Mattityahu (Mathias) Strashun (1817-1885):
Scholar, Leader and Book Collector
Mattityahu Strashun’s Biography
Mattityahu, son of Rabbi Samuel Strashun was born on Hoshana Rabbah Day of the year 578 (1817). Since childhood he showed evidence of exceptional memory and great talent in the study of Talmud. His father employed an excellent tutor, Rabbi Yeshaya David of Lebedev,for him and his older brother Eliyahu. One day the great Gaon, Rabbi Menashe of Ilya, a relative, visited the Strashun family. All the dignitaries of Vilna came to meet Rabbi Menashe and hear his Torah learning. Rabbi Menashe examined young Mattityahu about his studies in the presence of this large crowd, and he replied correctly and accurately to every question.
At age sixteen, he started to study science and mathematics on his own. Soon he began to correspond with several maskilim, such as the writer Isaac Ber Lebensohn and Samuel Joseph Fuenn, who quoted him in their articles. Strashun, often writing under a pseudonym, also became a regular contributor to several scholarly Hebrew periodicals that began publication in the 1850s.
When he was 14 years old, Mattityahu married Sarah Hanah, daughter of the wealthy Yosef Eliyahu Eliasberg (1798-1881). The couple had two daughters, Gita and Itta, who both died at a very young age. With the help of his father-in-law, Strashun started a business, which was mostly managed by his wife and her brother. The Russian Census report of 1851 lists Strashun’s capital as at least 8000 rubles.
Strashun's economic success enabled him to purchase thousands of books, which he read avidly and memorized. His house became a destination for scholars, who flocked to hear his erudition and to consult his books. In 1848, he was appointed head of the Burial Society, whose records were in disarray. Strashun hired someone to take care of the account books and record the names of the deceased. A few years later, he became the head of the Charity Committee of the Vilna Community, Tsedakah Gedolah, which was in charge of all community affairs. In 1868, he was appointed member of the Vilna branch of the State Bank, and was honored ten years later for his exemplary service with a gold medal (17 February 1878). In addition, he served in the Vilna City Council (Duma). Mattityahu died childless in December 1885, and his wife died a few months after him.
In his will, Strashun left 5000 rubles to the Tsedakah Gedolah, 1500 to the Old Age Home, 1000 to the Yeshiva in the Butchers’ Kloyz, and 500 rubles each to four Talmudic schools. His books and house were bequeathed to the Vilna Kehilah to become a public library. He also left an endowment to pay the salaries of a librarian and an assistant. Following are a few excerpts from the introduction by his nephew and executor, David Strashun to Likute Shoshanim, Being the catalogue of books collected by Mathias Strashun of Vilna, published in Berlin, 1889: