Mattityahu (Mathias) Strashun (1817-1885):
Scholar, Leader and Book Collector
Samuel and Mattityahu Strashun: Between Tradition and Innovation|
By Dr. Mordechai Zalkin
Translated from the Hebrew by Dr. Dror Abend-David
Edited by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub
Dr. Mordechai Zalkin is Senior Lecturer of Jewish History at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He is a specialist in nineteenth- and twentieth-century East European Jewish history. He is the author of Ba-'alot ha-shahar: ha-haskalah ha-Yehudit ba-Imperyah ha-Rusit ba-me'ah ha-tesha 'esreh [A New Dawn: Jewish Enlightenment in the Russian Empire in the Nineteenth Century] (Magnes Press, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2000).
During the second half of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, the Jewish community of Vilna experienced radical transformation. The community, one of the largest and most significant in Eastern Europe, was affected by a succession of disruptions and tensions that originated from both internal and external sources. These tensions touched almost every aspect of the lives of Vilna Jews.
Within the Jewish community, a number of crucial changes in the areas of rabbinical leadership took place. First, the rabbinical elite underwent great conflict regarding the question of the appointment and authority of the town rabbi. In this matter, the intense involvement of the community’s most politically and economically powerful families was apparent. This fact did not calm the involved parties, but rather added to the general tension. 
In addition, a considerable change in the Lithuanian school of Torah learning took place. By broadening the array of study methods and opening up new areas of study, Rabbi Elijah Ben Solomon Zalman of Vilna, known as the Vilna Gaon (The Genius of Vilna), who occupied a position of singular respect in the community, shook the traditional hegemony of the scholars there. This trend continued even after the Gaon’s death, when the central site of Torah learning was transferred, in the beginning of the nineteenth-century, from Vilna to the Volozhin Yeshiva, founded by Rabbi Hayyim Volozhiner, his most famous student.
The rabbinical leaders of the day also faced challenges to their authority from various new Jewish and non-Jewish forces. Hasidism, a religious movement that sought to revive connection to God through mysticism and joy, was widely perceived as a threat to the intellectual rigor of rabbinic Jewish life. In addition, leading figures of Jewish Enlightenment made Vilna into a stronghold for the spread of a new spirit of intellectual skepticism and inquiry through widespread educational, literary, and journalistic activity. The Musar movement, founded by Rabbi Israel Salanter, which sought to more fully integrate ethical practice and study into traditional Judaism, was another source of controversy.
From the outside, the Lithuanian Jewish community was affected by various international military and political events. First and foremost, one has to take into account the upheaval caused in Lithuania by the wars that were fought between Napoleonic and Russian forces on Lithuanian soil from 1807 until 1812. The local population suffered from all aspects of the war, including hunger, looting, and expulsions. In addition, Jews were considered by both the Russians and the French as potential collaborators with the opposition and were treated, as a result, as traitors. Accompanying the war was an acute economic crisis that had effects that lingered for another decade.
Another change was caused by the transition in sovereignty of the Lithuanian lands from Polish nobility to the state of the Russian Tsar. Under the decentralized rule of the Polish landowner, the Jews were free to conduct their own communal affairs. Under the centralized authority of the Tsar, this freedom was greatly curtailed. To a certain extent, the ongoing survival of the Jews in a hostile Christian East European environment can be attributed to the unique and mutually beneficial relationships they developed with the local Polish nobility. The different interests of the centralized Russian authority, accompanied by their religious hostility, were considered by the Jews to be portents of an unstable future. Furthermore, in the urban setting of Vilna, as a result of the process of enforced Russification, a wide national and cultural conflict arose between the Polish residents and the Tsar’s government. Willingly or not, Jewish residents were involved in these tensions. All of these factors, both internal and external, contributed to the political and historical marginalization of the social, cultural, and religious powers of "Old Vilna."
In short, nineteenth-century Vilna, known to Jews both in and out of that city as "Jerusalem of Lithuania," became the cradle of dynamic new forces. Its ideological and social heterogeneity made it a magnet for hundreds of young people from towns in nearby and distant regions. Its old and traditional elite found it difficult to function under changing conditions and was gradually replaced by newcomers.
It is under these conditions that the Strashun family made its public social, scholarly, and political debut in Vilna. The father, Samuel Strashun Zaskovitzer (1794-1872), reached Vilna with his family as part of a wave of immigration that accompanied Napoleon's campaigns. It is difficult to believe that under "normal" conditions such a family, despite its solid economic position, would have become a part of the local elite. However, the crisis and economic instability of the day enabled swift transformations and rapid social mobility. Still, it is important to remember that even accelerated integration within this milieu did not guarantee the central position, the prestige, and the influence that this family acquired. In the discussion that follows, I will try to define the roots of this process as well as the forces that rendered Samuel and Mattityahu (1819-1885) Strashun central and influential figures in the Jewish community of nineteenth-century Vilna.
The very uncertainty that characterized this transitional period is also mirrored by the state of the research that concerns it, particularly in the treatment of key figures. In addition to hagiographical descriptions that characterize ultra-orthodox writing,the historiography on Vilna at this period does not provide a clear picture of the contexts and the personalities of Samuel and Matityahu Strashun. The 'classic' historiographybeginning with Samuel Joseph Fuenn's book, Kiryah ne'emanah [A Faithful Town] and continuing through the works of Hillel Noah Schteinschneider ('Ir Vilnah [The City of Vilna]), David Maggid (Vilner maskilim mit 60-65 yor tsurik [Vilna's Enlightened Jews 60-65 Years Ago]), Shalom Pludermacher (Zikaron le-Hakham [In Memoriam to a Wise Man]), Tsevi Harkavy (Rabbi Samuel Strashun of Vilna, Rabbi Mattityahu Strashun), and Judah Leib Maimon (introduction to Mivhar kitve Matityahu Strashun [Mattityahu Strashun's Selected Works]) – stresses the qualities of leadership and Torah learning in the lives of the two men. Moreover, a careful reading of these sources demonstrates an attempt to describe them as unquestioning inheritors of the chain of tradition who did not challenge the norms of the pious scholarly elite. There has been little, if any, attention to the contribution and involvement of the Strashun family in the reconstruction of nineteenth-century Jewish Lithuanian society.
In addition to the 'classical' historiography, one can find a second school that can be referred to as a "perplexed" historiography. Included here are the works of Jacob Shatzky (Kultur geshikhte fun der Hoskole in Lite [Cultural History of Jewish Enlightenment in Lithuania]) and Masha Greenbaum, (The Jews of Lithuania). These scholars ignore, either consciously or unconsciously, the activities of these two central figures. Perhaps this is because of the difficulties in characterizing the Strashuns because they did not fit the mold of either traditional or Enlightened figures.
Recently, a "new" historiography challenging both these approaches has emerged. This school, which includes the work of scholars such as Israel Klausner (Vilnah Yerushalayim de-Lita [Vilna: Jerusalem of Lithuania]), Shmuel Werses (Tekufat ha-Haskalah be-Vilna [The Period of Jewish Enlightenment in Vilna), Immanuel Etkes (Parashat ha-Haskalah mi-ta'am veha-temurah be-ma'amad tenu'at ha-Haskalah be-Rusyah [The Affair of Institutionalized Jewish Enlightenment and the Transformation in the Status of this Movement in Russia], Michael Stanislawski (Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews), and Mordechai Zalkin, (Ba-'Alot ha-shahar [A New Dawn]) seeks to create a more complicated image, a multifaceted approach that introduces the two men as a bridge between old and new ways, between tradition and Jewish Enlightenment both in terms of their cultural and religious worldviews and in terms of their public activities.
This essay will build upon the work of the "new" historiography, while emphasizing the unique role the Strashuns played in the transformation of Jewish life in nineteenth-century Vilna.
An appropriate starting point of our voyage to the world of the Strashuns is the person of the father, Samuel. This starting point is admittedly somewhat problematic, since, in contrast to other central figures in the Lithuanian scholarly elite such as Rabbis Pinhas of Polotsk, Samuel Kelmer, Elijah Ragoler, and Hayyim Volozhiner, he did not present his worldview through either books or sermons. Indeed, an examination of historical sources dealing with the first quarter of the nineteenth century reveals very little data, resulting in a situation that is referred to by historians as "a silence of sources." In fact, during the first years of the Strashun family in Vilna, it was Samuel's father-in-law, the wealthy merchant David Strashun, who was involved in local public and economic activity. It seems that Samuel found it difficult to integrate into one of the many bate midrashim (houses of study) that were populated by, to use the term of Israel Klausner, "private scholars." It is likely that this difficulty motivated David Strashun to found a small synagogue ("kloyz") in his own backyard. This was a common phenomenon among the financial elite of that time. According to this norm, "Reb David Strashuners Kloyz" was also used as a bet midrash by various scholars and certainly by Samuel. A small group of young scholars gathered under the guidance of Rabbi Mordechai Meltzer, a son and a son-in-law of well-known families in Vilna. We also know that one of Samuel's teachers was Rabbi Shmaryahu Rabinovich, who was the teacher of other leading scholars such as Rabbi Gershon Ha-Kohen and Tsevi Hirsh Katzenellenbogen. However, only fifteen years after his arrival in Vilna, Samuel Strashun became, for the first time, a member of a communal institution, "The Yeshiva of the Forty," which was founded in Vilna in 1827. Much of the incentive to the creation of this yeshiva can be attributed to the conscription of the Jews into the Russian army, which was publicized that year. Historian and biographer Hillel Noah Maggid-Schteinschneider writes:
Because of this decree, there was a great increase in scholarly activity in various cities, and particularly in our own town, as the government allowed the heads of the communities to carry out the conscription. As these were usually great religious scholars, every bachelor or continuing [after marriage] student who showed merit was protected by the Torah from military service.
These forty young scholars, some of whom were descendants of well-known families (Katzenellenbogen, Klachko), were all at the age of military service and enrolled in the yeshiva to avoid conscription. Others, like Samuel Strashun, enjoyed the opportunity of studying with such an elite group of local scholars. Without discussing in detail the contribution of "The Yeshiva of the Forty" to the spiritual life of the Jewish community in Vilna, it is important to note that its founding symbolizes the beginning of a new period in the history of Vilna scholarship.
As mentioned above, the classical structure of religious study in Vilna, composed of small bate midrashim and expert scholars, was shaken up during the last quarter of the eighteenth and the first quarter of the nineteenth centuries. Because of the innovations of The Vilna Gaon and his bet midrash as well as the rapid development of the Volozhin Yeshiva, the old bet midrash lost its place as a central location of scholarship. In addition, a select group of the Gaon's students did not continue his scholarly activities in Vilna, but dispersed in various directions, leaving a considerable gap in this area. Despite the existence of small bate midrashim, such as the one in the backyard of David Strashun, the scholarly community in Vilna never truly recovered from its crisis in the turn of the eighteenth century until the establishment of the new yeshivas, and, in particular, "The Yeshiva of the Forty," and "Rameyles Yeshiva" in the 1820's.
Although "The Yeshiva of the Forty" operated for only two years, its influence was apparent in various aspects of Jewish communal life in Vilna. An examination of the students of this yeshiva reveals the formation of a new scholarly elite, a group in which Samuel Strashun held a central and highly profiled position. The members of this group included Rabbis Isaac Sirvinter and Gershon Amsterdam, Jacob Pieskin and Ezekiel Landau, Jacob Baritt and Isaac Elijah Landau. Many went on to serve in various rabbinical posts. For the purposes of this essay, it is necessary to emphasize the centrality of those individuals, who, like Samuel Strashun, turned their scholarship into a lifelong occupation. The activities of Strashun contributed to the prominent role of scholarship in the lives of substantial sectors of Jewish society in Vilna, as is demonstrated by contemporary evidence:
In our town, Vilna… one would certainly find many hundreds of scholars and great and small masters, and many thousands who can read religious sources, and all of them come from the simple masses… and even among the artisans one can find many who can read and study the Torah. It is not uncommon to see here one of the artisans, as he studies the Pentateuch with Rashi's [Solomon ben Isaac] interpretation, Mishnah, En-Ya'akov, Midrash, and the Shulhan Arukh [Code, by Joseph Caro].
It is in this context that Samuel Strashun's "scholarly persona" was formed. Eastern European Jewish scholars at that time used a variety of study methods. These included repetition and memorization, pilpul (casuistry), and reasoning, a method that was mainly popular at the Volozhin Yeshiva. To this panoply of study methods, Samuel Strashun added his own. Since a precise understanding of the canonic text is necessary for accurate ruling in halakhah (Jewish law), Strashun devoted a great deal of time to the study of Hebrew grammar. This knowledge was reflected in his proofreadings of the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud. In so doing Strashun, to a large extent, continued the work of The Vilna Gaon. In addition to a grounding in Hebrew grammar, a full understanding of the talmudic text depends on a thorough knowledge of the Prophets and the Hagiographa.
Strashun considered the study of the context surrounding tana'im and amora'im (talmudic sages) to be a necessary element in understanding their priorities and the way in which their agreements and disagreements are presented. While the prevailing study method tended to be ahistorical and neglected differences of time, area, and background, Samuel Strashun saw tana'im and amora'im as individuals, affected by different aspects of life and not merely as "carriers of opinions." Therefore, he considered it extremely important to obtain an implicit knowledge of their lineage and the locations in which they operated.
Strashun's wide and comprehensive system of "proof-readings" and interpretations demonstrate his attempt to comprehend thoroughly the author's intentions, referred to in scholarly terminology as peshat [literal exegesis]. One can learn of the significance of Strashun's concept of scholarship, as well as of that of his interpretations, from the fact that his proof-readings became an inseparable part of the various editions of the Babylonian Talmud that have been published since the second half of the nineteenth-century. His extensive corrections and proofreadings are hardly a sign of pedantry, but rather a testimony to a conception of the text as an object that is open to consistent examination. The sanctity of the text, according to Samuel Strashun, is found in its meaning rather than its actual letters. Therefore, the text might include either grammatical errors or ones that are caused by the complicated process through which the text has been copied and re-copied. One must recognize such errors and correct them in order to reach the original meaning of the text. After all, without the full understanding of such meaning, it is impossible to reach one of the most important goals of religious study, the ability to rule in accordance with halakhah (Jewish law). In this sense, Samuel Strashun seems a prototype for the figure of "the man of halakhah," as he is described by Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik:
The man of halakhah approaches reality as he holds to the scriptures given to him at Sinai. He constantly requires solid and unchanging laws. An entire code of requirements and rulings leads him in the way that leads into being… The man of halakhah longs to bring transcendence down into the valley of death which is our world, and to turn it into the land of eternal life. The man of halakhah draws a circle within this world and does not move from it... he is induced with great stubbornness and rigidity.
The figure of "the man of halakhah" emerges as someone involved in constant and exhausting study, from tractate Berakhot at the beginning of the Babylonian Talmud to tractate Niddah that ends it. The study includes sections that bear practical relevance to modern life, such as the rules for Shabbat as well as sections that are irrelevant to modern life such as the rules regarding 'ir ha-nidahat (a deserted town). This is the essence and goal of "dry" Jewish-Lithuanian scholarship. It does not entail a great deal of discussion of the significance of Torah study, either as a goal on its own, or as a vehicle for arriving at a higher level of faith. It is scholarship for scholarship's sake, or, as Samuel Strashun writes, "It seems to me that the essence of study is thoroughness, one's careful understanding of what one reads."
Yet Strashun's distinctive approach was not limited to the Talmud and law. He extended his proofreading methods to midrashic literature, which, in a way, gave "legitimacy" to an intensive study of the Midrash, a field that was not held in high regard by earlier Lithuanian rationalistic scholars. Furthermore, his project included an intensive study of the work of Maimonides. The study of Maimonides, the most prominent medieval rationalistic halakhic figure, had been limited, until that point, to a small circle of highly talented scholars. Following the example of the Vilna Gaon, Strashun sought to make Maimonides' studying method available to a wide circle of Talmudic scholars. In practice, he repositioned Maimonides at the center of scholarly and halakhic discussion, a step which is consistent with the rationalist framework of Lithuanian thought and study.
"The Yeshiva of the Forty" also served as a meeting place for students who represented different segments of the Jewish society of Vilna. Along with members of traditional milieus, the yeshiva included two persons that soon became outstanding figures in the enlightened world of Vilna, the poet Adam Ha-Kohen (Abraham Dov Lebensohn and the teacher Tsevi Hirsh Katzenellenbogen. This meeting of diverse individuals, which was surely accompanied by a constant dialogue and exchange of opinion, was one of the most significant factors in the creation of Strashun's complex spiritual and cultural outlook.
The first evidence of Strashun's curiosity, which crossed the traditional boundaries of scholarly and halakhic inquiry, and his willingness to examine different world views is the appearance of his name in the list of subscribers (Prenummerantn) to what was considered the manifesto of Eastern European Jewish Enlightenment Isaac Baer Levinsohn's Te'udah be-Yisra'el [A Testimony in Israel], published in Vilna in 1828. This was only a first step after which Samuel Strashun was exposed to the world of exact sciences, natural sciences, and the study of foreign languages (Russian, Polish, and German). This knowledge was particularly useful as a tool for study and interpretation, "apothecary and cookery" as the Vilna Gaon called it. But, in contrast to the Vilna Gaon and his followers, Strashun's interest in these fields developed into an active engagement, albeit a limited one, in the activities of Jewish Enlightenment in Vilna. In later years, his intellectual flexibility was formalized through his joining Hevrat Mekitse Nirdamim [Society for the Awakening of The Asleep], an organization that published and distributed neglected Hebrew manuscripts.
Although Samuel Strashun's involvement in Enlightenment activities, at first glance, may not appear to exemplify transcendence of cultural and religious boundaries, it needs to be examined in terms of his contemporary context. The engagement of a first-rate scholar, who was highly regarded by traditionalists, in the activities of Jewish Enlightenment, was an uncommon phenomenon in early nineteenth-century Vilna. Such activity legitimized a trend that was seen, at least by traditionalists, as being beyond the acceptable boundaries of Jewish beliefs and ideologies. And yet, as in his study, it appears that Samuel Strashun examined this issue carefully, discussed it, and adopted values that he found acceptable. This was most likely the reason that, despite his singular methods, he was regarded even by the most extreme circles in Vilna as one who "knows how to deal with any person, and who wins everyone's good will; even though the people of different schools disagree with one another, all are in agreement with him, and no one disputes his opinions." In the social and ideological realities of nineteenth-century Vilna, such an attitude was exceptional by any standard.
Strashun's complicated position points towards a new model of a scholar as an autonomous exemplar of free and original thought within a society predicated upon conservatism and fear of renewal. This path of complete self-enclosure was chosen, for example, by Rabbi Moses Sofer (Hatam Sofer of Pressburg) who adopted the motto, "any innovation is forbidden by the Torah." Perhaps Hungary's most prominent rabbi, the Hatam Sofer adopted this approach to counter the spread of the Reform movement in Judaism. It appears that Samuel Strashun's special background, as well as the lack of stability in Vilna's Jewish community and learned circles, enabled the crystallization of a unique model. Indeed, at this particular moment of social upheaval, an individual unbounded by social and ideological traditions was at a distinct advantage, as he was able to provide intricate answers to current queries. The reality of Lithuanian Jewry was increasingly subject to innovative, practical, and constant examination in order to find the golden path between the fundamental values of traditional Jewish society and the surrounding world. As a result of this in-depth type of examination, Polish Jews called Lithuanian Jews tselem kep [Crucifix Heads]. The quintessential tselem kop does not judge objects according to their external appearance, but aspires to examine them thoroughly. It is not known when this characteristic of Lithuanian Jews was formed. However, given the fact that this was the typical characteristic of scholars, the very icons of Lithuanian Jewish society, it is only natural that the same attitude would be extended to areas unrelated to religious study. And, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik puts it: "The ideal way of life is not the sole commodity of the upper classes, or of Renaissance men, but a public commodity that is open to all Jews."
Samuel Strashun, in other words, was a figure of multiple dimensions. He appeared to belong to an old generation bounded by social and religious traditions. However, in practice, he was a leading figure who presented an innovative and alternative model of learning. His model placed equal importance on the Bible and the Midrash, theoretical scholarship and study for halakhic rulings, and the study of exact sciences. In addition to being a devoted scholar, Samuel Strashun did not enclose himself within walls of Torah and halakhah but explored new cultural horizons, the daily needs of his environment, and various forms of public activity. This complexity was perceived as unique by Samuel Strashun's own contemporaries, conservatives as well as liberals. Their appreciation of this characteristic is expressed in the eulogy for Samuel Strashun, delivered by Rabbi Isaac Elijah Landau:
[He was] a Renaissance man who holds to everything, all issues and details, the choice bunch and blossom of our vineyard, the man unifying law and charity, a man distinguished by all, a basket filled with knowledge among students of religion, and a wise speaker among the enlightened.
Within a wider context, Samuel Strashun and his colleagues made a significant contribution to the formation of a "Mitnagdic [anti-Hasidic]" consciousness. Although some scholars have tended to portray the beginning of the nineteenth century as a waning period in the bitter struggle between Hasidim and Mitnagdim, and to attribute this development to the conciliatory approach of Rabbi Hayyim Volozhiner, recent studies show that this is not the case. On the one hand, Hasidim continued the attempt to further their influence, particularly in Lithuania, considered the "land of Mitnagdim." On the other hand, the founding of the Volozhin Yeshiva no doubt contributed greatly to making religious study, as opposed to Hasidic "devotion," the single most significant value in Jewish society.  But besides being physically remote from large Jewish urban centers, Volozhin was an ivory tower inhabited by those who displayed outstanding intellectual potential. The vision of the Volozhin scholars was disseminated as they became rabbis and more tsedek (teachers of righteousness) in various communities, but it had less influence in the bate midrashim and small synagogues, in the narrow alleys of the Jewish Quarter in Vilna, and in Jewish houses in Minsk and Kovno. There, among the "masses," the values of Torah study were carried on the shoulders of local scholars, who by their unceasing study became a tangible embodiment of the entire value system of the Mitnagdic conception. It appears that scholars such as Samuel Strashun held the same position in the eyes of Lithuanian Jews as an Admor [an acronym used in reference to a Hasidic rabbi: Adonenu Morenu ve-Rabenu, meaning our lord, teacher, and master] held for his followers. But unlike an Admor, who was often physically remote and not accessible to the people who sought his advice and wisdom, Samuel Strashun was close in proximity and readily available to his followers. It is impossible to find anywhere in Samuel Strashun's writings any signs of a possible relationship between scholarship and knowledge and a high social or administrative status or any suggestion that he sought acceptance as a leader because of his unique personality.
On the third day of the month of Tevet, 5652 (January 3, 1892), Shalom Pludermacher presented the two nephews of Mattityahu Strashun with his essay, "Zikaron Le-HakhamZeh sefer toldot ha-Rav ha-Ga'on, he-Hakham ha-Kolel Rabi Matityahu Strashun Z"L [In Memoriam of a Wise ManThis is the History of the Genius Rabbi, All Knowing Wise Man, Rabbi Mattityahu Strashun of Blessed Memory]." This essay, published some six years after the death of Rabbi Mattityahu Strashun, is the first attempt to provide a comprehensive summation of his life, his cultural and spiritual world, as well as his literary, interpretive, and journalistic activities. The two nephews used Pludermacher's essay (along with a detailed appendix listing Mattityahu Strashun's articles, which were published in various forums) as the introduction to the collection, Matat-Yah, hagahot, hidushim ve-he'arot me'irot 'al Midrash Rabah pri 'eto shel Matityahu Strashun [The Gift of God: Proofreadings, Innovations, and Illuminating Comments on the Midrashim of Our Rabbis by Mattityahu Strashun] (Vilna, 1893). Pludermacher's essay was preceded by a number of obituary notices that were published shortly after the death of Mattityahu Strashun, such as Kinah le-moto [A Eulogy on His Death] by the maskil Eliezer Ha-Kohen Zweifel (He-Asif, 5647 (1887), Moses Simon Antokolsky's essay, Evel kaved [Profound Grief] (Vilna 1886), and Sefer Me'arat ha-Makhpelah [The Book of the Tomb of the Patriarchs] by Duberush Torsh (Warsaw 1887). It was not until sixty years later that the exploration of Mattityahu Strashun's life and legacy was continued by Tsevi Harkavy, a descendant of the Strashun family, as part of his genealogical research. Such texts present the reader with a wide and detailed spectrum of facts and events. However, their approach is distinctly hagiographical in tone, characterized by such appellations as "a Talmudic genius," "the leader of religious scholars," and "the leader of researchers and critics." While the informative value of such texts should not be underestimated, some physical and temporal distance as well as a more judicious relationship to one's subject are necessary to formulate more objective conclusions regarding Mattityahu Strashun's contribution to the spiritual, cultural, economic, and political lives of Lithuanian Jews during the nineteenth-century.
Mattityahu Strashun was born in Vilna on the 21st day of the month of Tishre, 5578 (October 1, 1817), some six years after his parents' arrival in Vilna. The location and time of his birth affected his life considerably for several reasons. First, Mattityahu Strashun had the advantage of being considered a native of Vilna, as opposed to his father, whose status as an immigrant put him at a disadvantage. Second, the period in which he matured and formed his world viewsthe third and fourth decades of the nineteenth centurywas one in which the society of Vilna had changed radically in comparison with the one that his father faced when he first arrived. On the surface, this was the old, traditional Vilna, "Jerusalem of Lithuania," with its complex social, economic, and intellectual infrastructures. In practice, however, the city was open to the potent cultural trends of the Jewish Enlightenment, particularly among the social and economic elite of the Jewish community, which included the Strashun family. The Enlightenment developed quite differently in Vilna than it did in communities in Germany and in Galicia. It developed in harmony with its mainly conservative cultural and religious local context, yet it held resolute belief in the overall Enlightenment methods and goals. This model of Jewish Enlightenment is described well by Vilna native, historian, and literary scholar Joseph Klausner:
This model is based on the value of derekh erets [proper behavior], and is known in the Lithuanian jargon as "shtot." The "shtot" is an external norm that one adheres to, not out of spiritual need, but because it is more appropriate and comfortable. The "shtot" requires everyone to behave properly without paying attention to what one does privately. "Shtot" forces one to behave as most people do, without changing the local customs, to enslave oneself to what is accepted without analysis, criticism, or doubt whether the accepted tradition is still the best alternative. "Shtot" is the foe of any "eruption," any "jumping of the guns," of any considerable change or improper correction of what is fitting and acceptable.
The norm that Klausner discusses, the Vilna "shtot," left room for change in the ideological and cultural life of the Jewish community, but was restricted by two cardinal rules. The first is that the beginning of a transformation should take place in the "private realm," discreetly, and away from the public's gaze. The second rule is that change must take place gradually and subtly. Only later, when the existence of the phenomenon is accepted by public opinion, can one "come out" publicly, so long as this is done in a manner that would not seem to damage the existing cultural and ideological equilibrium. Indeed, this was the approach of the first generation of Jewish Enlightenment in Vilna during the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. This group included, among others, Isaac Elijah Gurland, Joseph Elijah Eliasberg and his brother Judah Bezalel, Mordechai Aaron Gunzburg, Isaac Seiberling, Abraham Dov Lebensohn (Adam ha-Kohen), Mordechai Nathansohn, Tsevi Hirsh Klachko, Abraham and Tsevi Hirsh of the Katzenellenbogen family, Baruch Rindziunsky, and Noah Bloch. Many of the above mentioned figures marked the boundaries of the social, economic, ideological, and political realms of reference of the Strashun family, as well as those of the Romm and Harkavy families that were related to the Strashuns.
The young Mattityahu, therefore, was born and educated in a social and cultural system in which the values of Jewish Enlightenment held a central position. The singular intellectual worldview of this system was composed of three main elements: 1) the Lithuanian Jewish tradition of scholarship; 2) a tight system of exchange with groups of Jewish Enlightenment in Central Europe; and 3) the influence of local of Polish intellectual groups. Mattityahu Strashun was a maskil with a firm grasp of canonical Jewish literature (the Bible, Talmud, Midrash, and Halakhah) who was guided by the enlightened European world and the 'bet midrash' of Immanuel Kant and Moses Mendelssohn, which epitomized his receptiveness to a world beyond the boundaries of Jewish society through a process of cultural interaction with the local non-Jewish intellectual elite. This is the cultural universe that influenced the life of Mattityahu's father, Samuel Strashun. But, as mentioned above, Samuel's was only a partial exchange, a result of both his background and conscious decision-making on his part. In order to understand the complex world of the son, Mattityahu, his method, and the realm of his activities, one must take these essential components of his identity into account.
Regarding Mattityahu Strashun's formal education, we have little information. It is known that one of his teachers was the maskil and writer Isaac Meir Dick. We do know that already at a young age he was exposed to the Lithuanian Jewish study method, of which his father was a notable practitioner, as well as to general areas of study such as Hebrew grammar, arithmetic, geography, and various languages. What is particularly representative of this stage in the formation of Mattityahu Strashun's ideological outlook is the balance that was kept between these two central components, a principle that became a basic part of his worldview in later years, and which was essential to his ability to influence the Lithuanian Jewish society. One can already notice one similarity between the father and the son – a sense of constant mobility, from the country to the city, from lower to higher social standing, and, in small steps, from the world of classical tradition to that of Jewish Enlightenment. They were most likely able to follow this path because they were not obligated by tradition to preserve the values of the local elites or their image and their status within the general community.
In examining the nature and the extent of his influence on contemporary Jewish Lithuanian and Vilna society, the multiple strategies of Mattityahu's intellectual activity emerge. One crucial characteristic of Mattityahu Strashun was the introspection he brought to his work. Mattityahu Strashun moved his focus primarily inward, towards the essence of Jewish existence that is found in canonical texts. After all, any criticism or change can only take place on the basis of intimate familiarity with the basic code of society that is supported by rich religious literature. Mattityahu Strashun, like his father, viewed this literature, including the Pentateuch, Prophets, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash and legends, as a unity of which every part holds a great value both for scholars and for the religious consciousness of an entire society. Because of the great significance that he attributed to the written word, Mattityahu Strashun continued and even extended his father's project of proofreadings. In addition, he did not refrain from pure and suggestive interpretation, even in cases where his reading contradicted traditional analysis.
A second perspective of Mattityahu Strashun's work was his interest in Jewish history and, particularly, the history of the intellectual elites in Vilna. He attributed a great ethical significance to the study and writing of history, believing that the intimate familiarity with exemplary cultural and religious figures from the past contributes to the strengthening and molding of contemporary identity, particularly at a time of doubt and insecurity. Historical writing provides a singular vehicle for self-examination, for studying the roots of a society and the forces that shaped its identity and appearance. It provides a point of reference for the evaluation of contemporary and future developments. It is in this spirit that one should read his introduction to Samuel Joseph Fuenn's book, Kiryah ne'emanah, korot 'adat Yisra'el ba-'ir Vilna ve-tsiyunim le-nefashot ge'onehah, hakhamehah, sofrehah ve-nedivehah [A Town of Faith: the History of the Jewish community in the City of Vilna and A Guide to the Characters of its Geniuses, Sages, Authors, and Patrons] (Vilna 5658 (1898):
The topic of this book is not a vanity! In addition to its usefulness for Torah scholars and for those who study holy texts, and in addition to the fact that the memoirs of righteous men and the collection of their deeds bring forth a blessing to society, as hearts will turn to follow their example, and as they will invoke innocent envy that motivates one to learn from their kindness, to resemble them and follow their honest path, it is the honor of our nation in its entirety to bring to light the mysteries of our great and wise ones, bring them back from oblivion, digging up their memory like hidden treasures from within the crevices of rocks, and the secret layers of the earth, presenting before the nations and their ministers the wisdom of Israel and the fruit of their excellence in Torah and in righteous deed, of which one finds a great and honorable abundance.
Matityahu Strashun himself never published on these topics, but his various remarks, thoughts, addenda, and essays in this field provide an extremely significant contribution both to the formation of the "historical tale" of Lithuanian Jewry and of the rabbinical world, and to the self-awareness of Vilna Jews.
If, at first glance, the "vertical" scholarly roots of Mattityahu Strashun's upbringing are most apparent, it is possible, upon further examination, to detect, a "horizontal proximate" influence. Situated within a broad context, one notices primarily the influence of the ideas of the Jewish Enlightenment, to which he was exposed at a young age. As his other Vilna maskilic colleagues, Mattityahu Strashun did not see Jewish Enlightenment as an innovation for innovation's sake, but rather as a significant, perhaps essential vehicle for rescuing contemporary Jewish society from a vicious circle of poverty, hardship, internal tensions, and inability to adjust to a changing reality. Because of his intimate familiarity both with basic values of traditional Jewish society and of the ideological worldview of Jewish Enlightenment, he concluded, not only that the two do not contradict each other, but that the solution of the above predicaments necessitated the merging of the two. He had already reached this conclusion when he was twenty years old, as he was reading Isaac Baer Levinsohn's book, Te'udah be-Yisra'el [A Testimony in Israel]. We learn of the influence of this book on Mattityahu Strashun from his note to the author:
Since the day his [the author's] precious book, Te'udah be-Yisra'el, shined before my eyes and I read it from beginning to end, my soul clung to his, I read his book twice, thrice, and did not have enough of it yet. I wished to grow wings like a pigeon and fly to the hall of his glory, dwell with him, hug and kiss him, and be his humble slave for eternity! For this book has made a man out of me.
In addition to its marriage of the purposes of Jewish Enlightenment and the traditional concepts of Jewish society, "the purpose of Te'udah be-Yisra'el is to effect considerable change in three areas in the lives of Russian Jews: 1) spiritual and cultural activity; 2) economics; and 3) the relationship between the Jews and the authorities and societies that surround them." An examination of Mattityahu Strashun's life reveals a complete internalization of these goals as well as an attempt to realize them within the context of his time and location.
Despite the claims of some of his hagiographic biographers, Mattityahu Strashun did not regard the Jewish Enlightenment as a secondary cultural system. In fact, it can be argued that he was completely enchanted by it. The evidence for this assertion is his dynamic involvement in every activity of the social, educational, and cultural realms of the Jewish Enlightenment. He did so visibly and without fear of the reaction of conservative circles. He therefore cannot be seen as a "passive maskil" who was responsive to the call of Jewish Enlightenment but would not go as far as translating his sympathies into practical gestures. On the contrary, since the turn of the 1830s, Mattityahu Strashun was positioned at the very center of Enlightenment activities.
In the early 1840s, Mattityahu Strashun became involved in one of the most significant projects of Jewish Enlightenment in Eastern Europe the founding of schools in the spirit of Jewish Enlightenment. These schools were intended to have a long-term effect on the lifestyle and appearance of contemporary Jewish society. Working as a teacher in a school founded by the maskil Nisan Rosenthal in 1841, Mattityahu Strashun made a 'public declaration' of his commitment to the ideology of Jewish Enlightenment and his obligation to its realization. One occasion on which his commitment to this ideology was given public expression was the visit of Max Lilienthal, the representative of the Russian Ministry of Education, in Vilna during the early 1840s. The purpose of this visit was to plan a reform in the Jewish educational system within the Pale of Settlement. This visit was marked by an intensive debate between maskilic and traditional groups, in which Mattityahu Strashun publicly supported the position of the maskilim It is not unlikely that his choice added to the self-confidence of Vilna maskilim, and the young people who were taking their first steps in the direction of Jewish Enlightenment.
But Mattityahu Strashun not only contributed to the widening of the influence of Jewish Enlightenment, but also to the unity and strength of various maskilic groups. He was, therefore, actively involved in the social activities of such circles, even though he refrained from involvement in internal debates that were raised on various occasions. Simultaneously, he contributed to the fortification of wider forums of Jewish Enlightenment, both by his constant communication with important maskilim inside and outside the boundaries of the Russian Empire and by his support of maskilim who lived far from the centers of Jewish life and needed the ideological and social support of such a figure of stature as Matityahu Strashun. A typical example of his activities is his support of a maskil of the Jewish community of Novogrodek, who was unable to attain a copy of Adam Ha-Kohen's book, Shire sefat kodesh [Song of the Holy Tongue]. In his desperation, he appealed to Mattityahu Strashun, and, as Strashun granted his wish and sent the book to him, he thanked Strashun in the following manner:
"For I have seen the commitment in his heart to turn me into an educated man, so that I might also speak in public with an audience of wise men without shame, and so that my face will not turn pale among a crowd of educated men."
To a great extent, this letter closes a circle that was opened with Mattityahu Strashun's letter to Isaac Baer Levinsohn. More than any other figure in nineteenth-century Vilna, Mattityahu Strashun was a mediator between maskilim and conservatives. As the foremost maskil among conservatives and the most conservative among the maskilim, he positioned himself at the moderate end of the Vilna maskilic spectrum, in contrast to the tempestuous spirit of Benjamin Mandelstamm and Judah Leib Gordon. In the internal struggles within the circles of Jewish Enlightenment, Mattityahu always gave his unflinching support to those who sought a compromise, as is apparent from his reference to the maskil Eliezer Zweifel:
"Here is one man out of a thousand, who summoned all his strength, faith and religion on the one side, and deep observation and free investigation on the other... For on the one side of the fence young people lost their faith, and on the other, those who live in darkness sanctify and purify themselves, revering all that is dated and molding."
This was a paradigm of moderate enlightenment, typical of an upper social and economic class, that eschewed noisy revolutions and aimed rather for careful and gradual change. From this point of view, the Strashun family was different from other families that resembled it in terms of economic and political status but did not undergo similar transformations in their cultural and religious worldviews. The fact that primary developments in the Jewish Enlightenment were popular among some local elite families allowed a family such as the Strashuns, already on a path of upward mobility and intellectual innovation, to strengthen its status both among the local economic and scholarly elites and within the general community.
Another area in which Mattityahu Strashun exerted a great deal of influence is book publishing and promotion. Vilna's historians attribute this activity to the economic clout of his family connections. But, without a doubt, one should see his involvement in this field as an attempt to realize an additional social and public component of his maskilic worldview. East European maskilim regarded books as one of the foremost vehicles for spreading the values of Jewish Enlightenment. Many of them wrote books about ideology, exact sciences, history, geography, Hebrew grammar, prose, and poetry. The main difficulty that maskilim faced was the lack of resources for the printing and distribution of their books. Through both his close ties with the owners of the Romm printing house in Vilna, and later, as a member of Hevrat Mefitse Haskalah Be-'Eretz Rusya [A Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment in the Land of Russia] (see further), Mattityahu Strashun's contribution became significant to the Enlightenment movement.
His involvement with book publication provided Mattityahu Strashun with an opportunity to match his love for the written word with his sense of obligation to broaden the cultural horizons of the Jewish community. His private library, which was based on a large collection of various genres of rabbinical literature and which became, over the years, one of the largest, richest, and most diverse libraries in the Jewish East European World, was used regularly both by many of Vilna's maskilim and by scholars who were not committed to one ideology and found in Mattityahu Strashun's library an initial point of encounter with the world of the Jewish Enlightenment. In contrast with other private libraries, there is an extant catalogue of Mattityahu Strashun's library entitled: "Likute shoshanim ve-hu reshimat ha-sefarim asher asaf ve-kibets ha-Rav ha-Ga'on ha-Gadol he-Hakham ha-Kolel, Otsar ha-Torah veha-Kohkhmah, 'Ateret Tif'eret 'Amo ve-'Adato, Rosh ha-Mevakrim ha-Baki be-khol sifre yeshurun, ha-Gvir HaNikhbad be-'Amo, m.h.ve-r.R.Matityahu Strashun zatsal be-Vilnah [A Gathering of RosesThe List of Books Collected and Arranged by the Great, Genius, Wise, All Knowing Rabbi, a Vault of Torah and Wisdom, The Leader of Scholars Who Knows all the Righteous Books, a Distinguished Lord among his People, Our Teacher and Rabbi, Rabbi Mattityahu Strashun, a Righteous Man of Blessed Memory, of Vilna] (Berlin, 1889). This catalogue was prepared as a first step toward the actualization of an article in Mattityahu Strashun's will, in which he requested that his private library be used for the founding of a public library in Vilna after his death.
A thematic examination of the catalogue reveals that the collection included, along with canonical literature (The Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, Responsa [Queries and Replies: A 'Frequently Asked Questions' exchanged between generations of Rabbis and their followers across Jewish communities around the world], books of Cabbala, etc.), scientific publications (see, for example, catalogue numbers 949, 966, and 4290), grammar and textbooks for various languages (1232, 1236, 3417), books on the history of the Karaites (956), Jewish Studies (967, 1221), Hasidism (4963, 5672), History (1219, 1396, 3695), Travel books (827), Memorial books (1514, 1515, 1615), poetry (968, 1420, 5091), prose (16146, 3534, 3656), literature of the Jewish Enlightenment (839, 939), as well as dictionaries, books of sermons, and periodicals in various languages. This catalog reveals the great breadth of Mattityahu Strashun's collection. During this time, a number of other private libraries in Vilna, such as those of Samuel Joseph Fuenn and Yitshak-Ayzik Ben-Ya'akov, existed; however, none of them equalled the wealth and diversity of Mattityahu Strashun's collection.
Mattityahu Strashun was unequalled both in terms of the time and of the financial resources that he devoted to his library. It seems almost unnecessary to explain the cultural, social, and public significance of such a collection and the activity that surrounded it. Through his willingness to invest his energy, time, and money in attaining books and manuscripts that were not previously seen as a necessary element of the Jewish legacy, Mattityahu Strashun provided access to a new and hitherto unknown cultural realm. In so doing, he helped to change the attitudes of many of the members of the Jewish community.
Even the mere existence of this collection can be seen as an unequivocal public declaration, legitimizing a link with a rich and wide-ranging cultural realm beyond the boundaries of classical Jewish culture. The echoes of this declaration resonated within the cultural universe of Vilna Jewry. The fact that it came from one of the most highly regarded scholars in the city had a particular significance in relation to some of the cultural changes within the Jewish community. His contribution to the spiritual and cultural life of Vilna Jews did not end after his death. Unlike many others who realized the monetary potential of their book collections, Mattityahu Strashun took it for granted that his library, including a number of extremely rare manuscripts, would be used to serve the public of his native city. This was a pioneering act and yet a natural expression of his worldview. Indeed, from the end of the nineteenth century and until the destruction of the Jewish community in Vilna during the Holocaust, the Strashun library was the most significant Jewish public library in the city and one of the most significant public libraries in Europe. One can learn of the atmosphere in this library from the following testimony:
It was a spiritual center for all the wise men of our generation, all the young men who thirst for the glorious past, and all those who seek the word of God and the wisdom of Israel throughout the ages. The spirit of the Jewish people fluttered among the walls of the big house, and those who came inside felt that they were entering a genuine national Jewish atmosphere.
The "horizontal proximate" aspect of Mattityahu Strashun's influence was also expressed through his activity on behalf of the public. In traditional Jewish society, high social and economic standing, particularly when it was accompanied by noticeable intellectual capacity, influenced one's public standing as well as his political involvement within the community. This article does not examine in detail this aspect of Mattityahu Strashun's life, but it is certainly impossible to ignore the significance of his public activity and its influence on his immediate social environment. Such involvement, which was limited to internal communal institutions at first, was expressed through active membership in organizations such as: "True Charity" [a communal institution that provided burial services], "Great Charity" [a communal welfare system], and "The Kahal," [a community board responsible for all of inter-communal activities and for the relationship between the Jewish community and the local authorities]. In addition, Mattityahu Strashun was involved in various social and public issues. In 1869-1870, when a famine ravaged Vilna, Strashun helped organize a makeshift social service system for the poor. Another such occasion involved the selection of Jews to be drafted to the Russian army. From 1870 onwards, a Jewish youth could be ransomed from military service for the price of 800 rubles. Strashun raised money to present to the Russian government to prevent the conscription of a certain number of Jewish youths into the army.
At times, Mattityahu Strashun's activities transcended the narrow boundaries of the Jewish community. For example, he participated in the general economic activities of the city. In the early 1880s, he served as a member of the board at the branch of the National Bank in Vilna, a position in which he was greatly appreciated, even winning a gold medal for this service.
A third level of Mattityahu Strashun's life and activity is the 'horizontal remote' one, which was rooted in the local Jewish community but reached far beyond it. This perspective includes, foremost, the primary medium that Mattityahu Strashun used to distribute his ideasthe press. He was one of the first maskilim to notice the potential of this medium. The members of his father's generation, as well as many of his own, continued to consider books the primary vehicle (in addition to spoken sermons and letters) for the presentation of their worldviews. The press was seen as a "low intellectual medium" unworthy of the presentation of debates on issues of social and religious interpretation. Mattityahu Strashun, on the other hand, recognized its advantages of availability, applicability, and inmmediacy. There were almost no periodicals or newspapers at that time that did not publish his essays and letters on various topics. These publications included Pirhe Tsafon [Flowers of the North], 'Ale Hadas [Leaves of Myrtle], Ha-Magid [The Orator], Ha-Karmel [The Carmel (mountain)], Ha-Levanon [The Lebanon], and He-Asif [The Harvest]. In using the press, Mattityahu Strashun legitimized the use of an important modern tool and presented an example that was followed by many contemporary Jewish scholars, rabbis, philosophers, and authors.
Another aspect of Mattityahu Strashun's "horizontal remote" influence on the lives of East European Jews developed in the early 1860s. As a part of the changes that came after the death of Tsar Nicholas I, and the (relatively) liberal tendencies of the government of the new Tsar, Alexander II, general Jewish activity began to take place throughout the Russian Empire. This process marked the decline in the status of the local Kahal (which had ceased formal function in the middle of the 1840s) and the rise in power and status, of individuals, particularly men of wealth, and of national organizations. One well-known and significant example of this trend is the Hevrat Mefitse Haskalah be-Erets Rusya [A Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment in the Land of Russia] which was founded in the early 1860s by a group of wealthy St. Petersburg Jews led by Baron Ginsburg. This organization encouraged cultural and educational activities among Russian Jews through financial support for schools, teachers, authors, and other causes, as well as through political lobbying. The local representatives of The Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment in the Land of Russia in various communities were usually members of the local political and economic Jewish elite. This is the context for the appeal of the leaders of this society to Mattityahu Strashun in 1865, inviting him to join the society and awarding him the title of a "distinguished member." In response to their appeal, Mattityahu wrote:
It is with a heart filled with unadulterated sentiments for the prestige of this society and its founders that I evoke the words of the Most Tender Poet of Israel [King David], as I say: I am a member! Be God with you as you raise the honor of Israel in our land and bring them to follow the light of God, of Torah and education, and as you project rays of light to enlighten and awaken the hearts of the dwellers of our land, and bring them to consider us useful residents. Let the sun rise and the shadows withdraw, let there be light in all the towns of Israel; I am a member in your society, happy with your success and willing to take part in your work.
For Mattityahu Strashun this was a natural continuation of his efforts to disseminate the values of Jewish Enlightenment throughout large portions of the Jewish Community, working this time on an even larger scale. Nevertheless, since the center of activities of the society was located in St. Petersburg, a considerable distance from Vilna, his contribution to this organization and its various projects was limited.
In addition to his activities as a member of the Society for the Dissemination of Enlightenment in the Land of Russia, Mattityahu Strashun took part in one of the most significant projects that developed during that time, Hevrat Mekitse Nirdamim [A Society for the Waking of Those Who Sleep]." This society was also founded in the early 1860's by Eliezer Lipmann Silbermann, founding editor of Ha-Magid newspaper. Its first declaration was published in 1861, but its actual activities began in 1862. Its official aim was to publish scientific editions of old and rare Hebrew manuscripts. Among its founders were Rabbi Jehiel Michael Sachs of Berlin, Chief Rabbi of Britain Nathan Adler, and the philologist, philosopher and poet Samuel David Luzzatto (ShaDaL) of Padua, Italy. In order to enlarge the membership of the society and to raise the necessary funds for the promotion, printing, and distribution of selected manuscripts, the charter membership of the society published a series of ads in Ha-Magid that listed the aims of the society and its future publications and called on readers to enlist as members. In order to overcome the society's maskilic image, which was partly a result of the views of its founding members, these ads were accompanied by supporting statements from rabbis of various Jewish communities around the world, including ones from as far away as Baghdad. But despite such efforts, the Society for the Waking of Those Who Sleep did not do as well as expected.
Only when members from "the districts of Russia and Poland" joined the society did it finally "awaken." One of the main causes of this wave of new society members was an item published in Ha-Magid in 5622 (1862), that reported the addition of two new members, Rabbis Samuel and Mattityahu Strashun of Vilna. The Strashuns' enrollment was more than a formality, as they joined a long and respectable list of members from Odessa, Leipzig, Vienna, Baghdad, London, Prague, Warsaw, Amsterdam, and Trieste, who took part in the effort to:
Enrich rabbinical literature… enable cooperation between Jewish scholars of the various schools that are represented in this society...[and] form ties that transcend mere scientific aims. A commonwealth of wise men was created, [men] who were able to bridge the partitions of different religious views and to approach each other in the spirit of mutual respect and in a collegial manner. The sharing of scientific goals and aspirations created the basis for a 'neutral elite of intellectuals.' During their time together, these people were able to put aside their rigid views about religion, and cooperate with each other as Jews, with social and spiritual flexibility.
Considering the aforementioned significance that both Samuel and Mattityahu Strashun atrributed to proofreading and promoting texts, their membership in Hevrat Mekitse Nirdamim seems quite natural. In order to promote this project, which he held in the highest regard, Mattityahu Strashun purchased a large number of its publications and, after a short time, his name appeared among those of the "Leaders of the Society." This was not simply an honorary title. Unlike many others, Mattityahu Strashun was quite active within his local area, widening the circles of society members and subscribers who were subsequently joined by some forty new members during the years 5623-4 (1863-4), who included well-known figures such as Rabbi Naphtali Tsevi Judah Berlin, head of the famous Volozhin Yeshiva, Rabbi Gershon Amsterdam of Vilna, and Tsevi Hirsh Katzenellenbogen, the inspector of the seminar for teachers and rabbis in Vilna.
Through this activity, Mattityahu Strashun legitimized the project of Hevrat Mekitse Nirdamim to the Jewish Lithuanian and East European communities at the time, thereby greatly contributing to the society's ongoing activities and to the distribution of its publications. His work was a clear expression of the significance he attached to expanding the limited ideological and cultural scope of his surroundings. Furthermore, it was a reflection of his tendency to work both with individuals and with groups of people whose world views did not match those of the traditional society in Vilna, either in its conservative or maskilic currents. In other words, this was a step which aided in the creation of a international Jewish consciousness of "unity," or what might be termed "Knesset Yisra'el [the Jewish Assembly]."
A concise description of Mattityahu Strashun's character is found in a passage from the eulogy given by the maskil Eliezer Zweifel: "Four elements are integrated in your character Mattityahu: Torah and wisdom are fitted together in your heart, accompanied by wealth and pedigree." The four elements that Zweifel refers torabbinical position, scholarship, affluence, and lineagewere seen in traditional Jewish society as the foremost important values which determine one's social standing. Each one of the four would make someone the subject of jealousy, admiration, and marriage proposals. The possession of a few of these qualities would rank someone in the social hierarchy and allow him to exert a great deal of influence. This is the reason that a man whose views went far beyond the widely held ideologies of the "old" elites was able to become the single most outstanding and dominant figure in the Vilna community during the third quarter of the nineteenth-century. On the whole, the members of the local leadership did not tend to share the power and influence that had been obtained either through lineage (such as the Gordon family) or through great talent and persistent hard work and tenacity (as in the case of Judah Opatov). In fact, Mattityahu Strashun was neither the single most brilliant or thorough reader among the scholars of "Jerusalem of Lithuania," nor the maskil of broadest cultural, scientific, and literary horizons, nor the richest man in town, nor the one with the best pedigree. In each category, one can point to a number of people who were regarded as "leaders." The willingness of such 'leaders' to allow Mattityahu Strashun a place at the top of the social and political pyramid should be attributed to the cumulative effect of each of the four components that were found in his persona and gave him an edge over his several competitors. This explains Mattityahu's ability to exert influence over almost every aspect of Jewish life in Vilna. And, because of his unique and diverse activity, most of the members of his community, with different beliefs, habits, and social position, were able to approach him on various issues. One of the most impressive testimonies to Mattityahu Strashun's social status is provided by Y. L. Smolenski, as he reports on a visit to Mattityahu's house during the early 1870s:
I found a great crowd in his house: genuine and false maskilim, religious men and hypocrites, all of whom appeal for his kindness and await his nourishment, for he is a generous man and a kind host. And he, in his kindness, does not segregate the worshipers of God from those who do not worship God. All comers are respected, and are not asked about their views. There are many old books in his house, as well as new ones, because he is kind to everyone and curious about everything. The rules of his house correspond, like any orthodox Jew, to the Code, and he is therefore loved and respected by all of his acquaintances. And by doing all this he does a great service to Jewish Enlightenment, as the public learns from him and follows his example... We do not see here [in Vilna] a great difference between the maskil who longs for wisdom and knowledge, and religious men who care for piety and religion. The former does not step out of the crowd and does not break the law in public and the latter does not despise Jewish Enlightenment and does not persecute its followers. We can [therefore] conclude that the residents of Vilna long in their hearts to unify the values of faith and enlightenment.
In addition to this testimony, written by a member of the circles of Jewish Enlightenment who therefore highlights the maskilic facets of Mattityahu Strashun's views, one can learn of the high regard in which Mattityahu Strashun was held in traditionalist circles in Vilna and in Lithuania as a whole by studying the events related to his funeral and burial. The use of this criterion, which seems odd at first glance, is helpful and carries a great deal of authority when studying the relationship between maskilim and conservatives in nineteenth-century Vilna. Delayed burials, as well as improper eulogies, were two of the more common means of struggle used by conservative circles in Vilna. A number of such events made an impression on the collective memory of the Jews in this town. The best-known event that falls within this category took place during the funeral of poet and maskil Mordechai Aaron Gunzburg. Mattityahu Strashun's funeral, on the other hand, was quite different. He died on the sixth day of the month of Tevet, 5646 (December 14, 1885). According to an eyewitness,
"The streets surrounding his place of dwelling were filled with thousands of people of different affiliations, orthodox men as well as maskilim, poor as well as wealthy men, all of them holding to a common sentiment... The crowd stood in the cemetery with eyes filled with tears...for all the people knew that a great statesman and a great man was being taken away from Israel."
Leading the crowd were the dignitaries of the Vilna community including the scholarly and rabbinical elite as well as the single most significant rabbinical figure at that time, Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Spektor, who came expressly from Kovno for the funeral. One can also learn of the high regard in which the deceased was held by all sectors of Vilna's Jewish community by looking at those who were elected to eulogize himRabbi Jacob Joseph and Rabbi Elazar Kleinberg; the location of the eulogiesin the central synagogue and in the synagogue of the Zareche neighborhood; and, most tellingly, from the location of Mattityahu Strashun's gravenext to the grave of Rabbi Abraham Abelle Posvoller, the single most significant rabbinical figure in Vilna during the first half of the nineteenth century. Had the Jewish community in Vilna not regarded Mattityahu Strashun as one of the keepers of the tradition of "Jerusalem of Lithuania," these are gestures that could not have been purchased for all the money in the world. The following are the words in his memory delivered by Rabbi Jacob Joseph, Magid Mesharim and Moreh Tsedek in the Jewish community in Vilna, who represented the traditionalist camp of the local community:
"This rabbinic genius was proficient both in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud, the Responsa of both the former and the latter centuries, and in Hebrew Literature in its entirety. He was an agile writer and a man educated in the sciences, a great man in this nation in general, and a wise man and leader in this great city in particular. His words carried great weight, and his wealth complemented his wisdom."
A careful analysis of this eulogy reveals that, in contrast to other occasions in which a tribute was paid to wealthy deceased Jews, Rabbi Jacob Joseph emphasized the Mattityahu Strashun's achievements in rabbinic learning, noting his maskilic work second, and mentioning his wealth only at the end and only as an addendum to his tribute.
Mattityahu Strashun influenced all aspects of Jewish life in Lithuania and Vilna. In fact, it is difficult to describe the community of "Jerusalem in Lithuania" during the nineteenth century without an explicit reference to his work. And yet, the collective memory of his town recorded Mattityahu Strashun's deeds rather than the man himself. Despite the high regard in which he was held during his lifetime and the large sums that he left for a long line of institutions of charity and education in Vilna, Mattityahu Strashun, the man, was almost entirely forgotten two years after his death. His memory faded so much that, after two years, the residents of Vilna did not take the effort to commemorate the date of his passing, "as all things are forgotten with time..."
It is quite likely that the Jewish community in Vilna at the time unconsciously "expected" transformation and needed the people who would dedicate themselves to delivering reforms. Such figures would have needed to integrate a measure of conservatism and respect for "old" traditions and a measure of boldness and the ability to represent "new ways" as viable and legitimate options. While the "old" elites were fixated to a great extent in the past, those who wanted to forge a new ideological path faced a wall of hesitation and suspicion. The Strashuns, Samuel and Mattityahu, whose personalities and worldviews rendered them the right people at the right moment, fulfilled, perhaps even without any awareness, the task "thrust" upon them by Jewish history in Vilna. To a large extent they were the central agents of a slow process of transformation, a process that developed in small steps, guided by a practical view of reality, prudence, and a reluctance to offend the "old ways" as well as a heartfelt wish to develop new ones.
 For more information about this period, see Israel Klausner, Vilna bi-tekufat ha-Ga'on [Vilna During the Time of the Gaon], Jerusalem, 1942.
 For a bibliography of sources about the Strashun family, see Tsevi Harkavy, "Rabi Matityahu Strashun," Aresheth, No. 3. 426; and Rabi Shmu'el Strashun mi-Vilna [Rabbi Samuel Strashun of Vilna], Jerusalem, 1957; Since the publication of these sources, Mattityahu and Samuel Strashun have been referred to in various studies dealing with the Jewish community in Lithuania during the nineteenth century. See, for example, a selection of articles by Rabbi Mattityahu Strashun, published in Jerusalem in 1969; Israel Klausner, VilnaYerushalayim de-Lita [VilnaJerusalem of Lithuanian], Tel-Aviv, 1983; Mordechai Zalkin, Ba-'alot ha-shahar [A New Dawn], Jerusalem, 2000.
 See, for example, B. Nehorai, ha-Me'ir la-arets uve-tuvo mehadesh [He Who Illuminates the Earth and Renews in His Kindness," Yated ha-ne'eman [The Faithful Pillar], March 27, 1992.
 For information about Samuel of Kelme and Eliyahu Ragoler see: Emanuel Etkes, Lita bi-Yerushalayim, The Scholarly Elite in Lithuania and the Perushim of Jerusalem in the Writing of Shmuel of Kelme, Jerusalem 1991; for information about Hayyim of Volozhin see: Immanuel Etkes, "Shitato u-foalo shel Reb Hayyim Mi-Volozhin Ki-teguvat ha-hevrah ha-Mitnagedet la-Hasidut [The Method and Work of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin as the Response of Those Who Object to Hasidism]," in Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, 38-39 (1972), pp. 1-45.
 Hillel Noah Maggid-Steinschneider, 'Ir Vilna, I, Vilna, 5660 (1900), p. 121.
 The letter of Yitshak Ayzik Ben-Ya'akov to Isaac Baer Levinsohn, Hakerem, 5648 (1888), p. 58.
 See, for example the innovations of Rabbi Samuel Strashun to Tractate Sotah, p. 36:1; Tractate Kiddushin, p. 18:2; Tractate Gittin, p. 2:2; Tractate Bava Metzi'a, p. 115:2.
 idem, Tractate Berakhot, p. 11:1.
 idem, Tractate Niddah, p. 67:2; Shabbat tractate, p. 75:2; Tractate Nedarim, p. 65:2.
 In accordance with this assumption, he did not hesitate to make some unorthodox statements such as: "We found many amora'im who did not know how to read the scriptures" (Tractate Gittin, p. 6:2); "Certain things that were uttered in a particular time and a particular place are inserted by the editors of the Talmud in their appropriate location in the text" (Tractate Rosh ha-Shanah, p. 26:1); "You will find many contradictions between different locations is Rashi's text" (Tractate Shabbat, p. 83:2).
 Joseph Dov ha-Levi Soloveichik, Ish ha-halakhahgaluy ve-nistar [The Man of HalakhahHidden and Apparent], Jerusalem, 5749 (1989), p. 28.
 The innovations of Rabbi Samuel Strashun to the Tractate Bava Metzi'a, p. 29:2; for more information on Strashun's method, see Rafael Katzenellenbogen, "RaShaSh le-Shitato [Rabbi Samuel Strashun's Method]," Moriah, No. 3, 5732 (1972), pp. 93-98; See also Moshe Horev, Sefer Sheloshah Gevi'im: Kelalim 'al ha-Mishniyot ve-'al ha-Talmud u-pnine hokhmah meha-Ge'onim Yom Tov Lipman Heler, Tsevi Hirsh Hayut ve-Shmu'el Strashun [The Book of Three Grails, Rules Regarding Mishnah and Talmud, and Pearls of Wisdom from the Geniuses Yom Tov Lipman Heler, Tsevi Hirsh Hayut and Samuel Strashun], Bene-Berak, 5754 (1994).
 See for example, Tsevi Hirsh Katzenellenbogen, "Hidushe ha-RaShaSh [The Innovations of Rabbi Samuel Strashun]," Sefer Netivot 'olam [The Book of the Ways of the World], Vilna, 5582 (1822).
 See Mekore ha-RaMBaM le-RaShaSh [The Origins of Maimonides in the Work of Samuel Strashun], Vilna, 5630 (1870).
 See for example, The innovation of Rabbi Samuel Strashun to Tractate Hulin, p. 58:2; Tractate Bava Metzi'a, p. 79:2.
 Meir Hildesheimer, "The Attitude of the Hatam Sofer Toward Moses Mendelssohn", Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, 60 (1994), pp. 141-187.
 Soloveichik, Ish ha-Halakhah, Jerusalem, 1979, p.44.
 Isaac Eliyahu Landa, Ramat Shemu'el [The Samuel Elevation], Eidetkohenen, 5633 (1873), p. 4.
 See Allan Nadler, The Faith of the Mitnagdim, Baltimore, 1997.
 Mordechai Zalkin, "Between Dvinsk and Vilna: The Spread of Hasidism in Nineteenth-Century Lithuania", in: Within Hasidic Circles, Jerusalem 1999, pp. 21-50.
 Shaul Stampfer, The Lithuanian Yeshiva, Jerusalem 1995.
 See his article, "Rabbi Samuel Strashun," in Hokhmat Yisra'el be-Eropa [The Wisdom of Israel in Europe], No. 3, Jerusalem, 1965, pp. 345-355. This article includes a bibliography.
 See Harkavy's fierce attack against a long line of historianssuch as Hillel Noah and David (his son) Maggid, Iulii Gessen, and Saul Ginsburgwho "dared" mention the fact that Mattityahu Strashun's signature appeared alongside those of a number of Vilna maskilim who pleaded to the authorities to force the Jews in the Russian Empire to exchange their traditional clothes for modern ones: "Certainly, this is either libel or a mistake to claim that a religious and flawless genius, whose beard is untouched, and who is attired with long side-whiskers and long Rabbinical clothing, would willingly participate in such a vile and treacherous deed of Jewish Enlightenment." (Tsevi Harkavy, Rabi Shmu'el Strashun mi-Vilnah [Rabbi Samuel Strashun of Vilna]," Jerusalem, 5717 (1957), p. 8, footnote. 13). In addition, Harkavy and other scholars ignored Mattityahu Strashun's hostility towards Zionism and the attempt to promote it in Vilna during the turn of the nineteenth century. For more on this issue, see the third chapter in Isaac Broides, Vilna ha-Tsiyonit ve-'Askanehah [Zionist Vilna and its Activists], Tel Aviv, 1939.
 In this article, we refer to biographical and genealogical facets of our subjects only to the extent that such references are necessitated by our discussion.
 Yoseph Klausner, "Ezrat Sofrim [Writer's Aid]," Ha-Melitz, January 20, 1896.
 See Mordechai Zalkin, Ba-'alot ha-shahar [A New Dawn], Jerusalem, 2000, p. 63 ff.
 In this sense, there is a similarity between the structures of Jewish Enlightenment in Vilna and in Shklov during the second half of the eighteenth century. See David E. Fishman, Russia's First Modern Jews, New York 1995.
 A similar process can be seen in the life of Jacob Baritt, who was one of most outstanding Rabbis in Vilna during this time period. See Moses Judah Baritt, Toldot Ya'akov [The History of Jacob], Vilna, 5643 (1883).
 Samuel Joseph Fuenn's, Kiryah ne'emanah, korot 'adat Yisra'el ba-'ir Vilna ve-tsiyunim le-nefashot ge'onehah, hakhamehah, sofrehah ve-nedivehah [A Town of Faith: the History of the Jewish community in the City of Vilna and Guideline to the Characters of its Geniuses, Sages, Authors, and Patrons], Vilna, 5658 (1898), p. xxxii. See also Strashun's appendix "Rehovot Kirya [The Streets of a Town]" printed at the end of this book.
 Dov Baer Nathanson, Sefer ha-Zikhronot [The Book of Memoirs], Warsaw, 5638 (1878), p. 49.
 Immanuel Etkes, "Te'udah be-Yisra'el – Ben temurah le-masoret, [A Report in Israel – Between Change and Tradition]", An introduction to Isaac Baer Levinsohn's Te'udah be-Yisra'el [A Testimony in Israel], Jerusalem, 1977, p. 7.
 See Michael Stanislawski, Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews, Philadelphia, 1983, pp. 69-78.
 For more on this exchange, see Mordechai Zalkin, Ba-'alot ha-shahar, p. 236.
 Eliezer Zweifel, Sanegor [In Defence], Warsaw, 5645 (1885), p. 5.
 For information on the difficulties involved in turning Mattityahu Strashun's private collection into a public library, see: Ha-Yom, April 15, 1886; May 10, 1886; in Isaac Broides, Vilnah ha-Tsiyonit Ve-'Askanehah [Zionist Vilna and its Activists], Tel Aviv 1939; Israel Klausner, Vilnah Yerushalayim de-Lita [Vilna – Jerusalem of Lithuania], Tel-Aviv, 1983. Vol. II, p. 533 ff. On the large number of sources about this library and its significance in the lives of Vilna Jews, see Haykl Lunski, "Di Strashun Bibliotek in Vilne [The Strashun Library in Vilna]," in Ephim Jeshurin, ed., Vilne [Vilna], New York, 1935, pp. 273-287; Israel Klausner, "Bate-'Eked Sefarim Bi-Yerushalayim de-Lita [Libraries in Jerusalem of Lithuania]," in Y. Rudnicki, ed., Vilner Zamlbukh [The Vilna Collection], Tel-Aviv, 1975.
 Hed Ha-Zeman, April 2, 1909.
 See, for example, a report in Ha-Magid, 26th Year, Issue No. 7.
 Ha-Melitz, 20th year, issue No. 5.
 See, for example, "ha-Im hayah Raba Kohen [Was Raba a Cohen (priest)]?" Ha-Karmel, 4th year, issue No. 1; "Bi-Zekhut Mitsvat Tefilin [In Favor of the Practice of Tefilin]," Ha-Lvanon, 9th year, issue No. 3; "RaShi veha-'Arukh [Rashi and the Arukh]," Ha-Karmel, 3rd year, issue No. 49; "ve-Hitsdiku et ha-Tsadik [They Took the Side of the Righteous]," Ha-Magid, 6th year, issue Nos. 33-35.
 For more on the press and its significance for the maskilim at this time see, Mordechai Zalkin, Ba-'a lot ha-shahar, pp. 255-261. We still do not have satisfactory research about the complex relationships between the press and conservative Jewish society.
 For a detailed account of the activities of this society, see the book written by its accountant: Leon Rosenthal, Toldot Hevrat Marbe Haskalah be-Yisra'el be-Erets Rusya [The History of the Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment in Israel in the Land of Russia], St. Petersburg, 1885.
 Ibid., part 2, p. 173. In addition to Mattityahu Strashun, the Vilna membership of the Society for the Dissemination of Enlightenment in the Land of Russia included the names of Samuel Joseph Fuenn, editor of Ha-Karmel, the writer Adam ha-Kohen Lebensohn, Tsevi Hirsh Katzenellenbogen, Joshua Steinberg, and other intellectuals.
 The manifesto of this society was published in Ha-Magid, September 9, 1861.
 For more on this society, see M. Rabinovich, Hevrat Mekitse Nirdamim [A Society for the Awakening of Those Who Sleep] – A Bibliography, 1938; Hevrat Mekitse Nirdamim 5624 – 5724 (1864-1964): Lecture on the Occasion of the Centennial Celebration of the Founding of the Society, Wednesday, 4th of Kislev, 5724. Jerusalem, 5724 (1964) [including a list of books published by the Society for the Awakening of The Asleep since its establishment].
 Ha-Magid, October 2, 1861; Ibid., October 23, 1861; and Ibid., November 28, 1861.
 Ibid., November 27, 1862; Ibid., December 10, 1862.
 For a list of members, see Eliezer Lipmann Silbermann, Reshimah mi-shemot ha-haverim le-Hevrat Mekitse Nirdamim [A List of Members of the Society for the Awakening of The Asleep], first year - 5623-5624 (1863-1864), second year – 5625-5626 (1865-1866), third year - 5627-2628 (1867-1868), fourth year - 5629-5631 (1869-1871), fifth year – 5631-5634 (1871-1874).
 Ha-Magid, February 19, 1862.
 Mordechai Breuer, 'Edah ve-deyokanah [A Community and its Portrait], Jerusalem, 1991, p.158.
 Ha-Magid, December 24, 1862; ibid, May 20, 1863.
 Matityahu Strashun continued this activity in later years. See the names of members signed by him in Eliezer Lipmann Silbermann's bi-annual lists of society members (Op. Cit).
 E. Zweifel, "Kinah", Ha-Asif 4 (1887).
 Y. L. Smolenski, "Mas'a be-Rusya [A Voyage in Russia]," Ha-Shahar, August 19, 1872, p. 486.
 For a detailed description of this event see Jacob Mazeh, Zikhronot [Memoirs], Vol. III, Tel Aviv, 5696 (1936), pp. 143-158.
 Shalom Pludermacher, Zikaron le-Hakham: Zeh Sefer Toldot ha-Rav ha-Ga'on, he-Hakham ha-Kolel Rabi Matityahu Strashun Z"L [In Memoriam of a Wise Man – This is the History of the Genius Rabbi, All Knowing Wise Man, Rabbi Mattityahu Strashun of Blessed Memory], in Matat –Ya, Hagahot, Hidushim ve-He'arot Me'irot 'Al Midrash Rabah Pri 'Eto Shel Matityahu Strashun [The Gift of God – Proof-Readings, Innovations, and Illuminating Comments on the Midrashim of our Rabbis by Matityahu Strashun], Vilna, 1893, p. 34.
 For a detailed description of Matityahu Strashun's funeral, see Ibid. p. 32 ff.
 Moses Simon Antokolsky, Evel Kaved [Profound Grief], Vilna, 5646 (1886), p. 23.
 See Ben Zion Zunser, "Vilna," Ha-Melitz, January 3, 1888.