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Epstein, Jehiel Michal ben Aaron Isaac Ha-Levi


EPSTEIN, JEHIEL MICHAL BEN AARON ISAAC HA-LEVI (1829–1908), rabbi and halakhic authority. Epstein was born in Bobruisk, Belorussia. He studied in Volozhin under R. Isaac of Volozhin from 1842. At first unwilling to enter the rabbinate, he was persuaded to do so by the rabbi of his native town, R. Elijah Goldberg, who formally ordained him, and c. 1862 he was appointed to his first rabbinate in Novosybkov where there were many *Chabad Ḥasidim. During that period he visited R. Menahem Mendel of Lyubavich, author of ẓemaḥ ẓedek, from whom he also received semikhah. In 1874 he was appointed rabbi of Novogrudok, Belorussia, where he remained until his death.

Epstein's fame rests upon his Arukh ha-Shulḥan, consisting of novellae and halakhic rulings on the four parts of the Shulḥan Arukh: Oraḥ Ḥayyim (1903–07), Yoreh De'ah (1894–98), Even ha-Ezer (1905–06), and Ḥoshen Mishpat (1884–93). In the introduction to the volume on Ḥoshen Mishpat, Epstein explains that just as Maimonides saw the need to compose the Mishneh Torah and Joseph Caro the Shulḥan Arukh, in order to codify the halakhah in their times, there was now a need to bring the Shulḥan Arukh up to date by giving the halakhic rulings which had been promulgated by authorities subsequent to Caro, both in works devoted to that purpose and in responsa. He said that "great anxiety and confusion" had resulted from those new rulings and his work was intended to give the final halakhic summation up to his day. Although in its external arrangement the work follows the chapters of the Shulḥan Arukh, in its internal arrangements he conforms to that of the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides. According to Epstein the principal aim of the study of Torah is not dialectical and casuistic exercise, the "uprooting of mountains"; but to arrive at a definite knowledge of the halakhah. He showed a marked tendency toward leniency in his rulings, and he gave expression to this tendency in a statement to Rabbi J.L. *Maimon who obtained semikhah from him. "When any problem in connection with the prohibitions of the Torah comes before you, you must first presume it is permitted, and only after you have carefully studied the rishonim and can find no possibility of leniency are you obliged to rule that it is forbidden" (Maimon, Sarei ha-Me'ah, p. 112).

The Arukh ha-Shulḥan has become an authoritative work. Like the Shulḥan Arukh on which it is based, it deals only with the laws which have a practical importance. After Epstein completed it, however, he undertook the writing of additional works dealing with such laws as are not applicable at the present time, to which he gave the suggestive title Arukh ha-Shulḥan le-Atid ("A rukh ha-Shulḥan for the Future"), which were published posthumously. They deal with agricultural laws (Zera'im, 3 pts., 1938–46); Sanhedrin, Mamrim, Melakhim, Shekalim, and Kiddush ha-Ḥodesh (1962); and Kodashim (1969). In them he takes especial care to indicate his sources, tracing the development of each law from its first source to its latest form. His son Baruch *Epstein gives an attractive picture of the manner in which his father would encourage candidates to the rabbinate. He would exhort them always to consider the pros and cons before giving a halakhic decision, and to show every consideration to the person putting the problem, so as not to confuse him.

Among his other works are Or la-Yesharim (1869), a commentary on the Sefer ha-Yashar of Jacob *Tam in which he defends Tam against the criticisms leveled against him by later authorities. Only two of his responsa have been published (in the Even Me'ir of M. Gordon, 1909).


B. Epstein, Mekor Barukh, 3 (1928), 1163–75; H. Tchernowitz, Toledot ha-Posekim, 3 (1947), 299–305; J.L. Maimon (Fishman), Anashim shel Ẓurah (1947), 133–79; S.Y. Zevin, Soferim u-Sefarim (1959), 30–35; A.Z. Tarshish, R. Barukh ha-Levi Epstein (1967), 41–69.

[Yehoshua Horowitz]

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