro and Isserles: while the former held fast to original authorities and material reasons, the latter considered the minhag as an object of great importance, and not to be omitted in a codex. This point, especially, induced Isserles to write his glosses to the Shulkhan Arukh, that the customs (minhagim) of the Ashkenazim might be recognized, and not be set aside through Caro's reputation. If Abraham b. David's criticism of Maimonides' code be compared with Isserles' criticism of Caro's Shulkhan Arukh, the question suggests itself why the Shulkhan Arukh became an authoritative code, in spite of opposition and against the will of its author, while Maimonides' "Yad" found no acceptance among the Franco-German Jews, owing to Abraham ben David's criticism and influence. The answer lies in the fact that the keen and, in part, just criticism by Rabad destroyed confidence in Maimonides' "Yad," while Isserles was not content only to criticize, but supplemented Caro's work extensively, with the result that the Ashkenazim then accepted the Shulkhan Arukh, assuming that in its corrected form it was an unquestionable authority.

Initial text from the 1906 public domain Encyclopedia Judaica. Please help by updating.