Guide to Jewish Texts
what is it?
Shulchan Aruch means 'Prepared Table'. The Shulchan Aruch is the standard code of Jewish Law. As the name implies, it is written in a clear and concise style so that its contents are readily understood. The literate lay-person can quickly obtain a ruling on any law or practice (just as one can quickly obtain food from a laid table).
The Shulchan Aruch has four sections. They are:
Orah Chayim (Way of Life), which contains 697 chapters.
Yoreh Deah (Teaching Knowledge), which contains 403 chapters.
Even Ha'ezer (Stone of Help), which contains 178 chapters.
Choshen Mishpat (Breastplate of Judgement), which contains 597 chapters.
What is it about?
The Shulchan Aruch is a practical guide to Jewish life. Unlike the Mishneh Torah by Maimonides, the Shulchan Aruch does not seek to be fully comprehensive, and so does not detail laws that are seen as no longer valid since the destruction of the Temple. The Shulchan Aruch does however detail all the laws that still apply, and so is comprehensive for practical purposes. The four parts of the Shulchan Aruch are arranged as follows:
Orah Chayim (Way of Life) is about Tzitzit (ritual fringes) and Tefillin (phylacteries), prayers, synagogue, blessings, Shabbat and the festivals. This part of the Shulchan Aruch deals with most subjects that a lay person might need to know.
Yoreh Deah (Teaching Knowledge) deals with animal slaughter, Kashrut, idolatry, usury, ritual purity, vows, respect due to parents and teachers, kindness, circumcision, writing a Torah scroll, the sick and dying, mourning, and other similar subjects.
Even Ha'ezer (Stone of Help) is about marriage and divorce.
Choshen Mishpat (Breastplate of Judgement) deals with civil and criminal law.
The Shulchan Aruch details the customs and decisions of Sephardi Jews (from Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East). Like the Mishneh Torah, the Shulchan Aruch does not indicate sources, and only states final rulings.
Where does it come from? Who wrote it down?
The Shulchan Aruch was completed in 1555 by Joseph Caro (1488 - 1575 CE), a Spanish born scholar. Caro developed the Shulchan by editing material for his commentary on the fourteenth century Tur (Exploration) by Jacob Asher. Caro's extensive work, the Bet Yosef (House of Joseph), soon expanded to be far more than a commentary on Asher's Halachic work as it contained sources, proof passages, and introduced overlooked material. Caro abridged the Bet Yosef to form a compendium of Jewish law. As mentioned above in the discussion of the origins of Mishneh Torah, the question of whether the Shulchan Aruch is in some sense Divinely inspired depends upon the origins ascribed to the works it is ultimately based upon.
What do we do with it?
Few books of the Halachah have received such general recognition and comprehensive use as the Shulchan Aruch. Essentially, the Shulchan Aruch is the principal book of practical Jewish Law. The Shulchan Aruch contains differing views in some places, and doesn't always give only one answer to a question of law.
Because Caro was Sephardi (he was born in Spain), his opinions tended to recognise the Sephardi customs, and disregard Ashkenazi (Northern European) customs. Rabbi Mosses Isserles (1520-1572 CE), a Polish scholar known as the 'Rama', wrote a book that commonly takes his name - the'Rama'. The 'Rama'is more properly called the 'Mapa' (Tablecloth), or the 'Haggahot' (Glosses), and is to be used in conjunction with the Shulchan Aruch. This work records all the Ashkenazi customs, and is now included in the main text of the Shulchan Aruch. It is used by Ashkenazi Jews in ascertaining Jewish Law.
Solomon Ganzfried (1804-1886 CE) 'abridged' the Shulchan Aruch to produce the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Abridged 'Shulchan Aruch'). The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch gives prominence to the first part of the Shulchan Aruch as this contains those laws most frequently required for daily practice. 'Abridged Shulchan Aruch' is really something of a misnomer. Instead of merely attempting to reduce the standard Shulchan Aruch in size, the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch tends to be very stringent as it eliminates certain minority or alternate opinions, and promotes the more stringent views.
Israel Meir Kahan, 1838-1933 CE, commonly referred to as the Chofetz Chayim (Desirer of Life) wrote the Mishnah Berurah (Clear Teaching) which is a very famous commentary on the first part of the Shulchan Aruch. The Mishnah Berurah acts essentially as a guidebook to the Orah Chayim (Way of Life, the name of the first part of the Shulchan Aruch), and is published together with the text of that work and the Rama. The standard edition of the Mishnah Berurah also includes two other commentaries on Orah Chayim by other authors. It is the standard reference book in many Jewish homes to determine Jewish Law on everyday matters.
For some Jews, the Shulchan Aruch is very central to everyday life. Either directly or indirectly it gives them instruction for living their life. For others it is not, because they do not choose to live according to Halachah (Jewish Law), and so they relate to the Shulchan Aruch in a different way.
Because new situations arise all of the time as society evolves, commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch are continuously being written.
What does it look like?
What language is it in?
The Shulchan Aruch is written in Hebrew. In places, there are quotations from the Talmud in Aramaic. The language of the Shulchan Aruch is brief and clear, making it ideal for use as a reference work.
The Rama, Mishnah Berurah, and Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, are also in Hebrew. The Hebrew of the Mishnah Berurah and the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch is relatively modern.
If I want to read it...
There is no complete English translation of the Shulchan Aruch. The Mishneh Berurah (Clear Teaching) is available in an extensive translation issued by Feldheim publishers.
The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Abridged Shulchan Aruch) is translated by Chaim Goldin.
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