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The publication of Joseph Caro‘s Shulhan Arukh in the 16th century marked the end of an important era in the history of Jewish legal literature. This was partly due to the work’s practicality and comprehensiveness, but even more significantly, due to the historical changes that came with the onset of modernity, which forced Jewish law to develop in radically new directions.
As with earlier codifications of Jewish law, the publication of the Shulhan Arukh was not universally accepted. Some argued that codes undermined the training and flexibility of poskim (halakhic scholars). Others, such as Solomon Luria and Mordecai ben Avraham, argued that by omitting the Talmudic context, codes misrepresented the halakhah (Jewish law).
Subsequent generations, however, came to embrace the Shulhan Arukh, especially after Joshua ben Alexander Falk wrote a critical commentary to the Shulhan Arukh, the Sefer Me’irat Einayim, which attempted to fill in these gaps. Falk was later followed by Joel Sirkes who wrote his own commentary to the Shulhan Arukh, the Bayit Hadash and David ben Samuel ha-Levi’s Turei Zahav (“Taz“), Shabbetai ben Meir HaKohen’s Siftei Kohen (“Shakh“), and Abraham Gombiner’s Magen Avraham. The publication of such substantial commentaries led to the eventual acceptance of the Shulhan Arukh, and in turn spawned new generations of commentaries and meta-commentaries that continue to be published today.
While these developments were pushing towards a more unified and stronger halakhah, the 18th century Enlightenment was initiating processes that would eventually fragment the Jewish people and change the role of halakhah in the lives of most Jews.
By the mid 19th century, as Jews gained political rights and admittance into general European society, large numbers embraced modernist philosophies while rejecting Jewish culture and religion. In response, various strategies emerged to stem and possibly reverse the tide. In Germany, influential Jewish leaders, such as Samuel Holdheim and Abraham Geiger advocated for reforming Judaism in order to make Judaism once again relevant and compelling for enlightened Jews.
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