Izrael Meir Ha-Kohen Kagan (1838-1933) – one of the main religious authorities in Eastern Europe. Born in Poland, Izrael Meir moved to Wilno with his mother after the death of his father. Educated in Wilno, he married at the age of seventeen and settled with his wife in Radun, a small town between Wilno and Grodno, where he spent the rest of his life.
He did not accept a rabbinical post, but rather lived from the income from a small shop run by his wife. Izrael Meir taught and lectured on the Talmud. In 1869, he founded a yeshiva which soon became one of the most highly regarded Talmudic centers.
Growing fame, and the increasing number of students this brought, meant that by 1904 the school already had its own building. Izrael Meir personally raised funds for the school and helped it grow. His family lived a modest life, with no special privileges or extravagances. There is a famous story about how Rothschild sent 100 francs for a complete set of the master's works. Izrael Meir kept 70 francs for the volumes, and sent the rest back with a suggestion that Rothschild could donate that amount to the yeshiva.
The suggestion was met with a positive response-Rothschild, impressed by Izrael Meir's act, responded with a generous contribution to the school.
Izrael Meir was known as Chafetz Chaim (literally, "he who wants to live"), after the title of his first book, published in 1873, which dealt with the sins of gossip and lies. He wrote another volume titled Shemirat lashon (Control Over Language) about the significance of honesty in verbal communication. In his works, he also dealt with moral and legal aspects of goodness and love. He advocated the idea of a society based on respect of the laws regarding labor and capital. He also wrote a work that attests to his concern for the identity of "Jehuda's camp", in which he gave advice to Jewish soldiers who were far from home, in alien environments. His work Nidechay Israel (Scattered Israel) is addressed to the many Jews who left Eastern Europe during the waves of emigration during the late nineteenth century. In it, he stressed the importance of faithfully observing the Sabbath rules. Chafetz Chaim's most significant work is contained in the six volumes of commentary about Jozef Karo's codex, Szulchan Aruch, titled Mishna Berura (1884-1907). The treatise was regarded as a practical guide to life. Chafetz Chaim also wrote a great deal for women, encouraging them for example to observe the rules regarding ritual cleanliness. Another major work by Chafetz was the five-volume Likutey Halahot (Collection of Laws), which took up the question of service in the temple as one of the most important factors affecting how quickly the Messiah would arrive.
Chafetz Chaim was one of the founders of the ultra-Orthodox movement known as Agudat Israel, which regarded him as its spiritual leader. His last great desire was to go to the Holy Land, but this did not come to pass. Chafetz helped bring about the creation of a council of Talmudic academies (Va'ad ha-yeshivot) that supported Talmud schools in Eastern Europe.
Anna Maria Szczepan Wojnarska