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September 6: Halakha for the Masses

September 6, 2014
caro_synagogue_2Propelled by the calamitous exile of the Jews from Spain and Portugal, 1492-1497, Rabbi Yosef Karo began writing his voluminous commentary on Jewish law, Beit Yosef (House of Joseph) on this date in 1522, according to Hasidic sources. This conservationist writing project began when he was 34 and took twenty years to complete. Karo (1488-1575) lived in Turkey, Egypt, and Palestine (in Sfat/Safed), where he served as chief rabbi. He was also the author of the Shulkhan Arukh (The Set Table), a redaction of Beit Yosef that became widely embraced (to this day) as the authoritative halakhic compilation. Written in the Sephardic tradition, it was supplemented with commentary about Ashkenazic traditions by Moses Isserles. Karo was a kabbalist, heavily influenced by several Jewish mystics, yet his great halakhic works do not really reveal such influences. A synagogue named for him was built in Sfat in the 16th century and rebuilt after its destruction in an earthquake in 1759. Karo “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.” —The Encyclopedia Judaica