June 11, 2024
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Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829-1908): Aruch HaShulchan

Rabbi Epstein was born in Belorussia, and studied in a traditional cheder. His intent was to follow in his father’s footsteps: work as a merchant while also dedicating time to daily Torah study. However, Rabbi Eliyahu Goldberg—rabbi of a nearby town and a student of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin—took an interest in the youth and convinced him to stress his Torah studies more.

From 1842-1843, he studied at the Volozhin yeshiva. There, he met Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv) who later became the head of this yeshiva. Eventually, he married the Netziv’s sister. After leaving the Volozhin yeshiva, he briefly pursued a career in business but was quickly appointed a rabbinical judge. He also assisted Rabbi Goldberg in Rabbi Goldberg’s rabbinical work.

Around 1865, Rabbi Epstein became the rabbi of Novosybkov. From here, he often traveled to Lubavitch to study with the third rebbe of Chabad. Most of Rabbi Epstein’s income during these years came from his wife’s fabric store. His major writing endeavor during this period was “Or LeYasharim,” a commentary to Sefer HaYashar of Rabbeinu Tam.

Around 1874, Rabbi Epstein became the rabbi of the important city of Novogrudok (Novaredok), in Belarus, where he would serve for 34 years, until his death. He had five children. One of Rabbi Epstein’s sons, Baruch, authored the “Torah Temimah.” One of Rabbi Epstein’s daughters, Batya, married her uncle—the Netziv—after Netziv’s first wife passed away around 1875. Netziv was 30 years older than her. Among their children was Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan (1880- 1949). (From the Netziv’s first wife was Rabbi Chaim Berlin, chief rabbi of Moscow from 1865-89.) So Rabbi Epstein—who was first the brother-in-law of the Netziv—then became his father-in-law!

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Aside from Or LeYasharim and Aruch HaShulchan, here are his other works:

Aruch HaShulchan HeAtid, dealing mostly with laws not yet applicable in our times. It was published posthumously in 1938-46 (the volumes on Zeraim), and more sections in 1962 (e.g., Sanhedrin and Melachim) and 1969 (Kodashim). The Zeraim volumes, eventually, became important as agricultural communities that were observing halacha began to arise.

Meichal haMayim, a commentary on the Jerusalem Talmud.

Leil Shimurim, a commentary on the Haggadah.

Derashot Kol Ben Levi, a collection of sermons he delivered in the main synagogue of Novogrudok. (Rabbi Epstein was a Levite.)

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Below is a partial list of prominent rabbis whom Rabbi Epstein ordained:

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook,

Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer,

Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin,

Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky,

Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin (founder of the Encyclopedia Talmudit),

Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman (rosh yeshiva of the Ponevezh yeshiva),

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon.

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As anyone who has studied Aruch HaShulchan knows, he showed a marked tendency towards leniency. He once stated to Rabbi Maimon: “When any problem in connection with the prohibitions of the Torah comes before you, you must first presume it is permitted, and only after you have carefully studied the Rishonim and can find no possibility of leniency are you obliged to rule that it is forbidden,” (see Encyclopaedia Judaica 6:832).

Rabbi Epstein wrote a long introduction to his entire Aruch HaShulchan in Choshen Mishpat. Here is a brief summary of the introduction (from the Encyclopedia Judaica): “Epstein explains that just as Maimonides saw the need to compose the Mishna Torah and Joseph Caro the Shulchan Aruch in order to codify the halacha in their times, there was now a need to bring the Shulchan Aruch up to date by giving the halachic rulings which had been promulgated by authorities subsequent to Caro … He said that ‘great anxiety and confusion’ had resulted from those new rulings and his work was intended to give the final halachic summation up to his day.”

I had always wondered about the year of publication of the Aruch HaShulchan compared to the Mishna Berurah. It turns out that both were published over the years 1894-1907. But the precise answer is more complex. Mishna Berurah (entirely a work on Orach Chayim) was published in six volumes, in the order of the simanim. As to Aruch HaShulchan, after the first volume of Choshen Mishpat came out in 1894, the second volume of Choshen Mishpat did not come out until 1903. (The long delay was caused by the censorship process.) Orach Chayim came out over the years 1903-07. (As to Yoreh Deah, this came out from 1894-98, and Even HaEzer: 1905-06.) So it seems that most of the volumes of Mishna Berurah preceded the first Shulchan Aruch volume of Orach Chayim.

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Rabbi Eitam Henkin and his wife, Naama, were murdered by Arab terrorists in 2015. While alive, Rabbi Henkin published three books and more than 40 articles. After his death (at age 31), his family found on his computer drafts of many more scholarly writings. One of his main projects was writing on the Shulchan Aruch.

Eventually with the help of many, a complete work on the Aruch HaShulchan was published by Maggid Books in Hebrew, in 2018: “Taaroch Lefanai Shulchan.” Hopefully, it will be translated into English someday. But there is already an English translation of some of the material in this book.

I am now going to discuss the material on censorship of the Aruch HaShulchan. It is chapter 13 of Studies in “Halacha and Rabbinic History” (Maggid, 2021) which collects many of Rabbi Henkin’s articles. Here is what Rabbi Henkin wrote (pages 203-04): “The fact that Rabbi Epstein chose to first publish Choshen Mishpat turned out to be a handicap, as the censor was far stricter about Choshen Mishpat than he was about the other sections of Shulchan Aruch. Rabbi Yehoshua Mondshine describes the special attention of the Russian censor to the Choshen Mishpat section, which they viewed as the most ‘dangerous’ section of Shulchan Aruch, because it clearly states that there can be a Torah law that is not compatible with the ‘dina demalchuta.’ There is no greater act of sedition than this! Rabbi Mondshine provides a long list of books that suffered from heavy-handed censorship when it came to Choshen Mishpat, and particularly that they were forced to write that these laws are not to be practiced, that the law of the regime is the law … Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein—whose books were printed in the same era and under the same regime—was likewise plagued by the same obstacles … ”

Rabbi Henkin continues: “A full page at the beginning of the Choshen Mishpat section … entitled ‘The Glory of the King’ is devoted to effusive praise of the tsar and his family … ” Rabbi Henkin adds that the 1911 edition—printed by Rabbi Epstein’s daughter—omits this. “Nevertheless, new editions of Aruch HaShulchan, published in our day, preface the volume with this paean to the tsar, as though we are still living under his heavy yoke,” (Page 205, number 11).

At pages 206-09, Rabbi Henkin documents specific instances of censorship in Choshen Mishpat, and in the other sections of the work. He points out that the censors of the different volumes were not consistent with one another as to what was permitted.

Rabbi Henkin also noted an addition by the Russian censors to the Mishna Berurah, at Orach Chayim 329. If one looks here in most editions, below where the normal Mishna Berurah text is, one sees a few words added with an asterisk: “vekevar nifsak beGemara dina demalchuta dina.” He strongly suspects that this was added by the Russian censors.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He heard a story of someone entering a seforim store and asking for an “Aruch HaShulchan.” The response: “I don’t have any but would you like to buy a ‘Shulchan Aruch?’”

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