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Halakha and Kabbalah: Rabbi Joseph Karo’s Shulchan Aruch and Magid Mesharim by Shlomo Brody

December 22, 2011 by  
Filed under Halakha, New Posts

Amongst the great kabbalists and legalists produced in 16th century Safed, R. Yosef Karo clearly stands out as one of, if not the, most influential figure.  Though his legal compendium Bet Yosef and code Shulchan Aruch, Karo helped shape the course of halakha for the next five centuries.  Karo produced these works while the Zohar’s influence on the Jewish world greatly expanded, a process to which he contributed.  In this essay, we will examine the impact of the Zohar on his halakhic jurisprudence.  We will furthermore explore the influence of the personal revelation Karo received from his magid, as recorded in his spiritual diary Magid Mesharim.

Did Rav Karo Absorb Kabbalah into Halakhic Discourse?  The Zohar as Deciding Factor

In his monograph on Karo, R. J. Zwi Werblowsky broadly contended that Karo’s works displayed a “well-known unwillingness to allow kabbalistic considerations or mystical experiences to influence halakhic decisions, which, he felt, should be arrived at exclusively by the traditional methods of rabbinic dialectic” (Werblowsky 184).  Werblowsky claimed that while theologically and emotionally significant, the Zohar and personal revelations played no role in Karo’s halakhic thought.  As proof, he cited a responsum from R. Shmuel Vital, who similarly asserted that Karo adjudicated according to “pshat,” with no non-legal influences.

Jacob Katz, however, showed that Karo did absorb mystical literary texts into Halakhic considerations.  Indeed, in his introduction to the Bet Yosef, Karo cited the Zohar in his long list of sources.  Moreover, Katz cites multiple cases in the Bet Yosef where Karo weighed the halakhic value of Zoharic prescriptions and later integrated them into the Shulchan Aruch (Katz 52-55).  Kabbalistic considerations primarily impacted the realm of common religious rites (Orach Chaim).  Regarding “hand-washing in the morning,” for example, the rishonim disagreed whether it represented a formal ritual with minute details (Rashba), or a mere hygienic device in the morning (Rosh).  Karo cites the Zohar to prove the former, and further notes:

ועוד כתובים שם בנטילת ידים שחרית חידושין שאינם נמצאים בפוסקים

Karo coolly incorporated these new rituals into his Shulchan Aruch (4:7-11), such as the requirement of pouring the water over another vessel and not directly unto the ground.

With regard to hand-washing, one might argue that the Zohar played an ancillary role in the decision.  The Zohar merely buttressed the opinion of the Rashba, while the additional requirements represent recommended but not necessary embellishments.  Yet in B.Y. O.C. 141, Karo gives decisive weight to the Zohar, noting its admonition that the oleh should not read the Torah along with the shaliach tzibbur.  Giving it primacy over the Rosh’s concern for a bracha le-vatala, he writes,

ומתוך לשון הרא”ש שכתב רבינו יתבאר לך שצריך העולה לקרות בנחת עם שליח ציבור כדי שלא תהא ברכתו לבטלה וכן כתבו התוספות… ורבינו הגדול מהר”י אבוהב ז”ל כתב שמעתי שכתוב בספר הזוהר שאין לקרות כלל אלא אחד וראוי לחוש לדבריו אם האמת הוא כך שאני לא ראיתיו כתוב אלא ששמעתיו עכ”ל ואני הכותב זכיתי למוצאו והוא בפרשת ויקהל (רב:) וז”ל ואסיר למיקרי באורייתא בר חד בלחודוי ושתקין ושמעין מלה מפומיה כאילו קבלין לה האי שעתא מטורא דסיני…וכיון דלדברי הזוהר אסור לקרות אלא אחד לבד ועכשיו שנהגו ששליח ציבור הוא הקורא העולה אסור לקרות אע”פ שלדברי הפוסקים צריך לקרות ואם לא יקרא כתבו דהוי ברכה לבטלה מאחר שלא נזכר זה בתלמוד בהדיא לא שבקינן דברי הזוהר מפני דברי הפוסקים. ועוד דהא איכא למימר דכל שהעולה שומע מה ששליח ציבור קורא ומכוין לבו לדבריו הרי הוא כקורא דשומע כעונה (סוכה לח:) הילכך צריך ליזהר העולה מלקרות עם שליח ציבור. ומיהו אפשר שאפילו לדברי הזוהר רשאי לקרות והוא שלא ישמיע לאזניו

Karo strikingly justifies his argument by noting that as long as the Zohar does not contradict an explicit Talmudic text, then it can gain precedence over other poskim.   Although Karo later finds a method of reconciling the Zohar’s admonition with the rishonim’s position, he clearly empowers the kabbalistic text with legal significance.

In other halakhot, Karo further develops his position that the Zohar cannot override a Talmudic ruling but can take primacy in medieval debates.  He employs this rule, for example, to follow, against some rishonim, the Zohar’s adamant proscription from donning tefillin on Chol Ha-Moed.  Noting that the Babylonian Talmud does not explicitly rule on the issue, he states,

ומאחר שבתלמודא דידן לא נתבאר דין זה בפירוש מי יערב לבו לגשת לעבור בקום עשה על דברי רבי שמעון בן יוחי המפליג כל כך באיסור הנחתן

If, on the other hand, Talmudic sources can be culled to refute the Zohar’s position, however, one can reject R. Shimon bar Yochai’s position.  Thus he rejects the Agur’s bewilderment how poskim disputed the Zohar’s position that only one blessing should be recited while donning tefillin, noting that his interlocutors have ample Talmudic support.

ואיני יודע למה תמה על זה יותר מכמה דינים שמצינו שכתב רבי שמעון בן יוחאי בספר הזוהר היפך ממסקנא דתלמודא ואין הפוסקים כותבים אלא מסקנא דתלמודא וטעמא משום דאפילו אם היו יודעים דברי רבי שמעון בן יוחאי לא הוו חיישי להו במקום דפליג אתלמודא דידן והמפרשים דלעולם צריך לברך שתים משמע להו דבהדיא קאמר תלמודא הכי ולפיכך פסקו כן כל שכן שבימי הפוסקים עדיין לא נגלה ספר המאור הקדוש בעולם

Karo plainly reasons that just as the Talmud frequently rejects R. Shimon b. Yochai’s position, so too can his position be rejected when it is found in the Zohar.  Be that is it may, Katz undoubtedly proves that Kabbalistic literature plays a role in Karo’s legal decisions.

Different Strategies of Incorporation

The scope and nature of this influence requires nuance and differentiation.  In a study detailing the numerous occasions that kabalistic sources influenced Karo’s halakha, Moshe Halamish showed the various ways in which Karo used the Zohar and other mystical sources, such as Recanti.  Sometimes the Zohar will serve to strengthen the side of the argument toward which Karo was leaning (Halamish 90-91).  In other cases, it will serve as a primary textual source for a law or minhag, such as requirement for levi’im to wash the hands of kohanim before nesiat kapa’im (OC 128) or for women to abstain from attending funerals (YD 359).  Bet Yosef will also include examples of minhagim in the Zohar that fill lacunae in the halakha, such as how many windows a synagogue should contain (OC 32), or the details of hand-washing in the morning, noted earlier.  In certain circumstances, however, Karo ignores or rules against the Zohar, even if there is no explicit contradictory Talmudic source (Halamish 95-96).  The Shulchan Aruch rejects, for example, the Zohar’s proscription of consuming meat for one hour after eating milk (YD 69:2), and its admonition from benefiting of the gid ha-nesheh (YD 65:10).  Karo empowers the Zohar with the legal status of other non-Talmudic rabbinic texts (even if he assumes it to be written in antiquity).  Its practices cannot override the Babylonian Talmud, and its ordinances are weighed against competing rabbinic arguments and medieval practices.  As Katz notes (53-54, footnotes), in a number of circumstances, Karo handles the Zohar in the same manner as he would other halakhic sources.

Relative Weight of Different Laws in Shulchan Aruch

Katz and Halamish, however, both overemphasize the significance of Karo’s inclusion of a Zohar practice in his code.  Katz, followed by Chalamish, assert that Karo made all prescriptions in Shulchan Aruch “binding for all Israel,” unless otherwise explicitly noted with terms such as “It is commendable to take care…”  (Katz 54, Halamish 91).  Katz’s bases himself on a paragraph in the introduction to the Bet Yosef where Karo admonishes his readers not to accept his lenient opinions if the local practice is to prohibit the action.   According to Katz, this caveat allowed Karo to codify in a social vacuum and “measure the merits of the literary sources” according to halakhic reasoning alone (Katz 53).  As such, all conclusions drawn in the Shulchan Aruch derive from the same methodology and enjoy equally binding status.

Yet Katz misreads Karo’s statement in his introduction to the Bet Yosef.  Karo refers the reader to Pesachim 51a, in which the Talmud asserts that a community that has taken upon itself a stringent practice cannot simply switch to the more lenient opinion.  As Karo himself codifies in Yoreh Deah 214:1, the stringent practice transforms into a neder that cannot easily be changed, if at all.  Yet this does not mean that Karo dismissed the significance of contemporary practice.  In a previous paragraph, he explain that where widespread practice goes against his the consensus of his three primary poskim – Rif, Rosh, and Rambam –he will rule according to the minhag ha-olam (contemporary practice).  Karo understood that social factors played a role in psak halakha (halakhic adjudication), and as we shall see, played a significant role in his literary agenda.

More significantly, Karo’s statement does not shed any light on the relative weight each of his rulings.  Even if Karo entirely based his rulings through halakhic analysis of literary sources, that does not mean that he attributed the same weight to each se’if (section) in Shulchan Aruch.  Some laws stem from the Talmud and are explicated by all of its major commentators.  They are entrenched in the halakhic discourse and have been accepted, in one form or another, throughout the Jewish world.  Other laws, however, clearly do not enjoy such a rich tradition.  They are local minhagim, or fine details within the law, and lack the antiquity and pervasiveness of other laws.  Surely there is a difference, both in severity and obligation, between the mitzvah of eating on erev Yom Kippur (604:1, based on a Talmudic drasha), reciting a vidui before the seudat mafseket (606:1, based on a Talmudic din), and going to the mikvah or receiving lashes (606:7, 607:6, based on Ashkenazic minhagim).  Yet all are included in Hilchot Yom Ha-Kippurim of the Shulchan Aruch.  Karo achieved literary greatness precisely because he wrote a code (Shulchan Aruch) that organized his rulings from the sources culled in Bet Yosef.  Through both resources, the scholar could easily understand the relative weight behind each law within the code.

The Shulchan Aruch’s presentation of the morning hand-washing laws, cited above, display the distinction in the weight of the laws.  When resolving the dispute between Rashba and Rosh regarding hand-washing in the morning, Karo moderates the force of his ruling by introducing it as a praiseworthy vigilance  (OC 4:7).

טוב להקפיד בנטילת ידים שחרית בכל הדברים המעכבים בנטילת ידים לסעודה

Yet when ruling with regard to proper washing order with the right hand, Karo authoritatively states (4:10),

נוטל כלי של מים ביד ימינו, ונותנו ליד שמאלו, כדי שיריק מים על ימינו תחילה

Halamish believes that in the former case, he moderates his tone because the Zohar tips the scales in a disputed ruling.  In the latter case, however, where the Zohar serves as the source of the (textually) uncontested practice, it was “accepted in the Shulchan Aruch as an obligatory ruling” (Halamish 91).

Halamish’s example, however, does not convince and seemingly proves the opposite conclusions.  For starters, the necessity for washing in the proper order (4:10) stems from his conclusion in 4:7 that morning hand-washing deserves the treatment of a proper ritual.  As such, the law can only attain the status of the “hakpadah” required in by his earlier ruling.  Moreover, Halamish himself later acknowledges that he cannot find a consistent formula for Karo’s literary devices.  He introduces Zohar-based laws with modifying language like “yesh omrim,” “ha-minhag ha-nachon,” “tov la-hakpid,” but in other places simply states the law (Halamish 91-92).  The precise intention (if he had one) and legal significance behind Karo’s different word selections remains elusive.  Yet the very fact that he frequently uses such modifying language indicates that he believed that the minhagim or ordinances found in the Zohar do not always achieve an unequivocal normative status.[1]

Rav Karo’s Literary Agenda and the Inclusion of a Broad Range of Sources

This distinction between the relative obligatory nature of different se’ifim in Shulchan Aruch dovetails nicely with Yisrael Ta-Shma’s analysis of Karo’s literary agenda.  The Magid Mesharim makes clear that Karo desired that his magnum opus, the Bet Yosef, would turn his works into authoritative codes not only in Eretz Yisrael but throughout the world.  As the magid tells him (Magid 5),

ואמרין מאן ההוא גברא דמלך מלכי המלכים חפץ ביקרו הא הוא תנא סבא דארץ ישראל האי הוא ריש מתיבתא דארץ ישראל, הא הוא מחברא רבא דארץ ישראל וגם אם תתנהג ע”פ מנהגותי אזכך לגמור כל חיבורך ופרושיך ופמקותיך מכל שגיאה וטעות ולהדפיסם ולפשטם בכל גבול ישראל

In order to achieve this goal, however, Karo needed to include sources well beyond his own background of Spain and Eretz Yisrael.  As such, his works included not only Sephardic pillars such as Rambam, Rif, and Rosh, but also the writings of Ashkenazic poskim.  While Karo favored the former (although not exclusively) in areas of dispute, he included in the latter’s ruling in areas where the Sephardic poskim disagreed, to fill in the details of laws, or in a large number of minhagim where matters were uncontested.  As Ta-Shma pithily writes, “R. Yosef Karo’s rulings were Sephardic in quality and Ashkenazic in quantity” (Ta-Shma 158).   That is to say, while the Sephardic tradition received priority in the fundamentals of halakhic practice, many of the details or minhagim codified in the Shulchan Aruch, which have relatively lesser halakhic value, stemmed from Ashkenazic origin.  This made the work more attractive to Ashkenic readers, who expected their poskim and practices in any halakhic handbook.

In this regard, Karo used the Zohar in a similar fashion.  At times it helped to decide disagreements, on other occasions it provided details to certain rituals, and frequently it established new minhagim.  His inclusion of the Zohar helped the Shulchan Aruch gain acceptance not only in the emerging Kabbalistic centers in Turkey and Safed, but also in Greece, where the Zohar had achieved halakhic status unprecedented in the world (Ta-Shma 163-169).  Nonetheless, the work did not achieve the decisive status of more classical halakhic works such as Alfasi’s Haghot or Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, and its rulings were weighted accordingly.

Although the Zohar might not have achieved superior status in Karo’s hierarchy of halakhic texts, its very inclusion into the world of authoritative sources represented a major revolution.  The Sephardic world had just begun to cite the Zohar in Halakhic contexts, with major figures such as a R. David Ibn Zimra and R Jacob ben Habib sporadically quoting it, sometimes even without seeing the text inside (Katz 43).  In Eastern Europe, moreover, poskim entirely ignored the Zohar (since many of them had not seen the work), and even after the publication of the Shulchan Aruch, major figures such as the Maharshal viciously opposed its inclusion in the halakhic canon (Ta-Shma 161).  Karo empowered the Zohar with halakhic significance, quoting it (and other Kabbalistic works) dozens of times.  The inclusion of the Zohar in his writings significantly impacted the influence of Kabbalistic teachings for centuries.

The Evidence from Magid Mesharim

While Karo’s incorporation of the Zohar in halakhic discourse is readily apparent in the Bet Yosef and Shulchan Aruch, only in his Magid Mesharim does he reveal the personal significance of this achievement.  Long neglected by rabbis and academics alike as a forgery, R. J. Zwi Werblowsky conclusively proved that Karo penned this diary of mystical revelations from his personal magid, or angel.  Werblowsky, and more recently, Rachel Elior, extensively detailed the theological and mystical teachings in this work.  Our comments will focus on the significance of the magid on Karo’s legal works and his view of the relationship of halakha and kabbalah.

A quick purview of Magid Mesharim immediately reveals Karo’s obsession with completing his composition of the Bet Yosef and receiving scholarly approval for it.  The magid repeatedly assures him that the great sages of previous centuries and the heavenly hosts bless his work, and through proper concentration and behavior, he will produce a flawless work (Elior 677).  His rulings, the magid assures, even receive divine sanction, as he emphatically states (Magid 381),

חזק ואמץ אל תירא ואל תחת כי כל אשר אתה עושה ה, מצליח וכל אשר עשית והורית עד היום הזה ה’ מצליח בידך וכן מסכימים במתיבתא דרקיעא חי ה’ כי פסק זה אמת ויציב הלכה למשה מסיני הלכה כוותך … לכן חזק ואמץ אל תירא כי כל אשר עשית והורית עד היום הזה ה’ מצליח ומסכים בו וכן כל מה שתעשה ותורה מכאן והלאה הב”ה יצליח ויסכי’ על ידך

The magid goes on to condone Karo for constantly scrutinizing his ruling, but assures him that he need not fear his continued success.

ולמה חרדת על הפסק ההוא הלא נתן ה’ לך לב לדעת ולהכיר כי דברך אמת וצדק כי אעפ”י שאתה תמיד חושד סברתיך וזו מדה טובה היא מ”מ נכרים דברי אמת וע”כ אל יפול לבך עליו כלל כי במתיבתא דדקיעא מסכימים לדבריך כאשר אמרתי והלא לך למנד’ דמן שמיא משגיחי’ בך

Karo’s diary thus reveals the tremendous psychological strain to produce Bet Yosef and the significant role these mystical revelations played in prodding Karo to complete it.

Equally significantly, Magid Mesharim reveals the religio-political and theological goals behind Karo’s magnum opus.  In the introduction to Bet Yosef, Karo mourns the geopolitical status of the Jewish people following the expulsion from Spain.

With the Jews scattered throughout the world, he writes, halakhic practice has splintered into local rites, with “multiple Torot” being observed.  His composition seeks to transcend the geopolitical crisis and create a “virtual nation” centered around his codification.  He lists the poskim from the entire Jewish world that he cites to assure the book’s users that his “torah” can unify the Jewish people.

The Strain to Unify the Worlds of Halakha and Kabbalah

Yet as the Magid Mesharim shows, Karo’s goals extended beyond the unification of halakhic practice.  On numerous occasions, the magid lauds Karo for unifying the worlds of halakha and kabbalah.  Karo’s inclusion of the Zohar and other Kabbalistic texts attempted not only to encompass the full range of ritual practice, but also to unite the theological and legal orbits that he inhabited (Ta-Shma 162).  The following passage (Magid 258) particularly highlights this goal.

ואת כי תדבק בי ובתורתי וביראתי ומשניותי ולא תפריד אפילו רגע אחד ואתן לך מהלכים בין העומדים האלה ואזכך לגמו’ כל חיבורך בלי שו’ טעו’ ולהדפיסם ולפשטם בכל גבול ישראל עמי ואגדלה שמך בתלמידים יותר מיצחק אבואב בחירי לכן חזק ואמץ בתורתך כאשר אתה עושה בתורה במשנה בגמ’ רש”י ותוספות ובפסק ובקבל’ כי אתה מקשר אותם זה בזה וכל מלאכי מרום דורשים שלומך וטובתך ואל תצטער במזונות כי כבר אמרתי לך פעמים אין מספר כי פרנסתך מזומנת לא תחסר דבר כי אתה מושגח מאד בכל ענייניך רק כי תדבק בי ובתורתי ויראתי ועבודתי

Physical needs, the magid exhorts Karo, should not be your concern, since your flawless composition will spread throughout the world as you unite the worlds of psak and kabbalah.

Karo understood the significance of his project and believe that his efforts would include him within the chain of great composers in halakhic history.  In one of the first revelations, the magid tells Karo that the dynasty of writers that culled all of Torah She-Ba’al Peh, including R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi and Maimonides, support his endeavors (Magid, 7)

והא מימות משה רבן של כל הנביאים לא איכתיבא אורייתא דבעל פה עד יומי רבי מיומוי לא אתפרש כלא משנה עד דאתא רב אשי וליקט וחיבר ופירש ופסק. ומיומוי לא הות הלכתא אלא קצת מהלכות כגון הלכות פסוקות וכו’. עד דאתא הרי”ף והרמב”ם והרא”ש ופסקו הלכות בכוליה גמרא והרמב”ם הפליא לעשות למללא על כל אורייתא ומאז ועד השתא לא אתעורר חד ללקט מילי כולהו כמה דאתעוררת אתה

The example of R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi seems particularly significant since Karo’s revelations always took place during his study of mishna.  As a posek, one would expect Karo to primarily study gemara and its commentators and not the mishna, from which one cannot derive normative halakha.  Undoubtedly, the ability to study the realm of kodshim, which can only be manifested in Messianic times, influenced Karo.  Yet one wonders whether Karo heard the magid’s voice specifically while studying the text of the sage who first compiled all of Torah She-Ba’al Peh in a time of geopolitical uncertainty.  Only the study of his predecessor could strengthen him to accomplish his lofty goals of codification and unification.

The other sage on this list who composed an independent work that codified all of Torah She-Ba’al Peh, of course, was Rambam.[2] Karo decided to compose Bet Yosef as a commentary on the Tur, and not Mishne Torah, because the former included a variety of opinions while the latter represented the psak of one figure alone.  Nonetheless, Karo always discusses Rambam’s positions at length in Bet Yosef, and frequently quotes him verbatim in Shulchan Aruch.[3]

A comparison of these two codifiers and their larger projects might shed light on how to read Magid Mesharim.  Like Karo, Rambam engaged in both the realms of theology (in Rambam’s case, philosophy, in Karo’s case, kabbalah) and halakha.  As such, he devotes a significant portion of the Moreh Nevuchim to philosophically interpreting the Torah’s mitzvot (ta’amei ha-mitzvot).  While the impact of Rambam’s philosophy on his halakah is disputed amongst scholars, it is clear that he included elements of his philosophy in his code (e.g. Sefer Ha-Madda), yet espoused other philosophical ideas in his Moreh Nevuchim without embracing their halakhic implications in Mishne Torah.  In other words, Rambam represented a codifier whose works represent a careful (if not delineated) balance between philosophy and halakha.[4]

Magid Mesharim reveals that the balance between law and kabbalah similarly strained Karo.  As we have seen, Karo pioneered the mass use of the Zohar in his code, a project for which the magid extensively praises him.  Magid Mesharim also reveals some of the mystical considerations that Karo included in his rulings.  As Werblowsky noted (185-187), many of the magid’s references to Karo’s discussions in Bet Yosef only sought to encourage him, but did not impact his actual ruling.  For example, regarding the laws of ritual immersion, he writes (Magid 194),

פירוש נמי דמפרש הרמב”ם הרוב קושטא אינון ובההיא דצפורן שפרשת וכתבת שני דרכים חייך דקב”ה חייך בפלפולא דילך אבל אורחא בתראה הוא ברירו דמלה ומ”מ לא תמחוק קדמאה דיקריה דקב”ה סליק מיניה אף על גב דלאו קושטא איהו כיון דאיהו חריפא דוגמת נפחא דבטש בפרזלא ונצוצין מתנציצין לכל עבר

The Magid praises Karo for his learned deliberation on two different opinions yet affirms the divine validity of Karo’s final conclusion.  In this case, the magid represents a mere psychological promoter.

Yet in the same passage, the magid’s Kabbalistic teachings relate to the content of Karo’s psak.  Regarding the year-round use of a river as a mikveh, the magid forbids its use in the early spring (because of the excessive amount of “dripping water”) in accordance with the opinion of Rosh and R. Isaac of Dampierre and against Rabbenu Tam.  However, he justifies his opinion because this was the position of R. Meir of Rothenburg, whose pious death in prison made him pure and unblemished (Magid 196).  Karo does not always follow the ruling of R. Meir of Rothenburg.  This seems to be an example where Karo’s own desire for a “pure death” of martyrdom, well documented throughout the Magid (Elior 673-675), impacted his deliberations.  Yet the magid continues that post facto, one can rely on the opinion of R. Tam, and remarkably justifies this distinction based on Kabbalistic teachings (Magid 197).

ומהשתא תנדע דלכתחילה אין לטבול בנהרות באתר דמתפשטי מחמת גשמים משום דרמיז לחסד וגבורה דמסאבי סחרי לון, ומ”מ אי טבלה בדיעבד סלקא לה טבילה משום דאף ע”ג דמסאבי סחרי לון לית רשו להעלא ולקרבא לון כלל הלכך בדיעבד עלתה לה טבילה

In this remarkable passage, kabbalistic factors dictate direct halakhic implications.

This text, however, remains unique in its broad use of mystical considerations for direct legal consequences.  Moreover, as Werblowsky notes (173), the post factum leniency, while implied in the Tur, does not appear in Bet Yosef, and thus it remains unclear to what extent Karo fully embraced this distinction.  Nonetheless, the text remains revealing because it highlights one of Magid Meisharim’s larger goals of kabbalisticly interpreting halakha.  In many occasions, this represents a form of classical ta’amei ha-mitzvot.  Karo examines a mitzvah, such as yibum (Magid 261) or taharat metzora (226), and kabbalisticly interprets its significance.  On other occasions, however, the subject of interpretation is not a mitzvah of the Torah, but a particular law discussed by Chazal, such as mayim acharonim (281) or semichat geula le-tefilla, the prohibition of interruptions between birkot keriat shema and the Amidah.[5] Indeed, the magid’s elucidation of minutia in rabbinic halakha characterizes much of the uniqueness of the text.  The legal significance of the text stems from its mystical interpretations, not its halakhic innovations.  In Moreh Nevukhim, rabbinic Judaism confronted medieval philosophy, and a rationalistic divine law emerged.  In Magid Mesharim, the scholarly Karo confronts the magid’s world of symbolism and reveals a rich and learned Kabbalistic halakha.

Magid Mesharim as Journal of Spiritual Journey

Above all, however, Magid Mesharim represents a deeply intimate and meandering spiritual journey.  Unlike the systematic and thoroughly edited Moreh, Karo’s diary, published posthumously and possibly against his wishes, rambles loosely from topic to topic.  The revelations are not published chronologically, and seem to be incomplete (Benayahu 401-402).[6] Most importantly, the content itself does not seem to have undergone revision by Karo (presumably because it was not intended to be published), but rather stemmed from ecstatic revelations.  Much of the work details the magid’s exhortations to Karo for great spiritual punctiliousness, and never omits the most intimate of sins or harshest criticisms.[7] Mordechai Pachter has gone so far as to claim that one should read the book as a sefer mussar, full of rites of prayer, asceticism, and repentance.  This designation, however, might obfuscate the deeply personal nature of the exhortation, and Elior’s classification as an autobiographical spiritual journey seems more accurate.

The personal nature of the work helps explain the discrepancies between the magid’s halakha and Karo’s rulings in Bet Yosef.  In Shulchan Aruch (OC 597), for example, Karo ordains that one who fasts on the first day of Rosh Hashanah following a fateful dream must continue for their rest of their lives to fast on both days of the holiday.  The magid, however, seems to dictate that Karo should only fast on the first day after a he himself experiences a fearful dream (Magid 375).  A similarly small discrepancy exists regarding the requirement to review the weekly parasha (Magid 403, OC, Greenwald).  These types of inconsistencies, however, appear particularly natural when one recognizes the unpredictable nature of Karo’s revelations and their ad hoc recordings.  Karo similarly takes upon himself certain stringencies, such as not making any interruptions or skipping any letters in prayer (Magid 276), even though he allows both under certain circumstances in Shulchan Aruch (Halamish 89).  These exhortations, however, clearly exemplify individual punctiliousness aimed at unique spiritual ascension.[8] Halakhic fastidiousness and individual reproaches characterize mystical revelations and precisely serve to distinguish spiritual autobiographies from normative codes.

In his haskamah to the most recent edition of Magid Mesharim, Rabbi S. Deblinski of Bnei Brak quotes a tradition in the name of R. Chaim Volozhin that revelations from a magid do not happen in a vacuum.  Rather, they reflect the spiritual aspirations of the receiver that stem from the depth of his soul, and the revelations from above only help him to the extent that he desires it.  R. Yosef Karo desired to unite the worlds of halakha and kabbalah in a harmonious union.  Through both his codes and spiritual diary, we see how much he accomplished.

Works Cited

Benayahu, Meir, Yosef BehiriMaran Rebbi Yosef Karo (Hebrew), Jerusalem:  Yad Harav Nissim, 5751.

Elior, Rachel,  “R. Yosef Karo ve-R. Yisrael Ba’al Shem Tov,” Tarbiz 65:4 (5756), p. 671-709.

Halamish, Moshe, “Kabbalah Be-Pesikah Shel R. Yosef Karo,” Da’at 21 (5747-48), p. 85-102.

Karo, Yosef, Sefer Magid Mesharim Le-Maran Rebbi Yosef Karo, ed. Yehiel Bar Lev, Petah Tikva: no publisher listed, 1990.

Katz, Jacob,  Divine Law in Human Hands:  Case Studies in Halakhic Flexibility, Jerusalem:  Magnes Press, 1998.

Pachter, Mordechai, “Sefer ‘Magid Meisharim’ le-R. Yosef Karo Ke-Sefer Mussar,” Da’at 21 (5747-48), p. 57-83.

Ta-Shma, Yisrael, “Rebbi Yosef Karo Bein Ashkenaz Le-Sefard,” Tarbiz 59 (5750), p. 153-170.

Werblowsky, R.J. Zvi, Joseph Karo:  Lawyer and Mystic, JPS, 1977.

Gruenwald, Yekutiel (Leopold), Ha-Rav R. Yosef Karo U-Zmano, New York:  Feldheim, 1953.

Works Consulted

Tamar, David, “Dinim Ha-Meyuchasim Al Ha-Zohar Ve-Al Ha-Kabbalah Be-Shulchan Aruch U-Bet Yosef,” Sinai 115 (5755)

Arbel, Vita Daphna, Beholders of Divine Secrets, Albany:  SUNY, 2004

Urbach, Ephraim, “The Tradition about Torat Ha-Sod in the Tannaitic Period” (Hebrew), Studies in Mysticism and Religion Presented to Gershom G. Scholem on His Seventieth Birthday by Pupils, Colleagues, and Friends, ed. Ephraim Urbach et al, Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1967.


[1] The same is true, of course, for other minhagim presented in Shulchan Aruch, as noted with the example of Hilchot Yom Ha-Kippurim.  The authority of the Zohar’s rulings, as with other compendium, relates to Karo’s assessment of their origin and nature.

[2] The works of Rav Ashi, Rif, and Rosh encompassed much or all of Torah She-Ba’al Peh, but were commentaries not written in a systematic, codifying manner.  Significantly, in his introduction to Mishne Torah, Rambam as well justified his bold codification of halakha by citing the precedent of R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, who, like the Rambam and Karo, felt obligated to write his code because of geopolitical exigencies.

[3] Later in life, of course, he also wrote a commentary to Mishne Torah that provided the sources for Rambam’s rulings.

[4] There obviously exist many differences between Rambam and Karo.  The comparison merely serves as an analogy to help understand the legal significance of Magid Mesharim.

[5] Chalamish (87-88) notes that the magid’s exhortation of Karo for failing in this requirement deeply impacted him to the point where he repeats this law three times in Bet Yosef.  Yet as Chalamish himself ntoes, Karo introduces the din as a case when common practice has demanded punctiliousness (pashat ha-minhag”), and not that the law bears tremendous significance.  Once again, the influence of the magid’s ruling remains ambiguous.

[6] It is possible that the work is organized around the parshiyot, and not chronologically, because the publisher viewed its most significant contribution to be its novel interpretations of halakha.

[7] Including for suffering and sexual sins.

[8] Halamish (90) incorrectly attributes to the magid the extreme Kabbalistic position prohibiting conversion.  A careful examination of the passage (Magid 391) clearly indicates that Karo forbids conversion when the prospective convert desires to marry a Jew, as SA Y.D. 268:12 ordains.

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