What Is Shulchan Aruch?
The Shulchan Aruch (שֻׁלְחָן עָרוּך “Set Table”), sometimes dubbed in English as the Code of Jewish Law, is the most widely consulted of the various legal codes in Judaism. It was authored in Safed (today in Israel) by Joseph Karo in 1563 and published in Venice two years later.Together with iRabbi Moshe Isserlests commentaries, it is the most widely accepted compilation of Jewish law ever written.
The halachic rulings in the Shulchan Aruch generally follow Sephardic law and customs, whereas Ashkenazi Jews will generally follow the halachic rulings of Moses Isserles, whose glosses to the Shulchan Aruch note where the Sephardic and Ashkenazi customs differ. These glosses are widely referred to as the mappah(literally: the “tablecloth”) to the Shulchan Aruch’s “Set Table”. Almost all published editions of the Shulchan Aruch include this gloss, and the term “Shulchan Aruch” has come to denote both Karo’s work as well as Isserles’, with Karo usually referred to as “the mechaber” (“author”) and Isserles as “the Rema” (an acronym of Rabbi Moshe Isserles).
The Shulchan Aruch (and its forerunner, the Beit Yosef) follow the same structure as Arba’ah Turim by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher. There are four sections, each subdivided into many chapters and paragraphs:
- Orach Chayim – laws of prayer and synagogue, Sabbath, holidays;
- Yoreh De’ah – laws of kashrut; religious conversion; mourning; laws pertaining to Israel; laws of family purity
- Even Ha’ezer – laws of marriage, divorce and related issues;
- Choshen Mishpat – laws of finance, financial responsibility, damages (personal and financial), and the rules of the Bet Din, as well as the laws of witnesses
These books were written from the standpoint of Sephardi Minhag, other works entitled Shulchan Aruch or Kitzur Shulcan Aruch cited below are written from the standpoint of Ashkenazi Minhag.
Its premise and style
The Shulchan Aruch is largely based on an earlier work by Karo, titled Beth Yosef. Although the Shulchan Aruch 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 Shulchan Aruch. In his famous methodological work Yad Malachi, Malachi ben Jacob ha-Kohen cites a later halachic authority (Shmuel Abuhab) who reports rumors that the Shulchan Aruch was a summary of Karo’s earlier rulings in Beth Yosef which he then gave to certain of his students to edit and compile. He concludes that this would then account for those seemingly self-contradictory instances in the Shulchan Aruch.
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 (the Rambam), 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 Catalan school of Nahmanides and Rashba, 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, 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.
- 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 and Sephardim, as well as the Italian Jews.
- Karo intended to give not merely the results of his investigations (as Maimonides’ code did), 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.
The “Rema” (Moses Isserles) started writing his commentary on the Arba’ah Turim, Darkhei Moshe, at about the same time as Yosef Karo. Karo finished his work “Bet Yosef” first, and it was first presented to the Rema as a gift from one of his students. Upon receiving the gift, the Rema could not understand how he had spent so many years unaware of Karo’s efforts. After looking through the Bet Yosef, the Rema realized that Karo had mainly relied upon Sephardic poskim.
In place of Karo’s three standard authorities, Isserles cites “the later authorities” (chiefly based on the works of Yaakov Moelin, Israel Isserlein and Israel Bruna, together with the Franco-German Tosafists) as criteria of opinion. While the Rosh on many occasions based his decision on these sources, Isserles gave them more prominence in developing practical legal rulings. By incorporating these other opinions, Isserles actually addressed some major criticisms regarding what many viewed as the arbitrary selection of the three authorities upon whose opinions Karo based his work.
After realizing this, the Rema shortened his work on the Tur, entitled Darkhei Moshe, to focus only on rulings which differ from Bet Yosef.
The halachic rulings in the Shulchan Aruch generally follow the Sephardic custom. The Rema added his glosses and published them as a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, specifying whenever the Sephardic and Ashkenazic customs differ. These glosses are sometimes referred to as the mappah, literally, the ‘tablecloth,’ to the Shulchan Aruch’s ‘Set Table.’ Almost all published editions of the Shulchan Aruch include this gloss.
The importance of the minhag (“prevailing local custom”) is also a point of dispute between Karo and Isserles: while Karo held fast to original authorities and material reasons, Isserles 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 Shulchan Aruch, that the customs (minhagim) of the Ashkenazim might be recognized, and not be set aside through Karo’s reputation.
Karo wrote the Shulchan Aruch in his old age, for the benefit of those who did not possess the education necessary to understand the Beth Yosef. The format of this work parallels that adopted by Jacob ben Asher in his Arba’ah Turim, but more concisely; without citing sources.
Shulchan Aruch has been “the code” of Rabbinical Judaism for all ritual and legal questions that arose after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The author himself had no very high opinion of the work, remarking that he had written it chiefly for “young students”. He never refers to it in his responsa, but always to the Beth Yosef. The Shulchan Aruch achieved its reputation and popularity not only against the wishes of the author, but, perhaps, through the very scholars who criticized it.
The history of the Shulchan Aruch is, in a way, identical with the history of rabbinical literature of the Jews in Poland for a period of two centuries. Recognition or denial of Karo’s authority lay entirely with the Polish Talmudists. German Jewish authorities had been forced to give way to Polish ones as early as the beginning of the sixteenth century. Karo had already been opposed by several Sephardic contemporaries, Yom Tov Tzahalon, who designated the Shulchan Aruch as a book for “children and ignoramuses”, and Jacob Castro, whose work Erekh ha-Shulchan consists of critical glosses to the Shulchan Aruch. Moses Isserles and Maharshal were Karo’s first important adversaries in Eastern Europe. Further in response to those who wished to force the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch upon those communities following Rambam, Karo wrote:
- “Who is he whose heart conspires to approach forcing congregations who practice according to the RaMBaM of blessed memory, to go by any one of the early or latter-day Torah authorities?! … Is it not a case of a fortiori, that regarding the School of Shammai—that the halakhah does not go according to them—they [the Talmudic Sages] said ‘if [one practices] like the School of Shammai [he may do so, but] according to their leniencies and their stringencies’: The RaMBaM, is the greatest of all the Torah authorities, and all the communities of the Land of Israel and the Arab-controlled lands and the West [North Africa] practice according to his word, and accepted him upon themselves as their Chief Rabbi. Whoever practices according to him with his leniencies and his stringencies, why coerce them to budge from him? And all the more so if also their fathers and forefathers practiced accordingly: for their children are not to turn right or left from the RaMBaM of blessed memory. And even if communities that practice according to the Rosh or other authorities like him became the majority, they cannot coerce the minority of congregations practicing according to the RaMBaM of blessed memory, to practice like they do. And there is no issue here concerning the prohibition against having two courts in the same city [‘lo tithgodedu’’], since every congregation should practice according to its original custom …”
Similarly, many later halachic authorities predicated the acceptance of the authority of the Shulchan Aruch on the lack of an existing and widely accepted custom to the contrary. Eventually though, the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch became the accepted standard not only in Europe and the diaspora, but even in the land of Israel where they had previously followed other authorities.
Criticism by Karo’s contemporaries
Following its initial appearance, many rabbis criticised the appearance of this latest code of Jewish law, echoing similar criticisms of previous codes of law.
Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel
Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (known as “Maharal”, 1520–1609) wrote:
|“||To decide halakhic questions from the codes without knowing the source of the ruling was not the intent of these authors. Had they known that their works would lead to the abandonment of Talmud, they would not have written them. It is better for one to decide on the basis of the Talmud even though he might err, for a scholar must depend solely on his understanding. As such, he is beloved of God, and preferable to the one who rules from a code but does not know the reason for the ruling; such a one walks like a blind person.||”|
Rabbi Shmuel Eidels
Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (known as the “Maharsha”, 1555–1631), criticized those who rule directly from the Shulchan Aruch without being fully conversant with the Talmudic source(s) of the ruling: “In these generations, those who rule from the Shulchan Aruch without knowing the reasoning and Talmudic basis … are among the ‘destroyers of the world’ and should be protested.”
Rabbi Yoel Sirkis
Another prominent critic of the Shulchan Aruch was Rabbi Yoel Sirkis (1561–1640), author of a commentary to the Arba’ah Turim entitled Bayith Chadash, commonly abbreviated as Bach, and Rabbi Meir ben Gedaliah: “It is impossible to rule (in most cases) based on the Shulchan Aruch, as almost all his words lack accompanying explanations, particularly (when writing about) monetary law. Besides this, we see that many legal doubts arise daily, and are mostly the subject of scholarly debate, necessitating vast wisdom and proficiency to arrive at a sufficiently sourced ruling….”
The strongest criticism against all such codes of Jewish law is the contention that they inherently violate the principle that halakha must be decided according to the later sages; this principle is commonly known as hilkheta ke-vatra’ei (“the halakha follows the later ones”).
A modern commentator, Rabbi Menachem Elon explains:
|“||This rule dates from the Geonic period. It laid down the law and states that “until the time of Rabbis Abbaye and Rava (4th century) the Halakha was to be decided according to the views of the earlier scholars, but from that time onward, the halakhic opinions of post-talmudic scholars would prevail over the contrary opinions of a previous generation” (see Piskei Ha’Rosh, Bava Metzia 3:10, 4:21, Shabbat 23:1 and also the Rif writing at the end of Eruvin Ch.2.)||”|
|“||If one does not find their statements correct and is able to maintain his own views with evidence that is acceptable to his contemporaries…he may contradict the earlier statements, since all matters that are not clarified in the Babylonian Talmud may be questioned and restated by any person, and even the statements of the Geonim may be differed from him … just as the statements of the Amoraim differed from the earlier ones. On the contrary, we regard the statements of later scholars to be more authoritative because they knew the reasoning of the earlier scholars as well as their own, and took it into consideration in making their decision (Piskei Ha’Rosh, Sanhedrin 4:6, responsa of the Rosh 55:9).||”|
The controversy itself may explain why the Shulchan Aruch became an authoritative code, despite significant opposition, and even against the will of its author, while Maimonides’ (1135–1204) Mishneh Torahrulings were not necessarily accepted as binding among the Franco-German Jews, perhaps owing to Abraham ben David’s (1110–1180) (known as the “Ravad”) criticism and influence. The answer may lie in the fact that the criticism by Ravad undermined confidence in Maimonides’ work, while Isserles (who actually corresponded with Karo) does not simply criticize, but supplements Karo’s work extensively, with the result that the Ashkenazim then accepted the Shulchan Aruch, assuming that together with Isserles’ glosses it was a reliable authority. This then became broadly accepted among Jewish communities around the world as the binding Jewish legal code.
The later major halachic authorities defer to both Karo and Isserles and cite their work as the baseline from which further halachic rulings evolve. In one of many similar statements by his peers reflecting this unique authority, the 17th century scholar Joshua Höschel ben Joseph writes that “from their wells do we drink and should a question arise (on their work), not for this shall we come to annul their words, rather we must study further as much as we can, and if we are unable to resolve (our question) then we will ascribe it to our own lack of knowledge and not (as a reason to) annul the words of these geniuses…”Various halachic authorities also make note of the unique divine assistance with which both Karo and Isserlis were blessed, and which serves to further bolster their authority. Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz in particular writes at length about how the great breadth of the work would make it impossible to constantly come to the correct conclusion if not for the “spirit of God”. Therefore, says Eybeschutz, one can not rely on a view not presented by the Shulchan Aruch. Rabbi Yehuda Heller Kahana, however, says that Eybeschutz’s reasoning is farfetched. He contends that the reason one can not rely on a view not formulated in the Shulchan Aruch is because the Shulchan Aruch was accepted by all of Jewry. 
A large body of commentaries have appeared on the Shulchan Aruch, beginning soon after its publication. The first major gloss, ‘Hagahot’ by “Rema” (Moses Isserles) was published shortly after the Shulchan Aruch appeared. Isserles’ student, Rabbi Yehoshua Falk HaKohen published Sefer Me’irath Enayim (on Choshen Mishpat, abbreviated as Sema) several decades after the main work. Important works by the later authorities (acharonim) include but are not limited to:
- Magen Avraham (“Abraham’s shield”) by Rabbi Avraham Gombiner (on Orach Chayim)
- Turei Zahav (“Rows of Gold”, abbreviated as Taz) by Rabbi David HaLevi Segal (on Orach Chayim, Yorei Deah and Even ha-Ezer)
- Sifthei Kohen (“The Lips of the Kohen”, abbreviated as Shach) by Rabbi Shabbatai ha-Kohen (on Yorei Deah and Choshen Mishpat)
- Beth Shmuel by Rabbi Samuel Phoebus and Chelkath Mechokek by Rabbi Moses Lima (on Even ha-Ezer)
- Ba’er Hetev (“Well-Explained”) by Yehudah ben Shimon Ashkenazi and Zechariah Mendel ben Aryeh Leib.
- Peri Chadash (“New Fruit”) by Hezekiah da Silva
- Peri Megadim (“Dainty Fruit”) by Joseph ben Meir Teomim
- Shaarei Teshuvah (“Gates of Answer”) by Chaim Mordechai Margoliot
- Machatzit HaShekel (“Half a Shekel”) by Rabbi Samuel Neta HaLevi.
While these major commentaries enjoy widespread acceptance, some early editions of the Shulchan Aruch were self-published (primarily in the late 17th and early 18th centuries) with commentaries by various rabbis, although these commentaries never achieved significant recognition. A wealth of later works include commentary and exposition by such halachic authorities as the Ketzoth ha-Choshen and Avnei Millu’im, Netivoth ha-Mishpat, the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Yechezkel Landau (Dagul Mervavah), Rabbis Akiva Eger, Moses Sofer, and Chaim Joseph David Azulai (Birkei Yosef) whose works are widely recognized and cited extensively in later halachic literature.
In particular, Mishnah Berurah (which summarizes and decides amongst the later authorities) on the Orach Chaim section of Shulchan Aruch has achieved widespread acceptance. It is frequently even studied as a stand-alone commentary, since it is assumed to discuss all or most of the views of the major commentaries on the topics that it covers.
In the late 18th century, there were several attempts to recompile the major halakhic opinions into a simpler, more accessible form.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi wrote a “Shulchan Aruch” at the behest of the Hasidic leader, Rabbi Dovber of Mezeritch. To distinguish this work from Karo’s, it is generally referred to as Shulchan Aruch HaRav. Rabbi Abraham Danzig was the first in the Lithuanian Jewish community to attempt a summary of the opinions in the above-mentioned works in his Chayei Adam and Chochmath Adam. Similar works are Ba’er Heitev and Sha’arei Teshuvah/Pitchei Teshuvah (usually published as commentaries in most editions of the Shulchan Aruch), as well as Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (by Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried of Hungary). Danzig’s and Ganzfried’s works do not follow the structure of the Shulchan Aruch, but given their single-voiced approach, are considered easier to follow for those with less background in halacha.
The Mishna Berura, the main work of halakha by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (the “Chafetz Chaim“) is a collation of the opinions of later authorities on the Orach Chayim section of the Shulchan Aruch. Aruch HaShulchan, by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, is a more analytical work attempting the same task from a different angle, and covering all sections of the Shulchan Aruch. The former, though narrower in scope, enjoys much wider popularity and is considered authoritative by many adherents of Orthodox Judaism, especially among those typically associated with Ashkenazic yeshivas. The Ben Ish Chai, Kaf Ha’Chaim, and much more recently, the Yalkut Yosef are similar works by Sephardic Rabbis for their communities.
Sections of the Shulchan Aruch are studied in many Jewish schools throughout the world on a daily basis. There is also a daily study program known as the Halacha Yomit.
- Also spelt Shulhan Aruch; Shulhan Arukh.
- Codex Judaica, Mattis Kantor 2005
- Responsa: Ginas Veradim, section Even Ho’ezer rule 4:30
- Malachi ben Jacob ha-Kohen, ‘Yad Malachi’, Principles of the Shulchan Aruch and Rema Sec.2, p.549.
- Introduction to Beit Yosef, Karo, printed in the first volume of the Tur, ‘Orach Chaim’
- Introduction to Beit Yosef, sec. ‘Orach Chaim’, Karo
- Introduction to Beit Yosef, Karo, printed in the first volume of the Tur, ‘Orach Chaim’
- Darkhei Mosheh to Yoreh De’ah, 35
- Birkei Yosef, Azoulay, Choshen Mishpat 25:29 and Maharshal in his introduction to Yam Shel Shlomo
- Shulchan Aruch, Introduction
- Yom Tov Tzahalon, responsa, no. 67, beginning
- MahaRam Galanti in responsum ch. 6 and 124, Chaim Yosef David Azulai in Machazik Braccha sec. Yoreh-Deah 53, Responsa Mateh Yosef sec. Yoreh-Deah 2
- Chazon Ish Zeraim, sec. Sheviis 23
- Netivoth Olam-Netiv HaTorah (end of chapter 15)
- Chiddushei Aggados, Maharsha, Sota 22a
- Shu”t HaBach, 80, Sirkis, and Shu”t HaBach Hachadashot, 42
- Tzemach Tzedek, responsa, ch.9
- Responsa Chavas Yair chapter 165 who ascribes to Karo’s rulings the status of issues already settled by the mishna. See also responsa Tzemach Tzedek YD:9, Sheilat Ya’avetz 1:75 & Urim Vtumim CM-25:124
- Responsa Pnei Yehoshua 2:51
- Urim Vtumim Choshen Mishpat,25:124
- Kuntras HaSfeikos 6:6
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