Category: Halakhic Books/Works/Writings

The current popularity of the Beit ha-Behirah of R. Menahem ha-Meiri reflects this change in modes of learning. Meiri is the only medieval Talmudist (rishon) whose works can be read almost independently of the Talmudic text, upon which it ostensibly comments. The Beit ha-Behirah is not a running commentary on the Talmud. Meiri, in quasi-Maimonidean fashion, intentionally omits the give and take of the sugya, he focuses, rather, on the final upshot of the discussion and presents the differing views of that upshot and conclusion. Also, he alone, and again intentionally, provides the reader with background information. His writings are the closest thing to a secondary source in the library of rishonim. This trait coupled with the remarkably modern syntax of Meiri’s Hebrew prose have won for his works their current widespread use. It is not, as commonly thought, because the Beit ha-Behirah has been recently discovered. True, the massive Parma manuscript has been in employ only for some seventy years. However, even a glance at any Hebrew bibliography will show that much of the Beit ha-Behirah on sefer mo’ed, for example, had been published long before Avraham Sofer began his transcriptions of the Parma manuscript in the nineteen twenties. (E. g. Megillah Amsterdam, 1759; Sukkah Berlin, 1859; Shabbat Vienna, 1864.) Rather, Meiri’s works had previously fallen stillborn from the press. Sensing its alien character, most scholars simply ignored them, and, judging by the infrequent reprintings, if any, they also appear not to have found a popular audience. They have come into their own only in the past half century. (On Meiri’s quasi-Maimonidean intentions, see Beit ha-Behirah, Berakhot, ed. Y. Dickman [Jerusalem, 1965], introduction, pp. 25-32. Meiri consciously follows Maimonides in addressing the halakhic dicta rather than the Talmudic discussion, in gathering scattered halakhic dicta under one roof, and in writing in neo-Mishnaic rather than Rabbinic Hebrew. He parts company with Maimonides and follows R. Judah ha-Nassi in writing not topically but tractatewise, and in registering multiple views. Indeed, no one writing after the dialectical revolution of the Tosafists could entertain again the Maimonidean notion of halakhic univocality.)

Haym Soloveitchik, “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy“, Tradition 28, no. 4 (1994), 120-121, n. 54.

Another irony is that the halakhic textbook written by the most distinguished of these yoatzot turns out to be more stringent, and requires consultation with rabbis more often, than halakhic texts written by men. See Aviad Stollman’s review of Deena R. Zimmerman’s A Lifetime Companion to the Laws of Jewish Family Life in Meorot 6 (2007), p. 5. I can’t imagine that women think that there is an advantage in having halakhic works written by other women if these works actually reduce female autonomy in intimate hilkhot niddah matters and require more consultation with male rabbis.

Marc B. Shapiro, “Answers to Quiz Questions and Other Comments, part 2”, The Seforim Blog (25 March 2012) {}

This extensive commentary tradition had a further effect of considerable import: By and large, the commentaries to Karo’s Shulhan ‘arukh that appeared on the printed page were written by Ashkenazic rabbis; the Sephardic commentaries did not usually appear alongside the text. In this intensified Ashkenization of a Sephardic text, one can find a larger trace of one of the central shifts from the early modern to the modern in Jewish history, a shift that has parallels in the transformation of Lurianic Kabbalah by the founders of Hasidism in the eighteenth century and one that is undergirded by a massive demographic transformation of Jewish populations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When Karo wrote the Shulhan ‘arukh, the Jews of the Ottoman Empire were among the largest Jewish communities in the early modern world. When Gombiner wrote his commentary a century later, this demographic profile was beginning to change; and when Israel Meir ha-Kohen composed his in the nineteenth century, the Jews of the Levant were but a small minority of the world’s Jewish population.

Yaacob Dweck, “What is a Jewish Book?” AJS Review 34:2 (November 2010), 371.

R. Yisrael Meir Ha-Cohen’s Sefer Chafetz Chayim is the only major work that touches on these issues, though it does not, to my knowledge, discuss newspapers explicitly. There has not been much debate concerning the arguments made by R. Yisrael Meir Ha-Cohen in his classic work, which surprises me. That is not to denigrate, Heaven forbid, the scholarship of the Chafetz Chayim; but, in Halakhah, all the great works are debated and challenged. Challenging the arguments made in a halakhic work is often a sure sign of its enduring relevance.

Michael Pershan, “Halakhic Values of Journalism,” Responsibility Inscribed, vol. 1 (2012), 34.

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.

…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.