The Shulhan Arukh
The ultimate code of Jewish law.
Ask the average Jew where to learn about Jewish law, and you'll probably be sent to the Bible or Talmud. Once there, you may find yourself a bit confused. The Bible includes many laws, but generally offers little explanation of the details of observance; the Talmud, on the other hand, includes an excess of detail, but also incorporates multiple viewpoints, stories, and digressions.
A person wondering--for example--how to light a Hanukkah menorah, what activities are permitted on Shabbat, or what one may eat during Passover--will have to weed through pages of discussion in order to find answers, and those may not be straightforward at all.
Given the Talmud's complexity, scholars since the medieval period have attempted to codify Jewish law in an easily accessible format. In the 12th century, Moses Maimonides (Rambam) composed the Mishneh Torah, a summary of laws relating to all areas of Jewish life. This work, written in simple Hebrew, is meant to be accessible for the average Jew who does not have the skills or motivation to access Talmud.
A century later, Jacob ben Asher produced the Arba'ah Turim (often called the Tur for short), a code that addresses only the practical areas of Jewish law. Unlike Maimonides, Jacob ben Asher restricted his discussion to laws relevant to post-Temple Jewish life, and cited his sources, referencing different opinions when necessary.
The Shulhan Arukh's Beginnings
On the heels of the Tur, the next influential Jewish code of law was the Shulhan Arukh (literally set table), written by Joseph Caro (1488-1575). Caro was part of a Sephardic family that was expelled from Spain in 1492. After the death of his father, Caro was adopted by his uncle, Isaac Caro, the author of a commentary on the Bible. The Caro family eventually settled in Safed, the area of northern Israel where the mystical circle of Isaac Luria then flourished. Both Isaac and Joseph Caro became part of this community of mystics.
Joseph Caro originally set out to write a commentary on the Arba'ah Turim that would cite sources not mentioned by Jacob ben Asher and that would often differ from the Tur's conclusions. This commentary, named the Bet Yosef, reads like a set of footnotes to Jacob ben Asher's more concise statements of law.
In the introduction to this work, Caro explains that the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and their subsequent dispersion among Ashkenazic communities had caused confusion about the rules of observance. Sephardic Jews often found that their inherited traditions differed from those of the Ashkenazim into whose communities they had moved; with the dismantling of Sephardic communities, it was no longer clear who had authority to decide matters of law. By presenting all known sources on particular issues, Caro hoped to clear up this confusion.
The Bet Yosef eventually became the notes for the Shulhan Arukh, which would become Caro's most famous and influential work. Originally intended as a crutch for those not sufficiently learned to read the Bet Yosef or the halakhic works referenced there, the Shulhan Arukh soon became the most important code of Jewish law.