(Note that this post is not meant to imply that the Shulchan Arukh is not currently binding, as explained in this post. This current post is of an historical nature, and not halakhic.)
From Bach, Rabbi Joel Sirkes: His Life, Works and Times (pp. 67-70):
Sirkes thus speaks eloquently of the erudition and influence of Joseph Karo (d. 1575) upon the Jewish scholarly world.…for he enlightened the eyes of all Israel…and opened for us the gates of justice and truth … enabling us to understand the method of the great legal authorities.When disagreeing with Karo, Sirkes usually employs only the most respectful phraseology: “an error escaped from the pen of the Beth Joseph”, “his learning overcame him”, “God should forgive him”, “An error escaped from before the ruler Joseph, who distributes sustenance to all of the people of the land.”
How great was his strength in (understanding) all of the Talmud, earlier and later legal authorities, and responsa. How great is his merit, for due to his compositions wise men and their disciples have gathered together and strengthened themselves.
What complicated Sirkes’ attitude toward the writings of Joseph Karo was the latter’s Shulhan Arukh.
Click here to read moreA full decade after the publication of the Beth Joseph, Karo’s massive commentary and codification of Jewish law, the author issued a radically abridged version which he entitled the Shulhan Arukh. Its purpose was to serve as a handbook of law, with all sources omitted and only the final decisions recorded. It was meant to be a brief compendium for scholar and layman alike.
Objections to the Shulhan Arukh were immediate and intense for a variety of reasons: Mordecai Jaffe characterized the Shulhan Arukh as a “table well set with all manner of refreshments, however the dishes are tasteless, lacking the salt of reasoning which is able to cause the broth to boil and to warm the individual.”
The extreme brevity of the Shulhan Arukh and its lack of any commentary or interpretative material was held to be a grave deficiency in the work.
Karo was criticized for his great independence in rendering legal decisions and for the fact that he would occasionally incorporate decisions without taking into consideration the differing opinions of many great authorities. Moses Isserles comments that Karo is not always faithful to his own ground rules for rendering halakhic decisions. Many also objected to the Shulhan Arukh on the grounds that it neglected to cite Ashkenazic practices, reflecting Sephardic patterns to the exclusion of those of the Franco-German school. Virtually all Polish rabbis are understandably critical of this tendency.
Joel Sirkes no doubt concurred with all of these objections. He, too, considered the Shulhan Arukh to be too brief and sparse a work and found fault with many of Karo’s decisions. But these critiques, of and by themselves, fail to explain the intensity with which Rabbi Joel attacks the Shulhan Arukh and its devotees.
Furthermore, although Sirkes was well aware of Karo’s Sephardic bias, it is doubtful that this was the crucial factor in his objection to the Shulhan Arukh. He does not object so vehemently to the Beth Joseph which reflects similar Sephardic emphasis in far greater detail.
Sirkes’ central criticism of the Shulhan Arukh stemmed from his conviction that a Code of Law, any code of law, is by definition insufficient. Prerequisite to the rendering of any legal decision is a thorough knowledge of all primary sources. There are no short cuts in determining laws. Sirkes writes:In the majority of instances it is impossible to render legal decisions from the Shulhan Arukh … he who is not well versed in the study of Talmud is incapable of correctly adjudicating cases.In even stronger language, he asserts that:…those who determine laws according to the Shulhan Arukh are teaching not according to the Halakha…
In Sirkes’ lifetime there developed around the Shulhan Arukh a cult of admirers whose enthusiasm for the work became a source of considerable concern to Rabbi Joel. Sirkes takes to task his colleague, Joshua Falk Cohen, for the latter’s great reliance upon the work, and objects vehemently to the sentiment expressed by a younger contemporary that “it is forbidden to change one thing in the Shulhan Arukh, for it is as the Torah of Moses.”
Sirkes was exceedingly disturbed by this idolization of the Shulhan Arukh, a book which he regarded as simply the work of one man, and not an authoritative exposition of Halakha. He objected, not so much because of the misinformation which he felt it to contain, but because of the fear he had that it would detract from the study of the Talmud. Sirkes was concerned lest the Shulhan Arukh render the study of Rabbinic sources obsolete by becoming itself a source book of Halakha!
Rabbi Sirkes was not alone in entertaining such apprehensions. Samuel Edels, Rabbi Joel’s contemporary, describes rabbis rendering decisions directly from the Shulhan Arukh without analyzing the Talmudic sources. He accuses them of failing to fully understand the legal cases they adjudicate...
However, Sirkes did not place any blame upon Karo personally for the excessive enthusiasm of his followers and their occasional neglect of the proper legal sources. On the contrary, he refers to Karo as cautioning his disciples not to rush into any legal discussions until such time as they have familiarized themselves with the necessary sources.
It is interesting to note this striking comment of Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague:Had the authors (Karo and Isserles) known that these compositions (Shulhan Arukh and Mappah) would cause some to desist entirely from the study of Talmud and render verdicts solely from these compositions, they would never have composed them…it is better and more proper to render a decision from the Talmud, even where there is cause to fear that it may be an erroneous decision…than to render a decision from one such work without truly understanding the case at hand.The aforementioned objections notwithstanding, Sirkes was not as bitterly opposed to the Shulhan Arukh as he has been made out to be. He refers to its rulings often, both in the Bayit Hadash and in his responsa. He makes mention of the fact that he had begun to write his own commentary upon the Shulhan Arukh, and he refers to an occasion at the Lublin Fair when the only book he chose to bring with him was the Shulhan Arukh. He obviously felt it to be an excellent guide book for legal discussions, in spite of its limitations as an expositor of sources.