Izrael Meir Ha-Kohen Kagan (1838-1933)
One of the main religious authorities in Eastern Europe. Born in
Poland, Izrael Meir moved to Wilno with his mother after the death of
his father. Educated in Wilno, he married at the age of seventeen and
settled with his wife in Radun, a small town between Wilno and Grodno,
where he spent the rest of his life.
He did not accept a rabbinical post, but rather lived from the
income from a small shop run by his wife. Izrael Meir taught and
lectured on the Talmud. In 1869, he founded a yeshiva which soon became
one of the most highly regarded Talmudic centers.
Growing fame, and the increasing number of students this brought,
meant that by 1904 the school already had its own building. Izrael Meir
personally raised funds for the school and helped it grow. His family
lived a modest life, with no special privileges or extravagances. There
is a famous story about how Rothschild sent 100 francs for a complete
set of the master's works. Izrael Meir kept 70 francs for the volumes,
and sent the rest back with a suggestion that Rothschild could donate
that amount to the yeshiva.
The suggestion was met with a positive response-Rothschild,
impressed by Izrael Meir's act, responded with a generous contribution
to the school.
Izrael Meir was known as Chafetz Chaim (literally, "he who wants to
live"), after the title of his first book, published in 1873, which
dealt with the sins of gossip and lies. He wrote another volume titled
Shemirat lashon (Control Over Language) about the significance of
honesty in verbal communication. In his works, he also dealt with moral
and legal aspects of goodness and love. He advocated the idea of a
society based on respect of the laws regarding labor and capital. He
also wrote a work that attests to his concern for the identity of
"Jehuda's camp", in which he gave advice to Jewish soldiers who were far
from home, in alien environments. His work Nidechay Israel (Scattered
Israel) is addressed to the many Jews who left Eastern Europe during the
waves of emigration during the late nineteenth century. In it, he
stressed the importance of faithfully observing the Sabbath rules.
Chafetz Chaim's most significant work is
contained in the six volumes of commentary about Jozef Karo's codex,
Szulchan Aruch, titled Mishna Berura (1884-1907). The treatise was
regarded as a practical guide to life. Chafetz Chaim also wrote a great
deal for women, encouraging them for example to observe the rules
regarding ritual cleanliness. Another major work by Chafetz was the
five-volume Likutey Halahot (Collection of Laws), which took up the
question of service in the temple as one of the most important factors
affecting how quickly the Messiah would arrive.
Chafetz Chaim was one of the founders of the ultra-Orthodox movement
known as Agudat Israel, which regarded him as its spiritual leader. His
last great desire was to go to the Holy Land, but this did not come to
pass. Chafetz helped bring about the creation of a council of Talmudic
academies (Va'ad ha-yeshivot) that supported Talmud schools in Eastern