The Shulhan Arukh

The ultimate code of Jewish law.

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Format of the Shulhan Arukh

Caro divided his work according to the categories introduced by Jacob ben Asher. Like the Arba'ah Turim, the Shulhan Arukh is divided into four sections: Orah Hayim (laws relating to prayer, Shabbat and holiday observance, and other rituals of everyday life), Yoreh De'ah (laws of kashrut, tzedakah, conversion, and other ritual matters), Even ha'Ezer (laws relating to women and marriage), and Hoshen Mishpat (civil law, including sections on lending money, renting and buying homes, and worker-employer relations).

Within each of these four sections, laws on similar subjects are grouped together. Each section is divided into simanim (paragraphs), and simanim are further divided into se'ifim (sub-sections). A citation of the Shulhan Arukh, thus, might read: Hoshen Mishpat 335:1, meaning: section Hoshen Mishpat, siman 335, se'if 1.

In general, the Shulhan Arukh presents laws in a straightforward way, with virtually no discussion. For example, Caro's instructions for lighting Hanukkah candles read:

How many candles should one light? On the first night, one lights one; from then on, one adds one each night until there are eight on the last night (Orah Hayim 671:2).

Although the Talmud and other earlier texts include other traditions for the appropriate means of lighting Hanukkah candles, Caro chose to present only what he considered to be the correct procedure, in order to avoid confusing his readers.

Caro and Mysticism

It may seem strange that Caro was simultaneously a mystic and the most important codifier of Jewish law. We tend to associate mystics with meditative practice and with an emphasis on achieving visions of the divine. When we imagine a medieval legal scholar, we might conjure up an image of a very serious man who spends his days bent over a set of musty books. However, within the context of the mystical circle of Tzfat, Caro's double identity makes sense.

For Isaac Luria and his school, the goal of religious observance was to reunite the parts of the divine being that had been scattered as a result of human disobedience. This process, known as tikkun (fixing), required--first and foremost--the practice of mitzvot. Luria and his followers believed that the performance of each mitzvah helped in some way to unify the various aspects of God. The composition of a compendium of Jewish law would thus help Jews to participate in this tikkun.

For the most part, Caro's mystical leanings have little effect on his legal decisions. In some instances, however, Caro does explain a particular law with reference to a mystical teaching.

Commentaries on the Shulhan Arukh

When Caro published the Bet Yosef, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (known as the Rema), an Ashkenazic legal scholar, responded with his own commentary on the Arba'ah Turim, called Darkhei Moshe. Learning that Caro was about to issue the Shulhan Arukh, Isserles abandoned this project and instead wrote a commentary on Caro's work.

Isserles criticized Caro for often ignoring the opinions of Ashkenazic scholars, commenting that, "Caro's books are full of decisions that do not follow the interpretations of the sages from whose waters we drink...[the sages] whose children's children we are."

It has become a familiar joke that every time a person claims to have the last word on Judaism, multiple commentators appear to challenge this assertion. Famously, Maimonides had the chutzpah to claim that a person could read the written Torah and then the Mishneh Torah and "from them, know the oral Torah and have no need to read another book." Not surprisingly, Maimonides' code did not become the last word in Jewish law, but rather almost immediately became the subject of numerous commentaries and critiques.

Similarly, the Shulhan Arukh did not immediately achieve widespread acceptance. Many scholars thought publishing a comprehensive code of law was forbidden, fearing that readers of such a code would have no way of knowing the history or range of opinions on various laws.

Rabbi Shlomo ben Yechiel Luria (the Maharshal), a contemporary of Caro's, was the author of Yam shel Shlomo, a commentary on part of the Talmud. In the introduction to that work, the Maharshal declared the impossibility of "explain[ing] every uncertainty in the Torah to the point that there is no disagreement." Rather, he argued, each scholar should delve into the sources, add new interpretations, and decide among various opinions.

Ironically, the Shulhan Arukh ultimately gained its legitimacy through the publication of two major commentaries by seventeenth-century Ashkenazic scholars. These works, known as Turei Zahav ("Taz") and Siftei Kohen ("Shakh") and written by David ben Shmuel haLevi (Poland, 1586-1667) and Shabbetai ben Meir haKohen (Lithuania, 1621-1662), respectively, respond to the critiques of the Shulhan Arukh by explaining Caro's reasoning, introducing alternative opinions, and offering their own conclusions.

In treating the Shulhan Arukh as an independent work worthy of a commentary of its own, rather than as the poor cousin of the more extensive Bet Yosef, these two scholars secured the place of the Shulhan Arukh as the authoritative code for generations to come.

The best-known later commentary on the Shulhan Arukh is the nineteenth-century Mishneh B'rurah, written by Yisrael Meir Kogan, which includes explanations and a collection of later opinions on the Orah Hayim section of the code. The nineteenth century also saw a number of attempts to abridge the Shulhan Arukh. The most famous of these is Shlomo Ganzfried's Kitzur Shulhan Arukh, which summarizes Caro's work while also incorporating some alternative opinions and contemporary customs.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.