The Chofetz Chaim, whose scholarship, leadership, and Torah legacy will exist for all time, is indisputably at the top of any list of the greatest rabbanim of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
I have often written in these pages about the palpable sense of living, breathing history when I hold, and behold, correspondence written by important historical personalities. But what can one say to describe the feeling of holding a document handwritten by the likes of the Chofetz Chaim? Other than stating the obvious – that this document remains my personal treasure of treasures – I can only note that the very idea that these are the actual words, pen on paper, written by this Torah luminary causes trembling in my hands and my soul.
Rav Israel Meir (HaKohen) Kagan (1839-1933) is perhaps best known for his campaign to teach his fellow Jews about the laws of lashon hara (forbidden speech, including libel and slander). Toward that end, he published his first sefer, Chofetz Chaim, which earned him his moniker, and two other works on the subject. The name comes from Tehillim (Psalms) 34:12-14:
“Who is the man who desires life, who loves days to see goodness? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceitfully. Shun evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.”
His related sefer Sh’mirat HaLashon serves as an inspirational work designed to motivate the reader to be vigilant in the ethical usage of his speech and the avoidance of others’ unethical speech.
The Chofetz Chaim wrote on many other subjects and ultimately published more than 20 sefarim. But without doubt his most important sefer and magnum opus is the Mishnah Berurah, a six-volume commentary on the Orach Chayim section of the Shulchan Aruch, R. Yosef Karo’s digested compilation of practical Jewish law. Combining the Chofetz Chaim’s own explanations and differing opinions with those of other post-medieval authorities, it has become perhaps the primary authority on Jewish daily living among Ashkenazic Jews.
Tangential to the Mishnah Berurah, the Chofetz Chaim’s Biur Halacha commentary provides a complex analysis of the legal rulings of earlier Jewish halachic authorities. And his Sha’ar HaTziyyun serves primarily to document sources for laws and customs quoted in the Mishnah Berurah while clarifying ambiguous legal statements as well.
The Chofetz Chaim is also famous for establishing the renowned Radun Yeshiva, which he launched after serving as the rav of Radun for a short period of time.
Despite his fame as the “uncrowned spiritual king of Israel,” he was a modest and humble man. He became a genuine folk hero, beloved not only by scholars but also by the masses, as stories of his extraordinary piety and integrity sprang up among Orthodox Jews all over the world. He took a principal leadership role in the Agudat Israel movement in Eastern Europe; traveled extensively – even into his old age, as we will see below – to spread Torah learning and observance; and devoted great effort to helping many yeshivot survive the financial problems of the interwar period.
Believing in the imminent arrival of the Messianic Age, he stressed the importance of aliyah to Eretz Yisrael and was a great supporter of the Jewish community there.
In the 15 Elul 1925 correspondence on his official Radin letterhead, shown here as Exhibit 1, the Chofetz Chaim writes to Rav Shmuel Yitzchak Hillman:
To the honor of my friend, the great and famed Harav Hagaon Shmuel Yitzchak Hillman, shlita, Rav in the capital city of London
As I have not been home for an entire month this summer, my response to kvod torato was delayed until now, and I hereby extend to kvod torato the greatest return of grace on his great effort for the benefit of selling my sefarim for a total of 25 [Fontaine?] – and I hereby bless kvod torato and kvod bnei beito on this New Year, may it come upon us for good, with great peace from heaven, and all should be written and sealed for a good and peaceful life, and may we all merit a year of salvation and redemption, and may the Honor of Hashem fill the land, Amen v’amen. From me, his eternal friend who esteems and respects him.
Yisrael Meir HaKohen
[Editor’s Note: “Kvod torato,” in this case referring to Rav Hillman, was common usage for many of the rabbanim at the time. “K’vod torato” – literally, “with respect for his Torah” – underscores the esteem the writer has for the recipient.]
In a postscript, the Chofetz Chaim extends greetings to Rav Hillman’s son-in-law, Rav Yitzchak Halevi Herzog – who would later serve as pre-state chief Ashkenazi rav of Eretz Yisrael (1936-1948):
I also send regards to the well being of his son-in-law, the Rav Hagaon and the well-being of his son, may they all stand on the blessing [i.e., be blessed].
Born in Kovno, Lithuania, Rav Hillman (1868-1953), a renowned Talmudic scholar and posek, best known as a dayan of the London Bet Din. He co-founded the Jerusalem yeshiva Ohel Torah together with Rav Herzog, who married his daughter Sarah and served as its rosh yeshiva.
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Displayed here as Exhibit 2 is a very beautiful and extremely rare Rosh Hashanah card featuring the Chofetz Chaim. Surrounding his head is the famous verse from Tehillim for which he earned his nickname. Beginning at the extreme left and moving clockwise, the four bars at the edges proclaim “A year of livelihood and support,” “A year of life and peace,” “A year of blessing and success” and, finally, “Renew for us a good year.”
Questions have been raised in recent years about whether the iconic image seen on the card is in fact that of the Chofetz Chaim. Actual original photographs of the Chofetz Chaim, which are extremely rare, include a photo of him sitting outside at the front of his house with other people; a passport picture of him when he was considering a trip to Eretz Yisrael; and a photo of him en route to visit the Polish premier. They have done little to create a consensus for either side of the debate.
Saul Jay Singer