Caro's Codificatory Approach

The disparate opinions in Caro's Bet Yosef and the bottom line decisions in his Shulhan Arukh combined to create the halakhic code par excellence.

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Caro described clearly his theory of the "double" code in his Introduction to the Shulhan Arukh. He began by describing his Bet Yosef:

"The major work that I wrote on the . . . Turim, which I called Bet Yosef, includes all the laws to be found in all the [books of the] codifiers, new and old, together with their sources in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, the Tosefta, Sifra, Sifrei, Mekhilta, commentaries, codes, and responsa, new and old, with each law fully and appropriately explained in its proper place."

He continued:

"I realized that it would be beneficial to gather the lilies and the sapphires [i.e., the halakhic conclusions] of its [Bet Yosef's] discussion, [and present them] briefly, clearly, and comprehensively, in an elegant and pleasant style, so that God's perfect Torah may be fluent on the tongue of every Jew. Thus, when a scholar will be asked a matter of halakhah, he will not need to hesitate.

. . . The law to be applied in practice on any question that he will be asked will be clear to him because he will be fully familiar with this book [Shulhan Arukh], which is so excellently constructed. It is divided into thirty parts, so that if one studies one part each day, he will have reviewed its contents every month. Of such a person it will be said, 'Happy is he who comes here with his knowledge readily in hand.'

Furthermore, the younger students will study it constantly and commit it to memory. Practical halakhah will thus become 'childhood learning' absorbed in their earliest years; and when they grow old, it will not depart from them. The intelligent students will shine like the heavens because they will be spared the pain of great toil and will enjoy studying this book; it is entirely pleasurable, containing clear and definitive statements of the applicable law, without discursive debate or argument.

I called this book Shulhan Arukh [The Set Table] because the reader will find set out in it all kinds of delicacies meticulously arranged, preserved, systematized, and clarified. I trust that, by divine grace, the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God by virtue of this book -- the small and the great, the student and the accomplished scholar."

This, then, was Caro's approach to codifying halakhah. Bet Yosef included the disparate opinions on all the laws and their sources; but "so that God's perfect Torah may be fluent on the tongue of every Jew," Caro composed another book "containing clear and definitive statements of the applicable law, without discursive debate or argument."

This latter work would be written "briefly, clearly, and comprehensively, in an elegant and pleasant style," so that when a judge or scholar is asked a question, "he will not need to hesitate, . . . [and] the law to be applied in practice on any question that he will be asked will be clear to him."

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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.