Halakhic Codes of the Rishonim: אורחות חיים

אורחות חיים - fragment used as binding

This series, the Halakhic Codes of the Rishonim, explores lesser-known sources of halakhah in the chain of transmission that were incorporated into Shulchan ‘Arukh (and therefore current halakhic practice), as well as halakhot and minhag lost to living observance. This is first post in the series.

Image: A fragment of Orchot Chayyim (about tum’ah, ritual impurity) used as book binding The Hessian State Archives, Darmstadt, Germany Ms. 455.11 [learn how to read manuscript references here]

In this series, I want to explore sources of halakhah, in particular codes, whose decisions or halakhic traditions were either absorbed into or eclipsed by the Shulchan ‘Arukh. The Shulchan ‘Arukh, famously, collates the opinions of three poskim (decisors), going with the majority view:1 Rif, Rambam, and Rosh.2 Not only are these fascinating in and of themselves, as records of the lived realities of Jewish communities upended by historical contingencies, they are also, I submit, important as records of alternate paths of decision-making that we may consult today and use to inform our process of responding to our own circumstances.

A good example of this is Orchot Chayyim (“Ways of Life”), which originated in Provence (what Jews called the entire southern third of present-day France) and was likely written soon after Arba’ah Turim, upon which the Beit Yosef/Shulhan ‘Arukh were based. Composed under conditions of duress, Orchot Chayyim sought to preserve local practice and is cogently organized by the cycle of day, the cycle of the year, and the larger cycle of life. Cited by Karo not infrequently in the Beit Yosef, and a major source of the better-known Kol Bo (or, perhaps, a refinement of Kol Bo, on which, more below), Orchot Chayyim is certainly not in the category of “lost to history.” Nevertheless, it was largely superseded, and so, worthy of returning to study in its own right.

The composition and its author

Orchot Chayyim is a halakhic code covering areas of the law in practical use in its day, by the Provençal scholar R. Aharon b. Ya’akov b. David ha-Kohen of Lunel (late 13th to mid-14th cen.), who later lived on the island of Majorca. The code is compilatory rather than prescriptive: that is, it seeks to collate reliable opinions rather than describe a single correct practice.

It appears that R. Aharon ha-Kohen wrote Orchot Chayyim in the early 14th century, though it is possible that it was begun in the late 13th century.3 From a section of the work that is preserved in only one manuscript, the composition is dated 1313.4 It appears that the various textual witnesses—the oldest surviving manuscripts versions—preserve the bulk of the work.

A major contribution of Orchot Chayyim is that it preserves, in many cases verbatim, a great deal of halakhah that is otherwise unknown. Though it does not always note the source from which it cites, a comparison of Orchot Chayyim with other extant sources from the Rishonim demonstrates that it transmits earlier Provençal material, as well as a diverse array of other sources from Ashkenaz-Tzarfat and from Sefarad. It may be, as Judah Galinsky suggests, that Aharon ha-Kohen added Sefradi material after arriving in Majorca.5

Although known as being “of Lunel,” it is uncertain that Aharon ha-Kohen actually lived in that city. Rather, he was probably only ancestrally from Lunel, a city renowned for its scholarly institutions. It has been suggested that he lived in nearby Narbonne, also a prominent center of Torah learning, although this is conjectural.6

Aharon ha-Kohen lived through the order of expulsion issued by the French Crown in 1306, after which he relocated to Majorca, as he records in the introduction to Orchot Chayyim and throughout the code. Culturally and politically, Majorca was more connected to the Sefardi sphere, although, like Provence, it was on the continuum between Iberia and what Jews called Tzarfat, northern France. Historian William Chester Jordan writes of the documentary sources that attest to the upheaval experienced by Aharon:

“One senses the overwhelming pall of homelessness–‘the poverty of exile’–and the radical uncertainty of the future. Even though Aragon and Majorca were physically comfortable lands, and even though the history of contacts between the Jews of Languedoc [Provence] and Spanish Jews was long and intimate, the situation of the exiles was far different from the situation that had faced the steady stream of voluntary exiles who had crossed the Pyrenees since the Albigensian Crusade [in the first third of the 13th cen.]. For the Jews of 1306 came in droves from the great cities of Languedoc–Narbonne, Montpellier, Béziers, Carcassone, Toulouse, Pamiers–and with virtually no resources. They were utterly dependent on the good will of their correligionists.”7

Judah Galinsky has argued that “a scholar’s experience of being displaced and uprooted is connected with his desire to devote his time to assembling, restructuring, and giving order to the law.”8

The code’s purpose

With culturally dictated humility expressed in customary rhyming prose, Aharon ha-Kohen provides a fair amount of information about his intentions in writing Orchot Chayyim. He notes, in reference to his experience of the expulsion:

עם הגולה אשר נגלתה נדרתי ממעוני אל ארץ מאפליה…ולא מורה צדק ולא תבואה לזרות ולחבר מתוך עמקה של הלכה הוראה. ובעת אצטרך לדעת הלכה למעשה או ישאלוני משפטי צדק אבדה עצה מכהן. לא אוכל להשיב על לאו לאו ועל הן הן

“When the exile was declared I emigrated from my residence and went to a land of dark gloom…I did not find an upright teacher nor crops to sow and reap advice (hora’ah) from the depths of halakhah. When I was called upon to know what is the practical halakhah, or was asked what is the correct judgement, I was at a loss for words [lit., ‘advice was lost on the priest’ (kohen), a reference to himself]. I was unable to reply about prohibitions that they are prohibited and about permissions that they are permitted.”9

Here R. Aharon ha-Kohen makes clear that he is responding to a need for a reference work that can be consulted as questions of practice arise in his new community. R. Aharon continues, saying that it then occurred to him to collect the words of his illustrious predecessors, “so that from their mouths Torah will come out as from Zion, they who wrote for us explicit laws, revealed the buried and clarified doubts” (מפיהם תצא תורה ומציון, כתבו לנו הלכות פסוקות, גלו מטמונות ובארו ספקות).

Again, he poignantly emphasizes the necessity of his enterprise:

ולפי שאין ספריהם נמצאים בכל מקום ואני כגר בארץ וכאורח גולה ובורח, לא אדע אנה תחנותי ואי זה מקום מנוחתי, לקטתי מדבריהם כפי צורך שעה זעיר שם זעיר שם ועשיתי לי חול מדברי קדשם. עד קבצתי ספר שה להוליכו עמי בדרך וקראתי אורחות חיים.

“Since their books are not available in every place and I am like a foreigner in this land, like a visitor exiled and fleeing, not knowing where is to be my stopping point and in which place I will rest, I compiled from their words according to the need of the hour, a bit here and a bit there, making for myself a worldly [composition] from their holy words, until I had assembled a book I could carry with me along the way, calling it The Ways of Life (Orhot Hayyim).”

R. Aharon ha-Kohen himself refers to his writing activity as “the work of a clerk” (מלאכת הלבלר מעתיק מגילת ספר), faithful to his predecessors and called to transmit their words only due to extenuating circumstances. Plaintively, he remarks: “I wrote their words in the manner that they wrote them and according to their exact language, so that the learned may make his own selections” (כתבתי דבריהם ככתבם וכלשונם והמשכיל יבחר לו).

Nevertheless, Orchot Chayyim certainly belongs to the larger codificatory movement of R. Aharon’s contemporaries. Influenced by Mishneh Torah, Aharon’s Orchot Chayyim is also similar to the Orach Chayyim section of Arba’ah Turim, by which it was eclipsed. Even so, Orchot Chayyim‘s value as a source for halakhic rulings and practice is evident in the later Rishonim and early Acharonim who cite it, including, again, the Beit Yosef, which cites it extensively.

The code’s organizational principles

In his introduction, Aharon ha-Kohen himself explains that his work is organized in two sections, and details the contents of each. Part One is intended to accompany a man through his day, from arising, to morning minyan, the laws of ethical behavior (derekh eretz), the laws of Shabbat, holidays, and ‘eruv. Aharon explicitly mentions that he will include the laws of Chanukkah and Purim, among others. Finally, this first section is to include “those customs which are customary in some places while in other places they did not practice that way; nonetheless I will give reasons to the words of everyone according to what I have received or seen written” (והמנהגות אשר נהגו במקצת מקומות ובמקצת מקומות לא נהגו כן ואתן טעם לדברי כלם מה שקבלתי או ראיתי כתוב). This kind of purposeful diversity, indicative of the upheavals of the expulsions which devastated late medieval Jewish communities in Western Europe, can be seen as one of the characteristics of this compendium.

The second part of Orchot Chayyim begins with a different aspect of the lifecycle: the birth of a child and the father’s responsibilities to raise the child. Aharon then turns to laws pertaining to non-Jews, forbidden foods, “and other laws pertaining to everyday matters,” before returning to the life cycle with the laws of visiting the sick and of mourning. At the close of Part Two, Aharon says that he will consider reward and punishment and resurrection before returning to the practical matters of wording for legal documents and intercalation.

Manuscripts and Printed Editions

Orchot Chayyim survives in a number of manuscripts, most of them incomplete, including some that are fragmentary.10 The cataloging data indicate that there are substantive differences between the manuscripts and the printed edition.11

It was first printed soon after the advent of mechanical reproduction in an undated edition, possibly in Iberia.12 Part One of Orchot Chayyim was then printed in Florence in 1750 and Part Two in Berlin in 1902 by Moshe Schlesinger, an edition that has been subject to scholarly criticism. An updated printing based on the Florence edition was published in Jerusalem in 1956, and includes a table at the beginning cross-referencing Orhot Hayyim with Beit Yosef. Part One was subsequently published from the manuscripts in 2016 by Shalom Yehudah Klein.

On the relationship between Orchot Chayyim and Kol Bo

While there is clearly a relationship between the deliberately structured Orchot Chayyim and the eclectic Kol Bo (“Everything in It”), the details of that relationship have been disputed since early modernity and remain unclear. The are two theories on this question: one, that the Kol Bo is a later abridgement of Orhot Hayyim (this is the opinion of Yosef Karo and Chida);13; and two, conversely, that the Kol Bo is an earlier, less refined version of Orchot Chayyim.14

In light of Ivan G. Marcus’s recent observations about the nature of book composition in medieval Ashkenaz,15 it may be that Kol Bo represents a mode of transmission in which small units of text are arranged without an overall organizing principle, while Orchot Chayyim represents the influence of Sefardi modes of composition in which units of text are arranged according to a deliberate structure.

An example of a halakhah preserved in Orchot Chayyim

In Orchot Chayyim, Hilkhot Tefillah 1:516, Aharon ha-Kohen writes:

ולא יהיה דבר חוצץ בינו ובין הקיר שנא’ ויסב חזקיהו את פניו אל הקיר ויתפלל אל ה’

“There should not be anything separating one [who is praying] and the wall, as it is written, ‘Hizkiyahu turned his face to the wall and prayed to G-d.’”

Here Aharon ha-Kohen, in a moment that is on the side of prescriptive, notes that one who is praying must do so adjacent to a wall, with no separation. He cites Yeshayahu 38:2 as the prooftext for this halakhah, per Berkahot 5b. But what counts, technically speaking, as a “separation” (hatzitzah)? With self-confidence, Aharon ha-Kohen continues:

וכתב הראב”ד ודוקא הפסק מטה שהוא דבר חשוב ורחבה ד’, וגובה י’ אבל דבר מועט לא נקרא הפסק דא”כ היאך מתפללים בב”ה לפני הספסלים שיושבין בהם וצ”ע ע”כ.

“And Raavad wrote specifically that an interruption that is lower is significant if its measure be 4 [measures] wide and 10 high,17 although a lower object is not counted as a separation, since if it were, how could there be prayer in synagogues in front of the the benches on which people sit? This matter requires inquiry.”

The matter is left unresolved, but Aharon ha-Kohen has nonetheless posed a tzarih ‘iyyun, “it requires inquiry,” on none other than Raavad. The concern is pragmatic; in point of fact, prayer does regularly take place, in R. Aharon’s experience, in situations that seem to violate Raavad’s reading of the prohibition.

Fast forwarding quite a bit, and there’s some interesting stuff in the interim, this halakhah is, in fact, noted without attribution (characteristically, not significantly) in Shulhan Arukh OH 90:21:

צריך שלא יהא דבר חוצץ בינו ובין הקיר ודבר קבוע כגון ארון ותיבה אינם חוצצים

“Nothing should separate between one and the wall, but something that is fixed, such as a cabinet or chest, does not constitute a separation.”

To this Rema adds:

ולא חשיב חציצה רק דבר גדול שגבהו י’ ורחבו ד’ אבל דבר קטן לא חשיב הפסק

“It’s not considered a separation unless it’s a large object the height of which is 10 [measures] and the width 4; a small object is not considered an interruption.”

Although he does so indirectly, Rema is clearly citing Orchot Chayyim. It is usually noted in standard editions that he is doing so “in the name of Raavad” (which of course he is, but also, we see this preserved in Orchot Chayyim). Note that just as Aharon ha-Kohen omits the mention of the units of measurement, ostensibly tefahim, so too does Rema hand it down that way. Neither Rema nor the Mechaber make note of the pasuk from Yeshayahu (although Misnah Berurah does, as do other commentaries, who cite Berkahot 5b).

So here we have a tradition about what constitutes a separation from the wall for the purpose of prayer, including an unresolved dispute between Raavad and Orchot Chayyim as well as detailed measurements concerning an object that partially obstructs the wall. While Shulchan ‘Arukh rules that a fixed object does not count as a separation, Rema reintroduces the dimensions mentioned by Orchot Chayyim as a qualifier. We have here traces of lived experience as well as learning traditions for tractate Berkahot. In practice, we are accustomed to exactly what Aharon ha-Kohen observes: we pray even with objects such as benches that partially block us off from the walls of the shul.


  1. Of course, Karo’s sources and decision making process are in actuality far more complex than a simple majority of three poskim, as his monumental Beit Yosef makes clear.
  2. Rosh was the father of the Tur (R. Ya’akov b. Asher), on whose work the Beit Yosef and Shulchan ‘Arukh were structured).
  3. Judah D. Galinsky, “Of Exile and Halakhah: Fourteenth-Century Spanish Halakhic Literature and the Works of the French Exiles Aaron Ha-Kohen and Jeruham B. Meshulam,” Jewish History 22, no. 1/2, The Elka Klein Memorial Volume (2008), 84.
  4. See S. Z. Havlin in the Encyclopedia Judaica, s.v. “Aaron ben Jacob ha-Kohen of Lunel.”
  5. Galinksy, “Of Exile and Halakhah,” 84 and 93, n. 21
  6. Aharon ha-Kohen has been connected with Yitzhak ha-Kohen of Narbonne who was a student of Raavad. R. Yitzhak ha-Kohen would have been R’ Aharon’s great-grandfather. R. Yitzhak, the great grandfather, is mentioned by Menahem ha-Meiri in Beit ha-Bechirah and by Yitzhak de Lattes in Sha’arei Tziyyon.See Meiri, Seder ha-Kabbalah, under חכמי נרבונה, p. 138 in the Ofeq edition by Havlin; and in de Lattes in the same volume, pp. 179-180. Both emphasize R. Yitzhak ha-Kohen’s commentary on the Yerushalmi and his studies with Raavad. (The role of the Yerushalmi in the thought of the Rishonim is an intriguing matter.) De Lattes also adds a few details about R. Yitzhak’s sons, who would have been in the generation of Aharon ha-Kohen’s grandfathers. R. Aharon mentions his grandfather R. David, who is not however among the sons noted by de Lattes.
  7. William C. Jordan, The French Monarchy and the Jews: From Phillip Augustus to the Last Capetians (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989), 234.
  8. Judah D. Galinsky, “Of Exile and Halakhah,” 82.
  9. These and the following citations from Orhot Hayyim all come from the introduction to the work.
  10. According to Galinsky there are 6 presumably near-complete MSS of Part One and 4 MSS of Part Two, but he does not list them so I am not certain to which he refers.
  11. The most promising, in that they have both sizable texts and recognizable variants, are Jerusalem NLI Ms. Heb. 4°12 [digitized] and University of Toronto Ms. FR 3-010; to a lesser extent, there is also the short fragment on Shabbat in Jerusalem M. Krupp Ms. 1645b [digitized] and Oxford Bodl. Ms. heb. e.2.
  12. Adrian K. Offenberg, Hebrew Incunabula in Public Collections: A First International Census (Nieuwkoop: de Graaf, 1990).
  13. Yosef Karo; Chayyim David Azulai (Chida), Shem ha-Gedolim, in the “works” section, s.v. כלבו, and cf. the name entry on רבינו אהרון הכהן מלוניל
  14. It is repeated that this is the conjecture of Shadal (S. D. Luzatto) in a work called Meged Yerachim published in 1855, which I could not track down to verify.
  15. Ivan G. Marcus, “Sefer Hasidim” and the Ashkenazic Book in Medieval Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018) http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/15784.html.
  16. p. 30 in the Jerusalem ed.
  17. Assuming that the unit he means is a tefach, this would be approximately 13″/32cm wide and 80 cm/32″ high.

Tamar Ron Marvin Avatar

If you enjoyed this article…

Stories from Jewish History Newsletter

On Tuesdays I send out a newsletter exploring a story from Jewish history, from the famous to the obscure. Each issue includes resource and reading recommendations.


One response to “Halakhic Codes of the Rishonim: אורחות חיים”


  • 💬 Tamar Ron Marvin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *