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Thought for the Day: How to Understand/Appreciate/Learn the Mishna Brura According to the Mishna Brura

Parshas B'reishis is a all about beginning.  I took the opportunity to start learning Mishna Brura from the beginning.  Whereas HaShem didn't just launched straight into בראשית ברא without so much as a howdy-do (in point of fact, one is forbidden to ask question about what came before בראשית ברא), R' Kagan did, in fact, give us a wonderful introduction to why he set himself on (what turned out to be) a 28 year mission to complete the Mishna Brura.  There is a story that R' Kagan once saw a talmid preparing a cigarette and noted that it took something like 37 seconds.  R' Yisrael Meir Kagan, known to the world as The One Who Wants life was flabbergasted that any thinking person would smoke, as it meant he would be distracted from his learning for 37 seconds each time he wanted to light up.  I therefore felt that if the Mishna Brura felt it was worth his time to write and introduction, it was worth my time to read it.

He had two main motivations to write the Mishna Brura.  First, R' Yosef Karo never dreamed that anyone would just try to look something up in the Shulchan Aruch.  R' Karo wrote the Beis Yosef to bring the relevant gemaras and rishonim to each siman of the Tur.  In the Beis Yosef, R' Karo clarifies all the details needed to understand how the foundation of each halacha.  As and aid to learning the Beis Yosef, then, R' Karo wrote the Shulchan Aruch which simply brings down the conclusion of the discussion.  Trying to learn halacha by looking something up in the Shulchan Aruch, then, is like to trying to learn algebra by just reading the questions/problems at the end of each chapter, then looking up the answer in the back of the book.  (How did that work for you?)  One obviously can't learn algebra that way, and he just as obviously can't learn halacha that way.

The second motivation was that once you do learn the Beis Yosef -- and Darchei Moshe, and Bach, and Magein Avraham, and Taz, and so on and so on -- it is very difficult to keep everything straight and weigh all the opinions.  The Mishna Brura comments that it could take days or even weeks to understand a single siman in Shulchan Aruch. (The Mishna Brura is clearly speaking from experience.)

A third point he also mentions is that it had been (in his time) it had been over 130 years since the last great summarizers (B'eir Heitev and Sha'arei T'shuva) had been published.  Since there had been new technologies (such as telegraph and trains, to mention only two) developed in the intervening years, there were gaps in the halachic coverage.

Somehow the Mishna Brura had access to many, many rishonim in his little town of Radin, and he learned all of them on each topic.  He was also careful, whenever possible, to go back to the original sources.  Nothing he wrote in the Mishna Brura is simply copying from other works.  He quoted an earlier source only after he had researched the topic and found that particular quote from that particular source to be the most succinct and accurate way to some of the discussion on that particular halacha.

I always like when, in response to my quoting a Mishna Brura, someone complains to me, "there are other poskim, you know."  I know.  But I also know that they Mishna Brura knew all those and more, carefully documented all his source, weighed them on the scales of logic, and explained his methodology.  I don't quote the Mishna Brura because "it's the Mishna Brura"; I quote the Mishna Brura because he's put all that work in for me and I have confidence in his conclusion.


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