100 Years of the Mishnah Berurah

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Thanks to an alert reader for sending us this tip, courtesy of Beyond BT: tonight is the 100th Anniversary of the Mishnah Berurah, which was completed on 19 Cheshvan, 5667 (as the author notes at the end of the last volume). Today it is the Jewish world’s most influential work, in terms of its impact upon daily Jewish observance, since the Shulchan Aruch itself (Rabbi Yosef Karo’s Code of Jewish Law, with the glosses of Rabbi Moshe Isserles).

The Mishnah Berurah was written by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin, and this was not his only work with such profound global impact. Rabbi Kagan was commonly known as the “Chofetz Chaim” — the name of his most famous earlier work, published in 1873, describing in detail the laws against Lashon Hora, evil speech. Previous to the Chofetz Chaim, there had been no single work which so clearly enunciated these laws, with the result that they had been neglected. Today, Jews study the Chofetz Chaim and related works on a daily basis.

Several days ago, Beyond BT published Rabbi Kagan’s 1933 obituary from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, as published in the New York Times. The headline reads “Chofetz Chaim, 105, is Dead in Poland.” He was called the “Chofetz Chaim” even during his lifetime, while his Mishnah Berurah is not even mentioned in the article.

This is fitting — because while the publication of the Chofetz Chaim required great scholarship, to actually live by its tenets is evidence of true piety and elevated character. It is said that until after his death, people did not recognize Rabbi Kagan’s profound scholarship, and that this was because the Chofetz Chaim would constantly pray that this be the case. [When I was a student in Jerusalem, there was an old man with a long beard who sat in the back of the Beis Medrash (study hall), tying Tzitzis while mumbling to himself. At least, we thought he was mumbling — until someone realized that he was reviewing the Talmud from memory. At any rate, this elderly man had met the Chofetz Chaim in his own youth, and recalled clearly that the Chofetz Chaim did not dress like a Rosh Yeshiva (Yeshiva dean), but very simply. So he didn’t carry himself like a scholar, either.]

Rabbi Kagan was, however, known as a tzaddik, a truly saintly individual. The JTA described him as “venerated by Orthodox Jews throughout the world as one of the 36 saints because of whose piety the Lord has not destroyed the world.”

Someone once asked: if the Chofetz Chaim so wished to avoid fame, and was already praying that he not become known as a scholar, then why did he not also pray that he not become famous as a saint? The answer goes that it was so clear to the Chofetz Chaim himself that he was not a saint, that he never considered it necessary to pray that people recognize the obvious! As the lawyer who once called the Chofetz Chaim as a character witness said to the judge — after telling a story of the Chofetz Chaim’s own character: “Your Honor, I don’t know if the story is true or not. But they don’t tell stories like that about you or me.”

Mr. Gros writes on Beyond BT: “Rabbi Moshe Faskowitz from the Torah Center of Hillcrest suggests that on Friday everyone should open the Mishnah Berurah and learn at least one law from it, to celebrate this wonderful anniversary.” It’s a good suggestion — and not only for today.

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3 Responses

  1. Micha Berger says:

    For what it’s worth, many of his peers disagreed with Rav Aharon Kotler — including Rav Hutner (Chaim Berlin), Rav Y. Yaakov Weinber (Ner Israel), and my own rebbe, Rav Dovid Lifshitz (the Suvalker Rav and RIETS).

    Personally, I advocate an Arukh haShulchan Yomi program. Partly because of my rebbe’s advice when I got married, that it be the guide to be used on questions that do not require I got to a rabbi. Partly also because it has more of the mechanics of the halachic process, as opposed to the Mishnah Berurah’s orientation toward citing sources without explaning the logic of their positions. It makes it easier to stick to for daily learning.

    It’s clear that Rav Yisrael Meir haKohein (Kagan) personally did not intend the Mishnah Berurah to serve in the role it does. To give two examples: The becher he used at the seder was inherited by his daughter and measured. It’s not large enough according to the Mishnah Berurah. Another: He didn’t wear his tzitzis strings out, even though the primary source for the contemporary practice of those who do so (including myself) is the Mishnah Berurah.

    The shift from a survey and theoretic discussion to a halachic guide was a program of Rav Aharon Kotler’s. Now, I’m not going to say that following the Mishnah Berurah pragmatically is any less a good idea because one is following Rav Aharon rather than the Chafeitz Chaim by doing so. But I just want to be clear. It also explains why this tendency is slightly less true in yeshivos less connected to Lakewood.

  2. mycroft says:

    Thanks for the reminder of one of the leading Jewish personalities of the past couple hundred years.
    Technical point-didn’t the Chafeitz Chaim live for 95 years rather than 105 years.
    “while his Mishnah Berurah is not even mentioned in the article.”

    historically-it appears that the Mishnah Berurah has received more acceptance as authoritative — rather than the Chaii Adam, or Aruch Hashulchan for example after the Chafeitz Chaims p’tirah.

    BTW an interesting discussion would be can one not follow the Mishna Berurah and follow Aruch Hashulachan or Chaii Adam–it is probably not as obvious an answer as students of Rav Ahron Kotler ZT”L assume.

  3. Mordechai says:

    I recently heard a tape from Rav Simcha Wasserman, zarzal who attributed the following response to the Brisker Rav

    Someone once asked: if the Chofetz Chaim so wished to avoid fame, and was already praying that he not become known as a scholar, then why did he not also pray that he not become famous as a saint? The answer goes that it was so clear to the Chofetz Chaim himself that he was not a saint, that he never considered it necessary to pray that people recognize the obvious!