By Israel Drazin
Maimonides wrote his Mishneh Torah, his code of Jewish law. About a century after his death in 1204, Jacob ben
Asher (1270–c. 1340) composed a code of Jewish law that he called the Tur.
Roughly two centuries later, Joseph Karo (1488–1575), compiled his law books,
which he named the Shulchan Arukh. More than half a dozen other
collections followed, but the Shulchan Arukh, with annotations by
the Polish rabbi Moshe Isserles (1525–1572) became the favored code and is used
by many Jews.
Maimonides altered the traditional Jewish presentation of law
that gave the opinion of all the rabbis on the subject under discussion. The
Mishnah (composed in the third century) and the Jerusalem and Babylonian
Talmuds (fourth and sixth century, respectively) present views on different
subjects without stating the decisive halakhah. The primary focus
is on discussion, not decision.
This method has advantages. It helps sharpen the students’
minds and it lays out views that, although not decisive, may be taken into
consideration when situations change. However, it doesn’t give a final
statement of the law that can be used by jurists and the general public.
Maimonides’ organized code did not include the conflicting
opinions and the sources of the laws. He also collected and organized the laws
from the various tractates by subjects. However, some rabbis felt that the
rabbinical discussions and the sources that he omitted were necessary. Asher
ben Yechiel (c. 1259–1328), for example, disparaged Maimonides’ code by saying,
“He writes his book as if he were prophesying from God.”
Yet, despite these protestations, the post-Maimonidean codes
never dismissed the Maimonidean views in their entirety. This was impossible
simply because of the wisdom of Maimonides.
The omission of rabbinical discussions and the sources of the
laws as well as updating laws were the ostensible, though not the entire reason
other rabbis felt they had to write their own codes. This is obvious because if
these omissions were what really bothered the rabbis who composed new codes,
they should have been satisfied by only adding glosses indicating the sources,
opposing views, and new laws.
The true reason, in all likelihood, was the inability of the
non-rationalists to deal with Maimonides’ rationalism and his refusal to
include superstitious practices, magical conduct, use of omens, mysticism, and
other irrational behaviors that were so dear to the general public. These
non-rational behaviors were rampant among many Jews – including numerous
rabbis. The post-Maimonidean law books codified these types of behaviors.
The Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 179:2, for example, states
that it would be good luck if people marry during the full moon. This procedure
is not mentioned in Talmudic or gaonic literature or in Maimonides’ Mishneh