1. Its Hebrew Name Means ‘Set Table’

The Talmud contains 2,711 densely packed pages, full of involved discussions on all matters of Jewish law. In the years following its completion, countless comments, questions, and explanations were added by the various commentaries. Known in Hebrew as Shulchan Aruch (“Set Table”), the Code of Jewish Law lays out practical and concise instructions culled from the intricate web of Talmudic deliberation and rabbinic commentaries that come along with it.

2. Its Current Form Is a Hybrid of Seperate Texts Authored By Two Men Who Never Met

The Shulchan Aruch was written by Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488-1575), a Sephardic sage who lived in the holy city of Safed, in the north of Israel. At the same time that Rabbi Caro was completing his work, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, an Ashkenazi rabbi in Cracow, Poland, was working on a similar project.

Upon seeing the work of the Sephardic scholar, Rabbi Moshe chose to discard his manuscript and add glosses to the already-released text instead. He also notes wherever Ashkenazic tradition differs from the rulings codified by Rabbi Caro. Thus, a unified text was able to be used by all segments of the Jewish world.

The first page of the Cracow edition of the Shulchan Aruch, which also incorporated the glosses of the Mapah.
The first page of the Cracow edition of the Shulchan Aruch, which also incorporated the glosses of the Mapah.

3. The Commentary Is the ‘Cloth’

Keying off the name Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Moshe called his commentary Mapah, which means “tablecloth.” In the words of his introduction: “I have come after [Rabbi Caro] to spread a cloth over the set table, upon which he has collected all the delightful fruits and delicacies that a person may love. For without this [addition], the table he has set before G‑d was not placed before the people of these lands…”

4. It has Four Parts

Rabbi Caro structured his work to mirror the Arba Turim (“Four Rows”) written by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher. It comprises four books, each dedicated to another area of Jewish life:

  • Orach Chaim (Way of Life) covers prayer, Shabbat and holidays, and other issues encountered in the day-to-day.
  • Yoreh Deah (He Shall Show Understanding) includes the intricate laws of kosher, usury, vows, and other areas in which a rabbi is generally consulted.
  • Even HaEzer (Stone of Assistance) contains laws of marriage, divorce etc.
  • Choshen Mishpat (Breastplate of Justice) is devoted to monetary laws, torts, and other issues relevant to a rabbinic court.
The first page of the Shulchan Aruch, printed in Venice during the lifetime of the author.
The first page of the Shulchan Aruch, printed in Venice during the lifetime of the author.

5. It Was Not Intended to Be a Primary Source

The author of Shulchan Aruch never intended that the work be used in isolation. Rather, he hoped that it would serve as a review for students of his lengthier commentary, the Beit Yosef, where the background and discussion behind many of his rulings are found.

6. It Was Controversial In Its Day

When the Code of Jewish Law was first released, it received criticism reminiscent of the complaints lodged against Maimonides’ Yad Hachazakah. The fear was that people would become lazy, only consulting the sparse rulings of the Code, without bothering to understand the copious scholarship and nuance that stands behind every line.

There was also the initial concern that Rabbi Caro had based his rulings primarily on the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi (Rif), Maimonides, and Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel (Rosh), and did not represent the scholarship of the broader Jewish community. This concern was greatly assuaged by the glosses Rabbi Moshe Isserles added.

7. It Was First Printed in Venice in the 1560s

The first printing of the Shulchan Aruch was produced in Venice in approximately 1566, and included just the work of Rabbi Yosef Caro. The first edition to contain the teachings of both rabbis was printed in Cracow in 1578 (or earlier).

A modern set of Shulchan Aruch with commentaries contains many, many volumes.
A modern set of Shulchan Aruch with commentaries contains many, many volumes.

8. It Begins With a Wake-Up Call

The first book of the Code of Jewish Law begins with the following exhortation: “He shall strengthen himself like a lion to rise in the morning to serve his Creator, Who wakes the dawn.” Rabbi Moshe adds a qualifying note, that at the very least one should not sleep past the time of communal prayers.

9. It Contains Both Rashi Script and Regular Script

In the original Cracow edition, which included no commentaries, the words of both rabbis were printed in Rashi script, with the words of Rabbi Yosef Caro appearing slightly larger. In the standard editions of centuries since, Rabbi Caro’s words are printed in standard block script, with the additions of Rabbi Moshe Isserles in Rashi script, allowing the reader to easily discern between the two.

10. The Code Is Now Surrounded by Commentaries

Many commentaries have been written on the Code of Jewish Law. Some of the most prominent ones have been printed on same page as the Code itself, including:

  • Turei Zahav (Taz) by Rabbi David Halevi Segal (1586-1667) on the entire work.
  • Magen Avraham by Rabbi Avraham Abbale Gombiner (1637-1682) on Orach Chaim.
  • Siftei Kohen (Shach) by Rabbi Shabtai Kohen (1622-1662) on Yoreh Deah and Choshen Mishpat.
  • Ketzot Hachoshen (Ketzos) by Rabbi Aryeh Leib Heller (1745-1812) on Choshen Mishpat.
  • Ba’er Hetev summarizes the rulings of prior commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch.
The first page of a standard edition of Shulchan Aruch, with the text surrounded by the classic commentaries.
The first page of a standard edition of Shulchan Aruch, with the text surrounded by the classic commentaries.

11. The Alter Rebbe Wrote One

In response to a request from his mentor, Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch, the Alter Rebbe (1745-1812), founder of Chabad Chassidism, composed his own version. Commonly known as Shulchan Aruch Harav, it takes into account the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch and many others, most notably the Magen Avraham. Although it follows the chapter divisions of Rabbi Caro’s work, the text is entirely reworked and significantly longer.

Learn the Alter Rebbe's Shulchan Aruch in Hebrew and English

12. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Is Not an Abridgement

Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried (1804-1886) wrote the very popular Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. Although its name means “Abridged Shulchan Aruch,” it is actually an original work, which clearly and succinctly spells out the basics of Jewish law in a manner that is easy for the layperson to understand.

Learn Kitzur Shulchan Aruch in Hebrew and English

Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried, author of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.
Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried, author of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.

13. Mishnah Berurah Is a Popular Commentary

Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (known as the Chafetz Chaim, 1839-1933) wrote a commentary to the Shluchan Aruch called the Mishnah Berurah (“Clear Study”). Printed along with the text of Orach Chaim, it fills six volumes.

14. It Is Synonymous With Jewish Law

Although the totality of Jewish law is much broader than the Shulchan Aruch, the name has become synonymous. Hence, when one wishes to describe a Jew whose every move is in sync with halachah, one could use the moniker, a “Shulchan Aruch Yid.”