Rabbi Yechiel Michael Halevi Epstein • “The Author of Aruch HaShulchan”
Our Sages have said, “A man has three names: One given to him by his father and mother, one given to him by his friends, and one that he acquires himself” (Ecclesiastes Rabba 7:1). The best is the one that he acquires himself.
The Rav of Novardok, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, was one of the few men in the last century to have had the merit of not being called by a name that others gave him, but rather by that of his own work. He was known the world over by the name of his book, Aruch HaShulchan.
Who was this Rav on whom the Divine Presence rested to clarify Halachah in all realms of Torah, and what were the spiritual characteristics that enabled him to merit such an enduring reputation?
The son of Rabbi Aaron Yitzchak, a businessman in the town of Brisk, Rabbi Yechiel Michael Epstein was born on Shevat 20, 5589 (1829). From childhood he demonstrated exceptional talents. He was imbued with a pleasing disposition, and he diligently studied Torah day and night.
The prosperous Rabbi Yaakov Berlin (the father of the Netziv of Volozhin) heard people speaking highly of him, and so he took him as his son-in-law. Rabbi Yechiel Michael continued to study Torah selflessly after his marriage, and since he did not want to use the Torah for personal ends, he never imagined that he would become a Rav. He wanted to become a businessman like his father, who had fixed times for Torah study.
In fact people say that several years after his marriage, he opened a textile business that his wife ran as he studied Torah. Since the business was in his name, each time that a government official came to inspect his shop, Rabbi Yechiel Michael had to be present. One day, some people saw him walking in the street looking around. When they asked him what he was searching for, he candidly replied, “I’m looking for my store.” Naturally, this type of “businessman” did not succeed in his ventures, and after a given time he lost all his money. Rabbi Yechiel Michael then said, “It’s certain that Heaven wants me to become a Rav,” and so he became one.
His first position was in the little town of Novyzikov. Even though it was a chassidic town, inhabited mostly by Chabad chassidim, and to a lesser degree by Chernobyl chassidim, they chose this young Lithuanian to be the Rav of their community because he symbolized refinement, and his dealings with people were cordial and warmhearted. It was in this small town that he published his book Ohr L’Israel on Rabbeinu Tam’s Sefer Hayashar.
From there he was appointed as the Rav of Novardok, where he remained until he passed away 34 years later.
Even though Rabbi Yechiel Michael was not from a family of Rabbis, nor did he receive an education as a Rav, he nevertheless still served as an example to others on how to be a Rav. He was firm and strong in his convictions, and he feared nothing and no one.
People say that during his first days in Novardok, he decreed that Shabbat be welcomed well in advance. The elders of the city and its scholars, however, absolutely refused to give their consent to a new custom from a new Rav.
On Friday the Rav came to the Beit Midrash to pray, but he found it completely empty. What did he do? He assembled a minyan of adolescents, welcomed Shabbat, prayed the evening prayer, and then went home. Outside he saw the town’s residents still making preparations for Shabbat. He shouted to them, “Good Shabbos!” and they replied with a little annoyance. When he arrived home he recited Kiddush on the wine and began to eat the Shabbat meal. At the same time, the community members gathered in the Beit Midrash to pray Mincha followed by Kabbalat Shabbat.
On the following Friday, the Rav once again arrived at the Beit Midrash and found it empty. He then prayed with the boys, but at the end of the prayer service he did not leave the building. He remained standing before the Ark, without letting anyone by. “Here,” the Rav said forcefully, “I am the head of the house, and communal prayer has already ended. Whoever is late must pray by himself. In the end, the Rav was victorious in his community. He said, “In welcoming Shabbat early, I am sure that the last water drawer will have time to bring his horse and wagon into the shed before sunset.”
Yet even though he was firm in his decisions and conduct as a Rav, he could bend like a reed when it came to taking Halachic decisions, and he put all his expertise into being lenient rather than into being strict.
One story has it that a woman came to him on Passover before the Seder, asking a question concerning a mixture of food. It was a serious question that, at first glace, he would have to rule prohibitively on by declaring the utensils in question treif. He looked at the woman, however, and saw that she was poor. Rabbi Yechiel Michael then went into his library and began to search in his books, into the responsa of ancient and recent Poskim to see if he could find a lenient opinion. Meanwhile his family awaited him. Several hours passed and the Rav had still not emerged from his room. His grandson entered as said to him, “Until when, grandfather? If there’s no way to permit them, then you have to declare them treif.”
“What did you say, my son?” the Rav replied. “How can I allow myself to sit at the table, to participate in the Seder, and to rejoice while this poor woman will be plunged into misery and not have a desire for the holiday?” He continued to leaf through his books, until after a long time he emerged with a smile on his face and told the woman that everything was kosher. He then returned to the table with his family and rejoiced in the holiday.
In his old age Rabbi Yechiel Michael used to say, “The old have less fear of G-d than the young, for they no longer have the strength to fight the evil inclination. Through weakness, a man leaves that which concerns him unchanged.” (The same remark is also attributed to Rabbi Israel Salanter). He passed away advanced in years, aged 80, on Adar 22, 5668 (1908).
Other than his book on Sefer Hayashar by Rabbeinu Tam, Rabbi Yechiel Michael wrote Aruch HaShulchan on the four parts of the Shulchan Aruch, and also on all the mitzvot related to Eretz Israel (the Aruch HaShulchan HeAtid). Rabbi Yechiel Michael merited that his Aruch HaShulchan be considered, during his lifetime, as a Halachic authority for Rabbis and Poskim.