Moses Isserles: Rema

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

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Caro's main objective in the Shulhan Arukh was to extract the normative conclusions from Bet Yosef and to present them in a separate book of pesakim, "briefly" and by "definitive statements of the applicable law, without discursive debate or argument." That being so, Rema had no choice but to follow Caro's example and extract from his Darkhei Moshe his own halakhic conclusions arrived at by his own methodology, present them in the style of the Shulhan Arukh, and append this work to the Shulhan Arukh.

In his glosses to the Shulhan Arukh, Rema presented the conclusions derived from Darkhei Moshe in a "closed and sealed" form "using his [Caro's] method of stating the laws categorically," concisely, and without citation of sources.

In so doing, Rema deviated from his declared approach to codification as revealed by his Introduction to Torat Hattat, where he argued that the rulings in Sha'arei Dura were "closed and sealed" and led to misunderstandings and to erroneous decisions. However, this deviation by Rema was necessary in order for him to append his own normative conclusions to the Shulhan Arukh in the style of the Shulhan Arukh itself.

Authority for Ashkenaz

Rema's glosses supplement the law presented in the Shulhan Arukh with the conclusions derived from the views of the authorities of whom Caro did not take account, particularly those of Germany and France, "whose waters we drink and who are the eminent authorities of Ashkenazic Jewry and have always served as our eyes, and whose rulings have been followed from the earliest of times, namely, Or Zaru'a, the Mordekhai, Asheri, Semag, Semak, and Haggahot Maimuniyyot, all of whom built on the Tosafot and the halakhic authorities of France, whose descendants we are."

Rema also supplemented the Shulhan Arukh with the customs followed by Ashkenazic Jewry, "for there have been many differences between eastern and western Jews even in early generations, and how much more so in these latter generations."

Rema's glosses, of course, deprived the Shulhan Arukh of its categorically authoritative quality and universal applicability throughout the Jewish world, but that was precisely what Rema intended:

"I viewed all his [Caro's] statements in the Shulhan Arukh as having been presented as though they were given by Moses at divine command so that students would come and drink his words without challenging them. . . . I therefore decided that, at those places where his [Caro's] statements do not seem to me to be correct, I would write down next to each such statement the opinions of the aharonim, in order to make the students aware of every instance where his statements are disputed."


Rema believed that a judge should have available a book--even though it may be categorical in form and contain no source references--which presents as briefly as possible the different views of the halakhic authorities, so that in reaching his decision in each case, he can take into account the principle that the law is in accordance with the views of the later authorities, local custom and practice, and his own view as to what is appropriate in the particular circumstances of each case.

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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.