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Jewish Commentators — Their Lives and Works

 

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Yosef ben Ephraim Karo
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Hebrew Name(s): יוסף קארו
Other Names: Joseph Karo, Joseph ben Ephraim Caro, Maran, Ha-Mechaber
Period: Acharonim — 16th Century
Location: Spain, Turkey and Palestine.
Dates: 1488–1575

Biography:
Joseph (Yosef) ben Ephraim Karo was a codifier of halakhah and nephew of R. Yitzhak (Isaac) Karo. He was born in Toledo and, as a young child, was forced to flee Spain after the Spanish expulsion of Jews in 1492. The family settled in Portugal but were once again forced to flee in 1497. The Karo's settled in Nicopolis, Bulgaria and it was here that the young Joseph began his studies under his father.
 
Joseph Karo later settled in Adrianople where it is thought he met Solomon Molcho who introduced him to the mystical life. This interest in mysticism is probably the reason why Karo later moved to Safed, Palestine in c. 1535, travelling via Salonica and Constantinople. Throughout his life, Karo believed he was guided by a heavenly mentor, the Mishnah personified, described by others (e.g., Shlomo Alkabetz) as an angelic teacher who revealed kabbalistic teachings to him.
 
In Safed, Karo became a student of Rabbi Joseph Berab (Beirav) and was greatly influenced by him, becoming a supporter on the restitution of semicha (rabbinical ordination, which had been in abeyance for 11 centuries). Berab  appointed Karo as a member of the Beit Din in Safed. Karo was ordained by Berab.
 
Karo established a yeshivah in Safed and, after the death of R. Berab, succeeded him (with Rabbi Moses of Trani) as head of the Rabbinical Court or Safed, which was, at that time, the central rabbinical court of all Israel and held in the highest esteem by the Diaspora ad well. Karo remained in this position for over 35 years. Karo sought to continue to support the restitution of semicha by ordaining his pupil Moses Alshich. However, because was convinced he could not overcome opposition to semicha Karo gave up his championing of it.
 
One of Joseph Karo's earliest works was Kesef Mishnah which was a an explanation of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah in which he explained and cited the Rambam's sources.
 
Joseph Karo's most famous works are Beit Yosef and the Shulḥan Arukh. Much of his work was not published before his death and some e.g., a commentary on the Mishnah and supercommentaries on Rashi's and Naḥmanides' commentaries on the Torah are now lost.
 
Joseph Karo passed away in Safed, Palestine, March 24, 1575 (on 13th Nisan 1575) and is buried in the Safed cemetery.

Works:
Beit Yosef; Shulḥan Arukh; Kesef Mishnah; Bedek ha-Bayit; Kelalei ha-Talmud; Avkat Rochel; Maggid Meisharim; Derashot

Comments:
Beit Yosef is a commentary on Arba’ah Turim (Jacob ben Asher) which was the contemporary work of Jewish law in his days.
Originally intended as a commentary on the four Turim of Jacob ben Asher, the book soon grew far beyond the bounds of a commentary, since it showed the sources of the writer, cited proof passages for all his decisions from both Talmuds and other Halachic writings, and adjusted and expanded these by means of the decisions of other authorities of the post-Talmudic period.
Beit Yosef was published in four parts—(i., ii.) Venice, 1550-1551; (iii., iv.) Sabbionetta, 1553-59.
 
The Shulḥan Aruch is a condensation of his decisions in Beit Yosef, originally written for those who were not educated enough to understand Beit Yosef. Karo himself did not reference it, continuing to refer to Beit Yosef. The code has become the central code for decisions of ritual and legal questions. Karo, a Sephardic Jew, had raised questions and challenges for Jews in Eastern Europe and it was the work of Moses Isserles (Rema), who added glosses which noted where Sephardic and Ashkenazic customs differed, which helped to make the Shulḥan Aruch accepted in both the Sephardic and Ashkenazi worlds. Since the 17th Century the Shulḥan Aruch has been printed with Isserles’ annotations in small print interspersed with Karo’s text. (Published in four parts, Venice, 1564–5)
In the Shulhan Aruch Caro presents the conclusions which he reached in his more comprehensive study. It is a compendium of the religious practices of the Jews, and became the standard, authoritative source for Judaism, remaining unchallenged until the rise of Reform Judaism. The material is presented in short, pithy sentences, suitable for the ready comprehension of all who may consult his code. (Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 3 p. 50)
 
Kesef Mishneh is a commentary on Mishneh Torah by Maimonides, which is now a standard commentary on part of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah.  In Kesef Mishnah, Karo gives proofs by sources, as he did in Beit Yosef, thus providing Maimonides' work with references and defending them against the attacks of Abraham ben David (RaBaD). Kesef Mishneh was written as a complement to the Maggid Mishneh of Vidal of Tolosa Kesef Mishneh is a commentary on Mishneh Torah by Maimonides, which is now a standard commentary on part of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. Kesef Mishneh was written as a complement to the Maggid Mishneh of Vidal of Tolosa (Venice, 1574–75).
 
Bedek ha-Bayit contains supplements and corrections to Beit Yosef and either refutes criticism regarding Beit Yosef or takes them into consideration in his discussions.
 
Kelalei ha-Talmud deals with the methodology of the Talmud.
 
Avkat Rochel is a collection of Responsa which concern religious law or dealing with civil law.
 
Maggid Meisharim (Preacher of Righteousness) is a mystical diary in which Karo recorded the nocturnal visits of an angelic being (his heavenly mentor whom he understood to be the personification of the Mishnah.) "Mishnah" came to help Karo solve the difficult problems of the law and to keep him form in an ascetic way of life. The work was never meant for publication but was printed after Karo's death. (Lublin, 1646).
 
Karo's Derashot, a consists of speeches published in the collection 'Oz Ẓaddiḳim (The Power of the Righteous). (Salonica, 1799)

 

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