A summary and codification of halakhah in brief and authoritative form, completed in Safed in 1563 by the Sephardic rabbi, Yosef Karo. First published in Venice in 1565 and reprinted many times in the succeeding decades and centuries, the Shulḥan ‘arukh is an abridgement and distillation of Karo’s Bet Yosef—commentary and glosses on the medieval code Arba‘ah turim by Ya‘akov ben Asher. As is the Turim, the Shulḥan ‘arukh is divided into four sections: Oraḥ ḥayim, on Sabbath, holiday and daily commandments; Yoreh de‘ah, on dietary laws and various other categories such as mourning and purity; Even ha-‘ezer, chiefly on marriage and divorce; and Ḥoshen mishpat, mainly on civil law.
The Shulḥan ‘arukh is also based on three other works of codification that enjoyed great authority in the Sephardic tradition: Yitsḥak Alfasi’s Sefer ha-halakhot,Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, and Asher ben Yeḥi’el’s Sefer ha-pesakim. The last presents Ashkenazic traditions. When opinions in the three works differed, Karo decided according to the majority so that his code generally reflected Sephardic positions. Consequently, the Shulḥan ‘arukh encountered opposition among Ashkenazic authorities, particularly in Poland. Some rabbis, chief among them Shelomoh Luria (1510–1573), opposed the very idea of codification and the presentation of a summary that was liable to supplant the Talmud and all halakhic knowledge that had accumulated afterward. Others, such as Mordekhai Yafeh (1530–1612), objected to the synoptic style of the work that made no mention of sources or dissenting opinions, and were concerned that it could cause errors and confusion.
Mosheh Isserles (Rema’; 1520?–1572), who had composed his own commentary on the Arba‘ah turim called Darkhe Mosheh, expressed strong, albeit critical, support for adopting the Shulḥan ‘arukh. He maintained that its widespread acceptance gave it halakhic status and prestige that should not be defied. Thus, a judge who ruled contrary to the Shulḥan ‘arukh would be considered to have erred and his verdict would be annulled. To prevent the Shulḥan ‘arukh from achieving authoritative status in Poland in its original form, Isserles added his own gloss to it, Ha-Mapah (The Tablecloth), in which he presented dissenting Ashkenazic opinions. In this way, he increased the diffusion of Shulḥan ‘arukh but also stopped the spread of the Sephardic tradition represented in it through the Polish halakhic world. Subsequent Polish and Ashkenazic traditions accepted the view that whenever Isserles dissented from Karo, judges would rule according to Ha-Mapah; only the absence of a gloss was considered to be agreement with the Shulḥan ‘arukh.
The acceptance of the Shulḥan ‘arukh was consolidated by various works of exegesis labeled nose kelim (supercommentaries). Foremost among these were Sefer me’irat ‘enayim by Yehoshu‘a ha-Kohen Falk; Sifte Kohen by Shabetai ha-Kohen; Ture zahav by David ha-Levi; Bet Shemu’el by Shemu’el ben Uri Shraga Fayvush; Ḥelkat meḥokek by Mosheh Lima; and Magen Avraham by Avraham Abele Gombiner, all written in Poland in the seventeenth century.
The nose kelim increased the influence of Shulḥan ‘arukh among legal scholars but at the same time limited the authority of Karo’s original work in favor of the innovations contained in the Polish and Ashkenazic commentaries. These works also achieved authoritative status, and their position became decisive and binding. The writing of commentaries on Shulḥan ‘arukh continued into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, further enhancing its centrality in the world of Torah study and jurisprudence.
There is widespread agreement that the combination of Shulḥan ‘arukh and Ha-Mapah constitute in practice a binding code, as attested by a body of rulings by various judges in Poland and Ashkenaz stating that it was not acceptable to raise an objection against the joint positions of Shulḥan ‘arukh and Ha-Mapah based on an opposing view by another sage, even as a defense in a rabbinical court. This view took firm root in the period following the dissemination of the nose kelim in the seventeenth century. But not all factions in the Polish milieu adopted this view entirely. In the twentieth century, Avraham Yesha‘yahu Karelits (Ḥazon Ish), the premier halakhic authority of East European origin in the middle of the century, who represented the scholarly Lithuanian tradition of the school of Eliyahu ben Shelomoh, the Gaon of Vilna (1720–1797), said that “we are accustomed to ruling according to the great later authorities (Aḥronim) even against Shulḥan ‘arukh” (Ḥazon Ish, Shevi‘it 23:5). In his view, only when opinions are equally divided is the joint decision of the Shulḥan ‘arukh and Ha-Mapah given preference (Ḥazon Ish, Ḥoshen mishpat, Likutim 1:1). The Shulḥan ‘arukh thus did become the central halakhic authority in Poland, but it did not achieve the status of a code that cannot be challenged under any circumstances.
Joseph Davis, “The Reception of the Shulhan ‘Arukh and the Formation of Ashkenazic Jewish Identity,” AJS Review 26.2 (2002): 251–276; Menachem Elon, Jewish Law, History, Sources, Principles, trans. Bernard Auerbach and Melvin J. Sykes, vol. 3 (Philadelphia, 1994); Yizḥak Raphael, ed., Rabi Yosef Karo: ‘Iyunim u-meḥkarim (Jerusalem, 1968/69); Chaim Tchernowitz, Toldot ha-poskim, vol. 3 (New York, 1947); Asher Ziv (Siev), Rabenu Mosheh Iserlis (Rama) (New York, 1971/72).