(1838–1933), prominent halakhic authority and Orthodox Jewish leader. Yisra’el Me’ir ha-Kohen (Kagan; original surname Poupko), who became known as Ḥafets Ḥayim after the title of his first book, was one of the major rabbinical authorities of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries and has been regarded as a paragon of piety.
Ḥafets Ḥayim was born in Zhetl (now Diatlovo, Belarus), studied at a yeshiva in Vilna, and then moved to Radin (Pol., Raduń; now Radun’, Bel.), where he married and continued to study; he also opened a grocery store, where his wife worked for their subsistence and he assisted. In 1865 he was teaching in Vashilishok (now Vasilishki, Bel.), and in 1869 he established a yeshiva of his own in Radin. Soon after, he stopped teaching and concentrated instead on the yeshiva’s educational and administrative management, raising money for the school, and delivering talks. He nominated notable rabbinical scholars, such as Mosheh Landinski and Naftali Trop, as heads of the yeshiva, and they turned the school into one of the most prominent yeshivas in Lithuania. Meanwhile, Ḥafets Ḥayim devoted himself to writing and public activities. Eventually he was able to close his store and could support himself primarily by selling his books.
As immigration to the Land of Israel increased, Ḥafets Ḥayim became convinced that the coming of the Messiah was imminent. He called for renewed study of Seder Kodashim, the section of the Talmud dealing with the Temple practices, and established a kodashim—a group of advanced students devoting themselves to the study of these matters—associated with his yeshiva in Radin. Two of his books, Likute halakhot (1900–1918) and his interpretation of the Sifra’ (1911), also deal primarily with this subject. The horrors of World War I bolstered his messianic faith even further. At the same time, he was critical—albeit not to an extreme—of the Zionist movement, particularly of its secular orientation. During World War I, Ḥafets Ḥayim fled to Russia, where he was a founder of the Orthodox organization Aḥdut (Unity) in 1917. After the Bolshevik Revolution, he remained in Russia, but in 1921 returned to Radin, then under Polish rule, and reestablished his yeshiva school and the kolel kodashim.
Ḥafets Ḥayim also sought to unify Orthodox Jewry in Lithuania, and endeavored to bridge internal disputes. He supported the establishment of Agudas Yisroel and in 1923 opened its first Grand Conference in Vienna. He was appointed honorary president of the party’s Council of Torah Masters, but generally avoided political involvement and regarded the fulfillment of the religious needs of European Jewry as the primary function of the party. In 1924, he took part in the establishment of the Va‘ad ha-Yeshivot (Yeshiva Schools Committee), intended to help sustain Jewish religious institutions in Eastern Europe. In spite of his poor health in his later years, he continued to respond to current events and wrote open letters to the Jewish press. He also planned to immigrate to the Land of Israel, but eventually declined to do so.
Ḥafets Ḥayim did not show much interest in the halakhic questions regarding modern technological, scientific, or legal developments. His halakhic writings are noted for their practical approach, rather than for scholarly discussions. His first book, Ḥafets ḥayim (after Ps. 34:13; 1873), is an attempt to bring the prohibitions concerning slander, libel, and gossip, which had normally been addressed in the context of moral and ethical literature, into the realm of Jewish law, governed by clearly defined rules. A subsequent book, Shemirat ha-lashon (1876), complements the previous volume with moral and aggadic discussions about the importance of observing these proscriptions. Finally, in his Ahavat ḥesed (1888), he attempts to consolidate halakhic rules pertaining to interpersonal relations, especially with regard to money and property.
Ḥafets Ḥayim also wrote Maḥaneh Yisra’el (1881), aimed specifically at Jewish soldiers serving in the Russian army, and Nidḥe Yisra’el (1894), addressed to Jews immigrating to the United States. While the first text is noteworthy for its empathy for soldiers, for its sincere attempt to provide practical solutions, and for being generally lenient, the primary characteristics of the latter work are the admonition and rebuke heaped upon the immigrants and the nearly total absence of leniency.
Ḥafets Ḥayim’s most significant work was Mishnah berurah (1884–1907), a simple and clear interpretation of the Oraḥ ḥayim section of the Shulḥan `arukh; his son Leib and sons-in-law the rabbis Tsevi Levinson and Aharon ha-Kohen participated in its composition. The book presents a broad range of opinions, mainly from the writings of later religious authorities, and generally recommends the stricter rulings, albeit often not in a very resolute manner. It was widely distributed and became a decisive halakhic source for large circles of Orthodox Jews, particularly after World War II.
Ḥafets Ḥayim was a proponent of emunah temimah (simple faith), based on the plain meaning of the sages’ words and on popular concepts rather than on metaphysical scrutiny. Himself a symbol of that faith, as well as of modesty and care for people, he was admired already in his time and even more so by later generations.
Lester Samuel Eckman, Revered by All: The Life and Works of Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan—Hafets Hayyim (1838–1933) (New York, 1974); Dov Katz, Tenu‘at ha-Musar (Jerusalem 1996), vol. 4, pp. 19–150; Mosheh Me’ir Yashar, The Chafetz Chaim: The Life and Works of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin (New York, 1984).
Translated from Hebrew by Rami Hann