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Chaim Fischel Epstein

EPSTEIN, CHAIM FISCHEL (1874–1942), Orthodox rabbi. Born in Taurogen, Lithuania, Epstein was recognized for his brilliance at an early age. After studying Talmud at the famed Telshe Yeshiva, Epstein wrote his first book, Ḥinukh le-Na'ar (a commentary on Aaron Ha-Levi's Sefer ha-Ḥinukh), at age 16. That same year, he entered the Volozhin yeshivah, studying under its famed leaders, Rabbi Naphtali Ẓevi Judah *Berlin and Rabbi Ḥayyim *Soloveitchik. At only 18 years of age, Epstein was ordained as a rabbi by Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rabbi Shelomo Cohen of Vilna.

Notably, Epstein also studied secular subjects, which many other Orthodox rabbis of his time did not, earning the equivalent of a high school diploma at a gymnasium in Shedlitz. Epstein also displayed an energetic interest in the fledgling Zionist movement. He wrote poetry about the Land of Israel, was affiliated with the *Ḥibbat Zion movement, and attended a Zionist conference in Minsk in 1902. Eventually, he became a founder of the Mizrachi movement of religious Zionists, and continued to endorse Zionism after immigrating to the U.S.

At age 24 Epstein began a series of rabbinical positions, including Grosowa (near Minsk) and Sainee, where he remained until the outbreak of World War I. Toward the end of the war, Epstein was named chief rabbi of an Estonian Jewish region. During this time, Epstein completed a Ph.D. degree and taught Jewish philosophy at the local university.

Epstein declined invitations to serve congregations in London and Liverpool, instead immigrating to the U.S. in 1923. He served many communities, including in Bayonne, New Jersey; Cleveland; Cincinnati; and Brooklyn. Like many of his colleagues from Eastern Europe, he faced resistance from more liberal lay leaders and congregants regarding standards of Jewish practice, particularly kashrut. Yet Epstein's reputation as a scholar assured that many rabbinical colleagues and lay leaders came to him to adjudicate matters of Jewish law. In 1923, he served as a rabbinical judge in a kashrut dispute between two prominent Canadian rabbis. Epstein wrote several volumes of highly regarded responsa, including Teshuvah Shelemah. A second volume addressing matters of American concern was published in 1940 in the U.S.

Epstein lived his later years in St. Louis, serving as chief rabbi of the United Orthodox community and head of the city's newly established Va'ad ha-Ir. He remained the leading Orthodox rabbi in St. Louis until his death.


M. Sherman, Orthodox Judaism in America (1996).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.