We are going to tell you of a man, who perhaps more than any other single person shaped our practical every day life. He is the author of a gigantic work, which even to this day-more than six hundred years later-is still studied by the students and authorities of Jewish law. For this work, of which we shall speak later in greater detail, is the basis of the Shulchan Aruch ("Prepared Table"), the standard code of Jewish law throughout the world, and through the ages.

The name of this great man is Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, and the name of his great work is Tur. The author is simply known as "Baal Haturim" meaning "Author of the Turim" (see explanation further on).

Rabbi Jacob ben Asher was born in Germany about seven hundred years ago. His illustrious father, Rabbi Asher ben Jehiel, famous as the ROSH, was one of the greatest Talmudists of his day. He was a disciple of the famous Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, leader of German Jewry, who was imprisoned by the German government and held for ransom. Count Meinhard of Goitz, then head of the government, would have none but Rabbi Asher as surety for the raising of the ransom money. Rabbi Meir, however, forbade his people to ransom him, in order not to encourage the governors of other places to imprison Jewish scholars and leaders for ransom. While Rabbi Asher and the Count negotiated for the release of Rabbi Meir, and Rabbi Asher tried to raise the huge sum from the various Jewish communities in Germany, Rabbi Meir died in prison. Rabbi Asher now considered the negotiations as null and void, but the governor still demanded the ransom money and held Rabbi Asher responsible for it. Rabbi Asher, therefore, had to flee from Germany, and he successfully made his escape together with his family, among whom was Rabbi Jacob, then still a young boy.

For many years before this happened, German Jewry had suffered terrible persecution and massacres, with the result that the great Talmud academies were slowly being destroyed. With the departure of Rabbi Asher from that country, a great period of Talmudic study in Germany came to an end. But it began to flourish anew in Spain, where Rabbi Asher finally settled. The Jewish community of Toledo accepted the German refugee as its chief rabbi. He immediately set up a Yeshivah there, and he, with his children after him, exerted a strong influence upon Jewish life and scholarship in Spain, as well as elsewhere.

After the death of Rabbi Asher, his son Judah succeeded to his post. He, too, became famous for his zeal to spread the knowledge of the Torah throughout the province of Castile, and his influence was felt far and wide. But Rabbi Judah was overshadowed by the great figure of his younger brother, Rabbi Jacob.

As a child, Rabbi Jacob was taught by his famous father. He was completely immersed in his studies. He had witnessed the cruelties of his non-Jewish neighbors and government officials, and only in the study of the Torah could he find comfort and peace.

Under the guidance of his father, Rabbi Jacob became fully acquainted with the entire Talmud and commentaries, especially with the works of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides) who lived less than a hundred years before him. He studied the Talmud discussions and decisions of the great German, French and Spanish scholars, which he was later to harmonize into his major life work.

Very little is known of Rabbi Jacob's private life. It is known that he lived in great poverty, although he was well known as a great scholar. He refused to accept any paid rabbinical post, which would have diverted his attention from the study of the Torah and Talmud. His father had lost practically all his possessions when he fled from Germany, and upon his death had little to leave to his children in the way of material things. Rabbi Jacob ben Asher could not even afford special garments for: the holy Sabbath and holidays, or special food in honor of these holy days. But all this did not worry him, for he truly led a saintly life. The only thing that took him away from his studies and writings was his effort to help the poor and needy. Although he had no money to give to them, he did not spare his time or effort, and used his influence to raise funds for those whose poverty was their greatest misfortune.

Wishing to make it easier for his brethren to acquire knowledge of Jewish law, so that they could regulate their daily life according to the Torah, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher decided to create a uniform code for his people.

First, however, he prepared a digest of his father's notes on the Talmud, the "Piskei HoRosh" (Decisions of the Rosh). Using this as an authority, together with the Rambam's "Mishne Torah", which in turn was based on the traditions of the Geonim and other forerunners, such as the RIF (Rabbi Isaac Alfasi) and others, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher molded all this vast knowledge into one comprehensive code. But unlike the code of the Rambam which included all phases of Jewish life both in the Holy Land and in Exile, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher concentrated on every aspect of Jewish life in Exile, both of the individual and the community. There is also another difference between the two great codes. The Rambam devotes much attention to the basic Jewish ideology and philosophy, in an effort to strengthen it against foreign influences, while Rabbi Jacob's work is almost exclusively interested in the practical side of Jewish life and in its regulation according to the law of the Torah. He touches but briefly upon the various aspects of ethics and the Jewish view of life.

Rabbi Jacob ben Asher divided all the laws into four divisions, called in Hebrew Arba Turim ("Four Rows"), after the four rows of jewels in the breastplate of the High Priest.

The first, Tur Orach Chaim ("Way of Life"), deals with the laws and precepts of the Jew's daily life, including the Sabbath and festivals, the prayers and the Mitzvoth which one has to observe every day.

The second, Tur Yore Deah ("Teacher of knowledge"), deals mainly with the laws of kashruth, shechitah and all questions of the Jewish dietary laws. It also contains the laws of idolatry, vows, charity, the study of the Torah, laws of mourning, etc.

Tur Even Haezer ("Stone of Help") contains the laws of marriage and divorce and Jewish family life.

Tur Choshen Mishpat (Breastplate of Judgment") is a code of Jewish civil and criminal law.

It should be also mentioned that unlike the Rambam, who simply gave a final decision without discussion, the Turim quote the views of many Poskim, (codifiers), and many customs which acquired the force of law.

The Arba Turim are the standard reference books of rabbis and scholars to this very day. Their clear and simple style makes them highly popular and understandable.

Rabbi Jacob ben Asher also wrote a commentary on the Torah, which shows his deep knowledge of the secrets of the Torah. His commentary, in abbreviated form, is generally printed together with most standard Chumashim, under the name of "Baal Haturim." It is a treasure chest of hidden meanings which he discovered in the letters and words of the holy text, through combinations, numerical additions, etc., showing the profound depth of the Torah.