This Day in Jewish History / Death of Great Halakhic Scholar Rabbi Joseph Caro

Best-known as compiler of the Shulhan Arukh, Caro became the leading Jewish authority of the 16th century.

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March 24, 1575 saw the death of Rabbi Joseph Caro, the great authority on, and codifier of, Jewish law. As the leading halakhic scholar of his day, Caro responded to inquiries from around the Jewish world, and is best remembered for his systematic compilation of law – the Shulhan Arukh.

Joseph ben Ephraim Caro was born in 1488, in Portugal or Spain – according to some, in Toledo. When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, his family emigrated east, first to Nicopolis (in modern-day Greece) and then to Adrianople (today Edirne, in Turkey). Caro’s early rabbinic education was provided to him by his father, Ephraim.

By 1536, Caro had settled in Safed, Palestine, where his teacher was the great rabbi Jacob Berab. Berab aspired to establish a supreme Jewish legal authority, and to have it based in Safed. To that end, he sought to reinstitute the practice of semikha (ordination), by which authority would be passed on from one rabbi to another. Caro was one of those who received ordination from Berab.

Caro seems to have been the most respected halakhic authority of his day, and he was asked by communities around the Jewish world to respond to legal queries. For example, when Jews from Carpentras, France, were subject to an adverse ruling on matters of taxation, they appealed to Caro for relief. His opinion in their favor served to convince the Carpentras community to reverse its original ruling.

In Safed, he was not only a community leader but also apparently headed an important yeshiva, and himself bestowed semikha on selected students.

Caro’s major written works include not only the Shulhan Arukh but also his Beit Yosef and Maggid Mesharim. Beit Yosef (“house of Joseph”), which was begun in 1522 while Caro was still in Adrianople, and only completed two decades later, aimed to be a definitive compilation of all the oral law, tracing each law from its first mention in the Talmud through the major commentators. Such a work seemed necessary in the wake of the Expulsion from Spain, with communities being uprooted and individuals moving from country to country, each bringing with them their respective practices.

In cases where rabbinical authorities differed on the interpretation of a law, Caro tried to offer a definitive conclusion, setting out his reasoning. In terms of organization, Beit Yosef based itself on an earlier legal code, the Arba’a Turim of Jacob ben Asher.

The Shulhan Arukh (“set table”), completed in 1555 and first published in 1565, was meant to be a concise accompaniment to Beit Yosef, and was intended for students, whereas the latter was scholarly in nature. Its extremely widespread distribution was in part due to its being one of the first works published on Safed’s printing press.

Although the Shulhan Arukh represented the worldview of Sephardic Jews when it touched on custom, a few years after its appearance, Moses Isserles came out with an appendix of sorts – the Mappa (“tablecloth”), which complemented the Shulhan Arukh with a compendium of Ashkenazi customs.

Caro also kept a personal diary about his mystical life, which isn’t otherwise reflected in his writings. Written over perhaps 50 years, and published only after his death, the Maggid Mesharim (“preacher of righteousness”) recounts Rabbi Caro’s encounters with a mystical voice – his “maggid” – that he believed was the incarnation of the Mishna itself.

Caro’s maggid would criticize him when his behavior was lax, and would update him about what they were saying about him in heaven. It even urged him to spend more time on the study of kabbala.

Rabbi Joseph Caro died on this day in Safed, in 1575, at the age of 86 or 87.

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