Setting the Table: An Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Rabbi Yechiel Mikhel Epstein's Arukh Hashulhan

Setting the Table: An Introduction to the Jurisprudence of Rabbi Yechiel Mikhel Epstein's Arukh Hashulhan by Michael J. Broyde and Shlomo C. Pill (Academic Studies Press, 2021)

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

In this rather insightful and informative book, the authors offer us a broad look at the legal principles used by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829-1908) in his multi-volume work Aruch HaShulchan. Rabbi Epstein served as the Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community in Novhardok (Novogrudok) for over thirty years. He authored many different works including a commentary to the Haggadah shel Pesach (Leil Shimurim), a commentary to the Jerusalemic Talmud (Michal HaMayim), a volume of homilies (Drashos Kol Ben Levi), and a commentary to Rabbeinu Tam’s Sefer HaYashar (Ohr LaYesharim).

Despite all his prolific literary output, Rabbi Epstein’s greatest legacy is his magnum opus, the Aruch HaShulchan. This vital work gives Rabbi Epstein the unique place amongst rabbinic jurists in the last few centuries as the only authority to write a code of Halachah ("Judaic jurisprudence”) that parallels the four sections of the Shulchan AruchOrach Chaim (daily law), Choshen Mishpat (civil law), Even HaEzer (family law), and Yoreh Deah (ritual law) — and also rules on laws relevant for the future Messianic Era (Aruch HaShulchan HeAsid). Broyde and Pill are both trained rabbis and professors of law, making them appropriate scholars to investigate the legal methodologies used by Rabbi Epstein in his highly-important work.

The scholarly book that Broyde and Pill have written opens with a fascinating discussion of the history of Halachah, detailing how when the Temple in Jerusalem stood, there was a central court known as the Sanhedrin that functioned as the final arbitrator of Halachah (not unlike the way that the Supreme Court plays a similar role in American jurisprudence). However, after the Temple's destruction and the ensuing decentralization of Halachic authority, Jews who sought clarification in Halachic matters did not have one specific address to which they could turn. This reality created the need for a written code of Jewish law with which all Jews could consult for guidance in knowing the law.

As the authors explain, there are two different models/styles for writing a code of law: Broadly speaking, the first model of codifying Jewish law is typified by the Mishnah, which lays down the law in a clear-cut and relatively unambiguous way. This model calls for using concise, terse statements of the law, without getting into the complex details such as proof-texts for the positions taken, excessive argumentation, or other extra-legal matters. As Broyde and Pill explain, this simpler approach was adopted by many great Halachic authorities throughout the ages including Alfasi, Maimonides, and the Shulchan Aruch. However, the second model of codifying Jewish Law has its precedent in the Babylonian Talmud itself, which offers Halachic discourse and rulings within a wider web of meandering dialectics, intensive analysis, discussion, and disputation, as well as non-Halachic materials like moralistic teachings, historical observations, and Biblical hermeneutics. This way of arriving at Halachah was broadly followed by Rashi and the Tosafists, and later by the Rosh, the Tur, and various super-commentaries to the Shulchan Aruch. Rabbis Broyde and Pill situate Rabbi Epstein’s Aruch HaShulchan within this paradigm and demonstrate how his work is largely archetypical of the second — Talmudic — modality, as opposed to the Mishnaic model.

In their analysis of Aruch HaShulchan’s rulings in the realm of Orach Chaim, Rabbis Broyde and Pill reduce Rabbi Epstein’s Halachic methodology to ten legal principles. They infer these principles directly from Aruch HaShulchan’s self-reported reasons and justifications for his various rulings. In doing so, the authors provide the background discussions to many of the various Halachic questions with which Aruch HaShulchan grappled and showed how his final conclusions were guided by the ten principle that they have identified. The third section of this book offers 204 such examples.

The first of these principles is the notion that normative Halachah should be primarily determined by the Talmud. The core of Halachah must always be, in one way or another, rooted in the Talmud—whether the Babylonian Talmud or the Jerusalemic Talmud. The most optimal way of determining what the Halachah ought to be is how one reads the Talmud. A clear, confident ruling seen in the Talmud itself trumps precedent found in later Halachic works, no matter how authoritative or important those works may be. That said, Rabbi Epstein’s second guiding principle maintains that one must possess a sort of “epistemic humility” by which one is ready to call into question one’s own reading of the Talmud if it is contradicted by a consensus of other, earlier authorities.

When Rabbi Epstein himself is unsure about how to read the Talmud’s final ruling on a given issue, then two more guiding principles are in play: The first of those principles maintains that in lieu of direct precedent from the Talmud, one must rely on precedent from later Halachic authorities, like Maimonides or Shulchan Aruch. When those sources are unhelpful or do not offer a consensus, then Rabbi Epstein relies on secondary rules for resolving doubts. Namely, in cases of laws rooted in Biblical Law, he rules stringently; while in cases of laws rooted in Rabbinic Law, he rules leniently.

As Rabbis Broyde and Pill show, Rabbi Epstein had also developed guiding principles that take into account the force of minhag (“custom”), kabbalah (“mysticism”), and chumros (“extra pious supererogatory conduct”) when formulating his code of law. When forced to do so, Rabbi Epstein would also sometimes engage in rationalizing/justifying changes to established Halachic norms in order to fit the context of his time and place. Last but not least, Rabbi Epstein was also cognizant of the very pragmatic fact that “the Torah was not given to the Ministering Angels” and therefore adapts otherwise impossible or impractical rules to fit reality.

My main criticism of this book is mostly stylistic, as the authors are quite verbose and repetitive, which makes reading the book more bland than succinct writing would make it. That said, I do recognize how this repetitiveness and wordiness could benefit some novice readers who are not as familiar with the concepts discussed. Moreover, this reviewer would appreciate a more comprehensive look at Rabbi Epstein's work that includes examples from his rulings on Even HaEzer, Choshen Mishpat, Yoreh Deah, and even Aruch HaShulchan HeAsid. Perhaps this is something that the authors are working on for the future. All in all, the authors did magnificent work and have really provided us with a worthwhile study on the Aruch HaShulchan.

Jews and Crime in Medieval Europe

 Jews and Crime in Medieval Europe by Ephraim Shoham-Steiner (Wayne State University Press, 2021)

Review by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

As its title might suggest, this book is a multi-case study on the relationship between Jews and crime in the Medieval period. It provides a fascinating report of this rather obscure topic that mainly draws from Halachic responsa from the time-period in question. By drawing on such writings, plus archival data when available, the author tells vivid stories of different illegal activities in which Jews were involved. He uses deep-reading techniques and the latest scholarship to tease out details of the stories told in those primary sources that are left untold in the actual sources. He then uses the cases that he describes to draw broader conclusions about the connections that Ashkenazic Jews had to crime in the Middle Ages.

After a thirty-page introduction in which the author lays out his precise methodology and provides the background/contextual information for his study, the main body of the book consists of three chapters divided by the nature of the crime discussed therein. Namely, the first chapter discusses the Jews’ involvement in theft; the second chapter, in murder; and the third chapter, in crimes related to women.

The author shows that when it comes to Jews’ involvement in theft, Jews themselves were not typically the ones engaged in stealing or robbing. Rather, Jews often served as fences, who acted as middlemen between thieves and the eventual buyers of stolen goods. The cases that Shoham-Steiner discusses include complications that present themselves when the original owners of plundered property were Jews, or when Jewish buyers would later find out that items they had bought were of dubious provenance.  This chapter also includes an interesting section on how magic was often times used by thieves in their illicit thievery, but was also used to help catch and expose those who steal.

In his chapter on murder, Shoham-Steiner shows how even as honor-related violence and fatalities were fairly prevalent in Christian Europe, such aggression seems to have been much less common among Jews. The cases in which Jews were involved in killings typically involved them hiring/contracting non-Jews to actually do the deed, or inadvertent bloodshed like a sleeping mother rolling onto her baby. As early as the Geonic period, much Halachic responsa was dedicated to giving Jewish murderers (whether intentional or not) a regimen of repentance both to alleviate their own internal guilt and help them regain their community’s confidence. Thus, the punishments for taking the life of another often included such acts of self-mortification as mutilation, fasting, and voluntary exile. Nonetheless, as Shoham-Steiner shows, the one situation in which the rabbis would be more tolerant/lenient with murderers was when the victim was a moser (“informer”) who caused other Jews trouble with the non-Jewish authorities.

Shoham-Steiner dedicates his final chapter to crimes involving women, specifically sexual misdeeds and domestic violence. In discussing the former, the author considers how the Jewish community confronted prostitution, and how some rabbis from the Chassidei Ashkenaz movement even looked to contemporary Christian clergymen as role models for successful dealing with this issue. The author also situates that discussion under the broader context of the community’s response to sexual promiscuity and licentiousness. In discussing domestic violence, this book discusses several cases of husbands subjecting their wives to violence and financial abuse. It also looks at cases in which the rabbis were accommodating of women who were perceived to have committed murder such that they did not impose on them the harsh stringencies placed on male murderers.

This book also explores such general questions as the extent of rabbinic hegemony in the Ashkenazic Jewish community in earlier times, as well as the extent to which Jewish Courts were independent of local magistrates and could offer their own punishments/penalties. The author is clearly cognizant of modern Feminist concerns that occupy a prominent place in social studies (and is thus bothered by things like the inadmissibility of womenfolk’s testimony in Rabbinic Jurisprudence and Rabbinic concerns that a woman be happily married lest she go astray), and also broadly uses Critical Theory to critique rabbinic authority and its place in the Jewish Community in the Medieval Period. He often mentions class inequality as a major factor in deciding when the law would be enforced and what the punishment for breaking the law would entail. To his credit, Professor Shoham-Steiner is always careful to separate his own speculation from the documented facts, making that distinction clear to the reader as he fills in the lacuna left in the primary sources.

Endnotes serve to provide the sources for the ideas that Shoham-Steiner mentions in the main text, as well to help define for the reader some of the more unfamiliar concepts that he mentions. These endnotes are also full of historical tidbits and insights that are only tangentially related to the matters discussed in the body text. Professor Shoham-Steiner also supplies the reader with eleven appendices that are basically English translations of the Hebrew primary sources that he uses for his case study.

Throughout this book, the author shows intimate familiarity with the literary output of such great Ashkenazic luminaries as Rabbeinu Gershom Meor HaGolah (960–1040), Rabbi Yehuda HaChassid (1150–1217), Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (1215–1293), and Rabbi Yitzchak Or Zarua (1200–1270). He is also at home with the scholarly works of such historians as the early Modern scholar Jacob Katz (1904–1998), the Medievalist Avraham Grossman (b. 1936), and the Talmudist Simcha Emanuel (b. 1957). The author brings all of these sources together in his lively discussions by combining scholarly sophistication with an easy-to-read and highly-engaging writing style. This book truly gives us a taste of how the Ashkenazic community of the Middle Ages approached crime, along with all the possible legal, socio-economical, and religious rationales for their attitudes.

June 2021 Jewish Book Carnival


The Rachack Revew is proud to serve as the June 2021 host for the Jewish Book Carnival, “a monthly event where bloggers who blog about Jewish books can meet, read, and comment on each others’ posts.” The posts are hosted on a participant’s site on the 15th of each month.

Without further ado, here's my round-up of some new book reviews and other book-related blog posts over the past few weeks (sorted in no particular order):
  • In her monthly author interviews, Gila Green speaks to Barbara Stark-Nemon about her new work that deals with bilingualism, German roots, and the complexity in our writing that comes with age (Available on Amazon).
  • Ari Enkin reviews Rabbi Yehoshua Alt's new book that contains incredible insights and inspiring stories related to the weekly Parashah (Available on Amazon).
  • Gideon Katz offers a take on Micah Goodman's book that tries to mediate the Jews' relationship with Judaism (Available on Amazon).
  • Alan Jay Gerber takes a look at Rabbi Alexander Hool's book that explores the location of Mount Sinai (Available on Amazon).
  • As you might know, Erika Dreifus regularly presents a curated list of links from the world of Jewish books and writing.
  • Harry Freedman offers a book review that focuses on what we can learn from the famous British heretic Rabbi Louis Jacobs (Available on Amazon).
  • Mirta Ines Trupp was interviewed on about her new book Celestial Persuasion (Available for free on Amazon).
  • Emmanuel Navon writes about  Moshe Koppel's book Judaism Straight Up and what it teaches us about the Jews' place in the culture wars (Available on Amazon).
  • Here's another blog post about a not-so-newly-published memoir about growing up white in segregated South Africa (Available on Amazon). 
  • Over at the Rachack Review, we offered a review of Rabbi Yehuda Spitz's book about food in Halacha (Available on Amazon).
  • Ben Rothke give us a glance of Kodesh Press' new English translation of Ibn Ezra's Yesod Morah that combines  Hebrew grammar and Medieval philosophy to reveal the deeper meaning of the Bible (Available on Amazon).
  • Adam Eli appears on The Book of Life Podcast to talk about his young adult book The New Queer Conscience. Available on Amazon. (TRIGGER WARNING: Discretion is advised.)
  • Lastly, Deborah Kalb has a conversation with Judith Pransky about her new historical novel for young adults, The Seventh Handmaiden (Available on Amazon).
That's all folks!!