Halakhic Texts in Middle Ages

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Even though Maimonides' accomplishment seemed impossible to match, other codes did emerge. Examples produced by Sephardi authors include Nahmanides' Torat Ha'adam, Shmuel Sardi's Sefer Haterumot, and Shlomo Aderet's Torat Habayit (all 13th century). At the same time Ashkenazi rabbis produced similar works, such as Eliezer b. Yoel Halevi's Sefer Ravyah (12th century Germany), Yitzhak b. Moshe's Or Zaruah (13th century), and Mordecai b. Hillel's Sefer Mordecai (13th century).

halakhic textsThe next major development in halakhah was Asher b. Jehiel's Piskei ha-Rosh. Asher (the "Rosh"), the leading 14th-century German rabbi, criticized the codification trend for restricting the individual scholar's flexibility to decide issues based on earlier texts, such as the Talmud. He therefore modeled his magnum opus, both in structure and in expansive discussion style, after Yitzhak Alfasi's Sefer ha-Halakhot in the hope of reinvigorating localized authority.

Asher's son, Jacob produced the next major work of halakhic literature, the Arba'ah Turim ("Four Columns"). The Tur, as it is known, distilled the halakhic corpus--including both Sephardi and Ashkenazi schools--into clear, concise, decisive statements. Jacob organized all of the halakhot into four general sections (called "Turim"): Orah Hayyim, which covered daily conduct; Yoreh De'ah, which covered dietary laws, many life cycle rituals, and laws of ritual purity; Even ha-Ezer, which covered family law matters; and Hoshen Mishpat, which covered both criminal law and "civil" law, such as contracts and torts.

The works of Joseph Caro and Moses Isserles concluded this period.  After fleeing Spain in 1492, Caro arrived in Safed, Israel, where he composed the Bet Yosef, a massive commentary to the Arba'ah Turim, in which he identified and analyzed the Tur's sources and conclusions. Caro considered the Bet Yosef his major accomplishment, but came to understand that it was still too large and complex for most people to use.

Consequently, Caro distilled his massive scholarship into a decisive code that was even more concise, comprehensive, and easy to use. He modeled this work, the Shulhan Arukh ("Set Table"), after the Arba'ah Turim, but refined its structure so that individual laws were easier to find. 

The Shulhan Arukh was an immediate success, but in disputes between Sephardi and Ashkenazi authorities, the Shulhan Arukh generally favored Sephardi authorities. Moses Isserles, the leading Ashkenazi authority of the day, devised a novel solution. Instead of writing an entirely new codification that reflected the Ashkenazi traditions, he wrote glosses to Caro's work. He named his work the Mappah ("Tablecloth") and from then on Caro's and Isserles' works were published together. The combined work came to be accepted universally and generated a wave of commentaries and meta-commentaries that continue to be written today.

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