Joshua Berman on Jewish Law
Not until Maimonides did anyone truly codify the halakhah. Not only did his Mishneh Torah, completed in 1180, have no precedent in the annals of Jewish law; it has no precedent in the history of legal codification. When Greeks and Romans and others codified their laws, they did so (as we have seen) in order to unite disparate peoples and incorporate them into new and large polities. Maimonides wrote his code to achieve the converse: to preserve the unity of a single people facing ever greater dispersion. Keenly aware of the original nature of his work, he explained its historical impetus in just these terms.
So long as the great yeshivas of Babylonia flourished, Maimonides writes, Jewish learning and knowledge were at their height; in his own day, however, these institutions are but a distant memory. Now the Jewish people face unprecedented dispersal, compounded by political instability. For the Jews of these newly far-flung communities, mobility and communication are severely limited, and hence ignorance has soared. Maimonides conceives of his code as a solution. If Jews cannot gravitate to centers of learning, the code will come to them, providing clear instruction in all spheres of halakhic life.
What was the fate of Maimonides’ bold innovation? Some communities embraced his Mishneh Torah as a statutory code. Many others came to regard it as a source to consult while electing to retain autonomy of rule and practice. It took another four centuries and the composition of Karo’s Shulhan Arukh, completed in 1563, for codification to reach its apex.