The Major Halachic CodesThe Codes are similar to the Torah because divergence occurs: Even though the halakha is sorted and classified, there is no single way to observe it. Code divergenace is psychographic – it is driven by lifestyle considerations, which in turn were originally based on where the Jewish community was situated. Asian lifestyles, for example, are different than European ones, and this is reflected in the Codes. It’s an interesting paradox:
The Talmudic drive for standardisation has brought us right back to the beginning – there is no standard way to accomplish the halakha. This was the hallmark feature of the first halakhic system: Midrash halakha.
The Mishneh Torah
Mishneh Torah was the original codification of Talmudic law into a user friendly format. Mishneh Torah treats all halakha, without consideration to its applicability. Compiled by Rambam (an acronym from Rabénu Moshe Ben Maimon) in the 12th century, the halakhot in Mishne Torah are gathered from wherever they occur in the Talmud and placed into 14 classifications. It is thus called Yad, from the Hebrew number 14 (which also means “hand”). Rambam remains the only scholar to also attempt a classification of halakhot by indexing the mitzvot of Torah. The Yad is brilliant. It also has major deficiencies. Rambam’s contemporaries were aghast that he did not include his sources and precedents, a feature of Torah Shelbapeh which began with Midrash 1700 years earlier. Another problem is the panoramic scope of the Yad. Without scholarly attention to the Torah text as well the Yad cannot be used to conclusively determine the mitzva behind the halakha. Rambam’s sources remain mysterious nearly 1000 years later. Commentaries are still compiled to track his sources.
The Arba Turim
Arba Turim, simply called Tur, was the first Code to sort, rather than index, the halakha. The Tur is organised into four sections: These treat daily religious observances (Orekh Haha’im – OH), essential religious observances which require Rabbinic attention (Yoreh Déah – YD), family law (Eben Ha’ezer – EH), and municipal law (Hoshen Mishpat – HM). Tur’s flexibility made it the ideal source text for all further halakhic codification. These sections are used also by the Shulhan Arukh which remains, more than 400 years after it was compiled, the primary code of Jewish tradition today.
Shulhan Arukh (SA) was compiled by Yosef Karo. It uses Tur’s divisions and combines Tur’s flexibility with a concise digest of the halakha. It deals only with practical halakha, unlike Mishneh Torah. It rejects the authority of the Zohar as an arbiter of halakha. The digest is quite concise and the Mapa commentary completes, where appropriate, missing thoughts and citations. It also states the Ashkenazi minhag, as it was understood in Poland. Other versions of the minhag are found in Germany, Hungary, and Russia. The SA is a digest but it remains a scholar’s resource.
We’ll look at scholarly SA compilations below, but first let’s look at some popular halakhic compendia – Mé’am Loéz, Qitzur Shulhan Arukh and Ben Ish Hai. Mé’am Loéz is the most extensive of these. It is an encyclopedia of halakha, agada and the minhag Sefarad (as it was known in Turkey), disguised as a commentary on Tenakh.
The Torah commentary was begun in 1730 by Rabbi Yaqov Kuli, a leading Turkish rabbi, who completed all of Bréshit and most of Shmot before he died. This partial effort was so popular that others were sought to complete the work R. Kuli began. The Torah series inspired many Sefaradim to become religously observant. It was completed in 1772. The remaining volumes are based on the Prophets and Wrtings and were completed over the course of the 19th century.
We need one more article to fully discuss this, which we will do in the next section.