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Overview: Halakhah

Although literacy rate among Jews was still very low, and only a few could read and write, the early modern period produced a number of influential rabbis and texts that shaped Judaism for centuries to come. One of the most notable creations of the period was the Shulhan `Arukh. Although initially written as an aid for rabbinic students in modern times, it became the established code of Jewish law. The Shulhan `Arukh was written by Joseph Karo (1488-1575), a rabbi and kabbalist from Safed. It was first published in Venice in 1565. Karo based his compendium on an earlier code of Jewish law, Arba`a Turim (“the Tur”), on which he had written a commentary known as Beit Yosef. The basis for Karo’s rulings was Sephardic observance. Karo’s Shulhan `Arukh quickly reached Poland, where Moses Isserles (the ReM”A) (1529-1572), recognizing the value of the work, wrote a commentary on Karo’s code in which he set down Ashkenazic customs and practices, and annotated their halakhic sources.
The new edition of Shulkhan Arukh, complete with Isserles’s Mappa, was first published in Krakow in 1571, and was followed by numerous editions; in turn, this work stimulated the composition of further commentaries, such as Magen Avraham by Avraham Gombiner, a commentary the part of the Shulhan Arukh referred to as Orah Hayyim. This was not, of course, the only type of halachic literature produced in this period. Especially important were the many responsa, or rabbinic rulings, with the reasoning behind them, on difficult questions of Jewish law. While responsa had been written by rabbinic scholars for centuries, in the early modern period they became increasingly lengthy and complex, and a vast literature was created by the so-called aharonim of the print era, distinguished from the earlier responsa of the so-called rishonim.

The early modern period also saw the efflorescence of the so-called musar (hanhagah), or ethical, literature. Among the musar works published in this period were sermons and moralistic works like Ephraim Lunshits’ Keli Yakar, which detailed the perceived failings of Jewish society at the time.

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