There are few tzaddikim of recent times so revered as the Chofetz Chaim. His sefarim are considered authoritative by almost all segments of Klal Yisrael. The Mishna Berura and Sefer Chofetz Chaim, which he authored, are used daily by thousands. Even his lesser-known sefarim are studied by many. His image is found in households and institutions across the Jewish world. Stories about him are just as common It is therefore with considerable excitement that we present the never-before-printed tzavaah (final will) of the Chofetz Chaim, dating from just seven years before his passing. Provided to us for print by a family member, the document is fascinating for the insight it provides about this Rabban shel kol bnei hagolah. It also provides a look into his household, and even a look at the layout of his house.
It is also a fascinating document for those who study Choshen Mishpat and the halachos of inheritance. The exact arrangements that the Chofetz Chaim made require some study, because the tzavaah raises some interesting questions. Was the Chofetz Chaim giving away his house to his sons while he was still alive? What exactly was the arrangement that he made to provide for his rebbetzin’s residence in the house after he died? What do the conditions he made concerning the plates of his sefarim mean? Can one bequeath “rights to print”? What kinyan is used to transfer those rights? Was this tzavaah intended to be binding in halacha, or was the Chofetz Chaim merely instructing his progeny “how to act after [his] passing”?
In order to arm the reader with some of the basic tools necessary to consider some of the above questions, and to better understand the implications of this holy document, we have Rav Dovid Grossman of the Bais HaVa’ad L’Inyanei Mishpat to outline some of the concepts of yerusha (inheritance) relevant to this specific piece of history.
One final and important note about this tzavaah: One can’t help but take notice of the care that the Chofetz Chaim took in arranging his affairs for after his passing. He carefully documented and described all of the items that would need disposition after he would no longer be on this earth, and he delineated where he wanted each item to go. We all know cases in which questions of inheritance have unfortunately created strife, even leading to legal battles; the Chofetz Chaim’s care in directing his worldly possessions and the printing rights for his sefarim shows the level of concern he had to avoid this in his household. He was dealing with children, grandchildren, and step-children from two different marriages, many of whom were living together, and the tzavaah shows the arrangements he made to avoid conflict among these different groups.
His care in spelling out his wishes doubtlessly led to an easier disposition of his worldly possessions than would have been found otherwise.
The Chofetz Chaim’s legendary yearning for Moshiach is also evident in the tzavaah’s last line.
WHO IS WHO?
To understand the will, it is necessary to know the family situation of the Chofetz Chaim.
The Chofetz Chaim was married twice. His first wife was his step-sister; his mother had married Rav Shimon Halevi Epstein, and the Chofetz Chaim married his daughter Freida a few years later.
He had four children from his first wife, two sons and two daughters. His bechor (first born son), Rav Aryeh Leib, helped his father write his sefarim and would eventually become the rav of Radin. His oldest daughter, Gittel, married Rav Aharon Hakohen, who wrote several sefarim. They travelled to Eretz Yisrael in about 1926, which may be why they are not mentioned in this tzavaah; there were no practical points to be spelled out for a daughter who was not living nearby. A second daughter, Sara, married Rav Tzvi Hirsch Levinson, who was one of the roshei yeshiva in Radin. Rav Tzvi Hirsch passed away in 1921. The grandson that the Chofetz Chaim mentions in this tzavaah was Rav Yehoshua Levinson, Rav Tzvi Hirsch’s son, who was also part of the faculty in Radin. Another son, Rav Avraham, passed away as a young man, in 1891.
The Chofetz Chaim’s first wife passed away in 1903.
He remarried two years later. His second wife, Miriam Freida, was the daughter of Rav Hillel, the rav of the city of Lapis. They had two children, Rav Aharon Hakohen and Feiga Chaya, who married Rav Mendel Zaks, who eventually become a rosh yeshiva in Radin. (When researching the Chofetz Chaim, it is important to remember that he had a son and a son-in-law with the same name.)
It isn’t clear how many descendants of the Chofetz Chaim there still are today. The most well-known family descended from him is, of course, the Zaks family. But some of his other children have descendants, as well. Many of Rav Aryeh Leib’s grandchildren ended up in Eretz Yisrael; their family names include Gudovich and Poupko. The Chofetz Chaim’s son-in-law Rav Aharon had several children who were rabbanim or married to rabbanim in America, including two rabbanim in Chicago.
Sadly, the Chofetz Chaim’s son Rav Aharon never married. He and Rebbetzin Miriam Freida, his mother, lived in Montreal, Canada before settling in the United States. They are both buried in the Mount Judah Cemetery in Queens, New York.
PREPARING FOR HIS PASSING
All material in square brackets is the editor’s. Round parentheses are the Chofetz Chaim’s words that he put in brackets. The translation attempts to remain as close to the Chofetz Chaim’s words as possible, but occasionally the differences between the idioms in Hebrew and English necessitated slight changes. Due to the reproduction methods, certain parts are obscured; a transcription from the original copy was used for those parts. Ellipses indicate places where the text was unreadable.
And we, who are weak, certainly can say that we don’t know [the time of our passing?]. Therefore I have agreed, with the help of Hashem, to make a will [describing] how to act after my passing.
1) First of all, I will declare that I have two sons, and one is a bechor (firstborn). That is my son, the rav, the gaon in Torah and fear of G-d, Moreinu Harav Aryeh Zev Hakohen. And the second is the outstanding bochur, who is eighteen years old this month, Master Aharon Hakohen, may his light shine.
2) I also have one wife, may Hashem lengthen her days, and her name is Miriam Freida, may she live long. She has merited to give birth for me a daughter, and her name is Feigel, may she live long, and Hashem helped me, in his kindness, to marry her to a man great in Torah and fear [of Heaven], Moreinu Harav Reb Menachem Yosef Zaks, may his light shine.
3) Regarding the plates that I have for each sefer, they are all mine, because He helped me in His kindness. Even [in the case of] those sefarim that I gave permission to everyone to reprint (which are the six parts of Mishna Berura, also the Chofetz Chaim and Shmiras Halashon, one volume, Ahavas Chessed, one volume, Nidchei Yisrael, one volume (transcribed by pen), and the pamphlet Tiferes Adam), still the plates themselves are mine, and no one has the right to print using them. These are [the people] I give permission [to print with them]: my son, the rav, Reb Leib Hakohen, my son-in-law, Moreinu Harav Menachem Yosef Zaks, may his light shine, and my son, Master Aharon Hakohen after his marriage. Even these that I give permission to cannot give over the plates, even to their relatives, except to print for their need.
4) The one who is the overseer of my business dealings is the son-in-law of my wife. His name is Harav Reb Hillel the son of Rav Moshe Zalman Ginzburg. He will be the overseer of my business dealings for every matter, in regard to printing and also in regard to selling sefarim and all of their necessities—everything will be through him. For his labor he will take 20 percent and the rest is for…. He is a trustworthy member of my household, because he was the main [person] who took the sefarim away from the thieves and then afterward toiled greatly to bring them to print.
5) Even after my long life, I ask him to handle my sefarim until the year 5690 , inclusive. He will take the 20 percent for his labor, and if he wishes, another two years, meaning that until 5692 , inclusive, he has permission, in the manner described before. I’ll also declare that I promised him from this point that if someone gives me a present, someone who is my relative or acquaintance, he gets 10 percent for his toil in publishing the sefarim, and even if they give me 40, he gets four.
6) Cash that is found after my passing will not be part of an inheritance, because it is prepared for the printing of the sefarim, unless they will be forced to take them for food for the household. And when Hashem will set up a shidduch for my son Aharon Hakohen and it will be necessary to buy him clothing and the like, for this I want them to give him the amount the amount [sic] of 400 thalers, if it will be necessary for his chasuna.
7) [In regard to] sefarim printed for sale, whatever are now in our country, in Warsaw, in the Holy Land, may it be rebuilt, and in America are all mine, and I appoint on this my friend Harav Reb Hillel, may his light shine, to sell them, in the aforementioned ways.
8) Moveable objects that will be found in the house, whether vessels or other items (besides pillows and cushions that she [his wife?] brought here) that are for use of the household are all included in the property of the house.
9) Regarding my wife, there is nothing to instruct. She will live in my house all the days of her life and be supported from my property all her days. If she wants to travel for medical purposes they should give that to her, in addition to the household expenditures. I also ask my sons that they should deal with her in a respectable way, because she is a righteous woman. She served me in a high and exalted way more than 22 years. However, when she doesn’t want to be with them, they should support her however she would like to reside. If she entirely wants to leave on her own, they should give her the five hundred shekalim of her kesuva, if they have it, besides what she brought in [to the marriage]; I waive the oath for her.
10) [About] the house that I have here in Radin, it is known [should be known?] that my wife has permission to live in it in ease all her life, as before. But the yard, that is to say, that which is opposite the house that Rav Naftali [Trop?] lives [lived?] in the south side of, is owned by my son Harav Reb Leib Hakohen. But after our lifespan, given to us by Hashem Yisborach, it is known [should be known?] that two-thirds of the house belong to my son Harav Reb Leib and one-third belongs to my outstanding son Master Aharon Hakohen. But when both of us [parents?] are alive or either one is alive, it is in his [or her] possession and none of my sons has permission to remove him [or her]. They also don’t have permission to remove my son-in-law from the shlaka. I’ll explain at length: This means that the house I live in now and the shlaka above, which my son-in-law Harav Reb Menachem Yosef and my daughter Feigel, may she live long, live in, and the sukkah built in the enclosed porch, as well as the small attic built in the enclosed porch for household use is all included in the house. The actual enclosed porch I already allowed my grandson Harav Reb Yehoshua to walk through to the street and he has a chazaka for that, but not for placing wood or anything there, because for this there is a specific place built behind the house and I gave him permission for that. I also be very specific: The place that Harav Reb Yehoshua lives in now he was machzik in for many years and it is for him alone. But he has no right to open a door from his house to mine. Only the property of the cellar that is in the enclosed porch belongs to both of us, and the house built for people’s needs [outhouse?] belongs to both of us. The small shed that stands on the path of the garden is his alone, and the shed that stands within the garden belongs to Harav Reb Hillel and the yard belongs to Harav Reb Leib Hakohen. The well […] that stands close to the garden I made hefker for the use of the Jewish public and no one has the right to close it.
Hashem should give us the merit to see when He brings the return to Zion and then we will toss aside all the property that we have here and run to our holy land among the rest of all Israel. Amen.
Writing Rosh Chodesh Iyar 5686 [April 15, 1926],
The small one, Yisrael Meir Hakohen
Note: Introduction and translation by Yossi Krausz, Halachic overview by Rabbi Dovid Grossman of the Bais HaVaad L’Inyanei Mishpat, Lakewood, New Jersey.