Should we follow the Shulkhan Arukh as authoritative?

from a conversation about halakhah (Jewish law), someone stated “Oh I forgot that Shulchan Aruch doesn’t mean that much to you”

Should it? The Shulkhan Arukh, an important code of Jewish law written by Rabbi Yosef Karo, was never meant to be a binding code of Jewish law. It was always just a student abridgement of the real work of its author, the much larger Beit Yosef (Hebrew: בית יוסף‎) , which offered a much wider range of halakhic views on every subject.

Publisher: Morasha LeHanchil
Publisher: Morasha LeHanchil

Apologetics aside, no Orthodox Jewish group today accepts the Shulkhan Arukh’s decisions as fully authoritative. The moment it was published, other rabbis immediately began writing their own commentaries on it, making other rulings.

Despite the pious claims that the Shulkhan Arukh is the most widely accepted code of Jewish law, in reality, it is only the form of the Shulkhan Arukh that became authoritative. For instance, The “Rema” (Moses Isserles) 1500s, immediately wrote a gloss on the Shulkhan Arukh which superseded the Shulkhan Arukh itself, for followers of the Rema. The same then happened by many other rabbis, for many other groups.

People who view the Shulkhan Arukh as some sort of final word don’t know the full history on this subject. The Encyclopaedia Judaica notes:

Karo wrote the Shulchan Aruch in his old age, for the benefit of those who did not possess the education necessary to understand the Beth Yosef. The format of this work parallels that adopted by Jacob ben Asher in his Arba’ah Turim, but more concisely; without citing sources. …The author himself had no very high opinion of the work, remarking that he had written it chiefly for “young students” (Shulchan Aruch, Introduction). Karo never refers to it in his responsa, but always to the Beth Yosef. The Shulchan Aruch achieved its reputation and popularity not only against the wishes of the author, but, perhaps, through the very scholars who criticized it.

– – – –

The work of Rabbi Karo had already been opposed by several Sephardic contemporaries, Yom-Tov Zahalon, who designated the Shulchan Aruch as a book for “children and ignoramuses” (in his responsa, no. 67, beginning), and Jacob Castro, whose work Erekh ha-Shulchan consists of critical glosses to the Shulchan Aruch. Moses Isserles and Solomon Luria – the Maharshal, were Karo’s first important adversaries in Eastern Europe.

Further in response to those who wished to force the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch upon those communities following Rambam, Rabbi Yosef himself Karo wrote:

“Who is he whose heart conspires to approach forcing congregations who practice according to the RaMBaM [Maimonides] of blessed memory, to go by any one of the early or latter-day Torah authorities?! … Is it not a case of a fortiori, that regarding the School of Shammai — that the halakhah does not go according to them—they [the Talmudic Sages] said ‘if [one practices] like the School of Shammai [he may do so, but] according to their leniencies and their stringencies’: The RaMBaM, is the greatest of all the Torah authorities, and all the communities of the Land of Israel and the Arab-controlled lands and the West [North Africa] practice according to his word, and accepted him upon themselves as their Chief Rabbi.

Whoever practices according to him with his leniencies and his stringencies, why coerce them to budge from him? And all the more so if also their fathers and forefathers practiced accordingly: for their children are not to turn right or left from the RaMBaM of blessed memory. And even if communities that practice according to the Rosh or other authorities like him became the majority, they cannot coerce the minority of congregations practicing according to the RaMBaM of blessed memory, to practice like they do. And there is no issue here concerning the prohibition against having two courts in the same city [‘lo tithgodedu’’], since every congregation should practice according to its original custom…”

– – – –

This, then, is the authentic, historical view of rabbinic Judaism. Halakhah, yes, But fossilizing halakhah in one code, from one man, forever, no:

“…however great the literary value of a code may be, it does not invest it with infallibility, nor does it exempt it from the student or the Rabbi who makes use of it from the duty of examining each paragraph on its own merits, and subjecting it to the same rules of interpretation that were always applied to Tradition”.

– Rabbi Professor Solomon Schechter.

This traditional view, in fact, is the official view of Conservative/Masorti Judaism.

Solomon Schechter 1902 Photographer Saville

Merrimack Valley Havurah Coffeehouse Logo

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s