Rav Y.M. Epstein’s and Aroh haShulhan Invites You Into a Generational Discussion

Rav Y.M. Epstein’s and Aroh haShulhan Invites You Into a Generational Discussion

Rabbi Yechiel Michal Halevi Epstein - הרב יחיאל מיכל הלוי אפשטיין (January 24, 1829 - March 24, 1908 (כ' בשבט תקפ"ט - כ"ב באדר ב' ה'תרס"ח)) was a rabbi of Novarduk, a judge and author of the book Aruch Hashulchan - ערוך השולחן on the four parts of Shulchan Aruch. Born in the city of Bobruisk in Belarus to Rashka and Rabbi Aharon Yitzhak Halevi, who was a merchant. His family, the Epstein family, is a descendant of the Spanish Benvenisti family, and even of Rabbi Aharon Halevi to whom the composition of the book of education is attributed. The family was deported during the deportation from Spain, the people of Epstein, near Frankfurt, Germany, agreed to accept them into the city and the family changed its name as a token of gratitude. In the book Makor Baruch, authored by his son Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, he expresses his sorrow at the name change of the family.

Which brings us to the late 19th century, when Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein started publishing a series of pamphlets on the Shulchan Aruch. Starting with the section on monetary law called Choshen Mishpat and finally concluding with the more familiar Orach Chaim (laws of daily living) in 1904 or so. Because Rav Karo’s code is called “Shulchan Aruch,” literally, “The Set Table” (and the Rema’s additions called the “Mapah” – “the Tablecloth”), Rabbi Epstein called his work “Aruch HaShulchan” – “Setting the Table.”

Eventually these booklets were published in volumes, covering nearly all of the Shulchan Aruch. Originally each volume still had the page numbering of the original booklets, so that in the middle of the volume it would start again with page 1. And some of the booklets covering Yoreh Dei’ah (laws of issur and heter) were missing. Modern editions have clearer print, normal page numbering, and the booklet on Nedarim was since found and incorporated. The process of writing and publication took over 30 years.

The purpose of the Aruch HaShulchan is to bring you into the discussion. Not only to give you a set of rulings, but to take the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch, and both explain their origins in the Gemara – both Bavli and Yerushalmi – and then to explain their development since the Shulchan Aruch and Rema through to his day. With a primary focus on the rulings followed in his community in Lithuania and often other East European communities.

The Aruch HaShulchan always had the role of a primary source of halacha for many poskim and roshei yeshiva. Although we must note that in most circles, the Mishnah Berurah, written by the beloved Chofetz Chaim has eclipsed it. What carried the day was likely two particular supporters of the Mishna Berurah, who were formative communal voices in the two largest Jewish communities. Rav Aharon Kotler, one of the primary voices in the development of the observant community in the United States, was often seen carrying his Mishnah Berurah. He would even pick the volume he was holding up when photographed to make sure it was included in the picture. And in Israel, it is reported that the Chazon Ish on more than one occasion praised the Mishnah Berurah as being “near prophetic,” “the final decisor,” and other superlatives.

Meanwhile, as we said, many other poskim disagreed. One notable supporter of the Aruch HaShulchan was Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, the forefront American halachic authority in the generation before Rav Moshe Feinstein. (Rav Moshe, too, is reported to have called the Aruch HaShulchan the “posek acharon,” the final halachic decisor.)

According to Rav Henkin’s grandson, Rav Yehuda Herzl Henkin (in Benei Banim, vol. II, pg. 31), this was primarily for three reasons: (1) it covers all four sections of the Shulchan Aruch, whereas the Mishnah Berurah only analyzes Orach Chaim; (2) the volumes on Orach Chaim in Aruch HaShulchan quote the Mishnah Berurah, indicating that he was aware of the position and took it into account, which qualifies it for the rule “halacha k’basrai – the halacha is like the later authority; (3) most importantly, the Aruch HaShulchan uses accepted practice as a data point, while the Mishnah Berurah is more exclusively concerned with the precedent found in texts.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the Aruch HaShulchan. A notable first light of this trend was a book started by Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin’s son, Rav Eitam Henkin. His work on Rav Epstein and the Aruch HaShulchan was interrupted when he and his wife Na’amah were murdered by a Hamas sniper while driving in the Shomron in 2015. He was just 31, and they left behind four children, who were all in the van at the time. 

What we have of his work – carrying on his rabbinic family’s attachment to the Aruch HaShulchan – was published posthumously in Hebrew as Ta’aroch Lefanai Shulchan (“Set a Table Before Me,” a line from the poem, Tehillim 23:5; it was published by Maggid Press in 2019). It was supposed to cover Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein’s life, his thought, and an analysis of the methodology of the Aruch HaShulchan. Of those goals, only the biography and a discussion of his extended family is complete. The book also contains some analysis of Rabbi Epstein’s relationships with both Religious Zionism and the Mussar movement. The second part, which was not completed, deals with the Aruch HaShulchan, its history and publication, its methodology, and how it compares to other such works, such as the Mishnah Berurah.

One note, though, in contrast to his illustrious great-grandfather, Rav Eitam was not convinced that Rav Epstein had access to the majority of the Mishnah Berurah at the time he wrote on Orach Chaim. The younger Rabbi Henkin researched the times the Mishnah Berurah and Aruch HaShulchan cite each other and found that Rav Epstein quotes only volumes one and three of the Mishnah Berurah, which were the first two the Chofetz Chaim published. Recall that there was often a long delay between writing and publication, so publication dates are no guide.

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