Shulhan Arukh’s Audience and Sizes, Initially

The earlier editions were addressed to young men. They were issued in various sizes, some of which could be carried around with ease, and were designed to be used anywhere, not only in the synagogue or in the study hall. Like the editions of the Greek and Latin classics that had appeared at Aldus Manutius’ press in Venice earlier in the century, the work contained a preface but offered little commentary. Furthermore, in some printings Karo’s Shulhan ‘arukh was not one book, but four, as each volume of Jacob ben Asher’s Tur to which it served as a précis was packaged as its own volume. The early editions hardly looked or felt like the weighty law code it would eventually become.

Yaacob Dweck, “What is a Jewish Book?” AJS Review 34:2 (November 2010), 369.

The Significance of the Location and Date of the Shulhan Arukh

The location and date are both of enormous significance, as was the material form the book actually took. Venice was the capital of Hebrew printing for much of the sixteenth century. So much of early modern Jewish culture took material form there: The cultural renaissance in Safed appeared in print at presses in Venice and elsewhere in northern Italy; these same printing houses were meeting places for Jews, converts, Catholics, and Protestants; Hebrew printing in Venice and its environs had a dramatic impact upon the publication of Yiddish texts; and the Bible and the Talmud became printed books in Venice in the first half of the sixteenth century. It is not an accident that Karo’s work, intended to serve as a standard law code for all Jews, appeared there. The date is also of considerable consequence. After the burning of the Talmud in 1553 and a bitter feud between the two most important printers of Hebrew, the production of Hebrew books in Venice had ceased. With its resumption in 1564, a new regime of censorship was imposed upon it, and the Talmud could not appear in print. Karo’s Shulhan ‘arukh was one of the first texts to appear under this new regime.

Yaacob Dweck, “What is a Jewish Book?” AJS Review 34:2 (November 2010), 369.

Isserles’ glosses heralded the beginning of an extensive commentary tradition that would grow up around Karo’s code

Isserles’ glosses signaled far more than simply the “Ashkenization” of a Sephardic text; they also heralded the beginning of an extensive commentary tradition that would grow up around Karo’s code, radically transforming its purpose and its material form. In the ensuing centuries, Joshua Falk, Shabbateai (or Sabbatai) ha-Kohen, Abraham Gombiner, Israel Meir ha-Kohen, and many others would eventually add their commentaries to all or part of the Shulhan ‘arukh. In so doing, they transformed the text from a short compendium accessible to anyone with a basic knowledge of Hebrew into one that required instruction and supervision. The book was also transformed in its material form. Already in the sixteenth century, the Shulhan ‘arukh had changed from a being a book that could be carried with ease into a folio volume that required care, attention, and two hands. The commentary tradition that surrounded its text would soon come to dwarf Karo’s own work.

Yaacob Dweck, “What is a Jewish Book?” AJS Review 34:2 (November 2010), 370-371.