Jacob ben Asher

The author of the Arbaah Turim set the scene for the publication of Karo's Shulhan Arukh.

Jacob ben Asher was a German Halakhist (d. 1340), the son of Asher ben Jehiel, the outstanding authority in German and later Spanish Jewry, known as the Rosh (after the initial letters of his name, Rabbi Asher). 

Under threat of persecution, Jacob with his father left Germany for Spain in 1303. The Rosh became Rabbi of Toledo but Jacob refused to take up a Rabbinic appointment and lived a life of poverty, only partly relieved by money he received from time to time from patrons of learning.

Jacob is chiefly renowned for his great Code of Jewish law (first published in Piove di Sacco in 1475 and thus one of the very earliest Jewish works to be printed), known as Arbaah Turim (‘Four Rows’).

The name is based on the four rows of precious stones in the breastplate of the High Priest (Exodus 28:17), usually abbreviated to Tur, so that in Halakhic literature both Jacob himself and his Code are called ‘the Tur’.

The work consists of four sections, hence the ‘four rows’. These are:

1. Orah Hayyim; ‘Path of Life’ (after Psalms 16:11), dealing with prayer, the Sabbath and festivals, and with general religious duties

 2. Yoreh Deah, ‘Teaching Knowledge’ (after Isaiah 28:9), dealing with the dietary laws and other topics required chiefly for Rabbinic decisions on more complex matters

3. Even Ha-Ezer, ‘Stone of Help’ (after I Samuel 5:1 and Genesis 2:20, where woman is the ‘help’ meet for man), dealing with the laws of marriage and divorce

4. Hoshen Mishpat, ‘Breastplate ofJudgement’ (after Exodus 28:15), dealing with civil law and jurisprudence in general

The Tur quickly took its place beside the Codes of Isaac Alfasi and that of Maimonides as a major textbook of Jewish law.

Father & Son

Jacob uses as his sources the two Codes which preceded him, other Halakhic works produced by both Sephardim and Ashkenazim, and, especially, the rulings of his father, the Rosh, all of whom he treats with great deference while often pursuing a line of his own, disagreeing, on occasion, even with his father.

In the introduction to the ‘Laws of the Sabbath’ Jacob remarks, in a revealing aside, that he had discussed many times with his father, the Rosh, whether someone in a similar situation to his, who has to rely for his support on charitable donations, is obliged to spend money on extra food and drink for the Sabbath meals.

The father’s replies were far from clear, he observes, and he had to make up his own mind. Later authorities relied on the Tur’s disagreement with the Rosh to demonstrate that the fifth commandment does not mean that a son is duty-bound to agree with his father’s opinions in matters of Torah learning.

Rabbi Joseph Karo compiled his Bet Yosef (house of Joseph), as a commentary on the Tur and the Bet Yosef formed in turn the basis of Karo’s own Code, the Shulhan Arukh.

Jacob’s Torah Commentary

Jacob also compiled a commentary to the Torah in which, as in his Code, he draws on earlier teachers to give what he calls ‘the plain meaning’ of the text. In the introductions to each section of the Torah, Jacob playfully adds, partly for the reader’s amusement, ingenious asides in which gematria and other plays on words are utilized in an admittedly fanciful manner.

It is ironical that while the commentary itself was largely ignored (it was not published until the nineteenth century) these playful comments were printed together with the text in many editions of the Torah, under the title Baal Ha-Turim (Author of the Turim). These became exceedingly popular among students who resorted to them for intellectual relaxation from their more arduous studies.

The following are two typical examples of Jacob’s method. On the very first verse of Genesis, Jacob notes that the final letters of bara elohim et (‘God created’) are alef, mem, tet, forming the word emet, ‘truth’. The world was created by truth. He observes that many words in the Torah have these three as their final letters to hint at the pervasiveness and importance of truth.

On the patriarch Jacob’s dream of a ladder with its feet on the ground and its head reaching to the heavens (Genesis 28:10-22), Jacob notes that word for ladder, sulam, has the numerical value of 136 and the word for wealth, mamon and the word for voice, kol, also have the numerical value of 136.

This, he writes, is to teach that a man’s wealth can lead him heavenwards, if he uses it properly, as can the use of his voice in prayer and supplication.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

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