Q. What exactly is the Shulchan Aruch that you refer to in some of your OzTorah articles?
A. It is the four volume Code of Jewish Law compiled by Rabbi Yosef Karo in the 16th century. The name, Shulchan Aruch, “The Laid Table”, comes from Psalm 23, “You lay a table before me”. On Ex. 21:1, “These are the judgments you shall set before them,” Rashi says, “like a laid table”.
Karo first produced a commentary, called Bet Yosef, on the Arba’ah Turim of Yaakov ben Asher who, born in Germany in 1269, wrote his books in Barcelona. His code – the name, Arba’ah Turim, “Four Rows”, is from Ex. 28:7, referring to the four rows of jewels in the high priest’s breastplate – has four parts. They are:
• Orach Chayim, “Path of Life” – dealing with religious rituals and occasions.
• Yoreh De’ah, “Teaching of Knowledge” – on shechitah and kashrut, charity, family purity, circumcision, conversion, mourning, etc.
• Even HaEzer, “Stone of Help” – on marriage and divorce.
• Choshen Mishpat, “Breastplate of Judgment” – on civil law (the name is from Ex. 28:15).
Karo based his Shulchan Aruch, written 20 years later, on the Arba’ah Turim and his own Bet Yosef. The work has a timeless quality, though there are many later commentaries and halachic works.
Since the standard editions incorporate the Ashkenazi glosses of Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the work is universally accepted because it incorporates both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi positions, making it applicable to all Jewish groups.