How the Dislocation and Ferment of the 15th Century Shaped Judaism’s Greatest Legal Code

Born in Spain in 1488, Joseph Karo was taken by his family to nearby Portugal during the expulsion of 1492—before they fled again five years later to avoid forced conversation. Karo would go on to write magisterial commentaries on the seminal halakhic compendia of Moses Maimonides and Jacob ben Asher, before codifying his own scholarship in the Shulḥan Arukh—a Jewish legal handbook invested with an authority given to no work since the Babylonian Talmud. He was also one of the leading kabbalists of his day. Tamar Marvin describes his early life and intellectual formation:

Following . . . the route of so many Iberian exiles, [Karo’s] family found its way to the newly minted and bustling Ottoman empire, settling first at Constantinople (now Istanbul, or, as Jews called it, Custa). When Joseph’s father, Ephraim, died at a young age, his uncle took over his education. By 1522 Joseph sought his own fortune, moving to Adrianople (today’s Edirne), Nikopol, and then Salonika (something like, we might say, the Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles of Turkey in those days).

Along the way, Karo met compatriots and brushed shoulders with the colorful messianic figure Solomon Molcho. Molcho, born Diogo Pires in Portugal, was a Marrano—the pejorative descriptor of forcibly converted Portuguese Jews. He returned to Judaism; was circumcised by another messianic pretender, David Reuveni; studied Kabbalah; and eventually made overtures to the pope and Holy Roman Emperor. The latter did not take kindly to Molcho’s messianic pretensions and had him tried, whereupon he was burned at the stake as a Christian heretic in 1532. This public martyrdom impressed itself upon Karo’s consciousness.

While still in Adrianople, at the age of thirty-four, Karo began work on his masterpiece, which would take him twenty years to complete. His goal was ambitious and born in worry: concern that the exigencies of the time—especially the traumatic dislocation of Iberian Jewry—were leading to a multiplicity of halachic rulings. This sense of unruly diversity was certainly informed by a key feature of early modernity, which, due to expulsions from Western Europe, brought together disparate Jewish communities.

Read more at Stories from Jewish History

More about: Halakhah, Joseph Karo, Judaism, Shulhan Arukh, Spanish Expulsion


When It Comes to Peace with Israel, Many Saudis Have Religious Concerns

Sept. 22 2023

While roughly a third of Saudis are willing to cooperate with the Jewish state in matters of technology and commerce, far fewer are willing to allow Israeli teams to compete within the kingdom—let alone support diplomatic normalization. These are just a few results of a recent, detailed, and professional opinion survey—a rarity in Saudi Arabia—that has much bearing on current negotiations involving Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. David Pollock notes some others:

When asked about possible factors “in considering whether or not Saudi Arabia should establish official relations with Israel,” the Saudi public opts first for an Islamic—rather than a specifically Saudi—agenda: almost half (46 percent) say it would be “important” to obtain “new Israeli guarantees of Muslim rights at al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif [i.e., the Temple Mount] in Jerusalem.” Prioritizing this issue is significantly more popular than any other option offered. . . .

This popular focus on religion is in line with responses to other controversial questions in the survey. Exactly the same percentage, for example, feel “strongly” that “our country should cut off all relations with any other country where anybody hurts the Quran.”

By comparison, Palestinian aspirations come in second place in Saudi popular perceptions of a deal with Israel. Thirty-six percent of the Saudi public say it would be “important” to obtain “new steps toward political rights and better economic opportunities for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Far behind these drivers in popular attitudes, surprisingly, are hypothetical American contributions to a Saudi-Israel deal—even though these have reportedly been under heavy discussion at the official level in recent months.

Therefore, based on this analysis of these new survey findings, all three governments involved in a possible trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal would be well advised to pay at least as much attention to its religious dimension as to its political, security, and economic ones.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Islam, Israel-Arab relations, Saudi Arabia, Temple Mount