10 Things You Need to Know About…Joseph Caro

He codified Jewish law for everyone

1. Joseph Ben Ephraim Caro was born in Toledo, Spain, in 1488. A few years later Jews were expelled from Spain and then Portugal, and his family resettled in Nikopolis in the Ottoman Empire. His father, Ephraim, was an eminent Talmudist who taught his son well. After his death, young Joseph was brought up by an uncle. Death continued to stalk his family throughout his life: he married early, lost his wife, and went on to marry and lose several more. All together, he had six children.

Artist's conception

Artist’s conception

2. As a young man, he earned a reputation for excellent scholarship. He wrote Kesef Mishnah, citing and explaining the sources in the Maimonides Mishneh Torah.

3. In 1535, after years spent in various locations in Turkey and then Egypt, he arrived in Palestine and settled in Safed, where, he was appointed to the Rabbinical Court of Jacob Berab. He established a yeshiva, teaching Torah to over 200 students.

4. When Berab died, Caro became head of the Rabbinical Court in Safed, by then the central rabbinical court of Palestine, its rulings considered final and conclusive throughout the Jewish world.

5. Contacted by sages throughout Palestine and the diaspora, who sought his halachic decisions and clarifications, he developed the grand idea to codify all Jewish law, not only applying the responsa of all the prominent legalists, but also taking community customs into account.

6. The result was his Beit Yosef, a commentary on the Arba’ah Turim (“the Tur”), the work of Jewish law then current. He began it in 1522 and finished twenty years later. His all-encompassing mastery of Talmud and legalistic literature is evident in it. He discusses every law starting with its source in the Talmud, tracing its development, considering every divergent view and finally ruling on the law – usually, though not always, basing his rulings on the majority view of Isaac Alfasi, Maimonides and Asher ben Yehiel.

7. Caro is best known today for his Shulhan Aruch (1565), a concise condensation of Beit Yosef that lists only the final rulings. The title translates as “The Prepared Table.” Written for young students, it made halachah available to even the simplest Jew. It was the first such code ever to be printed on a printing press, and it was distributed around the world. Because it was written primarily according to Sephardic tradition, it was later supplemented with Ashkenazic commentary by Moshe Isserles [see my post of May 15, 2013]. In this form it remains the go-to source today.

Caro's signature

Caro’s signature

8. For a period of over fifty years, Caro kept a diary in which he recorded the mystical visits to him of an angelic teacher who instructed him, berated him, and spurred him to acts of righteousness. Many years after his death, the diary was published by Kabbalists as Maggid Meisharim (“Preacher of Righteousness”).

9. Caro produced other halachic works and many responsa. If you make it a practice to stay up all night on Erev Shavuot, you’ll be pleased to know that Caro was one of the originators of this practice.

10. Rabbi Yosef Caro died and was buried in Safed in March 1575. A synagogue there bears his name, though it is not the original synagogue, two others having been built earlier, but destroyed by natural disasters.

Rabbi Yosef Caro Street in Tel Aviv runs between Derekh Petach Tikva and the Ayalon River, just south (appropriately) of Isserles.

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