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Yosef Karo

One of the most imporant figures in Judaism, Rabbi Yosef (Joseph) Karo is one of the most important leaders in the history of Jewish law (halakha). He was born in Spain or Portugal in 1488; died at Safed (Tzefat), Israel, March 24, 1575.

After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, in 1492, Karo went with his parents to Nicopolis in European Turkey, where he received his first instruction from his father, who was himself an eminent Talmudist. He married, first, Isaac Saba's daughter, and, after her death, the daughter of Hayyim Albalag, both of these men being well-known Talmudists. After the death of his second wife he married the daughter of Zechariah Sechsel (Sachsel?), a learned and wealthy Talmudist.

Between 1520 and 1522 Karo settled at Adrianople, where he probably met the enthusiast Solomon Molcho, who stimulated his mystical tendencies. When the latter died at the stake in 1532, Karo also was filled with a longing to be "consumed on the altar as a holy burnt offering," to sanctify the name of God by a martyr's death. Like Molkho, Karo had fantastic dreams and visions, which he believed to be revelations from a higher being. His genius, he thought, was nothing less than the Mishnah personified, which instructed him because he had devoted himself to its service. These mystical tendencies probably induced Karo to emigrate to Palestine, where he arrived about 1535, having en route spent several years at Salonica (1533) and Constantinople.

Authority recognized

At Safed he met Jacob Berab, who exerted a great influence upon him, Karo becoming an enthusiastic supporter of Berab's plans for the restitution of ordination. After Berab's death Karo tried to carry out these plans, ordaining his pupil Moses Alshech; but he finally gave up his endeavors, convinced that he could not overcome the opposition to ordination.

However, his aspiration to be regarded as the highest authority in Judaism was practically realized; for his reputation during the last thirty years of his life was greater than that of almost any other rabbi since Maimonides. The Italian Azariah dei Rossi, though his views differed widely from Karo's, collected money among the rich Italian Jews for the purpose of having a work of Karo's printed; and the Pole Moses Isserles compelled the recognition of one of Karo's decisions at Cracow, although he thought Karo was wrong.

When some members of the community of Carpentras, in France, believed themselves to have been unjustly treated by the majority in a matter relating to taxes, they appealed to Karo, whose letter was sufficient to restore to them their rights ("Rev. Etudes Juives," xviii. 133-136). In the East, Karo's authority was, if possible, even greater. His name heads the decree of excommunication directed against Daud, Joseph Nasi's agent; and it was Karo who condemned Dei Rossi's "Me'or 'Enayim" to be burned. Karo's death, therefore, caused general mourning; and several funeral orations delivered on that occasion have been preserved (Moses Albelda, "Darash Mosheh"; Samuel Katzenellenbogen, "Derashot"), as well as some elegies.

Karo published during his lifetime: "Bet Yosef" (House of Joseph); The Shulkhan Arukh; The "Kesef Mishneh" (Double Money), Venice, 1574-75. After his death there appeared: "Bedeḳ ha-Bayit" (Repairing of the House), supplements and corrections to "Bet Yosef," Salonica, 1605; "Kelale ha-Talmud" (Methodology of the Talmud), ib., 1598; "Abḳat Rokel" (Powder of the Merchant), Responsa, ib. 1791; Responsa, ib. 1597; "Maggid Mesharim" (Who Preaches Rightly), Lublin, 1646; supplements to the same, Venice, 1654; "Derashot," Salonica, 1799, in the collection "'Oz Ẓaddiḳim" (The Power of the Righteous).

Karo also left a commentary upon the Mishnah, as well as supercommentaries to Rashi's and Nahmanides' commentaries on the Torah, which have, apparently, not been preserved.

"Maggid Mesharim"

Karo's literary works and the importance of his share in the development of rabbinism are beyond dispute: his works are among the masterpieces of rabbinic literature. But Karo's character has been variously criticized, the difference of opinion being connected with the literary question whether the book "Maggid Mesharim" is really a work by Karo, or is merely ascribed to him. This book is a kind of diary in which Karo during a period of fifty years noted his discussions with his heavenly mentor, the personified Mishnah.

The discussions treat of various subjects. The maggid enjoins Karo to be modest in the extreme, to say his prayers with the utmost devotion, to be gentle and patient always. Especial stress is laid on asceticism; and Karo is often severely rebuked for taking more than one glass of wine, or for eating meat. Whenever Karo did not follow the severe instructions of his maggid, he suddenly heard its warning voice. His mentor also advised him in family affairs, told him what reputation he enjoyed in heaven, and praised or criticized his decisions in religious questions. Karo received new ideas from his maggid in regard to the Cabala only, for the study of which he had hardly any time; such information was in the nature of sundry cabalistic interpretations of the Pentateuch, that in content, though not in form, remind one of the theories of Karo's pupil, Moses Cordovero.

The present form of the "Maggid Mesharim" shows plainly that it was never intended for publication, being merely a collection of stray notes; nor does Karo's son Judah mention the book among his father's works (Introduction to the Responsa). It is known, on the other hand, that during Karo's lifetime the cabalists believed his maggid to be actually existent (compare Vital-Calabrese, "Sefer ha-Gilgulim," pp. 119, 142, Wilna, 1885). The "Maggid Mesharim," furthermore, shows a knowledge of Karo's public and private life that no one could have possessed after his death; and the fact that the maggid promises things to its favorite that were never fulfilled — e.g., a martyr's death — proves that it is not the work of a forger, composed for Karo's glorification.

Karo's Characteristics

Although Maimonides and Karo, the two greatest codifiers of rabbinical Judaism, differed so widely from each other, they had this in common, that in their codes they assumed exclusively the standpoint of Talmudism—an attitude eminently characteristic of the spirit of rabbinism. Just as Maimonides' "Yad" — aside from its book "Ha-Madda'" — gives no indication that its author ranked Aristotle immediately after the Prophets, so Karo, in his works, does not betray his leaning toward mysticism. He considered the Zohar to be a work of the tanna Simon b. Yohai, and a holy book, that, however, has little or no importance for religious practise, which must be ruled exclusively by the Talmud.

Karo's mysticism was not speculative in nature; and he devoted very little time to the Kabbalah, although his maggid often exhorted him not to neglect the study of it ("Maggid Mesharim," p. 57b). The catastrophe that came upon the Pyrenean Jews made such an impression upon the minds of the best among them that many saw therein the signs of Messianic travail, (compare Jacob Berab); and Karo, according to a contemporary, took this dark view throughout his life. While men like Molkho and David Reubeni were led to commit extravagant and foolish deeds under the influence of this idea. Berab's and Karo's nobility of nature came to the fore. If Karo indulged in mystical visions, and, half dreaming, thought he heard heavenly voices in his soul, they served always as reminders to him that his life, his actions, and his accomplishments must surpass those of other people (ib. "Toledot," p. 9; "Azharot," p. 3b, and passim).

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