Archive for July, 2012


No other book composed in the early modern period had as profound and lasting an impact on Jewish life as Karo’s. The Shulhan ‘arukh (“The Prepared Table” or “The Ordered Table”) eventually became the standard code of Jewish law throughout Europe and the Mediterranean world. with few exceptions, nearly every Jewish community had accepted it as authoritative within generations of its initial publication. The Shulhan ‘arukh as a “writing” delivered to the Jewish public by Joseph Karo had a truly transformative impact upon Jewish life. In this way, one can speak of Karo’s work as a discourse, as an idea. The book served scholars as a reference work and literate lay people as a manual of Jewish law. It stimulated commentary and controversy, resistance and cooptation. One is hard pressed to find another book written in the early modern period that endured as long as the Shulhan ‘arukh.

Yaacob Dweck, “What Is a Jewish Book?,” AJS Review 34, No. 2 (November 2010), 368.

The problem, frequently mooted in the Bible, of reconciling the ideal justice of God with the sufferings of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked in the world, was forced inescapably on the attention of the Rabbis by the downfall of the monotheistic Jewish State and the triumph of heathen Rome. They solved it by assigning capital importance to a factor which in the Bible is only vaguely and obscurely hinted at – the hereafter or future world. It became an article of faith with them that the righteous suffer only in this world, the reward for their good deeds being reserved for them in the hereafter, while the wicked receive all their rewards in the present world for their few good deeds, and await their punishment in the future world. The spheres of the righteous and wicked in the next world are designated the ‘Garden of Eden’ and ‘Gehinnom’ respectively. This view was first clearly stated by Rabbi Akiba, who finds in the biblical ascription ‘A God of Truth’ (Deut. xxxii, 4), a categorical affirmation of divine justice. God is very particular with both the righteous and the wicked. For He exacts payment for the few evils which the absolute righteous perform in this world, in order to give them a goodly reward in the future. Likewise, He gives abundant peace to the absolute wicked and pays them for the few good deeds they perform in this world, in order to punish them in the future.’ Similarly, when Rabbi Ishmael was being led out to execution together with Rabbi Simon b. Gamliel, he ascribed the latter’s fate to the offence which he had committed in delaying justice, implying that he, himself, too was about to suffer in this world for his sins.

A. Melinek, “The Doctrine of Reward and Punishment in Biblical and Early Rabbinic Writings,” in Essays Presented to Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, ed. H.J. Zimmels, J. Rabbinowitz, & I. Finestein (London: The Soncino Press Limited, 1967), 284-285.

…it is safe to say that the Shulhan ‘arukh would not have had its staying power as a work of enormous cultural authority had it not become an entirely different text when it appeared in Kraków in 1578–1580 with the glosses of Moses Isserles. Isserles, one of the towering figures of early modern Polish Jewish life, had been at work on his own law code for some time when he learned of Karo’s project. Rather than compete, he decided to append his own glosses with what he claimed were the Ashkenazic customs and practices. In this edition of the Shulhan ‘arukh, one finds a central dynamic of early modern Jewish history on the pages of a printed book: the coexistence, competition, and tension between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Indeed, the very categories of Ashkenazic and Sephardic are thrown into relief by the reactions to Isserles’ glosses. Thus Hayim ben Bezalel, brother of the famed Maharal, had little patience for Isserles’ attempt to summarize all of Ashkenazic tradition in his glosses and took it as a form of cultural imperialism and an erasure of difference among Ashkenazic and Polish practices from different regions.

Yaacob Dweck, “What Is a Jewish Book?,” AJS Review 34, No. 2 (November 2010), 370.

One of the most venerable of Jewish book practices—Talmud study— has engendered a remarkable series of innovations by dint of the cascade of new media of the past century. These recent developments rest on a much longer history of practices centered on this core text of rabbinic Judaism. As scholars of the early modern period have noted, printed folios of the Talmud, first published in the late fifteenth century, expanded the engagement in rabbinic text study among jewish boys and men throughout the diaspora. beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, photo-offset reproductions of the 1880–1886 “Vilna Romm Shas” not only canonized this edition as definitive but also presented scholars with a daf of unprecedented standardization in both content and form. (The value invested in fixing the format of the daf is implicit in the “pin test,” in which yeshiva students are challenged to identify the words through which a pin, stuck into a page of the Talmud at random, passes on subsequent pages, a skill that relies on memorization of the text as well as knowing its placement on the page.) The standardized daf also facilitated the institution of Daf Yomi—inaugurated by Rabbi Meir Shapiro at the First World Congress of the World Agudath Israel, held in Vienna in 1923—as an international practice that both promotes and regulates Talmud study within a modular rubric.

Jeffrey Shandler, “The Jewish Book and Beyond in Modern Times,” AJS Review 34, No. 2 (November 2010), 382.

…classes should reflect concern with texts but also concern for people’s feelings. Education at any level is not concerned with progress in a limited area, but in the general intellectual development of a student. Students cannot develop properly if they bear hostility toward a subject area, a particular professor, or themselves. The cultivation of proper attitudes in the student, towards his/her own self, colleagues and teachers, and the discipline as a whole is what we mean by good education. A congenial atmosphere, a pleasant emotional climate in the classroom, and the mutual respect of achievements is necessary to promote high standards and excellence without resentment. It is amazing what students will do if they want to and what they will not do if they do not want to.

Herbert W. Basser, “Approaching the Text: The Study of Midrash,” in Methodology in the Academic Teaching of Judaism, ed. Zev Garber (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986), 128-129.

This doctrine of a rigid correspondence between merit and reward, and between sin and punishment, however, is not propounded by every one of the biblical writers. At some time in the history of Israel, the belief in a perfectly retributive providence began to be shaken. It is difficult to say what were the causes of this. All that one can see is that, in course of time, men began to be perplexed by an apparent inconsistency in the administration of God’s justice. For while the righteous suffered the most grievous hardships, the wicked enjoyed great prosperity. These problems could not be lightly set aside. Some attempt had to be made to answer the questions which disturbed the righteous who suffered. So it was suggested that these afflictions were sent as a test of character. This approach to the problem is clearly developed in the book of Job, which was an attempt to answer the dilemma of those who believed that suffering is a sign of divine displeasure and presupposed sin on the part of the sufferer.

A. Melinek, “The Doctrine of Reward and Punishment in Biblical and Early Rabbinic Writings,” in Essays Presented to Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, ed. H.J. Zimmels, J. Rabbinowitz, & I. Finestein (London: The Soncino Press Limited, 1967), 278.

In his Print, Manuscript, and the Search for Order, David McKitterick characterizes the relationship between print and manuscript in the early modern period as a long divorce. For Jews, one might posit that the divorce was never finalized: the composition of texts in manuscript never disappeared from Jewish culture. The writing of a Torah scroll, the composition of a mezuzah, and other such sacred objects continues uninterrupted. Even beyond these basic ritual functions, manuscript writing continued to play a crucial role in Jewish societies for centuries after the invention of printing, and manuscripts continue to exist in persistent tension with printed books.

Yaacob Dweck, “What Is a Jewish Book?,” AJS Review 34, No. 2 (November 2010), 371.

The study of the Pentateuch with the view of indicating the re-attachment of halachoth to the written law was known as middoth (modes, measures) or, in its Aramaic equivalent, mekilatha. Thus, we read: ‘Better is he who studies halachoth and is conversant with them, than he who studies halachoth and middoth and is not conversant with them, but – it is his ambition to be acclaimed a student of mekilan.’ The term ‘middoth’ and its Aramaic translation ‘mekilatha’ had also the meaning of a scroll or a set of rules. It may thus refer to a set collection of Beraithoth.

S.K. Mirsky, “The Schools of Hillel, R. Ishmael and R. Akiba in Pentateuchal Interpretation,” in Essays Presented to Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, ed. H.J. Zimmels, J. Rabbinowitz, & I. Finestein (London: The Soncino Press Limited, 1967), 297.

The circumstances which brought about renewed activity in re-attaching halachoth to the written Torah at the time of Hillel are undoubtedly to be sought in the struggle of the Pharisees with the Sadducees, and in turn these circumstances necessitated the establishment of schools – the houses of Shammai and Hillel – who came occasionally together for academic discussions.

S.K. Mirsky, “The Schools of Hillel, R. Ishmael and R. Akiba in Pentateuchal Interpretation,” in Essays Presented to Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, ed. H.J. Zimmels, J. Rabbinowitz, & I. Finestein (London: The Soncino Press Limited, 1967), 295.

The legal device is introduced to preserve the principle and the purpose for which the law was ordained. In Jewish law, likewise, the legal device was instituted not to circumvent the law, but to serve as a guard against the threatened neglect of a Biblical precept. It is scarcely necessary to stress that, as in the case of the Jewish people, changes, political, social and economic, have often taken place, the Jewish legislators felt impelled to contrive some legal instrument in order to preserve the idea and concept underlying a given precept. Such a device would help to maintain the Law and thus prove valuable in furthering the welfare of the individual, the group and the community.

M.S. Lew, “The Humanity of the Halachah,” Essays Presented to Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, ed. H.J. Zimmels, J. Rabbinowitz, I. Finestein (London: The Soncino Press Limited, 1967), 244.