This year marks the 450th anniversary of the publication of one of the most important Jewish works of the modern era, a scholarly code so influential that it continues to serve as one of the pillars of our people’s faith, norms and values.
Nonetheless, despite its vast impact on Jewish life and law, the Shulchan Aruch (Hebrew for “the set table”) remains largely unknown to most contemporary Jews.
Indeed, an entire generation of secular Israelis is being raised without ever glancing at its text, let alone grasping its significance, and this is something that desperately needs to change.
The Shulchan Aruch was written by Rabbi Yosef Karo, whose family was exiled from Spain while he was just a child in 1492, during the expulsion of the country’s Jews. He eventually settled in Safed in northern Israel, and was one of the preeminent scholars of his generation.
Divided into four sections, the Shulchan Aruch covers everything from the laws of prayer to marriage to financial damages. It was first printed in 1565 in Venice by the publishing house of Giovani di Gara, a non-Jewish Hebraist, and was essentially a distillation of Jewish law based on a previous work by Rabbi Karo known as the Beit Yosef.
In determining what the relevant halacha was, Rabbi Karo generally relied upon the opinions of three great scholars who preceded him: Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel, (known as the Rosh), Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi (the Rif) and Maimonides.
This approach was remarkable because of the diversity that it represented. The Rosh, who lived in the 13th and 14th centuries, was an Ashkenazi Jew who fled persecution and settled in Spain, where he became the rabbi of Toledo. The Rif, who lived in the 11th century, spent most of his life in Morocco before being compelled to move to Spain, while Maimonides originated in Spain before making his way to Egypt, where he died in 1204.
In other words, the primary sources upon which the Shulchan Aruch was based represented a sizable portion of Jewish practice at the time, thereby signifying that despite the differences between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, that which unites them far outweighs that which divides them.
Interestingly, at the very same time that Rabbi Karo was preparing the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Moshe Isserles in Krakow (known as the Rema) was working on a similar legal compendium which he called Darkhei Moshe. It was only when one of his students presented him with a copy of Rabbi Karo’s volume that the Rema learned of the Shulchan Aruch’s existence.
It was then that he took a monumental step, one whose modesty and greatness is often overlooked by scholars and historians. By every right, the Rema could have proceeded to publish Darkhei Moshe as a stand-alone and complete text, one that would have competed with the Shulchan Aruch.
But the Rema chose self-effacement over ego and shortened his work significantly such that it contained only rulings where Ashkenazi practice differed from the decisions of Rabbi Karo. These were added to the text of the Shulchan Aruch as glosses, and since 1574, nearly all editions have included them.
As such, the Shulchan Aruch symbolizes the Jewish people’s ability to find unity within diversity, and to respect differing customs and approaches so long as they are rooted in authentic tradition and scholarship.
Indeed, the simple act of coalescing Sephardi and Ashkenazi practice into one work bound us together forever, thus ensuring that we would remain one people, all of whom share the same canonical legal foundation.
To be sure, the Shulchan Aruch was not without its detractors. Great scholars such as Rabbi Yehuda Loew ben Bezalel (the Maharal of Prague) and Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (the Maharsha) sharply criticized the text, noting that it failed to explain the reasoning behind its decisions and did not provide the Talmudic sources upon which they were based.
Others, such as Rabbi Chaim ben Bezalel, the Maharal’s elder brother, expressed concern that the publication of a binding code of law would, in the words of Professor David Ruderman of the University of Pennsylvania, “Arrest the elasticity of the tradition, diminish the importance of local customs and degrade the authority of individual rabbinic commentators.”
Nonetheless, within a short period, the Shulchan Aruch went on to gain widespread appeal and acceptance throughout the Jewish world as the definitive code of Jewish law, a role it continues to play even today.
Sadly, however, outside of Orthodox circles, this monumental work and all that it represents are foreign to most Jews, many of whom go through life without ever being exposed to its erudition and wisdom.
This is a failing in the educational system, surely one of many, that must be addressed and corrected.
It is simply inconceivable that a Jewish child can grow up in Israel without encountering the Shulchan Aruch and engaging with it, however briefly. As one of the underpinnings of Jewish life, it is a text that should not be foreign to the younger generation.
And at a time when prospects for Jewish unity seem so remote, it is well worth reaching for that large, centuries-old tome on the bookshelf to remind ourselves of one of the Shulchan Aruch’s central lessons: we truly are all in this together.