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The Building Blocks of Jewish Knowledge

Modern Halachic Books

By TorahLab

There were many authors in the 18th and 19th centuries who collected and simplified all of the relevant halachic literature from the Shulchan Aruch onward and combined that with local customs to make practical halachic guides for the layman.

R’ Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe of Lubavitch, wrote a Shulchan Aruch which is now known as Shulchan Aruch Harav (to distinguish it from the original Shulchan Aruch).

R’ Avraham Danzig wrote Chayei Adam (on ‘Orech Chaim’ halachos) and Chochmath Adam (on Yoreh Deah). For many Lithuanian Jews (Litvaks) this is still the final word in Halachah.

The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch was written by R’ Shlomo Ganzfried of Hungary. This is very popular because it is the shortest of these books, and is written in simple Hebrew (in a style very similar to Modern Hebrew, although that wasn’t created until many years later). There are several English translations of the ‘Kitzur’.

Aruch HaShulchan, by R’ Yechiel Michel Epstein, is a rewriting of the entire Shulchan Aruch, including later additions and customs and in depth discussion and analysis of the Talmudic sources. In addition, he wrote Aruch HaShulchan HaAsid, which contains the laws which were left out of the Shulchan Aruch and which will only apply when the Temple is rebuilt, and when the majority of Jews live in the land of Israel.

Perhaps the most famous (and most authoritative for Ashkenazi Jewry) is the Mishna Brura, by R’ Yisrael Meir Kagan (the “Chofetz Chaim"). It is a six volume commentary on the Orech Chaim section of Shulchan Aruch. As well as a linear commentary (Mishna Brura), the Chofetz Chaim wrote a more detailed analysis of certain Halachos (Biur Halachah) and footnotes with sources and additional information (Shaarei Tziun). All of these are included in the standard printing of the Mishna Brura, along with Beer Hagolah (the Talmudic and other sources of the Shulchan Aruch by Moshe Rivkas), the Beer Heitiv (a summary of the opinions of the Magen Avraham and Taz by Yehuda Ashkenazi) and Shaarei Teshuva (a compilation of later responsa on Shulchan Aruch Chaim Mordechai Margolios).

In the Sefardi world there is the Ben Ish Chai, written by R’ Yosef Chaim of Baghdad. The book is a collection of homilies he gave over two years discussing the weekly Torah portion. Each chapter begins with a mystical discussion, usually explaining how a Kabbalistic interpretation of a certain verse relates to a particular halachah, and then continuing to expound on that halachah with definitive rulings.

Kaf Ha’Chaim, written by R’ Yaakov Chaim Sofer (originally from Baghdad, but who later moved to Jerusalem) is similar in layout and style to the Mishna Brura. It discusses the Halachah in light of the Rishonim and Acharonim, and the Kabbalists, especially the kabbalah of the AriZal. It is usually published in eight volumes, covering Orech Chaim and some of Yoreh Deah.

A more recent compendium is Yalkut Yosef, written by R’ Yitzchak Yosef, based upon the Halachic rulings of his father R’ Ovadiah Yosef. This series (which now numbers almost 20 volumes, with more being published) is gradually becoming the normative halachic text for Syrians and many other Sefardi Jews.

The 20th Century saw a different style of Halachic work, books based on a single theme. Perhaps the first of this kind is the book Chofetz Chaim (by R’ Yisrael Meir Kagan) which collects and explains all the laws of the prohibition of lashon hara (speaking badly about others). Unfortunately this is sometimes placed on the mussar shelves instead of the Halacha shelves of the yeshiva library.

The first contemporary single subject halachic text was probably Gesher HaChaim by R’ Yechiel M. Tucazinsky is on the laws of death and mourning.

Another popular work is Shmiras Shabbas K’Hilchasa by R’ Yehoshua Neuwirth which categorizes and summarizes the laws of Shabbat. Perhaps the best thing about that book is its excellent index which makes it possible to find almost anything you need.

Since that time hundreds of books have been written on almost every topic imaginable, with more written every day.

I have probably left out many other books , please leave a comment with any additions or correction.

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