REVIEW: Beyond a Code of Jewish Law

Gidon Rothstein Tradition Online | April 5, 2022

REVIEW: Simcha Fishbane, Beyond a Code of Jewish Law: Rabbi Avraham Danzig’s Hayei Adam (Academic Studies Press)

Researchers cast their scholarship out to the world, like so many breadcrumbs upon the water, never knowing how and where their wisdom will take root or have an impact. Prof. Simcha Fishbane’s long and productive career helped me, most directly through his publication of a ninth volume of Arukh HaShulhan, including twenty-five derashot which I had occasion to study and write about. Aside from that volume, he also published several articles on the R. Yechiel Michel Epstein, author of Arukh HaShulhan and his halakhic methodology. All this after having given Mishnah Berurah extended study and treatment, in both book and article form.

Now he has cast his eye on another significant halakhic work, Hayei Adam, which was, as he notes, one of the first codes of Jewish law since the Shulhan Arukh itself. R. Avraham Danzig (1748-1820) spent much of his life as a learned merchant, accepting full-time communal employment only after a gunpowder explosion destroyed his merchandise and put him out of business. The book mostly reproduces the laws in the Orah Hayyim section of Shulhan Arukh, with some additions—such as laws of Torah study, mezuzah, honoring parents and the elderly, and the aspects of reciting kaddish found also in Yoreh De’ah, because those, too, are part of daily life. R. Danzig wanted the work to make Jewish law accessible to the educated layman, made these laws accessible in one place.

Upon its arrival in the early 19th century Hayei Adam was widely popular, going to a second edition (not just a second printing) after the first sold-out. In our day, the work has fallen out of favor, other than its widespread Tefillah Zakah, prayer before Kol Nidrei, universally printed in all Ashkenazi Yom Kippur mahzorim. Fishbane does not offer a theory for why this happened, although his repeated references to R. Danzig’s reorganization of the material, instead of following the order of the Shulhan Arukh, suggests a strong cause for rabbinic opposition.

The two codes that became popular, Arukh HaShulhan and Mishneh Berurah, reinstated Shulhan Arukh’s ordering and presentation (and in the case of Mishneh Berurah, its text as well). If Fishbane is right about the rabbinic opposition, those attitudes could have later led to welcoming works that took laypeople back to the Shulhan Arukh. Today, of course, we have many halakhic books that present topics according to different organizational methods, in all languages. Times and tastes change. 

Despite Hayei Adam’s early, widespread distribution, Fishbane shows the first rabbinic work to engage with it in a sustained way was Mishnah Berurah, over seven decades later, which cited it as an halakhic source on par with other rabbinic luminaries in its wide bibliography. Fishbane speculates that Hayei Adam’s initial lack of impact on subsequent halakhic writing was a result of R. Danzig’s strong independent streak, his choice to order the work differently from Shulhan Arukh, not to make specific references to that code or others, and his publishing his work without the usual rabbinic approbations. By the time he published Hokhmat Adam, a few years later, on issues from Yoreh De’ah, he secured an approbation from R. Hayyim Volozhin, on condition he put in references and follow the order of the Shulhan Arukh.

His focus on a lay audience also motivated R. Danzig’s inclusion of a significant push towards musar, ethical study. One chapter of Fishbane’s book shows passages of Hayyei Adam that lend themselves to thinking he was showing readers the flaws in Hasidism, along the lines of his elder and revered contemporary, the Vilna Gaon. By sampling his references to esoteric knowledge, particular the Zohar, Fishbane articulates principles for when R. Danzig utilized kabbalah, and the function it served in his work. 

By way of example, Fishbane highlights places where R. Danzig encourages study of kabbalah only after having attained a certain mastery of exoteric Torah knowledge (72-73). In another section of the chapter, he points out places R. Danzig’s Zohar citations militate in favor of developing one’s musar, a word Fishbane uses for ethical fiber (82-86). 

These examples might also have served as part of an implicit polemic against Hasidism, a theme of another of the chapters of the book. Before that, in the first chapter, Fishbane analyzes three of R. Danzig’s introductions (Fishbane calls them preambles) to the ten sections of Hayei Adam. He makes a point of R. Danzig’s emphasis on a devekut, a cleaving to God, that is forged through Torah study, in contrast to Hasidic forms of devekut, fostered by actions like “clapping, dancing, or somersaulting” during prayers (118 and other places). Musar/ethics is the topic of another chapter, an example of how the chapters of the book often overlap and might have been edited together more elegantly. 

One could have imagined the following thesis being put forth: R. Danzig, a younger contemporary of the Vilna Gaon, shared the Gaon’s opposition to early Hasidism, and elements of that show themselves in his Hayei Adam, although never explicitly. The way he introduced the sections of the work, his comments on Torah study, his implicit polemic against Hasidism, his use of esoteric literature in ways that often starkly deviate from how those sources were utilized by Hasidim, and his focus on a devekut of study and observance, all offered readers a path to a full and fulfilling service of God – without resort to Hasidism.

I suspect this may be what Fishbane meant to say, but the chapters have not been organized and synthesized in a way that this thesis, or any such organizing principle, is advanced. His own introduction focuses on R. Danzig’s independence, which led him to structure Hayei Adam in an iconoclastic form at the cost of rabbinic approval. He also draws our attention to R. Danzig’s awareness of the broader world by virtue of his time as a traveling businessman, and his concern with the lay Jew having an accessible way to competently engage with halakha in a religiously meaningful manner.

Fishbane includes a thirty-page essay by Dashiell Ferguson on R. Danzig’s life and times, which offers a more cohesive presentation of the biographical information about R. Danzig. That Ferguson’s essay is somewhat at odds with Fishbane’s understanding, something the latter freely admits, is a mark of the author’s integrity and open-mindedness in including an otherwise interesting supplement within the covers of his own book.

Stepping back, highlights of the book include Fishbane’s advancing his arguments with lengthy citations from Hayei Adam, in translation, allowing readers to taste its style of writing—to “hear” R. Danzig’s rabbinic voice. Similarly noteworthy is the image of a Torah scholar who never intended to write, was forced into that part of his career by circumstances beyond his control, struggled to fit in with the rabbinic culture of his time, and produced a work popular but not universally respected, until elevated by Mishnah Berurah, even as that later work supplanted it for widespread use and popularity. It is a reminder of the ups and downs of Torah literature, the vicissitudes of the works by even our greatest sages and scholars. 

Prof. Fishbane should be commended for drawing our attention to R. Danzig’s life and Hayei Adam’s role, two centuries ago, as an access ramp for laymen to deepen their knowledge and practice of Jewish law 

Rabbi Gidon Rothstein blogs at and writes Jewishly themed fiction and non-fiction, most recently Judaism of the Poskim: Responsa and the Nature of Orthodox Judaism


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