Writing Jewish Law: The 17th and 18th Century

A survey of the great post-Shulhan Arukh legal authorities.

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Reprinted with permission from Introduction to the History and Sources of Jewish Law  (Oxford University Press) .

Major centers of Jewish life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries such as Lvov, Cracow, Prague, Hamburg, Venice, Algiers, Constantinople, and Salonika, generally engaged the leading rabbinic scholars of the genera­tion as their spiritual leaders. Some were prolific, others were not; among the prolific, the scholarship of some caught the imagination not only of their contemporaries but of subsequent generations as well. The following list, while not exhaustive, focuses on Rabbis whose influence far outlasted their own times. 

Joel Sirkes

law book and gavelA critic of the Shulhan Arukh, Rabbi Joel Sirkes (around 1541­-1640) served as Rabbi of numerous Lithuanian and Polish communities before coming to Cracow in 1620. Sirkes authored a lengthy commentary on Jacob ben Asher's Tur in a vain attempt to restore the Tur  to the center of Jewish legal study. Although his views were often rejected when in conflict with [the author of the Shulhan Arukh, Joesph] Karo's, he was regularly cited by the commentators on the Shulhan Arukh. Sirkes's rulings allowing the sale of leaven on Passover without its physical removal from the Jew's property and his allowance of hadashin the Diaspora (lit., "new"; see Lev. 23:9-14 [which prohibits hadash--eating from the new crop of the five grains before the omer sacrifice brought on the sixteenth of Nisan]) remain the basis for contemporary practice. Sirkes's responsa and textual emendations to the Babylonian Talmud are standard works.

Shabbetai ben Meir ha-Kohen

Although Shabbetai ben Meir ha-Kohen (1621-1662) served as a Rabbi and judge in his native Lithuania and later in Moravia, he was best known for his commentaries on the Shulhan Arukh particularly his work on ritual law. With a clause by clause analysis that used logic, a wide range of sources, and casuistry, Shabbetai championed Karo and Isserles's code and firmly rejected many of the views of jurists who lived between the publishing of the Shulhan Arukh and his own time. Shabbetai also introduced numerous legal works from Ottoman authorities into Ashkenazi legal discourse.

Joseph di Trani

Born in Safed, Rabbi Joseph di Trani arrived in Constantinople in 1604 to head the talmudic academy and five years later became the Rabbi of the city. Rarely citing earlier authorities in his responsa unless to buttress his point, di Trani based his opinions on talmudic sources. Like so many of his contemporaries in the Sephardi world, he was forced to consider the status of Marranos in Jewish Law.

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Dr. Edward Fram

Dr. Edward Fram is the Norbert Blechner Lecturer in Eastern European Jewish Culture in the Department of History at Ben-Gurion University.