Radin, Home of Rabbi Yisrael Meyer Kagan
Radin, in modern-day Belarus, is a small village on the road from Cracow to Vilna. Its most famous resident, Rabbi Yisrael Meyer HaKohen Kagan, was the son of Rabbi Aryeh Zev Kagan, a student of the original yeshiva of Volozhin. Rabbi Yisrael Mayer moved to Radin in 1869, and he founded a yeshiva shortly thereafter. Rabbi Naftoli Tropp became the rosh yeshiva of the yeshiva in 1904, and it expanded dramatically, to over 300 students. When he passed away in 1929, Rabbis Baruch Faivelson and Menachem Mendel Zaks succeeded him (the latter escaped to America during the Holocaust, and joined the faculty of the Rabbi Isaac Elchonon Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in New York).
Among the great Rabbis who studied there were Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman, who became the Rabbi of Ponevezh, and Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, who later headed the yeshiva in Baronowitz and was martyred during the Holocaust. Rabbi David Leibowitz, another student, later founded Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim in Forest Hills, New York.
The Mishnah Berurah
Rabbi Kagan towered above them all, and indeed above most any Torah scholar of the twentieth (or twenty-first) century. His Mishnah Berurah, “Clear Teaching,” is perhaps the definitive commentary on the section of the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, that deals with daily living. Most of the adopted practices of traditional Jews today are in accordance with Rabbi Kagan's opinions in the Mishnah Berurah.
The Chofetz Chaim
Rabbi Kagan is even more closely identified with his work, Chofetz Chaim, concerning the rules governing the avoidance of gossip. The words mean “one who desires life,” and come from the words of Psalm 34:13–15: “Who is the man who desires life, loving days to see good? [Let him] guard his tongue from evil, and his lips from speaking guile, turn away from the bad and do the good, seek peace and pursue it.”
Ask anyone, and they will tell you that gossiping is a bad and destructive habit. Yet everyone does it, and entire magazines are devoted to little more than gossip about celebrities and others. But thanks to the Chofetz Chaim, there are many different books today devoted to knowing when and how to avoid it.
But Did Rabbi Kagan Gossip, Himself?
Before endorsing the Chofetz Chaim, another scholar wanted to ensure that Rabbi Kagan “practiced what he preached.” So he sent one of his students to engage the Rabbi in conversation for six hours, during which the student repeatedly attempted to get Rabbi Kagan to say even the most minor bit of negative gossip. The mission was a most successful “failure”—the student was amazed at how careful Rabbi Kagan was in this regard, although the Rabbi was friendly and engaging, not at all quiet or reticent about his opinions. As if in reward for observing the words of the Psalm, the Rabbi lived to age ninety-five.