1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Qaro, Joseph ben Ephraim
QARO (or Caro), JOSEPH BEN EPHRAIM (1488–1575), codifier of Jewish law, whose code is still authoritative with the mass of Jews, was born in 1488. As a child he shared in the expulsion from Spain (1492), and like most prominent Jews of the period was forced to migrate from place to place. In 1535 he settled in Safed, Palestine, where he spent the rest of his life. Safed was then the headquarters of Jewish mysticism. Qaro was himself a mystic, for the tribulations of the time turned many men’s minds towards Messianic hopes; nor was he by any means the only great Jewish legalist who was also a mystic. Mysticism in such minds did not take the form of a revolt against authority, but was rather the spiritual flower of pietism than an expression of antinomianism. It is, however, as a legalist that Qaro is best known. In learning and critical power he was second only to Maimonides in the realm of Jewish law. He was the author of two great works, the second of which, though inferior as an intellectual feat, has surpassed the first in popularity. This was inevitable, for the earlier and greater book was designed exclusively for specialists. It was in the form of a commentary (entitled Beth Yoseph) on the Turim (see ’Asher Ben Yeḥiel). In this commentary Qaro shows an astounding mastery over the Talmud and the legalistic literature of the middle ages. He felt called upon to systematize the laws and customs of Judaism in face of the disintegration caused by the Spanish expulsion. But the Beth Yoseph is by no means systematic.
Qaro’s real aim was effected by his second work, the Shulḥan ’Arukh (“Table Prepared”). Finished in 1555, this code was published in four parts in 1565. The work was not accepted without protest and criticism, but after the lapse of a century, and in consequence of certain revisions and amplifications, it became the almost unquestioned authority of the whole Jewish world. Its influence was to some extent evil. It “put Judaism into a strait-jacket.” Independence of judgment was inhibited, and the code stood in the way of progressive adaptation of Jewish life to the life of Europe. It included trivialities by the side of great principles, and retained elements from the past which deserved to fall into oblivion. But its good effects far outweighed the bad. It was a bond of union, a bar to latitudinarianism, an accessible guide to ritual, ethics and law. Above all, it gave a new lease of life to the great theory which identified life with religion. It sanctified the home, it dignified common pursuits. When, however, the era of reform dawned in the 19th century, the new Judaism found itself impelled to assume an attitude of hostility to Qaro’s code.See Graetz, Geschichte der Juden, vol. ix. (English trans. vol. iv.); Ginzberg, in Jewish Encyclopedia, arts. “Caro” and “Codification"; Schechter, Studies in Judaism, second series, pp. 202 seq.