A Unifying Code
by Rabbi Yaacov Chaiton
I often hear Rabbis quote "the code of Jewish Law" - what is this book, who wrote it and what makes it so authoritative?
The code of Jewish law - known in Hebrew as the "Shulchan Aruch" - "set table" - is the most universally accepted compilation of Jewish law ever written. The book was written by Rabbi Yosef Karo in 1563 and was quickly received with universal acclaim by the entire Jewish world. No other book besides for the Tanach and the Talmud has claimed such an important place in Judaism as has the Shulchan Aruch.
Many great men have written great books but it was the style of Rabbi Yosef Karo and the personality of his contemporaries that gave the Shulchan Aruch its revered place in Judaism:
Rabbi Yosef Karo was born in Toledo, Spain in 1488. At the time of the expulsion from Spain in 1492 his family moved to Greece and then on to Turkey. Already at a very young age he became an accomplished and world-famous Talmudist. At the age of 34, while still in Turkey, he began writing what would become the most encyclopaedic Rabbinic work of all time. He called this book the "Beit Yosef" - "The house of Yosef". In this work Rabbi Karo assembled all Halachik literature from the time of the Talmud until his day. He critically analyses every opinion on every possible subject and after careful deliberation reaches a final conclusion. In cases of controversy he forms a theoretical "beth din" made up of "the three pillars Halacha" - The Rambam, The Rif and the Rosh (The greatest Halachik authorities from the 500 years preceding Rabbi Karo) - and decides in favour of the opinion shared by any two of these three great scholars.
Rabbi Yosef Karo was of Sephardic descent but was in constant correspondence with the great Ashkenazi rabbis of the time. Unlike most other authors of his time, in this work -the Beit Yosef- he goes to great lengths to make his work appeal to everyone by incorporating within it hundreds of laws and customs that were only relevant to Ashkenazim. In fact, more than half of his original source materials are of the works of great Ashkenazi rabbis who preceded him. This work took him twenty years to write and another twelve to edit and review and immediately established Rabbi Karo as the preeminent authority on Jewish Law and practice amongst both Sefardim and Ashkenazim. In addition, being a world renowned kabbalist made his halachik work acceptable by the mystics too.
After having moved to Israel and publishing his work, the "Beit Yosef", Rabbi Karo decided to build on his success. He realized that such a detailed work would be too difficult for the layman to use as a guideline for daily halachik decisions. He therefore wrote an abridged version containing all the halachik opinions expressed in that work but without all the differing opinions and critical analysis - just the simple halacha. He called this summary the Shulchan Aruch - the set table - the table being set for every Jew to partake of Judaism with all preparations having already been taken care of.
But what gave the Shulchan Aruch its eternal and unchallenged place in Judaism was its acceptance by the great Ashkenazi rabbis residing in Poland and Western Europe, most importantly by the great Rabbi Moshe Isserels of Cracow (known as the "Ramah"). As a young man he had corresponded with Rabbi Karo and recognized his greatness. Because of Rabbi Isserel's stature in the Ashkenazi world, his opinion regarding the Shulchan Aruch would either turn it into a universally accepted code of law or would keep it as the heritage of the Sefardim. While Rabbi Isserel's felt that certain modifications had to be made to the Shulchan Aruch in order to reconcile it with Ashkenazi accepted law, custom and opinion; he did so not by writing a book of his own but by inserting glosses and comments within the very words of the Shulchan Aruch. He humbly called his work "Mapah" -"Tablecloth" - a tablecloth for the "set table" of Rabbi Yosef Karo. This humble act allowed the Ashkenazim to use the Shulchan Aruch in its original form -making it ONE book of law for the entire Jewish nation. The Shulchan Aruch thus became much more than a book; it became an exceptionally unifying force in the Jewish world.