Reconsidering The Aruch HaShulchan: How Rav Y.M. Epstein’s Masterwork Invites You Into a Generational Discussion
Moments before I was to walk down to the chuppah, my rebbe, Rav Dovid Lifshitz, zt”l, the Suvalker Rav, sat with me for a few moments as we waited for a piece of paper to become ash to put on my head. Rav Dovid asked me if I owned an Aruch HaShulchan. I said yes, I had gotten one for my bar mitzvah and asked why he asked. Rav Dovid said my home should have one, because it is the guide to halacha that is most similar to what my ancestors, who were also from Suvalk, had practiced.
That seed eventually grew into a fascination with Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein’s code to halacha.
Any exploration of the Aruch HaShulchan must first consider this question: Is halacha a set of rules that we follow or the system by which we reach those rulings?
For example, what is the proper beracha to make on falafel balls? Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer 7:29) notes two opinions. A falafel ball is made of coarsely-ground chickpeas, that are spiced, and outher ingredients added as binders, and then fried.
It is therefore a judgment call: Is a falafel ball a way of serving chickpeas, and therefore the beracha should be Ha’adama; or is it sufficiently far removed to be considered its own thing – a thing that happens to have chickpeas as an ingredient – and one should say Shehakol?
The question then becomes, does the word halacha refer to whichever one’s rabbi rules is the appropriate beracha? Or does it mean that entire discussion, that we should be connected to the lines of reasoning that produced those options? After all, it is the discussion that gives us those choices, which explains how either of these two options would be “more correct” than choosing to say Ha’eitz or Mezonos.
A Brief History of Halachic Development
In the 11th century, the Rif compiled his Sefer HaHalachos, where he collected the Gemara’s rulings, cutting out all the dialogue and disputes along the way to get there. But that is not what is commonly studied. We didn’t replace learning Gemara with just looking at his rulings. And it is Daf Yomi, not Daily Rif, that has become such a phenomenon across the Orthodox Jewish community and beyond.
That the inter-generational dialogue itself is critical to what halacha is became a major issue as the Shulchan Aruch gained the prominence as the code of Jewish law that it holds today. Several notable contemporaries of the author of the Shulchan Aruch, Rav Yosef Karo, objected to the very idea of codification.
The Maharsha and Maharal both repeated the Gemara’s warning that one who rules from a code without studying the Talmud and understanding the underlying reasoning were “destroyers of the world” (Chiddushei Aggados to Sota 22a; Netiv Hatorah, ch. 15).
The Maharshal attacked his contemporary rabbis for using the Shulchan Aruch to do just that, and then feign a background in the material that they really lack. In addition, he was concerned that any code would have its own competing interpretations, so that rather than adding clarity to the halacha, a code would inevitably become the source of more disputes. (See his introduction to Bava Kama and first Introduction to Chulin.)
Rav Yoel Sirkis was famous as the author of the Bayis Chadash – the “Bach” – a commentary on the Tur, which itself was an earlier code. Yet he too warns that knowing only specific rulings is insufficient, and that the Shulchan Aruch’s lack of explanations (particularly about monetary law) makes it of limited value. (Shu”t HaBach, Responsum #80)
In the end, what saves the Shulchan Aruch from this critique is that it is acknowledged as primarily being a summary of the reasonings that Rav Karo had already laid down in his earlier, more-detailed commentary of the Tur, called Beis Yosef (with some minor exceptions.) And when Rav Moshe Isserles’s (the Rema’s) glosses of Ashkenazic rulings were added to the text, they derived from his commentary on the Tur, Darkei Moshe. Commentaries on their work were soon added to what became the standard page of Shulchan Aruch – by the Shach, the Taz, the Magen Avraham, and so on. The Shulchan Aruch didn’t end up replacing the dialogue; rather it became a landmark in the middle of its flow.
Which brings us to the late 19th century, when Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein started publishing a series of pamphlets on the Shulchan Aruch. Starting with the section on monetary law called Choshen Mishpat and finally concluding with the more familiar Orach Chaim (laws of daily living) in 1904 or so. Because Rav Karo’s code is called “Shulchan Aruch,” literally, “The Set Table” (and the Rema’s additions called the “Mapah” – “the Tablecloth”), Rabbi Epstein called his work “Aruch HaShulchan” – “Setting the Table.”
Eventually these booklets were published in volumes, covering nearly all of the Shulchan Aruch. Originally each volume still had the page numbering of the original booklets, so that in the middle of the volume it would start again with page 1. And some of the booklets covering Yoreh Dei’ah (laws of issur and heter) were missing. Modern editions have clearer print, normal page numbering, and the booklet on Nedarim was since found and incorporated. The process of writing and publication took over 30 years.
The purpose of the Aruch HaShulchan is to bring you into the discussion. Not only to give you a set of rulings, but to take the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch, and both explain their origins in the Gemara – both Bavli and Yerushalmi – and then to explain their development since the Shulchan Aruch and Rema through to his day. With a primary focus on the rulings followed in his community in Lithuania and often other East European communities.
The Aruch HaShulchan always had the role of a primary source of halacha for many poskim and roshei yeshiva. Although we must note that in most circles, the Mishnah Berurah, written by the beloved Chofetz Chaim has eclipsed it. What carried the day was likely two particular supporters of the Mishna Berurah, who were formative communal voices in the two largest Jewish communities. Rav Aharon Kotler, one of the primary voices in the development of the observant community in the United States, was often seen carrying his Mishnah Berurah. He would even pick the volume he was holding up when photographed to make sure it was included in the picture. And in Israel, it is reported that the Chazon Ish on more than one occasion praised the Mishnah Berurah as being “near prophetic,” “the final decisor,” and other superlatives.
Meanwhile, as we said, many other poskim disagreed. One notable supporter of the Aruch HaShulchan was Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, the forefront American halachic authority in the generation before Rav Moshe Feinstein. (Rav Moshe, too, is reported to have called the Aruch HaShulchan the “posek acharon,” the final halachic decisor.)
According to Rav Henkin’s grandson, Rav Yehuda Herzl Henkin (in Benei Banim, vol. II, pg. 31), this was primarily for three reasons: (1) it covers all four sections of the Shulchan Aruch, whereas the Mishnah Berurah only analyzes Orach Chaim; (2) the volumes on Orach Chaim in Aruch HaShulchan quote the Mishnah Berurah, indicating that he was aware of the position and took it into account, which qualifies it for the rule “halacha k’basrai – the halacha is like the later authority; (3) most importantly, the Aruch HaShulchan uses accepted practice as a data point, while the Mishnah Berurah is more exclusively concerned with the precedent found in texts.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the Aruch HaShulchan. A notable first light of this trend was a book started by Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin’s son, Rav Eitam Henkin. His work on Rav Epstein and the Aruch HaShulchan was interrupted when he and his wife Na’amah were murdered by a Hamas sniper while driving in the Shomron in 2015. He was just 31, and they left behind four children, who were all in the van at the time.
What we have of his work – carrying on his rabbinic family’s attachment to the Aruch HaShulchan – was published posthumously in Hebrew as Ta’aroch Lefanai Shulchan (“Set a Table Before Me,” a line from the poem, Yedid Nefesh; it was published by Maggid Press in 2019). It was supposed to cover Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein’s life, his thought, and an analysis of the methodology of the Aruch HaShulchan. Of those goals, only the biography and a discussion of his extended family is complete. The book also contains some analysis of Rabbi Epstein’s relationships with both Religious Zionism and the Mussar movement. The second part, which was not completed, deals with the Aruch HaShulchan, its history and publication, its methodology, and how it compares to other such works, such as the Mishnah Berurah.
One note, though, in contrast to his illustrious great-grandfather, Rav Eitam was not convinced that Rav Epstein had access to the majority of the Mishnah Berurah at the time he wrote on Orach Chaim. The younger Rabbi Henkin researched the times the Mishnah Berurah and Aruch HaShulchan cite each other and found that Rav Epstein quotes only volumes one and three of the Mishnah Berurah, which were the first two the Chofetz Chaim published. Recall that there was often a long delay between writing and publication, so publication dates are no guide.
Modern Interest in the Aruch HaShulchan
Rabbi Michael J. Broyde and Rabbi Shlomo C. Pill recently published a book with a similar kind of analysis as that begun by Rav Eitam Henkin, titled Setting the Table: An Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein’s Arukh HaShulchan (Academic Studies Press, 2021). In fact, their book acknowledges their use of Rav Eitam’s prior work, and is dedicated to his memory.
Rabbi Broyde is also a professor, and Rabbi Pill, an attorney. Both are affiliated with Emory University where they teach and research Law, Legal Philosophy and how they interact with ethics and religion. So, in addition to their background in Torah, their work in the law gives them particular skill and experience at analyzing the Aruch HaShulchan’s methodology.
Setting the Table is written in three sections: The first gives a history of the codification of Jewish law, the Aruch HaShulchan’s place in that history, and comparing the models used by the Aruch HaShulchan and the Mishnah Berurah. The second outlines 10 methodological principles that recur in the Aruch HaShulchan. And the third section substantiates their claims about the methodology used with analyses of no less than 204 (!) different se’ifim (paragraphs of rulings), and how these principles play out in each.
The book divides these principles into four categories:
(1) Rav Yechiel Michel felt the primary sources of halacha are the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. So the first set of principles Rabbis Broyde and Pill identify are ways to define the halachic standard based on understandings of the Talmuds.
(2) When the halachic standard cannot be determined from the Gemara, the Aruch HaShulchan used rules to compensate (such as turning to primary sources like the Rambam or Rav Yosef Karo; following rules like “a doubt in Torah law should be decided stringently,” etc…)
(3) The third set of principles are ways of balancing the halachic standard with practices commended by rejected opinions, religious, social or mystical motivations – as long as the halachic standard is met.
And category (4) are principles Rabbi Epstein used to incorporate pragmatic concerns to produce his final ruling, taking into account the accepted minhag, current circumstances, and the limitations of people facing real life situations; as the Gemara says, “The Torah was not given to the ministering angels” (Yoma 30a).
Personally, I would have given the role of accepted practice a more prominent place, along with turning to authoritative texts as ways to rule when the Gemara admits no one clear position. For example, the Aruch HaShulchan repeatedly likens the common acceptance of a position to a bas kol, a voice from heaven, declaring their acceptability (such as in the cases of: Rashi tefillin: Orach Chaim 35:3; When to say “Tal U’matar,” 117:4; Ashkenazim not duchaning daily outside of Israel: 128:64; Community eruvin: 345:18). In addition, the fact that a practice continued for generations without rabbinic objection is silent evidence that there is a theoretical rationale that simply didn’t make it into print.
Coinciding with this scholarly focus on the Aruch HaShulchan has been a resurgence in popular interest in the sefer. A daily “Aruch HaShulchan Yomi” schedule was launched on Shavuos 2020. Hundreds of people are spending 15 to 20 minutes a day studying Orach Chaim and the more pragmatic portions of Yoreh Dei’a. The program takes somewhat over four years to complete, and studies the halachos of daily life, Shabbos and holidays, kashrus in the kitchen, and interpersonal mitzvos like honoring one’s parents, visiting the sick and aveilus. A link to the day’s Aruch HaShulchan is available on Sefaria’s calendar page at www.sefaria.org/calendars.
Additionally, Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer offers a daily shiur, available on YouTube (shortened link: bit.ly/ahsYomiShiur). And I maintain a general collection of tools, including a printable schedule (links can be found at aishdas.org/ahs-yomi).
Urim Publications just undertook translating the Aruch HaShulchan. The first volume, covering a section of the Laws of Shabbos (ch. 252-292), was just published, edited by Rabbi Ilan Segal. Their plans are to complete Orach Chaim and then the other three sections. The translation allows English speakers to spend more time thinking about the content than the language. For example, Rav Epstein translates into Yiddish terms like the names of kinds of food or items of clothing, as well as often unfamiliar items from the cultures of Israel and Babylonia in Chazal’s day. Having these words available in English will be a great aid.
The verse in Ha’azinu (Devarim 31:19) states, “Now, write for yourselves es divrei hashirah hazos – the words of this song – and teach it to the Children of Israel….” Chazal (Sanhedrin 21b and elsewhere) understand this shirah, this song, to refer to the Torah. In what way is the Torah like a song? In his introduction to Aruch HaShulchan, Rav Esptein observes that while a single melodic line is beautiful, when many instruments play together, there is a special beauty. Torah opinions have the property that “these and those are the words of the Living G-d.” The Torah has many voices saying different things, but they come together with the elegance of a symphony.
Studying Aruch HaShulchan is immersing yourself into the kind of thinking that produces the halachos, helping you understand why there is a range of correct rulings. Maybe, ultimately, there are two right answers to the proper beracha to make on a falafel ball. All these events that in the past several years have explicated Rav Epstein of Novhardok’s methodology and are continuing to bring it to an ever-growing number of people is exciting. We are being given a chance to gain a feel for why we have to honor the precedent not only of past authorities, but of common practice. We are re-engaging with halacha as a possession of the eternal Jewish people, not as a set of facts and rulings, but as a continuity of music, every tradition and opinion a harmony.