Joseph ben Ephraim Caro (1488-1575), one of the most important Hallachist
s and Kabbalist
s in the history of Judaism
, and the author of the Shulhan Arukh
Caro was apparently born in Toledo, Castile. It seems that after the deportation of the Jews from Spain (1492) his family left for Turkey or Portugal, but it is possible that they left Spain before the expulsion, and that Caro was born in Portugal. It is certain that after the deportation of the Jews from Portugal (1497), the family settled in Turkey where Caro lived for about 40 years. The family first settled in Constantinople, but consequently (no later than 1522), Caro lived in Adrianople, Nikopol, and Salonika. He first studied under his father, Ephraim, a distinguished Talmudist himself. After his father's death, while still young, he was brought up by his uncle Isaac Caro, a famed scholar in his own right. In Turkey he apparently met with Solomon Molcho, whose martyrdom at the stake (1532) made a deep impression on Caro, with the result that he too yearned to meet a martyr's death. He was also influenced by the Kabbalists Joseph Taitazak and Solomon Alkabez, whom he met.
In 1522, at age 34, he began writing his great work, the Beit Yosef (House of Joseph) in Adrianople, and worked on it unceasingly for 20 years. The aim of this work was to review all the varying (and often contradicting) customs, codes, and rulings in all the dispersed congregations of the Jewish people, investigating each and every one of them back to its roots in the Talmud, discussing each stage of its development, and bringing in every possible divergent view, thus arriving finally at a decisive ruling. He decided not to compose an independent work "in order to avoid having to repeat what my predecessors have already written", but to write in the form of a commentary on an existing code. He first thought of Moses Maimonides' classic work, Mishneh Torah, but rejected the idea because Maimonides gives only final resolutions without divergent opinions. Finally he decided to write on the Arba'ah Turim (Four Columns) of Jacob ben Asher, a dicision that had a decisive influence of the future development of Jewish law. It enhance considerably the importance of the Arba'ah Turim, already an authoritative work, to an even greater extent, and established for all time the division of that portion of Jewish law which is of practical application into the four sections formed by Jacob ben Asher in his work (which I shall describe later, under Shulhan Arukh). Another reason Caro had for preferring the Arba'ah Turim over Mishneh Torah was that Jacob ben Asher, though brought up in Spain (in a Sepharadi environment), was of the son of a renowned Ashkenazi scholar (Asher ben Jehiel), and thus gives in his work equal importance to the views of Ashkenazi scholars, which are disregarded by Maimonides. A third reason for the selection of Arba'ah Turim was that it concentrated solely on those parts of the hallacha which were of practical application in its time, while Mishneh Torah ignored the differences between what was applicable and what was not. In his work on Beit Yosef, Caro reviewed an unbelievable amount of texts (both earlier than Arba'ah Turim and later). He compared manuscripts and corrected scribal errors in them. But in his work decided that he would base his decision on the works of three Hallachic giants: Isaac Alfasi, Maimonides, and Asher ben Jehiel, accepting the ruling of a majority of these three. He retained, however, a certain elasticity in this, and when the opinions of a vast majority of scholars followed one of these three, or when a custom has been accepted in practice, or when there was no majority decision between the three, he would depart from this rule, and with unprecedented liberality, lay it down that if his decision ran contrary to an established custom in a particular country, they were free to disregard his ruling. The Beit Yosef remains to this day unmatched for its encyclopedic knowledge, mastery of subject, thoroughness of research, and keen critical insight, in the whole of Rabbinical literature.
In 1536 Caro left Turkey for Safed, after apparently staying for some time in Egypt. In Safed he was regarded as leader of the scholars, and headed a large yeshivah of some 200 pupils. He wrote hundreds of Hallachic responsa to queries addressed to him from the whole of Jewish Diaspora.
Caro married at least three times. While living in Turkey two of his sons and his daughter died. He was survived by three sons, and another who died several years after his death. According to one tradition one of Caro's sons was betrothed to the daughter of Isaac Luria. He was buried in Safed, where his grave can still be seen in the old cemetery.
In addition to the Beit Yosef and the Shulhan Arukh (if they are to be regarded as two separate works), Caro composed a commentary on parts of Moses Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, which he called Kesef Mishneh. He also composed a Responsa, which is not nearly as important as his other Hallachic works.
Caro was also an important Kabbalist, who was influenced by the Kabbalistic circles of the Balkans. And so he believed that the Kabbalah was not merely a matter of mystical theology and theosophical speculation (which was the more widespread and accepted view of it), but a tool of mystical revelation. Caro believed he was visited (usually at night) by a heavenly mentor, who revealed to him Kabbalistic doctrines, as well as rules and predictions about his private ascetic life. These visitations were not accompanied by a state of trance, and subsequently Caro recorded them in a mystical diary, parts of which are extant.
The completeness, and perfection of this work (the name of which can be translated as "The Prepared Table") is what gave it ultimately its unchallenged place as the code par excellence of the Hallacha. The fact that it was a digest of the Beit Yosef, which details the history of each law and ruling, made it impossible to attack it in the way that Maimonides' Mishneh Torah was attacked - that it lay down the law without giving reason, sources or divergent opinions. The massive folios into which subsequent commentaries and supercommentaries were entered, swelling the original text, mask the fact that it was originally quite brief.
Following the Arba'ah Turim, the Shulhan Arukh is divided into four sections:
Orach Hayim - concerning the daily commandments and rules, Sabbaths, and the festivals.
Yoreh De'ah - dealing with various subjects such as dietary laws, interest, purity, and mourning.
Even HaEzer - on marriage, divorce, and related topics.
Hoshen Mishpat - deals with civil and criminal law.