The Hafetz Hayyim
One of the most influential Jewish religious figures of the twentieth century established his reputation first and foremost as an opponent of lashon hara, evil speech.
Reprinted from Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Israel Meir Kagan (1838-1933), Talmudic and rabbinic scholar, ethical and religious teacher, [is] venerated by Jews all over the world, especially those in the Lithuanian tradition, for his saintliness and learning. Israel Meir (his original surname was not Kagan but Poupko) is universally known by the title of his first book directed against the evils of slander and malicious gossip. He published this work anonymously, its title taken from the verses: “What is he that delighteth in life [he-hafetz hayyim], and loveth many days that he may see good? Keep they tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile” (Psalms 34:13-14). Although the Hafetz Hayyim occupied no official rabbinic position, his later reputation as an authority in practical Jewish law rested secure on his work on the subject. His life of extreme piety caused him also to be acknowledged among Lithuanian Jews as a charismatic personality akin to the tzaddik in Hasidism around which numerous legends accumulate. He has good right to be considered as the most influential figure in twentieth century Orthodox Judaism, appealing also in his homely approach to ordinary Jews with no pretensions to learning. With his gifted pen he produced both scholarly and popular works, all of which are still assiduously studied and some of which, a sure sign of popularity, have been translated into Yiddish.
The Hafetz Hayyim, though the supreme patron of the Lithuanian yeshivot, did not himself study in a yeshivah. Indeed, in his youth he was not an outstanding Talmudist and showed little promise of his future greatness in this field. A reliable report has it that the Maskilim, followers of the Haskalah movement of enlightenment, tried to win the young boy over to their camp but he resisted their blandishments, and remained indifferent to general studies and modern scholarship all his life. His approach to Judaism was other-worldly. When an American visitor to his home saw how bare was the sage’s room, he asked him, “Where is your furniture?” “Where is your furniture?” the Hafetz Hayyim asked the man. “I am only a visitor here,” was the reply. “I, too, am a visitor in this world,” was the typical reply. After his marriage, he and his wife owned a shop in the Lithuanian town of Radin, she serving the customers and he keeping the books. Numerous stories are told of his scrupulous honesty. He once discovered that a non-Jewish customer had paid for a herring but had not taken it with him. The Hafetz Hayyim had forgotten the man’s identity, so for a time he gave every non-Jewish customer a free herring. He remained in Radin for the rest of his life, students at first coming to his home to imbibe his wisdom. At a later date, a large yeshiva was established at Radin, which became a metropolis of Jewish learning in the old style. He was also a leader of the Orthodox movement, Agudat Yisrael, and became very active in the support of yeshivot everywhere. When his fame as an author spread, he earned his living by the sale of his books, seeing to it at all times, in order not to defraud the buyers, that the books were in the best condition and offered at a very fair price.