Writing Jewish Law: The 17th and 18th Century

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

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

A 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.

Zvi Hirsch Ashkenazi

Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Ashkenazi (1658-1718) and his son, Rabbi Jacob Emden (below), both engendered much controversy during their careers but both remained influential jurists. Ashkenazi, who, although Polish by birth, studied with Sephardi teachers, served in Sarajevo, Altona, Amsterdam, and Lvov. His responsa entitled She’elot uteshubot kakham Zebi (Amster­dam, 1712), answered questions from across Europe and helped define how Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews should interact in the world of ritual where their customs often conflicted.

Jacob Emden

Unlike his father, Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776), with one brief exception, did not hold communal office. A prolific author and virulent opponent of those who harbored lingering beliefs in the pseudo-messiah of the 1660s, Shabbetai Zevi, Emden believed that one may not simply rely on legal precedent but must recheck the talmudic sources on each issue. His legal independence led him not only to question the views of many commentators on the Shulhan Arukh but the legal authority of the Shulhan Arukh itself. Emden also rejected unfounded stringencies believing that “someone who prohibits what is permitted will ultimately allow what is prohibited.”

Ezekiel Landau

Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, a native of Poland, assumed a judicial post at the age of 21 and, in 1754, was invited to become Chief Rabbi of Bohemia. Landau produced over 850 published responsa notable for their wide use of earlier sources, talmudic commentaries, sermons, and other rabbinic writings. Like Emden before him, Landau spearheaded the efforts of the Jewish community against laws demanding the delay of burial of the dead until three days after the cessation of bodily functions, in accordance with then current scientific beliefs, government orders in Brunswick, Germany (1783), Bohemia (1786), and Austria (1787), and the views of Jewish modernists. A strong supporter of the authority of tradition, Landau believed that the principles of Jewish Law could not be outweighed by scientific postulates.

The Vilna Gaon

One of the most revered figures of the period was Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman of Vilnius (1720-1797), who was known and, indeed, is still referred to, simply as “the Gaon” by Ashkenazi Jewry (but not to be confused with the Geonim of some 800 years earlier). Although Elijah did not occupy a rabbinic position, he was able to mount a virulent campaign against the emerging Hasidic movement in Eastern Europe on the basis of the respect that he had earned for his scholarship. Elijah lectured to a small group of disciples, a number of whom became rabbinic leaders in the nine­teenth century. His works, including commentaries to both the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmud and the Shulhan Arukh, were published posthumously and are characterized by textual comparisons and emendations.

Judah Ayash

In the Sephardi world Rabbi Judah Ayash was renowned. The son of an outstanding jurist, Rabbi Isaac Ayash (d. 1727), Judah became the head of the rabbinic court in Algiers in 1728 and corresponded with communities around the Mediterranean. His responsa considered matters of communal authority and commercial practice but the majority of questions asked of him dealt with ritual practices. Like many outstanding rabbinic leaders, Ayash also maintained a talmudic academy where he taught Talmud and Jewish Law.

Yom Tob Algazi

Another Sephardi leader from a prominent rabbinic family was Rabbi Yom Tob Algazi (1727-1802). Algazi, whose scholarship was warmly praised by the Hungarian Rabbi of the next generation, Moses Sofer, became a member of the rabbinic court in Jerusalem and was signing local enactments by the year 1762. In 1780 he assumed the Chief Rabbinate of Jerusalem. His work included responsa and a commentary on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah.

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