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.