Sunday 22 April 2018


Mishna Berurah by R. Yisrael Meir haCohen of Radin, also known as the Chafetz Chaim (1838-1933).


R. Yisrael Meir (haCohen)  Kagan of Radin (1838-1933) also known as the Chafetz Chaim, wrote a commentary on the Orach Chaim (daily conduct) section of the Shulchan Aruch of R. Yosef Karo. He called his commentary the ‘Mishna Berura’.

Since then, the Mishna Berura has been hailed, in many circles, as the ‘final word’ on Halachic practices for the modern era.


Professor Benjamin Brown, in his post-doctoral studies at Harvard University, has done extensive research into the Mishna Berura, and I have drawn from much of his vast knowledge on the subject[1]:

While the Mishna Berura is often regarded as one of the stricter of the more recent Halachic works, he points out that this characterization may not be not entirely correct.

The Mishna Berurah generally gives various interpretations of a law, often progressing from relatively lenient to stricter readings of a ruling. Although it is true that the Mishna Berura does frequently say that the ‘stricter ruling is preferable’, it is important to note that the student is not necessarily expected to always follow the stricter ruling.


Professor Brown coined the phrase ‘soft stringency’ to emphasize that the author was only encouraging the student to follow the stricter approach but was not prescribing it. He also calls it the ‘democratization of Halacha’ because the student is free to choose where in the spectrum between extreme stringency and moderate leniency he wants to place himself.


His research analysed and compared the number of times the Mishna Berura used expressions of encouragement towards ‘soft stringency’ as opposed to the number of times the other codifiers used similar expressions (all within the same Orach Chaim section):

Table showing how frequently the different codifiers used expressions encouraging stringencies.

As can be seen from the Table, the use of expressions such as ‘it is appropriate to adopt the stringent opinion’ is far greater in the Mishna Berura than in any of the earlier Halachic codifiers. He uses these expressions up to 21 times more frequently than the other writers.

While on the surface, this may seem to imply that the Chafetz Chaim was, therefore, stricter than all his predecessors - however, on a deeper level it shows how open he was for the individual to choose his position from within the ‘leniency-stringency spectrum’.


Thus, the rather unique pedagogical style of the Mishna Berura was to enumerate the views of the main Halachic authorities from the most lenient to the strictest – and then to suggest the student follow the stricter view. However, because the ruling was not conclusively decided, it is clear that the student was still free to ‘choose’ another ruling more appropriate to his circumstances and personality if he so wished and he would not be considered to have broken the law.

Professor Brown writes that the Mishna Berura: “...actually offers the reader an array of conduct options from which he may pick the one that seems right for him. 

This choice is not altogether free, since the Hafetz Hayim shows a clear indication to one side of the spectrum - the stringent – and encourages the reader to follow it, but still, the soft language of the ruling suggests that if one follows the other side of the spectrum, the lenient, he will not sin, since there are trustworthy authorities that may back his choice...

It breaks the normal dichotomy’t do, and establishes a norm of desirable behaviour – ‘one should do...’ The that there are preferred behaviours that are not complete duties and therefore cannot be imposed on an entire community...Those who do not aspire to this level or cannot achieve it can opt to reject the soft stringency. 

Thus the soft stringency...ironically often creates an opening for leniency.


The abovementioned thesis is actually supported by the Mishna Berura’s son, R. Arye Leib, who wrote:

Many good people might think that my father of blessed memory ruled stringently in every matter in order to comply with all opinions...In reality, this was not the case. My father was stringent only for himself, but for others he was not stringent. He thoroughly researched every law, brought a variety of opinions...all in order to be lenient.”[2]

This makes the Mishna Berura rather unique compared to the other codes because instead of focusing on arriving at a definitive conclusion, it was often prepared to give the student some degree of autonomy.


While the earlier codifiers were generally writing their law for judges and scholars, the Mishna Berura was a bold attempt to present Halacha to the student. This is borne out by the Introduction to the Mishna Berura which clearly states that this work was written for “a common Jew who needs to know a particular law...”.  

Compare that, by way of contradistinction, to R. Yosef Karo who wrote in his Introduction to his Beit Yosef that “the value of the work for scholars is clear.[3]

In fact, the Mishna Berura’s son, R. Arye Leib wrote: “The Orach Chaim section of the Shulchan Aruch is not addressed to the legal authorities...this section of the Shulchan Aruch belongs to the common people.”[4]

It must be pointed out the Mishna Berura was not side-stepping the scholars who obviously would always have to be consulted in difficult cases.


Although scholars would obviously have to be consulted in difficult cases, the Chafetz Chaim was, nevertheless, very in tune with the common people and the realities of his day. He wrote other works also specifically aimed at ordinary Jews who found themselves in changing circumstances. These included Machanei Yisrael for Jews who found themselves drafted into the Russian army – and Nidachei Yisrael for Jews who were emigrating to America. 

Originally, he did not want to publish the latter book in Europe because “the leniencies that we permit for the wanderers are not appropriate for those who dwell in the security of their locations (in Europe).”[5]

All the above indicates quite strongly that the Mishna Berura was conscious of the need for leniencies in various circumstances and that he did not intend a ‘one size fits all’ approach towards Halacha.


It is important to note, however, that this is not the way much of the Chareidi or ultra-Orthodox community view the Mishna Berura

(Note: Reference to Chareidim is here intended to refer to the more extreme adherents of the movement.)

Most people are unaware that today, the Chareidim represent the largest segment of the religious population and are growing rapidly. Recently, for the first time, the numbers of ultra-Orthodox have exceeded the numbers of the more centrist Orthodox community. Those familiar with this community will know that they clearly lean to the side of stringencies in all areas of Jewish law.

The irony, though, is that as a general rule, they claim their adherence to stringencies as a direct result of the influence from the Mishna Berura.

Anecdotally, some months ago I was giving a Halacha class to my congregants and was using, as a source text, the Peninei Halacha of R. Eliezer Melamed. A young (as it happens moderately) Chareidi teenager, who was visiting from abroad, got up, walked to the bookshelf and took out a Mishna Berura and dramatically placed it in front of me in the middle of the shiur and informed me, in no uncertain terms, that: “This is the only proper Halacha!

Incidentally, a common Chareidi response for not celebrating Israel’s Independence Day is that they follow the Mishna Berura (d. 1933!) and he did not mandate its commemoration!


The Chareidi movement, relies heavily on the notion of Da’at Torah: - where the autonomy of the individual and his thinking have no inherent value in and of themselves; – where the Rebbe or Gadol makes decisions on all areas of life even and sometimes particularly outside of Torah matters such as relationships, finances, health matters and work (often prohibiting the latter). See Contemporary Daas Torah.

Within the more extreme segments of the Chareidi movement, there is absolutely no room for an individual to exercise his choice on Halachic matters - in the way the Mishna Berura appears to have intended it - particularly if they want to still be considered part of the group.

Professor Brown, who grew up in Bnei Brak, writes that the bookstores of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem are teeming with thick books expounding on the minutia of Halacha. Not just details but unprecedented details within details.

He writes: “While one might think that such works are designed to empower the individual to make decisions without posing halachic questions to rabbis, the books themselves prove the opposite. Almost every introduction to these works includes a conventional warning that one should never use the book to decide practical halachic questions by himself, but rather should ask a halachic authority about any question that arises.”

Obviously, difficult questions do need consultation but not every minutia does. In the more extreme ultra-Orthodox circles, the individual, who may sometimes even be a scholar, is rendered totally powerless.

How then can the same movement largely define itself as adhering to the ethos of the Chafetz Chaim and his Mishna Berura, who clearly empowered the student to choose from within an acceptable Halachic Spectrum?

The answer may be that the Chareidi movement has opted to re-interpret the writing style of the Mishna Berura - and that they read the phrase “it is best to follow the stricter opinion” as meaning that “there is only the stricter opinion”.

In other words, they have taken the gentle encouragement of the ‘soft stringency’ and turned it into an imperative and a ‘hard stringency’. In this way, the original multifacetedness of the Mishna Berura may have been lost by the very people who hold him up as one of their founding fathers.


One very fascinating point needs to be made:

Although the writer of the Mishna Berura enjoys almost universal acclaim as the ‘Posek Acharon’ or final decisor of Halacha for our generation – surprisingly, it appears that he did not author the entire work as we know it today!

According to the Kol Kitvei Chafetz Chaim haShalem[6] collated by the Chafetz Chaim’s son, R. Aryeh Leib, he writes that his father did not write the entire Mishna Berura. Instead, many sections of the book were written by his son!

He writes, for example, that most of Hilchot Shabbat was written by his father – implying that his father was particularly active regarding the section of Hilchot Shabbat but not necessarily regarding all the other sections of Mishna Berura. And R. Arye Leib clearly states that he wrote many of the other sections himself. 

To what extent is unknown, but it may have been quite considerable. This shows that the common perception that Mishna Berura was authored exclusively by the Chafetz Chaim is untrue.

Furthermore (in vol. 3 p. 43) R. Arye Leib points out what appears to be a contradiction between Chapter 318 and Chapter 328. He then explains that the explanation is simple: - Chapter 318 was written by his father while Chapter 328 was written by him.

This shows that father and son - even though they worked together - were not always in concert with each other regarding their Halachic positions. And that it is not always clear who exactly wrote what. This again undermines the notion that all of Mishna Berura was written by one man - the Chafetz Chaim - the Posek Acharon!


This fascinating biographical account of the sometimes conflicting dual authorship of Mishna Berura was pointed out by R. David Bar-Hayim who also recalls hearing from R. Benzion Wosner (son of R. Shmuel Wosner) who said in the name of his father that we cannot always rely on the perception that the Chafetz Chaim wrote everything recorded in the Mishna Berura. And that the difficulty is that we do not always know who wrote what!


If what we have said is correct: 

- If it is true that the Chafetz Chaim wrote a ‘peoples book’ in which he gave a degree autonomy to the students who would consult his Halachic texts;

– And if it is true that he never authored the entire work by himself; 

– And if it is true that many misread his text  only as a ‘strict’ text;

– Then would it not be refreshing to re-adjust our paradigm and study the Mishna Berura in the way he evidently intended it to be understood?

[1] See: ‘Soft Stringency in the Mishna Berura’: Jurisprudential, Social and Ideological Aspects of a Halachic Formulation, by Benjamin Brown.
[2] Kitzur Toldot Hayav, p.75.
[3] Introduction to Beit Yosef on the Tur.  (R. Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Aruch was later based on his earlier Beit Yosef commentary on the Tur.)
[4] Kitzur Toldot Hayav, p. 15.
[5] Kitzur Toldot hayav, p. 49.
[6] Volume 3, Michtavei heChafetz Chaim, p. 42,43.


  1. A breath of fresh air! Thanks very well written and food for thought.

  2. The title page of the MB says it is to spread the word of pesaqim that came out since the standardization of the page of SA, because the difficulting of obtaining copies of these sefarim has led them to be underutilized in teshuvos.

    I also failed to find what you quoted about “a common Jew who needs to know a particular law...” searching the text for "din" or for "halakh" (to find "halakhah" or "halakhos". Could you post the original Hebrew? Thanks.

    What I did find was where the MB says the point of the work is not halakhah lemaaseh, but that someone can understand the halakhah so that it sits well with him. That his work is a shortcut for people who lack the time to learn the halakhah following from the Tur to the BY to the SA.

    Simply put: I fail to see your thesis in that one section of this post.

    I characterized the MB as a survey of texts for people who didn't have access to the texts, and not intended to be final pesaqim. Which would explain all the examples floating around of things the CC himself did which were not according to the MB. Because halachic theory doesn't take into account which pesaqim his community actually adopted. (On that basis I wanted to differ with some of R/Dr Haym Soloveitchik's contrast between the AhS and the MB in "Rupture and Reconstruction". It's not that the MB was part of some textualist trend in pesaq; it's that his book was textualist halakhah velo lemaaseh. Or more accurately, fodder for a poseiq to make halakhah lemaaseh out of rather than actual pesaqim he expected people to follow on their own.)

    If you're curious, see "Textualism and the Mishnah Berurah".

  3. I read your excellent article with great interest and would encourage others to do so as well.

    You write:"To a ba’al mussar (although the CC was not an adherent of the movement), halakhah can be viewed as the required baseline of a mussar regimen. Mitzvos exist to hone oneself, but someone who is serious about this task would try to harness them consciously toward that end, would commit to other practices toward that goal, etc… So, we can view “ba’al nefesh yachmir” as mussar advice, but that doesn’t stand entirely separate from pesaq."

    This observation builds on the theme that the CC brought about what some refer to as a 'mussarization'of halacha. This also may explain his willingness to offer 'options'.

    You also say:

    "Some attribute these differences on the presence of other authors. However, as can be seen from the title page, the Chafeitz Chaim calls the commentary his own. And of all our sages, the Chafetz Chaim is the one we would least associate with robbing credit through careless or imprecise speech! Whatever contributions students made were both as per their rebbe’s teachings and approved by the CC before publication. The content must entirely have been his ideas, even if they were as explained by someone else. I could believe some things were overlooked, but it stretches credibility to think it happened often enough to create a pattern."

    I agree entirely with your point on 'imprecise speech'. But how does one reconcile that with the memoirs of his son, the acknowledgement that the two 'contradictions' were authored by father and son, and the (Wosner) corroboration that we don't always know who wrote what in MB?

    1. My notion was that "[w]hatever contributions students made were both as per their rebbe’s teachings and approved by the CC before publication." I do not question that some parts of the MB had another author, I question how big of a deal it makes. After all, if someone with the care in speach of the CC says the work is his, I cannot believe there was anything in it he didn't personally approve and agree with. At most I can believe something might have been missed in error ("I could believe some things were overlooked"). The disagreement with his position in siman 328 may well be one such example. But I cannot accept the notion that significant portions reflect anything but the CC's own positions; "it stretches credibility to think it happened often enough to create a pattern." A few flukes doesn't characterize a book.

      Either that, or you have to believe that the CC claimed ownership of a work he didn't edit or exercise veto power over all of. And that truly stretches credibility.

      In any case, my point was less that it was a strict or lenient text as much as it self-describes as a book of theory. To help the poseiq understand where halakhah has gone since the Shakh, Bach, Taz... and to help the layperson (who wouldn't have time to learn Tur-BY-SA) accept the poseiq's pesaqim.

      As a side note: I really enjoy learning AhS Yomi. Tur-BY-SA would be similar in experience. There is the dialectic nature of halakhah that one enjoys learning shas, something the MB has far less of. The MB gives more opinions, but not their logical interplay. And it's a different feel of reasoning than one gets from shas and yeshivish lomdus. (I would say "Brisker Lomdus" if my own experience weren't more R' Shimon's derekh.) Best of both worlds: the intellectual fun of lomdus and a guarantee of being a ben olam haba by reviewing halakhah daily.