Author Archives: Herbert Basser

Herbert Basser

About Herbert Basser

Herbert Basser is a Professor of Religious Studies at Queens University.

Arukh HaShulhan

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.

The Arukh HaShulhan was compiled and published by Yehiel Mekhel Epstein (1829-1908). Before completing his studies. Epstein married Mikhla, the daughter of Rabbi Ya’acov Berlin, from the city of Mir, and who was the brother of Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (popularly known as the Netziv).


In 1862, Epstein received his first Rabbinic appointment in the town of Novosybkov. This town housed both Habad hasidim and non-hasidim, who lived peacefully side by side. Here he published his first book, Or LeYesharim (Light for the Upright). Later Epstein accepted a position in the small town of Lubitz, on the outskirts of Novogrudok, Lithuania, and then became rabbi of Novogrudok itself. During the 43 years until his death in 1908, he continued to establish himself as a leading authority.

Major Writings

Seeking his adjudication, rabbis from all over Europe and America corresponded with him on halakhic issues. His major writings are Or LaYesharim (Zhitomir, 1869), a commentary on the Sefer HaYashar of Ya’acov Tam; Leil Shemurim (Warsaw, 1889), a commentary on the Passover Haggadah; Mehel Mayim, published posthumously, a two page commentary on the Jerusalem Talmud, was included in the 1928 edition in Vilna by the Romm publishers; and Kol Ben Levi, a book of Epstein’s sermons.

Arukh HaShulhan He’atid was published posthumously. It deals with themes relevant to messianic times. The work is based primarily on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, the only code that addressed these issues.

Arukh HaShulhan is a nine volume code of Jewish law that consists of both novellae and halakhic rulings on the four parts of Rabbi Caro’s Shulhan Arukh. In 1884 (Warsaw), Epstein published the first section, on Hoshen Mishpat. This was readily accepted in the Rabbinic community and achieved almost instant popularity, thus earning him an international reputation as a halakhic decisor. The section on Yoreh De’ah was published in 1894 (Warsaw), Even Ha’ezer in 1903 (St. Petersburg), and Orah Hayim in 1903 (St. Petersburg), and Volume 9, on sections of Yoreh De’ah, in 1991 (Hoboken).

The Hayei Adam

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.

Born in 1748 in Danzig Germany, Rabbi Abraham Danzig studied with Rabbis Joseph Lieberman and Ezekiel Landau (Nodah Byehudah). After his marriage, Rabbi Danzig relocated to the city of Vilna, the home of the famed Elijah (The Vilna Gaon). He served from 1794 to 1812 as dayan (rabbinical judge).

Hayei Adam

Though Rabbi Danzig published numerous works, his fame came from his Hayei Adam, which presents the essential teachings of legal decisors on the rules of Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim. On the cover page of the first edition of the Hayei Adam, which was published anonymously, Rabbi Danzig stated his intended readership and his purpose in writing this work as follows:

1. The first benefit is that even a boy of thirteen can now study and understand nearly all the laws of the Shulhan Arukh in a short period of time, whereas an experienced student [without having read this book] will take some years of effort to do so.

2. Heads of households, for whom the burden of earning a living is heavy, can read this book during their periods of rest. That is because the language is easy to understand and everything is clearly and completely explained, so that the person who wishes to delve in it will not have to compare subject to subject.

3. [This book is advantageous] even for those heads of households who study the Talmud and its major commentaries daily, because [Shabtai HaKohen Katz, known as] the Shakh has written in Yoreh De’ah that they fulfill their requirement for Torah learning with it. [Such Jews] are obligated to study halakhic rulings but have no time to study the Shulhan Arukh and its commentaries as well in order to quench their thirst and to know all the laws in their true sense and reasoning like experienced Torah scholars.

4. [This book is advantageous] even for those who study the Shulhan Arukh. Since it is well known that the rationale for a law is not given in the Shulhan Arukh, nor whether it constitutes a Torah or rabbinical law, [the Shulhan Arukh] is like a sealed book. It therefore requires extraordinary effort to study the words of the latter [halakhic authorities] which are also obscure. Thus when a person reads this book, he will properly understand the words of the Shulhan Arukh.

Kitzur Shulhan Arukh

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.

In the nineteenth century, rabbinic authorities sought to simplify and explain in layman’s terms the laws of the Shulhan Arukh, the extensive code of halakhah written by Joseph Caro. Rabbi Abraham Danzig wrote one such work called the Hayei Adam. Solomon Ganzfried’s subsequent work made the Shulhan Arukh even more accessible to the average Jew of the time.

Rabbi Danzig’s Hayei Adam proved too taxing for many, and its subject matter did not embrace the totality of subjects discussed in Caro’s Shulhan Arukh. Its rules suited Poland and Germany but omitted the legal traditions of Hungarian Jews. Solomon Ganzfried (1804-1886), prolific as a commentator of Talmud and author of many works, accordingly produced the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh (Abridged Code of Jewish Law, 1864). Omitting the detail and halakhic rationales for each law, he offered a concise decision in rather simplified legal language. For the final 36 years of his life, Ganzfried served in Ungavar as its chief Rabbinic judge. He died in 1886.

Ganzfried’s writings include Keset Sofer (Ofter, 1835), which pertains to the laws of writing Torah scrolls and the Book of Esther. It also includes comments by Moses Sofer of Pressburg, a revered leader of Hungarian Jewry, known as the Hatam Sofer, as well as approbation by him. Ganzfried saw fourteen editions of Keset Sofer through the press in his lifetime. In a later edition he included an addendum entitled Lishkat HaSofer, concerning the letters of the Torah.

He also penned a commentary to the prayer book Derekh HaHayim of Rabbi Ya’acov of Lissa (Vienna, 1838); Pnei Shlomo (Zolklev, 1846), a commentary on many tractates in the Babylonian Talmud; Torat Zevah (Levov, 1848), concerning the laws of ritual slaughter; Lehem  V’Simlah (Levov, 1861), on the laws of menstruation and the construction of ritual baths; and Ohalei Shem (Ungavar, 1878), discussing names of men and women (plus an addendum, Shem Yosef). His debates with students of the leading decisor of the time, Saul Nathanson, were recorded in his Milhemet Hovah (Werber, Jerusalem, 1882). Other works included Mikhseh LeOhel, Edut BeShoshanin, Ofel VeBohen, and Shem Shlomo (Varol, 1908), on diverse topics from the Babylonian Talmud.