RABBI YISROEL MEIR HACOHEN KAGAN (1838 - 1933)
Rabbi Yisroel Meir Hacohen Kagan was perhaps the greatest Jewish figure and one of the most influential Rabbis in modern Jewish history. He is known popularly as the Chofetz Chaim, after his classic work on guarding one's tongue which he published in 1873 when he was 35. He was recognized as both an outstanding scholar and an extraordinarily righteous man. His impact on Judaism was phenomenal.
The Chofetz Chaim was born in Dzyatlava 1838 and passed away in Radin 1933. His many works continue to be widely influential in Jewish life worldwide. When he was ten years old, his father died. His mother moved the family to Vilnius in order to continue her son's education. His mother later remarried and moved to Radin. When Yisroel Meir was 17, he married the daughter of his stepfather, and settled in Radin.
The Chofetz Chaim was a modest and humble man. He served as the town rabbi of Radin for a short period. His distaste of the pulpit rabbinate led him to resign from this position. For a while he had a shop selling household provisions, which his wife managed while he supervised the absolute accuracy of the weights and measures, the quality of the merchandise, and the fairness of the prices, to make certain that no one was deceived or overcharged in any way. He spent his days learning Torah and disseminating his knowledge to the common people. He later turned to teaching in order to support himself and his family. From 1864 to 1869 he taught Talmud in Minsk and Washilishok. In 1869, he organized a Yeshiva in Radin. The Yeshiva was a success and grew to world famous prominence. It later became known as "Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim of Radin."
In addition to spreading Torah through his yeshiva, the Chofetz Chaim was very active in Jewish causes. He traveled extensively to encourage the keeping of the Mitzvos amongst Jews, totally disregarding his . He became one of the most influential rabbis within Orthodox Judaism during the late 19th and early 20th century, taking a central leadership role in the World Agudath Israel movement in Eastern Europe.
The Chofetz Chaim authored dozens of Seforim, all which have been printed and disseminated by the tens of thousands. Most widely acclaimed is his Mishna Berurah, a six volume comprehensive commentary on Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim which has become the final arbiter in Halacha. His first book, (published in 1873), deals with the Biblical laws of gossip and slander and which in recent decades has gained worldwide popularity.
The Chofetz Chaim was a tremendous supporter of the Jewish community in Israel and a dear friend and admirer of Rabbi Shmuel Salant, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. The Chofetz Chaim wielded tremendous influence, particularly in Europe and he used that authority to assist Rabbi Salant in maintaining the viability of Jewish settlement in Israel and its funding via the Rabbi Meir Baal Haneis Salant charity fund.
The Chofetz Chaim passed away in 1933 at the age of 95. He was mourned by the entire Jewish world. Even the gentile world had held him in the greatest esteem. The New York Times of September 16, 1933 wrote a lengthy obituary lauding this legendary leader of world Jewry. Times magazine in its September 25, 1933 issue also published a brief but notable obituary as quoted here:
"Died. Rabbi Yisroel Meier HaCohen, The Chofetz Chaim, the uncrowned spiritual "King of Israel". Talmudic scholar, venerated by the world's orthodox Jewry as one of 36 saints whose piety dissuades the Lord from destroying the world; in Radin, near Wilno, Poland. Thousands of pilgrims sought his blessing in Radin where he founded a yeshiva (Talmudic school). He was the "Chofetz Chaim" (Desiring Life) by virtue of his book of that name listing the forms of slander from which a pious Jew must refrain. A onetime storekeeper, he humbly closed his shop when his popularity diminished the trade of other storekeepers, lived the rest of his life in poverty."
May the memory of the Chofetz Chaim be a blessing to all of Israel.