Here is a mark of the importance of a man. All Jewish legal scholars pre-dating Yosef Karo (died 1522, Safed) are collectively known as Rishonim – the ones who came first. All Jewish legal scholars post-dating Karo are referred to as Achronim – the ones who came after. Karo himself is known as HaMechaber – The Author – and his greatest work, the Shulchan Arukh (literally the Set Table) is the fulcrum about which any investigation into Jewish law pivots.
Karo was born in Spain in 1488, expelled as a four year old and expelled again as the Jews fled the Inquisition in Portugal in 1496 – two expulsions before the age of eight. As the Mishneh, some 1200 years earlier, can be seen as the attempt to codify oral Torah before it is lost in exile, so too the Shulchan Arukh can be understood as a response to expulsion – Karo is driven to write down, distil and secure a future for Halachah in the face of an existential threat. That said the work itself betrays none of the emotion expulsion must have generated within its author. It’s cool, collected and committed to speaking from within the established norms for Halachic discourse.
Before commencing work on the Shulchan Arukh, Karo demonstrated his bona fides with two great commentaries. The first of these, the Kesef Mishneh, is a commentary on the Mishneh Torah (subject of another of these essays). Here Karo explains exactly how the Rambam’s bald statements of law connect to the sprawling Talmudic compendium. The second, the Bet Yosef, runs alongside the Tur, a fourteenth century work. Here Karo demonstrates an encyclopaedic awareness of every legal thinker in a fifteen hundred year legal tradition. Karo’s methodology is also designed to ensure acceptance and play down his own subjective contribution; where there is a difference in opinion, Karo states, he will consider three earlier authorities and state the position of the majority as normative. If Rambam felt no compulsion in recasting vast reams of Jewish law, Karo’s work is far less subjective.
The difference between Karo the man and Karo the author is startlingly revealed in a strange work, the Maggid Meisharim, a dream-diary published only after Karo’s death. Here the great scholar reveals the content of night-time visitations from an angelic ‘Maggid.’ In one extraordinary encounter, recorded by his student (and author of the Lecha Dodi, Shlomo Alkabetz), Karo’s Maggid possesses the legal master on the eve of Shavuot, urging him to stay firm in his resolve and study not only Jewish law, but Kabbalistic works also. As rational as his scholarship reads, his personal spiritual life fuses both legal and mystical inclinations. In this Karo takes his place in a recognisable group of great legal scholars who have also been committed to mystical scholarship. At least until the flourishing of contemporary Hassidism, mystical spirituality and halachic rigour were never considered in opposition.
Karo was a Sepharadi. The three scholars to whom he turned in case of debate were two ‘pure’ Sephardim; Alfasi and Rambam, and an Ashkenaz born scholar, the Rosh, who ended his life in Spain. The work has a Sephardi approach which concerned the greatest Ashkenaz scholar of the time, Moshe Isserlis, known as the Rema (died 1572, Krakow). Isserlis responded by writing emendations clarifying how and where Ashkenaz approaches to Jewish law differed to the approach Karo set out. The touching piece about these emendations is that Isserlis attached them to the various sections of the Shulchan Arukh. Even as he disagreed with Karo’s statement – as definitive for Ashkenaz – he strengthened the work’s authoritative status. It’s a humility evident even in Isserlis’ choice of title; Karo called his work the Set Table, Isserlis titled his ‘Mappah’ – table cloth. Many of the emendations are touchingly revealing of their origins. Let me give one prosaic example; the Talmud states the correct order of putting on sandals, and Karo records this (right foot first). Isserlis records how to alter this on the assumption of a resident of Poland, namely that a person would be wearing socks and not only open sandals (right sock, left sock, left shoe, right shoe – begin and end with the right hand side). But the difference between the works is more than, for example, merely noting that Ashkenaz avoid Kitniot on Pesach.
Many of Isserlis’ emendations open with the phrase ‘the custom in our lands…’ Isserlis attitude towards the nature of Jewish law differs from Karo. If Karo’s articulations are phrased as if they were handed down pure and whole from the heavens, The sense arising from the emendations is of a body of committed Jews whose changing circumstances through time and space shape Jewish law. Of course Isserlis is a master of Talmudic approaches, but his presumption seems to be that Halachah lives inside Jews, rather than arrives from the heavens. This makes the study of Shulchan Arukh and Mappah a delight; Karo is lofty and definitive, but Isserlis is grounded and, somehow, more responsive to human reality. For example, in explaining how to perform the search for Hametz on the eve of Pesach Karo states the correct blessing to be said and Isserlis adds the ‘custom in our lands’ of hiding some small pieces of bread so the blessing isn’t said in vain. It just feels more human, more part of the unfolding of a tradition through the millennia. It’s a tradition open to all of us and I can recommend no better way to feel a part of it than spending some time learning at the Conservative Yeshivah, in Jerusalem.