Joseph Karo


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Outstanding lawyer and mystic (1488–1575). Karo was probably born in Toledo but, after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, his family settled in Turkey where Karo lived for around forty years, acquiring a great reputation as an authority on Jewish law. In 1536 he left Turkey for Safed, serving there until his death as a Rabbi and Head of a Yeshivah. In Safed he became closely associated with the mystical circle that flourished there.

Karo wrote a commentary, entitled Kersef Mishneh, to Maimonides' Code and another commentary, his greatest work, on the Tur of Jacob ben Asher, to which he gave the title Bet Yosef (House of Joseph), because in it he provided a home for all the legal opinions held by the jurists of the past. In his introduction to the Bet Yosef, Karo remarks that he was moved to compile it because there was so much uncertainty about the actual law in practice, each Jewish community seeming to have its own ‘Torah’. The Tur, he thought, is the best starting-point for the task he had set himself, since in this work, too, many different opinions are recorded. But Karo seeks to go further than the Tur in an analysis of the law as it developed from Talmudic times down to his own day. The Bet Yosef is probably the keenest work of legal analysis in the history of Jewish law.

Karo recorded the decisions in every branch of practical law at which he had arrived in his digest, the Shulhan Arukh, which, together with the glosses of Isserles, became the standard Code for all Orthodox Jews.

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.

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