One Generation From Another

It’s one thing to build a structure and another to maintain it. More than 1400 years are invested in uncovering halacha up to the early modern age. We have met the Tanna’im (2nd-3rd century), the Amora’im (3rd-5th century), the Geonim (5th-7th century) and the Savora’im (8th century). We have met the Rishonim, the Talmudic masters who tamed the Gemara into useful, working halacha; here we meet their successors.

The Aharonim

Alexander Falk (Sefer Mé’irat Éna’im; Sma)

A student of Rema and a 16th century Polish authority. The commentary is on SA Hoshen Mishpat, which concerns rules of court, dispute resolution, civil liability, and criminal law. He addresses the commentary to posqim who make decisions on the basis of the SA alone without consideration of the sources. The Sma is a bridge which links the Tur and SA, and arbitrates between positions of Rema and the Mich’aber when they differ. Falk wrote also responsa and Quntres al Ha’Ribit, a collection of taqanot promulgated by the Council of Four Lands on usury.

Avraham Abele Gombiner (Magen Avraham)

A 17th century Polish authority. The commentary treats SA Orah Ha’Haim, which concerns daily ritual observances. The Magen Avraham’s main purpose is to reconcile differences between the Mich’aber and Rema. Where this is not possible he accepts Rema because it reflects the Ashkenazi custom. He appreciated the Zohar and thought highly of the Ari Zal (Ytzhak Luria) and Yeshiahu Horowitz (author of Shné Luhot Habrit, a basic mystical work of the 16th century), both of whom were leading Ashkenazi mequbalim of Tzfat (Sefad).

David Ben-Shmuél (Turé Zahav; Taz)

A 17th century Polish authority and, with Bakh and Shakh one of the three major commentators on SA. The Taz treats all of SA and is most influential on SA Yoreh Déah, which concerns ritual matters that require Rabbinic attention. Taz comments, in an appendix, on the criticism of the Shakh (Sifté Kohén, commentary by Shabbetai b Meir on the SA). Taz was a liturgical poet; he composed slichot after the Chmielnicki pogroms. He was a member of the Council of Four Lands. He signed many of the regulations it issued.

Shabbetai Ben-Meir (Shakh)

A 17th century Polish authority who was forced to emigrate to Moravia (what is now the eastern portion of the Czech Republic) by the Chmielnicki pogroms in Poland. A Talmudic and halakhic authority and a major commentator on the SA, Shakh opposed the SA because it did not cite the Talmudic sources. His commentary provides these sources and disputes the decisions of the Mich’aber. In doing so the Shakh gives voice to contrary opinions and this legitimises the SA for serious halakhic study. Shakh covers Yoreh Déah and Hoshen Mishpat, which respectively concern matters requiring Rabbinic and judicial attention.

Yoel Sirkes (Bayit Hadash; Bakh)

Bakh presumes that halakhic codes should not supercede study of the original sources. A 17th century authority in Poland, Sirkes wrote the Bakh as a supercommentary: it methodically analyses Tur in light of the Bét Yosef and Darkhé Moshe commentaries, traces sources, and arbitrates conflicting opinions. Sirkes made some controversial decisions. He was not opposed to qol isha (women singing in public) and did not object to secular music in the synagogue if it had universal appeal. He was a mystic but rejected qabbala when it conflicted with halakha.

Moshe Isserles (Rema)
A 16th century Polish authority and the primary commentator on SA, which can be easily understood without Rema; his main contribution generally is to complete the Mich’aber’s stream of thought by adding parenthetical remarks which logically close what might otherwise remain open. His specific contribution is to add the minhag of the Polish Ashkenazim. He also adds sources from the Bét Yosef which the Mich’aber left out, as well as other works cited when appropriate. He was on friendly terms with Karo, who sent him on old manuscript on sofrut, from which Rema wrote a sefer Torah. Rema was widely consulted on halakha and was considered “the Rambam of Poland.” He founded a yeshiva in which the next generation’s Polish Ashkenazi Rabbinic leadership learned Shulchan Arukh. It was through their efforts, in many instances, that the SA became authoritative.

Yosef Karo

An eminent mystic and halakhic commentator of the 16th century in the Holy City of Tzfat in Israel, Karo authored the foremost halakhic authority of the modern age. From his time on the halakhic authorities are called Aharonim (Later Scholars). He was born in Spain, but wandered through Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece, before he settled Tzfat He was the first musmakh of his master Yaqov Berab, who attempted to restore the Sanhedrin The Shulhan Arukh follows the order of Tur It is divided up into the same four main topics, each of which is divided major articles and paragraphs The origins are in Bét Yosef, a detailed commentary on Tur in which R Yosef carefully examines Tur and highlights the Talmudic sources and works cited The Shulhan Arukh summarizes the conclusions of the Beit Yosef.

These scholars were preceded by other giants, of course, and we will learn of them in the next unit. They are called the Rishonim.