The Arokh HaShulhan: Solving the “Problems” of the Shulhan Arukh

[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act upon any of it or not is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those laws which are intricate, complicated, and/or severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]

`Arokh HaShulhan - Title Page 1

Introductory Remarks

Before World War II and the horrors of the sho’ah, the Mishnah Berurah – the now standard halakhic compendium championed by the Haredi-Hasidic world, authored by Rabbi Yisra’el Me’ir Kagan, popularly known as the Hafetz Hayim z”l – was not considered a major halakhic work. After the war, there was a sort of campaign by the Hazon Ish z”l of Benei Verak (pop. “Bnei Brak”), Israel and Rav Aharon Kotler z”l of Lakewood, NJ – and the Agudah as a whole – to make the Mishnah Berurah (MB) the touchstone work of their new invention – the Haredi world.

In the words of Rabbi Haim Ovadia, may he live and be well, this adoption of the MB “turned back the wheels of halakhic history” due to its highly complicated methodology and theoretical style. Instead of using the available sources to come to a singular, final decision for the common Jew, the MB aggregated various opinions into “layers” – sometimes as many as four or five – of pesak, beginning with a le-khatehilah (a priori – i.e. at the outset) position followed by several “options” which are considered bedi`avad (post facto – i.e. after the fact; “less than ideal”).

The construction of the MB is complex and the text is generally inaccessible, leaving the student constantly unsure of what exactly is required by halakhah. It represents the obsessive fear of European yeshivot and their refusal to make a choice between opinions, opting instead to “cover all the bases” – an approach that stands in opposition to the historic tradition of rabbis who learn all of the relevant material and come to a decision – singular in nature – which is then communicated to those under their care and direction. Add to this that the author of the Mishnah Berurah was NOT a community rav, but a halakhic theoretician, and it becomes clear that the work was likely never even intended to be used the way it is now. Almost without exception, the end pesak of the MB is le-humrah (strict).

At the same time, prior to WWII, another ravRabbi Yehi’el Mikhel HaLevi Epshtein z”l – wrote another halakhic compendium known as the Arokh HaShulhan. This work is arranged according to the orders and chapters of the Shulhan Arukh, but his approach is to examine all of the relevant sources, beginning with Hazal, and then to come to a practical decision that can be sustained by the common Jew.

Usually, the methodology of the Arokh HaShulhan (AhS) was to respect the common practice of the people, famously finding justifications for things which many viewed as being incorrect. Whereas the MB covered only the material in Orah Hayim, the AhS covered all four sections of the Shulhan Arukh and beyond. In a supplementary work known as the Arokh HaShulhan He-Atid (“The AhS of the Future [Era]”), Rav Epshtein dealt with all of the laws that will come back into play in the Land under mashiah, much of which has even become relevant since the re-establishment of the State.

Rav Epshtein was community rav who regularly dealt with the common situations and problems that arise in the daily life of the common Jew. Additionally, he continued in the original course of halakhic development and did not worry about “all the bases,” but only about “home base,” as it were – the simple, singular, and practical pesak of halakhah. As a result, his rulings are almost without exception le-kulah (lenient) and tend toward ikkar ha-din (the basic demand of the law).

Although the AhS is a work stemming from the realities of Europe, it has great relevance to our modern Jewish lives in the West and its methodology stands as a shining example of rabbinic service to the people, rather than a rabbinic service to themselves.

With this, let’s look a particular part that the Arokh HaShulhan plays in the unfolding drama of the halakhah.


Two Problems

There are two general misunderstandings when it comes to the purpose behind the various codifications of halakhah:

[1] That the authors/compilers meant to communicate that their understanding of talmud were supreme (i.e. “immutable”) and that one should not deviate from the de`ot which they hand down, and

[2] That it was the intent of the authors/compilers that rabbinic leaders might be able to render pesak halakhah from a mere reading their works without having to study the sugyot in talmud for themselves.

Problem #1 – The Immutability Of The Author(s)

One of the many misconceptions regarding the Shulhan Arukh is that the halakhic decisions found in it were to somehow be meant to be “immutable” – i.e. that no one at the time or at any time afterward may disagree with it rulings. Although there are those who felt this way, there were many who felt that, while Shulhan Arukh is not immutable per se, it is nevertheless a suitable foundation from which to reference halakhic rulings and discussions. Such talmidei hakhamim regularly disagreed with its rulings and rendered piskei din from other Rishonim, from one of the Beit Yosef’s “big three” (i.e. the Rambam, Rif, and the Rosh), or even from the Gemara itself. These posekim routinely came to decisions that were in opposition to the view adopted by the Shulhan Arukh, and many of them ignored the view of the Shulhan Arukh altogether. Among them were such figures as the Maharal Mi-Prag, the Gra, and Rav Mosheh Feinstein z”l. In fact, there has scarcely been a rabbinic authority or commentary on the Shulhan Arukh since its publication that has agreed with all of its rulings. Instead, disagreement with either the Rema or the Beit Yosef has been the hallmark and occasion of later commentators.

Unfortunately, the misconception of the supposed inviolability of the rulings of the Shulhan Arukh has taken hold in much of the Jewish world today, especially since the post-war popularity of the MB.

Problem #2 – Not Deciding Halakhah From The Sugya

Like all other codifiers of the halakhah, the Shulhan Arukh (being mostly a shortened version of the Beit Yosef and the Darkhei Mosheh, commentaries by Rav Karo and Rav Isserles on the Tur) sought to create a user-friendly guide – mainly for the educated – as a way to easily reference a halakhah le-ma`aseh for all areas of Torah life outside of Eretz Yisra’el. Never did anyone intend that rabbinic authorities and/or posekim would simply read their summations without studying all of the relevant and requisite texts, beginning with the talmud. Halakhic codes like this were intended as commentaries or quick reference guides to the din of the various and complex discussions of the Gemara. The only exception to this is the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam, who felt that his work could replace the talmud for the purposes of practical halakhot, leaving the original literature for a deep and more comprehensive study.

Many rabbinic authorities strongly condemned this type of “short cut” approach in very strong terms, stating that every talmid hakhamim must decide for himself from the sources, and not simply rely on a re-statement of someone else’s learning in coming to a pesak. Among them were the Maharal Mi-Prag [1], the Maharsha [2], and the Ba”H [3]. One of the main concerns was that such a shallow understanding of the sugyot in talmud would surely lead to eventual error.

Arokh HaShulhan: Solving The Problems

Although Rav Epshtein z”l was fairly convinced of the correctness of the rulings on the Shulhan Arukh, he nevertheless was willing to entertain the positions of other Rishonim, and to develop and present his own views based on a direct study of the sources. Additionally, the Gemara, Tur, Shulhan Arukh, et al are brought right within the text, placing a particular emphasis on the Rambam and the Talmud Yerushalmi. He also makes a regular practice of quoting the halakhic sections of the Zohar, but in a unique way, strongly re-interpreting its statements to be in line with normative halakhah and not as some sort of mahmir usurpation of it.

Thus, the student of the Arokh HaShulhan is able to learn both the sources and the legal concepts behind them. Additionally, one is presented with the varying views present in the writings of the Rishonim and the process of how the halakhah was understood by various authorities is presented to the reader.

And herein lies the greatness of this early 20th Century work. Never before have both the sources for each halakhah, an explanation of their meaning(s), and the final rulings been given in a single book. What the Rambam in his Mishneh Torah did for Hazal, Rav Epshtein in the Arokh HaShulhan may well have done for the Rishonim.

Notes: [1] Netivot Olam – Netiv HaTorah 15, [2] Hidushe Agadot, Sotah 22a, [3] Shu”T HaBa”H 80 (Hadashot 42)

2 thoughts on “The Arokh HaShulhan: Solving the “Problems” of the Shulhan Arukh

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