Rabbi Shemuel Strashun – The Rashash

Rabbi Shemuel Strashun was neither a Rav, nor an Av Beit Din, nor a Rosh Yeshiva, nor was he responsible for a community. Rather, he was only a resident of Vilna. Nevertheless, he is known throughout the world as a spiritual giant.

Rabbi Shemuel Strashun followed in the footsteps of the Vilna Gaon, who said that all science, as well as the observation of nature, helps us to understand true wisdom, that of the Torah. Such was the method of Rabbi Shemuel. From his writings we see that he possessed a vast knowledge of Hebrew grammar, as well as being familiar with math, geography, and history, and fluent in German and Polish. Yet above all he is known for his work entitled “The Rashash.” Rabbi Shemuel wrote commentaries on every page of every tractate of the Talmud. These are renowned for the great scholarship that they bear witness to, their subtlety of reasoning, and for the marvelous logic and straight, sharp intelligence that runs through them. The Torah greats of the generation stated, “In his book, Rabbi Shemuel literally summarized everything that deals with understanding the Talmud.”

Nevertheless, in addition to all these fine skills, Rabbi Shemuel Strashun was known for his humility and extreme modesty. Rabbi Israel of Salant recounted the following story to illustrate his humility:

One day, Rabbi Israel and Rabbi Shemuel Strashun found themselves together in the same town. A discussion began between them concerning faith in G-d, namely whether it was useful to have faith for something that was not necessary. Rabbi Israel believed that a man has the right to pray to G-d for something that he considers to be superfluous, whereas for Rabbi Shemuel, a man has no right to ask G-d for something that he does not need. To Rabbi Shemuel, a man’s prayer is only heard if it deals with things that he absolutely cannot do without.

Rabbi Israel then proposed that they test their views to see which was right. Once Rabbi Shemuel accepted, Rabbi Israel said, “From now on, I trust in G-d that He will send me a watch, which is not necessary for me because I have absolutely no need for one. We will see if He will send me it.” They warmly shook hands and departed, each waiting to see what would happen.

Six months passed, until one day Rabbi Shemuel was in his library studying Torah and heard someone knocking lightly at the door.

“Enter,” he said. “Come into the room.”

A young Christian, tall and clothed in a lieutenant’s uniform, came inside.

Rabbi Shemuel interrupted his study and asked, “How may I help you?”

“I have something to say to you,” the lieutenant began. “A Jewish soldier in my regiment just died, but beforehand he asked me to do him a favor. He had a watch – his only possession in the world – and since he had no family or close friends, he asked me to bring it to the local Jewish Rabbi. The Jews of Vilna told me that this was you, which is why I’ve brought you his watch.”

Rabbi Shemuel took it and thanked the lieutenant for having gone to all the trouble. When he left, Rabbi Shemuel began to reflect upon this bizarre incident. He looked at the watch and thought about it long and hard. Then all of a sudden, the memory of his discussion with Rabbi Israel of Salant came to mind. Was it possible that Heaven had sent the watch to Rabbi Israel? After all, did he not say, “From now on, I trust in G-d that He will send me one”? On the other hand, perhaps it was a coincidence? These thoughts jostled in his mind and gave him no rest. He wanted to immerse himself again in his studies and forget this whole strange incident, but he couldn’t. He had in his mind the image of Rabbi Israel, and it wouldn’t leave him. He called his son Mattityahu and asked him to go and bring Rabbi Israel of Salant to see him.

Rabbi Israel arrived, and Rabbi Shemuel gave him the watch and said, “G-d has heard your prayer and sent you this watch. You have been proven to be correct from Heaven.”

When Rabbi Israel recounted this story, he always added: “It was simple for Heaven to send me a watch. When a person has faith in G-d, He responds to prayer. But for Rabbi Shemuel not to be been ashamed to recognize this, that was far from simple, and it was far greater than the first matter.” Rabbi Israel would end by saying, “Rabbi Shemuel is a Tzaddik of great humility. I am certain that his commentary on the Talmud will be welcomed by all.”

Rabbi Israel’s prediction proved correct. The Torah of the Rashash became a foundation and aid for all those who study Gemara in-depth, from young boys up to the greatest scholars. If a person notices something obscure in the way that the Gemara expresses itself – yet neither Rashi, Tosaphot, the Maharsha, the Maharam, nor the Maharshal point this out – one must go to the Rashash for help, and among his books one will find the answer to every such difficulty.

Rabbi Shemuel Strashun was born on Heshvan 18, 5554 (1794) in Zaskevich. He was the son of Rabbi Yossef, the Rav of the city.

At the age of 13 he married the daughter of Rabbi David Strashun, who was living in the village of Streszyn (commonly called Strashun). After several years, people began to call him after his father-in-law, and the name stuck.

At the home of his father-in-law, who was a wealthy man, Rabbi Shemuel Strashun was able to study Torah in tranquility. Their village was destroyed during the Napoleonic wars, however, and his father-in-law Rabbi David took his family to the large city of Vilna and purchased a house for him there. He also established a Beit Midrash and began pursuing his business ventures there, whereas his son-in-law Rabbi Shemuel continued to study Torah. In Vilna he met Rabbi Avraham Danzig, the author of Chayei Adam, and became his student.

Even after the death of his wealthy father-in-law, Rabbi Shemuel continued to diligently study Torah without having to worry about his sustenance. He continued to write his glosses and commentaries while his wife successfully managed their business ventures.

Some elderly Torah scholars of Vilna recounted the following story:

One of the top brass of the army, who always purchased merchandise on credit, once spoke to Rabbi Shemuel’s wife and said, “I am leaving Vilna now, and I would like to pay you for what I owe. However I want your husband to certify in writing that I have repaid all my debt.”

His wife went to the Beit Midrash and asked her husband to interrupt his studies for a moment to come to the store. However he refused, saying: “G-d’s Torah is worth more to me than thousands in gold and silver – I cannot interrupt my studies.” He added, “What would you have done if I were dead and this man had come to demand that you bring me back from the grave to certify that he had repaid his debt? Thank G-d that I am still alive and studying Torah!”

His wife returned to the store and told the army big wig everything her husband had said, word for word. He was pleased by what he heard, and he was content to pay his debt with her signature testifying to the fact.

The Rashash lived a long time, dying at the age of 78 on II Adar 11, 5632 (1872).





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