Mishnah Berurah

The writings of the "Hafetz Hayyim," Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan.

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Integrating Earlier Sources

Alongside his Mishnah Berurah synopsis of the proper way to observe the law of the Shulhan Arukh he included two other works page by page. Sha'ar Hatzion, in a footnote style, cites the sources to many of the citations found in the Mishnah Berurah. Beur Halakhah (Explanation of Laws) offers an in-depth analysis and discourse on specific laws presented in the Mishnah Berurah.

It is clear then that he follows the twin commentary notion wherein one can find a simple statement of the practical law as well as an involved legal discussion of the pertinent authorities and talmudic sources. Rashba had first promulgated this notion, and later Caro produced two separate works, while Danzig had entwined the two into a single work. Now Kagan placed the two types of works side by side and cross-referenced them. It should be pointed out that while Rabbi Kagan personally edited every word, he was helped in the massive undertaking by family members who were his research assistants, and he left certain matters as they saw fit, even though he held other views. As a result, there are slight contradictions here and there.

Kagan's purpose, like that of earlier codifiers, was to produce a work that could be studied daily so that Jews might know the proper procedures to follow minute by minute. Hence he wrote only on that section of Shulhan Arukh that contained the laws of morning, afternoon, and evening practices on weekdays, Sabbaths, and festivals.

Caro's code in and of itself was insufficient without much knowledge of the Tur's code or Caro's massive Beit Yosef commentary. Kagan digested this material and presented it in a palatable form for his readers, together with the hundreds of other authoritative works that had appeared since Caro's time. He was able to offer a position of consensus emerging out of the myriad legal arguments that had gone on for centuries. He followed the later decisors where conflicting opinions had no resolution. In his introduction, he cites 23 later authorities used in his decision-making. The influence of the legal methodology of the Gaon of Vilna is apparent throughout his work.

Methodology

Simcha Fishbane summarizes Kagan's method as follows:

a. Commentary: These passages are concerned with the Mishnah Berurah's interpretation, clarification, glosses, and textual corrections of the Shulhan Arukh.

b. Adjudication: In cases of dispute between Caro and Isserles or other authorities who gloss the Shulhan Arukh, Kagan presents his rulings. Furthermore, he offers his halakhic decisions in instances not discussed by earlier adjudicators. Kagan deals with the situations related to the statements of the Shulhan Arukh but not explicitly dealt with by these authorities, as new halakhic concerns of his social milieu. These rulings stand in addition to Kagan's halakhic decisions based upon the adjudication of the Shulhan Arukh or latter authorities.

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Simcha Fishbane is an Associate Professor of Judaic Studies at Touro College.