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


Why Arab Jerusalem Has Stayed Quiet

One of Hamas’s most notable failures since October 7 is that it has not succeeded in inspiring a violent uprising either among the Palestinians of the West Bank or the Arab citizens of Israel. The latter seem horrified by Hamas’s actions and tend to sympathize with their own country. In the former case, quiet has been maintained by the IDF and Shin Bet, which have carried out a steady stream of arrests, raids, and even airstrikes.

But there is a third category of Arab living in Israel, namely the Arabs of Jerusalem, whose intermediate legal status gives them access to Israeli social services and the right to vote in municipal elections. They may also apply for Israeli citizenship if they so desire, although most do not.

On Wednesday, off-duty Israeli soldiers in the Old City of Jerusalem shot at a Palestinian who, it seems, was attempting to attack them. But this incident is a rare exception to the quiet that has prevailed in Arab Jerusalem since the war began. Eytan Laub asked a friend in an Arab neighborhood why:

Listen, he said, we . . . have much to lose. We already fear that any confrontation would have consequences. Making trouble may put our residence rights at risk. Furthermore, he added, not a few in the neighborhood, including his own family, have applied for Israeli citizenship and participating in disturbances would hardly help with that.

Such an attitude reflects a general trend since the end of the second intifada:

In recent years, the numbers of [Arab] Jerusalemites applying for Israeli citizenship has risen, as the social stigma of becoming Israeli has begun to erode and despite an Israeli naturalization process that can take years and result in denial (because of the requirement to show Jerusalem residence or the need to pass a Hebrew language test). The number of east Jerusalemites granted citizenship has also risen, from 827 in 2009 to over 1,600 in 2020.

Oddly enough, Laub goes on to argue, the construction of the West Bank separation fence in the early 2000s, which cuts through the Arab-majority parts of Jerusalem, has helped to encouraged better relations.

Read more at Jerusalem Strategic Tribune

More about: East Jerusalem, Israeli Arabs, Jerusalem