Jewish Studies Rabbi Yeheil Michel Epstein and his Arukh Hashulchan
by
Michael J. Broyde
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0215

Introduction

Yechiel Mikhel Epstein (also Yeheil Michel Epstein, b. 1829–d. 1908) was among the most distinguished Jewish Law authorities of the last half of the 19th century. Along with Moses Maimonides, he shared the accomplishment of preparing a full restatement of all of Jewish law, which he presented in two works, the Arukh HaShulchan and the Arukh haShulchan HeAtid. These two works established Rabbi Epstein as one of the leading Jewish law authorities of all Jewish history, both past and present. Although he wrote a few other works, such as Or Li-Yesharim, Mikhal HaMayim, and Leil Shimurim, as well as a recent work collecting his many letters titled Kitvei HaArukh HaShulchan, none of them have been seen as of any great significance. Rather, Epstein’s legacy resides in his complex, nuanced, and nearly complete commentary on the full breadth of Jewish law. Epstein was born on 24 January 1829 in Bobriusk, Russia. Epstein’s father was a successful businessman and competent Jewish scholar who provided his son with a thorough rabbinic education. By many accounts, Epstein demonstrated an aptitude for Talmudic studies at a young age and thus spent his formative years studying under the direction of Rabbi Elijah Goldberg, the Chief Rabbi of Bobriusk. He also studied briefly at the famous Volozhin Yeshivah from 1842 through 1843. While Epstein briefly pursued a career in business, he was quickly appointed as a rabbinical judge and assisted his teacher, Rabbi Goldberg, in his hometown of Bobriusk. Having subsequently decided to pursue service as a community leader, Epstein received his first appointment in 1865 when he was selected to become the rabbi of Novozybkov, a Russian town in which a few thousand Jews lived. The Jewish population there included Orthodox, secular, and Hasidic Jews, as well as Jews who resisted the Hasidic movement (called Mitnagdim). At the age of thirty-five, Rabbi Epstein married Roshka Berlin, the daughter of Rabbi Jacob Berlin and sister of the famous Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, who would later become head of the Volozhin Yeshiva. The couple ultimately had five children. Notably, their daughter, Braynah Welbrinski, was twice widowed before settling into her parents’ home and managing the publication and distribution of the Arukh HaShulchan, which was edited and produced in the years following the death of Rabbi Epstein in 1908.

General Overview of Epstein’s Life and Work

Epstein spent ten years as rabbi of Novozybkov, during which time he visited Lyubavichi to meet and study with Menachem Mendel Schneersohn of Lubavitch, the third Rebbe of the Chabad Hasidic court. Schneerson, who was an important scholar and decisor of Jewish law in his own right, led the Chabad Hasidic group to which many of Epstein’s Novozybkov constituents belonged. While it is unclear how long Epstein spent in Lyubavichi, it is known that he studied with Schneerson and subsequently received an additional rabbinic ordination from him. Later, when writing his Arukh HaShulchan, Epstein would often quote the Shulchan Arukh HaRav, a code written by Schneerson’s grandfather, Shneur Zalman of Liadi. Also during this time, Epstein published his first book, Or LiYesharim, a commentary on portions of the medieval text Sefer HaYashar, written by the Tosafist Rabbenu Tam (Rashi’s grandson). While the Sefer HaYashar itself is a relatively obscure and not well-studied work, Epstein’s commentary gained the attention of many important Eastern European rabbis and was well received by them. The publication of Or LiYesharim improved Epstein’s rabbinic reputation, and in 1874 he accepted a position as rabbi of Lubcha, a small town on the outskirts of Novogrudok in southern Lithuania. Shortly after arriving in Lubcha, the communal leaders of Novogrudok offered the recently vacant position of city rabbi to Epstein. At this time, and indeed until the city’s Jewish population was almost completely annihilated during the Second World War, Novogrudok was an important center of Lithuanian Jewish life. Epstein continued to serve as rabbi of Novogrudok until his death in 1908. During this time, he led the community, delivered sermons, and answered questions of Jewish law posed by local residents. Eventually, his leadership extended to Jews throughout Europe, Palestine, and the United States. Epstein headed up the local rabbinical court and interacted with Russian authorities on behalf of the Jewish community. Most importantly, it was during his time in Novogrudok that Rabbi Epstein wrote his magnum opus: the multivolume restatement of Jewish law, the Arukh HaShulchan, and its sequel, Arukh HaShulchan HeAtid.

Epstein’s Major Works

There is no doubt that the most important work of Epstein is the Arukh HaShulchan, followed by the Arukh HaShulchan HeAtid.

Secondary Literature about Epstein

The recent posthumous work by Rabbi Eitam Henkin is both pathbreaking and unique. So much information about Epstein and his life has been rediscovered by this work.

  • Broyde, Michael J., and Shlomo C. Pill. Setting the Table: An Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Rabbi Yechiel Mikhel Epstein’s Arukh HaShulchan. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2021.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781644690710Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Presents an overview of the legal approach and methodology of Yechiel Mikhel Epstein in the Arukh HaShulchan, as well as several biographical opening chapters. This book is a systemic analysis of Epstein’s Orach Chaim section of his work, culling more than two hundred examples from the work as a whole. It divides Epstein’s insights into categories and attempts to draw jurisprudential insights from the flow of the work as a whole.

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  • Fishbane, Simcha. The Boldness of an Halakhist: An Analysis of the Writings of Rabbi Yechiel Mechel HaLevi Epstein the Arukh HaShulchan. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2008.

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    This is an analysis of Epstein’s writings that emphasizes the novelty of his work. This book is an important supplement to the occasional novel contributions to Jewish law found in Epstein’s code. The value of this book is that each chapter stands alone and can be read to focus on specific issues one at a time.

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  • Henkin, Eitam. Taarokh Lefanai Shulchan: Chayo Zemano uMepaalo Shel HaRav Yechiel Mikhel Epstein Baal Arukh HaShulchan. Jerusalem: Magid, Koren, 2019.

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    This is the leading biography of Epstein, and the only one of its kind to have been published. Features an extensive discussion of his life and his family. This is, without doubt, the best and only academic biography of Rabbi Epstein. Posthumously published, it represents the beginning of all discussion regarding Epstein as a rabbinical figure. It is less an analysis of his jurisprudence.

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  • Shapiro, Chaim. “The Aruch HaShulchan.” In The Torah Personality. Edited by Rabbi Nisson Wolpin. Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 1988.

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    This is an incomplete biography, intended mainly for common consumption within the community of the faithful. It is more hagiography than true biography, and is an attempt to place Epstein within his religious milieu.

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The Milieu of Rabbi Epstein’s Intellectual Life

The Jewish legal landscape in the second half of the 19th century was a veritable quagmire of conflicting texts, commentaries, authorities, and competing opinions that made determining the correct course of conduct on any particular question difficult for laypeople and scholars alike. The practical religious uncertainties engendered by the state of rabbinic jurisprudence were further exacerbated by the substantial and often cataclysmic changes the Jewish world had undergone by the late 1800s, including those presented by the Enlightenment and Emancipation. New modes of thinking and ideologies—secularism, historical criticism, nationalism, socialism, and liberalism, among others—made substantial inroads into various aspects of Jewish life and into various segments of the Jewish community. All of this served to challenge many traditional rabbinic responses to both legal and theological concerns, and indeed raised many new and unprecedented questions that for traditional Jews often demanded cogent answers drawn from the vast and growing corpus of Jewish law. This set the stage for a fresh reconsideration of the great body of legal thought and opinion that had grown up around Rabbi Karo’s Shulchan Arukh during the preceding centuries. In response to this exigency, two different codifications of Jewish law were produced around the turn of the 20th century. One of these works is Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan’s (b. 1839–d. 1933) Mishnah Berurah. Published between 1884 and 1906, the Mishnah Berurah is of relatively limited scope and was written as a sort of supercommentary to the Orach Chaim section of Rabbi Karo’s Shulchan Arukh. The other was Epstein’s Arukh HaShulchan. Written between 1873 and 1903, Rabbi Epstein’s Arukh HaShulchan covers nearly all of the legal topics covered in Rabbi Karo’s Shulchan Arukh, and was expanded in the Arukh HaShulchan HeAtid to include those laws that are applicable in Temple times. Together, the Arukh HaShulchan and the HeAtid expansion became a full restatement of Jewish law, something that had not been produced since Maimonides’ code seven hundred years prior. Epstein’s code imitates the style of the Talmud in that it traces the development of legal rules and doctrines through biblical, Talmudic, and later sources without shying away from the complexities and uncertainties engendered by legal disagreement. Rabbi Epstein made his intent to recover the clarity of Rabbi Karo’s Shulchan Arukh amid the messiness of accumulated commentaries by calling his restatement Arukh HaShulchan, “Setting the Table.”

  • Elon, Menachem. Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles. Translated by Bernard Auerbach and Melvin J. Sykes. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1994.

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    This magisterial, four-volume history of Jewish Law from Talmudic to modern times is the single most complete history of the intellectual currents of the Jewish tradition over the centuries. See in particular pages 1180–1215.

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  • Ellenson, David. After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt14jxrtjSave Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This excellent book places the “Jewish religious response” to modernity in a variety of camps and communities, and argues that more than one response to the force of modernity arose among traditional Jewry. The author’s preface, presenting his own religious journey, is itself valuable. This book is, in some respect, a sequel to Katz 1998.

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  • Katz, Jacob. Out of the Ghetto: The Social Background of Jewish Emancipation, 1770–1870. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998.

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    This classical work by an eminent scholar places the changes in Eastern European Jewry squarely in the construct of emancipation and the crises—of faith, of economics, and of social order—in the mid-to-late 1800s. There is little doubt that Epstein lived through and responded to the social tensions described in this book. A masterful and important work. See in particular pages 142–160.

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  • Stern, Eliyahu. “Enlightenment Conceptions of Judaism and Law.” In The Cambridge Companion to Judaism and Law. Edited by Christine Hayes, 215–231. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

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    This article places the writings of Epstein within the flow of events in Jewish Eastern Europe during the mid-to-late 1800s. The reader develops a nuanced understanding of the communities Epstein is addressing and the challenges confronted.

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Setting the Table: The Arukh HaShulchan

Epstein’s crowning literary achievement is his monumental compendium of Jewish law titled Arukh HaShulchan and its companion volume Arukh HaShulchan HeAtid. As explained earlier, by the second half of the 19th century (nearly three hundred years after the publication and widespread distribution of Rabbi Karo’s Shulchan Arukh with notes by Rabbi Moshe Isserles), Jewish law had once again become a very complex field. The relatively straightforward prescriptions of the Shulchan Arukh were still central to the field, but primarily as the hub around which an ever-expanding universe of multivocal, discursive, and often contradictory commentaries, responsa, and other legal texts revolved. In his introduction to the first published volume of the Arukh HaShulchan, Epstein noted that the complexity and diversity of thought in rabbinic jurisprudence had led earlier scholars to collect and analyze the diverse views of their predecessors so as to determine clear standards of Jewish religious conduct. Rabbi Karo recorded his own rulings drawn from the Sephardic tradition of jurisprudence, and Rabbi Isserles contributed his own conclusions, drawn from the traditional jurisprudence of Ashkenazic Jewry. “Together,” Epstein writes in his introduction, “the two built the entire house of Israel with [their clarifications] of the laws that apply in contemporary times.” However, Epstein argues, the Shulchan Arukh was never meant to be the last word on Jewish law; it was instead meant to serve as a helpful framework for studying the law in depth using primary sources in the Talmud and earlier codes and commentaries. The publication of the Shulchan Arukh engendered many voluminous commentaries and legal texts using it as their basis to further explain, analyze, and apply Jewish legal norms and principles. As a result, Epstein writes, “In the current generation . . . uncertainty and confusion [about the law] have returned.” The Arukh HaShulchan was not written to replace the Shulchan Arukh, however. Instead, the Arukh HaShulchan seeks to clarify its application by presenting both prior and subsequent developments in rabbinic literature in a clear, comprehensible manner that lends itself to use as a tool for learning and practicing Jewish law.

  • Broyde, Michael J., and Shlomo C. Pill. Setting the Table: An Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Rabbi Yechiel Mikhel Epstein’s Arukh HaShulchan. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2021.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781644690710Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This work, after presenting the context of the recodification of Jewish Law in the late 19th century, analyzes hundreds of examples from Epstein’s work, and divides Epstein’s insights into categories. His jurisprudential insights are examined, rather than specific cases.

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  • Fishbane, Simcha. The Boldness of an Halakhist: An Analysis of the Writings of Rabbi Yechiel Mechel HaLevi Epstein the Arukh HaShulchan. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781618111142Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This book emphasizes Epstein’s bold and innovative rules rather than the routine examination of all of Jewish Law. Essentially a chapter book, Fishbane examines numerous distinct cases where Epstein proposes a novel solution to a problem.

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The Arrangement of the Arukh HaShulchan

The Arukh HaShulchan follows the same four-part division of Jewish law created by the Arbah Turim and adopted by the Shulchan Arukh: daily observances (Orach Chaim), ritual practices (Yoreh Deah), family law (Even HaEzer), and civil law (Choshen Mishpat). Within each section, the Arukh HaShulchan uses the subject headings of the Shulchan Arukh, and follows its chapter numbering system as well. As such, each chapter of the Arukh HaShulchan broadly corresponds to the substantive issues addressed in each corresponding chapter of the Shulchan Arukh. In addressing each legal issue, Epstein begins by presenting the sources for the rule or doctrine under discussion in the Torah and Talmud, and he traces early understandings of the topic and rabbinic interpretations of the primary sources through Maimonides, the period of the Rishonim, the Arbah Turim, the Shulchan Arukh, and later commentaries as well. In doing so, he analyzes these views, presents his own questions and counterarguments, and provides his own alternative interpretations of the Talmud and other primary rabbinic sources. He also records points of rabbinic disagreement and often resolves these disputes while taking note of customary practices, and ultimately defending his own legal determinations. While the Arukh HaShulchan reads as a compressive review and analysis of rabbinic legal literature on every topic it covers, its text is ultimately interested in reaching practical legal conclusions rather than just offering a digest of rabbinic opinions or a learned study of Talmudic dialectics.

  • Fram, Edward. “Jewish Law from the Shulhan Arukh to the Enlightenment.” In An Introduction to the History and Sources of Jewish Law. Edited by N. S. Hecht, B. S. Jackson, S. M. Passamaneck, Daniela Piattelli, and Alfredo Rabello, 359–377. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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    Provides an explanation of the historical and cultural milieu that led to the construction of the Shulchan Arukh, notes the Jewish legal sources that preceded it, and lists the prominent rabbinical figures who served as its main commentators and contributors, along with a brief overview of their lives and legal methodologies.

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  • Rabinowitz, Louis Isaac. “Shulḥan Arukh.” In Encyclopaedia Judaica. 2d ed. Vol. 18. Edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 529–530. Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007.

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    This article presents a definition of the Shulchan Arukh, names its basic subdivisions, and notes that while the base work was authored by Joseph Karo for use amongst Sephardic Jews, it became standard to publish with a commentary by Moses Isserles consisting of alternate rulings for each section where Eastern European custom diverged from Karo’s rulings so as to enable its use also among Ashkenazi Jewish communities.

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The Production and Publication of the Arukh HaShulchan

Epstein began work on the Arukh HaShulchan in late 1869 or early 1870, shortly after establishing himself in the rabbinate of Novogrudok. He continued writing and publishing the work for the next thirty-seven years, with the final published volume finally appearing shortly after Epstein’s death in February 1908. In addition to economic difficulties, Epstein confronted problems of government censorship. Manuscripts of Jewish law were subjected to an intense process of scrutiny and censorship by the Russian government before they could be either published or distributed within the Russian Empire. Epstein began his work on the Arukh HaShulchan with Choshen Mishpat, the last of the four main sections of the Shulchan Arukh, dealing with civil and criminal law and rabbinic court procedure. Epstein explained that his reason for doing so was specifically because its treatment of Jewish civil and criminal law is particularly complex and thus had received less rabbinic attention than those sections of the Shulchan Arukh that address ritual laws, giving him a greater opportunity to say something significant and new. Another reason why Choshen Mishpat had received less treatment in rabbinic legal literature was that in much of Eastern Europe, it was more difficult to obtain publication permits from the government for writings on Jewish civil and criminal law than for works dealing with ritual laws that had no secular implications. Since Choshen Mishpat addresses areas of law also covered by the laws of secular government, the Russian imperial authorities were particularly suspicious of works related to it, since they viewed them as expounding a competing system of public law and regulation. Due to lengthy reviews by Russian bureaucrats, which were then standard for Jewish publications, nearly thirteen years elapsed from the time that he began writing his first volume of the Arukh HaShulchan on Choshen Mishpat until the text was finally published in 1883. It was another decade before the second volume appeared, due to the manuscript having been held up in the office of the government censor in St. Petersburg. Nevertheless, the manuscripts of Epstein’s magnum opus gradually began to receive government approval, and ten volumes of the Arukh HaShulchan were published before the author’s death in 1908, as funds allowed, with another two volumes appearing in 1908 and 1911. An additional volume was published using Epstein’s manuscripts in 1992.

  • Henkin, Eitam. Taarokh Lefanai Shulchan: Chayo Zemano uMepaalo Shel HaRav Yechiel Mikhel Epstein Baal Arukh HaShulchan. Jerusalem: Magid, Koren, 2019.

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    This work peerlessly reviews the publication details of Epstein’s work, and explains the complex economic and social situations that were present in his life and how they impacted his writing. This is, without doubt, the only academic review of Rabbi Epstein’s publication history. Without this work, it is almost impossible to understand certain decisions made in the publication of Epstein’s work. This resource includes a publication history of the Arukh HaShulchan and a list of printing dates for its various editions. Henkin also provides various citations regarding the generally positive reception of the Arukh HaShulchan as a code of practical Jewish law.

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Setting the Future Table: The Arukh HaShulchan HeAtid

Upon completion of his commentary on all of practical Jewish law, Epstein turned to writing a code of Jewish law on all the laws that were not followed in pre-Temple times or in the Land of Israel, all of which became the Arukh HaShulchan. After this he went on to compile more volumes, which he titled Arukh HaShulchan HeAtid (Setting the Table for the Future), wherein he codifies all those areas of Jewish law that were not observed in the Ukraine, such as the agrarian laws (peah, shemittah, yovel, terumah, maaser, demai, maaser sheni, and bikkurim). Epstein repeated this process for the Temple rules, digesting, analyzing, and explaining all of the laws related to the Temple, its utensils, and its sacrifices. Following the basic organizational framework of Maimonides’ code, he summarizes and codifies the rules related to the Temple functions, incorporating all of the developments in Jewish law since Maimonides. Epstein went on to tightly reconceptualize and then recodify the rules related to purity in an eight-chapter reconsideration of its various abstract rules. After this, he realized that his code was still missing necessary material before it could rightly be considered complete, and went on to address six miscellaneous areas of Jewish law: (1) nazir, (2) erechen, (3) sanhedrin, (4) kings and wars, (5) the half-shekel, and (6) the calendar. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a single person accomplishing all this. The Arukh HaShulchan seems to have been generally well received during and in the years following Epstein’s life. At the very least, its comprehensive overviews of the legal topics it addresses, as well as Epstein’s own display of juristic independence and willingness to disagree with his predecessors in his own legal conclusions, quickly made the Arukh HaShulchan a relevant and important text. There are no firm figures as to how many copies of each volume of the Arukh HaShulchan were printed or distributed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to the present. The fact that four of the ten volumes of the Arukh HaShulchan were reprinted in two or three editions during the author’s lifetime is indicative of the demand for these books, however. Due to its popularity, use of the Arukh HaShulchan as a standard modern restatement of Jewish Law has become normal, and it has become part of the normative canon of Jewish law on almost any topic.

  • Broyde, Michael J., and Shlomo C. Pill. Setting the Table: An Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Rabbi Yechiel Mikhel Epstein’s Arukh HaShulchan. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2020.

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    Broyde and Pill present a comparison between the arrangement and methodology of the Arukh HaShulchan and the other, roughly contemporaneous, source of practical Jewish law, the Mishnah Berurah of Yisrael Meir Kagan. Epstein has some of the volumes of Kagan’s work and is clearly responding to them.

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  • Fishbane, Simcha. The Boldness of an Halakhist: An Analysis of the Writings of Rabbi Yechiel Mechel HaLevi Epstein the Arukh HaShulchan. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781618111142Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Two additional volumes of the Arukh HaShulchan were published in the four years following Epstein’s death, and a thirteenth volume—the third of four volumes covering the Yoreh Deah section of the Shulchan Arukh—was not published at all during this period, and was only rediscovered in manuscript form and published along with Epstein’s written sermons. Fishbane published those works and they added to the Epstein literature.

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  • Henkin, Eitam. Taarokh Lefanai Shulchan: Chayo Zemano uMepaalo Shel HaRav Yechiel Mikhel Epstein Baal Arukh HaShulchan. Jerusalem: Magid, Koren, 2019.

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    Henkin discusses what motivated his discussion of the Jewish law of the future and why he set out to write this new and novel work.

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  • Klier, John D. “1855–1894: Censorship of the Press in Russian and the Jewish Question.” Jewish Social Studies 48 (1986): 257–268.

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    This work, which does not focus uniquely on the obstacles Epstein faced, does an excellent job focusing on the role the Russian government played in censoring rabbinic works.

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Epstein’s Daughter and the Publication of the Arukh HaShulchan

Epstein’s daughter, Braynah, after being twice widowed, returned to her father’s house around 1900 and managed the continued publication of the Arukh HaShulchan after his death in 1908. Braynah continued to publish her father’s work for many years, and nearly all editions of the Arukh HaShulchan published in Europe prior to World War II contained the following statement on the front page: Printed by the well-known Rabbanit Mrs. Braynah Welbrinski the daughter and legal heir of the giant of Torah, the author of all the volumes of the above mentioned Arukh HaShulchan.

The Popularity of the Arukh HaShulchan

Despite its popular success as a comprehensive and up-to-date restatement of Jewish law, the Arukh HaShulchan was not a simple, straightforward code of religious behavior, but rather a complex analysis of Jewish legal discourse as it had developed to the end of the 19th century. As such, it did not enjoy wide popularity among the unlearned laity. It was geared toward those who were at least competent enough students to navigate the texts of the Talmud and later commentators and legal scholars. Therefore, evidence of its reception and impact is most evident in the scholarly discourses of Epstein’s contemporaries, as well as those of subsequent generations of rabbinic decisors. The Arukh HaShulchan is referenced in various Jewish legal texts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries produced both in Russia as well as in other parts of Eastern and Western Europe, England, the United States, and Palestine. Of course, not all references to the Arukh HaShulchan concurred with his conclusions. Many scholars took issue with Epstein’s tendency to ignore precedent and independently suggest alternative rulings based on his understandings of the Talmud and other primary sources. In such cases, some rabbinic decisors leveled harsh criticism against both Epstein personally and his approach to legal decision-making as regards Jewish law. Such strong pushback, however, is evidence that other rabbis—even those who fundamentally disagreed with Epstein’s methodology and conclusions—viewed the Arukh HaShulchan as a work with which they had to contend when making their own legal deliberations.

  • Henkin, Eitam. Taarokh Lefanai Shulchan: Chayo Zemano uMepaalo Shel HaRav Yechiel Mikhel Epstein Baal Arukh HaShulchan. Jerusalem: Magid, Koren, 2019.

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    Henkin provides an exhaustive list of references to the Arukh HaShulchan in Jewish legal literature of the period. He demonstrates how well accepted this work was.

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The Methodology of the Arukh HaShulchan

The methodological and jurisprudential goals of Yechiel Mikhel Epstein’s Arukh HaShulchan are never explicitly noted by him, but they may be discerned after a thorough examination of his work. Nine distinct rules of decision emerge from the rulings and analysis presented in the Arukh HaShulchan: three primary, three secondary, and four relating to the role of custom. Primary: 1. The theoretically correct rule on any given issue is reflected in each rabbinic decision-maker’s understanding of the relevant Talmudic sources, even when such contradicts the opinions of other important scholars of previous eras. 2. However, one’s own independent understanding of the Talmudic sources should be subordinated to alternative opinions embraced by a broad consensus of other rabbinic scholars, where such consensus exists. 3. Moreover, when one is uncertain about the correct legal understanding of the Talmud, one should defer to the rulings of the prominent codifiers, including Maimonides and Rabbi Karo (Shulchan Arukh), particularly when those rulings are more legally stringent than one’s own. This is true even if one is inclined, but not certain, that another rule is more persuasive. Secondary: 1. When a rabbinic scholar is genuinely unsure about the correct Talmudic rule, and where rabbinic consensus and other major codes fail to determine the issue, one should follow standard, traditional rules for resolving legal doubts (e.g., safek de-oraita le-chumra, safek de-rabbanan le-kula). 2. One should personally conduct themselves in accordance with one’s own careful understanding of the Talmud, and need not act strictly in order to satisfy alternative opinions that have been rejected in accordance with the ordinary rules of decision-making. 3. One should encourage people—but not require them—to adopt supererogatory practices (i.e., those that go beyond the minimal requirements of Jewish law), but only when there is a genuine religious or material benefit in doing so. Rules related to the role of custom: 1. The customary practices of one’s own time and place is a normative source of law, so they must be observed and reconciled with standard interpretations of Jewish law whenever possible. 2. Authentic mystical traditions are part of Jewish law and one must therefore observe Kabbalistic practices that may be interpreted compatibly with Talmudic sources, while rejecting those which cannot. 3. Jewish law must be practiced by real people in the real world, thus impracticable norms must be adapted to better uphold such standards. Custom serves that purpose.

  • Bar Ilan, Meir. Rabbi of the Jewish People. New York, 1942.

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    This work is the first and finest biography of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, whose second marriage was to a daughter of Epstein. It contains many important pieces of information about Epstein, his era, and his relationship to the Berlin family and the Volozhin Yeshiva. In Hebrew as: בר-אילן מאיר. רבן של ישראל, ניו יורק תש״ג.

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  • Bar Ilan, Meir. From Voloshin to Jerusalem. 2d ed. Tel Aviv, 1970.

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    Though it is an autobiography of Rabbi Meir Bar Ilan, a grandchild of Epstein, this work grants the reader many insights about Epstein, and includes many of Bar Ilan’s recollections regarding Epstein’s later life. It also contains quite a bit of information about the process utilized by Epstein in writing the Arukh HaShulchan. In Hebrew as: בר-אילן מאיר. מוולוז׳ין עד ירושלים, מהדורה שניה, תל אביב תשל״א.

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  • Bartal, Israel. The Jews of Eastern Europe: 1772–1881. Translated by Chaya Naor. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.9783/9780812200812Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Reviews the history of Eastern European Jewry until close to the modern era. It is a basic introduction to the culture and community of which Epstein was a part and in which he functioned as a rabbinical leader.

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  • Broyde, Michael J., and Shlomo C. Pill. Setting the Table: An Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Rabbi Yechiel Mikhel Epstein’s Arukh HaShulchan. Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2020.

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    Broyde and Pill provide a full and thorough explication of Epstein’s approach to practical Jewish law in the Arukh HaShulchan, and compare his approach to that of his slightly younger contemporary, Yisrael Meir Kagan, in the other well-known code, the Mishnah Berurah. Like many Jewish law works, Epstein’s writings need to be decoded to be understood, as writers of Jewish law rarely discuss their methodology.

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  • Etkes, Immanuel. Yeshivot and Study Halls, Dinur Center and Zalman Shazar Center. Jerusalem, Israel, 2009.

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    This resource provides essential information about yeshivot and rabbinical academies in general. It allows Epstein to be understood in light of the community around him. In Hebrew as: אטקס עמנואל. ישיבות ובתי מדרשות, ירושלים תשס״ז.

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  • Horowitz, Aharon Judah HaLevi. Writings of the Aruch HaShulchan. Jerusalem, 2009.

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    A collection of letters written by Epstein with regard to a variety of matters to different people. The volume also includes one other important work by Epstein. In Hebrew as: הורוויץ אהרן יהודה הלוי. כתבי הערוך השלחן, ירושלים תשס״ז.

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  • Hundert, Gershon David. Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520940321Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This work is the classical introduction to the life of the Jewish community in the period before Epstein became a central rabbinic figure. It was published in Hebrew as: הונדרט גרשון דוד, גאולה קטנה ומעט כבוד: החברה היהודית בפולין-ליטא במאה השמונה עשרה, ירושלים תשס״ח.

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  • Nakritz, Rabbi J. L., “Yeshivoth Beit Josef of Navordok.” In Jewish Institutions of Higher Learning in Europe: There Development and Destruction. Edited by Samuel K. Mirsky, 247–290. Ogen Publishing, 1956.

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    Focuses on the accomplishments of the yeshiva that was located in the town where Epstein served as rabbi. The yeshiva played an important role in the intellectual life of the community generally. See pp. 247–290.

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  • Nissan, Waksman. The Great Author of the Aruch Hashulchan, Shana Beshana. Jerusalem, 1979.

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    This work was the initial biographical work on Rabbi Epstein. Like many rabbinical works, it is somewhat hagiographic in orientation, but is nevertheless the first work to review his life 150 years after his birth. There is little doubt that several biographical authors since its publication began their research in Epstein’s life with this brief ten-page biography (see pp. 419–428). In Hebrew as: וקסמן ניסן. “הגאון בעל ערוך השלחן,” בתוך: אהרן הלוי פצ׳ניק, שנה בשנה תש״מ, עמ׳.

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  • Welbreinski, David. The City of Neuvorduck and its Rabbis. Warsaw, 1913.

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    These works provide information on the city in which Epstein lived in the Ukraine. In Hebrew as: הרכבי אלכסנדר. נאווארעדאק, ניו יורק תרפ״א וולברינסקי דוד, מרקוביץ משה, לקורות עיר נאוואהרדאק ורבניה, ווארשא תרע״ג.

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  • שטמפפר שאול. הישיבה הליטאית בהתהוותה, מהדורה מתוקנת, ירושלים תשס״ה.

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    This work was translated as Lithuanian Yeshivas of the Nineteenth Century: Creating a Tradition of Learning (Oxford: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2012). This is the first properly documented and systematic study of the Lithuanian yeshiva as it existed from 1802 to 1914, drawn from a variety of contemporary sources. Three key institutions are considered: the yeshivot of Volozhin, Slobodka, and Telz.

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