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The "Chofetz Chaim"
The man within the legend

by Rabbi Nosson Scherman

This article originally appeared in the Jewish Observer and is also available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Judaiscope Series. It is reprinted here with permission

Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen Kagan
5699/1839-5793/1933

I. A Scholar for All Times

A little more than one hundred years ago, an unknown author was arranging for the publication of an anonymous work on a much-ignored topic. Reb Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin, Lithuania, had spent two winters, 5630 and 5631 (1870 and 1871), writing Chofetz Chaim, a compilation of the laws regarding slander and defamation. During 5632, he was engaged in getting pre-publication orders from the general public and securing testimonials from outstanding rabbinic authorities. In those days, when he was a young man in his thirties, Reb Yisrael Meir still thought he could retain his anonymity. He introduced himself as the publisher, rather than the author, of the novel Shulchan Aruch. In this guise he succeeded in evading recognition by the masses, but the spiritual giants of the age - men like Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin (Salanter) - saw that they were dealing with one of those rare figures who would leave his imprint on a nation. More than sixty tireless years, twenty-four additional volumes, and countless public letters and appeals lay ahead of the young "publisher," but the pattern of his long and busy life was already apparent when he was still unknown by circumstance as much as by choice.

A major reason for the enormous influence and acceptance won by the Chofetz Chaim was his utter and complete integrity. Statements and actions that would have seemed unctuously pretentious in ordinary humans were natural and unaffected coming from him. A case in point is the very topic of his "Chofetz Chaim" - gossip and witty character assassination are not twentieth century phenomena; human tongues have always been loose and hard to control. The Talmud says, "Most people are guilty of dishonesty, few of vice, but all of lashon hara"(Baba Basra 165). Anyone presenting a book codifying the sins of slander could expect to be greeted with much scorn - private if not public. Yet, when Reb Yisrael Meir mounted pulpits in town after town to discuss the forthcoming Chofetz Chaim, he was listened to with respect. The people sensed that he was no salesman hawking a product, but one of those rare finds - an honest man whose love for his fellow Jews was expressed by trying to bring them closer to Torah, and who truly believed in the ability and obligation of people to pursue perfection. They were convinced that he wrote Chofetz Chaim not for recognition and for library shelves, but - as advertised - because he expected working men as well as scholars to form study groups to learn and put into practice what he had gleaned and compiled, and what was forged into his personality.

Many of the rabbis whom he approached for endorsements were skeptical of the first person to so systematically attack a sin that the Talmud considers universal. To avoid bringing ridicule not only upon himself but upon his stated purpose - and thus, paradoxically, provide yet another topic for gossip mongering - the personal credentials of the author as one who "withholds his tongue from evil" had to be unimpeachable. Some went so far as to assign students or colleagues to engage Reb Yisrael Meir in conversation to try to trap him into lashon hara, thus revealing him as no less mortal than the next man. The ruses invariably revealed the greatness of the author, and the endorsements were forthcoming.

No one knows for sure what prompted Reb Yisrael Meir to write Chofetz Chaim, but it was certainly not his finding an unexplored, fertile field for research, for the Chofetz Chaim never took pen in hand, except in response to a concrete need. To reveal his reason for compiling his Shulchan Aruch on lashon hara would have involved dredging up sordid stories of the very type he was trying to still. His son, Reb Aryeh Leib, conjectured that his father's first masterpiece grew out of a bitter controversy in the town of Radin during his youth. Acrimony had swirled about the town and all efforts to bring peace had failed. The town became divided into factions and its rabbi was forced to leave. He died after a few years in a new position and many blamed his early death on the anguish he suffered during Radin's little war. Reb Yisrael Meir, then a young man, had seen his fellow townspeople turn their tongues into ugly lethal weapons. As long as he lived, he never discussed the dispute, saying simply, "I have a self-imposed restriction against speaking of it," but it may very well be that the Chofetz Chaim was his response in the form of an appeal that there be no more such incidents in Radin - or elsewhere.

A New Need / A New Book

Whenever he wrote, it was to answer a need. Russia's conscription policies forced many Jewish boys into the army for periods of at least six years, cutting them off from religious teaching and influence. They needed encouragement and answers to basic questions of halachah in layman's language. The result was Machneh Yisrael, a book that became the link to Judaism for many a Jewish soldier.

o Heartbreaking tales of the breakdown of religion among Jewish immigrants to America led to his Nidchei Yisrael. In providing practical answers to the halachic problems peculiar to the immigrant, Reb Yisrael Meir often rendered lenient decisions that took into account the emergency conditions of the immigrants, but which were inappropriate to the thriving religious life of Eastern Europe. Because of this, he had hoped that Nidchei Yisrael would not be distributed in Eastern Europe, but inevitably some copies were seen. This led to criticism of the Chofetz Chaim - something he regretted, but considered unimportant in view of his primary goal of aiding the uprooted Jews in America.

o Reb Yisrael Meir felt that the practical laws of kindness and charity were too often ignored. His reaction was to do for gemilas chessed what he had done for shmiras halashon (guarding one's tongue) - codify its laws, and actively campaign for Jews to join study groups to learn and to act upon them. As a result of his slim classic Ahavas Chessed, literally hundreds of free loan societies, shelters for the homeless, and bikur cholim societies sprang into being. Many of them sent requests to the Chofetz Chaim for letters of greeting and blessing that would be bound as the first page of a new organization's ledger book.

o Weakening of adherence to the laws of family purity and of personal modesty led to pamphlets in both Hebrew and Yiddish addressed to Jewish women.

o There were booklets in both languages urging men to pursue Torah study in their homes . . . and the list goes on and on.

The personal attention Reb Yisrael Meir devoted to the publication of his ethical works did not end when the volumes were printed and distributed. He did not write his books to be purchased; he wrote them to be used. His frequent lecture tours in behalf of one or another of his sefarim were devoted primarily to encouraging people to set up groups for the study of the sefer. In later years, when he was too old or too busy to go on personal tours, he hired "field representatives" to carry on his work. But they were firmly instructed that they must sell the message of the books by personal example and persuasive lectures.

Fire-and-brimstone preaching was not his approach; he was a firm believer in the superior efficacy of a spoonful of honey to a gallon of vinegar. Once a traveling preacher complained to him that no matter how much he thundered and reprimanded his audiences, they seemed to ignore his calls to repent. The Chofetz Chaim replied, "Who told you that the way to perform the mitzvah of correcting sinners is by shouting and storming? Putting on tefillin is also a mitzvah - do you holler and shout when you perform that mitzvah?"

An Imminent Need / A New Syllabus

In addition to salvaging neglected mitzvos, the Chofetz Chaim assumed responsibility for reviving interest in a long neglected area of the Torah. For centuries, Kadoshim, the section of the Talmud dealing with the laws of the Sanctuary and sacrificial offerings, had been virtually excluded from the curricula of major Torah centers. Rare were the scholars who had more than a passing familiarity with its intricacies. Reb Yisrael Meir saw this as a far more serious matter than a lack of knowledge among Torah intelligentsia. With the deceptive simplicity that masked his penetrating insight, he would ask, "We believe that Mashiach can arrive today. If he does, are we ready to bring our offerings to the Bais Hamikdosh? Do the Kohanim know the laws of sacrifices? Do the scholars know enough to train the Kohanim?"

Obviously, the answer to all these questions was a shameful "No."

"Then are we not somewhat lacking in our prayers, hopes, and beliefs in the imminent coming of Mashiach?" The solution was simple: organize groups to study Kadashim. Thus was born a trend that continues to this day. Far from being neglected, the study of Kadashim is now a mark of prestige; the endeavor of the most advanced group in nearly all yeshivos.

Typically, the Chofetz Chaim showed the way by practical example as well as by exhortation. He published Toras Kohanim, a compilation of the Tannaitic interpretations of Chumash Vayikra, with an amended, completely accurate text; and an original commentary that ranks as a model of conciseness and clarity. He also composed Likutei Halachos modeled after the Alfasi, which is a compilation of halachic sections of the Talmud dealing with Kadashim topics; and included an elucidating original commentary.

Magnum Opus: "Mishnah Berurah"

Of all his literary efforts, his acknowledged masterpiece and the one which continues to have the greatest influence is Mishnah Berurah, a work that was twenty-five years in the making.

The Chofetz Chaim was concerned by a serious gap in halachic literature. There was no modern commentary on Orach Chaim (the section of the Shulchan Aruch dealing with daily and festival rituals) that summed up the centuries of comment and responsa, and rendered authoritative decisions in areas of dispute. Clearly such a work was much needed, but it could be undertaken only by a giant in Torah scholarship. The mantle was not sought by the Chofetz Chaim. He urged it upon others, but finding no one willing to assume the responsibility, he finally accepted it upon himself. The breadth, conciseness, clarity, and genius of Mishnah Berurah speak for themselves, as does the almost universal acceptance it has attained. This is the supreme testimonial to its author's stature as a sage.

He did not write the Mishnah Berurah simply because he wanted to, but because he saw it as a task that had to be done by someone, and his inability to find that someone left the responsibility at his doorstep. This is testimonial to his greatness as a person.

II. The Man of the Legends

The Chofetz Chaim was surely a scholar's scholar. More than this, however, he was also a genuine folk-hero. Scholars respected him, but the common people loved him with a rare passion. The reasons are many and no doubt complex. But the most compelling one is simply that he considered himself as one with them and their problems. Even his books, despite the great scholarship they represent, were written to be used by ordinary men - and in many instances, by ordinary women, too. Sensing that he identified with them, people did not hesitate to seek his advice and assistance.

Although he never accepted the position of rabbi in Radin, he was in fact its spiritual and temporal leader. When some townspeople unfairly criticized and embarrassed their rabbi for the deficiencies of the town's mikvah, it was the Chofetz Chaim who guaranteed the funding and supervised the building of a new one. When Radin was devastated by fires that, in successive years, destroyed first one half and then the other half of the Jewish section, it was he who organized emergency relief, fund-raising, and the rebuilding of the town.

A poor workingman was not ashamed to ask him, as author of Ahavas Chessed, how a laborer living hand-to-mouth could be expected to perform the mitzvah of lending money to others. And he did not feel patronized when he was told to save a few pennies a week, eventually building it up to a fund of several rubles, for loaning to fellow workers short of pocket money. That was down-to-earth advice that was followed by thousands, and it was typical of the pragmatic idealism of a man who never took a penny offered to him by people who had the notion that his greatness entitled him to gifts.

The Chofetz Chaim's awesome care in maintaining the strictest possible standards in his financial dealings has become legendary. No doubt many of the stories attributed to him are apocryphal - but, for most of them, there is more than ample first-hand testimony ... He insisted that his son reprint hundreds of sections of Mishnah Berurah to replace originals where pages had inadvertently been put in the wrong order. ... The Chofetz Chaim himself once went dashing through the Jewish quarter of Warsaw shortly before Shabbos seeking to pay printers who had left work early without getting their pay for the week ... When a non-Jewish railroad employee put parcels of his books on board a train for free delivery, the Chofetz Chaim tore up an amount of postage stamps sufficient to defray the loss of revenue to the government ... In his first speaking tour on behalf of the book Chofetz Chaim, he accepted orders, but not deposits, because of the possibility that he might not be able to make delivery to some pre-paying customers, thus becoming guilty of improperly taking their money ... The stories are legion.

Saint and Pragmatist

It is commonplace for people to believe that the Chofetz Chaim, as a saintly personality, could not have been terribly practical and certainly could not have coped with the rough and tumble of the world - especially today when so many accept as axiomatic that "you cannot make an omelette without breaking a few eggs," and that "nice guys finish last." Nothing could be further from the truth. It was this same saint who once remarked that one fool can do more damage than ten villains. Men like Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky of Vilna greatly valued his wise counsel when searching for practical solutions to the knottiest of problems. Indeed, in the crisis-laden years following World War I, when Reb Chaim Ozer was the undisputed leader of Lithuanian Jewry, he and the Chofetz Chaim were in constant consultation on all major issues. Their names appeared side-by-side on scores of proclamations and appeals in behalf of all the major causes in Jewish life.

The Chofetz Chaim was one of the first to realize that Torah Jewry must up-date its tactics to counter the onslaught of its enemies. Organized activities for the Torah community and its educational needs could succeed where efforts on the individual scale could scarcely cope with the juggernauts of Haskalah and secularism. Thus he took the lead in organizing and supporting Agudath Israel as the international organizational arm of traditional Jewry. As usual, he saw this as more than a matter of strategy, but as a religious obligation: "In a time when our values are under attack as never before, even small acts in defense of Torah are multiplied many times over in the Divine scales for ultimate reward."

Though he was the senior of the two by nearly thirty years, the Chofetz Chaim considered Reb Chaim Ozer to be the gadol hador and deferred to his authority as a matter of course, despite the fact that Reb Chaim Ozer held him in awe. During the 1920's, pressure was brought to bear on Reb Chaim Ozer to travel to America to raise money for the European yeshivos, which were on the brink of financial ruin. He was told that only his own presence in America could assure contributions in the millions. Reb Chaim Ozer answered that his health was too precarious to permit such a trip. Though the other Torah luminaries at the meeting continued to exert pressure upon him, the Chofetz Chaim ended the debate by saying very simply, "The well-being of Reb Chaim Ozer is synonymous with that of Klal Yisrael. We dare not jeopardize it."

Storm Over Vilna

The prestige of Reb Chaim Ozer was responsible for an unheard-of departure by the Chofetz Chaim - an open attack upon adversaries of Torah Judaism. His general policy had been always to avoid engaging Torah's enemies in debate. To reply to the virulent attacks made by maskillim, yevsekes (Jewish Communists) and others, he felt, would be self-defeating because it would grant them unearned recognition, and merely provide them with fuel for vituperation and ridicule. Better to isolate them from the mainstream of religious life, while devoting the available talent and resources to the more productive course of strengthening Judaism by upgrading education and observance within yeshivos and communities. Then came the storm over the Vilna rabbinate.

The government required that Vilna have a Chief Rabbi. Although Reb Chaim Ozer was a recognized leader of religious European Jewry, Vilna's official Chief Rabbi was to be elected by the entire Jewish population, which included a large secular contingent. Agudath Israel doubted that Reb Chaim Ozer would be able to command a majority of the total votes, so they joined a coalition of the Mizrachi, Socialists, and Reformers to "elect" a Rabbi Rubinstein as a pro-forma head of the Jewish Community, with the understanding that he would not assert any authority without Reb Chaim Ozer's approval. After his election, Rabbi Rubinstein's secularist supporters used this consensus as a pretext for treating him as the actual Chief Rabbi of Vilna, and Reb Chaim Ozer, the man who was revered the world over, found the ground cut out from under him in his own city. Strangely enough, the only important Torah figure whose serenity was not shattered was Reb Chaim Ozer himself. That did not prevent his adherents, led by the Chazon Ish and guided by the Chofetz Chaim, from doing battle to defend the honor of Torah. The Chofetz Chaim published a blistering letter attacking the perpetrators of the coup as enemies of Torah. Though disciples of Reb Chaim Ozer attempted to negotiate a face-saving compromise, the Chofetz Chaim torpedoed these efforts as going against the inviolable principle of Torah supremacy.

The secularists' reaction to his bold position was one of those human spectacles that must be greeted with laughter or rage. The non-religious Jewish press in Vilna vilified the Chofetz Chaim for stooping to lashon hara against the liberal Jews! His reply was simple and to the point: "When Torah values are being destroyed, Torah Law permits their defense."

His deference to Reb Chaim Ozer, however, did not prevent the Chofetz Chaim from arguing his own causes in the humorous, self-deprecating manner that he used so effectively. In 1923, the Chofetz Chaim felt that the community must be organized to provide kosher meals for Jewish soldiers. He called his new project Kessel Kosher (Kosher Kettle) and, naturally, his first move was to travel to Vilna to secure the endorsement and support of Reb Chaim Ozer. The endorsement was not forthcoming. Reb Chaim Ozer replied that there were many overriding considerations making such a campaign inopportune at that time.

The Chofetz Chaim shrugged and replied, "What can I do? People consider me to be a God-fearing Jew. When I am called to the world-to-come, they will ask me why I did nothing to provide kosher food for Jewish conscripts. What will I say? Perhaps I'll tell them that I was not lazy or indifferent; I made the hard trip to Vilna even though I was weak and past eighty. But the Rabbi of Vilna was the gadol hador and he said I was wrong. Who knows better than the gadol hador what is right or wrong?"

Reb Chaim Ozer knew he had been bested. He called a public meeting in the central synagogue to be addressed by the Chofetz Chaim. At that meeting Kessel Kosher was born.

III. As the Chofetz Chaim Would Say . . .

Precisely because he had such a keen feel for the pulse of the people and the needs of the time, it is fascinating - and useful - to wonder what the Chofetz Chaim would have said to today's problems. Indeed, we should go a step further and wonder how he would have defined the real problems of today. After all, Chofetz Chaim and Ahavas Chessed were effective replies to problems not even recognized by most. It would be a mistake to take the sizeable collection of his major and minor writings, apply them to each era, and assume that the Chofetz Chaim would have had nothing more to say.

How would he have diagnosed today's ills? This question should be answered by the few survivors of his era who knew him well, but perhaps we can hazard some guesses.

o There is little doubt that he would be appalled at the sharp and shady business practices that are so much a part of modern life, Orthodoxy not excluded. We live in an age when ethics have not kept pace with sophistication, and Jews have not escaped contamination. How would he have prodded our con- science?

o Picture the Chofetz Chaim entering a typical middle-class home today with its emphasis on "creature comforts," and recreational pursuits rather than a Torah atmosphere . . . Would he have smiled tolerantly? Or would he have considered his surroundings more appropriate to the House of Romanoff than to the House of Israel, and told us so?

o What would he say to the growing gap that divides yeshiva, rabbinate, and laity from one another?

o And what about the organizational weakness of Orthodoxy? He was one of the founders of Agudath Israel, long aware that modern times required modern tactics - and organizational unity was one of them. Surely he would work to end today's factionalism.

o In this time of turbulence when the values of centuries are being discarded, we may be certain that the Chofetz Chaim would have found our attitude wanting and far too complacent. We are content to condemn the drug culture, but are ill prepared for our own acid test. Indicative of this is a memoir of one his students, Rabbi Avrohom Hillel Goldberg, later rabbi of Kfar Pinnes in Israel:

It was near the end of his life and the Chofetz Chaim was in a summer cottage near Radin. He was heart-broken over the persecutions of Jews in Russia. He saw their situation as the severing of an entire limb of the Jewish body from its life-sources of Torah and mitzvos. "There is only one real hope," he said - "Mashiach must come soon. The Final Redemption must come sooner or later, but it is up to us to hasten its arrival. W e must demonstrate our overpowering desire for Mashiach. How many of us religious Jews who say 'Ani Maamin' every day truly long for his coming? Why don't we cry out to Hashem to help us? This is no time for silence!

"Even in the Egyptian exile the Torah says that only when B'nei Yisrael cried out for help - then did their outcry go up to Hashem. We must do the same now! 1 must go to Vilna to Reb Chaim Ozer - without him nothing can be done!"

His family and students were aghast. He was over ninety years old and he could scarcely leave his armchair for the length of a day. He might not survive the difficult trip to Vilna. They pleaded with him to abandon his plan, but he would not be dissuaded. The goal was worthy of even mesiras nefesh. They told him that Reb Chaim Ozer was a man of halachah and action; such ideas as the Chofetz Chaim's were out of his domain. He smiled as if to say, What do you know of Reb Chaim Ozer?

To his deep regret, the journey to Reb Chaim Ozer never took place. Had they met, who knows?

(The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Tzemach Dovid)

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