The Shulchan Aruch (Hebrew: שֻׁלְחָן עָרוּך [ʃulˈħan ʕaˈʁuχ], literally: "Set Table"), also known by various Jewish communities but not all 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 its 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. 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. There are four sections, each subdivided into many chapters and paragraphs.
References are given in two ways; those to the Shulchan Aruch are found in the later work Be'er ha-Golah, and those to Isserles' work are in brackets after the latter's comments. There is disagreement on the authorship of the references to Isserles' remarks, as they are occasionally incorrect. Since the 17th century, the Shulchan Aruch has been printed with Isserles' annotations in small Rashi print interspersed with Karo's text. As commentaries on the work proliferated, more sophisticated printing styles became required, similar to those of the Talmud.
The Shulchan Aruch 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 Safed 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.
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 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 major authorities then known.
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, 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 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 and Sephardim, 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.
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 (Darkhei Mosheh to Yoreh De'ah, 35). 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, Darkhei Moshe, on Tur focusing 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 comments on the Shulchan Aruch, specifying whenever the Sephardic and Ashkenazic customs differ. These glosses are 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. This book, which for centuries was, and essentially still is, "the code" of Rabbinical Judaism for all ritual and legal questions that arose after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, has a remarkable history. The author himself had no very high opinion of the work, remarking that he had written it chiefly for "young students" (Shulchan Aruch, Introduction). 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-Tob Zahalon, who designated the Shulchan Aruch as a book for "children and ignoramuses" (in his responsa, no. 67, beginning), and Jacob Castro, whose work Erekh ha-Shulchan consists of critical glosses to the Shulchan Aruch. Moses Isserles and Solomon Luria—the 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:
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.
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 (1520–1609), known as the "Maharal", (1520–1609) writes in Netivoth Olam-Netiv HaTorah (end of chapter 15)" :
|“||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 (1555–1631), known as the "Maharsha", criticizes 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."
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 Torah rulings 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:
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 Arukh 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.
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