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.
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).
Although in its external organization the work follows the chapters found in Caro’s Shulhan Arukh, in its internal arrangements it conforms to Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. Such conformity is found primarily in sections that do not deal with daily rituals. The discussion of Orah Hayim is far less dependent on Maimonides than are the other sections.
Epstein begins each law with a survey of the history of that particular halakhah. He analyzes the disputes among rabbis concerning the details of the ruling and offers his opinion on the proper form of the law. Besides serving its primary purpose as a functional code of practical law, the book is useful as a reference work, because it analyzes the major opinions of Caro’s code and its subsequent commentaries. Although his library was not as extensive as that of [Mishnah Berurah author Israel Meir] Kagan, Epstein managed to uncover and record rulings of very early decisors. He was careful to cite his sources from previous legal works and both Talmuds.
Epstein cites rules that had fallen out of practice, giving them renewed force, and he derives new applications of law from older sources that he thought should be followed. His goal was to produce a systematic body of consistent law, even if not all the rulings were applicable in modern times. He followed Maimonides’ decisions concerning court rulings that were only applicable in times when there was a Jewish monarchy, such as the laws governing cities of refuge and various high court procedures.
Nevertheless, he noted dissenting opinions. When Epstein presented a dispute, it is only for the purpose of background clarification before he rendered the decision he considered binding. He sought to give the final halakhic summation of all halakhah existing up to his day. His decision is usually based on the rulings of the latest authority that he found cogent. Nevertheless, he readily employed such expressions as "in our time," "our custom is," and "in our country" to point out changes in customs and living conditions. These terms are frequently used as formularies at the conclusion of rulings concerned with current social realities.
An Ongoing Process
Unlike Kagan’s approach in the Mishnah Berurah, Epstein perceived halakhah as an ongoing process for living communities and frequently gave weight to lenient practices that had developed over the ages. He proposed his own legal justifications for these decisions. When analyzing a question, he at times proposed new explanations for the past rulings.
As a result of these explanations, he determined that some statutes were only pertinent to past eras when conditions had varied widely from those of the modern age. He recognized that advances in technology presented new challenges to the applications of Jewish legal principles, and he noted that social norms had developed as well. In Arukh HaShulhan, Orah Hayim (65:21) he states, "There is a reality [today] that was not so in previous generations." His daring independence can be seen in the fact he did not publish a single approbation for his Arukh HaShulhan, an almost unheard-of practice even in today’s world.
Epstein’s Arukh HaShulhan ranks next to the Mishnah Berurah as a guide for the daily life of the halakhically conscious Jew. It has been published many times and in many editions. No Rabbinic library is complete without it, and, in most cases, no Rabbinic student or adjudicator will endeavor to do research without consulting it.