Tuesday, the 24th of Elul, marked the 86th yahrzeit of the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, arguably the best known rabbinic personality of the late 19th and mid 20th century.
By now, most people are familiar with his life due to the efforts of men like the late Rabbi Moshe Meir Yashar who authored an impressive multi-volume biography of the Chofetz Chaim which is available in Yiddish, English, and Hebrew. The purpose of this article is to highlight interesting aspects of the Chofetz Chaim’s life and works that may not be known to many of readers.
The Chofetz Chaim was not a rav, rosh yeshiva, or mashgiach. For a very brief period in his youth, he served as a rav in Radin, but local controversies influenced him to leave the rabbinate.
He sponsored an important yeshiva in Radin, but he was not the rosh yeshiva, (that position was held by Rabbi Moshe Londynski and later Rabbi Naftoli Trop); nor was he a mashgiach or administrator at the yeshiva. Rather, he was the “ruach hachaim,” the life force, of the yeshiva in the tradition of other Lithuanian gedolim like the Vilna Gaon, the Chazon Ish, and Rabbi Nachum Kaplan of Grodna, and others.
The Chofetz Chaim supported his family by selling his books. His family actually represents another aspect of his life that is not well known. Many do not realize that his second rebbetzin, Rebbetzin Freida Kagan, died in the United States and is buried in Queens, NY.
The same is true of the ben zekunim of the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Dr. Aaron Kagan, who was a traveling maggid in the U.S. for many years. He, too, is buried in Queens (but lived in Brooklyn).
The Chofetz Chaim’s elder son, Rav Leib Poupko, is known to have assisted his father in writing the Mishnah Berurah and in its final format. Although the Chofetz Chaim was an active member of Agudath Israel, his son Rav Leib became the president of the Mizrachi Organization in Poland sometime after his father passed away.
Rav Leib also wrote an interesting biography of his father, which sheds light on his father’s personality. In addition, Rav Leib was convinced to assume the rabbinate of Radin sometime after his father’s passing. He passed away in 1939.
Interestingly, the Chofetz Chaim only cites two contemporary gedolim in his Mishnah Berurah, namely the Or Someach (Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk) and Rabbi S. Z. Hirschowitz, a lesser known rav in Latvia. The Chofetz Chaim and the Or Someach had serious differences on the question of whether the rabbinate in Czarist Russia should be secularly educated and the Chivat Zion movement, yet he did not hesitate to cite this gadol.
In several Russian rabbinical conferences, the Chofetz Chaim aligned himself with the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Ber Schneersohn, and Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk in strongly opposing any secular education for Russian rabbanim.
Speaking of Chassidic rebbes, the Chofetz Chaim enjoyed great popularity among Polish Rebbes despite being a Litvishe gadol by birth and background. The third Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi A. M. Alter, regarded the Mishnah Berurah as the authoritative exposition of Orach Chaim and strongly supported his other works as well.
The fourth Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Aaron Rokeach, also was very supportive of the Chofetz Chaim. Sources claim he never referred to him as the Chofetz Chaim based on the halachic argument that phrases of pesukim should never be cited by themselves. He thus called him “The Radiner.”
The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn, signed a proclamation to help Soviet Jewry with the Chofetz Chaim and Vilna’s Rav Chaim Ozer.
Finally a few words about the picture of the Chofetz Chaim: Several so-called Jewish historians have spread a rumor that the most familiar picture of the Chofetz Chaim is not really him. But the recently-publicized film of the arrival of the Chofetz Chaim to the Knessiah Gedolah in Vienna put all such doubts to rest. Clearly the man in the film is the same man in the famous picture.
The rumors all started with a misreading of Rabbi Yosher’s comments on the picture. He states that the picture is not a good representation of the holy image of the Chofetz Chaim, but does not state that it is not the Chofetz Chaim. There are even more proofs the man in the picture is the Chofetz Chaim which I will not go into now.
The Chofetz Chaim’s legacy lives on through the multiplicity of his sefarim and his good name. He truly merited eternal life!