Yisrael Meir Kagan
Age 91, on his visit to the Polish Prime Minister
|Title||The Chofetz Chaim|
|Died||September 15, 1933 (aged 94)|
(24 Elul 5693)
Yisrael Meir (HaKohen) Kagan (January 26, 1838 - September 15, 1933), known popularly as the Chofetz Chaim (Hebrew: ?, romanized: Chafetz Chaim, lit. 'Desirer of Life'), after the title of one of the books he wrote, was an influential rabbi of the Musar movement, (although some dispute this categorization of the Chofetz Chaim as a supporter of the Musar movement) a Halakhist, posek, and ethicist whose works continue to be widely influential in Jewish life.
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. His home town, Dzyatlava, was once named Zdzi?cio? when it was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until the time of the partitions of Poland. When 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, Kagan became a student of Rabbi Jacob Barit. 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. However, the business was not successful and he turned to teaching in order to support himself and his family. From 1864 to 1869 he taught Talmud in Minsk and Washilishok.
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, 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 and declared its political aims as being contrary to the Torah. 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, Palestine. Upon discovering his plans, prominent rabbis and yeshiva deans persuaded him to remain in Radin and he died there on September 15, 1933, aged 95.
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. 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, and Polish farmers were said to have lured him into their fields believing his feet would bring blessing to their crops.
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. According to another report, though, he received semikhah much earlier, at age 17.
His son-in-law was Rabbi Mendel Zaks.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
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...
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.
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