Early Modern Halakhic Texts

An introduction to the works of the aharonim.

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One can attribute much of the Shulhan Arukh's success to its primary commentaries:

R. David ben Samuel ha-Levi (1586-1667, Poland) produced the Turei Zahav,

commonly known by its initials as the Taz, a commentary to all four parts of the Shulhan Arukh. The commentary of the Taz to Yoreh De`ah most closely follows the Shulhan Arukh, whereas the commentary to the other sections often follows the Tur.

R. Shabbetai ben Meir ha-Kohen (1621-1662, Lithuania and Poland), wrote Siftei Kohen (Shakh), a commentary to Yoreh De`ah and Hoshen Mishpat.

R. Avraham Abele ben Hayyim ha-Levi Gombiner (1637-1683, Poland and Lithuania) wrote Magen Avraham, a commentary to Orah Hayyim.

The appearance of these commentaries led to the composition of supercommentaries (commentaries to commentaries). Of the latter, the most famous and influential was written by R. Yosef ben Meir Teomim (1727-1792). His Pri Megadim was divided into three parts: the Mishbetzot Zahav (a commentary on the Taz), the Eshel Avraham (a commentary on the Magen Avraham), and Siftei Da'at (a commentary on the Shakh). Many more interrelated commentaries may be seen on a page of the standard printed editions of the Shulhan Arukh.

Women and Tzitzit

How do these texts interact with each other? Let's return to the laws of tzitzit for an example:  

The Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 14:1) invalidates tzitzit that are made by non-Jews, but explicitly permits women to make tzitzit, even though women are exempted from wearing tzitzit. The Rema adds that it is preferable for tzitzit to be made by men.

The Taz notes that the Shulhan Arukh disagrees with Rabbenu Tam, an early medieval French scholar, who invalidates tzitzit made by women based on an analogy to tefillin (phylacteries), which women are exempt from wearing and therefore ineligible to make. The Taz then vindicates his contemporary situation in which women spun the wool for tzitzit. According to the Taz, even Rabbenu Tam would permit this, since there is a difference between tying tzitzit onto a garment and spinning the wool for tzitzit.

By contrast, the Magen Avraham favors Rema's opinion. Magen Avraham points out that in general the phrase "children of Israel" is interpreted as referring to "sons" and not "daughters," and that the Talmud's interpretation in our case, in which "children of Israel" is used to exclude non-Jews but includes Jewish women by implication, is abnormal.

This example captures several elements characteristic of the aharonim's halakhic activity. Both the Taz and the Magen Avraham offer the legal and precedential background for the Shulhan Arukh and Rema, including rejected opinions. The Taz attempts to justify his contemporary practice according to a strict opinion. Both indicate their final preference.

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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.