Rabbi Yosef Caro of Biriya

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Rabbi Yosef Caro, one of the most important and influential Jewish scholars of the last thousand years, was the head of the Zefat Beit Din (Rabbinical Court) as well as its Chief Rabbi for over 35 years.

Rabbi Caro was born in the year 5248 [1488] in either Spain or Portugal. His family arrived in Turkey in 1497, where he resided for the next 39 years, mostly in Istanbul.

In 1522 he moved to Adrianople, where he continued his studies under Rabbi Taitazak, one of the major scholars of Turkish Jewry. It is believed that it was during this period that he met the mystic Shlomo Malcho and was deeply influenced by him. Subsequently he moved to Nikopol and later to Solonika, also part of Turkey at the time. While in Nikopol he met his life-long friend and chavrutah [study-partner], Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz. It is widely believed that it was the latter who influenced Rabbi Caro to make aliyah in 1536, and that while there in Nikopol, the two instituted the custom of Tikun Leil Shavuot [“rectification of Shavuot night” — a recitation of verses from all parts of the written and oral Torah - click here for full story].

During this period Rabbi Caro began writing his major work, the Beit Yosef [House of Yosef], an exhaustive and erudite commentary on the Arba Turim [The Four Pillars] of Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher. His purpose was to unify the Jewish people through resolving all disputes and ambiguities in the understanding of the halacha in every relevant situation.

In 5296 [1536] Rabbi Caro arrived in Zefat where he studied under Rabbi Yaakov Beirav, the Chief Rabbi of the city at the time, and from whom he received the contraversial "renewed semicha." After Rabbi Beirav’s departure from Zefat in 1540, Rabbi Caro was appointed Chief, and here he lived for the rest of his life, maintaining a voluminous correspondence of responses to queries in Jewish Law, teaching many students and disciples, and earning his living as a spice merchant.

Rabbi Caro was already well known as the author of Kesef Mishna, an authoritative explanation and source reference for the Mishna Torah of Maimonides. In Zefat he completed his magnus opus, the Beit Yosef, which became accepted throughout nearly the entire Jewish world as the authoritative reference for halacha. Because it was so lengthy and detailed, however, Rabbi Caro wrote a shortened version, the Shulchan Aruch [“Prepared Table”, known in English simply as the Code of Jewish Law], which contains the final halachic decisions without the long discussions. Even today, over 400 years later, this latter work is considered the foundation of all subsequent development of Jewish law, and indeed in scholarly circles, Rabbi Yosef Caro is often referred to as Hamechaber   — “THE Author”(click here for full Bibliography of his works).

In addition to his greatness in halacha, Rabbi Yosef Caro was also an accomplished and well known kabbalist. In his Maggid Mesharim, he records discussions that he had with an angel who advised him in his studies and conduct. Rabbi Alkabetz testified that he was with Rabbi Caro during one of these visitations, and there is confirmation from other witnesses as well (click here for full story).

Very little is known about his personal life. He was married at least three times, for he quotes his three fathers-in-law in his books. We also know that three of his children died in Turkey and that he was survived by at least three sons. His youngest son was born when Rabbi Caro was 82 years old. According to sources, his son Yehuda was engaged to marry a daughter of the ARI [Rabbi Yirzchak Luria, the acknowledged master kabbalist of Zefat].

Rabbi Caro did not dwell in the city itself but in Beriya, just outside of Zefat, and today one of its suburbs. In Zefat proper was the three-story building where the great rabbi had a Beit Midrash [House of Study] filled with hundreds of students learning Torah. He also conducted the Beit Din proceedings there. Indeed it is said that in the basement of this building Rabbi Caro had his meetings with the angel. The section that leads to the basement is closed, due to a local tradition that the angel is still there and does not want to be disturbed.

The building that stands on the site today is not the one that Rabbi Caro used, since the original was destroyed in the earthquake of 1759. The present building is a reconstruction, rebuilt on the original site in 1860 (after a second earthquake in 1837 destroyed the first reconstruction!) to serve as the Beit Din of Zefat. The reason for its split level design was to allow an upper level for the rabbinical judges and a lower level for the litigants. Today the building functions primarily as a shul and is officially called “The Yosef Caro Synagogue”.

Rabbi Caro died on 13 Nissan, 5225 [1575] while responding to a query on halacha. On the empty page his son wrote: “Here the master of blessed memory left the page blank. He would have written the answer, but was called to the Academy on High”.  
By Shlomo ben Ayal (from Ascent Quarterly #11 & 12)

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