Joseph ben Ephraim Karo
|Rabbi Joseph Karo|
Artistic conception of Karo's appearance
|Birth name||Joseph ben Ephraim Karo|
|Died||March 24, 1575
Joseph ben Ephraim Karo, also spelled Yosef Caro, or Qaro, (Toledo, 1488 – Safed, March 24, 1575) was author of the last great codification of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, which is still authoritative for all Jews pertaining to their respective communities. To this end he is often referred to as HaMechaber (Hebrew: "The Author") and as Maran (Aramaic: "Our Master").
Karo was born in Toledo, Spain in 1488. In 1492, aged four years old, he was forced to flee Spain with his family and the rest of Spanish Jewry because of Jewish expulsion from the Alhambra Decree and subsequently settled in Portugal. After the expulsion of the Jews from Portugal in 1497, the Ottomans invited the Jews to the Ottoman territory and Karo went with his parents to Nikopolis of the Ottoman Empire, and spent the rest of his life in the Ottoman Empire. In Nikopol, he received his first instruction from his father, who was himself an eminent Talmudist. He married, first, Isaac Saba's daughter, and, after her death, the daughter of Hayyim Albalag, both of these men being well-known Talmudists. After the death of his second wife he married the daughter of Zechariah Sechsel (or perhaps Sachsel), a learned and wealthy Talmudist.
Already as a young man, he gained a reputation as a brilliant Torah scholar. He began by writing an explanation on the Rambam's Mishneh Torah. He called his work the Kesef Mishnah. Here he cited and explained Rambam's sources.
After his first wife died at a young age, he married the daughter of Rabbi Issac Sabba. For a short while he lived in Nikopol, but decided to make his way to the Land of Israel so that he could immerse himself in its sanctity and complete his written works. Passing through Salonica, he met the great kabbalist Joseph Taitazak. He continued his journey to the Holy Land via Egypt and eventually settled in Safed.
At Safed he met Jacob Berab and was soon appointed a member of his rabbinical court. Berab exerted a great influence upon him, and Karo became an enthusiastic supporter of Berab's plans for the restitution of semicha (rabbinical ordination) which had been in abeyance for over 11 centuries. Karo was one of the first he ordained and after Berab's death, Karo tried to perpetuate the scheme by ordaining his pupil Moses Alshech, but he finally gave up his endeavors, convinced that he could not overcome the opposition to ordination. Karo also established a yeshiva where he taught Torah to over 200 students.
When Jacob Berab died, Karo was regarded as his successor, and together with Rabbi Moshe of Trani he headed the Rabbinical Court of Safed. In fact, by this time, the Rabbinical Court of Safed had become the central rabbinical court in all of Palestine, and indeed of the diaspora as well. Thus there was not a single matter of national or global importance that did not come to the attention and ruling of the Safed Beth Din. Its rulings were accepted as final and conclusive, and Karo's halachic decisions and clarifications were sought by sages from every corner of the diaspora. He came to be regarded as the leader of the entire generation
In a dramatic testimonial, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz testified that in Salonica, Karo had become one of the rare individuals who merited to be instructed by a maggid - a private angelic teacher who revealed to him many kabbalistic teachings. The maggid exhorted Karo to sanctify and purify himself, and he revealed to him events that would take place in the future. In Shaarei Kedusha, Rabbi Chaim Vital explains that visitation by a maggid is a form of Divine Inspiration (ruach hakodesh). The teachings of the maggid are recorded in his published work titled Maggid Meisharim, although Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai notes that only about one fiftieth of the manuscript was ever published, (see Works). However, in numerous places in Maggid Meisharim it is stated that, "I am the Mishna that speaks in your mouth," indicating that the Oral Torah itself (of which the Mishna is the fundamental part) spoke within him. (However, these two explanations are not necessarily contradictory—in the merit of the Mishna Karo constantly reviewed, he was worthy of an angelic teacher).
The Maggid promised him that he would have the merit of settling in the Land of Israel, and this promise was fulfilled. Another promise, that he would merit to die a martyr's death sanctifying God's Name like Rabbi Shlomo Molcho had merited, did not transpire for an unspecified reason.
His reputation during the last thirty years of his life was greater than that of almost any other rabbi since Maimonides. The Italian Azariah dei Rossi, though his views differed widely from Karo's, collected money among the rich Italian Jews for the purpose of having a work of Karo's printed; and Moses Isserles compelled the recognition of one of Karo's decisions at Kraków, although he thought Karo was wrong.
When some members of the community of Carpentras, France, believed themselves to have been unjustly treated by the majority in a matter relating to taxes, they appealed to Karo, whose letter was sufficient to restore to them their rights (Rev. Etudes Juives 18:133-136). In the East, Karo's authority was, if possible, even greater. His name heads the decree of excommunication directed against Daud, Joseph Nasi's agent; and it was Karo who condemned Dei Rossi's Me'or Enayim to be burned. Several funeral orations delivered on that occasion have been preserved (Moses Albelda, Darash Mosheh; Samuel Katzenellenbogen, Derashot), as well as some elegies from Karo's passing.
Karo published during his lifetime:
- Beth Yosef (בית יוסף), a commentary on Arba'ah Turim, the current work of Jewish law in his days. In this commentary Qaro shows an astounding mastery over the Talmud and the legalistic literature of the Middle Ages. He felt called upon to systematize the laws and customs of Judaism in face of the disintegration caused by the Spanish expulsion.
- Shulchan Aruch (שולחן ערוך), a condensation of his decisions in Beth Yosef. Finished in 1555, this code was published in four parts in 1565. The work was not accepted without protest and criticism, but after the lapse of a century, and in consequence of certain revisions and amplifications, it became the almost unquestioned authority of the whole Jewish world.;
- Kesef Mishneh (כסף משנה) (Venice, 1574-5), a commentary of Mishneh Torah by Maimonides;
After his death there appeared:
- Bedek ha-Bayit (בדק הבית) (Salonica, 1605), supplements and corrections to Beth Yosef;
- Kelalei ha-Talmud (כללי התלמוד) (Salonica, 1598), on the methodology of the Talmud;
- Avkath Rochel (אבקת רוכל) (Salonica, 1791), Responsa
- Maggid Meisharim (מגיד מישרים) (Lublin, 1646), and supplements (Venice, 1646)
- Derashot (דרשות) (Salonica, 1799), speeches, in the collection 'Oz Tzaddikim'.
Karo's literary works are considered among the masterpieces of rabbinic literature. The Maggid Meisharim (1646; “Preacher of Righteousness”), another major work, a strange and mystical diary, is a kind of diary in which Karo during a period of fifty years recorded the nocturnal visits of an angelic being, his heavenly mentor, the personified Mishna (the authoritative collection of Jewish Oral Law). His visitor spurred him to acts of righteousness and even asceticism, exhorted him to study the Kabbala, and reproved him for moral laxities.
The discussions treat of various subjects. The maggid enjoins Karo to be modest in the extreme, to say his prayers with the utmost devotion, to be gentle and patient always. Especial stress is laid on asceticism; and Karo is often severely rebuked for taking more than one glass of wine, or for eating meat. Whenever Karo did not follow the severe instructions of his maggid, he suddenly heard its warning voice. His mentor also advised him in family affairs, told him what reputation he enjoyed in heaven, and praised or criticized his decisions in religious questions. Karo received new ideas from his maggid in regard to the Kabbala only; such information was in the nature of sundry cabalistic interpretations of the Pentateuch, that in content, though not in form, remind one of the theories of Karo's pupil, Moses ben Jacob Cordovero.
The present form of the Maggid Meisharim shows plainly that it was never intended for publication, being merely a collection of stray notes; nor does Karo's son Judah mention the book among his father's works (Introduction to the Responsa). It is known, on the other hand, that during Karo's lifetime the kabalists believed his Maggid to be actually existent (compare Vital-Calabrese, Sefer ha-Gilgulim, pp. 119, 142, Vilna, 1885). The Maggid Meisharim, furthermore, shows a knowledge of Karo's public and private life that no one could have possessed after his death; and the fact that the maggid promises things to its favorite that were never fulfilled — e.g., a martyr's death — proves that it is not the work of a forger, composed for Karo's glorification.
Karo's mysticism was not speculative in nature; and he devoted time to the Kabbalah, his maggid often exhorted him not to neglect the study of it (Maggid Mesharim, p. 57b). The catastrophe that came upon the Pyrenean Jews made such an impression upon the minds of the best among them that many saw therein the signs of Messianic travail, (compare Jacob Berab); and Karo, according to a contemporary, took this dark view throughout his life. While men like Molkho and David Reubeni were led to commit extravagant and foolish deeds under the influence of this idea. Berab's and Karo's nobility of nature came to the fore. If Karo indulged in mystical visions, and, half dreaming, thought he heard heavenly voices in his soul, they served always as reminders to him that his life, his actions, and his accomplishments must surpass those of other people (ib. Toledot, p. 9; Azharot, p. 3b, and passim).
He died on the 13 Nisan 5335 (1575 CE) aged of 87.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.