Shulhan Arukh

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‘Arranged Table’, the standard Code of Jewish law compiled by Joseph Karo in the sixteenth century with glosses by Moses Isserles.

Orthodox Judaism accepts the Shulhan Arukh as binding, although this does not mean that Orthodox Jews follow all the bare rulings of the work. The standard commentaries and later authorities are often relied on where a ruling is required which departs from that of the Shulhan Arukh, especially when new conditions demand fresh rulings. Many Hasidic masters, while generally accepting the authority of the Shulhan Arukh, felt themselves free to offer their prayers at different times from those laid down in the Shulhan Arukh. A Hasidic saying has it that the difference between the Hasidim and the Mitnaggedim is that the Hasidim stand in awe of God while the Mitnaggedim stand in awe of the Shulhan Arukh. But generally, a strictly Orthodox Jew is known as ‘a Shulhan Arukh Jew’. Reform Judaism in the nineteenth century had a negative attitude to the Halakhah generally, to say nothing of the codification of the Halakhah in the Shulhan Arukh. At the Reform Synod in Augsburg in 1871 a debate took place on the suggestion that a new, thoroughly revised Shulhan Arukh, more in line with Reform philosophy, should be produced. Against this it was argued that any revision would imply recognition that the Shulhan Arukh is an authority, which it is not for Reform, that such a Shulhan Arukh would stifle further development in Judaism, and that so little would be left when the obsolete elements (from the Reform point of view) had been removed that a revision was pointless. This remains the Reform position, though there is evident, in contemporary versions of Reform, a greater awareness of the values enshrined in some, at least, of the rulings of the Shulhan Arukh (see REFORM JUDAISM).

Conservative Judaism, with its stress on the developing nature of Judaism in general and Jewish law in particular, has a far more positive attitude to the Shulhan Arukh as a stage in this development but feels free to employ the Halakhic machinery in order to develop the law further even though, as a result, changes may be introduced contrary to the rulings of the Shulhan Arukh: for instance, on the question of riding in an automobile to the synagogue on the Sabbath. It is also true that for all three groups the actual practice of Jews has a decisive voice, whether or not this is officially acknowledged. Even among Orthodox Rabbis, the saying is popular that there is a fifth, unwritten part of the Shulhan Arukh by which the other four parts are to be interpreted. This is the part of common sense.

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.

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