Tradition: Adapt or Adopt?

The Return Of Classification

The Arba Turim restored the Mishna’s order to the Gemara’s chaos. Halacha in the Mishna generally is found where you’d expect to find it. Halacha in the Gemara is not. The Tur’s greatest innovation is finding a way to classify halacha, and we still use his system 700 years later.

The Codes of Law

The Tur

R Yaqov needed to accomodate the fact that different communities had different customs. At no time since the Mishna were so many customs all considered correct; to arrive at a definitive halakaha he decided a matter by preferring Rif’s opinion unless it was disputed by Rambam or other noted posqim. He resolved these disputes by relying on the opinion of Rosh, since he was the latest poseq prior to Tur.

R Yaqov’s main innovation in Tur was how it organised the halakha. Halakha was indexed in one of three ways: to the mitzvot, to the Torah portion, or to the Talmudic tractate. Tur added a fourth: he classified halakha by subject matter, precisely how the Mishna overcame the same problem 1200 years earlier. Because the organisation preserved the chain of tradition by concisely noting diverse halakhic opinions before rendering his decision, Tur was the essential halakhic compendium for more than 200 years. Its form is still used today but its content was replaced by the decisions of R Yosef Karo in the late 16th century. This is called Shulhan Arukh.

Shulhan Arukh (SA)

The SA was no less controversial than Yad had been 400 years earlier. R Yosef Karo (also called Mich’aber – “author”) used Tur’s form but chose a content far more concise, sometimes too much so: the SA is actually a digest; the Mich’aber leaves out not only sources but also all other extraneous material found in the earlier compendia, such as ethical statements, Biblical indices and legal tests. But the SA is so concise that the contributions of Rema (Rav Moshe Isserles) in his Mapa commentary adds sources and even complete thoughts to the digest. Rema also added the customs of Ashkenaz to the SA.

The Mich’aber based his commentary, and its digest, on a novel method in which the decisions of Rif, Rambam and Rosh were compared When two of these three sources concurred, the halakha followed the majority opinion; a secondary method considers the opinions of five other posqim when a halakha is only debated by any two of Rif, Rambam and Rosh. This decision ignored the decisions of posqim after the 14th century. The SA has attracted many commentaries. We’ll not introduce the commentaries but rather focus on those who wrote them We’re going to proceed backwards in time – from the leading commentaries on the SA to the compilers of the earliest codes.

The Mich’aber is first among the Acharonim, the current rabbinic generation organized to interpret Jewish tradition. We’ll learn of them in the next unit.