Thirty-two authorities, beginning with the Talmud and ending with the works of Rabbi Israel Isserlein (the Terumath ha-Deshen), are briefly summed up and critically discussed in Beth Yosef. No other rabbinical work compares with it in wealth of material. Karo evidences not only an astonishing range of reading, covering almost the whole of rabbinic literature, but also very remarkable powers of critical investigation. He shows no disposition to accept blindly the opinions of the ancient authorities, notwithstanding his great respect for them.
In the introduction to his monumental compilation, Karo clearly states the necessity of and his reasons for undertaking such a work. The expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian peninsula and the invention of printing endangered the stability of religious observances on their legal and ritual sides. By the 15th century, Jews in Spain and Portugal were under two main traditions: the older tradition of Maimonides, whose school of thought is heir to the Talmudic academies of Babylonia; and the Ashkenazi school of the Tosafot whose tradition is based on independent casuistry (pilpul) methodology that was developed in France and Germany and sought to justify the "customs of the country". Jews then living in the different kingdoms of Spain had their standard authorities to which they appealed. The most prominent of these were Maimonides, whose opinions were accepted in Andalusia, Valencia and the Near East; Nahmanides and Solomon ben Adret, whose opinions were accepted in Catalonia; and Asher ben Jehiel and his family, of German origin, whose opinions were accepted in Castile. When the Spanish-Portuguese exiles came to the various communities in the East and West, where usages entirely different from those to which they had been accustomed prevailed, the question naturally arose whether the newcomers, the majority of whom were men of greater learning than the members of the host communities, should be ruled by the latter, or vice versa. The increase of printed books, moreover, spread the products of halakhic literature; so that many half-educated persons, finding themselves in possession of legal treatises, felt justified in following any ancient authority at will. Karo undertook his Beth Yosef to remedy this evil, quoting and critically examining in his book the opinions of all the authorities then known.
The Shulchan Aruch is largely a codification of the rulings in Beth Yosef, divided normally into the chapters (simanim) of the Tur and further subdivided into paragraphs (se'ifim).
Several reasons induced Karo to connect his work with the "Tur", instead of Maimonides' code. In the first place, the "Tur", although not considered so great an authority as Maimonides' code, was much more widely known; the latter being recognized only among the Spanish Jews, while the former enjoyed a high reputation among the Ashkenazim and Sephardim, as well as the Italian Jews. Secondly, it was not Karo's intention to write a code similar in form to Maimonides' work; he intended to give not merely the results of his investigations, but also the investigations themselves. He wished not only to aid the officiating rabbi in the performance of his duties, but also to trace for the student the development of particular laws from the Talmud through later rabbinical literature. Unlike the Tur, Maimonides' code included discussions of almost all fields of Jewish law, practical, and non-practical (such as laws of sacrifices, Messiah, Kings, etc). For Karo, being mostly interested in writing on the practical issues, the Tur was therefore a better choice.
Karo wrote the Shulchan Aruch in his old age, for the benefit of those who did not possess the education necessary to understand the Beth Yosef. The arrangement of this work is the same as that adopted by Jacob ben Asher in his Arba'ah Turim, but more concise; nor are any authorities given. This book, which for centuries was, and essentially still is, "the code" of rabbinical Judaism for all ritual and legal questions that obtained after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, has a remarkable history. The author himself had no very high opinion of the work, remarking that he had written it chiefly for "young students" (Shulchan Aruch, Introduction). He never refers to it in his responsa, but always to the Beth Yosef. The Shulchan Aruch achieved its reputation and popularity not only against the wishes of the author, but, curiously enough, through the very scholars who attacked it.
The history of the Shulchan Aruch is, in a way, identical with the history of rabbinical literature in Poland for a period of two centuries. Recognition or denial of Karo's authority lay entirely with the Polish Talmudists. German Jewish authorities had been forced to give way to Polish ones as early as the beginning of the sixteenth century; and in the last third of that century Judaism in eastern Europe had become so entirely absorbed in the new Kabbalistic school of Isaac Luria that the study of the Talmud was greatly neglected. Karo was opposed in Eastern Europe only by his contemporaries, Yom-Tob Zahalon, who designated the Shulchan Aruch as a book for "children and ignoramuses" (in his responsa, no. 67, beginning), and Jacob Castro, whose work Erech ha-Shulchan consists of critical glosses to the Shulchan Aruch. Isserles and Solomon Luria were Karo's first important adversaries.
The "Rema" (Moses Isserles) started writing his commentary on the Tur, Darkhei Moshe, at the same time as Yosef Karo. Karo finished his work "Beis Yosef" first, and it was first presented to the Rema as a gift from one of his students. Upon receiving the gift, the Rema went into a depression and could not understand how he had spent so many years in vain. After looking through the Beis Yosef, the Rema realized that Karo used mostly Sephardic poskim.
In place of Karo's three standard authorities, Isserles brings forward "the later authorities" (chiefly based on the works of Yaakov Moelin, Israel Isserlein and Israel Bruna, together with the Franco-German Tosafists) as criteria of opinion (Darkhei Mosheh to Yoreh De'ah, 35). While the Rosh on many occasions based his decision on these sources, Isserles gave them more prominence in arriving at practical law.
After realizing this, the Rema shortened his work, Darkhei Moshe, on Tur relating only to those points which differ from Beis Yosef.
The halachic rulings in the Shulchan Arukh usually follow the Sephardic custom. The Rema added his glosses and published them as a comment to the Shulchan Aruch, specifying whenever the Sephardic and Ashkenazic custom differ. These glosses are referred to as the 'mapach,' literally the 'tablecloth' to the Shulchan Aruch's 'Set Table.' Almost all published editions of the Shulchan Aruch include this gloss.
The importance of the minhag ("prevailing local custom") is also a point of dispute between Karo and Isserles: while Karo held fast to original authorities and material reasons, Isserles considered the minhag as an object of great importance, and not to be omitted in a codex. This point, especially, induced Isserles to write his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch, that the customs (minhagim) of the Ashkenazim might be recognized, and not be set aside through Karo's reputation.
Many rabbis criticised the appearance of this latest code of Jewish law, echoing similar criticisms of previous codes of law.
The Maharal writes in Netivoth Olam:
Other prominent critics of the Shulchan Aruch included Rabbi Yoel ben Shmuel Sirkis (author of a commentary to the Arba'ah Turim titled Bayith Chadash, commonly abbreviated as Bach) and Rabbi Meir ben Gedaliah. The strongest criticism against all such codes of Jewish law is that they inherently violate the ancient precept that halakha must be decided according to the later sages; this precept is known as hilkheta ke-vatra'ei ("the halakha follows the later ones"). Rabbi Menachem Elon writes:
The question suggests itself why the Shulchan Aruch became an authoritative code, in spite of opposition and against the will of its author, while Maimonides' Mishneh Torah found no acceptance among the Franco-German Jews, owing to Abraham ben David's criticism and influence. The answer may lie in the fact that the criticism by Rabad destroyed confidence in Maimonides' work, while Isserles was not content only to criticize, but supplemented Karo's work extensively, with the result that the Ashkenazim then accepted the Shulchan Aruch, assuming that in its corrected form it was an unquestionable authority.
Since the 17th century, the Shulchan Aruch has been printed with Isserles' annotations in small print interspersed with Karo's text. As the commentaries on the work proliferated, more sophisticated printing styles were required, similar to those of the Talmud.
References are given in two ways; those to the Shulchan Aruch are found in the later work Be'er ha-Golah, and those to Isserles' work are in brackets after the latter's comments. There is disagreement on the authorship of the references to Isserles' remarks, as they are occasionally incorrect.
A large body of commentaries has appeared on the Shulchan Aruch. The first, Sefer Me'irath Enayim (on Choshen Mishpat, abbreviated as Sema) appeared several decades after the main work. Important works by the later authorities (acharonim) are:
A wealth of other later works includes Ketzoth ha-Choshen and Avnei Millu'im, Netivoth ha-Mishpat, the additions of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Yechezkel Landau (Dagul Mervavah), Rabbi Akiva Eger and Rabbi Moses Sofer.
In the late 18th century, there were several attempts to recompile the major halakhic opinions into a simpler, more accessible form.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi wrote a Shulchan Aruch at the behest of the Hasidic leader, Rabbi Dovber of Mezeritch. To distinguish this work from Karo's, it is now known as Shulchan Arukh Harav. Rabbi Abraham Danzig was the first in the Lithuanian Jewish community to attempt a summary of the opinions in the abovementioned works in his Chayei Adam and Chochmath Adam. Similar works are Ba'er Heitev and Sha'arei Teshuvah/Pitchei Teshuvah as well as Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (by Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried of Hungary). Danzig's and Ganzfried's works do not follow the structure of the Shulchan Aruch, but given their single-voice approach, are considered easier to follow for those with less background.
The Mishna Berura, the main work of halakha by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (the "Chafetz Chaim") is a collation of the opinions of later authorities on Orach Chayim. Aruch HaShulchan, by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, is a more analytical work attempting the same task from a different angle. The former, though narrower in scope, enjoys much wider popularity and is considered authoritative by many adherents of Orthodox Judaism, especially among those closely associated with Ashkenazi yeshivas. The Ben Ish Chai, Kaf Ha'Chaim, and more recently, the Yalkut Yosef are similar works by Sephardic Rabbis for their communities.