Rabbi Matityahu Strashun of Vilna

Rabbi Matityahu Strashun was granted all the innate talents that a person could dream off. He had an extraordinary memory and did not know what it means to forget. His intelligence was prodigious and deeply penetrating. He immediately understood matters and reflected upon things in detail. From his early youth to the day he died, he was immersed in Torah study with great diligence, studying anywhere from 10 to 15 hours a day. His library constituted the largest Jewish collection of books in his generation, and in addition to all this he was wealthy and descended from a family whose lineage was greatly respected. There is nothing surprising about the fact that he became a tremendous personality, in perfect possession of all the Torah. His home was open to Torah scholars, and from far and near philosophers and scientists came to him with various questions, ones to which his answers were accepted by all as if given by Urim and Turim.

Rabbi Matityahu Strashun was born in the autumn of 5578 (1817) to the Gaon and Tzaddik Rabbi Shemuel, the wise and wealthy man of the village of Strashun known as the Rashash.

When Matityahu was six years old, people began to discover his exceptional talents. He could repeat by heart – literally letter for letter – everything that he learned and read. People said that he was “a little Sha’agat Aryeh,” and thus it was difficult to find a teacher for him. Seeing that he needed a great Rav to teach his son, Rabbi Shemuel entrusted Rabbi Menashe of Ilya, a disciple of the Vilna Gaon, to teach him Gemara and the Poskim. Rabbi Shemuel devoted himself as well to Matityahu’s education and studied Torah with him, and for a short time the boy also studied with Rabbi Israel Salanter.

At the age of 13 he was known as a child prodigy, and one of the wealthiest individuals in Vilna took him as his son-in-law. After his wedding, his father-in-law bought him a business that dealt in silk, and his wife, who was a woman of valor, took charge of the business to allow Rabbi Matityahu to remain immersed in Torah study with great regularity.

He published his first literary work at the age of 14. He had a remarkable style, similar to those of intellectual giants of times past, and he knew how to express his new and original ideas in a few lines and with only several words. His books earned him great renown, and everyone considered him to be a foremost expert in every field. During his time there was a great disagreement among Torah scholars concerning the division of times and the precise moment for the new moon. The debate continued for several years until Rabbi Matityahu expressed his opinion, which was accepted by all sides, thus calming the disagreement.

In 5617 (1857), he undertook a long journey outside of Russia to acquire holy books and manuscripts of great worth for his library. He spent a great amount of money and erected the most important library in the Jewish world. There was practically no book in print that he had not purchased, yet he never placed a book in his library before having read it from cover to cover and in detail. The Strashun library existed until 1940, when it was destroyed at the hands of the accursed Russians.

During that trip, he personally encountered the great Torah scholars that he had been corresponding with for years. He met Rabbi C.I. Rappaport (the Rav of Prague), Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Chayut (the author of Chiddushei Maharatz Chayut on the Talmud), and Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (the author of Haketav Vehakabbalah). Wherever he went, Rabbi Matityahu was received with great honor, however it was in Berlin that he was welcomed with especially great warmth. In fact the leaders of the Berlin Jewish community wanted to name him as their Rav, but Rabbi Matityahu declined.

In 5625 (1865), the community of Vilna chose him as their leader. At first he refused, fearing that this would prevent him from studying, but he finally allowed himself to yield at their insistence. He put all the community’s affairs into order, enacted new decrees, and annulled several obsolete customs. Thanks to him, the community of Vilna became an example for others by its efficient administration and charitable institutions.

Rabbi Matityahu’s greatest achievement, however, was that he saved 58 men from the draft. Each year Vilna had to provide 58 men as soldiers to the army or pay 800 rubbles for each exemption. All the eligible men from 40 to 60 years of age fled from Vilna for a few months before the draft and came back once the quota was reached. Many families suffered greatly from hunger during those times, for there were no providers there to support them. Heart-wrenching scenes played out in many Jewish homes, and the fate of the men who were caught fleeing was equally horrendous, for army abductors tormented the recruits like wild animals.

Rabbi Matityahu took upon himself the task of delivering the Jews from this shame. He organized a large assembly and proposed that 50,000 rubbles be collected to obtain certificates of exemption for the conscripts. He himself was the first to give a sizeable amount, and together with generous donations from the residents of Vilna, he was able to free all 58 men from serving in the army. With that, the community of Vilna was jubilant, and it organized a celebration in Rabbi Matityahu’s honor. His achievement was inscribed in the city ledger as the greatest deed ever undertaken by a director in Vilna.

He held this position for several years, until he had solidly established the foundations of the community. He then resigned, handed over the community’s leadership to another person, and returned to studying Torah.

Rabbi Matityahu had produced no books of his own up to that time. When he was asked why he never wrote any, he replied that a person has to study a great deal in order to write a book, and the more a person studies, the more he realizes that he has not studied enough. It was only after the age of 60 that he decided to give the Romm brothers, printers in Vilna, his commentaries on some tractates of the Talmud to publish.

At the beginning of the year 5646 (1885), he felt that his days were numbered and began to prepare his will. He bequeathed his great library to the community of Vilna, as well as a large building that was a source of revenue used to maintain the library. The only child he left behind was an orphan girl, a close relative of his wife, whom he had adopted in childhood. It was to her that he left a great part of his inheritance.

Rabbi Matityahu died on Tevet 6, 5646 (Dec 14, 1885), and the community of Vilna prepared a large funeral for him, the likes of which had never before been seen in the city. Dozens of rabbis, among others Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan, the Rav of Kovno, gave eulogies for him.




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