Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Reviewing: “Setting the Table: An Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Rabbi Yechiel Mikhel Epstein’s Arukh HaShulhan,” by Michael J. Broyde and Shlomo C. Pill. Academic Studies Press. 2021. English. Hardcover. 530 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1644690703.

Often there are documentaries about “the story behind the story.” What goes on behind a story can often be more interesting than the story itself. In “Setting the Table: An Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Rabbi Yechiel Mikhel Epstein’s Arukh HaShulhan” (Academic Studies Press), Rabbis Michael Broyde and Shlomo Pill have written a fascinating book on how one of the most influential halachic works of the last 150 years came to light. Rabbi Yechiel Mikhel Epstein, the author of the Aruch HaShulchan, was one of the most revolutionary halachic decisors of recent memory.

While the Chofetz Chaim, author of the Mishna Berura, felt bound to follow his predecessors, Rabbi Epstein was a highly independent posek and did not view himself as bound to follow presidential opinions of past rabbis. He instead preferred to address the halachic issues by direct appeal to his own Talmudic understanding. It is that approach and Rabbi Epstein’s methodology that is the subject of this book.

The core difference between the Misha Berura and Aruch HaShulchan is that Aruch HaShulchan is fundamentally rooted in the idea that the halacha is the law of the Talmud and that one must turn to the Talmud in the first instance rather than to later codes and commentaries. To say such an approach is revolutionary for the times is an understatement. But that is the greatness that was Rabbi Epstein.

Broyde and Pill have identified the 10 methodical principles that Aruch HaShulchan uses as a basis for his derech ha’pesak. The authors use those principles to detail an interesting comparison between the approach of the Aruch Hashulchan and that of the Mishna Berura. The book details the 10 second-order methodological rules the Mishna Berura uses for determining normative practice in the face of significant rabbinical disagreement. These approaches are almost diametrically opposite, to which those effects are felt today.

What Rabbi Epstein achieved in codifying all of Jewish law was an incredibly bold endeavor. The authors put things in context when they write that the Jewish legal landscape in the late 1800s was a veritable quagmire of conflicting tests, commentaries, authorities and competing opinions that made determining the correct course of conduct on any particular question difficult for laypeople and scholars alike.

Whether much has changed since then can be debated as there are now orders of magnitude, more conflicting tests, commentaries, authorities and competing opinions available—to which a cursory search in the Bar Ilan responsa project can attest to.

The authors note that the writing and publishing of the entire Aruch HaShulchan took over 30 years due to the lack of funds and the need to have the Russian censors approve the texts, the latter being in no rush to do their work. It is worth appreciating the freedoms we have now, in which cost is no longer a factor in writing sefarim. And for those in Israel or the U.S., censorship is no longer such an issue. However, the truth be told, as current censorship, Mark Shapiro writes in “Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History” that it is still an issue. Albeit internally, not externally.

Broyde and Pill are not just lawyers who understand how legal systems work and Talmudic scholars, but superb authors who can take abstract legal and halachic issues and pen them in a fascinating manner.

This is an essential work about one of the most influential halachic works of recent memory. Understanding what went into the Aruch HaShulchan and the approach Rabbi Epstein took leaves the reader breathless. The Aruch HaShulchan is a masterpiece, and in “Setting the Table,” the authors have covered that table with an equally appealing masterpiece.

Ben Rothke lives in New Jersey and works in the information security field. He reviews books on religion, technology and science. @benrothke.