Spain in the Middle Ages was home to scholars of great renown such as Abraham ibn Ezra (1089 - c. 1164), Judah ha-Levi (1086-1145), Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides/Rambam 1135-1204) and Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides/Ramban - 1194-1270). By the middle of the 13th century, however, the welcoming attitude of the Spanish kingdoms that had allowed Jewish life to thrive, had vanished.
Rabbi Jacob ben Asher was born in Germany in 1269 C.E. When he was still a child, however, his family was forced to leave Germany, and they settled in Toledo, Spain. Rabbi Jacob’s father, Rabbi Asher ben Jehiel (aka the ROSH), was asked to become the Chief Rabbi, even though he followed Ashkenazi, not Sephardi, customs. This unique blend of Ashkenazi heritage and style of Talmud study in combination with living in a Sephardi community led to Rabbi Jacob ben Asher’s incredible contribution to Jewish scholarship, Arba'ah Turim (Four Rows).
The Arba'ah Turim, like the Rambam’s Mishna Torah*, was a codification of Jewish law intended to make it easier for Jews to fully observe the law. Rabbi Jacob divided all of Jewish law into four sections: Orach Chaim (Way of Life) covers basic Jewish life and ritual, Yoreh Deah (Teacher of Knowledge) deals with dietary laws, mourning and a number of other aspects of Jewish life, Even Ha’ezer (Stone of Help) contains laws relating to marriage and family, and Choshen Mishpat (Breastplate of Judgment) discusses civil and criminal law.
What was most unique about the Arbaah Turim was that Rabbi Jacob (who was also known as Ba’al Ha’turim - Master of the Rows) cited the legal traditions of both Sephardi and Askenazi rabbis. His work became the basis for the ultimate codification of Jewish law, the *Shulchan Arukh (Composed by Rabbi Joseph Caro in the 1560s).
Rabbi Jacob died on 12 Tammuz, 1340.
* See Jewish Treats: Primary Sources
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