Who Was Rabbi Yosef Karo?

kabbalah masters yosef karo Nov 07, 2023

By: Rabbi Amichai Cohen

Rabbi Yosef  Caro, one of the great rabbis and legal authorities in Israel throughout the generations, the author of the "Shulchan Aruch" and the "Beit Yosef," is affectionately referred to by the people as "Maran HaMachaber" (our teacher, the author). He was born in the year 1488 to his father, Rabbi Ephraim, who was a scholar in the city of Toledo, Spain, and to his mother, Buena.

From Spain To The Holyland

The state of the Jews in Spain during that time was characterized by relative tranquility and a dedication to Torah study. Great Torah scholars emerged from the community and had a significant influence in various aspects of life.

When he was four years old, Rabbi Yosef and his parents were forced to wander in the wake of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain to Portugal. Portugal initially welcomed the expelled Jews, and they were able to settle and establish themselves in the country.

However, after four years, Spain began to pressure Portugal to expel the Jews from their land. Consequently, Rabbi Yosef's family moved to Kushta, where his brother Rabbi Isaac Caro, the author of "Toldot Yitzchak," resided. Rabbi Isaac was a scholar well-versed in Kabbalah, medicine, philosophy, and astronomy.

After the death of his father, Rabbi Yosef was taken in by his uncle Rabbi Isaac, who became like a father to him. When he reached maturity, he settled in the city of Adrianople, where he married the daughter of Rabbi Chaim Ibn Albala, a prominent figure in the community. In this city, Rabbi Yosef gained prominence as a rabbi and began his scholarly work. He commented on Maimonides' "Yad HaChazakah," which was the basis for his famous work, the "Beit Yosef." During this time, people began calling him “Maran."

After the death of his first wife, he married for the second time, this time to the daughter of Rabbi Isaac Sabi, another Spanish sage. She gave birth to his eldest son, Rabbi Shlomo. He then moved to Nikopol, Bulgaria, where he began writing his monumental work, the "Beit Yosef." In this city, Rabbi Yosef also established a great yeshiva, where he disseminated Torah knowledge to many students from all over the region.


Actualizing His Potential 

His third wife was the daughter of Rabbi Zachariah Ashkenazi, a scholar from Jerusalem. They married when he was elderly, and at 73, she gave birth to his second son, Rabbi Judah, who later printed his father's books. It is worth noting that the holy Ari (Isaac Luria) arranged a marriage between Rabbi Yosef's daughter and the son of Rabbi Judah, solidifying a special connection between their families.

In Nikopol, an extraordinary incident occurred on the banks of the Danube River. Rabbi Yosef shared a business with another Jew, and they both earned their livelihood from it, albeit not with great profit. There were endless complaints against the holy sage.

It was said that his thoughts were in the higher realms, his musings delved into deep matters, and his lips were constantly engaged in Torah and prayer. Not only that, he often arrived home late from the synagogue because his prayers were lengthy. This happened even though he had promised his partner to return home early.

In short, one day, the partner informed Rabbi Yosef that they could not continue their partnership. He said to him, "Go away from me if you go to the left, and I will go to the right, or if you go to the right, I will go to the left" (Genesis 13:9). "For I have determined the way, and I will go slowly at the pace of the work that is before me" (Genesis 33:14).

Rabbi Yosef believed and accepted, saying, "If there are two paths, one to Heaven and one to income, I choose the path to Heaven, and in His hand is the key to livelihood because He is the provider for all. If one door closes before you, another will open."

The partner took the inventory of their merchandise and gave Rabbi Yosef half of the value. This is how they divided their partnership. Rabbi Yosef took the money and went in the direction of the market to conduct business. However, his legs led him to the synagogue, as he had learned earlier. When he returned home, his wife asked him, "What did you do in business today? How did you earn today?" He confessed without embarrassment that he had spent the day learning Torah because the value of Torah exceeded that of silver.

Without asking for the reason, she took the money and put it away, but the next day, she told him to go to the market and purchase merchandise. He agreed to her request. Indeed, the next day, he went to the market, where he met a man selling a hand mill, telling him it was a good deal. He bought it at a high price and hoped to profit from it.

When he brought the hand mill home, his wife asked him, "What did you buy in the market today?" He handed her the hand mill and said that he had met a man who seemed honest and had sold it to him. She looked at the hand mill and, to her amazement, saw that it was made of pure gold worth a significant amount. She kept it hidden in a chest, intending to trade it for its actual value.

During the night, the man who had sold it to Rabbi Yoseph had a dream in which he was told, "Know that I am your good fortune. I have been waiting for you long so you can part from your partner to open your good fortune." He told Rabbi Joseph, "Know that the hand mill in your possession is made of pure gold!"


Publishing His Books

In 1493, Rabbi Yosef needed many books to write his book, but they were not available in the library of Nikopol. Therefore, he had to leave the city and travel to Constantinople and Thessaloniki in Turkey to seek and research those books.

In 1496, in Tishrei, Rabbi Yosef  Karo decided that the time had come to go up to the Land of Israel. He embarked on a ship that sailed to Egypt through the sea. After a year-long journey, Rabbi Yoseph arrived in the Galilean city of Safed. In this city, he became the distinguished disciple of Rabbi Jacob Berab, the chief rabbi of Safed, and the first to ordain him.

Three great and renowned scholars called "Yosef" were debated in the celestial academy regarding who was worthy of writing the "Beit Yosef" on the Tur. These three scholars were the Maharshal, Rabbi Yosef Taitazak, and Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the "Beit Yosef." The decision from Heaven fell upon Rabbi Yoseph "Karo" because God desired to honor him. This was due to his exceptional righteousness and extraordinary humility, akin to Mount Sinai, which was chosen to receive the Torah.

The composition of his monumental work, the "Beit Yosef," was a laborious endeavor that Rabbi Yoseph Karo pursued for twenty years, starting when he was 34.

The "Beit Yosef" was written as a comprehensive commentary on the "Arba'ah Turim," authored by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, known as the "Ba'al HaTurim." It consisted of in-depth discussions, incorporating sources from Talmudic texts, the writings of earlier authorities, and the decisions of his contemporaries, all leading to a concise and clear halachic ruling. Moreover, the "Beit Yosef" surpassed the "Tur" by adding numerous sources and decisions that were not found in the "Tur."


The Four Parts of The Shulchan Aruch

The "Beit Yosef" was divided into four sections following the structure of the "Tur":

"Orach Chayim" - A guide to a Jew's daily life, covering topics related to daily routines, prayer, blessings, and the Jewish calendar.

"Yoreh De'ah" - Deals with issues of Jewish law regarding kashrut, forbidden foods, and various laws and customs, such as family purity, marriage, and divorce.

"Even HaEzer" - Addresses matters concerning family life, including laws related to marriage, dowry, divorce, levirate marriage, and family purity.

"Choshen Mishpat" - Focuses on civil laws, including matters of monetary disputes, court procedures, loans, theft, and other legal matters.

On each of these four sections, Rabbi Yosef Karo laid his "Shulchan Aruch" (Set Table). After completing this extensive work, he compiled a concise and clear halachic code known as the "Shulchan Aruch," which became a foundation for Jewish law. In the construction of the "Shulchan Aruch" and its style, Rabbi Karo followed the footsteps of the "Ba'al HaTurim" in structure but adopted the style of Maimonides' "Mishneh Torah." In the "Shulchan Aruch," he skipped all arguments and discussions and provided the bottom line halachic ruling, becoming the "final arbiter.”

For the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, the "Shulchan Aruch" became the primary source of Jewish law, and its rulings were embraced as the decisions of Maran, the Holy King. RabbiYosef Karo's students held him in great reverence, referring to him as "the Holy King." Some traditions even refer to Rabbi Yosef Karo as "Maran," an Aramaic word meaning "our master." Rabbi Yosef Karo's exceptional status was acknowledged and revered by his contemporaries and the following generations.


His Unique Methodology 

Ten additional years were required until the publication of the connection to light. His method of decision was a ruling among the majority of opinions; our master based his decisions on three pillars of instruction: Rambam, Rif, and the Rosh. He defined them as the three pillars of instruction that the House of Israel relies on in their rulings.

When there was a dispute among them, they followed the general principle, "After the majority, incline" (Exodus 23:2). The Ramban, Rashba, and Ran were also appended to them. The "Beit Yosef's" concise book is called the "Shulchan Aruch," which became the primary source during the course of history. His book, the "Shulchan Aruch," appeared when our master was 80 years old, and it brought great publicity to Rabbi Yosef's name throughout the world. It stirred great controversy among the leading halachic authorities of the generation.

Until our days, the "Beit Yosef" and "Shulchan Aruch" are used as the primary sources for teachers of instruction in Israel. It serves as a guide for every Torah-observant Jew, spreading throughout the Jewish diaspora. According to his guidance, Joseph is the one who enlightens the entire nation.

The "Shulchan Aruch" became a foundational book for rabbis and instructors of instruction in all generations. This is the table set before God. Rabbi Yosef was accepted in every corner of Israel and its surroundings as if he were a keter malkhut (crown of kingship). This status makes all the rulers of the land of Israel and its surroundings obligated to his rulings. He is considered the ultimate authority without contradiction. As a result, his words and instructions were accepted as a Halacha given to Moses at Sinai.


The Shulchan Aruch

He wrote his book "Beit HaBechira" to complement the "Beit Yosef," which contains additions and comments to the "Beit Yosef." Simultaneously with the "Beit Yosef" in Safed, Rabbi Moshe Isserles of Krakow, Poland, wrote a similar book called "Darkhei Moshe." He also based his work on the Tur and gathered halachic sources following the order of the Tur.

When he heard of another similar work by Rabbi Yosef Karo, he decided to add his comments, which brought the Ashkenazi tradition to the "Beit Yosef." Rabbi Moshe Isserles' commentary was titled "Mapah" on the "Shulchan Aruch," in which he critiqued Rabbi Yosef Karo and presented rulings and customs of the Ashkenazi scholars.

He also included many universally accepted customs not mentioned in the "Shulchan Aruch." This led to the printing of the Shulchan Aruch together with Rabbi Isserles' comments, and the combination became the canonical law book for the entire Jewish world. Sephardim followed the Shulchan Aruch, while Ashkenazim followed the Ramah.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef z’tl continued in the path of Rabbi Yosef Karo in halachic rulings and expressed it using the phrase "Ashkenazim follow the Ramah," playing with words based on the verse "And the children of Israel went out with a high hand" (Exodus 14:8). In practice, Rabbi Karo's work greatly influenced and strengthened the Shulchan Aruch, and where he did not comment, the Ashkenazi rabbis also based their rulings on Rabbi Yosef Karo's decisions.

Another work of Rabbi Yosef Karo is the "Kessef Mishneh." In this book, he elaborates on the "Yad Hachazakah" by Maimonides. He attempted to trace the "great eagle" back to the opinions of the Raavad and find Talmudic sources for Maimonides' writings, as Maimonides did not cite his sources to make the Mishneh Torah more approachable to the uninitiated.

He called his work the "Kessef Mishneh" based on the verse in Genesis 43:12, "Take double money in your hand." In this work, he clarifies Maimonides' sources and places his comments on the Ravaad's criticisms.

Rabbi Yosef Karo also wrote responsa, published in the book "Avkat Rochel." He also wrote sermons and commentaries on the Bible.


Coming To Safed

At 49, Rabbi Yosef Karo moved to Safed in the Upper Galilee, considered the center of Jewish mysticism and Torah learning. He became the head of the yeshiva and the great rabbinical court in Safed. At that time, Safed was home to holy individuals like the Ari, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria Ashkenazi, his outstanding disciple and successor, Rabbi Chaim Vital, the Ramaq (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero), and many other prominent scholars and Kabbalists.

Although Rabbi Yosef Karo served as a rabbi in Safed, he did not abandon Kabbalah despite primarily being known for his Halachic works. He believed that the Kabbalah's secrets were best revealed to humble and modest individuals, so the divine message regarding Halacha was given to someone like him. Rabbi Karo also had a mystical revelation in the form of an angelic figure, the Magid, who guided in both practical and scholarly matters. The Magid instructed him to call his book "Beit Yosef" because it would be his home in this world and the next.

Rabbi Yosef Karo passed away on the 13th of Nisan in 1575. The Ark of God was brought back as warriors saw the great distress, and he was 87 years old.

He was buried in the city of Safed alongside the sages of his generation.

May his merit be a source of blessings and protection for us!


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