Israel Meir Ha-Kohen
Israel Meir Ha-Kohen
ISRAEL MEIR HA-KOHEN
ISRAEL MEIR HA-KOHEN (Kagan ; known as Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim ; 1838–1933), rabbi, ethical writer, and talmudist; one of the most saintly figures in modern Judaism. Of humble origin, he was taught until the age of ten by his parents and then went to Vilna where he continued his studies. He did not particularly distinguish himself as a student; nevertheless, he later towered above all his contemporaries in his qualities of religious leadership. While in a yeshivah in Vilna, the Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim became seriously ill as a result of the very long hours he put in every day studying. This episode had a lifelong affect on him, for he became very sensitive to his students' health, always encouraging them to eat and sleep well. His surname Poupko is hardly known, nor is he referred to by his own name, but he became universally known as Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim, after the title of his first work. His personality, his piety, his humility of conduct, his integrity of thought and action, together with his books, exercised a tremendous influence on religious leaders, and fascinated the masses, to whom he became the admired master and leader. Hundreds of sayings full of practical wisdom are attributed to him, and hundreds of stories both factual and legendary, all rich in morals, are reported about his life.
He refused to make the rabbinate his calling, and after his marriage in Radun he subsisted on a small grocery store which his wife managed and for which he did the bookkeeping. He also did his own "bookkeeping," maintaining a daily record of his own deeds to assure himself no wrong had been perpetrated by him nor any time wasted. He spent his time either learning Torah or disseminating its knowledge among others, particularly the more simple folk, whom he always encouraged in matters of learning, observance, and faith. The Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim did not intend to establish a yeshivah. So many students, however, flocked to him that by 1869 his home had become known as "the Radun yeshivah" or as "the Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim yeshivah." Forty-five years later, the yeshivah moved to a big building of its own and R. Naphtali Trup was appointed its head. For many years it was the Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim's responsibility to provide for the students, a task in which he was later assisted by his three sons-in-law, leaving him more time for writing, publishing, and distributing his books.
When he was 35 he published anonymously in Vilna (1873) his first book, Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim, devoted entirely to an exposition of the primary importance of the laws of slander, gossip, and tale bearing. Throughout his life, he laid great emphasis on the careful observance of these laws, so generally neglected in spite of the fact that their transgression involves the violation of numerous prohibitions. In 1879 he published another book on the same subject and a third in 1925. He even composed a special prayer to be recited every morning asking for protection from the sins of slander and gossip. According to a popular legend, whenever anyone would gossip in his presence, the Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim would fall asleep so as not to listen. His best-known and most widely studied work is his six-volume Mishnah Berurah (1894–1907), a comprehensive commentary on Shulḥan Arukh, Oraḥ Ḥayyim which has been accepted as an indispensable reference book on practical everyday halakhic matters. One hundred years later it is still studied and referred to widely. In 1999, D. Eidenson published a comprehensive index to the Mishnah Berurah, titled Yad Yisrael.
As early as 1923, the Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim expressed interest in immigrating to Israel. In 1925, he began to make concrete plans to leave Radun. Rabbi Moshe Blum came to his aid by finding financial assistance, while Rabbi Yosef Ḥayyim Sonnenfeld signed his visa request during Ḥol ha-Mo'ed of that year. In the end the Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim did not depart, first because of the pressure applied by the leading yeshivah heads, especially Rabbi Hayyim Ozer Grodsensky, and second, because his wife's health prevented her from traveling. In a letter dated 3 Tevet 5686 (1926), the Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim endeavored to discover the benefactor who anonymously provided the financial assistance so he could return the money.
The Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim did not publish his books for academic purposes, but rather produced them wherever he saw a need to strengthen some aspect of Jewish life, sometimes intervening in person to reinforce his teaching. Among the 21 books which he published, mention should be made of Ahavat Ḥesed (1888) on various types of charity; Maḥaneh Yisrael (1881), a code of practical laws for Jewish soldiers (he also endeavored to ensure that when stationed near Jewish communities kosher food was provided for them as well as urging young men to marry early to avoid the draft); Niddeḥei Yisrael (1894) to encourage Jews who had emigrated to the West to maintain their religious loyalties; and a variety of books on the observance of the dietary laws, laws of family purity, and the obligation of Torah study; and Likutei Halakhot (1900–25), a comprehensive digest of the sacrificial laws found in the Mishnah of Seder Kodashim. Since he hoped for and believed in the imminent coming of the Messiah, he emphasized the study of the laws of sacrifices and worship in the Temple and other related subjects. Overall, the Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim required a stringent halakhic approach to contemporary problems to better maintain and regulate the boundaries between halakhic Judaism and the surrounding secular Jewish society. In addition, the many books that he wrote were in direct response to the educational challenges of his day. He witnessed parents abandoning traditional ḥeder schools to send their children to secular schools, a move that would lead to better social and financial security. The Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim was also very wary of the rise of Communism after World War i.
Throughout his life, the Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim traveled extensively to muster support for many Jewish causes. He was one of the founders of the Agudat Israel and was one of its spiritual leaders. He was chosen to open the First World Convention of *Agudat Israel (1912). The Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim's help enabled the many European yeshivot to survive the critical financial problems of the interwar period. Under his aegis, the Va'ad ha-Yeshivot (committee on behalf of yeshivot) was organized and it successfully raised the necessary funds for these schools. After his death, his name was perpetuated by many yeshivot and religious institutions throughout the world which were called Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim.
M.M. Yoshor, Saint and Sage (1937); idem, in: L. Jung (ed.), Jewish Leaders (1953), 459–73; D. Katz, Tenu'at ha-Musar, 4 (1957), 1–175; A. Shurin, Keshet Gibborim (1964), 115–21; M. Weinbach, Who Wants to Live (1968); idem, Give Us Life (1969). add. bibliography: Y. London, "Ha-Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim ve-ha-Ma'avak al Demuto shel ha-Ḥinukh ha-Yehudi be-Mizraḥ Eiropah" (diss., Hebrew University, 2002); S. Fishbane, The Method and Meaning of the Mishnah Berurah (1991); idem, in: Judaism (Fall 1993); M. Yosher, The Chafetz Chaim: The Life and Works of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin, 2 vols. (1984); L. Eckman, Revered by All: The Life and Works of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan – Ḥafeẓ Ḥayyim (1974); A. Ben-Natan, in: Eshel Natan (1988), 110–15; N. Waxman, in: Shanah be-Shanah (1974), 419–32.
[Mordechai Hacohen /
David Derovan (2nd ed.)]