The legal code known as the Shulkhan Arukh, compiled by the great Sephardic rabbi Joseph Caro in the mid1500s, is still the standard legal code of Judaism. When rabbis, particularly if they are Orthodox, are asked to rule on a question of Jewish law, the first volume they consult generally is the Shulkhan Arukh. A major reason for its universal acceptance is that it was the first code to list the differing customs and laws of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewry. (Maimonides’s earlier Mishneh Torah, for example, contained only the legal rulings of Sephardic Jewry, which differed in certain areas from European Jewry’s practices.)
This unique feature was not intended by Joseph Caro, but came about through a happy coincidence. At the very time that Caro was compiling his code, a similar undertaking was being planned by Rabbi Moses Isserles of Poland. Isserles, known in Jewish life as the Rama, was thrown into some despair when he first heard about Caro’s work, for he knew Caro to be a greater scholar than himself. Nonetheless, he soon realized that both Caro’s legal code and his own would not by themselves meet the needs of all Jews. Thus, the Shulkhan Arukh was published with Caro’s rulings listed first, and Isserles’s dissents and addenda included in italics.
The Shulkhan Arukh is divided into four volumes:
1. Orakh Hayyim-laws of prayer and of holidays.
2. Yoreh Deah-diverse laws, including those governing charity (tzedaka), Torah study and the Jewish dietary laws.
3. Even haEzer-laws concerning Jewish marriage and divorce.
4. Khoshen Mishpat-Jewish civil law.
To this day, rabbinic ordination (semikha) usually is given to a student only after he has been examined on the Shulkhan Arukh, particularly on those sections that deal with kashrut (dietary laws). More than rote knowledge of the Shulkhan Arukh’s rulings, however, is expected. A popular Jewish folktale tells of a young student who came to a prominent rabbi to be tested for ordination. The rabbi’s first question was “Name the five volumes of the Shulkhan Arukh.”
The student, thinking that the rabbi had made a slip of the tongue, named the four volumes, but the rabbi asked him to name the fifth.
“There is no fifth volume,” the student said.
“There is indeed,” the rabbi said. “Common sense is the fifth volume, and if you don’t have it, all your rulings will be of no use, even if you know the other four volumes by heart.”
The Shulkhan Arukh’s exhaustive presentation of the details of Jewish law is suggested by the following, taken from the section listing the laws of Torah study, in which Caro gives directives to both teachers and pupils:
“The rabbi should not be angry with his pupils if they do not understand but he should repeat the matter over and over again until they grasp the proper depth of the law. The pupil should not say that he understands when he does not but should ask over and over again. And if the rabbi is angry with him he should say, ‘Rabbi, it is the Torah and I want to know it, but my mind is inadequate”‘ (Yoreh Deah 246:10).
Source: Jewish Literacy