Yisrael Meir Kagan

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Yisrael Meir Kagan
Yisrael Meir Kagan.jpg
Age 91, on his visit to the Polish Prime Minister
TitleThe Chofetz Chaim
Born(1838-01-26)January 26, 1838
DiedSeptember 15, 1933(1933-09-15) (aged 94)
(24 Elul 5693)
SignatureIsrael Meir Poupko, signature.svg

Rabbi Yisrael Meir ha-Kohen Kagan (January 26, 1838 – September 15, 1933), known popularly as the Chofetz Chaim (Hebrew: חפץ חיים‎, romanizedChafetz Chaim, lit.'Desirer of Life'), after the title of one of the books he wrote, was an influential rabbi of the Musar movement,[1] (although some dispute this categorization of the Chofetz Chaim as a supporter of the Musar movement)[2] a Halakhist, posek, and ethicist whose works continue to be widely influential in Jewish life.


Rabbi Kagan was born in Dzyatlava, Grodno Governorate, Russian Empire (today Belarus), on January 26, 1838, and died in Radun (Yiddish: Radin‎), Wilno Province in Poland (now Belarus) on September 15, 1933. His surname, Poupko, is not widely known.[3] His home town, Dzyatlava, was once named Zdzięcioł when it was part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth until the time of the partitions of Poland. When Rabbi Kagan was ten years old, his father died. His mother moved the family to Vilnius in order to continue her son's Jewish education. While in Vilnius, Rabbi Kagan became a student of Rabbi Jacob Barit. Rabbi Kagan's mother later remarried (Epstein) and moved to Radin. At 17, he married the daughter of his stepfather, and settled in Radin.

He served as the town rabbi of Radin for a short period. He then resigned from this position to establish the yeshiva in the city, which eventually became world-famous. By all accounts he was a modest and humble man, faithfully devoted to his Jewish faith. For a while he had a shop selling household provisions, which he and his wife managed.[4] From 1864 to 1869 he taught Talmud in Minsk and Washilishok.[5]

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan arriving at the first Knessia Gedolah of Agudas Yisroel in Vienna, 1923

In 1869, he formed a yeshiva in Radin. The yeshiva was a success and grew to prominence, later becoming known as "Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim of Radin". In addition to spreading Torah through his yeshiva, Kagan, who became known as "the Chofetz Chaim", was very active in Jewish causes. He traveled extensively to encourage the observance of Mitzvot and Shabbat amongst Jews. He became one of the most influential rabbis within Orthodox Judaism during the late 19th and early 20th century, taking a central leadership role in the World Agudath Israel movement in Eastern Europe.

Although the anti-religious attitudes which pervaded Zionism greatly distressed him, Rabbi Kagan initially refused to become personally involved in the matter and refrained from publicly denouncing the movement. When his views became known, he cautioned his students about joining the Zionists[6] and declared its political aims as being contrary to the Torah.[7][8][9][10] He nevertheless cherished the Holy Land and in 1925 it was announced that he would be leaving Warsaw with his daughter and son-in-law to permanently settle in Petach Tikvah (the Gate of Hope, in hebrew), Israel.[11] Upon discovering his plans, prominent rabbis and yeshiva deans persuaded him to remain in Radin[12] and he died there on September 15, 1933, aged 95.[13] He was interred in the nearby cemetery.[14]

Many other Jewish religious institutions throughout the world also bear his name. One American yeshiva named in his honor is the Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yisrael Meir HaKohen centered in Queens, New York founded by his great nephew, Rabbi Dovid Leibowitz, with several branches in the United States, Canada, and Israel. Rabbi Kagan's teachings have inspired some English-speaking American Jews to establish the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, dedicated to the dissemination of his teachings to Jewish communities around the world. An Orthodox kibbutz in Israel, Hafetz Haim, was named in his honor.

During his lifetime, he was venerated by Jews and non-Jews alike. Orthodox Jews across the world viewed him as one of the 36 righteous people,[15] and Polish farmers were said to have lured him into their fields believing his feet would bring blessing to their crops.[16]

According to some reports, despite his rabbinic leadership he did not hold semikhah until late in life, when he had to apply for a passport and needed formal semichah in order to honestly enter "rabbi" as his occupation. He then received his semikhah by telegraph from Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski of Wilna.[17] According to another report, though, he received semikhah much earlier, at age 17.[18]

His son-in-law was Rabbi Mendel Zaks.


Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan towards the end of his life.
  • Chofetz Chaim (חָפֵץ חַיִּים "Seeker/Desirer [of] Life"), his first book, (published in 1873), deals with the Biblical laws of gossip and slander (known in Hebrew as Lashon Hara, meaning "Evil tongue"). View the online edition in Hebrew here
  • Shemirat HaLashon ("Guarding of the Tongue"), is a comprehensive discussion of the philosophy behind the Jewish concepts of power of speech and guarding one's speech. It also serves as an inspirational work designed to motivate the reader to be vigilant in the ethical usage of his speech and avoidance of others' unethical speech. Published in 1876. View the online edition in Hebrew here
  • Mishnah Berurah ("Clarified teachings") is an important and widely used commentary, consisting of six volumes, on the Orach Chayim section of Yosef Karo's digested compilation of practical Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch. It combines his own elucidations and differing opinions with those of other Aharonim (post-medieval authorities.) [As found in the book by Rabbi Moses M. Yoshor "The Chafetz Chaim" on page 603 the 1st volume was published in 1884; 2nd volume in 1886; 3rd volume in 1891; 4th volume in 1898; 5th volume in 1902; 6th volume in 1907.]
  • Biur Halacha ("Explanation of the Law") is a commentary tangential to the Mishna Berurah. It usually provides complex analysis of the legal rulings of earlier Jewish halachic authorities.
  • Sha'ar HaTziyyun ("Gate of Distinction") serves primarily to document sources for laws and customs quoted in the Mishnah Berurah, but sometimes serves also to clarify ambiguous legal statements. The name Sha'ar HaTziyyun derives from the phrase sh'arim m'tzuyanim ba'halacha, translated as "gateways distinguished in (or marked in) Jewish Law," referring to the Torah study and scholarship that would distinguish Jewish homes. Rabbi Kagan chose the title as a pun, hinting at the distinction of the scholarship referenced in his work, but primarily referring to (as he writes on his title page) the function of Sha'ar HaTziyyun to document (mark) sources.
  • Ahavat Chesed – one volume, published in 1888. On the commandment of lending money to the needy, the value of being kind to one another and various ways to do so.
  • Machaneh Yisrael – one volume, on the minimum requirements of Torah observance for soldiers in the army.
  • Tiferes Odom – one volume, on the importance of a Jew having a beard and peyos (sidelocks).
  • Geder Olam – one volume, published in 1890. On the importance of a married Jewish woman covering her hair.
  • Nidchei Yisrael – two volumes, published in 1893.
  • Shem Olam – one volume, published in 1893.
  • Chomas Hadas – one volume, published in 1905. On the importance of a man to study Torah, and encourage others to learn, as well as the need to create groups in every city wherein a man could acquire Torah.
  • Likutei Halachos, a halakhic digest of all sugyot on which there was no "Rif" or "Rosh"; originally intended to encourage the study of the laws of the Temple service.[19] Five volumes: the first volume was published in 1900; 2nd volume in 1903; 3rd volume in 1913; 4th volume in 1922. There is a fifth volume called "Hashlamah" or "Completion" which was published in 1925.
  • Gibores Ari – two volumes, published in 1907.
  • Tohoras Yisroel – one volume, published in 1910. On the importance of women to purify themselves in the waters of a mikvah (ritual bath) in accordance with accepted halachic practice.
  • Toras Kohanim – one volume, published in 1911.
  • Asefas Zekenim – three volumes, published in 1913.
  • Chovas Hashemiro – one volume, published in 1915.
  • Toras Habayis – one volume, published in 1923.
  • Zechor Lemiryom – one volume, published in 1925.
  • Beis Yisroel – one volume, published in 1925.
  • Sefer Hamitzvos Hakotzor – two volumes on those Biblical commandments that are applicable during the Exile, outside the land of Israel, and when the Temple is not in existence. Published in 1931.
  • Tzipita Lishuah ("Have you yearned the redemption") is based on a passage from tractate Shabbat, which states that after one passes away, he is asked by the heavenly court: "Have you yearned for the redemption?" This work describes the importance of actively awaiting Moshiach every day and doing everything in our power (learning Torah and doing mitzvot) to bring the redemption. The Chofetz Chaim's expectation of the immediate redemption was so strong that he would always carry special garments to change into once the redemption begins.


  1. ^ Rabbi Dov Katz (1996). Musar movement: Its history, leading personalities and doctrines (new ed.). Feldheim Publishers.
  2. ^ Kamenetsky, Rabbi Nathan (2002). Making of a Godol. Hamesorah Publishers. pp. 573–575. ISBN 965-90379-0-2. Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky quotes that "R' Zelig Epstein revealed that the Chafetz-Chaim himself, like most of the other Torah greats, was against Musar, 'not that he was among the vehement mithnagdim, but he did not approve its entire approach'".
  3. ^ "Israel Meir Ha-Kohen" Encyclopedia Judaica. Jerusalem: Keter, 1972. Excerpt
  4. ^ Chofetz Chaim
  5. ^ Moses M. Yoshor, Israel Meir haKohen in Jewish Leaders, ed. Leo Jung. p. 462.
  6. ^ Lester Samuel Eckman (1975). The history of the Musar movement, 1840–1945. Shengold Publishers. p. 100. Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan received protests from many rabbis concerning his silence and lack of objection against the leaders of the Zionist movement as well as against the mocking of religion. By nature Rabbi Kagan was a man who avoided quarrels, and in the dispute over the Zionist movement he tried to avert further altercation. Nevertheless, "his heart was broken upon hearing that the leaders of Zionism [were] leading Jews astray in the colonies in Palestine and at home from the ways of the Torah; [...] Rabbi Kagan's stand was this: He denied "young scholarly-religious students under his jurisdiction [permission] to follow in the footsteps of the irreligious Zionist leaders, especially when one of the enlightened Zionists, reputed for always telling the truth, after his visiting all the schools in Palestine, testified that in the schools the critical method [was] used to study the Holy Books."
  7. ^ Sacks, Jonathan (1992). Crisis and Covenant: Jewish Thought After the Holocaust. Manchester University Press. p. 66. ISBN 978-0-7190-4203-4. The saintly Rabbi Israel Meir ha-Cohen invoked the talmudic passage of the three oaths to remind his followers that the Jewish fate was to remain in exile until redeemed by God.
  8. ^ Ravitzky, Aviezer (1996). Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism. University of Chicago Press. p. 176. ISBN 978-0-226-70578-1. To be sure, this fierce opposition has not yet abated. There is little to distinguish the approach of Rabbi Hayyim Soloveichik of Brisk at the birth of Zionism from that of Rabbi Velvel Soloveichik after the establishment of the state. Just as the criticism levelled against the Zionists by the Hafetz Hayim and Rabbi Elhanan Wasserman is once more extensively cited today, buttressing the attacks made by Rabbi Schach and his circle. As Rabbi Schach quipped, "When I am asked by the heavenly court why I did not identify with the Zionist idea, I will unhesitatingly place the blame for this on the Hafetz Hayim and the other leading scholars who preceded me, and they will already know what answer to give."
  9. ^ Marek Čejka; Roman Kořan (16 October 2015). "The rabbi for everyday: Israel Meir Ha-Kohen/Kagan". Rabbis of Our Time: Authorities of Judaism in the Religious and Political Ferment of Modern Times. Routledge. p. 83. ISBN 978-1-317-60544-7. The book is also a vital component of the Judaic critique of Zionism, In this context the Chaftez Chaim was also very critical not only towards the state building attempts of Zionists, but also towards their efforts to create a modern Hebrew language. He sarcastically condemned the activities of Zionist philologist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. […] Even through the Chaftez Chaim died 15 years before the establishment of the State of Israel, he influenced later rabbinical anti-Zionism in Israel very significantly.
  10. ^ Heilman, Samuel C. (1992). "Who are the Haredim?". Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry. University of California Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-520-22112-3. Second was the objection to the religiously unacceptable notion of a Zionism that suggest the Jews could become a "People like all other people." […] The Orthodox did not want a "normal Jewish state," but one that was altogether different. "It was not worthwhile," the Hafetz Hayim was quoted as saying, "to become another Albania or even another Belgium after nineteen centuries of suffering. A state must be established on Torah foundations.”
  11. ^ "Chofetz Chaim Will Leave for Palestine Nov. 1". The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 30 October 1925. p. 6.
  12. ^ Lester Samuel Eckman (1975). The history of the Musar movement, 1840–1945. Shengold Publishers. pp. 101–2. When his plans became public, a committee of leading rabbis and deans of theological seminaries requested him to postpone his journey, because the seminaries needed his guidance in the critical time of their existence. Rabbi Kagan complied...
  13. ^ "Chofetz Chaim Ill". The Kingston Daily Freeman. Kingston, New York. 7 May 1932. p. 5.
  14. ^ Gershon Hellman (Feb 14, 2018). "Returning to Radin". Ami Magazine. No. 355. p. 50.
  15. ^ "Chofetz Chaim, 105 Is Dead in Poland". The New York Times. 16 September 1933.
  16. ^ William G. Braude (1988). "Longevity's Secret". The Journal of Reform Judaism. 35. Central Conference of American Rabbis. p. 49. He was sage, saint, and legend. Polish peasants used sundry ploys to get him to walk across their fields, believing that the touch of his feet would improve the soil.
  17. ^ Yissocher Frand, Listen To Your Messages, p.89
  18. ^ בן 14 עתר: תנו לי להיות רב
  19. ^ seforimblog.com


  • Yoshor, Moses Meir (June 1986) [1937]. Chafetz Chaim, the life and works of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin. rendered into English by Charles Wengrov (1st Revised ed.). New York, NY: Mesorah publications. ISBN 0-89906-462-0.
  • "Chofetz Chaim, 105, is Dead in Poland". The New York Times. 16 September 1933. p. 13.

External links[edit]

Media related to Yisrael Meir Kagan (Chofetz Chaim) at Wikimedia Commons