The Jewish codifier Joseph ben Ephraim Caro (1488-1575) is the most universally recognized authority on Jewish law and practice.
Joseph Caro was born in Spain or Portugal. His family was expelled from Spain in 1492 and then continued eastward with sojourns in Greece and Turkey before settling in Safed (now in Israel) about 1535. Caro received his early training from his father, Ephraim, an eminent Talmudist, and later added Cabala, or Jewish mysticism, to his basic interests. He aspired to become the highest authority in Judaism, and during the last 3 decades of his life he enjoyed a greater prestige than any rabbi since Maimonides. His opinions were accepted everywhere, and queries were addressed to him from both the Sephardi (Levantine and western European) communities and the Ashkenazi (eastern European) communities.
Although an eminent authority in the field of Jewish mysticism, Caro's abiding fame was engendered by his two major works. He wrote the Bet Yosef (The House of Joseph), an exhaustive commentary to the 14th-century code, Arba Turim (The Four Rows), of Jacob ben Asher. Caro's work also included all Talmudic and Gaonic sources in order to establish a legal regimen acceptable to all groups. The frequent migrations of Jews to all parts of the world and the diversity of minhagim, or local practices, emphasized the need for an all-embracing work.
The Bet Yosef was designed for scholars, but there were many who lacked the intellectual acumen to study it. For these people Caro compiled his other great work, the Shulhan Aruk (The Prepared Table). It has remained until the present time the official guide of rabbinical Judaism and is without a peer as the arbiter of all ritual and legal problems. The writings of Caro did not, however, replace the Talmud as the ultimate authority in Jewish law.
The Shulhan Aruk is divided into four parts, each bearing the titles provided by the Arba Turim. The Orah Hayyim (path of Life) covers the topics of prayer, synagogue ritual, Sabbath, and festivals. The Yoreh Deah (Teacher of Knowledge) deals with matters permitted and prohibited, and more especially with dietary regulations and the purity of women. The Eben ha-Ezer (Stone of Help) provides guidance for family relations, domestic affairs, marriage, and divorce. The Hoshen ha-Mishpat (Breastplate of Justice) is concerned with civil and procedural law.
A greatly simplified and popular condensation of the Shulhan Aruk known as the Kitzur (Abbreviated) Shulhan Aruk was compiled by the Hungarian scholar Solomon Ganzfried, and it has taken its place on the bookshelf of the Jewish home together with the Bible and the Prayer Book.
Further Reading on Joseph ben Ephraim Caro
Caro's Code of Hebrew Law was translated into English with a commentary by Chaim N. Denburg (2 vols., 1954-1955). Studies in English of Caro and his work include Hirsch Loeb Gordon, The Maggid of Caro: The Mystic Life of the Eminent Codifier Joseph Caro as Revealed in His Secret Diary (1949), and Raphael Jehudah Zwi Werblowsky, Joseph Karo: Lawyer and Mystic (1962).