Photo Credit: Academic Studies Press

Title: Setting the Table: An Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Rabbi Yechiel Mikhel Epstein’s Arukh HaShulkhan
By Michael J. Broyde and Shlomo C. Pill
Published by Academic Studies Press

 

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Until now, few have tried to analyze the methodological underpinnings of Rabbi Epstein’s magnum opus Arukh HaShulkhan. With the release of Setting the Table: An Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Rabbi Yechiel Mikhel Epstein’s Arukh HaShulkhan, two uniquely qualified scholars, rabbis and instructors of law at Emory University, Michael J. Broyde and Shlomo C. Pill, took up the challenge to explain to the English reading audience the legal mechanisms that Rabbi Epstein utilized in the writing of his work.

During his tenure as Rabbi of the Russian town of Novogrudok, Rabbi Epstein (1829-1908) authored one of the most popular halakhic compendia of the twentieth century. The publication of Rabbi Epstein’s Arukh HaShulkhan overlapped with the release of popular commentary on Shulkhan Arukh, the Mishnah Berurah, written by Rabbi Yisrael Meir ha-Kohen Kagan, known as the Chafetz Chaim. These two codes continue to vie for popularity among Ashkenazi Jews. Unlike the more limited Mishnah Berurah, the Arukh HaShulkan covers the entire four sections of Rabbi Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Arukh. Complementing this work, Rabbi Epstein published a work covering the areas of Jewish Law that Rabbi Karo omitted. In this way, Rabbi Epstein’s corpus compares to that of Maimonides, whose code of Jewish Law, Mishneh Torah, encompasses the entire range of Jewish law.

The authors divide Setting the Table into three sections; a review of the codification of Jewish law, an extensive overview of Rabbi Epstein’s methodological principles, and a presentation of hundreds of examples to support their analysis.

Setting the Table opens with a brief presentation of the history of Jewish law. This section examines the motivation driving Rabbi Epstein to write a massive, unified code of Jewish law. Among other works, Broyde and Pill relied extensively upon the research of Rabbi Eitam Henkin hy” d, which appeared posthumously in Hebrew as “Ta’arokh Lefanai Shulchan” (Magid 2018) detailing the life of Rabbi Epstein.

Pill and Broyde follow the traditional interpretation of this history from the closing of the Talmud in the sixth century and the following developments in the Middle East and Europe. The authors steer clear of some of the more controversial conjectures and theories raised by other authors, enabling the reader to focus on the work’s primary aim; exploring Rabbi Epstein’s method.

Post-Talmudic Jewish law appeared in several media: Comprehensive restatements of Jewish law, concise codes, commentaries on law codes, topically treatises, and the many volumes of responsa literature (31-32). At some point, Maimonides sensed that Jewish law became too cumbersome and confusing even for trained scholars to decide the law.

Following in the footsteps of theorists such as Justice Menachem Alon in his colossal work, Mishpat Ivri, Broyde and Pill suggest that Rabbi Epstein felt the same pressures that earlier codifiers confronted. Rambam wrote his concise code, deviating from the more give-and-take codes like that of Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi. From Maimonides’ time onward, the same process continued until Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher wrote the Arba’ah Turim in the fourteenth century, and again Rabbi Yosef Karo wrote his codes in the sixteenth.

The same process of codification followed by the subsequent development of an unwieldy literature returned. “By the year 1880, a little more than three hundred years after the initial 1577 publication of Rabbi Karo’s Shulchan Arukh with the Rama’s glosses, Jewish law in Eastern Europe was anything but clear…. Needless to say, it was much harder to find where to turn when deciding complicated issues” (31).

One of the most interesting subsections compares Arukh HaShulkhan to Mishnah Berurah. Chafetz Chaim “assumes that virtually all disputes of Jewish law and Talmudic understanding are analytically irresolvable” (47). The task of the modern decisor of Jewish law is to mediate between earlier authorities using a set of rules. In contrast, Rabbi Epstein returns to the Talmud and commentaries to analyze which ones seem to offer the most accurate interpretation of the Talmud text. Pill and Broyde suggest that given the complexity of Rabbi Epstein’s approach, he seems to have written the work for scholars who possess the skills to comprehend his analysis. “The Mishnah Berurah is thus Rabbi Kagan’s attempt to elucidate for the Hebrew-reading educated layperson (and not only for the legal scholar) both what should be normative halakhic practice and why it should be so” (48). The authors briefly explicate ten principles that the Chafetz Chaim used in writing the Mishnah Berurah.

The bulk of Set Table aims at presenting Rabbi Epstein’s approach to pesak halacha. Pill and Broyde enumerate ten principles that are distinctly different from the ten of the Chafetz Chaim. Much of the book clarifies these principles, and then the authors present numerous examples from the first section, Orach Chaim, to support their claims. These last two sections pull the curtain back to give the reader a clear view of what Rabbi Epstein was trying to accomplish in his majestic code.

Like any work, there are a few elements that some might find in need of improvement. Because a team wrote the work, some parts are, perhaps unnecessarily, repeated. The repetition slows the reader down a bit. Some trained in Academic Jewish studies might find the historical section to reflect a dated traditional approach that has been challenged in the past few decades. In a few spots, many may disagree with the way authors read or presented the material. Such debates are the natural outcome of halachic analysis. There are several typos and inconsistencies which should be corrected in a second edition. These are minor blemishes on a colossal undertaking.

Setting the Table cracks open the methodology of Rabbi Yechiel Mikhel Epstein and demonstrates at great length how he applies this method throughout the first section of his lengthy code of Jewish law. As expected, the authors, backed up by a team of researchers, do an excellent job breaking down what Rabbi Epstein was doing and how he did it. Anyone interested in the history and methodology of Jewish law in general and of one of the most critical poskim of the modern area will find much delight in reading Setting the Table.

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Rabbi Tuvia Berman is the Director of Institutional Advancement at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education.
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