Rabbi Israel Lipkin of Salant

In each era, Divine Providence sends us great souls that leave their mark on the generation and whose influence is felt both in their era and many generations afterwards.

One of these exceptional sages was Rabbi Israel of Salant. He was neither a Rabbi nor a Posek, and he dressed like an ordinary person. He fled from official positions and behaved like a simple Jew. However he was a great man, and in his heart was the sacred fire of the burning bush, a divine flame that to his very last breath was never extinguished. According to Rabbi Yossef Dov Soloveitchik (the Rav of Boston), Rabbi Chaim Halevi Soloveitchik of Brisk compared four Torah greats to the Rishonim, these being Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin, Rabbi Israel of Salant, Rabbi Yossef Dov Soloveitchik (Rabbi Chaim’s father), and Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim.

Even though many years have passed since his death, Rabbi Israel Salant’s memory as the father of the Mussar movement remains alive, and his character serves as a beacon to this very day.

What follows are a few stories about his life:

Rabbi Israel Salant’s confidence in G-d was extraordinary. He was certain that every prayer a person made would be granted if he had absolute faith in G-d. And if we see that a person’s hopes are dashed, it is solely because his faith in G-d is not absolute.

Rabbi Israel once had a discussion with Rabbi Shemuel Strashun (the Rashash) on the Talmud. Their conversation centered on the question of whether it is legitimate to have faith in G-d for things that are unnecessary. Rabbi Israel believed that a person has the right to pray for something that he sees as superfluous, but Rabbi Strashun disagreed. Thus Rabbi Israel proposed that they attempt to see what in fact was the truth. When Rabbi Strashun accepted, Rabbi Israel said, “From this moment on, I have total confidence in G-d that He will send me a watch, something that I absolutely don’t need [during that era only a few people owned watches]. Hence we will see if He will send me one.”

Six months passed, until one day a Christian wearing a lieutenant’s uniform came to Rabbi Shemuel and said, “A Jewish soldier in my regiment has just died, but before his death he gave me a watch to give to the local Jewish rabbi.” Rabbi Shemuel took the watch and thanked the lieutenant for going to all the trouble. He then remembered his conversation with Rabbi Israel and asked that he come to see him. When Rabbi Israel arrived, Rabbi Shemuel gave him the watch and said, “G-d has heard your prayer and sent you this watch. From Heaven the Halachah has been proven to be according to your opinion.”

When Rabbi Israel moved from his father-in-law’s home, he settled in Kovno to find some work. Before anything, however, he began by going to the Beit Midrash to study some Torah. At that point a wealthy man from Kovno also entered the Beit Midrash, and when he saw Rabbi Israel he felt sorry for him. He went to say hello and asked him what he was doing in Kovno, to which he replied that he had come in search of work and wanted to go into business. The wealthy man looked at him and said, “Listen to me, my young man. You don’t have the look of a merchant, and it’s better for you to devote yourself to religious endeavors. I’ve heard that in a certain small town people are looking for a teacher of young boys. I will provide you with a letter of recommendation and they will give you the job.”

Rabbi Israel refused and said, “The responsibility of teaching Jewish children is too great and heavy a burden for me – I cannot accept it. I would like to be a merchant.”

The wealthy man thought for a moment, then he suggested that Rabbi Israel become a Shochet, for people were looking for one in Kovno. “Absolutely not,” Rabbi Israel replied. “A Shochet must be extremely meticulous in his work, for it is a sacred responsibility. At the slightest mistake, he could end up giving treif food to the whole city! I would like to be a merchant.”

The wealthy man then asked him if he had any money to open up a shop, and Rabbi Israel replied that he did not. “Under these conditions, how can you start a business?” he said in shock. “It’s very simple,” Rabbi Israel retorted. “You are going to lend me 300 rubbles to start one.”

“What! What did you say?” the man began to mutter. “I’m going to lend you 300 rubbles? That’s a huge amount, and I don’t even know you! How do I know that I can trust you? Perhaps you’re a swindler, a deadbeat! Do you think I’m crazy or something?”

Rabbi Israel arose and said to the man, “Listen to me, my dear Jew. A few minutes ago you considered me to be a person of trust. You wanted to give me a position as a teacher of precious Jewish children. You had enough faith in me to put the kashrut of Jewish homes in my hand. Yet when it comes to lending me a little money, you already don’t know me and say that perhaps I am swindler! Our father Abraham behaved differently. In material matters, he trusted his servant Eliezer, as it is written: ‘His servant, the elder of his household who controlled all that was his’ [Genesis 24:2]. However when it came to spiritual matters, such as finding a wife for his son Isaac, he did not trust him. He made him take an oath.”

One day a distinguished Rav was a guest at Rabbi Israel Salanter’s home. Rabbi Israel offered him something to eat, and he added that the dish was strictly kosher. His guest was taken aback by this statement, and Rabbi Israel explained that for himself (Rabbi Israel), it was possible that the dish was not kosher because his earnings came from a generous disciple, one who may have been mistaken in believing that Rabbi Israel was a Tzaddik and a Gaon. Hence in giving Rabbi Israel money to buy this food under such a false assumption, the food would not be kosher, since the money would have stemmed from theft. However for his guest there was no question of the kashrut of the dish, since by taking it he became its new owner. Hence for him it was strictly kosher according to all opinions (Tenuat HaMussar).

For that matter, this is the reason why Rabbi Israel said in the presence of Rabbi Fishel-Ber of Rassein, an extremely wealthy man, that it was forbidden to desecrate Shabbat for him if he fell sick, for he had the status of a thief. Rabbi Fishel-Ber recounted this to Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan, the Rav of Kovno, who did not laugh when he heard this. Instead, he thought about it for a few moments and said, “Tell Rabbi Israel that he is mistaken. It is permitted to desecrate Shabbat for him.” In fact, his disciples recounted that Rabbi Israel fell ill on a Sunday and died the following Friday morning, so that no one had to desecrate Shabbat for him (heard from Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky).

Rabbi Israel was born in 5570 (1810) in the town of Zhagory, Lithuania. His father was Rabbi Zev Wolf, author of Hagaot ben Aryeh on the Talmud.

Rabbi Israel was first educated by his father, and then studied with Rabbi Tzvi Broida, the Rav of Salant. He succeeded very well in his studies, and before turning 13 he already knew the Talmud by heart.

At the age of 18 he settled in Salant, whose name he carries. Other than his greatness in Torah, Rabbi Israel was a genius in Mussar and character development.

He published and important article entitled Iggeret HaMussar, in which he invites the reader to study Mussar. This article spread to every yeshiva, and people began to study his holy words in detail. This marked the beginning of a great event – the Mussar movement.

Rabbi Israel Salant fell ill while in Koenigsberg in 5643 (1883). He passed away on Shevat 25, his pure soul ascending to Heaven.

Rabbi Israel did not leave behind any books, but he did leave his disciples, and they spread his Torah throughout the world.




Hevrat Pinto • 32, rue du Plateau 75019 Paris - FRANCE • Tél. : +331 42 08 25 40 • Fax : +331 42 06 00 33 • © 2015 • Webmaster : Hanania Soussan