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).
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.
5. Those who study the commentary Magen Avraham know that his statements are very profound but also contain many typographical errors. In this book, [the reader] will find rest and satisfaction and will understand Magen Avraham‘s enlightening words.
6. Even seasoned Torah scholars and rabbis will find [in this book] novel legal interpretations, so that when a halakhic question arrives they will mostly be able to find [the answer] in this book. The author discusses [the issue] and shows the sources from which he derived the law. One who wishes to disagree with his conclusion may do so, but [even so] his analysis will have been rendered easier. The author has nearly exhaustively explored each doubtful area that may arise in any of the laws from any of the sections of the Orah Hayim.
7. It is known that the laws of the Shulhan Arukh are scattered in many places. One who is not fluent in all [sections of] the Shulhan Arukh and the latter [halakhic authorities] will not easily find the law. In this book, each and every law is found in its place. From each and every law a rule will be made for this matter. When [the reader] searches in the table of contents, he will easily find that which he seeks.
I hereby admonish anyone who has the ability to understand the Shulhan Arukh properly not to rely upon me for actual guidance until he also examines the Shulhan Arukh.
Another text he published, Hokhmat Adam (Vilna, 1810) covers the laws in the section Yoreh De’ah of the Shulhan Arukh. He also prepared an addendum titled Binat Adam, which was an in-depth discussion of Danzig’s adjudications. Nishmat and Binat Adam were for scholars who had the ability to analyze Jewish law.
In addition, he penned a brief work called Kuntris Matzevat Moshe dealing with the laws of mourning. Rabbi Danzig prepared and named this section in memory of his son Moshe, who died in the winter of 1814 at the age of twenty.
He also published in memory of his son Zikhru Torat Moshe (Vilna, 1817), a synopsis of the laws of the Sabbath much used to this day by young Orthodox Jews. This volume concludes with Mitzvat Moshe, a synopsis of biblical and Rabbinic laws. He also wrote a comprehensive introduction to all his works in this publication (Zikhru Torat Moshe), and prepared Toledot Adam (Vilna, 1818), a commentary on the Passover Haggadah. Though Beit Avraham (Vilna, 1821) was intended primarily as a last will and testament to Rabbi Danzig’s family, it was published posthumously as a general tome of proper Jewish conduct and, like all his books, was intended for the Jewish layman.
Shulhan Arukh in Layman’s Terms
During his lifetime, Danzig published two editions of the Hayei Adam with introductions. Here he stressed that the study of law has priority over the theoretical and analytic study of the Talmud. Even the primary codes of Jewish law, such as Joseph Caro’s Beit Yosef and Moses Isserles’s Darkei Moshe, were too difficult and time-consuming for the layman to comprehend. Hayei Adam is intended to allow the less knowledgeable to fulfill the mitzvah of Torah study and to practice the laws properly. With proper discipline, he suggests, a student studying his Hayei Adam could reach a high level of knowledge of law at the end of one year. Joseph Caro had thought his Shulhan Arukh could do the same in thirty days. Danzig’s claim seems more realistic.
He writes, "It was reported to me that great and able Torah scholars reviewed my work and stated that it served for them as a review of the Shulhan Arukh…In addition, they found many new laws in my work." Danzig grouped the materials of his book according to what he termed klallim (principles). Rather than employing the divisions (chapters and paragraphs) found in the Shulhan Arukh he attempted to organize the subject matter more finely. If the issues discussed were thematically related, he arranged them in one klal.
If the issues were not practical, relevant to his time, or required the educated decision of a Rabbinic authority, Danzig did not include them in Hayei Adam. Before his time, codes had analyzed the methods of using stoves on the Sabbath, such as ancient stoves (kira) or (kupah), but he excluded these issues, since they were not relevant to the nineteenth century. When he felt that a theme required special attention, he preferred to deal with them in a separate work. For example, while he discussed rules for scribes in the general laws relevant to every Jew, he prepared a separate volume on how to write phylacteries. In an addendum inserted in the text of the laws, he added in brackets alternate opinions concerning the specific law at hand.
Hayei Adam also included a separate work titled Nishmat Adam. This took the form of a codicil placed on the bottom of the same page of the law to which it was related and presented an in-depth discussion of that law. In discussing different Rabbinic positions as well as offering his own analysis, Rabbi Danzig assured his work a major place in the history of legal codes pioneered by Rashba in the fourteenth century. Twin codes and legal decisions had usually required two separate volumes. Rabbi Danzig incorporated both in one volume.
Unlike many of his generation, he did not hesitate to adjudicate legal disputes among leading rabbis and to state his reasons with rare insight. Where Rabbi Danzig introduced his own decisions, he would often include his process of thinking in the Nishmat Adam codicil.
The author of the Hayei Adam put great importance on the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides and the classic commentaries of the Shulhan Arukh. While Caro had omitted general ethical motivations of the laws, Rabbi Danzig created new sections for them not found in the Shulhan Arukh. For example, in section 142, he elaborates on the many moral and ethical aspects of repentance. He explained every word in the vidui ("confession") of the Yom Kippur prayer service, and even prepared a special introduction to the Yom Kippur prayer entided "tfilat zaka," which today is included in most Orthodox Jewish prayer books.
Rabbi Danzig’s Hayei Adam was widely-accepted. The work has gone through numerous editions, and groups were organized throughout various Jewish communities to study his text. Such groups persist until today.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: yohm KIPP-er, also yohm kee-PORE, Origin: Hebrew, The Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar and, with Rosh Hashanah, one of the High Holidays.