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The Arba'ah Turim was written by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher. He is also sometimes known as The Tur (after the title of his most famous work) or as "Ba'al Ha'Turim [Master of the Turim]. He lived from 1270 to 1343, in Toledo, Spain.
Unlike Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, the Arba'ah Turim covers only those areas of Jewish religious law that were in force in the author's time; it was written to be a halachic guide to those halachot relevent to people living outside of Israel in a time where there is no Temple. The Mishneh Torah was designed to be a recapitulation of everything of the Oral Torah a common man ought to learn, including all of halachah and much of aggadah (non-halachic teachings). The Mishneh Torah is therefore wider in scope. Rabbi Jacob did not deal with criminal law, let alone with the sacrifices or the Zera'im (agricultural precepts that could be observed only in the Holy Land.)
In the Tur, the code is divided into four main topics, each of which is divided into a sequence of numbered paragraphs. This roughly follows the structure of the Mishnah, which has 8 orders: Zera'im (Seeds; agricultural laws); Mo'ed (holidays); Nashim (Women and marriage); Neziqim (tort and fisal laws); Qodshim (sacred things; sacrifices, kosher, and other such topics); Taharos (ritual purity). Not all of these are within the Tur's scope: in fact, for some order, only a small part apply: only a small part of Zera'im, the bit about blessings and the Shema (Tr Berachot), and only a small part of Taharos. If you fold these into the adjacent orders, you have the origin of the Four Turim. The four "rows" are:
Orah Hayyim - "The Path of Life". This section deals with worship and ritual observance in the home and synagogue, through the course of the day, the weekly sabbath and the festival cycle.
Yoreh De'ah - "Teach Knowledge". This section deals with assorted ritual prohibitions, especially dietary laws and regulations concerning menstrual impurity.
Even Ha-'Ezer - "The Rock of the Helpmate". This section deals with marriage, divorce and other issues in family law.
Hoshen Mishpat - "The Breastplate of Judgment". This section deals with the administration and adjudication of civil law.
Within each Tur, the topics are broken down into subtopics, which are then broken down into sections (simanim) and laws (se'ifim). The structure down to the simanim is copied by the Shulchan Aruch and therefore played a great role in how halachic study is organized.
Another departure from Maimonides' precedent was the fact that the Tur did not limit itself to recording the normative positions, but compared the various opinions on any disputed point. The influence of the Arba'ah Turim is thus perceptible in its integration of the Franco-German and Spanish legal traditions, as well as in its fourfold structure, which was later adopted by Rabbi Joseph Caro's Shulkhan Arukh, and remains the most widely used structure for the organization of law codes and responsa.
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Daniel P. Faigin <firstname.lastname@example.org>