|Birth Place:||Toledo, Spain|
|Death Date:||24 March 1575|
|Death Place:||Safed, Palestine (now Israel)|
Joseph ben Ephraim Karo, also spelled Caro, or Qaro, (Toledo, 1488 - Safed, 1575) was author of the last great codification of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, which is still authoritative for Orthodox Jewry. To this end he is often referred to as ha-Mechaber (Hebrew: "The Author") and as Maran (Aramaic: "Our Master").
Born in Toledo, Spain his family left for Portugal after the Spanish expulsion in 1492. After the expulsion of the Jews from Portugal in 1497, Karo went with his parents to Nikopolis in current day Bulgaria, where he received his first instruction from his father, who was himself an eminent Talmudist. He married, first, Isaac Saba's daughter, and, after her death, the daughter of Hayyim Albalag, both of these men being well-known Talmudists. After the death of his second wife he married the daughter of Zechariah Sechsel (or perhaps Sachsel), a learned and wealthy Talmudist.
Between 1520 and 1522 Karo settled at Adrianople, where he probably met the enthusiast Solomon Molcho, who stimulated his mystical tendencies. When the latter died at the stake in 1532, Karo also was filled with a longing to be "consumed on the altar as a holy burnt offering," to sanctify the name of God by a martyr's death. Like Molkho, Karo had fantastic dreams and visions, which he believed to be revelations from a higher being. His genius, he thought, was nothing less than the Mishnah personified, which instructed him because he had devoted himself to its service. These mystical tendencies probably induced Karo to emigrate to Palestine, where he arrived about 1535, having en route spent several years at Salonica (1533) and Constantinople.
At Safed he met Rabbi Jacob Berab, who exerted a great influence upon him, Karo becoming an enthusiastic supporter of Berab's plans for the restitution of ordination. After Berab's death Karo tried to carry out these plans, ordaining his pupil Moses Alshech, but he finally gave up his endeavors, convinced that he could not overcome the opposition to ordination.
His reputation during the last thirty years of his life was greater than that of almost any other rabbi since Maimonides. The Italian Azariah dei Rossi, though his views differed widely from Karo's, collected money among the rich Italian Jews for the purpose of having a work of Karo's printed; and the Pole Moses Isserles compelled the recognition of one of Karo's decisions at Kraków, although he thought Karo was wrong.
When some members of the community of Carpentras, in France, believed themselves to have been unjustly treated by the majority in a matter relating to taxes, they appealed to Karo, whose letter was sufficient to restore to them their rights (Rev. Etudes Juives 18:133-136). In the East, Karo's authority was, if possible, even greater. His name heads the decree of excommunication directed against Daud, Joseph Nasi's agent; and it was Karo who condemned Dei Rossi's Me'or 'Enayim to be burned. Karo's death, therefore, caused general mourning, and several funeral orations delivered on that occasion have been preserved (Moses Albelda, Darash Mosheh; Samuel Katzenellenbogen, Derashot), as well as some elegies.
Karo published during his lifetime:
After his death there appeared:
Karo's literary works are considered among the masterpieces of rabbinic literature. But Karo's character has been variously criticized, the difference of opinion being connected with the literary question whether the book Maggid Mesharim is really a work by Karo, or is merely ascribed to him. This book is a kind of diary in which Karo during a period of fifty years noted his discussions with his heavenly mentor, the personified Mishna.
The discussions treat of various subjects. The maggid enjoins Karo to be modest in the extreme, to say his prayers with the utmost devotion, to be gentle and patient always. Especial stress is laid on asceticism; and Karo is often severely rebuked for taking more than one glass of wine, or for eating meat. Whenever Karo did not follow the severe instructions of his maggid, he suddenly heard its warning voice. His mentor also advised him in family affairs, told him what reputation he enjoyed in heaven, and praised or criticized his decisions in religious questions. Karo received new ideas from his maggid in regard to the Cabala only, for the study of which he had hardly any time; such information was in the nature of sundry cabalistic interpretations of the Pentateuch, that in content, though not in form, remind one of the theories of Karo's pupil, Moses ben Jacob Cordovero.
The present form of the Maggid Mesharim shows plainly that it was never intended for publication, being merely a collection of stray notes; nor does Karo's son Judah mention the book among his father's works (Introduction to the Responsa). It is known, on the other hand, that during Karo's lifetime the cabalists believed his maggid to be actually existent (compare Vital-Calabrese, Sefer ha-Gilgulim, pp. 119, 142, Vilna, 1885). The Maggid Mesharim, furthermore, shows a knowledge of Karo's public and private life that no one could have possessed after his death; and the fact that the maggid promises things to its favorite that were never fulfilled — e.g., a martyr's death — proves that it is not the work of a forger, composed for Karo's glorification.
Karo's mysticism was not speculative in nature; and he devoted very little time to the Kabbalah, although his maggid often exhorted him not to neglect the study of it (Maggid Mesharim, p. 57b). The catastrophe that came upon the Pyrenean Jews made such an impression upon the minds of the best among them that many saw therein the signs of Messianic travail, (compare Jacob Berab); and Karo, according to a contemporary, took this dark view throughout his life. While men like Molkho and David Reubeni were led to commit extravagant and foolish deeds under the influence of this idea. Berab's and Karo's nobility of nature came to the fore. If Karo indulged in mystical visions, and, half dreaming, thought he heard heavenly voices in his soul, they served always as reminders to him that his life, his actions, and his accomplishments must surpass those of other people (ib. Toledot, p. 9; Azharot, p. 3b, and passim).