Translated by Eli Rubin
About the Author: Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin (1887–1978, pictured) was one of the most prominent scholars of Talmud and halachah in the 20th century. He founded the Encyclopedia Talmudit, a Hebrew encyclopedia of the Talmud, and served as its chief editor.
Rabbi Zevin was born to a chassidic family, and studied at the famed Mir Yeshivah. He received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Shmaryahu Noach Schneersohn of Bobroisk, a grandson of the Tzemach Tzedek of Lubavitch; from Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, author of Aruch ha-Shulchan; and from Rabbi Yosef Rosin, the famed Gaon (genius) of Rogatchov. He served as rabbi in several communities, and following the Communist revolution in Russia, he worked closely with Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch in the battle to keep Judaism alive. He was imprisoned by the Soviet authorities, and emigrated to the Holy Land in 1935. There Rabbi Zevin was widely recognised as a scholar of the very first rank, and in subsequent years he wrote prolifically on a wide array of scholarly topics. In 1942 he began work on the Encyclopedia Talmudit, and served as its editor-in-chief for the rest of his life.
This article first appeared in 1945 to mark the 200th anniversary of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s birth. Here it appears for the first time in English, to mark the 200th anniversary of his passing.
Rabbi Zevin often writes under the assumption that the reader is familiar with a wide range of intricate halachic topics. No change has been made to the actual content of the article. For the sake of clarity, however, the translator has taken various liberties, reorganizing and expanding cryptic passages, and in rare instances omitting tangential discussions of particular complexity.
The Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav is a work that has no equal for conciseness combined with clarity, and legislation combined with explanation.
Two pillars of halachic legislation that shaped entire eras in their own time, that continue to influence us—and never will cease to do so—are Rambam’s Mishneh Torah and Rabbi Yosef Caro’s Shulchan Aruch.
Spectacular organization, clean style, precise definitions, comprehensive scope, and the tremendous authority of their authors all combined to make these works the eternal acquisition of the halachic literary corpus—and of the entire Jewish people. Scholars and laymen alike study these works: the layman, in order to pave the way in which he walks and know how to conduct himself in accord with the established halachah; and the erudite scholar, in order to hang the crests of his halachic innovations upon these great pillars.
Hundreds of peripheral works were composed around both the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch. Some of these aim to provide the original sources behind their rulings, others explain and elucidate their words and reasons, and some find in the Rambam or the Shulchan Aruch a source to justify their own innovations and dissertations.
From the time it was first composed until today, the Shulchan Aruch has stood at the center of halachic legislation. Yet the book was never closed. In addition to the Shulchan Aruch’s many peripheral works, there have also been other self-contained works that have merited full recognition. They too follow in the footsteps of the Shulchan Aruch, yet not merely as attendant commentaries.
1895 edition of the Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav.
Especially notable as a prime legislative authority of this class is the Shulchan Aruch authored by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812), author of the Tanya, and the first rebbe of the Chabad school of Chassidism. It is generally known simply as Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav (“the Shulchan Aruch of the Rabbi”), testifying to the widespread recognition of its authority. Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s polished, extraordinarily lucid style placed this composition on a unique plateau. The Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav is a work that has no equal for conciseness combined with clarity, and legislation combined with explanation.
Yet the language and the clarity of explanation are not sufficient to grant a work eternal recognition. What goal did Rabbi Schneur Zalman set for himself in this work? In truth, it was not he who set the goal. Rabbi Schneur Zalman, executed the project that his own teacher, Rabbi DovBer “the Maggid” of Mezeritch, had charted for him. The following passage—which appears in the introduction to the Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, signed by Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s three sons—is illuminating:
Since the needs of the Jewish people are many, especially in these difficult times, with rising expenses and the encumbrance of earning a livelihood burdening each individual—with his soul he acquires bread—and they have little mind to engage in lengthy study of the sea of Talmudic and legislative sources, to know the source of the law and specifically rulings with their justification. Even great scholars who have ability and fame for their knowledge of the Talmud have difficulty arbitrating between the various legislative authorities when studying to derive a final ruling in agreement . . . for in most areas there are divided opinions . . .
Therefore, from heaven it was decided, via the aforementioned holy rabbi [Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezeritch], to search assiduously amongst his disciples to find an individual with the spirit of G‑d within him and the capacity to understand and to ordain clear legislation . . . to organize all the established laws that are recorded in the Shulchan Aruch and all the later authorities in concise language, with reasoned justification. He chose his honor, our holy master and father [Rabbi Schneur Zalman], and urged and persuaded him, saying, “There is no one with understanding and wisdom like you, able to descend to the depth of the halachah and do this work, a work of holiness, to bring to light the concise essence of the reasons for the rulings mentioned, including all the words of the earlier and later authorities, refined sevenfold, each matter in its correct place without confusion and muddle, arriving at the conclusive ruling that becomes clear and emerges from the words of all the legislators until the scholars of today . . .
In short, there are three fundamentals that Rabbi Schneur Zalman had in mind as he set to work on his Shulchan Aruch: systemization (“without confusion and muddle”), explanation (“the reasons for the rulings mentioned”) and arbitration (“the conclusive ruling that emerges from the words of all the legislators”).
Part 1: Systematization & Clarity
The difference between the original Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Yosef Caro and that of Rabbi Schneur Zalman . . . is natural and logical, and flows directly from the different goals of these two works.
The systematization that permeates Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s work is expressed not only in his precise style and clear language, but is also notable in terms of the context he provides. Each matter appears in its fitting place, and proceeds sequentially from earlier premises to final conclusions. This stands in contrast to Rabbi Yosef Caro’s great Shulchan Aruch, where the mandate is only to provide practical rulings relevant to the actual conduct of the individual. For that reason, Rabbi Yosef Caro does not preface his rulings with the foundational laws from which the practical legislation is derived.
The Shulchan Aruch does not mention, for example, that there is a biblical command to “clear away (tashbitu) all leaven from your houses” on the day before Passover, the fourteenth day of Nissan. Nor does it discuss that before midday on the fourteenth a statement of nullification (bittul) and renouncement of ownership (hefker) satisfies the biblical obligation, except that the sages decreed that nullification alone is insufficient, and so one must actively search for any leaven. All of this preface is skipped, and we go straight to: “At the beginning of the eve of the fourteenth, one searches for leaven by the light of a candle in nooks and crannies and in all the places where leaven is usually placed.”
From a practical perspective, that statement alone is sufficient. Rabbi Schneur Zalman, however, gives a more systematic account.
Before arriving at the practical laws of the search for leaven, Rabbi Shneur Zalman starts with all the premises requisite for a full understanding of the basis of these laws. There are many items of knowledge that he supplies: the prohibition against seeing leaven (“no leaven of yours shall be seen”) begins on the eve of the fifteenth of Nissan; from midday on the fourteenth onward, one transgresses the command “clear away all leaven from your houses” every moment that one does not comply; after midday, one is prohibited from deriving benefit from leaven; before midday, nullification is sufficient biblically, but not according to rabbinic ordinance; according to rabbinic law, one must search for leaven. Similarly, the time when you are obligated to search—along with many other details—is specified, and each of these items is justified with reasons and sources. In place of the two paragraphs that this chapter takes up in Rabbi Yosef Caro’s Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Schneur Zalman devotes eleven weighty paragraphs to the topic.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman is clearly not stingy with words; his explanation is expansive. Yet, for all the lengthiness of his words, we are impressed by his rapid precision. There is nothing missing, but nothing extra.
The difference between the original Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Yosef Caro and that of Rabbi Schneur Zalman lies not only in the legal items that serve as a preface to the practical laws, but also in the order in which the practical laws themselves are presented. The difference is natural and logical, and flows directly from the different goals of these two works. Rabbi Yosef Caro’s object is the practice of the law, while Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s object is knowledge of the law.
For example, we have before us a law that should be fulfilled in a particular manner (lechat’chilah), but if done in another manner nevertheless fulfills the requirement (bedi’avad). Which should we write first, the ideal or the post facto requirement? If the objective is practical, it follows that the more ideal manner of practice should precede the less preferred manner. However, if the objective is knowledge of the law, the order is reversed; the essential foundation of the law is usually embodied specifically in the less ideal manner of its execution, and it is for the sake of added beauty (hiddur) or care (zehirut) that we prefer to be more stringent than is absolutely necessary.
To illustrate: “The time of the morning prayer . . . begins at sunrise (netz ha-chamah), as it is written, ‘May they fear You in the presence of the sun.’ If one prayed at first light (amud ha-shachar), once the eastern sky is lit up, one has fulfilled one’s obligation.” Here Rabbi Yosef Caro places the ideal time of prayer before the less preferred time. However, in addition to introducing the essential law of prayer before discussing the time of prayer, Rabbi Schneur Zalman phrases this law itself differently: “The time of prayer is like the time of the tamid sacrifice [offered in the Temple of old]. The time of the tamid sacrifice offered in the morning begins with first light (amud ha-shachar) . . . therefore also the time of morning prayer begins from first light. However, ideally the command is to begin with sunrise (netz ha-chamah) . . . rather than earlier, because it is said, ‘May they fear You in the presence of the sun.’”
This example illustrates the agile simplicity and elegant precision with which Rabbi Schneur Zalman lays down the fundamental definitions upon which the law is based.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman is clearly not stingy with words; his explanation is expansive. Yet, for all the lengthiness of his words, we are impressed by his rapid precision. Every word is counted. There is nothing missing, but nothing extra. Each sentence, statement, and indeed each letter carries weight and meaning. The abundance of words does not serve to replace content; phraseology functions as a tool via which content is seamlessly conveyed with clarity and eloquence. For example: “It is forbidden to smite one’s fellow even if he grants him permission to smite him, for one does not have ownership of one’s body at all . . .” The prohibition against self-affliction is explained in the Mishnah and Talmud, Rambam, Tur and Shulchan Aruch. However, in all those sources it is written simply that “one is not permitted,” or “it is forbidden.” Rabbi Schneur Zalman phrases the law in such a way that a point of great novelty and interest is made: “One does not have ownership of one’s body at all”! One’s body is not one’s own; one has no authority to do as one pleases to one’s bodily self.
The foundation for this law is articulated by Rambam in regard to an entirely different piece of legislation, “The court is forbidden to take an atonement fine (kofer) from a murderer, even if he gave all the money in the world, and even if the victim’s relatives wish to pardon him, because the life of the one who has been killed is not the property of his relative, but rather the property of the Holy One, blessed be He.” Rambam did not simply write that the victim’s soul is not the property of his relatives, but also provided an explanation, which expands the law to a wider field of application. The same concept also appears in the commentary of Radbaz (Rabbi David ben Shalom ibn Zimra, 1479–1573) to Rambam regarding a third item of halachah:
Regarding the law that a defendant may not be killed or whipped on the basis of his own testimony—which represents a departure from the general rule that “the defendant’s admission carries the weight of a hundred witnesses”—Radbaz writes, “Some reason (for this departure) may be provided, because the soul of a person belongs not to him, but is the property of the Holy One, blessed be He, as it is written, “The souls are mine.” Therefore, his admission cannot impact that which does not belong to him . . . His money, however, is his own, and therefore we say that the defendant’s admission carries the weight of a hundred witnesses.”
Based on this principle—which Rabbi Schneur Zalman slips into his ruling almost incidentally—a new law emerges: Even if a person gives his fellow permission to smite him, that permission is ineffective. This position is opposed by two great halachic legislators, one of them a contemporary of Rabbi Schneur Zalman—Sha’agat Aryeh—and the other a later authority—Minchat Chinuch. In a separate article the present writer demonstrates Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s position to be the correct one. Here, however, we are not interested in the law itself, but in the style in which it is transcribed. This example illustrates the agile simplicity and elegant precision with which Rabbi Schneur Zalman lays down the fundamental definitions upon which the law is based.
Every ruling, however simple, is better illuminated by the precise delineation of its boundaries. Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s phraseology never fails to capture the clearest definition of the law.
Clear halachic definition is important not only when it results in an innovative ruling or insight—such as the principle that a person has no property rights over his own body. Every ruling, however simple, is better illuminated by the precise delineation of its boundaries. Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s phraseology never fails to capture the clearest definition of the law.
Rabbi Yosef Caro writes, “It is forbidden to make a tent on Shabbat or on a festival, even if it is temporary.” What exactly is the definition of a “tent,” and what kind of “tent” is not considered “temporary”? Neither in the Shulchan Aruch nor in its attendent commentaries is this explained. Rabbi Schneur Zalman, however, draws on earlier Talmudic sources and commentaries to clarify these points, and phrases the law as follows: “It is forbidden to make a tent—that is, a roof that shelters, serving to shield from something such as the sun or rain or anything else—on Shabbat or on a festival, even if it is temporary—not made to last.”
In the case of this “tent,” the purpose of the added definition is to explain the precise meaning of a legal term relevant to the law. In other instances, the nature of the law itself is obscure. A law concerning the Passover Seder, as phrased by Rabbi Yosef Caro and Rabbi Shneur Zalman respectively:
“The table should be set while it is still daytime, in order to eat as soon as it gets dark . . . for it is fitting to rush and eat so that the children will not fall asleep.” (Rabbi Yosef Caro)
“The table should be set while it is still daytime, in order to begin the Seder as soon as it gets dark . . . for it is fitting to rush and begin the Seder so that the children will not fall asleep.” (Rabbi Schneur Zalman)
With just a simple analysis, we sense the precision of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s emphasis on the Seder rather than the eating: The questions are asked by the children, and answered in the reading of the Haggadah before the meal. If so, the concern that the children may fall asleep requires that the Seder should be begun hastily, but has little relevance to the meal specifically.
As explained earlier, Rabbi Yosef Caro’s object is the practice of the law, while Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s object is knowledge of the law. Here too, the difference in their objective helps to understand why Rabbi Yosef Caro does not phrase the law with such precision as Rabbi Schneur Zalman does. From a practical perspective, there is no difference. Since we eat as soon as it becomes dark, all the parts of the Seder that precede the meal—including the children’s questions, the reading of the Haggadah, etc.—will by default be at the correct time. However, in order to gain clear knowledge and understanding of this law, it must be properly defined and contextualized.
Part 2: Sources & Explanation
A page from Rabbi Yosef Caro’s Shulchan Aruch, with the glosses of Rabbi Moshe Isserles and other commentaries.
We said that the Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav provides the rationale behind halachic legislation. What sort of rationale?
There are two types of halachic legislators. Some attach reasons and proofs to their conclusions, as in the case of Rabbi Achai Gaon in his She’iltot; Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi, whose work is known as “the Rif”; Rabbi Yosef Caro in his Beit Yosef; and others like them. Others lay down clear-cut rulings, in the form of “laws without reasons”—to paraphrase the Midrash, “A constitution I have carved out, a law I have decreed.” A prime example of this category is Rabbi Yosef Caro’s Shulchan Aruch.
Neither of these legislative genres can fully slake the Torah scholar’s thirst. The problem with the first category is the bounty of interwoven discussion and debate, question and answers, which not everyone has the capacity to successfully assimilate. Certainly, these discussions are the very essence of Torah discourse; we live by their word; they are the cornerstone and the foundation; without them no law can be derived and no conclusion can be attained. However, an individual who wishes to know the conclusive ruling and find practical direction will have difficulty clarifying and deriving the specific law from the complexity of their discussion.
Rabbi Yosef Caro’s Shulchan Aruch, on the other hand, provides too much clarity. Like the “set table” it is named for, everything is laid out for you. But, bereft of justification and explanation, the legislative prose is too dry. Essentially, the Shulchan Aruch is merely a summary of the conclusions to be drawn from the lengthy discussion in the Beit Yosef, and its depths cannot be fully comprehended without reference to that work. The great Talmudic commentator Maharsha strongly criticized “those who pass halachic judgement based on the Shulchan Aruch without knowing the reasoned principle of each matter,” labeling them “destroyers of the world,” and proclaiming that “it is fitting to rebuke them.” The author of Tosefot Yom Tov asserts that “the great rabbi, our teacher and master Rabbi Yosef Caro never intended that anyone should determine halachah from within this book of his. Heaven forbid to imagine such a thing!”
Due to the Shulchan Aruch’s cryptic conciseness, many commentaries were authored in an effort to explain the reason and basis for Rabbi Yosef Caro’s rulings. Indeed, it is these commentaries which canonized the Shulchan Aruch as the preeminent halachic decisor. Nevertheless, the seamless combination of legislation and reasoning in one complete work had yet to be achieved. We are confronted with two distinct worlds: the commentaries, and that upon which they are commenting. Furthermore, these later works do not simply explain and justify the Shulchan Aruch’s conclusions. Often, they continue to debate the established law, and they do not always agree with “the author” [Rabbi Yosef Caro], nor with Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Rema), whose Mappah (“tablecloth”) graces the Shulchan Aruch with its alternative rulings. Even where they do agree, the prolonged discussion serves to further undermine the orderliness of the legislative process. The ebb and flow of the halachic debate is intertwined and jumbled with actual laws and their reasons.
“If one does not know the reason for the law, one cannot attain clear and correct knowledge of the law itself.” It was in accordance with this elemental principle that he composed the Shulchan Aruch.
Such was the state of the halachic canon until Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi arose. With exquisite skill he contrived to express the succinct depth of each law, concisely explaining its reason and illuminating its source. As Rabbi Schneur Zalman himself writes, “If one does not know the reason for the law, one cannot attain clear and correct knowledge of the law itself.” It was in accord with this elemental principle that he composed the Shulchan Aruch.
In halachic literature there are two forms of legislative rationale, which might be classified as “reasons” and “sources.” Generally, the reasons stem from rabbinic ordinances and injunctions, while the sources involve biblical laws. Here, we will turn our attention primarily to Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s work in the realm of halachic “reasoning.” Later, we will turn briefly to his contribution to halachic sources.
Here is a dry law, as is and without any rationale, set forth by Rabbi Yosef Caro:
It is forbidden to benefit from leaven owned by a Jew that has been left over Passover, even if it was left unintentionally or by accident.
The same law is inscribed by Rabbi Schneur Zalman as follows:
[Concerning] real grain leaven owned by a Jew that has been left over Passover, whether all of Passover passed or only part of Passover passed . . . every Jew is prohibited from deriving benefit from it. This is because the rabbis penalized the owner for having transgressed the biblical prohibition against owning leaven, and they did not want to differentiate in their ordinances. Therefore, it is forbidden to every Jew. Not only this, but even if the owner of the leaven cannot be held accountable and was unable to destroy it, or didn’t know of its existence at all until after Passover, the rabbis still rendered it forbidden to derive benefit from it, in order that no one should leave leaven until after Passover and then say it was an accident.
In addition to the clarity, comprehensiveness and lucid explanation, several additional subsidiary laws are to be found in Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s formulation. Furthermore, we are presented with the reason provided by the Talmud for the prohibition against benefiting from leaven that was left over Passover; the reason provided by Maimonides as to why the prohibition applies even in a case where the owner cannot be held accountable; and the reason provided by Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven (known as “the Ran” and famed for his commentary on the Rif) as to why the prohibition applies to everyone.
In the above example, the explanations provided are not Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s own innovations. His contribution is to gather the most relevant points and redact them with precise lucidity, molding them into a seamless whole.
In other cases, there are laws whose reasons were entirely unknown and unstated. Where other contemporary authorities expressed perplexity and wonder, Rabbi Schneur Zalman simply articulates the law together with its explanation, as though unaware of a previous difficulty. A case in point concerns the Shabbat laws regarding a potted plant. According to the Talmud, if the pot has a hole in the bottom it cannot be placed on the ground or removed from the ground, for to do so would be to plant or uproot it. Rabbi Yosef Caro writes, however, that “even if it does not have a hole, one should not lift a plant pot from the ground and place it on a stand, or vice versa, whether it is made of wood or of earthenware.”
The last rabbi of Kovno, Rabbi Avrahom Dov Kahana-Shapira (1870–1943), wrote that the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch appears to have no basis in the Talmud and “is very perplexing indeed.” After a long discussion, he arrives at an innovative explanation: Essentially, Rabbi Yosef Caro agreed with the Talmud’s position that the prohibition applies only to a plant pot with a hole, except in a case where the material that the pot is made of is not strong enough to stop the roots from breaking through. The two great commentators, Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam, disagreed as to whether this exception applies to wood or to earthenware. Unable to arrive at a conclusion, Rabbi Yosef Caro ruled that we must be stringent and satisfy both opinions.
Apparently, the rabbi of Kovno was unaware that his “innovative” explanation had already been included in Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s reformulation of the law: “This prohibition applies to a plant pot with a hole, but without a hole it is permitted [to remove it from the ground and place it on a stand, or vice versa]. This rule applies to one made of wood, but if made of earthenware, even one without a hole has the same law as one with a hole, because earthenware cannot stand in the way of the roots [which may break through]. There are those who say that the opposite is true; this rule applies to one made of earthenware, but if made of wood it becomes moist from the earth [and the roots may break through]. It is fitting to take both opinions into account, and to be careful [to not move a plant pot] whether it is made of wood or of earthenware, even if they have no hole.”
In some instances Rabbi Schneur Zalman provides a reason that ostensibly has no source, and that appears to be a complete departure from the explanations provided by earlier authorities. However, as new sources come to light, Rabbi Schneur Zalman is vindicated and shown to be right.
In some instances Rabbi Shneur Zalman provides a reason that ostensibly has no source, and that appears to be a complete departure from the explanations provided by earlier authorities. However, as new sources come to light, Rabbi Schneur Zalman is vindicated and shown to be right. One example concerns the status of the day after the festival of Shavuot:
On the day following the festival of Shavuot it is forbidden by law to fast, because in the time when the Temple was standing it was a day of sacrificial offerings. For on that day they would sacrifice the visitation sacrifice (olat re’iyah) that they were unable to sacrifice on the festival itself . . . Although this accords with the opinion of Beit Shammai, whereas according to Beit Hillel it is permitted to sacrifice the offering on the festival itself, nevertheless since in this matter Beit Hillel conducted themselves in accord with Beit Shammai’s ruling, and many Jews conducted themselves so, sacrificing these offerings after the festival, the day following the festival was made for them like the festival itself . . .
Many have expressed wonder at this explanation: Nowhere in the Talmud is it recorded that in regards to this particular law Beit Hillel waived their own opinion and conducted themselves in accord with the ruling of Beit Shammai, and that they too celebrated the day following Shavuot as a day of sacrifices. One passage in the Babylonian Talmud suggests that Rabbi Tarfon may have followed the the opinion of Beit Shammai in this regard. This possibility is contradicted by the Jerusalem Talmud, which states explicitly that he adopted the ruling of Beit Shammai in only two instances, the first pertaining to the reading of the Shema and the second to produce of the seventh year.
In the year 5581 (1821), eight years after Rabbi Schneur Zalman passed away, the Talmudic commentary of the Tosafist Rabbi Yeshayah di Trani (c. 1180–c. 1250), called Tosefot Rid, was published for the first time. Commenting on the passage from the Babylonian Talmud, he writes:
Although it is unlikely that Rabbi Schneur Zalman had access to a manuscript of this early authority, his words echo those of Rabbi Yeshayah di Trani with striking precision . . .
This represents a difficulty, for if so, then Rabbi Tarfon rules like Beit Shammai. For if he agrees with Beit Hillel, did they not say that Shavuot is not followed by a day of sacrifice, for they offer sacrifices on the holiday itself? A possible explanation is that Beit Hillel meant as follows: Shavuot is not followed by a legislated day of sacrifice, because legally they may all offer their sacrifices on the festival itself. However, the normal way of things is that there is simply not enough time for all the Jewish nation to offer their festive offerings on one day. Therefore, many offer their sacrifices on the next day, and for that reason, on the second day it is forbidden to eulogize [as Rabbi Tarfon stated] . . . because most of the sacrifices were offered the day after the festival.
Although it is unlikely that Rabbi Schneur Zalman had access to a manuscript of this early authority, his words echo those of Rabbi Yeshayah di Trani with striking precision. While Beit Hillel may have disagreed with the legislative theory of Beit Shammai’s ruling, that difference of opinion did not create a difference in practice. For the sake of convenience, Beit Hillel too offered their sacrifices following the festival, and they too celebrated that day as a minor holiday. Rabbi Yeshayah di Trani’s explanation is cryptically alluded to in the work of his student, the author of Shiltei Giborim. But we may yet wonder at how Rabbi Schneur Zalman was able to paraphrase the elegant solution suggested by the earlier authority with such precision and simplicity.
The sources of the halachah in the biblical text are derived via a system of exegesis articulated and applied in rabbinic texts, including the Mishnah, the Midrash, the Sifra, the Sifrei, the Mechilta, the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud. In Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s Shulchan Aruch, these biblical sources are always disclosed alongside the halachic legislation. Not all laws can be traced to a biblical text: some are oral traditions originally received by Moses at Sinai (halachah le-Moshe mi-Sinai), others are simply the dictates of straightforward logic. Wherever relevant, these sources too are cited by Rabbi Schneur Zalman. As he himself notes, it is not sufficient to study the law alone; rather, one must study “legislation, Talmudic narratives (aggadah) and exegesis—i.e. the Talmud, which explains the reasons for the laws recorded in Mishnaic texts, and their exegetical source in the biblical verses. Those laws that are not sourced in a biblical verse are a tradition from Moses at Sinai, or are dictated by logic.”
The sources of particular laws are sometimes vague or unspecified. Rabbi Schneur Zalman always explicates the biblical verse, and clearly explains how the law is derived. Here too, we can find instances of innovation and illumination.
One example concerns the commandment to extend the Yom Kippur fast beyond the technical boundaries of the tenth day of the month of Tishrei. This law is derived from a biblical verse that reads, “You shall afflict yourselves on the ninth of the month in the evening; from evening till evening you shall observe your rest day.” The implication is that one should begin the fast on the evening of the ninth, and continue throughout the tenth until the following evening.
This, however, only informs us that we are commanded to extend the boundaries of the fast by beginning it early. Where is it implied that the fast should also be extended afterwards, into the beginning of the eleventh of the month? The Talmud cryptically points to the words “from evening till evening.” Rashi explains that the words “till evening” carry the connotation of “up to and including” the following evening. The problem with this interpretation is that the connotation of the word “till” is matter of debate elsewhere in the Talmud; some are indeed of the opinion that it means “up to and including,” but others are of the opinion that it actually means “up to, but not including.”
It is perhaps due to this debate that Rabbi Schneur Zalman chose to adopt the explanation provided by Rabbi Aharon ben Avraham Chaim of Fez (1555–1632) in his commentary Korban Aharon to the Sifra (a tannaitic commentary to Leviticus), rather than that provided by the more authoritative Rashi. Accordingly, the implication is drawn by way of an exegetical method of comparison known as a hekesh. The juxtaposition of the words “from evening” and “till evening” implies that they are to be compared to one another: just as on the first evening the fast is extended in the ninth day of the month, so on the second evening the fast is extended into the eleventh day of the month.
“Men of valor could not find their hands to understand . . . they ran hither and thither in search of the words of these great early authorities of blessed memory, and they could not find them.”
Citations to the Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s sources appear in the margins, but I do not know who collected them. Possibly they were noted by the author himself, possibly by someone else. Either way, these citations are not complete. Not every law is accompanied by a source citation.
In this regard, it is worth taking into account what Rabbi Schneur Zalman wrote in his introduction to the laws of the sale of leaven:
It is well known amongst those who excel in the study of halachah that many of the works of earlier authorities of blessed memory had not yet been published in the times of later authorities of blessed memory—such as Taz, Magen Avraham, and others who followed them—and they came to light only recently, as clearly apparent from the Shitah Mekubetzet [a compendium of commentaries lately published] on several Talmudic tractates . . .
What did Rabbi Schneur Zalman intend to impart with these remarks? Apparently he is here alluding to the basis for some of his own rulings in this appendix to the laws of Passover in Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav.
These laws concern the sale of leaven to a non-Jew before the Passover festival. Such sales were made in order to circumvent the prohibition of owning leaven during the festival. Often, these sales were made with the understanding that the non-Jew would sell the leaven back to its previous owner at the conclusion of the festival. For the sake of practicality, some authorities were inclined to validate such a sale even if only a token sum of money changed hands, the remainder remaining in the hand of the buyer as a loan. Rabbi Schneur Zalman asserts that such a sale is invalid “according to the great early authorities, of blessed memory.”
In a halachic responsa on the topic, Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s brother, Rabbi Yehudah Leib of Yanovitch, noted that these words caused some confusion: “Men of valor could not find their hands to understand . . . they ran hither and thither in search of the words of these great early authorities of blessed memory, and they could not find them.” Rabbi Yehudah Leib continues to explains what his brother was actually referring to, based on what Rabbi Schneur Zalman himself told him: “His initial foundation is based upon the Shitah Mekubetzet to [the Talmudic tractate] Bava Metzia, and he [Rabbi Schneur Zalman] said that it was not for nothing that he mentioned this work in his introduction, rather that he was hinting that he extracted his words from there . . .” Rabbi Yehudah Leib continues to prove that according to several early authorities quoted in that work, leaving the remainder of the sum as a loan in the hand of the buyer invalidates the sale. (For this reason Rabbi Schneur Zalman established that a third party should guarantee the sale, in order to render it valid even without the exchange of the full sum. This innovation of Rabbi Schneur Zalman is accepted and utilized in many circles, including in the city of Jerusalem.)
This “hint” is relevant not only in this particular case. Many things written by Rabbi Schneur Zalman that at first glance seem to have no source are actually rooted in firm foundations—if not in the most obvious place, then somewhere else.
Part 3: Analysis & Arbitration
The new edition of Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, including a wealth of scholarly citations to Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s sources and other relevant literature.
Many halachic debates are difficult to resolve. It is not always possible to determine which position holds the widest consensus, and sometimes the complexity of the problem itself impedes a conclusive ruling. Such issues of halachic obscurity and confusion require the opinion of an arbiter whose authority is universally recognized. Few can claim such a badge of authority. Yet Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi has merited recognition not only as a legislator for members of the Chabad community, but as a universal halachic arbiter of the first order. “His teachings, sanctity and piety illuminated the face of the earth,” and he was credited with “wisdom like one of the early authorities (חכמה כאחד הראשונים), as may be understood by anyone who has eyes to see and heart to understand an iota, but a drop from the sea of his wisdom, the depth of his argument and the breadth of his knowledge.” Rabbi Schneur Zalman achieved far more than personal acclaim; his distinct ability to arbitrate and conclusively legislate objective rulings stood to the great benefit of the entire halachic community.
On issues of wide debate or legal complexity, Rabbi Schneur Zalman justified his conclusions in a companion work to his Shulchan Aruch titled Kuntres Acharon. Here he enters into pointed argument, setting forth questions and contradictions, proofs and explanations. His arguments are termed pilpul, not in the sense that the word is usually understood today—convoluted displays of clever wit—but rather are marked by the depth and lucidity of earlier generations, who the Talmud tells us “argued with wisdom.” Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s legal justifications are permeated with sound logic and the honest quest for truth.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s method in Kuntres Acharon really deserves a separate discussion. For the sake of illustration, however, we will provide one example of the penetrating analytical methodology he employs. We will focus on the chakirah—a particular form of halachic investigation that engages in a theoretical analysis (sometimes referred to as nitu’ach, lit., “dissection”) of the precise definition of a legal category or mechanism in order to understand and explain how it is applied. Normally the development of this analytical method is attributed to Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, but we can find its roots in many places in Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s Kuntres Acharon:
What is the nature of the prohibition against lighting a fire on Shabbat? Is the prohibition against the burning of the fuel, or against the ignition and spread of the flames?
One difference between these two possibilities relates to the use of fire on yom tov (festivals) for cooking. Shabbat laws are generally applicable on yom tov too. But one important exception is that prohibitions directly related to the preparation of food are suspended on yom tov. Now, the burning of fuel in itself is not an aid to the cooking process; it is only the resulting ignition of flames and the dissemination of heat that is actually relevant. It follows that if the prohibition was directed against the burning of fuel rather than the ignition and spread of the flames, this prohibition would have no direct relevance to the cooking process, and could therefore not be suspended on yom tov. Here, Rabbi Schneur Zalman offers clarity, and demonstrates that “the prohibition is not against the burning and combustion of the fuel, but against the spread of the flames.” Consequently, he is able to rule that since “the actual fire that was ignited or increased is what improves and cooks the food,” it falls into the category of prohibitions directly related to the preparation of food, which are suspended on yom tov.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi has merited recognition not only as a legislator for members of the Chabad community, but as a universal halachic arbiter of the first order.
Another chakirah set forth by Rabbi Schneur Zalman in Kuntres Acharon explains the discrepancy between two apparently contradictory rulings by Rabbi Yosef Caro in his Shulchan Aruch. Earlier we mentioned the biblical commandment to extend the fast of Yom Kippur. We are likewise commanded to extend the Shabbat, beginning its observance late on Friday afternoon, rather than waiting for the moment when the day of Shabbat itself begins. The issue at hand relates to the status of that supplementary time period: is it endowed with the full weight of Shabbat observance in every respect? Or does it have a lesser status, allowing for certain leniencies that under the same circumstances would not be allowed on Shabbat proper? On this issue, Rabbi Yosef Caro seems to contradict himself. In one place he rules that no leniency can be ascribed to the supplementary period, while in another section of the same work he seems inclined to rule that some such leniencies may indeed be permitted.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman resolves this difficulty by differentiating between 1) a period observed as a supplement to Shabbat, and 2) the early acceptance of Shabbat proper. While these appear to be different ways of saying the same thing, they are actually two distinct halachic categories, which are initiated differently and which function in different ways.
The supplementary period (tosefet Shabbat) is observed in fulfillment of the biblical command to extend the Shabbat into the working week by acting in accord with the laws of Shabbat for a short while before the onset of Shabbat proper. This period is not endowed with the full weight of Shabbat law, for it is observed in fulfillment of the command to add to the Shabbat, rather than in fulfillment of the laws of Shabbat itself. In this case, Rabbi Yosef Caro rules that there are certain leniencies that can come into effect, even though under the same circumstances they would not be allowed on Shabbat itself. This supplementary period is initiated either by the conscious decision of the individual to begin its observation some time before nightfall, or—involuntarily—close to nightfall, by virtue of the biblical obligation to to observe some of the weekday as Shabbat.
Early acceptance of Shabbat proper (קבלת עיצומו של יום), however, refers to a case in which the full weight of Shabbat itself is extended into the weekday. This occurs not by virtue of the biblical command to supplement the Shabbat, but by sanctifying the Shabbat through prayer. In Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s words, “If one already accepted Shabbat in the Shabbat evening prayer that was recited while it was still day [i.e., prior to sunset on the eve of Shabbat], or one answered Barchu with the congregation, or most of the community answered Barchu—even if one did not answer with them, then one is involuntarily subject to the law of Shabbat.” Though night has not yet fallen, this period is not a mere supplementary period, but is endowed with the full weight of Shabbat itself. In this case, Rabbi Yosef Caro unequivocally rules that the leniencies of the supplementary period do not apply.
This explanation can in fact be discerned in Rabbi Yosef Caro’s own words. In the case where he appears inclined to be lenient, no mention is made of prayer or Barchu, and the phrase “acceptance of the supplement to the Shabbat” (tosefet Shabbat) is twice repeated, instead of the more straightforward “acceptance of the Shabbat” (kabbalat Shabbat). In the case where he forbids such leniencies he explicitly mentions Barchu, justifying his ruling by declaring, “Once he has answered Barchu, even though it is still day . . . he has accepted Shabbat upon himself.” Here, the word “supplement” does not appear.
A recently published edition of Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav that includes an English translation.
Other examples of such analysis include an examination of whether there is an obligation to eat on Shabbat, or simply not to fast; and a distinction made between honoring a mitzvah and not denigrating a mitzvah.
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In sum, it would be a very good thing to establish public classes for the study of the Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav. Participants would find the laws illuminated for them, with a grasp of their foundations and reasons, and would walk away with both concise and comprehensive knowledge.