Monday, 24 March 2014

Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein - The Aruch HaShulchan

Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829 - 23 Adar Beit 1908) - commonly known as the Aruch HaShulchan - after the magnum opus he wrote with that very name was a Rabbi and Posek of the highest calibre. His multi-volumed work - taking over twenty years to write - covers all four sections of the accepted code of Jewish law - the Shulchan Aruch - written in the exact same format. It is based mostly upon the Jerusalem Talmud and the Rambam.

Whereas the way of the Shulchan Aruch is to give the Psak Halacha directly, it is the way of the Aruch HaShulchan to work in the opposite manner by first providing all the necessary sources - Rishonim and Acharonim (which he argues upon frequently,) and then leading into the Halacha itself. The author is lenient wherever he can be. He was not "just" an author of a major Halachic work considered authoritative today, but he was also the Rav of an entire city - Novozybkov (now Bryansk region). It was due to his actual rabbinical experience that he focused on bringing lenient opinions whenever necessary - having actually seen how important this was in practice. His introduction to his work brings in his feelings and why he chose to Paskin as he did. Even the intro is a master work! It is fascinating to note that though he is not considered a Chassid, the town he was Rav for was in fact made of a majority of Chassidim - and of them - Chabad stood out most!

9 years later he became the Rav of Navardok (for which he is best known) and remained there for 34 years. He was close to Rav Shmuel Salant of Jerusalem and was a firm supporter of the Rebbi Meir Baal HaNeis charity fund - a fund supporting the Jews of Eretz Yisrael (charity being given in the merit of Rabbi Meir Baal HaNeis.) In fact any charity given to support Jews living in Israel today is really a part of this much larger fund - though this was the essential fund that began the focus and importance of supporting those living in Israel.

There was always a challenge within the Torah world as to which of the Halachic works would be accepted - the Mishnah Berurah or the Aruch HaShulchan (both published at very similar times - though the Aruch HaShulchan was printed later leading many to accept it as more authoritative!) Though the Mishnah Berurah gained greater acceptance for a standard in learning - this in no way detracted from the greatness of the Aruch HaShulchan which is just as necessary when it comes to deciding Halacha in a proper Torah context. The Aruch HaShulchan is simply a master piece in Halacha!

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein once said that the decisions of the Aruch HaShulchan - who was a full-time practising Rav - take precedence over many Poskim who were not practising Rabbanim. A Rav takes into account more than just the black and white facts of a case before rendering a Halachic decision.

There are two beautiful editions available for purchase, one being the Oz VeHadar which also includes footnotes of the Mishna Berurah's rulings where differences are found. This in fact highlights the importance of learning all these Halachic works together - and not assuming one can learn each one independent of the other. (This is a great general principle in learning Torah and Halacha - which is really all one and perfect!)

Rabbi Epstein had an exceptionally humble and wise son - Rabbi Baruch - who due to not being able to secure a job in Rabbinics in the United States at that time(!) - became a successful bookkeeper. Let that not attest to any lack of knowledge in Torah on his part - when we know he compiled two hugely successful works in the Torah world today - the Torah Temimah - an entire commentary on the Chumash showing the references of the Gemara to the various sections in the Chumash - as well as Mekor Baruch - a major work of immense proportions sharing about the history of his family. One section is translated and is known as "My Uncle the Netziv". It is a fascinating story of the relationship between Rabbi Baruch and his uncle Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda of Volohzin. In fact his uncle was none other than his brother-in-law as well, having married his sister after his first wife died (making him the son-in-law of the Aruch HaShulchan.)

You can keep up with daily learning of Aruch HaShulchan by accessing the Aruch HaShulchan Luach here.

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