Shulkhan Aruk

Jewish Texts >> Shulkhan Arukh

The Shulkhan Arukh, also known as the Code of Jewish Law, is the most authoritative legal code of Rabbinic Judaism. It was authored in Tzfat, Ottoman Eyalet of Damascus, by Yosef Karo in 1563 and published in Venice two years later. Together with its commentaries, it is the most widely accepted compilation of Jewish law ever written. The Shulkhan Arukh consists of four parts:

  • Orach Chayim (“Way of Life”) – Daily, Sabbath, and holiday laws
  • Yoreh De’ah (“It Teaches Knowledge”) – Laws about food; relations with non-Jews; usury; menstruation and immersion; vows and oaths; honoring parents and scholars; Torah study; charity; circumcision; proselytes and slaves; Torah and doorpost scrolls; new crops; mixtures; firstborn; offerings from bread, crops, and flocks; the ban; illness, death, burial, and mourning.
  • Even Ha-Ezer (“Stone of Help”) – Laws of procreation, marriage, and divorce
  • Choshen Mishpat (“Breastplate of Judgment”) – Laws about judges and witnesses; loans and claims; agents, partners and neighbors; acquisition, purchases and gifts; legacies and inheritance; lost and found property; depositing, renting, and borrowing; theft, robbery, damage and injury.

The halakhic rulings in the Shulkhan Arukh generally follow Sephardic law and customs whereas Ashkenazi Jews will generally follow the halachic rulings of Moses Isserles whose glosses to the Shulkhan Arukh note where the Sephardic and Ashkenazic customs differ. These glosses are widely referred to as the mappah (literally: the “tablecloth”) to the Shulkhan Arukh’s “Set Table”. Almost all published editions of the Shulkhan Arukh include this gloss, and the term “Shulkhan Arukh” has come to denote both Karo’s work as well as Isserlis’, with Karo usually referred to as “the mechaber” (“author”) and Isserles as “the Rema”. The Shulkhan Arukh is largely based on an earlier work by Karo, titled Beth Yosef (Hebrew: “House of Joseph”). The latter is a vast and comprehensive commentary on Jacob ben Asher’s (1269–1343) Arba’ah Turim (“Tur”), citing and analyzing the Talmudic, Geonic, and major subsequent halachic authorities. This work analyzes the theories and conclusions of those authorities cited by the Tur, and also examines the opinions of authorities not mentioned by the latter.

Karo began the Beth Yosef in 1522 at Adrianople, finished it in 1542 at Tzfat in the Land of Israel; he published it in 1550-59. Thirty-two authorities, beginning with the Talmud and ending with the works of Rabbi Israel Isserlein (1390–1460 and known as the Terumath ha-Deshen), are summarized and critically discussed in Beth Yosef. No other rabbinical work compares with it in wealth of material. Karo evidences not only an astonishing range of reading, covering almost the entire rabbinic literature up to his time, but also remarkable powers of critical investigation. He evidences no inclination to simply accept the opinions of ancient authorities, notwithstanding his great respect for them. In the introduction to his monumental compilation, Karo clearly states the necessity of, and his reasons for undertaking such a work. The expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian peninsula and the invention of printing had endangered the stability of religious observances on their legal and ritual sides.

By the 15th century, the Jews in Spain and the Jews of Portugal followed two main traditions: the older tradition of Maimonides, whose school of thought is heir to the Talmudic academies of Babylonia via the scholars of North Africa; and the Ashkenazi school of the Tosafists whose tradition is based on analytical thinking (related to pilpul), a methodology that was developed in the yeshivot of France and Germany that taught the importance of the minhagim or “customs” of the country. Jews then living in the different kingdoms of Spain had their standard authorities to which they appealed. The most prominent of these were Maimonides (Rambam), whose opinions were accepted in Andalusia, Valencia, Israel and the Near East; Nahmanides and Solomon ben Adret, whose opinions were accepted in Catalonia; and Asher ben Jehiel and his family, of German origin, whose opinions were accepted in Castile. When the Spanish-Portuguese exiles who were followers of Rambam 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, some of whom were men of greater learning than the members of the host communities in Europe, should be ruled by the latter, or vice versa. The proliferation of printed books, moreover, dramatically increased the availability 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.

Karo undertook his Beth Yosef to remedy this problem, quoting and critically examining in his book the opinions of all the authorities then known. Although the Shulkhan Arukh is largely a codification of the rulings of the Beth Yosef, it includes various rulings that are not mentioned at all in the Beth Yosef, because after completing the Beth Yosef Karo read opinions in books he hadn’t seen before, which he then included in the Shulkhan Arukh. Karo initially intended to rely on his own judgment relating to differences of opinion between the various authorities, especially where he could support his own view based on the Talmud. But he abandoned this idea because, as he wrote: “Who has the courage to rear his head aloft among mountains, the heights of God?” and also because he may have 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 Karo adopted the Halakhot of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi (the Rif), Maimonides, and Asher ben Jehiel (the Rosh) 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 or in cases where there was already an accepted custom contrary to his ruling. The net result of these last exceptions is that in a number of cases Karo rules in favour of the Catalonian school of Nahmanides and ben Adret, thus indirectly reflecting Ashkenazi opinions, even against the consensus of Alfasi and Maimonides. Karo very often decides disputed cases without necessarily considering the age and importance of the authority in question, expressing simply his own views. He follows Maimonides’ example, as seen in Mishneh Torah (the Yad Hachazakah), rather than that of Jacob ben Asher, who seldom decides between ancient authorities. Several reasons induced Karo to connect his work with the “Tur”, instead of Maimonides’ code. In the first place, the “Tur”, although not considered as 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 (Eastern European Jews) and Sephardim (Spanish and Northern African Jews), as well as the Italian Jews. Secondly, it was not Karo’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. Unlike the Tur, Maimonides’ code includes all fields of Jewish law, of both present-day relevance and those dealing with prior and future times (such as laws of sacrifices, Messiah, Kings, etc.). For Karo, whose interest lay in ruling on the practical issues, the Tur seemed a better choice.


Sources: “Shulchan Aruch.” Wikipedia, n.d. []
“Shulchan Aruch.” Torah.Org, n.d. []