Mishnah Berurah

The writings of the "Hafetz Hayyim," Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan.

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Reprinted with permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from The Encyclopedia of Judaism, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen Kagan-Poupko (1838-1933) achieved prominence for his saintly personality. His teachings and writings, today more than ever, guide the behavior of Ashkenazic observant Jews. He was born in Zhetel, Poland on February 6, 1838. At the age of seventeen, already a prominent Talmudic scholar, he married his stepfather's daughter, Frieda, and settled in the small town of Radun. There he created a yeshiva, later known as Yeshivat Hafetz Hayyim.

 

A warm and humble person, Rabbi Kagan sought out personal contacts with his fellow Jews. Although burdened with the responsibilities of the yeshiva and deeply involved in his writings, he attended numerous conferences and public gatherings that allowed for his involvement in various Jewish issues as well as for interaction with Jewish laymen. He was very involved in establishing educational institutions for Jewish boys and in later years for girls as well. Kagan was also active in the development of the Agudat Yisrael organization, the world organization of Orthodox Judaism. He died in Radun on September 15, 1933.

Influential Works

Rabbi Kagan wrote 21 works. The most widely known are Hafetz Hayyim (He Who Desires Life; Vilna, 1873), a code of the laws of slander, gossip, and tale-bearing; Mahaneh Yisrael (Camp of Israel; Vilna, 1881), dealing with matters pertaining to the Jewish Russian soldier and his life in the military; Ahavat Hesed (Loving Kindness; Warsaw, 1888), on all aspects of human relations; Nidhei Yisrael (Dispersed of Israel; Warsaw, 1893) and Shem Olam (Everlasting Memorial; Warsaw, 1893), intended to keep Jews who were emigrating to Russia, Palestine, and America loyal to the Jewish heritage; Likutei Halakhot (Anthology of Laws; Petersburg, 1900-1925), dealing with the Temple service when the messiah comes; Homat Hadat (Fortress of Faith; Petersburg, 1905), concerning the importance of Torah and Torah education; Torat Habayit (Torah of the Home; Petersburg, 1907), emphasizing the importance of Torah study in the home; Taharat Yisrael (The Purity of Israel; 1910), Geder Olam (The Eternal Fence; Warsaw, 1890), and Beit Yisrael (The House of Israel; Petersburg, 1928), all dealing with the laws of family purity, ritual baths, and hair coverings.

His greatest work, which remains the strongest influence on Orthodox practice today and whose authority is considered final, is Mishnah Berurah (1884-1907), in six volumes. This is not a code. Kagan recognized that Caro's Shulhan Arukh held the primary place for codes and should never be supplanted. The format of commentary was the proper and time-honored way to decide law, and so his work comments phrase by phrase on Caro's Orah Hayim. He reprinted the text of the Shulhan Arukh along with three of its classic commentaries, Moshe Rivkash's Beyer HaGolah, Yehudah Ashkenazi's Beur Hetev, and Margoliot's Sha'arei Teshuvah. Below these three texts Kagan positioned his own commentaries.

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