(1488 - 1575)
Born in Spain in 1488, Joseph Karo moved to Turkey with his family. He became a brilliant
Jewish scholar, but, at the same time, became involved in Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. He met and
was strongly influenced by Solomon
Alkabetz. Together, they created the ritual of Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the
tradition of staying up all night on Shavuot evening. It was during one of these all-night rituals, that Karo was
visited for the first time by his maggid, an angel who perched on his
shoulder and kissed Jewish law into his mouth.
Inspired by this combination of mysticism
Joseph Karo began writing his major work, the Beit Yosef in 1522. It took
twenty years to complete. The Beit Yosef, written as a voluminous
commentary to an earlier code, the Tur, was Joseph Karo's attempt to codify
all of Jewish law. It was a huge undertaking because Karo tried to show the
origins of all Halachic decisions in his code before arriving at each decisive ruling. He applied Talmud, Alfasi, RaMBaM's Mishneh Torah, Adret's responsa and a legion of
other post-Tur legal decisions. He showed familiarity with all of the great
legalists and included varying community customs.
Karo then wrote a short digest of all of
the laws he had dealt with so extensively in the Beit Yosef. Aimed as a
simple guide for young students, this digest listed in concise Hebrew what
a Jew was supposed to do in each circumstance of life. Karo tried to follow
a formula for declaring what the Halachah was when previous sages were in disagreement, but, like RaMBaM, he created controversy by his decisions.
He called his simple guide of legal
decisions the Shulchan Aruch,
the Prepared Table, because it made Halachah available to even the simplest Jew.
Karo assumed that the scholarly reader
who wanted the ocean of legal discussions would refer to the Beit Yosef. He
therefore wrote the Shulchan Aruch in the same format as his more scholarly work. He divided it into
easily-found sections and paragraphs. It's clear that he intended for his
two works to be read together. Being in the right place at the right time
foiled his plan.
The Shulchan Aruch, the simple
compendium of stated rules, became tremendously influential in the Jewish
world because it was the first code to be printed on the revolutionary new
invention, the printing press. Joseph Karo had moved to Tzfat, the city of Jewish mysticism in Israel. Tzfat had a printing press, and the Shulchan Aruch was one of its
earliest ventures. It was printed in 1565 and distributed around the Jewish
world. This meant that many more printed copies were available of the Shulchan Aruch than any other
code written in manuscript form.
However, because of Joseph Karo's
Sephardic background, the Shulchan
Aruch did not include Ashkenazic and Polish customs. Therefore,
although the text was available to them, Ashkenazic Jews were unwilling to
accept the code as authoritative.
Moses Isserles, a great Polish
rabbi, added a commentary of Ashkenazic customs to the Shulchan Aruch.
First published in 1569, Isserles'
Mappah, Tablecloth, was responsible for the Shulchan Aruch, the Prepared
Table, being accepted as a major legal work.
It took several more commentaries and
editions before the Shulchan Aruch became the code of Jewish law. However,
traditional Jews today view Joseph Karo's Shulchan Aruch along with
Isserles' Mappah as the accepted authoritative starting points for Jewish
law. The process of expounding and amplifying halachah through modern
responsa and papers continues to this day. However, one event concretized
the Shulchan Aruch for the 17th century Jewish world.
While in Tzfat, Karo became embroiled in
Berav's Semichah controversy. He was one of the rabbis who was ordained.
Although it has very little to do with
Jewish history, it should be noted that Joseph Karo impregnated his (fifth)
wife when he was 81 years old.
Sources: Gates to Jewish Heritage