Chapters On Jewish Literature
By Israel Abrahams

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Chapter XXIII. The Shulchan Aruch

     Asheri’s Arba Turim.–Chiddushim and Teshuboth.–Solomon ben
     Adereth.–Meir of Rothenburg.–Sheshet and Duran.–Moses and
     Judah Minz.–Jacob Weil, Israel Isserlein, Maharil.–David Abi
     Zimra.–Joseph Karo.–Jair Bacharach.–Chacham Zevi.–Jacob
     Emden.–Ezekiel Landau.

The religious literature of the Jews, so far as practical life was concerned, culminated in the publication of the “Table Prepared" (Shulchan Aruch), in 1565. The first book of its kind compiled after the invention of printing, the Shulchan Aruch obtained a popularity denied to all previous works designed to present a digest of Jewish ethics and ritual observances. It in no sense superseded the “Strong Hand” of Maimonides, but it was so much more practical in its scope, so much clearer as a work of general reference, so much fuller of Minhag, or established custom, that it speedily became the universal hand-book of Jewish life in many of its phases. It was not accepted in all its parts, and its blemishes were clearly perceived. The author, Joseph Karo, was too tender to the past, and admitted some things which had a historical justification, but which Karo himself would have been the first to reject as principles of conduct for his own or later times. On the whole, the book was a worthy summary of the fundamental Jewish view, that religion is co-extensive with life, and that everything worth doing at all ought to be done in accordance with a general principle of obedience to the divine will. The defects of such a view are the defects of its qualities.

The Shulchan Aruch was the outcome of centuries of scholarship. It was original, yet it was completely based on previous works. In particular the “Four Rows” (Arbša Turim) of Jacob Asheri (1283-1340) was one of the main sources of Karo’s work. The “Four Rows,” again, owed everything to Jacob’s father, Asher, the son of Yechiel, who migrated from Germany to Toledo at the very beginning of the fourteenth century. But besides the systematic codes of his predecessors, Karo was able to draw on a vast mass of literature on the Talmud and on Jewish Law, accumulated in the course of centuries.

There was, in the first place, a large collection of “Novelties" (Chiddushim), or Notes on the Talmud, by various authorities. More significant, however, were the “Responses” (Teshuboth), which resembled those of the Gaonim referred to in an earlier chapter. The Rabbinical Correspondence, in the form of Responses to Questions sent from far and near, covered the whole field of secular and religious knowledge. The style of these “Responses” was at first simple, terse, and full of actuality. The most famous representatives of this form of literature after the Gaonim were both of the thirteenth century, Solomon, the son of Adereth, in Spain, and Meir of Rothenburg in Germany. Solomon, the son of Adereth, of Barcelona, was a man whose moral earnestness, mild yet firm disposition, profound erudition, and tolerant character, won for him a supreme place in Jewish life for half a century. Meir of Rothenburg was a poet and martyr as well as a profound scholar. He passed many years in prison rather than yield to the rapacious demands of the local government for a ransom, which Meir’s friends would willingly have paid. As a specimen of Meir’s poetry, the following verses are taken from a dirge composed by him in 1285, when copies of the Pentateuch were publicly committed to the flames. The “Law” is addressed in the second person:

    Dismay hath seized upon my soul; how then
      Can food be sweet to me?
    When, O thou Law! I have beheld base men
      Destroying thee?

    Ah! sweet ’twould be unto mine eyes alway
      Waters of tears to pour,
    To sob and drench thy sacred robes, till they
      Could hold no more.

    But lo! my tears are dried, when, fast outpoured,
      They down my cheeks are shed,
    Scorched by the fire within, because thy Lord
      Hath turned and sped.

    Yea, I am desolate and sore bereft,
      Lo! a forsaken one,
    Like a sole beacon on a mountain left,
      A tower alone.

    I hear the voice of singers now no more,
      Silence their song hath bound,
    For broken are the strings on harps of yore,
      Viols of sweet sound.

    I am astonied that the day’s fair light
      Yet shineth brilliantly
    On all things; but is ever dark as night
      To me and thee.


    Even as when thy Rock afflicted thee,
      He will assuage thy woe,
    And turn again the tribes’ captivity,
      And raise the low.

    Yet shalt thou wear thy scarlet raiment choice,
      And sound the timbrels high,
    And glad amid the dancers shalt rejoice,
      With joyful cry.

    My heart shall be uplifted on the day
      Thy Rock shall be thy light,
    When he shall make thy gloom to pass away,
      Thy darkness bright.

This combination of the poetical with the legal mind was parallelled by other combinations in such masters of “Responses” as the Sheshet and Duran families in Algiers in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In these men depth of learning was associated with width of culture. Others, such as Moses and Judah Minz, Jacob Weil, and Israel Isserlein, whose influence was paramount in Germany in the fifteenth century, were less cultivated, but their learning was associated with a geniality and sense of humor that make their “Responses” very human and very entertaining. There is the same homely, affectionate air in the collection of Minhagim, or Customs, known as the Maharil, which belongs to the same period. On the other hand, David Abi Zimra, Rabbi of Cairo in the sixteenth century, was as independent as he was learned. It was he, for instance, who abolished the old custom of dating Hebrew documents from the Seleucid era (311 B.C.E.). And, to pass beyond the time of Karo, the writers of “Responses” include the gifted Jair Chayim Bacharach (seventeenth century), a critic as well as a legalist; Chacham Zevi and Jacob Emden in Amsterdam, and Ezekiel Landau in Prague, the former two of whom opposed the Messianic claims of Sabbatai Zevi, and the last of whom was an antagonist to the Germanizing tendency of Moses Mendelssohn.

Joseph Karo himself was a man of many parts. He was born in Spain in 1488, and died in Safed, the nest of mysticism, in 1575. Master of the Talmudic writings of his predecessors from his youth, Karo devoted thirty-two years to the preparation of an exhaustive commentary on the “Four Rows” of Jacob Asheri. This occupied him from 1522 to 1554. Karo was an enthusiast as well as a student, and the emotional side of the Kabbala had much fascination for him. He believed that he had a familiar, or Maggid, the personification of the Mishnah, who appeared to him in dreams, and held communion with him. He found a congenial home in Safed, where the mystics had their head-quarters in the sixteenth century. Karo’s companion on his journey to Safed was Solomon Alkabets, author of the famous Sabbath hymn “Come, my Friend” (Lecha Dodi), with the refrain:

    Come forth, my friend, the Bride to meet,
    Come, O my friend, the Sabbath greet!

The Shulchan Aruch is arranged in four parts, called fancifully, “Path of Life” (Orach Chayim), “Teacher of Knowledge” (Yoreh Deah), “Breastplate of Judgment” (Choshen ha-Mishpat), and “Stone of Help" (Eben ha-Ezer). The first part is mainly occupied with the subject of prayer, benedictions, the Sabbath, the festivals, and the observances proper to each. The second part deals with food and its preparation, Shechitah, or slaughtering of animals for food, the relations between Jews and non-Jews, vows, respect to parents, charity, and religious observances connected with agriculture, such as the payment of tithes, and, finally, the rites of mourning. This section of the Shulchan Aruch is the most miscellaneous of the four; in the other three the association of subjects is more logical. The Eben ha-Ezer treats of the laws of marriage and divorce from their civil and religious aspects. The Choshen ha-Mishpat deals with legal procedure, the laws regulating business transactions and the relations between man and man in the conduct of worldly affairs. A great number of commentaries on Karo’s Code were written by and for the Acharonim (=later scholars). It fully deserved this attention, for on its own lines the Shulchan Aruch was a masterly production. It brought system into the discordant opinions of the Rabbinical authorities of the Middle Ages, and its publication in the sixteenth century was itself a stroke of genius. Never before had such a work been so necessary as then. The Jews were in sight of what was to them the darkest age, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Though the Shulchan Aruch had an evil effect in stereotyping Jewish religious thought and in preventing the rapid spread of the critical spirit, yet it was a rallying point for the disorganized Jews, and saved them from the disintegration which threatened them. The Shulchan Aruch was the last great bulwark of the Rabbinical conception of life. Alike in its form and contents it was a not unworthy close to the series of codes which began with the Mishnah, and in which life itself was codified.


Steinschneider.–Jewish Literature, p. 213 seq. I.H. Weiss.–On Codes, J.Q.R., I, p. 289.

Asher Ben Yechiel.

Graetz.–IV, p. 34 [37].


Graetz.–IV, p. 88 [95].


Graetz.–III, p. 618 [639].


Graetz.–III, pp. 625, 638 [646].


Graetz.–IV, p. 294 [317].


S. Schechter.–Studies in Judaism, p. 142 [173].


Graetz.–IV, p. 393 [420].


D. Kaufmann, J.Q.R., III, p. 292, etc.


Graetz.–IV, p. 537 [571].


Graetz.–IV, p. 637 [677].


Graetz.–IV, p. 641 [682].


Preface  •  Chapter I. The “Vineyard” At Jamnia  •  Chapter II. Flavius Josephus and the Jewish Sibyl  •  Chapter III. The Talmud  •  Chapter IV. The Midrash and Its Poetry  •  Chapter V. The Letters of the Gaonim  •  Chapter VI. The Karaitic Literature  •  Chapter VII. The New-Hebrew Piyut  •  Chapter IX. Dawn of the Spanish Era  •  Chapter X. The Spanish-Jewish Poets (I)  •  Chapter XI. Rashi and Alfassi  •  Chapter XII. The Spanish-Jewish Poets (II)  •  Chapter XIII. Moses Maimonides  •  Chapter XIV. The Diffusion of Science  •  Chapter XV. The Diffusion of Folk-Tales  •  Chapter XVI. Moses Nachmanides  •  Chapter XVII. The Zohar and Later Mysticism  •  Chapter XVIII. Italian Jewish Poetry  •  Chapter XIX. Ethical Literature  •  Chapter XX. Travellers’ Tales  •  Chapter XXI. Historians and Chroniclers  •  Chapter XXII. Isaac Abarbanel  •  Chapter XXIII. The Shulchan Aruch  •  Chapter XXIV. Amsterdam in the Seventeenth Century  •  Chapter XXV. Moses Mendelssohn

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