The Shulchan Aruch

In 1492, the mass expulsion of Jews in the Spanish Inquisition created waves of refugees throughout Europe and the Middle East. As Sephardic Jews from Spain intermingled with Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, people became confused about which traditions and rules to follow. Two rabbis rose to settle the matter. Though these two men were from different traditions and never even met, their conflict and collaboration defined Judaism for half a millennium.

  • Review
  • Discussion
  • Activities
  • Reflection
  • Further Learning
  1. What is the Hebrew term for Jewish law and behavior?
    • Torah Shebaal Peh
    • Kabbalah
    • Shulchan Aruch
    • Halacha
  2. Who compiled the Shulchan Aruch?
    • Rabbi Yosef Karo
    • Rabbi Moshe Isserles
    • Rambam
    • Rif
  3. How did Rabbi Yosef Karo decide which ruling should be written in the Shulchan Aruch?
    • He chose the answer he personally preferred.
    • He went with the majority of three prominent scholars: the Rif, the Rosh, and the Rambam.
    • He picked Sephardi rulings over Ashkenazi rulings.
    • He tried to tie the modern-day rulings to what had been done in communities before the Spanish Inquisition.
  4. What did Rabbi Moshe Isserles decide to do with his commentary after the Shulchan Aruch was published?
    • He wrote an addition to the Shulchan Aruch so the two works could be read together.
    • He did not publish his work since it would create more confusion.
    • He published his separate work for the Ashkenazi community.
    • He wrote a different book which presented only some of his ideas.
  5. What does Shulchan Aruch mean in English?
    • Tablecloth
    • Oral Tradition
    • Tradition
    • Set Table
  1. Sephardim and Ashkenazim continue to have different cultural norms. For example, Ashkenazim do not traditionally eat kitniyot (legumes) on Passover, while Sephardim permit eating them. This approach has allowed cultural traditions to be preserved for centuries, but it has also created some divisions within the Jewish community like how many synagogues have separate Ashkenazi and Sephardi prayer groups. Do you think there should have been a greater effort to combine Ashkenazi and Sephardi customs into one uniform rule set or is the preservation of both traditions preferable?
  2. Rabbi Yosef Karo decided to follow the principle of majority rule, or rov, in order to make halachic decisions. This concept is based on the line in the book of Exodus which states “after the majority to wrest.” Why did Rabbi Yosef Karo decide to adopt the principle of majority rule?
  3. The acceptance and adoption of Rabbi Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Aruch was largely based on the hope that the Jewish people would remain united and unified. Rabbi Moses Issleres’ decision to then add his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch further reinforced this goal. However, some rabbis, including Rabbi Solomon Luria, opposed Rabbi Yosef Karo’s efforts. Rabbi Solomon Luria lauded the Talmud’s plurality of voices and critiqued the Shulchan Aruch’s absence of halachic pluralism. What are the values of having unified thought and unity of action versus the values of pluralism and diversity of thought? Why was the Shulchan Aruch ultimately accepted as an authoritative source?
  4. When Sephardi and Ashkenazi traditions developed, the communities were separate from one another. Throughout the following centuries and especially in communities today, Sephardim and Ashkenazim live side-by-side. Marriage rates between Ashkenazim and Sephardim are also increasingly common, and many families navigate which customs they will keep as an individual family unit. Even now that Ashkenazim and Sephardim are also in school together and there is more unity than ever before between the two groups, how can even deeper interactions be encouraged? Is it inevitable that these two groups morph into an integrated Jewish culture, or do you think they will continue to remain distinct from one another?
  5. While the term Ashkenazi initially referred to just Jews from Germany, it eventually came to encompass all Jews with roots in Europe. The term Sephardi has come to represent Jews not only from Spain but also Jews from Middle Eastern countries. Both of these terms imply homogeneity among its members, even though there are many factions even within these larger umbrellas. Other groups like Yemenite Jews and Ethiopian Jews are left out completely from being called Ashkenazi or Sephardi. Should we consider a shift in language that acknowledges the many different cultures that exist within Judaism, or should we continue to use the terms Ashkenazi and Sephardi because they represent most Jews?
  6. The video refers to Shulchan Aruch as the “SparkNotes for two thousand years of oral tradition.” Many critics, including the Maharal, argued that the summaries of Jewish law lost a lot of the beauty and complexities. You may have had similar conversations in your English classroom. Teachers are often, if not always, opposed to when students read the SparkNotes version of a book, instead of the original assigned work. Do you think that reading a SparksNotes version is inevitably inferior to reading a longer version, or is there ever a place for solely studying the SparkNotes version?
  1. Use a ready-made lesson plan about the Shulchan Aruch HERE.
  2. Ashkenazim and Sephardim have different geographical origins and different cultures then emerged. Read this article which details the history of both groups and then this article which speaks about their different Passover customs. Write a one-page dialogue between an Ashkenazi Jew and a Sephardi Jew where they each try to learn more about each other’s customs. Include at least three aspects of their history or practice that make them distinct.
  3. The history of Mizrahi Jews (Jews from North Africa and the Middle East) in Israel has had ups and downs. The early leaders of Israel were of Ashkenazi origin, and some struggled to understand and incorporate Mizrahim into the newly created state. Learners should watch this video about Mizrahi Music and read this article about Mizrahi Jews in Israel. Then, the instructor should use carousel brainstorming to have groups of students answer the question: what efforts should be made in Israel to preserve Mizrahi culture?
  4. The Shulchan Aruch begins with the line, “You shall arise as a lion each morning to do the will of your Creator.” Learners should create something that they can look at each morning about the attitude and perspective they wish to have throughout your day. This can be either in the form of a written message, drawing, or song. The goal of their creation should be to inspire them each morning to act in a way in which they will be proud.
  5. Play our Kahoot about the Shulchan Aruch!
  1. Think about your own Jewish family traditions. For example, you may think about how you celebrate the holidays or how you pray. Where did your traditions originally come from? Do they stem from Ashkenazi or Sephardi tradition, or have they developed in more recent times?
  2. In addition to the divide between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, the video mentions the rise of the study of Kabbalah. Watch this Unpacked video to learn more about Kabbalah. While some claim that Kabbalah and its understandings of the mystical world can enhance your life, others claim that the lessons are so esoteric that they can only be understood by an older and incredibly learned group of people. What is your interest in learning Kabbalah?
  3. The Shulchan Aruch is split into four books: (1) Orach Chaim which focuses on prayer, Shabbat, holidays, and day-to day life, (2) Yoreh Deah which focuses on kosher and other areas in which a rabbi is generally consulted, (3) Even Haezer which focuses on marriage and divorce, and (4) Choshen Mishpat which focuses on monetary laws and torts. If you were going to start learning the Shulchan Aruch, which of these books is most interesting to you and do you have any questions that you would hope are answered?
  4. The video quotes Rabbi Moshe Isserles as saying, “One says this and another says that. Time comes to an end but their words are endless,” in response to increasingly confusing practice of oral traditions. Has there ever been a situation which you felt was constantly discussed, but you wished someone would just make a decision and have the final say? This could be something in your personal life or something you see being discussed nationally like in the political world.
  5. Once the Shulchan Aruch was published, Rabbi Moshe Isserles had to decide what to do with his own written commentaries. As the video describes, he could either publish the Darkei Moshe and reassert Ashkenazi tradition, or he could accept Rabbi Yosef Karo’s version and possibly lose Ashkenzai traditions. Ultimately, he decided to publish his commentaries alongside Rabbi Yosef Karo’s. Rabbi Moshe Isserles’ decision demonstrated his commitment to humility, an idea reinforced by his decision to name his writings as “The Tablecloth” to Rabbi Yosef Karo’s “Set Table.” This set the stage for unity amongst the Jewish people across the globe. Would you have struggled to make the same decision as Rabbi Moshe Isserles and why?

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