Mishnah Berurah

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

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.

Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen Kagan-Poupko (1838-1933) achieved prominence for his saintly personality. His teachings and writings, today more than ever, guide the behavior of Ashkenazic observant Jews. He was born in Zhetel, Poland on February 6, 1838. At the age of seventeen, already a prominent Talmudic scholar, he married his stepfather’s daughter, Frieda, and settled in the small town of Radun. There he created a yeshiva, later known as Yeshivat Hafetz Hayyim.


A warm and humble person, Rabbi Kagan sought out personal contacts with his fellow Jews. Although burdened with the responsibilities of the yeshiva and deeply involved in his writings, he attended numerous conferences and public gatherings that allowed for his involvement in various Jewish issues as well as for interaction with Jewish laymen. He was very involved in establishing educational institutions for Jewish boys and in later years for girls as well. Kagan was also active in the development of the Agudat Yisrael organization, the world organization of Orthodox Judaism. He died in Radun on September 15, 1933.

Influential Works

Rabbi Kagan wrote 21 works. The most widely known are Hafetz Hayyim (He Who Desires Life; Vilna, 1873), a code of the laws of slander, gossip, and tale-bearing; Mahaneh Yisrael (Camp of Israel; Vilna, 1881), dealing with matters pertaining to the Jewish Russian soldier and his life in the military; Ahavat Hesed (Loving Kindness; Warsaw, 1888), on all aspects of human relations; Nidhei Yisrael (Dispersed of Israel; Warsaw, 1893) and Shem Olam (Everlasting Memorial; Warsaw, 1893), intended to keep Jews who were emigrating to Russia, Palestine, and America loyal to the Jewish heritage; Likutei Halakhot (Anthology of Laws; Petersburg, 1900-1925), dealing with the Temple service when the messiah comes; Homat Hadat (Fortress of Faith; Petersburg, 1905), concerning the importance of Torah and Torah education; Torat Habayit (Torah of the Home; Petersburg, 1907), emphasizing the importance of Torah study in the home; Taharat Yisrael (The Purity of Israel; 1910), Geder Olam (The Eternal Fence; Warsaw, 1890), and Beit Yisrael (The House of Israel; Petersburg, 1928), all dealing with the laws of family purity, ritual baths, and hair coverings.

His greatest work, which remains the strongest influence on Orthodox practice today and whose authority is considered final, is Mishnah Berurah (1884-1907), in six volumes. This is not a code. Kagan recognized that Caro’s Shulhan Arukh held the primary place for codes and should never be supplanted. The format of commentary was the proper and time-honored way to decide law, and so his work comments phrase by phrase on Caro’s Orah Hayim. He reprinted the text of the Shulhan Arukh along with three of its classic commentaries, Moshe Rivkash’s Beyer HaGolah, Yehudah Ashkenazi’s Beur Hetev, and Margoliot’s Sha’arei Teshuvah. Below these three texts Kagan positioned his own commentaries.

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.


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.

c. Ethics: Kagan is widely identified as a man of ethics (musar). His large number of ethical publications stress the search for moral and religious perfection through a stringent observance of halakhah. Kagan integrates his ethical and moral beliefs into his halakhic approaches and decisions, thus encouraging stringent adjudication. While the majority of these cases are implicit, they can also be found explicitly. For example, section 244 sub-paragraph 35 of the Shulhan Arukh concerns the accommodative maxim “in the case a loss of money is involved.” After discussing the lenient possibilities related to this maxim, Kagan concludes with an ethical suggestion: “but fortunate is he who trusts in God and does not seek out various leniencies for Shabbat.”

d. Contemporary issues: Although the Mishnah Berurah was structured as a commentary to Caro’s code, Kagan suggests in his introduction to Volumes One and Three that his concern is also with contemporary halakhic issues. He intends to offer the reader a guide to proper halakhic behavior. In his introduction to Volume Three he states this purpose: “From the works of the Aharonim (latter authorities) I have also collected many new ideas applicable to everyday life nowadays. My aspiration is that with the help of God, whoever will now study this [body of] law will come to know each law, together with the reason and underlying thesis [for it], in both theory and practice.”

In addition to the fourfold taxonomy, the analysis of content in the Mishnah Berurah subsumes Talmudic and halakhic principles. For example, in sub-paragraph 32 Kagan discusses the Talmudic principle concerning a Torah prohibition and the halakhic principle of “permitted in the case of monetary loss.” This in particular covers the analysis of the Mishnah Berurah‘s explicit and implicit accommodative and stringent views and rulings. The terms accommodative (kulah) and stringent (humrah) in the Mishnah Berurah‘s text are to be understood within the context of later authorities’ adjudications. Kagan’s decisions are specifically dependent upon the analysis and rulings of the Aharonim. Therefore, when the Mishnah Berurah‘s adjudication chooses to be lenient or stringent, or when it refers to one of these terms in its text, its intention reflects the lenient or stringent view of these Aharonim.

Literary Features

The following literary features are found in the Mishnah Berurah:

1) Use of traditional Rabbinic vocabulary constructed from Mishnaic and Talmudic Hebrew and Aramaic as well as expressions and phraseology related to the theme under discussion found in post-Talmudic jargon.

2) Verbatim duplication of latter Rabbinic authorities.

3) Interpolation of the author’s interpretation within the quotes found in the text.

4) Interpretation of texts, concepts, and words.

5) Adjudication based upon the majority of most recent authoritative rulings cited.

6) The adaptation of accepted halakhic principles. For example, in the case of Torah law, one must rule stringently.

7) Former Rabbinic authorities (Rishonim) are used only when essential, as in a case in which their decision is required to render a solution to a problem not satisfactorily resolved by the Aharonim, or when cited by other commentators cited by the author.

8) Latter Rabbinical authorities are cited.

9) Dependence on a textual version of a later authority rather than the source, and siding with a primary Aharon rather than with the Shulhan Arukh.

10) The incorporation of non-halakhic materials, such as ethics.

11) Short decisive statements with minimum dialectics (pilpul).

12) Cross-referencing through the Shulhan Arukh and the commentaries.

13) The sources referred to in the text are predominately other adjudicators and Shulhan Arukh  commentators, not responsa or talmudic commentaries.

14) Not citing the entire or exact source.

The Mishnah Berurah has become the contemporary halakhic work of halakhic standards. Study groups and classes on this work abound in Orthodox synagogues and yeshivot. Contemporary decisors refer to it as a matter of course.

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