Modern Intellectual History 17 (2):561-578 (2020)

During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Rabbi Joseph Karo composed two major Jewish codes of law: the Beit Yosef, and its abridged version, Sulchan ‘Aruch. Though several centuries of legal discussion and scholarship have passed since their publication, these double codes of law were never superseded. This codification project defined the axial place of law in Jewish tradition. I argue that it responded to changes in legal processes and the enforcement of law that simultaneously transformed early modern Europe and the Ottoman world. Transcontinentally connected changes in political institutions—the formation of a centralized Islamic empire in the Ottoman case, and the formation of centralized states in Europe—dramatically redefined the role of law and legal codification in the forging of state power and community identities. The resultant belief among Sephardi rabbis, including Karo, that changes in Jewish legal tradition were now needed, prompted a redefinition of Jewish legal culture, whereby law began to be seen as the foundation of Jewish religious heritage and ethnic identity. Despite the absence of state backing, early modern transformations in Jewish law were thus part of comparable changes taking place in the European and Islamic legal worlds.
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DOI 10.1017/s1479244318000264
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