Biography: Rabbi Yechiel Michel HaLevi Epstien
Our Sages have said, “A man has three names: One given to him by his father and mother, one given to him by his friends, and one that he acquires himself” (Ecclesiastes Rabba 7:1). The best is the one that he acquires himself.
The Rav of Novardok, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, was one of a select few in the last century, who were known by the name of their contribution to the Jewish People. He was known the world over as the Aruch HaShulchan, the name of his book. It can only be said that through the Divine Presence did he merit to write and publish a work that served to clarify Halachah in all realms of Torah.
His father Aaron Yitzchak, was a businessman in the town of Brisk. Yechiel Michel, born on Shevat 20, 5589 (1829) demonstrated exceptional talents from his earliest years. He married the daughter of Rabbi Yaakov Berlin (the father of the Netziv of Volozhin) and continued to study Torah but planned to become a businessman like his father and not profit from his Torah wisdom.
He opened a textile business that his wife helped to run. However, it is fondly recalled that she insisted he learn as much as possible and arranged that he hardly spent any time in the business. In fact, it is told that one day, he was seen wandering the streets and looking about. When asked what he was searching for, he candidly replied, “I’m looking for my store.”
Financial fortune evaded Rabbi Yechiel Michael, who interpreted this as a sign that he should respond to the numerous appeals made to him, saying “Heaven wants me to become a Rav”.
His first position was in the little town of Novyzikov. Even though it was a town inhabited mostly by Chabad chassidim, and also Chernobyl chassidim, they chose this young Lithuanian to be the Rav of their community because of his exceptional character. It was here that he published his book Ohr L’Israel on Rabbeinu Tam’s Sefer Hayashar.
However, such a bright star was headhunted by the city of Novardok, where he remained Rav until his passing 34 years later.
During his early days in Novardok, he was disappointed that many people worked till the very last moment before Shabbat. He was determined to change this and although the elders of the city and its scholars refused to alter their city's habit he was more determined and diplomatic than they anticipated.
On Friday when the Rav came to pray at the time he had the sexton announce, he found no Minyan. Unperturbed, he assembled a Minyan of youngsters, prayed and went home. Along the way home he greeted all with a welcoming cry of “Good Shabbos!” Of course the Rabbi could not be ignored so people responded, with perhaps a little annoyance.
On the following Friday, again the Rav prayed with the youngsters, but rather than going home at the end of the service, he remained standing by the entry of the Shule, not letting anyone enter to pray with the "regular" Minyan. “I am the Rav of this town. The communal prayer has concluded and those who are late must pray at home."
But he was not a despot. He would exert himself to the utmost in order to make Halachic accommodations for those who required it. A woman came to him on the eve of Passover, asking a question about the Kashrut of her food. From every apparent perspective, the food should have been prohibited. But the Rav understood the dire consequences of such a ruling and exhausted himself on this extremely busy day to search through every possible avenue. His dedication was duly rewarded; he found authorities according to whom he could rule that the food was Kosher.
During his long deliberations and research, his grandson approached him, saying, “Grandfather, how much time will you waste? If there’s no way to permit the food, then you have to declare it Treif.”
But the Rav taught his grandson an important lesson. “How can that be, my son?” the Rav replied. “How can I allow myself to sit at my table and rejoice with my family, whilst this woman and her family will be miserable over the festival? I must exhaust every possibility.”
In his old age Rabbi Yechiel Michael used to say, “The old no longer fear Gd as they have no strength to fight the evil inclination. This weakness of age causes him to leave things that require change, unchanged.
He passed away at the age of 80, Adar 22, 5668 (1908).
Other than his book on Sefer Hayashar by Rabbeinu Tam, Rabbi Yechiel Michael wrote Aruch HaShulchan on the four parts of the Shulchan Aruch, and also on all the mitzvot related to Eretz Israel (the Aruch HaShulchan HeAtid). Rabbi Yechiel Michael merited that during his lifetime, his Aruch HaShulchan became a well known and respected beacon for serious students of Torah, Rabbis and Poskim.