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By Nachum Mohl
Undoubtedly, the most influential figure in the Jewish life today is a man who was born in 1488 in Toledo, Spain. His name is Joseph Caro and his major contribution to our lives is a book that he wrote called the Shulchan Orech, or as it is known in English as the Code of Jewish Law. It is this book which sets down the various laws concerning the Jew's religious obligations to his Creator, from the time he rises in the morning until going to sleep in the evening, laws concerning festivals and the Shabbat, marriage and divorce, business and social living every aspect of the Jew's life it is this book which has seen much use and debate as a guide to what a Jew is and does.
Joseph Caro was born to Rabbi Ephraim ben Joseph, a scholar who descended from a long line of Rabbis and scholars. Joseph Caro was only five years old when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella carried out the cruel decree banishing all Jews from Spain (1492). His father took the family first to Portugal where they settled for several years until, there too, they were expelled because they were Jewish. His family wandered from place to place until finally they settled in Turkey, which at that time, although a Moslem land, was under the rule of a friendly monarch who opened his land to Jews. In Constantinople, Rabbi Ephraim and his family settled down and it was here that young Joseph began learning under his father's tutelage.
Rabbi Joseph grew in learning and knowledge. After his father's death, he married and settled in Adrianople, but soon after the wedding his wife died. He married again to the daughter of a scholar. It was in 1522, when he was thirty four years old that he began his first major Halachic work, the Bais Joseph, (the house of Joseph) and its importance will be explained shortly. This was written prior to the monumental Shulchan Orech that we know.
To understand the meaning and importance of the Shulchan Orech, we must understand how Jewish law was interpreted in those times. Prior to the Shulchan Orech, there was no code of Jewish Law to serve as a reference guide. If a person wanted to know what the law was in a particular matter, he had to seek a scholar. Even the scholars could have difficulty understanding the law due to the many complicated arguments and divergent opinions that surround each law. At one time the law had to be learnt directly from the Talmud. This was a difficult task since the Talmud requires great mental abilities and much time to properly contemplate, explore and analyze each law in order to reach a proper decision.
Three great Rabbis, living in approximately the same time period, wrote three different explanations of the laws in the Talmud. The first was Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi, who is generally known by the acronym, the RIF. He produced a brief halachic synopsis of the Talmud in a form paralleling the Talmudic arguments but including only the halachot in a very brief and concise manner.
After the Rif, came the famous RAMBAM, Rabbi Moses ben Maimonides, who penned the famous Mishnah Torah, which is his compendium of the entire Talmud. It is written in a form that enables a seeker to look in a logical sequence for the halacha. The third luminary of halachic importance was Rabbi Osher ben Yechiel, who is known as the Rosh. He was later than the Rif and the Rambam and included in his compendium of Jewish law the opinions of Rashi and Toshphot (whom the Rif and the Rambam did not include).
Later the son of the Rosh, Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher decided to do something different. He decided to arrange the halachot in a chronological order, taking into account the above three mentioned sources and to arrange it in a manner of how a person lives, first he rises in the morning, so first came the laws of rising, then of prayers in the chronological order and so on as a Jew lives. He divided his writings into four books which he called the Arba Turim, (the four rows) also known as the Tur. The first book was Orach Chaim and dealt with daily life including Shabbat and holidays. The other books were Yora Dayah, which had the laws of kashrut and purity, Eben Ezer, the laws of marriage and divorce, and Choshen Mishpat, which had the laws of damages. He ruled according to the majority of the great three Rabbis mentioned above, the RIF, the Rambam and the Rosh. Since this book covers a tremendous amount of material, to maintain brevity Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher did not go into any depth to explain his rulings.
Joseph Caro's first monumental work, the Bais Joseph, is a commentary on the Tur. It goes into detail explaining the various sources of the Tur and in addition provides other important rabbinic opinions that lend understanding to the rulings and in addition variants to the rulings of the Tur. He added much material and in some cases disagreeing with the Tur. It took some twenty years for Joseph Caro to complete the Bais Joseph and was completed in the year 1542 in Safed.
It was in the year 1523 that Rabbi Caro was invited to head the Yeshiva in Nikopoli; he headed this Yeshiva for thirteen years. During this time the Yeshiva became an outstanding place in Torah learning. The most outstanding of his students were the famous Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, known as the Ramak, a great Cabbalist and Rabbi Moshe Alschich, who subsequently wrote commentaries on the Torah. In the year 1536 Rabbi Caro decided to come to Israel and was accompanied by Shlomo Alkabetz, the author of the famous Sabbath hymn, "L'cha Dodi." It took them almost a year until they came to Safed, which was then the center of Torah and Kabbalah. Here he met his former teacher Rabbi Yaakov Berav who had taught him in early years. Finally it was here that he completed his work the Bais Joseph.
After completing the Beis Joseph, he sat down to work on another work, this one he called the Shulcan Orech, meaning the arranged table. The concept was simple, based on the arrangement of the Tur, he set out to make a much simpler guide to the Jewish law, like a table that is set and all that is necessary is for a person to sit down and eat no preparations required. The first part was printed during his lifetime, but the latter three parts were printed after his death. Joseph Caro lived to 87 years, a long life especially in those days. He produced other books such as the Kesef Mishnah, which was a commentary and explanation of the Rambam's Mishnah Torah which brings the sources of the Rambam's decisions with some discussion on them.
The four sections of the Shulcan Aruch were printed for the first time in Venice in 1565. It became a practical guide for every Jew who can read and understand Hebrew. The rulings of the Shulcan Aruch were followed generally the S'fardic authorities since the Rambam and the Rif were from Spain and North Africa. Shortly after the publishing of the Shulcan Orach, a famous Ashkenazi Rabbi, Moshe Isserles, known as the Ramah, wrote his commentary on the Shulcan Orach pointing out the differences (mostly in customs) in which the Ashkenazic Jews differ from the S'fardim. It was published in Cracow in 1568. It was integrated into the body of the Shulcan Orach and has been an integral part of it ever since.
Later on, more commentaries were added to the Shulchan Orech, the most important were the Turei Zahav (known as the Taz) by Rabbi David Haley and the Mogen Avraham by Abraham Gombiner. In addition many other great important commentaries were added to this work.
This great book has been the corner stone of Jewish life and law. It is impossible to speak today of Jewish law, life or customs and traditions with out referring to the Shulchan Orech. We are fortunate that today that many parts of it have been translated into English and a compendium is available from several different sources called "the Code of Jewish Law." It is worth investing time in this study. Certainly no one today can be considered a scholar unless he has a keen knowledge of the Shulchan Orech.
from the April 2009 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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