Kagan, Yisraʾel Meʾir
KAGAN, YISRAʾEL MEʾIR
KAGAN, YISRAʾEL MEʾIR (c. 1838–1933), also known as Ḥafets Ḥayyim, was a rabbi, ethical writer, and Talmudist. Born in Zhetel, Poland, Yisraʾel Meʾir Kagan (or ha-Kohen) revealed his scholarly abilities at an early age, and his father decided to devote his life to developing the talents of his son. He took the ten-year-old Yisraʾel to Vilna; there the boy studied Talmud and came under the influence of the Musar movement, which sought the revitalization of the ethical life within the framework of traditional Judaism. After his marriage at the age of seventeen (which was normal for his circle), he moved to Radun, the hometown of his wife. At first he devoted himself to study while being supported by his wife, who ran a grocery store. For a short time afterward he served as the town rabbi, but he left the position when he found himself unsuited for it.
At the age of twenty-six, Kagan took a position as a Talmud teacher in Minsk, and in 1869 he returned to Radun and opened a yeshivah there. A few years later he published his first book, Ḥafets ḥayyim (Seeker of life), the title of which is the epithet by which he became best known. It is an impressive work on the seriousness of the sins of gossip and talebearing as violations of Jewish law. His concern with morality attracted many students to him and gave him a position of leadership in the developing Jewish Orthodoxy of eastern Europe.
His messianic beliefs led Kagan to set up a program in his yeshivah in which students descended from the priestly clan studied intensively the laws of the Temple so that they would be prepared upon its rebuilding. He also published a compilation of laws and texts dealing with the Temple service. At the end of the century he began to publish a commentary on the parts of the Shulḥan ʿarukh (a standard code of Jewish law) that deal with rituals, ceremonies, and holidays. This commentary, known as the Mishnah berurah (Clear teaching), incorporated the views of the later legal decisors and became the authoritative commentary.
After spending the years of World War I in Russia, Kagan returned in 1921 to newly independent Poland, where he reestablished his yeshivah. In his later years he was active in Agudat Yisraʾel (the world Orthodox organization), and during the interwar period he was probably the most influential rabbi in Poland. His influence was due not so much to his intellect as to his absolute honesty, his modesty, and his energy.
The first full-scale biography, which still has value and charm, though it is clearly hagiographical, is Moses M. Yoshor's Saint and Sage (New York, 1937). A more recent treatment, with an academic apparatus, though still somewhat hagiographical, is Lester S. Eckman's Revered by All (New York, 1974). At least one of Kagan's works has been translated into English: see Leonard Oschry's translation Ahavath Chesed: The Love of Kindness as Required by G-D, 2d rev. ed. (New York, 1976).
Fishbane, Simcha. The Method and Meaning of the Mishnah Berurah. Hoboken, N.J., 1991.
Shaul Stampfer (1987)
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