Shulkhan Arukh

From Academic Kids

The Shulkhan Arukh (Hebrew: "Prepared Table"), by Rabbi Yosef Karo is considered the most authoritative compilation of Jewish law since the Talmud. With its commentaries, it is the main authoratitive source of halakha (Jewish law and custom) and often referred to as the Code of Jewish Law.



The Shulkhan Arukh (and its forerunner Beth Yosef) follow the same structure as Arba'ah Turim. There are four books, subdivided on chapters and paragraphs:

  1. Orach Chayim - laws of prayer and synagogue, Sabbath, holidays;
  2. Yoreh De'ah - laws of shechita, kashrut;interest. religious conversion)
  3. Even HaEzer - laws of marriage, divorce and related issues
  4. 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.

Beth Yosef

Its premise and style

The Shulkhan Arukh is an abridgement of a much larger work by Rabbi Karo, titled Beth Yosef (Hebrew: "House of Joseph"). In form it is a commentary upon Jacob ben Asher's Arba'ah Turim ("Tur"); but it is really much more comprehensive, going back to the Talmud and the Midrash compilations relating to Jewish law. This work discusses the pros and cons of the authorities cited by the "Tur", and examines the opinions of the authorities not mentioned by the latter. Rabbi 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 Yisrael Isserlein (the Terumath ha-Deshen), are briefly summed up 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 whole of rabbinic literature, but also very remarkable powers of critical investigation. He shows no disposition to accept blindly the opinions of the ancient authorities, notwithstanding his great respect for them.

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 endangered the stability of religious observances on their legal and ritual sides. In Spain and Portugal questions were generally decided by the "customs of the country"; the different districts had their standard authorities to which they appealed in doubtful cases. The most prominent of these were Maimonides, Nahmanides, and Asher ben Jehiel. 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, the majority of whom were men of greater learning than the members of the invaded communities, should be ruled by the latter, or vice versa. The increase of printed books, moreover, spread broadcast the products 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 evil, quoting and critically examining in his book the opinions of all the authorities then known.

The standard authorities

Karo at first intended to follow his own judgment in cases of differences of opinion between the various authorities, especially where he could support his own view by the Talmud. But he gave up this idea because, as he says: "Who has the courage to rear his head aloft among mountains, the heights of God?" and also because he 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 took 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. Karo very often decides disputed cases without regard to 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"), rather than that of Jacob ben Asher, who seldom decides between ancient authorities.

In its form, Karo's Beth Yosef follows Jacob ben Asher's "Tur". Several reasons induced Karo to connect his work with the "Tur", instead of Maimonides' code. In the first place, the "Tur", although not considered so 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 Italians. 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. The study of Talmudic literature was not for Karo, as for Maimonides, merely a means toward an end (namely, for religious observances) but an end in itself; he, therefore, did not favor codes that contained only decisions, without giving any reasons for them.

Shulkhan Arukh

Karo wrote the Shulkhan Arukh in his old age, for the benefit of those who did not possess the education necessary to understand the Beth Yosef. The arrangement of this work is the same as that adopted by Jacob ben Asher in his Arba'ah Turim, but more concise; nor are any authorities given. This book, which for centuries was, and essentially still is, "the code" of rabbinical Judaism for all ritual and legal questions that obtained 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" (Shulkhan Arukh, Introduction). He never refers to it in his responsa, but always to the Beth Yosef. The Shulkhan Arukh achieved its reputation and popularity not only against the wishes of the author, but, curiously enough, through the very scholars who attacked it.

The history of the Shulkhan Arukh is, in a way, identical with the history of rabbinical literature 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; and in the last third of that century Judaism in eastern Europe had become so entirely absorbed in the new Kabbalistic school of Isaac Luria that the study of the Talmud was greatly neglected. Karo was opposed in eastern Europe only by his contemporaries, Yom-Tob Zahalon, who designated the Shulkhan Arukh as a book for "children and ignoramuses" (in his responsa, no. 67, beginning), and Jacob Castro, whose work Erekh ha-Shulkhan consists of critical glosses to the Shulkhan Arukh. Isserles and Solomon Luria were Karo's first important adversaries.

Isserles and other criticism

Immediately upon the appearance of Karo's Beth Yosef, Rabbi Moses Isserles (the Rema) wrote his Darkei Mosheh, a moderately expressed but severe criticism of Karo's great work. In place of Karo's three standard authorities, Isserles brings forward "the later authorities" (e.g. Rabbi Jacob Molin of Germany, together with the Franco-German Tosafists) as criteria of opinion (Darkei Mosheh to Yoreh De'ah, 35). While the Rosh on many occasions based his decision on these sources, Isserles gave them more prominence in arriving at practical law.

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 Shulkhan Arukh, that the customs (minhagim) of the Ashkenazim might be recognized, and not be set aside through Karo's reputation.

Many rabbis criticised the appearance of this latest code of Jewish law, echoing similar criticisms of previous codes of law.

The Maharal writes in Netivoth Olam:

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.

Other prominent critics of the Shulkhan Arukh included Rabbi Yoel ben Shmuel Sirkis (author of a commentary to the Arba'ah Turim titled Bayith Chadash, commonly abbreviated as Bach) and Rabbi Meir ben Gedaliah. The strongest criticism against all such codes of Jewish law is that they inherently was that it violated the ancient precept that halakha must be decided according to the later sages; this precept is known as hilkheta ke-vatra'ei ("the halakha follows the later ones"). Rabbi Menachem Elon writes:

This rule dates from the Geonic period. It laid down 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).
If one does not find their statements correct and sustain 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 question suggests itself why the Shulkhan Arukh became an authoritative code, in spite of opposition and against the will of its author, while Maimonides' Mishneh Torah found no acceptance among the Franco-German Jews, owing to Abraham ben David's criticism and influence. The answer may lie in the fact that the criticism by Rabad destroyed confidence in Maimonides' work, while Isserles was not content only to criticize, but supplemented Karo's work extensively, with the result that the Ashkenazim then accepted the Shulkhan Arukh, assuming that in its corrected form it was an unquestionable authority.

Page layout

Since the 17th century, the Shulkhan Arukh has been printed with Isserles' annotations in small print interspersed with Karo's text. As the commentaries on the work proliferated, more sophisticated printing styles were required, similar to those of the Talmud.

References are given in two ways; those to the Shulkhan Arukh 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.


A large body of commentaries has appeared on the Shulkhan Arukh. The first, Sefer Me'irath Enayim (on Choshen Mishpat, abbreviated as Sema) appeared several decades after the main work. Important works by the later authorities (acharonim) are:

  • 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)
  • Siftei Kohen ("The Lips of the Kohen", abbreviated as Shach) by Rabbi Sabbatai ha-Kohen (on Yorei Deah and Choshen Mishpat)
  • Beth Shmuel and Chelkath ha-Mechokek (on Even ha-Ezer)
  • Machazit HaShekel ("The collection of a yearly coin for the purpose of a census in ancient Israel") by Rabbi Samuel Neta HaLevi.

A wealth of other later works includes Ketzoth ha-Choshen and Avnei Millu'in, Netivoth ha-Mishpat, the additions of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Yechezkel Landau (Dagul Mervavah), Rabbi Akiva Eger and Rabbi Moses Sofer.

Later collations

In the late 18th century, there were several attempts to recompile the major halakhic opinions into a simpler, more readily available form. Rabbi Shneur Zalman wrote the Shulkhan Arukh HaRav at the behest of the Hasidic leader, Rabbi Dovber of Mezeritch. Rabbi Abraham Danzig was the first in the Lithuanian Jewish community to attempt a summary of the opinions in the abovementioned works in his Chayei Adam and Chochmath Adam. Similar works are Ba'er Heitev and Sha'arei Teshuvah/Pitchei Teshuvah and Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (by Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried of Hungary). Danzig's and Ganzfried's works do not follow the structure of the Shulkhan Arukh.

The Mishnah Berurah, the main work of halakha by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (the "Chafetz Chaim") is a collation of the opinions of later authorities on Orach Chaim. Arukh HaShulkhan, by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, is a more analytical work attempting the same task from a different angle. The former, though narrower in scope, enjoys much wider popularity and is considered authoritative by many adherents of Orthodox Judaism, especially among those closely associated with Ashkenazi yeshivas. The Ben Ish Chai and Kaf Ha'Chaim are similar works by Sephardic Rabbis for their communities.

External links


  • Initial text ( from the 1906 public domain Jewish Encyclopedia (

Full text

Study resources

Wiki Torah study text project


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