One of my favorite footnotes in Haym Soloveitchik’s seminal article Rupture and Reconstruction is n. 6. First, the text on which the footnote is commenting:
This dual tradition of the intellectual and the mimetic, law as taught and law as practiced, which stretched back for centuries, begins to break down in the twilight years of the author of the Arukh ha-Shulhan, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. The change is strikingly attested to in the famous code of the next generation, the Mishnah Berurah.(6) This influential work reflects no such reflexive justification of established religious practice, which is not to say that it condemns received practice. Its author, the Hafetz Hayyim, was hardly a revolutionary. His instincts were conservative and strongly inclined him toward some post facto justification. The difference between his posture and that of his predecessor, the author of the Arukh ha-Shulhan, is that he surveys the entire literature and then shows that the practice is plausibly justifiable in terms of that literature. His interpretations, while not necessarily persuasive, always stay within the bounds of the reasonable. And the legal coordinates upon which the Mishnah Berurah plots the issue are the written literature and the written literature alone.7 With sufficient erudition and inclination, received practice can almost invariably be charted on these axes, but it is no longer inherently valid. It can stand on its own no more.
Now the footnote:
Israel Meir ha-Kohen, Mishnah Berurah. This six volume work, which has been photo-offset innumerable times, was initially published over the span of eleven years, 1896-1907, and appears contemporaneous with the Arukh ha-Shulhan. Bibliographically, this is correct; culturally, nothing could be farther from the truth. Though born only nine years apart, their temperaments and life experiences were such that they belong to different ages. The Arukh ha-Shulhan stands firmly in a traditional society, un-assaulted and undisturbed by secular movements, in which rabbinic Judaism still “moved easy in harness,” R. Israel Meir Ha-Kohen, better known as the Hafetz Hayyim, stood, throughout his long life (1838- 1933), in the forefront of the battle against Enlightenment and the growing forces of Socialism and Zionism in Eastern Europe. His response to the growing impact of modernity was not only general and attitudinal, as noted here and below, n. 20 sec. c, but also specific and substantive. When asked to rule on the permissibility of Torah instruction for women, he replied that, in the past, the traditional home had provided women with the requisite religious background; now, however, the home had lost its capacity for effective transmission, and text instruction was not only permissible, but necessary. What is remarkable is not that he perceived the erosion of the mimetic society, most observers by that time (1917-1918) did, but rather that he sensed at this early a date, the necessity of a textual substitute. (Likkutei Halakhot, Sotah 2 la [Pieterkow, 1918].) The remarks of the Hafetz Hayyim should be contrasted with the traditional stand both taken and described by the Arukh ha-Shulhan, Yoreh De’ah 246:19. One might take this as further evidence of the difference between these two halakhists set forth in the text and documented in n. 7. One should note, however, that this passage was written at a much later date than the Mishnah Berurah, at the close of World War I, when traditional Jewish society was clearly undergoing massive shock. (For simplicity’s sake, I described the Mishnah Berurah in the text as a “code,” as, in effect, it is. Strictly speaking, it is, of course, is a commentary to a code.)
These comments of Soloveitchik are discussed by Mark Washofsky in his insightful review of Simcha Fishbane’s book in English on the Arukh Hashulhan, The Boldness of a Halakhist: An Analysis of the Writings of Rabbi Yechiel Mechel Halevi Epstein’s “The Arukh Hashulhan”. In this review Washofsky addresses many of the issues relating to the questions raised by Soltoveitchik and the differences between the Mishnah Berurah and the Arukh Shulhan.
I always thought that a great question to ask someone who interested in modern halakhah is “Are you are a Mishnah Berurah or Arukh Hashulhan person?” The continued dialogue between these two schools of halakhah has reached new heights with the publication of an edition of Arukh Hashulhan that includes references to the Mishnah Berurah. Also see this post at the Seforim blog about this edition of the Arukh Hashulhan.
Probably the most important person writing today about the Arukh Hashulhan and its author is Eitan Henkin. We are lucky that Eitam has posted his articles online, allowing us to benefit from his scholarship. Henkin wrote a book review the above mentioned edition of the Arukh Hashulhan in which he addresses the relationship between these two works. Another important article that he has recently published is a discussion of the writing and publication of the Arukh Hashulhan. It is filled with lots of information including a reference to this advertisement from Hatzefirah (9 Kislev 5646, p. 354) for the Arukh Hashulhan soon after it was published.
Here’s the article.
Henkin’s other articles on Arukh Hashulhan can be found here.