Arukh HaShulhan

The writings of Rabbi Yehiel Mekhel Epstein.

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Epstein begins each law with a survey of the history of that particular halakhah. He analyzes the disputes among rabbis concerning the details of the ruling and offers his opinion on the proper form of the law. Besides serving its primary purpose as a functional code of practical law, the book is useful as a reference work, because it analyzes the major opinions of Caro's code and its subsequent commentaries. Although his library was not as extensive as that of [Mishnah Berurah author Israel Meir] Kagan, Epstein managed to uncover and record rulings of very early decisors. He was careful to cite his sources from previous legal works and both Talmuds.

Epstein cites rules that had fallen out of practice, giving them renewed force, and he derives new applications of law from older sources that he thought should be followed. His goal was to produce a systematic body of consistent law, even if not all the rulings were applicable in modern times. He followed Maimonides' decisions concerning court rulings that were only applicable in times when there was a Jewish monarchy, such as the laws governing cities of refuge and various high court procedures.

Nevertheless, he noted dissenting opinions. When Epstein presented a dispute, it is only for the purpose of background clarification before he rendered the decision he considered binding. He sought to give the final halakhic summation of all halakhah existing up to his day. His decision is usually based on the rulings of the latest authority that he found cogent. Nevertheless, he readily employed such expressions as "in our time," "our custom is," and "in our country" to point out changes in customs and living conditions. These terms are frequently used as formularies at the conclusion of rulings concerned with current social realities.

An Ongoing Process

Unlike Kagan's approach in the Mishnah Berurah, Epstein perceived halakhah as an ongoing process for living communities and frequently gave weight to lenient practices that had developed over the ages. He proposed his own legal justifications for these decisions. When analyzing a question, he at times proposed new explanations for the past rulings.

As a result of these explanations, he determined that some statutes were only pertinent to past eras when conditions had varied widely from those of the modern age. He recognized that advances in technology presented new challenges to the applications of Jewish legal principles, and he noted that social norms had developed as well. In Arukh HaShulhan, Orah Hayim (65:21) he states, "There is a reality [today] that was not so in previous generations." His daring independence can be seen in the fact he did not publish a single approbation for his Arukh HaShulhan, an almost unheard-of practice even in today's world.

Epstein's Arukh HaShulhan ranks next to the Mishnah Berurah as a guide for the daily life of the halakhically conscious Jew. It has been published many times and in many editions. No Rabbinic library is complete without it, and, in most cases, no Rabbinic student or adjudicator will endeavor to do research without consulting it.

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Simcha Fishbane is an Associate Professor of Judaic Studies at Touro College.

Herbert Basser

Herbert Basser is a Professor of Religious Studies at Queens University.