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Today, when the “Shulchan Aruch” is quoted, everyone knows the reference is to the magnum opus of Rabbi Yosef Karo, first published in 1565, along with the notes of the Rema. But that wasn’t always the case.

R’ Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Aruch was published after the Tur, which included many opinions along with their underlying logic. The Shulchan Aruch, in contrast, focuses exclusively on the final halachic ruling, using terse language. (Those wishing to understand the reasoning for his rulings have to refer back to his magisterial multi-volume Beis Yosef commentary on the Tur.)


Thus, with the publication of the Shulchan Aruch, Jews, for the first time, could learn rather quickly how to conduct themselves. Despite its great appeal, however, many rabbis immediately recognized that the Shulchan Aruch’s extreme brevity had disadvantages. First, its rulings, presented without accompanying explanations, were sometimes misunderstood and misapplied. Second, the cut-and-dry nature of the rulings was not inviting to the average reader.

To rectify these deficiencies, Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe of Prague – whose 408th yahrzeit is on Friday, the third of Adar – set out to write his own Shulchan Aruch. The set of volumes he ultimately produced is known today collectively as the Levush.

Rabbi Jaffe was a student of both the Maharshal and the Rema and acquired kabbalistic knowledge while living in Venice, Italy. He decided the best way to draw students into learning halacha was to give them the final rulings together with their underlying logic. He believed the Beis Yosef and Shulchan Aruch were both exercises in extremes – the former, too lengthy, and the latter, too short. So he took the middle ground, succinctly presenting the halachic explanations in the Beis Yosef along with the final rulings of the Shulchan Aruch. He also noted Ashkenazic customs that differed with R’ Karo’s rulings.

Rabbi Jaffe was an articulate and sophisticated writer. Upon the first publication of his multi-volume Sefer Levushim in 1590, many communities began to study his restatement of the Shulchan Aruch on a daily basis instead of R’ Yosef Karo’s.

That the Levush was understood by some authorities to be an alternative to R’ Karo’s Shulchan Aruch can be readily inferred by the way Rabbi Joshua Falk refers to it in his twin commentaries on the Tur, the Prisha and Drisha. Without fail, whenever he cites the Levush, Rabbi Falk writes, “As Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe writes in his Shulchan Aruch” (see, for example: Prisha, Orach Chayim 488; ibid., 566; Drisha, Orach Chayim 263; ibid., 466; ibid., Yoreh De’ah 198; ibid., 200; and ibid., 339).

Some rabbis even believed the Levush was destined to become the definitive code of Jewish law. One posek with this view was Rabbi Eliyahu Shapiro of Tiktin. For the most part, his monumental Sefer Elya Rabba was written as a commentary on the Levush. Rabbi Shapiro was accustomed to learning the Levush from his youth and practically knew it by heart.

However, by the time the Elya Rabba was printed in Sulzbach in 1757, R’ Karo’s Shulchan Aruch had become the Jewish world’s preeminent halachic work, so the publisher placed Rabbi Shapiro’s commentary around the Shulchan Aruch. By doing so, he made the Elya Rabba available to a wider audience, but it sometimes results in confusion because the commentary was affixed to the wrong sefer! (Recently, a revised edition of the Levush was published with the Elya Rabba returned to its rightful home – alongside the text he commented on.)

Despite the initial popularity of the Levush, as time went on, the Shulchan Aruch of R’ Yosef Karo became the preeminent halachic guide in every Jewish home and synagogue whereas the Levush was only studied by halachic specialists. The question is: Why? If the Levush indeed corrected the deficiencies of the Shulchan Aruch, why was it ultimately displaced by it?

There appear to be four reasons:

1) Despite being the Rema’s student, Rabbi Jaffe did not hesitate to disagree with his teacher’s halachic rulings when he felt they were in error. For the next generation of Torah sages, such as the Taz and Shach, this was unacceptable as Ashkenaz Jewry already regarded the Rema’s rulings as final. Indeed, it was common practice in Ashkenaz to quote the verse, “And the sons of Israel went out b’yad Rema.”

2) The fact that the Taz and Shach wrote their major commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch of R’ Karo diminished interest in studying the Levush.

3) Unlike R’ Karo’s Shulchan Aruch, which focuses exclusively on halacha, the Levush also includes discussions on kabbalistic ideas. For many poskim, the inclusion of kabbalah was a distraction.

4) Some contemporary poskim believed Rabbi Jaffe did not have many important sefarim when he penned his work. Therefore, his halachic analysis was possibly based on incomplete information (see introduction to Sefer Me’irat Enayim by Rabbi Joshua Falk).

Nevertheless, despite the Levush’s ultimate displacement by R’ Karo’s Shulchan Aruch, many rulings of his have been accepted by later poskim and are reflected in normative halachic practice. The following are three examples:

* According to the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 53:19), even a single congregant can object to a chosen chazzan and demand that he be replaced. Upon seeing the negative results of this ruling in his community, Rabbi Jaffe ruled that nowadays an individual does not have the right to object to the chosen chazzan.

After quoting the Shulchan Aruch’s ruling, he writes, “And I say that this was in their time, but in our day and age, due to our many sins, many are engaged in machlokes for no good reason and their whole intention is not leshem shamayim. If we had to ask each individual whether he consents to the chosen chazzan, we would never be able to agree upon a chazzan…as I have seen many times with my own eyes. Therefore, we should leave this decision up to the will of the majority of dues-paying members.”

This ruling is quoted approvingly by the Taz, Magen Avraham, Pri Megadim, Shulchan Aruch HaRav (Orach Chayim 53:23), Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chayim 53, n. 53), and the Aruch HaShulchan.

  1. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 94:1) rules that one should face east during Shmoneh Esrei. In a lengthy analysis, Rabbi Jaffe writes that since Europe was northwest of Eretz Yisrael, one must pray facing southeast.

This ruling is quoted approvingly by most later poskim, including the Taz, Magen Avraham, Shulchan Aruch HaRav (Orach Chayim 94:2), and Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chayim 94, in the Biur Halacha).

  1. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 273:5) rules (based on the Geonim) that even without eating any bread or mezonos, a person can fulfill the requirement of kiddush b’makom seudah so long as he drinks enough wine to make a berachah (achronah).

The Shulchan Aruch rules that one only has to drink a reviis, or a malei lugmov, but the Levush strenuously disagrees. The Levush understands the Geonim to be saying that one must drink a riviis from a second cup of wine in addition to what he drinks from the original cup of Kiddush. Rabbi Jaffe writes, “It is this additional cup of wine that stands in for his meal.”

This more stringent ruling is quoted approvingly by most later poskim including the Bach, Taz; Shuchan Aruch HaRav (Orach Chayim 273:70), and the Mishnah Beruah (Orach Chayim 273, n. 27).

One of the lasting effects of the Levush was its impression on Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the Baal HaTanya and author of the Shulchan Aruch HaRav. After being tasked by his teacher, the Maggid of Mezritch, to write an updated restatement of the Shulchan Aruch, he followed the lead of the Levush and incorporated both final halachic ruling and their underlying logic. The Shulchan Aruch HaRav actually makes approximately 300 references to the Levush.

Even though the Levush was only a short-term rival to the Shulchan Aruch of R’ Yosef Karo, its profound halachic insights still play a significant role in halachic practice today.

May the memory of the Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe be a blessing.