The Shulchan Aruch was not the first code of law. The Rambam's (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimen) Mishna Torah was written in the 1100's and became the first Jewish code of law. Legend has it that when the Rambam completed his work, Moses appeared in a dream alongside his father to congradulate him. However, the Shulchan Aruch became the more popular version at later periods. This might (I am guessing here, so don't think this is accurate) be due to the fact that the S.A. bases his decisions on many halachic authorities up to his time and mostly decides on the majority opinion. It is like the "updated Mishna Torah". The SA is heavily based on the Rambam's Mishna Torah. Why the Rambam feel it necessary to write the first Jewish Code of Law (Mishna Torah)?
He saw that the Torah was being forgotten and there was a lack of halachic knowledge amongst the general public. Therefore, the wrote this work for the general Jewish population living in the Sephardic communities. To illustrate this concept, he wrote the book in Arabic. It was later translated into Hebrew during the Rambam's lifetime and under the Rambam's supervision. To explain this concept, imagine what it entailed 800 years ago to learn Halachot or Jewish Torah Laws. For a regular Jew, you would be working hard to make a living and probably have a few hours in the late evening or on Sabbath free to study. Your first step would be to look at the Talmud.
In this period, there were no printing presses and all books were written by hand. In order to look at the Talmud, one would travel to his local Synagague and look at the volumes on the bookshelves. Most offen, your local small Synagague only had a few volumes of the Talmud and you would have to go to a large Synagague to find a complete handwritten Talmud. The Talmud is over 30 volumes and thousands of pages long. It would be impossable for an unassisted individual to study the whole talmud every year to learn all the laws. In order to find the Laws that one desires to learn, one would most probably ask the local Rabbi where to search. Then one would labor through the Talmud to find these locations and learn the material. The Talmud is not so easy to learn, since it is written in Aramaic, and most simple Jews were at best only fluent with Heberew at that time (as well as today) and only knew some basic Aramaic. The Rabbi of the Town would help you if you needed a few minutes to understand the Talmud, but would usually not give you a personal lecture since he would be very busy in the community needs such as charity, ritual slaughter, appeasing the government to not kill his community, teaching children, redeaming kidnapped or falsely accused Jews, etc. It would take hours of study just to learn a few pertinent sections. Sometimes the Talmud arrives at a conclusion and at other times, the Gemara does not list the final decision. One would then look up the early commentaries of Tosvot and Rashi to make sure he is learning the talmud correctly and to help one in understanding the Talmud. Remember, at this period Rashi and Tosvot were hand written in seperate volumes. After learning and comprehending the Gemera with Tosvot and Rashi, this individual would then have to search through the later commentaries. Remember, these too were hand written in seperate volumes and most probably only a major synaguge or study hall would have these commentaries. Even after all this work, questions might arise when the commentaries argue, so one would probably need to ask his Rabbi on these issues. Most of the time, after all this effort one would understand a few Halachot. Don't even ask what happened when another Jew was using the volume that you needed! If you were not a learned Jew who was able to understand the Talmud but were a simple Jew who had difficulty in translating the Aramaic, you were out of luck. To make things more difficult, if the Rabbi did not immediatly know the answer, the individual would have to wait a few days for the Rabbi to study the commentaries. Sometimes he needed to contact a greater Rabbi in a far away community and it could take weeks to get an answer. One can only imagine that just to learn a few halachot in this period of time required many hours of intense study and research. This would be even more difficult in the small communities whom did not have a large shule stocked with all the valuable hand written sefarim one would need to study all the laws. In these communities, even the Rabbi did not have access to all the commentaries and the Talmudic volumes so when a difficult question came up, he would need to travel to the nearest town to access the books. Remember, in many instances someone else might be studying the volume of Gemara or the commentary one requires, so you would have to either look over his shoulder and study whatever your friend is studying, or learn something else. It is well documented in the commentaries that at this period of time, four or more people read from a single volume. Also, at that period the Arabs or Christians would occationally burn the rare handwritten books in those synagagues, so finding a copy of the Talmud was extremely difficult at times. Also, some commentaries might be very rare to find at certain locations especially if it was not a popular commentary. To illustrate this concept, the great sage Rashi was living in a very large Jewish community in France (~1000) and yet he did not own a single copy of any volume of the Jerusalem Talmud since this was very rare. The Rambam saw how difficult it was (if not impossable) for the simple Jew to learn the Jewish laws. He therefore did all this work for them and listed all the Jewish Torah laws in a language even the most unlearned Jew was fluent with (at 1200), Arabic.
When the Rambam wrote the Mishna Torah, there was controversy among the Jewish leadership. Many praised the Rambam's work, while a few leaders condemned the work since they felt the Jews would stop learning the Talmud. This controversy was short lived lasting only for one or two generations after the Rambam's death. When the Shulchan Aruch was written, there was no controversy any more and with the advent of the printing press, this work was rapidly spread throughout the Jewish world. The Mishna Torah spread Jewish law to the same extent that Moshe Rabbeino (Moses) spread the Torah at Mount Sinai. There is a saying "from Moshe to Moshe , there was none like Moshe".
RETURN TO HOME Free English Translation of the Shulchan Aruch
Written by Jay Dinovitser. Much of this page is my own opinion and was written to educate the public about the origins of the Jewish code of law. Therefore, do not take it as written in stone.