The Set Table of Jewish Law: How the Shulhan Arukh Got Its Name

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March 1, 2012
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Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert

Of all the metaphorical tables in Jewish tradition, the Shulhan Arukh of Joseph Karo (1488-1575) is perhaps still the best known, even among secular Jews, because of its place in the history of Jewish literature. It was the last monumental codification of the long tradition of rabbinic law, still widely accepted in observant communities. The Shulhan Arukh has been the subject of many commentaries and digests, and its most authoritative commentator was Rabbi Moses Isserles (1520-1572), who was known in traditional rabbinic learning as “the Rema.” He self-consciously expanded the metaphor of the “Set Table” by introducing his commentary as intending “to spread a tablecloth upon the set table.” The halakhic table, set by a Sephardic rabbinic sage, thus came to be embellished with a tablecloth woven of the wisdom of Ashkenazic tradition.

While Karo’s “table” has a firm place in the home of Jewish tradition, we know less about how Jewish law came to be set on this metaphorical table. In his introduction to his code, the work of his old age, Karo explains briefly why he decided to name it the Set Table. He reminds his readers of the magisterial work of his life, the Beit Yosef (Joseph’s House), in which he collected, summarized, and critically discussed most of the published halakhic authorities up to his day by structuring them as a commentary to a preceding codification, Jacob ben Asher’s Tur of the early 14th century. Setting his own code in relation to his earlier, mostly analytical writing, which was recognized immediately as a magisterial compendium of monumental proportions, Karo spells out the overtly pedagogical intent driving him in this later work of his life. He writes that he realized that it would be good to collect the “gems” of the Beit Yosef “by way of abbreviation, in clear, beautiful, and pleasant language, so that the Torah of God shall be perfect and fluent in the mouth of every man of Israel” — that is, not just the sages. And thus, he explains, “I have called this book Shulhan Arukh since the scholar will find [within] all kinds of delicacies well arranged, ordered, and clear.” He writes that he is certain that because of this book — of course with heavenly grace bestowed from above — “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God, children and grownups, students and scholars, the dumb and the smart.” To Karo, the set table implies that the food is ready to be consumed, in a manner in which everyone can partake of its nourishment — everyone, that is, if we ignore gender for the moment.

Karo does not tell his readers that he drew on biblical language and rabbinic tradition when deciding to name his codification of Jewish law the Set Table. In liturgical poetry, King David, the traditional author of many of the psalms, thanks God, his “shepherd,” for “setting a table before me in the face of my foes.” (Psalms 23:5) Later, Rabbi Akiva uses the image of the shulhan arukh in explaining the opening verse of the Torah portion Mishpatim. Right after pronouncing the Ten Commandments, God instructs Moses: “Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them [tasim lifnehem]…” (Exodus 21:1) In Rabbi Akiva’s terse commentary, he describes the nature of the instruction of the laws: “Set them before them as a set table [shulhan arukh].”

Rabbi Akiva’s comment takes two steps in the direction of Karo’s use of the metaphor. First, it focuses on the laws (mishpatim) regulating the social life of the people of Israel. Moses, as instructed by God, lays out the laws before the Israelites as a set table. Second, Rabbi Akiva raises (at least hints at) the didactic function of the metaphor as he emphasizes the particular phrasing of the verse: “Could it be that they [the people of Israel] should learn but not understand them? [For that reason the verse says] ‘Now these are the judgments that you shall set out before them.’” That is, Moses is to phrase the laws in such a way that the people of Israel will be able to understand them. Karo will follow both these steps.

Finally, Rashi popularized the image by integrating it into his commentary on the same Torah verse in Exodus. According to Rashi, God instructs Moses that the laws in Mishpatim should be taught not just for their literal meaning, but also for the philosophy behind them. People should be able to understand their “reasons and explications.” Said the Holy One of Blessing: “Don’t dare to think and tell yourself, ‘I will teach them this section or law two or three times, until it is fluent in their mouths as memorization… I don’t have to be bothered with making them understand its reasons or explication.’” For that reason, Rashi explains, the verse says “that you shall set before them” — like a table that is set and ready for the meal in front of a person. Rashi expands on the didactic intent built into the particular phrasing of the verse. God wanted Moses to fine-tune his pedagogical skills as a teacher of the law, and not merely as a mouthpiece of the divine lawgiver. Teaching the laws to both Rabbi Akiva and Rashi meant rendering them consumable, set on the table, and ready to be eaten.

Karo played with a tradition handed down to him and to us. Beyond drawing on the image of the set table for its didactic usefulness, Karo emphasized what is left implicit in Rabbi Akiva’s and Rashi’s comments — namely, who gets to sit at the table of Jewish learning, which is to say everyone, regardless of their intellectual capacity, social status, or age (and we would include gender as well). This shulhan, therefore, is set not so much to create a stable home but to create a tradition of learning that is inclusive, open, and inviting to everyone according to their capacity.

Shulchan Aruch

Photo caption: Magdalena Hefetz and Ruhama Weiss created “Shulchan Aruch” as an installation about borders and anxiety at the Jerusalem Artists’ House (www.art.org.il/en/exhibition_about.php?id=46).

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Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, a Sh’ma Advisory Board member, is associate professor of religious studies at Stanford University. She is the author of Menstrual Purity: Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender, which won the 2000 Salo Baron Wittmayer Prize for a best first book in Jewish studies and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in Jewish Scholarship. She is currently working on a cultural history and political analysis of the rabbinic tradition of eruv-making, entitled Replacing the Nation: Judaism, Diaspora, and Neighborhood.

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