Sunday 11 September 2016




Rashash's commentary to Talmud Bavli

Rabbi Shmuel Strashun (1793-1872) was the famed Rashash who authored the great appendix to the Babylonian Talmud known as Hagaot haRashash al Talmud Bavli.[1] These notes are on almost every page of the Babylonian Talmud. He followed the path of Lithuanian scholarship as set out by the Vilna Gaon.

The Rashash became interested in history and old texts and in 1864 he joined the Chevrat Mekitze Nirdamin (‘Society of those who Awaken the Sleeping’), an organization that collected and published old and forgotten manuscripts.

Many would be surprised to discover that in addition to being the great scholar that he was, he was also a ‘prominent maskil’(a member of the Enlightenment movement).[2]


The Rashash had a son, Rabbi Matityahu Strashun (1817-1885) who was also great Talmudic scholar and a leader of the Vilna Jewish community. Like his father, his commentaries (to Bava Batra and Eruvin) are included in the Vilna edition of the Talmud.

But he also had another side which is often overlooked and sometimes not recorded.
He too was a maskil - a very active member of the Enlightenment movement![3]
Many biographical accounts of R. Matityahu, make no mention whatsoever about the Haskalah (Enlightenment) connection of neither father nor son.

One account concerning R. Matityahu states; “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.”[4]

From a tender age the young Matityahu began showing signs of great genius. He started writing marginal notes in every book he studied. Coming from a wealthy family, special teachers were hired to tutor the exceptional child. One of the teachers was R. Menashe of Ilya who was a student of the Vilna Gaon.[5] He also studied under R. Yisrael Salanter. Eventually, R. Matityahu Strashun would produce 63 publications of his commentaries and annotations.

He studied astronomy and this led to one of his great contributions to the Halachik world when he resolved the controversy over the precise moment for the new moon. His ruling is still accepted as binding today.

He associated with great Torah scholars including R. Tzvi Hirsh Chayut[6] and R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg[7].

-Rabbi Chayut is the only commentator included in the Vilna Shas who had a PhD. 

-Rabbi Mecklenburg’s commentary drew from the writings of the Vilna Gaon, Shadal and sometimes from secular sources like Julius Furst.

When he passed away R. Yitzchak Elchanan, the Rov of Kovno delivered his eulogy.


In addition to his Torah scholarship, from the age of 16, Matityahu began to study mathematics and science. He also began to correspond with other maskilim, who were so impressed by his wisdom that they quoted the young man in their writings.

Being aware that his connection to maskilim could be detrimental to his public religious life, he used a pseudonym (Ani veHu) when contributing to the writings of the Enlightenment Movement.

By the 1830’s R. Strashun no longer hid the fact that he was a maskil.

In 1841 when two new schools affiliated to the Haskalah Movement opened in Vilna (which offered both religious and secular subjects) he became a teacher in one of the institutions.

In 1843 he tried to persuade the government to outlaw traditional Jewish garb, as he believed there was no need for a Jew to be alienated from modern society.

So impressed by him were the secular Jews as well as non-Jews, that 1868, he was appointed a member of the Vilna State Bank, for which he was later to be honoured for ten years service and presented with a gold medallion. He also served on the Vilna City Council.

There was even a street in Vilna named after him.


Like his father, R. Matityahu was interested in texts and from the age of bar mitzvah he began collecting books. Later he journeyed out of Russia in order to find and acquire as many books as he could. He had the means to buy and amass what eventually became thousands of books and 150 manuscripts[9].

He created his own library which he wanted to style around the great secular libraries of the world. It was known as Likute Shoshanim (Selections of Roses)[10] and was situated in Vilna. Apparently he had a copy of every Jewish book that had ever been printed, and he never placed them on his shelves until he had read them from cover to cover.

He eventually bequeathed the huge library to the Vilna community and it had an average of 200 visitors a day. From 1928 the University of Vilna began to send to the new library, a copy of every Hebrew or Yiddish book ever published in Poland. The collection of books continued to grow and in 1930 there were over 35, 000 books. It was possibly the largest Jewish library in the world.

Visitors to the library included; “rabbis and Talmudic scholars who were studying Responsa and Halachik works” and simultaneously the “younger generation who were reading Haskala works.”[11] 

The Chafetz Chaim was known to have also visited the library.

Khaykl Lunski (1881-1943) who had studied in both Slonim and Mir yeshivas, was the chief librarian.  He wrote;

On a Jewish street, on the courtyard near the large synagogue, there stands a two-storied house. This house is the temple of the spirit, the palace of wisdom, the pride of Vilna. Young and old, learned and wise (religious scholars), writers and scientists (secular scholars), are drawn to this house to acquire from it Torah and knowledge.[12]

When the Nazis occupied Vilna in 1941, they forced the Jews to select a few thousand books which they put 
into crates to become part of their proposed new 'Library of the Extinct Race".

Some of the books were save after being hidden under a Catholic church in Vilna.[13] 


R. Matityahu Strashun, as well as his father the Rashash - and many others of that generation -managed to straddle both the secular and religious worlds and excel at both. We today would consider courting the Enlightenment Movement as an absolute departure from Torah Judaism. Had they lived in our generation, many would have considered them to be ‘outside of the camp’.

It is unfortunate that the only way they can still be venerated today is when their true stories and positions are somewhat obfuscated and covered over.

Vilna was known as one of the greatest centres of Torah scholarship in the modern era. But (as opposed to the Hungarian community for example. See KOTZK BLOG 41.) - the Vilna community was also known for its tolerance, acceptance and open-mindedness.

And it wasn’t just Vilna where this embracing of secular knowledge took place. The same thing occurred in the Czech Lands;

The bunker mentality that came to characterise Hungarian Orthodoxy in the 1820’s and 1830’s was foreign to the yeshivas of Bohemia and Moravia...Far from shunning extratalmudic learning many leading rabbis embraced secular studies and even encouraged their students to broaden their educational horizons...‘secular studies (hokhmot) were a daily portion for the Jews, and the rabbis did not open their mouths in dismay. (on the contrary) the rabbis themselves would educate their sons in the study of secular knowledge.’” [14]

-This was personified by both R. Shmuel (Rashash) his son R. Matityahu Strashun and many others. And it must have been acceptable because they were both incorporated into the Vilna edition of the Babylonian Talmud!

Some would argue that their broadness and openness was despite their great Torah scholarship.

Others would say this was because of it. 


It should be pointed out that the Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment Movement was never the broad monolithic anti religious movement it is often made out to be. It did have extremely radical elements, particularly in Berlin, but it also encompassed a moderate element that was respectful of rabbinic teachings.

In a similar vein, as we shall see, there was never a total antagonism towards the Enlightenment by the religious camp. Both groups did manage to overlap at various times although when they did oppose each other it was indeed a fierce opposition.

It is true that at times it did develop a strong an anti-orthodox agenda, but elements of the movement that we are referring to in this essay, which were courted by the Strashuns, were compatible with their hashkafic (philosophical) and halachik views.

There is even a view that the Vilna Gaon himself may have been one of the architects of the Haskalah.

This view was put forth by his student R. Baruch of Shklov, and is based on the Gaon’s encouraging Torah scholars to also study secular knowledge in order to create a Kiddush HaShem. See KOTZK BLOG 65. Some do contest this view.[8]

[1] R. Shmuel Strashun also wrote analytical notes to Midrash Rabbah, Rambam, Orach Chaim section of Shulchan Aruch and the Five Megillot.
He is not to be confused with R. Shalom Sharabi, the famed Yemenite Kabbalist, who is also known as Rashash.
[2] See Yivo Encyclopaedia, Strashun Shemuel and Matityahu.

The Jewish Enlightenment Movement (Haskalah) was an ideological and social movement that began in Eastern Europe in the early 1800’s. Its members were known as maskilim. The Haskalah mirrored the European Enlightenment which began a century earlier. The Haskalah intended to exploit the new possibilities of economic, social and cultural integration that became available to Jews in the 1800’s with the removal of legal discrimination. (From YIVO Encyclopedia)

[4] See Hevrat Pinto, Rabbi Matityahu Strashun of Vilna.
[5]Another teacher of his was R. Yeshaya David of Lebedev.
[6] Chidushei Maharatz Chayut on the Talmud.
[7]haKetav veHa Kaballah.
[8]See  The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and his Image, by Immanual Etkes, p. 37
[9] The books included Talmudic, Karaite, Chassidic and even secular literature.
[10] See Samuel and Matityahu Strashun: Between Tradition and Innovation, by Dr. Mordechai Zalkin.
[11] Frida Shor (2012) Mi Likute Shoshanim. (Based on her doctoral dissertation for Bar-Ilan University).
[12] See Jewish Public Culture in the Late Russian Empire, by Jeffrey Veidlinger, p. 32.
[13] There is an ongoing project to digitalize the library by 2020.
[14] See Rabbis and Revolution: The Jews of Moravia in the Age of Emancipation, By Michael Miller.


  1. He studied astronomy and this led to one of his great contributions to the Halachik world when he resolved the controversy over the precise moment for the new moon. His ruling is still accepted as binding today.


    do you have the reference to the ruling referred to above ?

  2. Here is one example: Rashash, Rosh haShana 23b (where he argues with Tosefot Yom Tov).