Jacob Ben Asher, the Ba’al Haturim

The author of the Arba'ah Turim set the stage for Joseph Caro's Shulchan Aruch.

Jacob Ben Asher, also known as Ba’al Haturim, after his famous work, the Arba’ah Turim, was a Jewish legal scholar and biblical commentator in late 13th and early 14th century Spain. Born in Germany, he emigrated with his father to Spain and is believed to have died sometime before 1340.

Ben Asher is best known for writing the Arba’ah Turim, a four-part code of Jewish law that was the standard legal code for both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews until it was displaced by Joseph Caro’s Shulchan Aruch, published in the 1560s. According to Louis Jacobs’ The Jewish Religion, the name derives from the four rows of precious stones in the breastplate of the High Priest, described in Exodus 28:17 (in Parashat Tetzaveh).

The work consists of four sections:

1. Orah Hayyim (Path of Life), which addresses prayer, the Sabbath and festivals, and general religious duties.

2. Yoreh Deah (Teaching Knowledge), which deals with kashrut and various complex legal matters.

3. Even Ha-Ezer (Stone of Help), which deals with the laws of marriage and divorce.

4. Hoshen Mishpat (Breastplate of Judgment), which deals with civil law.

The first complete edition of the Arba’ah Turim (often referred to as the Tur) was printed in 1475, just decades after the invention of the printing press; after the Bible, it was the most popular Hebrew work printed in the 15th century.

In the introduction to the Arba’ah Turim, Ben Asher wrote that he undertook the project to establish a legal code suited to contemporary needs, because Maimonides’ compilation of Talmudic laws was too bulky for general use. Ben Asher simplified Maimonides’ work by omitting laws that could not be applied after the destruction of the Temple, while adding accounts of the different Jewish customs he had observed in various countries and pointing out the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic practices. While the first of the four sections cites Ashkenazi rabbis more frequently than Sephardic ones, the other three sections rely more on Sephardic authorities.

Several Jewish scholars wrote commentaries on the Arba’ah Turim, among them Joseph Caro and Moses Isserles.

In addition to the Arba’ah Turim, Ben Asher wrote two commentaries on the Torah and “Sefer ha-Remazim,” or “Ḳiẓẓur Pisḳe ha-Rosh,” an abridgment of his father’s compendium of the Talmud.

Adapted from The Jewish Encyclopedia.

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