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מי האיש החפץ חיים

Today, 24 Elul, is the 75th yahrtzeit of R' Yisroel Meir haCohen Kagan, known as "the Chofetz Chaim".


The Chofetz Chaim did not hold an official position, except for a very brief stint as pulpit Rabbi in his very small town, yet he arguably had a greater impact on the religious Jewish world than any leader of the past two hundred years.

R' Yisroel Meir was born in Zhetl, a small town in Lithuania (now Belarus). He was taught at home by his parents until he was 10 years old, when his father passed away. His mother then moved to Vilna where he continued his studies. When he was 17, he married his step-father's daughter from a previous marriage, and he and his wife moved to the tiny village of Radin (or Radun) Poland, where she ran a small grocery store, and he did the bookkeeping - mostly making sure that none of the customers was cheated in any way.

The Chofetz Chaim's scrupulous honesty and integrity were legendary. Once, a visitor saw a letter he intended to send to another town, and offered to deliver it for him since he was traveling to that town anyway. The Chofetz Chaim agreed, but then took a postage stamp, and tore it up - so as not to "cheat" the government out of the postage he had intended to use for this letter's delivery. In the store, he would constantly review the books to make sure that no customers were cheated in any way. Once, he found that one of the foods sold was not as fresh as it could have been. Not knowing which customer had bought that particular item, he went through the day's ledger, and went to each person who had been to the store that day, to return the money for the inferior goods. Naturally, people started to patronize their store exclusively. In order not to infringe on the livelihoods of others with stores in neighboring towns, he severly cut back the hours that the store was open. Eventually they closed the store entirely.

The Chofetz Chaim turned to teaching to support his family. He travelled to Minsk and then to Vashilyshok where there were larger Jewish communities with a need for teachers. After 5 years, in 1869, he returned to Radin, where he opened a Yeshiva in his house. As word spread of his exceptional piety and scholarship, many people flocked to the Yeshiva, and it grew to become one of the most renowned Yeshivos in the Jewish world.

The Chofetz Chaim wrote more than 20 seforim (Jewish books), each one addressing what he saw as a need or lack among the Jewish people. His first sefer was called Chofetz Chaim, and was about the laws of proper speech. The name was derived from the verse in Tehillim (34:13-14):

מי האיש החפץ חיים אוהב ימים לראות טוב
נצור לשונך מרע ושפתיך מדבר מרמה

Who is the man who desires life, who loves days to see good?
Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceitfully.

This sefer, and a companion book, called Shemiras Halashon (Guarding the Tongue), are still popular today, and are studied by individuals and groups all over the world.

Based on his experience running a store, he wrote a sefer on weights and measures, and dealing honestly in business.

The plight of the Cantonists very much concerned him. He wrote a sefer called Machane Yisrael, detaining the laws of what a Jewish soldier in a foreign army may or may not do - how to triage when faced with the halachic conflicts that arise in such situations.

He wrote Ahavas Chesed (Love of Kindness) on the laws of giving charity properly.

His most monumental work was the Mishna Berura, a commentary on the Orchos Chaim section of Shulchan Orech - the laws of day-to-day life of a Jew. Here, he provided clear explanations of the laws, and summarized the opinions of the commentators that came before. This work is used as the halachic reference, and there are also organized daily programs of study to complete learning all of the six volumes in 5 years at the rate of one page per day. (Personally, I have a weekly seder in MB that has been ongoing for 5+ years, and we are currently halfway through the third volume.)

Another of his seforim, Tzipisa LeYeshuah, describes the importance of actively awaiting Moshiach every day and doing everything in our power (learning Torah and doing mitzvos) to bring the redemption. He advocated the study of the laws of Kodshim, dealing with the Korbonos (Temple service), since he anticipated the imminent arrival of Moshiach. As a Kohein, he was careful to always keep himself in a state of purity, as illustrated by this story, told by one of his talmidim:
"I noticed that whenever the Chofetz Chaim saw a fly or some other pest that he wanted to chase away he would hold the corner of his tallis or his handkerchief, but he would never use his bare hands. Also he never touched his face with his hands.

"For many years I could not understand the reason for this; the face is considered a naturally-exposed area of the body which one may see and touch. Recently, after having read the stories written by his son, HaGaon HaRav Leib zt'l I finally understood. Rav Leib told about the time that the Chofetz Chaim fled with the yeshiva and his family from Poland to Russia. It came time to daven Mincha and they entered a shul. `Before davening,' Reb Leib said, `I washed my hands as prescribed by the Shulchan Oruch but I noticed that my father began davening right away. Afterward I asked my father about this and he answered, "I guard my hands at all times!" '

"Now the reasons for the Chofetz Chaim's holy actions finally became clear to me," Rav Farber says. "The Chofetz Chaim was simply cautious that his hands remain tohor at all times and therefore he did not touch anything. Just as he guarded his tongue [from evil speech] he guarded his hands! Therefore, when he had to chase away a fly he would use something to cover his hands.

"From this we can gain an inkling of how the Chofetz Chaim became what he was; just as he guarded his hands he guards his eyes, his tongue-- everything!"


He was exceedingly humble, and dressed as a common worker, rather than as a Rosh Yeshiva. He fled from honor, but as the Talmudic dictum (Eruvin 13b) states, "one who flees from greatness, greatness pursues him". In his later years he was recognized even by secular Jews and non-Jews as a saintly, righteous man. This is illustrated by the story of his appearance at the first Knessia - assembly of would become Agudas Yisrael as described by the
.. dispatch filed by H. Mauskopf in the September 23, 1923 edition of the New York Forward, a Yiddish daily noted for its socialist policies and its rabid anti-religious attitudes. :

The Sokolover Rebbe, who is in the midst of speaking, is suddenly silent, his hand remaining outstretched as though frozen. The audience, the presidium, the journalists, and the guests in the galleries all stand up. Rabbis, tzaddikim, and religious Jews arise from their places. There is a silent, restrained movement, a rustle of awe and respect, stern outcries are heard from the ushers - Make room! Make an aisle! The crowd makes way. People push atop one another, with bated breath, with a shudder in their hearts. They step back momentarily and form two rows of people in the center of the hall: two rows of rabbinical delegates in shining satin coats with long white beards and, between the two rows, several rabbis escort - why do 1 say escort?- they virtually carry a tiny, frail, old man; a venerable, hunched little man with a small white beard and a simple, poor black coat, a plain black scarf around his neck ...

When you first see the little ninety-year old man, he makes a strange impression on you - you feel a shudder of awe and love, an enormous respect and regard which is boundless. When you look more closely, you see the face of an angel, of a servant of G-d. The Divine Presence rests on that face and you must close your eyes because of the brilliance that shines from the small, gray, wise eyes. When he stands at the rostrum and speaks, two rabbis flank him and support him by the arms. The entire assemblage listens standing. His voice is weak, but clear. He calls Jews to unity, to peace, to goodness, to piety, to love, and to action. His small, bent frame shakes as he speaks. His small white beard glows from the distance like freshly fallen snow. From the eyes, glows an entire world of wisdom and goodness ...

This is how I imagine Hillel the Elder must have appeared.



Here are a few stories about him I have found on the web to further illustrate his great humility, piety, and love of fellow man:

On materialism:
There is a famous story of a wealthy businessman who was passing through Radin and took advantage of the opportunity to visit the Chofetz Chaim. He was astounded by the lack of furniture in the Chofetz Chaim's home. Unable to contain himself, he asked, "Where is your furniture?" The Chofetz Chaim responded by asking him where was his furniture. The man, a bit surprised by the question, explained that he was only passing through. The Chofetz Chaim smiled and explained that in this world, he too, was only passing through.


Avrumke the wagon driver:
`Once I was driving the Chofetz Chaim to the train station, and I saw an orchard on the side of the road. One of the trees' branches, laden with apples, extended over the road. Nu, so I stepped down from the wagon and went to take some apples, when all of a sudden I heard a shout from behind me, "They're watching! They're watching!"

"`Needless to say I hurriedly jumped back on the wagon and drove away as quickly as I could. I could get in deep trouble for taking those apples. As I drove away I looked all around, but there was not a living soul in sight! I turned to the Chofetz Chaim and said, "Rebbe, what did you mean, they're watching? There's no one around!" "Ahh," answered the Chofetz Chaim, "of course they're watching, they're watching from Above!"'


Kiruv Rechokim:
On a visit to Vilna, the Chofetz Chaim arrived at an inn to spend the night. As he entered the dining room, he noticed a boorish-looking fellow being served a large portion of meat and a drink. The Chofetz Chaim looked on in dismay as the man devoured the meat in a few bites, gulped down his drink, and then addressed the waiter in an unbecoming way as he asked for more food.

The Chofetz Chaim rose from his seat and was about to make his way to the fellow's table, when the innkeeper stopped him. "Rabbi," said the man, "this boor is a lost Jewish soul, a Cantonist. He was taken from his home by force at age seven and worked on a Siberian farm until age 18. Then he spent 25 years in the Czar's army. Is it any wonder that he is nothing but an ignorant, uncivilized boor to whom life means nothing but eating and drinking? Please, do not attempt to correct his behavior. I fear that he may become angry and could even respond by striking you."

"So that is his story!" exclaimed the Chofetz Chaim. "Do not worry, I am hopeful that I will speak to him in a way that will not upset him."

The Chofetz Chaim approached the man, extended his hand in greeting and said, "Is what I hear true, that you were snatched from your home at age seven, grew up among gentiles and never had the opportunity to study a word of Torah? You have suffered Gehinnom on this world! I am sure that the wicked people who persecuted you, forced you to eat non-kosher foods and transgress other mitzvot as well. Yet you remained a Jew and did not let the Czar achieve his goal of convincing you to convert. Praiseworthy are you! For 30 years, you bore suffering at the hands of your oppressors, and here you are, a Jew who clings to his faith in the Almighty. What a source of merit you have earned for yourself!"

The Chofetz Chaim's sincere words, spoken from a mouth that was holy and pure, touched the Cantonist to the depths of his soul. Tears flowed from his eyes and he embraced the Chofetz Chaim. The Chofetz Chaim then spoke to the man about returning to the path of Torah, the path which his parents had been prevented from teaching him. Under the Chofetz Chaim's guidance, he became a complete returnee to Judaism.


True chessed:
There was one man who used to drive to the local yeshiva every friday and offer the bochurim (students) rides to and from town, so that they could do their errands. Friday afternoon is usually the only free time yeshiva bochurim have to do their shopping, laundry etc. He showed up every week rain or shine (or snow) and basically offered a free taxi service. He made as many trips back and forth as was necessary and was always most happy to do so. A young man once asked him what motivated him to do this. He told him the following: When I was a young man, I was a bochur (student) at the Yeshiva of the Chofetz Chaim in Radin. I was not a very good student, in fact I was a troublemaker. The Rabbis decided that because I was a bad influence, I had to be expelled immediately from the yeshiva and sent home. There was no train till the next day but the Chofetz Chaim did not want my bad influence in the yeshiva one moment longer so he had me sleep that night in his home. It was a freezing Russian winter night and I could not fall asleep because of the cold. From my bed, I could spy the Chofetz Chaim pacing back and forth, studying Torah deep into the night. He was wearing a heavy winter coat as there was no heat in the house. Suddenly the Chofetz Chaim came to my bedside to check on me. I pretended to be asleep. He looked at me for a moment, then took off his coat and covered me with it. He obviously realized how cold I was. With that extra warm "blanket" to curb my shivering, I was soon fast asleep. What a decent compassionate man he was. That made such an impression on me that I decided then and there that, even though I wasn't cut out to be one, I always wanted to help yeshiva people. I still remember that kindness like it was yesterday and it still warms me, even in a cold day. That is why I do what I do.


His love and compassion for all human beings:
During the 1920's, a rabbi who had returned from a trip to the Jewish community of South Africa came to visit the Chofetz Chaim. The Chofetz Chaim asked him, "What is the situation of the Blacks in South Africa?" The rabbi, who was aware of the Chofetz Chaim's deep involvement with the serious problems of the Jewish people, asked the elderly sage, "Why is the Rebbe so concerned about the Blacks in South Africa?" To which the Chofetz Chaim responded, "First, they are also people. Secondly, it says that eventually the entire world will be filled with the knowledge of Hashem, which includes everyone, so shouldn't I be concerned with their welfare?"


There are many, many more such stories. If you don't believe every detail, that's ok, but I bring the argument of the lawyer in this story:
.. one of the students from the Chofetz Chaim's yeshivah in Radin, was accused of spying for Germany, and he was put on trial in Russia. His gentile lawyer asked the Chofetz Chaim to testify as a character witness for his client. The Chofetz Chaim agreed and traveled to the city of witbask, where the trial was taking place.

After the Chofetz Chaim's testimony, the lawyer wished to demonstrate his witness' great piety to the judge, and so he told the following story:

"Once, when the Chofetz Chaim was in Warsaw, he was approached by a man with a five ruble note in his hands, who claimed that he owed the Chofetz Chaim a ruble for a book he had once bought from him. The Chofetz Chaim refused the money, saying that he did not remember such a debt, and it would be better to approach his accountant, who might have a record of the debt. After receiving this reply, the man changed his tune, this time claiming that he wanted to give a ruble as a donation. The Chofetz Chaim said he did not accept presents, but if he so wished, he could donate the money to the yeshivah in Radin.

The person agreed to do that, but when the Chofetz Chaim took out his wallet to give him change, he grabbed the wallet and ran away. The Chofetz Chaim began to run after him, shouting to him as he ran away that he could have the money and that he forgave him completely. Furthermore, he would not allow anyone to chase the thief.

The judge interrupted the lawyer saying, "My dear advocate, do you really believe that story?"

"No, I don't, your Honor, I think it is a fable," answered the lawyer.

The judge asked, "If that is the case, why did you bring it as proof in your argument?" The lawyer answered, "Excuse me, your Honor, but can you explain to me why there are not such stories going around about you or me? Don't you think that the creation of such stories about a person testifies to his greatness?"


May these stories serve as inspiration for us.

(Obituary in New York Times.)

Posted by joem on Sep 24, 2008 12:00 pm

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