New Torah Centers

The Talmud states that G‑d does not smite the Jewish people unless He has previously prepared a remedy. Great Torah centers, most notably in Eretz Israel, Turkey, and Poland, arose to replace the destruction of the Spanish communities. Indeed, the Spanish Expulsion marks the approximate beginning of the age of the Acharonim, or later Torah scholars. Jews universally recognized that the era of Torah scholarship of the caliber of the Rishonim had irrevocably passed. Consequently, virtually no Acharon of the last 500 years has disputed the words of a Rishon.


In the 1500s, the town of Safed in Eretz Israel hosted a great concentration of leading Torah luminaries.The town of Safed in Eretz Israel hosted a great concentration of leading Torah luminaries Scholars such as Rabbi Joseph Karo, Rabbi Isaac Luria (Arizal), Rabbi Chaim Vital, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Rabbi Jacob Berav, Rabbi Moshe Alshich, and Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (composer of the famous Sabbath song Lecha Dodi) made their home in this tiny hamlet in the north of Israel. Some of these scholars were among those expelled from Spain. As many of these sages were giants of Kabbalah, Safed became the major center of this kind of Torah study.

The Arizal

Rabbi Isaac Luria (1533-1572) has a unique distinction — he is the only person in Jewish history to have the appellation zal (Zichrono Libracha, of blessed memory) appended to his name. A glimpse of his greatness may be found in the words of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, quoting his teacher, the illustrious Gaon of Vilna: "What can we possibly say about G‑d's holy one, a man of G‑d, so holy and so fearsome, to whom mysteries of wisdom were revealed, and whose understanding wondrously grew ever greater from the time he merited the revelation of Elijah the Prophet?" Acknowledged as the greatest sage of his time, Arizal is considered the father of contemporary Kabbalah.

Kabbalah, which literally means "receiving," is the mystical understanding of the Torah that G‑d taught Moses at Sinai. Due to the possibility of spiritual harm coming to those who study it without the proper level of understanding, this discipline was carefully transmitted over the generations only to disciples deemed worthy of its revelation.

The primary Kabbalistic work is the Zohar, written by the Tanna Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. This book lay hidden for more than 1,000 years, until it was discovered by a 13th-century Spanish Kabbalist. However, by deeply expounding on its hidden secrets it was Arizal who brought the Zohar to the forefront of Jewish consciousness, and his thoughts became the basis of all subsequent study of Kabbalah. Although Arizal did not write down any of his teachings, his disciples, led by Rabbi Chaim Vital, recorded them for posterity. Arizal’s own prayer service, known as Nusach Ari, is based on Kabbalistic secrets and is followed today by Chabad Chassidim. Arizal passed away at 38, having accomplished an incredible amount in such a short lifetime.

Beginning in the Middle Ages, and especially after the times of Arizal, Kabbalah penetrated all areas of Jewish life, and in numerous cases even influenced halachic practice. As a measure of its influence, an entire avenue of JewishMany areas of Jewish observance are greatly influenced by Kabbalah thought opened up for masses of Jews, who although unable to plumb the depths of Kabbalah, nonetheless had their spiritual horizons broadened immeasurably. Through some of the darkest eras of the Jewish people, even up to current times, Kabbalah has fortified Jews with the realization that their sufferings had meaning and were part of a Divine plan for the rectification of the world. Today, many areas of Jewish observance are greatly influenced by Kabbalah, especially the laws and customs of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the elaborate ritual of preparing a body for burial (Taharah, or purification), and many funeral and bereavement practices.

Rabbi Joseph Karo and Bais Joseph

At age four, Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488-1575) left Spain with his family, settling in Turkey and growing up there. Reaching great spiritual heights, he was Divinely inspired to write a halachic work that would serve the needs of the Jewish people. Based on the Arbaah Turim written by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, Rabbi Karo’s massive Bais Joseph took 20 years to complete. Filling a crucial need, the multi-volume work systematically detailed all Jewish law, quoting all relevant opinions on a topic and rendering a final ruling based on consensus. During the creation of Bais Joseph, Rabbi Karo moved to Safed, where he finished the work.

Shulchan Aruch

Rabbi Karo also wrote the monumental Shulchan Aruch, patterned on the Bais Joseph and the Arbaah Turim. A compilation of all Torah laws applicable today, Shulchan Aruch is written in a much-shortened format, leaving out the debates and differing opinions. While both books spread quickly throughout the Jewish world, there were three criticisms of Bais Joseph and Shulchan Aruch. First, it was said that since Rabbi Karo was Sephardic, the books overly reflected that practice. Second, people could commit errors in Jewish practice by looking in the books and deciding law rather than consulting a rabbi. Third, Torah scholarship would become too easy if all the sources were laid out so plainly. The great Polish scholar Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Rema) addressed the first concern by adding notes to Shulchan Aruch where Ashkenazic practice differed. As far as the other concerns, with the passage of time people realized that rather than these books lessening Torah scholarship, they increased it, and that rabbis still had to be consulted for direction of proper practice. Indeed, so greatly accepted have Rabbi Karo’s works been that for centuries an observant Jew has been defined by strict adherence to the laws of Shulchan Aruch. Rabbi Karo also wrote Kesef Mishnah, a basic text for understanding Rambam's Mishnah Torah.

The Attempt to Revive Semicha

Semicha, rabbinic ordination, was instituted by Moses and transferred in an unbroken chain from teacher to student until the Fourth Century, when Roman persecution forced its cessation. More than a mere formality, this form of ordination is Biblically required for the Sanhedrin to convene and judge many types of cases, especially involving capital punishment and malkos, lashes. In 1538, based on a statement of RambamAn attempt was made to revive semicha that if a majority of sages of Eretz Israel wish to confer semicha on one of their colleagues they may do so (and that sage may grant semicha to those who bestowed it upon him), an attempt was made to revive semicha. In this manner, it was believed, the Sanhedrin could be reconstituted. Rabbi Jacob Berav, one of the great scholars of Safed, felt that the restoration of the Sanhedrin was necessary to deal with complicated halachic problems caused by the Spanish Expulsion, and to enhance the prestige of Torah scholars at such a traumatic time for the Jewish people. As such, Rabbi Jacob Berav received semicha from the rabbis of Safed, and then gave it to several scholars, including Rabbi Joseph Karo.

Rabbinic Opposition

Rabbi Jacob Berav's plan met with vehement opposition from many scholars, most notably Rabbi Levi Ben Chaviv (Ralbach), who although granted semicha by Rabbi Jacob Berav, refused to accept it. Ralbach opposed semicha for numerous reasons, including the fact that not all the rabbis in Eretz Israel had been consulted, especially those in Jerusalem and of Ashkenazic background. In addition, Ralbach said that Rambam's statement was his own personal opinion, as he himself stated, and might not be halachically reliable. Most important, reviving semicha was an innovation, and if the great scholars of the previous 1,000 years did not see fit to take such action, it should not be done at that time. This last argument continues to be a very powerful one, and is the major reason why new ideas and so-called improvements in Jewish practice, no matter how attractive they might appear, are not easily implemented. Shortly thereafter, semicha died out. (The semicha granted to rabbis today is only an acknowledgement that one has studied certain areas of Jewish law and is qualified to render halachic decisions.) By the end of the 1500s, Safed ceased being a Torah center, and many of its great scholars are buried in the famous cemetery nearby.