Joseph Caro

Medieval lawyer and mystic

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This article is reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Caro the Lawyer

Joseph Caro (1488-1575) [was an] outstanding lawyer and mystic. Caro was probably born in Toledo but, after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, his family settled in Turkey where Caro lived for around forty years, acquiring a great reputation as an authority on Jewish law. In 1536 he left Turkey for Safed, serving there until his death as a rabbi and head of a yeshivah. In Safed he became closely associated with the mystical circle that flourished there. 

Caro wrote a commentary, entitled Kesef Mishnah, to Maimonides’ code and another commentary, his greatest work, on the Tur of Jacob ben Asher, to which he gave the title Bet Yosef (House of Joseph), because in it he provided a home for all of the legal opinions held by the jurists of the past.

joseph caroIn his introduction to Bet Yosef, Caro remarks that he was moved to compile it because there was so much uncertainty about the actual law in practice, each Jewish community seeming to have its own “Torah.” The Tur, he thought, is the best starting point for the task he had set himself, since in this work, too, many different opinions are recorded. But Caro seeks to go further than the Tur in an analysis of the law as it develops from Talmudic times down to his own day. The Bet Yosef is probably the keenest work of legal analysis in the history of Jewish law.

Caro recorded the decisions in every branch of practical law at which he had arrived in his digest, the Shulhan Arukh [“Set Table”], which together with the glosses of Isserles, became the standard code for all Orthodox Jews. [Moses Isserles (d.1572) was a Polish rabbi who authored several works on Jewish law. His claim to fame, however, was his glosses to Caro’s Shulhan Arukh. Caro meant to provide a clear ruling on all matters of halacha, according to Sephardic teachings. Isserles brought Ashkenazi opinions and customs to the “table.” Isserles titled his collection of additions, Mappah (tablecloth). From 1569 the Shulhan Arukh has included Isserles’ additions.]

Caro the Mystic

It is highly interesting that Caro, evidently in compensation for his powerful concentration throughout his life on acute legal subtleties, had strong mystical tendencies, believing himself to be the recipient of a heavenly mentor. This phenomenon was not uncommon among the kabbalists, who called the spirit who brought the revelation a Maggid (“Preacher” or “Teller”). Caro identified his Maggid with the spirit of the Mishnah and with the Shekhinah. The revelations of the Maggidwere sometimes in the form of automatic speech coming out of Caro’s mouth.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.