Moses Isserles: Rema

Rema's glosses emended and enhanced the Shulhan Arukh, offering halakhic options for Ashkenazic Jews.

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Reprinted with the author's permission from Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles (Jewish Publication Society).

Moses Isserles (Rema), one of Shalom Shakhna's outstanding disciples, had an entirely different approach to codification. Rema was born ca. 1530 in Cracow, where his father, Israel, was one of the dignitaries of the community. Rema studied in Shalom Shakhna's yeshivah until he was about nineteen years of age; and at the age of twenty, he was appointed Rabbi of Cracow.

Despite his youth, he was accepted as one of the leading halakhic authorities of the time. He served as Rabbi of Cracow for some twenty-two years and taught many disciples who served in Jewish communities throughout Europe. He composed books in all areas of Judaic studies (halakhah, aggadah, Kabbalah, philosophy, and biblical commentary) and even astronomy.

He assumed his leadership role at the very time when Caro's Bet Yosef and Shulhan Arukh appeared, and Rema and Caro did in fact correspond with each other. Rema's illustrious career was cut short by his untimely death in 1572, at the age of approximately forty-two.

Glosses to the Shulhan Arukh

Rema completed his landmark contribution to the field of codificatory literature with his third work--his glosses to the Shulhan Arukh that he spread as a tablecloth (mappah) over the table (shulhan) that Joseph Caro had set (arukh) for halakhah.

Had Caro written only Bet Yosef, Rema would very likely not have written this third work. His codificatory objectives had all been well realized in his first works, Darkhei Moshe and Torat Hattat. He had never aspired to write a code as terse as the Shulhan Arukh, and in fact, he was critical of such a code.

However, the fact that Caro wrote two codificatory works--Bet Yosef and Shulhan Arukh--impelled Rema to deal with both of those works, each according to its own content and methodology.

Following Caro's Example

Two of the reasons Rema continued to write his Darkhei Moshe even after Bet Yosef had reached him were:

(1) Caro did not discuss a substantial portion of the opinions of the halakhic authorities, particularly the Ashkenazic authorities, and his conclusions were inconsistent with many of the accepted practices in Germany and Poland, and

(2) Caro based his decisions on the majority opinion among Alfasi, Maimonides, and Asheri, and not on the principle that the views of the later authorities should prevail.

If these two reasons were enough for Rema to continue his work on Darkhei Moshe, they were most certainly enough to induce him to write his glosses to the Shulhan Arukh.

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Menachem Elon

Justice Menachem Elon has had a long and distinguished career as a legal scholar. He is a retired professor of Jewish Law at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and a prolific author on Jewish Law. In 1977 Justice Elon was appointed to the Supreme Court of Israel and served as its Deputy President from 1988 until 1993. He lives in Jerusalem.