The Spanish Expulsion of 1492 was, by any standard, a cataclysmic event for the Jewish people. Though nobody knows the exact number, as many as 200,000 Jews were exiled from a land that Jews had lived in for perhaps 2,000 years. Some went to the New World, some deeper into the Old World. Many ended up in the growing Ottoman Empire, centered in Turkey, were they found the Moslems to be considerably more tolerant than the Christians had been. And some went to the Holy Land.
Among the exiles was a four-year old boy named Yosef Karo. His family went to first went to Portugal until they were exiled again in 1497. They settled in the Nikopolis, in what is now Bulgaria, then a part of the Ottoman Empire. Yosef, inspired by a spiritual power, decided to move to Israel where he could attain spiritual levels that were not accessible in the Diaspora. He became the acknowledged world-leading rabbinic authority over the last few decades of his life. Yet he also was known to be an accomplished Kabbalist. In the city of Tzefat during the 16th century, Talmud and Halacha shared equal footing with mysticism and were seen as complementary disciplines.
Tzefat was probably the preeminent center of Jewish learning during much of the 16th century. It’s only serious competition came from Poland. The city of Krakow was the rabbinic capitol of the rapidly growing Ashkenazi world. Among the many Ashkenazi names that highlight this period is that of Rav Moshe Isserles, an expert in all areas of Judaism and the expert in Ashkenazi law and customs. While Rav Yosef Karo was laboring away at the dual disciplines of Halacha and Kabbala, Rav Isserles, better known by his acronym Remah, was involved in his own major project.
Rav Karo’s primary contribution to Halacha was a monumental commentary on the Tur, which he called Beit Yosef. This work, probably more than any other in the long history of Halacha, established normative Jewish practice on solid footing. It goes through all the sources for any given Halacha, from the Talmud onward, explaining the various opinions, and settling on a final ruling. All those final rulings were later compiled into another work that paralleled the Tur and the Beit Yosef, and even surpassed them in influence and popularity. This collection of final rulings is the famous Shulhan Aruch (Arranged Table). It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Shulhan Aruch is the most influential rabbinic work ever written. More than any work before or since, it tells every Jew, rabbi or layperson, how Judaism is to be done.
While Rav Karo was working on his Beit Yosef, Rav Isserles was working on book of similar nature, the focus of which would be on Ashkenazi authorities. When the newly printed Beit Yosef reached Krakow, Rav Isserles realized that his own major work had largely been scooped, so he partially abandoned it. In the end he made an arrangement with Rav Karo that printings of the Shulhan Aruch would contain the Ashkenazi emendations to the Sefaradi-oriented main text. Thus, the Shulhan Aruch is really a smooth and surprisingly seamless blend of Sefaradi and Ashkenazi rulings all rolled into one text, meant to serve Jews the world over.
The opening line of the first Halacha of the Shulhan Aruch reads like this:
Rav Karo: Rise like a lion to stand in the morning for the service of the Creator…
Remah: ‘I constantly place Hashem opposite me’ – this is the great principle of Torah and levels of the righteous that walk before God…
The service of the Creator. If anything is an accurate statement of what Halacha is supposed to be, this is it. It isn’t supposed to be rote, mechanical actions or words that are devoid of any real spiritual feeling or conviction. It is the service of the Creator. In some purely Jewish, intensely rabbinic way, those zillions of rules - do this, don’t do that - focus the observant Jew’s attention on God and away from the self. That’s really what the whole thing boils down to. It’s extremely difficult to avoid getting caught up in the details of the observance and to forget about why all these things were instituted in the first place. The number one challenge of halachic observance is probably not the massive amount of things one has to know and do or not do. That’s tough all right, but it’s not the real test. The real challenge is to remember that the reason to be doing all this is to serve God.
Perhaps this is the reason for the Remah interjection. This statement of Remah is not actually his own original idea. It’s a quote from Maimonides’ Guide. It basically says that this single idea – to place Hashem constantly in one’s internal vision – is the key to making sure that keeping Halacha does not become a robotic procedure. Always have Hashem there in the minds eye. This is the great principle of the Torah and of those who strive for righteousness.
Losing track of God while trying to serve God is one of those conundrums that religious Jews are all too familiar with but which non-religious Jews are completely unaware of. They figure that the religious guys are either a bunch of hypocritical fakes who aren’t even attempting to serve God, or they are the real McCoy and can somehow maintain God-consciousness under the most adverse of situations. The truth is that most religious Jews are somewhere in the middle. They genuinely do want to serve God in some manner but they lose the forest for the trees. Judaism, unfortunately, is highly susceptible to this pitfall. There are just too many things to keep track of, too many things to worry about, and God somehow gets lost in the shuffle. It’s not about not eating pork. It’s about God.
It happens that this God-consciousness stuff is not limited to the actual performance of Halacha. It really applies to all aspects of life. In fact, the Shulhan Aruch devotes an entire chapter to this very idea. Section 231 of the first book is titled ‘All of your intention should be for the sake of heaven’. In that section, Rav Karo copies the words of the Tur in explaining that one should devote every bit of one’s time and energy to God. Even matters that appear to be mundane, or even profane, should somehow be transformed into acts of devotion to God. Eating, drinking, business, and sex are all essential and valid aspects of life. But they don’t have to be the hedonistic, greedy, or mindless activities that we allow them to become. Every human action, no matter how down-to-earth and unholy it may appear to be, comes with some element of holiness. It is our task to find that holiness.
Let’s take eating for example. There are a whole slew of halachot associated with eating. There are the various blessings, there are matters of etiquette, and there are limits and requirements as to what one should or should not eat. These alone could keep a person busy enough to stay out of trouble. But this is not what Rav Karo meant when he wrote the one should eat for the sake of heaven. He goes on to explain that eating, as basic and as enjoyable an activity as it may be, is a spiritual opportunity. Through eating, one has the opportunity to recharge one’s physical batteries so that one has the spiritual energy to maintain God-consciousness. Not only that, but the very action of eating, that very physical, pleasurable, stuff-your-face pig-out process, could itself be an act of holiness. It is this hidden holiness that represents the interface of Halacha and mysticism.
Mysticism, as we shall see in the next section, is the mindset that everything we experience in this world is really a window to a hidden spiritual reality. Food is not just food – it is a reflection of an angelic power that imbibes life with will and awareness. If handled inappropriately, it can muddle the spiritual channels and deflate the will. Eating is a battleground of sorts, an arena for a person to either absorb spiritual energy or be overwhelmed by it. The act of eating must be treated as the potentially holy act that it is. Otherwise it transforms the human being back into his evolutionary predecessors.
This is what it means to eat for the sake of heaven, to sleep for the sake of heaven, to shoot the breeze for the sake of heaven. It is true that an entire section of the Shulhan Aruch is devoted to this lofty goal. The Biblical quote used to support this mindset is ‘In of all your ways, know Him’. God lurks in every detail of Halacha, in every action, not matter how trivial. It is our task to find God in the midst of all those details.
A problem many Jews have with Halacha is its tendency towards instant complexity. Ask a few rabbis the same question and you’re sure to receive a menu of answers. Try to look the answer up yourself and you’ll discover that there are so many variables and so any different opinions that you’ll likely never want to do it again. The truth is that the entire system of Halacha is so weighed down by almost 2,000 years of argumentation and confusion that it is almost impossible for a layperson to navigate their way through the maze. It’s good bet that it wasn’t meant to be this way.
Because of this problem, many people see Halacha as a classic case of ‘the devil is in the details’. With all the details, it is pretty easy to lose sight of the big picture (finding God) and to get stuck on all the nuances. For many, there is simply too much to do and too much to know. What is the solution to this problem? For starters, we can suggest taking Halacha a little bit at a time. Somehow, find a way to zero in on the core ideas of Halacha without getting mired in the details. A rabbi may be of great help in this, but you’ll have to look hard to find one who can pick out those core elements and is willing and able to leave out all those details. As you gradually acclimate to the complexities, always remind yourself that the bottom line behind all this is to know God. It is surprisingly easy to forget that simple goal.
For much of the vast variety of everyday human activities, Halacha has a method of temporarily refocusing, even for an instant, to get the most out of the activity. The system can be tedious and can very easily revert to meaningless gestures or words. Sometimes a person needs to parcel out his or her spiritual moments. A person may only have so much will power on a given day to devote to this kind of exercise. If that’s the case, use those rare moments wisely and don’t worry all that much about the rest. It is better to do a little with the proper mindset than a lot with none. If done with this in mind, even those off-moments have a component of ‘for the sake of heaven’. They are the breathers between the moments of clarity. The main thing to keep in mind is to not lose track of the goal. In all of your ways, not matter how distant and irreverent they may seem, try in some way to know God. This is the path of Halacha.
Food for Thought
It is all very nice to talk about using Halacha as a path to know God, but at the end of the day, does it really work? How is one supposed to cut through all the details and complexities to get to the goal?
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