Yisrael Meir Kagan
Age 91, on his visit to the Polish Prime Minister
TitleThe Chofetz Chaim
Born(1838-01-26)January 26, 1838
DiedSeptember 15, 1933(1933-09-15) (aged 95)
(24 Elul 5693)
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan arriving at the first Knessia Gedolah of Agudas Yisroel in Vienna, 1923[1]

Yisrael Meir ha-Kohen Kagan (January 26, 1838 – September 15, 1933) was an influential Lithuanian Jewish rabbi, Halakhist, posek, and ethicist whose works continue to be widely influential in Orthodox Jewish life. He was known popularly as the Chofetz Chaim,[a] after his book on lashon hara, who was also well known for the Mishna Berurah,[b] his book on ritual law.[2][3]


Kagan was born on 26 January 1838 in Dzienciol (Yiddish: זשעטל, romanizedZhetl), Grodno Governorate in Russian Empire (today Dzyatlava in Belarus), and died on 15 September 1933 in Raduń (Yiddish: ראַדין, romanizedRadin), Nowogródek Voivodeship in Second Polish Republic (now in Belarus). When Kagan was ten years old, his father died. His mother moved the family to Vilnius in order to continue her son's Jewish education. While in Vilnius, Kagan became a student of Rabbi Jacob Barit. Kagan's mother remarried and moved to Radin, taking the name of her new husband, Poupko, which the young Kagan adopted as well. At 17, he married the daughter of his stepfather, and settled in Radin. Later in life, he would revert his name back to Kagan. This is why there are a number of letters of his extant that he signed as Poupko and others as Kagan.

He served as the town rabbi of Radin for a short period. He then resigned from this position to establish a yeshiva in the city, which eventually became world-famous first being led by the notable Naftoli Trop, followed by the esteemed son-in-law of his rabbi Mendel Zaks. By all accounts, he was a modest and humble man, faithfully devoted to his Jewish faith. For a while, he had a shop selling household provisions, which he and his wife managed.[4] From 1864 to 1869 he taught Talmud in Minsk and Vashilishok.[5]

In 1869, Kagan formed a yeshiva in Radin. The yeshiva was a success and grew to prominence, later becoming known as "Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim of Radin". In addition to spreading Torah through his yeshiva, Kagan, who became known as "the Chofetz Chaim", was very active in Jewish causes. He traveled extensively to encourage the observance of Mitzvot and Shabbat amongst Jews. 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. An author of many works of musar literature, he was sometimes associated with the Musar movement,[6] although he did not support all aspects of that movement.[7]

Although the anti-religious attitudes which pervaded Zionism greatly distressed him, Kagan initially refused to become personally involved in the matter and refrained from publicly denouncing the movement. When his views became known, he cautioned his students about joining the Zionists[8] and declared its political aims as being contrary to the Torah.[9][10][11][12] Kagan famously said that it would be preferable to lose a third of the amount of Torah we have throughout the world rather than join the WZO (World Zionist Organization).[13] Elchonon Wasserman (killed in the Holocaust 6 July 1941) said that this means even if the majority of yeshivos would have to close, we would not be allowed to join the WZO.[13] In 1903, his wife Frieda died, and two years later he married the daughter of Rabbi Hillel of Lapis, Miriam Freida, who was more than thirty years younger than him. It was from this marriage that his son Rabbi Aharon Kagan and his daughter Feigl Chaya Sacks were born. His son-in-law was Rabbi Mendel Zaks.

In 1925, it was announced that he would be leaving Warsaw with his daughter and son-in-law to permanently settle in Petach Tikvah (the Gate of Hope, in Hebrew), in Palestine.[14] Upon discovering his plans, prominent rabbis and yeshiva deans persuaded him to remain in Radin[15] and he died there on September 15, 1933, aged 95.[16] He was interred in the nearby cemetery.[17] Miriam Freida arrived in Montreal with her son Rabbi Aharon via Siberia and Japan in 1942, and died in New York in 1946.

Many other Jewish religious institutions throughout the world also bear his name. One American yeshiva named in his honor is the Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yisrael Meir HaKohen centered in Queens, New York founded by his great nephew, Rabbi Dovid Leibowitz, with several branches in the United States, Canada, and Israel. Kagan's teachings have inspired some English-speaking American Jews to establish the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, dedicated to the dissemination of his teachings to Jewish communities around the world. An Orthodox kibbutz in Israel, Hafetz Haim, was named in his honor.

During his lifetime, Kagan was venerated by Jews and non-Jews alike. Orthodox Jews across the world viewed him as one of the 36 righteous people,[18] and Polish farmers were said to have lured him into their fields believing his feet would bring blessing to their crops.[19]

According to some reports, despite his rabbinic leadership he did not hold semikhah until late in life, when he had to apply for a passport and needed formal semichah in order to honestly enter "rabbi" as his occupation. He then received his semikhah by telegraph from Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski of Wilna.[20] According to another report, though, he received semikhah much earlier, at age 17.[21]


Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan towards the end of his life.
Artistic portrait of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan[1]


  1. ^ a b "Chofetz Chaim". yonasan.weebly.com. Retrieved 2022-05-12.
  2. ^ Fishman, Tzvi. "Hilchos Aliyah: Kissing The Ground, Shehechiyanu, & More". Retrieved 2022-02-03.
  3. ^ "Praying Towards Jerusalem Or Towards The Aron - Practical Halacha". OU Torah. 2016-07-19. Retrieved 2022-02-03.
  4. ^ Chofetz Chaim
  5. ^ Moses M. Yoshor, Israel Meir haKohen in Jewish Leaders, ed. Leo Jung. p. 462.
  6. ^ Rabbi Dov Katz (1996). Musar movement: Its history, leading personalities and doctrines (new ed.). Feldheim Publishers.
  7. ^ Kamenetsky, Rabbi Nathan (2002). Making of a Godol. Hamesorah Publishers. pp. 573–575. ISBN 965-90379-0-2. Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky quotes that "[Rabbi] Zelig Epstein revealed that the Chafetz-Chaim himself, like most of the other Torah greats, was against Musar, 'not that he was among the vehement mithnagdim, but he did not approve its entire approach'".
  8. ^ Lester Samuel Eckman (1975). The history of the Musar movement, 1840–1945. Shengold Publishers. p. 100. Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan received protests from many rabbis concerning his silence and lack of objection against the leaders of the Zionist movement as well as against the mocking of religion. By nature, Kagan was a man who avoided quarrels, and in the dispute over the Zionist movement he tried to avert further altercation. Nevertheless, "his heart was broken upon hearing that the leaders of Zionism [were] leading Jews astray in the colonies in Palestine and at home from the ways of the Torah; [...] Kagan's stand was this: He denied "young scholarly-religious students under his jurisdiction [permission] to follow in the footsteps of the irreligious Zionist leaders, especially when one of the enlightened Zionists, reputed for always telling the truth, after his visiting all the schools in Palestine, testified that in the schools the critical method [was] used to study the Holy Books."
  9. ^ Sacks, Jonathan (1992). Crisis and Covenant: Jewish Thought After the Holocaust. Manchester University Press. p. 66. ISBN 978-0-7190-4203-4. The saintly Rabbi Israel Meir ha-Cohen invoked the talmudic passage of the three oaths to remind his followers that the Jewish fate was to remain in exile until redeemed by God.
  10. ^ Ravitzky, Aviezer (1996). Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism. University of Chicago Press. p. 176. ISBN 978-0-226-70578-1. To be sure, this fierce opposition has not yet abated. There is little to distinguish the approach of Rabbi Hayyim Soloveichik of Brisk at the birth of Zionism from that of Rabbi Velvel Soloveichik after the establishment of the state. Just as the criticism levelled against the Zionists by the Hafetz Hayim and Rabbi Elhanan Wasserman is once more extensively cited today, buttressing the attacks made by Rabbi Schach and his circle. As Schach quipped, "When I am asked by the heavenly court why I did not identify with the Zionist idea, I will unhesitatingly place the blame for this on the Hafetz Hayim and the other leading scholars who preceded me, and they will already know what answer to give."
  11. ^ Marek Čejka; Roman Kořan (16 October 2015). "The rabbi for everyday: Israel Meir Ha-Kohen/Kagan". Rabbis of Our Time: Authorities of Judaism in the Religious and Political Ferment of Modern Times. Routledge. p. 83. ISBN 978-1-317-60544-7. The book is also a vital component of the Judaic critique of Zionism, In this context the Chaftez Chaim was also very critical not only towards the state building attempts of Zionists, but also towards their efforts to create a modern Hebrew language. He sarcastically condemned the activities of Zionist philologist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. [...] Even through the Chaftez Chaim died 15 years before the establishment of the State of Israel, he influenced later rabbinical anti-Zionism in Israel very significantly.
  12. ^ Heilman, Samuel C. (1992). "Who are the Haredim?". Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry. University of California Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-520-22112-3. Second was the objection to the religiously unacceptable notion of a Zionism that suggest the Jews could become a "People like all other people." […] The Orthodox did not want a "normal Jewish state," but one that was altogether different. "It was not worthwhile," the Hafetz Hayim was quoted as saying, "to become another Albania or even another Belgium after nineteen centuries of suffering. A state must be established on Torah foundations."
  13. ^ a b Wasserman, R. Elchonon. Kovetz Maamarim, vol. 1 "Eretz Yisrael", p. 155.
  14. ^ "Chofetz Chaim Will Leave for Palestine Nov. 1". The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 30 October 1925. p. 6.
  15. ^ Lester Samuel Eckman (1975). The history of the Musar movement, 1840–1945. Shengold Publishers. pp. 101–2. When his plans became public, a committee of leading rabbis and deans of theological seminaries requested him to postpone his journey, because the seminaries needed his guidance in the critical time of their existence. Kagan complied...
  16. ^ "Chofetz Chaim Ill". The Kingston Daily Freeman. Kingston, New York. 7 May 1932. p. 5.
  17. ^ Gershon Hellman (Feb 14, 2018). "Returning to Radin". Ami Magazine. No. 355. p. 50.
  18. ^ "Chofetz Chaim, 105 Is Dead in Poland". The New York Times. 16 September 1933.
  19. ^ William G. Braude (1988). "Longevity's Secret". The Journal of Reform Judaism. Vol. 35. Central Conference of American Rabbis. p. 49. He was sage, saint, and legend. Polish peasants used sundry ploys to get him to walk across their fields, believing that the touch of his feet would improve the soil.
  20. ^ Yissocher Frand, Listen To Your Messages, p.89
  21. ^ בן 14 עתר: תנו לי להיות רב
  22. ^ seforimblog.com
  1. ^ Hebrew: חפץ חיים, romanized: Chafetz Chaim, lit. 'Desirer of Life'
  2. ^ Hebrew: משנה ברורה "Clear Teaching"


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