Early Modern Halakhic Texts

An introduction to the works of the aharonim.

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The period of the aharonim ("later" or "last" scholars) is often said to begin with the Shulhan Arukh of R. Yosef Caro, published in 1565, later supplemented by the glosses of R. Moshe Isserles (Rema) in 1578.

Halakhic authorities and historians identify this point as significant for several reasons.  It bridges a period of historical turmoil: the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, the Chielmnicki Pogroms of 1648-49, and the beginning of the Enlightenment in Europe. Against this backdrop fraught with physical relocation and intellectual upheaval, an authoritative code of behavior was an appealing anchor to tradition. Retroactively, as the legal authority of the Shulhan Arukh gained weight in halakhic discourse, its publication gained significance as a halakhic turning point as well.

The Shulhan Arukh's Rise to Primacy

Following its publication, the Shulhan Arukh met with resistance, for a variety of reasons. Some opposed its brevity and omission of sources, while others preferred that halakhic decision-making be made on the basis of a thorough, independent reading of the Talmud and early authorities.

A competing code, Levush Malkhut, was produced by R. Mordechai Jaffe (1530-1612), initially in response to the unwieldy length of Caro's first major legal work, the Bet Yosef, then in response to the brevity of the Shulhan Arukh and its choice to ignore Ashkenazic rulings, and finally as an elaboration on the brief glosses of the Rema. Some of the core differences between the Shulhan Arukh and the Levush are illustrated in this example:

Shulhan Arukh's introduction to the laws of tzitzit (fringes) reads:
"A person should enwrap in tzitzit and bless standing."

The parallel section in the Levush reads:
"Immediately after washing the hands, a person should enwrap in tzitzit, as is written: 'Make for yourselves strings upon the four corners of your garment which covers you.'  As one begins to wrap, beforehand one should bless upon them 'le-hitateif be-tzitzit (to wrap in tzitzit),' because for every mitzvah someone does, he should give thanks and praise to God who gave it to us and causes us to merit through it, to receive by it the greatest wholeness in this world and the next world. And the Sages enacted blessing oveir le-assiyatan, that is, before doing it, meaning that the blessing passes before the doing of [the mitzvah]."

The formulations of the Shulhan Arukh are terse as compared to the lengthier explanations of the Levush, which include biblical sources, the exact order of the ritual, as well as legal and theological rationales for the blessing. Despite this, or perhaps partly because of it, the Shulhan Arukh was to prevail.

Commentaries and Supercommentaries

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Will Friedman is an MA candidate in Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He has previously studied at the Conservative Yeshiva, Pardes, and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.