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April 3: Joseph Karo and the Shulkhan Arukh

April 3, 2013

442px-Brockhaus_and_Efron_Jewish_Encyclopedia_e9_327-0Rabbi Joseph Karo, who wrote the Shulkhan Arukh (“The Set Table”), the most influential codification of Jewish law to date, is thought to have died at 87 in Sfat on this date in 1575. Karo was a child refugee from Spain following the 1492 expulsion. His family settled in Ottoman-ruled Bulgaria, and Karo eventually moved to Palestine in 1535, where he led a noted yeshiva. He achieved a reputation as a Jewish authority on a par with Maimonides even before publishing the Shulkhan Arukh (in Venice in 1565), which he intended to help preserve Jewish life after the Spanish expulsion. The four-volume book followed Sephardic law and custom; a Polish rabbi, Moses Isserles (1520-72) wrote glosses(known as the Mappah, “the Tablecloth”), which was included in nearly all published editions of the Shulkhan Arukh. Karo’s other published works include Beth Yosef, an encyclopedic commentary on Jewish law that provided the foundation for the Shulkhan Arukh, which was essentially a condensation of the former work; Kesef Mishneh, a commentary on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah; Kelalei ha-Talmud, a commentary on the methodology of the Talmud; and several other works of exegesis, literary memoir, and mystical speculation. Karo's grave is preserved in modern Sfat.

The Shulkhan Arukh "became tremendously influential . . . because it was the first code to be printed on the revolutionary new invention, the printing press. . . . This meant that many more printed copies were available of the Shulkhan Arukh than any other code written in manuscript form." —Jewish Virtual Library