By Dr. Henry Abramson
R. Yitzchak Baruch and R. Chaim Yosef David Azulai, eds. Chok Le-Yisrael. First published in the sixteenth century, major revisions in the eighteenth century, minor revisions through the twenty-first century.
“One must study a fixed regimen of Torah, a secret ingrained in the Talmudic question, “did you fix times to study Torah?”
–Rabbi Chaim Vital
A work of enduring popularity, particularly among Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews, Chok Le-Yisrael represents a novel approach to Torah study. The work does not have a single author, but was inspired and compiled by several key figures of mysticism and Jewish bibliographic scholarship. The title, “A Law for Israel,” is taken from Psalm 81 and evokes its basic function: “Chok ve-lo ya’avor, a law that will not be transgressed,” alluding to its unique construction, which was optimized for regular daily study. The Chok Le-Yisrael is a direct pedagogical ancestor of “yomi” study programs such as the hugely popular dafyomi Talmud phenomenon.
In its earliest form, Chok Le-Yisrael was a straightforward response to a dictum of the sixteenth-century Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Arizal), who mandated a daily study regimen of Chumash, Nevi’im, Ketuvim, followed by Mishnah, Gemara, and finally Kabbalah. Rabbi Chaim Vital, his principal student, described his master’s practices in greater detail, including exactly when he learned (immediately after morning prayer), how he dressed (wearing tefillin and a prayer shawl) and precisely how many biblical verses he reviewed per day. Based on this testimony (and presumably personal observance), a little-known Kabbalist named Rabbi Yitzchak Baruch assembled a guide of references to Biblical and rabbinic passages to facilitate this order of study, a practice which continues to be observed by many Jews to the present day.
It is not clear when Rabbi Yitzchak Baruch’s compilation was first published in book format. Since all of the passages quoted were readily accessible in standard existing works, Chok Le-Yisrael may have been produced originally in a simple calendar format, and devotees of the Arizal would be inconvenienced to consult with five separate volumes to cover the daily assignment. In the mid-eighteenth century, however, the remarkable Jerusalem-born scholar, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806), upgraded Chok Le-Yisrael by adding two additional sections: a brief passage of Jewish Law, usually taken from the ShulchanAruch, and a paragraph or two of mussar, borrowing from classic works such as Duties of the Heart. Facilitated by the burgeoning print culture of post-Gutenberg Jewish publishing in the seventeenth century, Chok Le-Yisrael appeared in ten volumes (two per each of the five books of the Chumash), and popular use of Chok Le-Yisrael surged. Numerous useful supporting materials appeared in various editions, including classic commentaries by Rashi, Rabbi Ovadia mi’Bartenura, and others. By the late nineteenth century, an exhaustive translation in Yiddish circulated throughout Eastern Europe, an indication of the appeal this work held for the common working Jew who aspired to savor the delicacies of Jewish learning yet could only spend a limited amount of time in daily study.
Contemporary editions, both in print and online, continue to present the material in a six-day format, with a separate section for Shabbat. Each daily section features a small number of verses from the Torah reading of the week, based on numerical equivalents of the letters in Divine Names (a larger segment is assigned to Fridays to allow students to complete the entire portion each week). This is followed by a short selection from the Nevi’im (usually the haftarah of the week) and the Hagiographa (usually Proverbs). The six orders of the Mishnah and Gemara follow (Zera’im on Monday, Moed on Tuesday, etc.), then a section of Kabbalah usually taken from the Zohar, concluding with halachah and mussar readings. In Sephardic and Mizrachi communities, men often gather after morning prayers to follow the Chok Le-Yisrael exactly as studied by the Arizal. Modest in size, each day’s learning can easily be completed within 20-45 minutes (students with less developed Hebrew skills may make use of translations)–well within the time it takes to get from the Five Towns to Penn Station on the Long Island Railroad.
Dr. Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish History and Thought. He serves as dean at the Avenue J Campus of Touro’s Lander Colleges and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.