Rabbi Shmuel SALANT a Jerusalem Gaon and world renowned community worker
RABBI SHMUEL SALANT (1816– 1909) was a renowned Talmudist and Torah scholar who followed the customs of the Gaon of Vilna. From 1841 until his passing in 1909 he served as the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem.
Rabbi Shmuel Salant was born in 1816 in the city of Volknik near Bialystok, then part of Russia. His father Rabbi Tzvi was the rabbi of the town as well as the rabbi of Trakai near Vilna. Rabbi Shmuel's mother, Risa daughter of Rabbi Shimon, emigrated to Israel in her old age. She passed away on the fifth of Tishrei in 1857 and was buried on the Mt. of Olives in what is known today as the Sephardic section. In his early youth Rabbi Shmuel studied with his father. Unfortunately Rabbi Tzvi passed away when Shmuel was but a child. Relatives of the young Shmuel sent him to the city of Keidan to study under the Rabbi Tzemach Shapiro, known as Rabbi Tzemach Drubiyaner, who later became one of the great leaders of the city of Vilna.
In Kaiden, at the tender age of ten, Rabbi Shmuel, who was already renown as a child prodigy, became engaged to Fruma Shapiro the daughter of Rabbi Shimon Merkel Shapiro (the son of Rabbi Avrohom Shapiro) who was the chief rabbi of Birz and brother to Rabbi Salant's mentor Rabbi Tzemach Shapiro. The marriage took place after Rabbi Shmuel Salant's bar mitzvah. Rabbi Salant had a daughter from this marriage. After his wedding Rabbi Shmuel and a group of torah scholars travelled to Lithuania to the city of Salant to to study under the famed Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Brodah. For reasons unknown the marriage of Rabbi Shmuel and his young wife Fruma ended in divorced after three years. The famed tzaddik Rabbi Yosef Zundel of Salant highly respected Rabbi Shmuel as an exceptional prodigy and outstanding tzaddik. Rabbi Yosef Zundel's had a daughter Tova (1816-1869) who was an outstanding and pious woman, and in 1834 offered Rabbi Shmuel her hand in marriage. After his marriage to Tova, Rabbi Shmuel adopted his father-in law's surname Salant.
Rabbi Yosef Zundel Salant was a student of Rabbi Chaim Itzkowitz of Volozhin (Reb Chaim Volozhiner), who in 1803 founded the famed Volozhin Yeshiva. Following the death of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin in 1821, Rabbi Yosef Zundel would make trips to Posen to study with Rabbi Akiva Eiger (1761-1837). Rabbi Zundel was the spiritual mentor of Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter (1810-1883), who would later be immortalized as the father of the Mussar Movement.) In 1837 Rabbi Yosef Zundel Salant emmigrated to Jerusalem from Lithuania. Rabbi Zundel refused support from public funds and instead made a living in the vinegar business. At that time the Ashkenazi settlement in Jerusalem was very small and had no judicial court. Only the Sephardic community had an established Beth Din. Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, Rabbi Zundel established an informal Beth Din in his courtyard to serve the local Ashkenazy community.)
After his marriage Rabbi Shmuel Salant moved to the city of Volozhin where he was appointed Talmud lecturer in the Volozhin Yeshivah.
In 1840, due to health reasons and upon the advice of doctors, Rabbi Shmuel Salant took his family and traveled to Israel. En route, in Constantinople, he met and befriended Sir Moses Montefiore who was on his way to defend the Jews falsely accused in the Damascus Blood Libel. Sir Moses subsequently traveled to Israel seven times during his lifetime and developed a profound respect for Rabbi Shmuel Salant. Together they would collaborate on many projects for the benefit of the fledgling Ashkenazy community.
Rabbi Salant arrived in Jerusalem in 1841, rejoining his father-in-law and about 500 other Ashkenazim who had preceded him in 1838. There were about 5,000 Jews in Israel at that time, living mainly in Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberius, and Hebron. Smaller communities were in Jaffa, Haifa, Peki'in, Acre, Nablus, and Shfaram. A large part of the Jewish settlement studied full-time and was supported by donations from Jews in the Diaspora. This age-old practice of supporting scholars in Israel who studied full time was known as Chalukah.
Upon his arrival in Jerusalem Rabbi Shmuel Salant moved into a tiny two-room apartment without windows in the courtyard of the the Churva - "the ruins of Rabbi Yehuda the Chassid". Here in this modest apartment he would live and work for the next fifty years. Here, in his capacity as Chief Rabbi, he met with the great sages and prominent people of the era to discuss communal matters, in addition to the continuous stream of plain folk who came to consult with him.
Rabbi Salant could not have come at a more auspicious time. The Ashkenazi community had grown in size considerably and urgently needed a strong Torah scholar to stand at the helm of an official Ashkenazi Beth Din. With the arrival of Rabbi Salant, the scope and dimension of the temporary Ashkenazi Beth Din changed dramatically. In this very same courtyard Rabbi Salant established an authorized permanent Beth Din for the Ashkenazi community. Sitting with him on the rabbinical court were his brother in-law Rabbi Uri Shabbetai and Rabbi Binyamin Dovid of Vilna. This was the first established Ashkenazi Beth Din in Jerusalem for centuries. Rabbi Salant would thus serve as the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Jerusalem for the next seventy years!
As Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Salant was also in charge of administering the Kollel Ashkenazim and its concomitant Chalukah system, an age-old practice of supporting scholars in Israel who studied full time. A large part of the Jewish settlement were supported in this manner by donations from Jews in the Diaspora. Rabbi Salant traveled often to Europe to raise funds for the impoverished Jewish settlement and managed to visit most major cities of Lithuania and Poland.
In 1850, while visiting Vilna, he met with the committee that oversaw the assignment of funds to the Holy Land. Rabbi Salant presented a plan for setting up a Yeshiva of higher learning. His plan met with approval and upon his return to Israel he quickly set up the Yeshiva in the Menachem Tzion synagogue and began to deliver daily lectures there. By 1855 the Yeshiva had successfully grown to major proportion.The Yeshiva was named Etz Chaim with Rabbis Shmuel Salant and Yeshaya Berdaky at the helm. By the turn of the twentieth century Yeshiva Etz Chaim had a total enrollment of almost one thousand students! The remarkable success of the Yeshiva ensured that a whole new generation of pious scholars would be ready to guide the populace and forge the path of the country for future generations.
1860 was a time of universal poverty and hardship and the communities in Israel began an unprecedented descent into abject poverty, the likes which they had not seen in decades. Rabbi Meir Auerbach (1815-1878), the Chief Rabbi of Kalish arrived from Poland that year. Rabbi Salant appointed him to take his place as Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem in his absence, while Rabbi Salant traveled to Germany, Amsterdam, and London on behalf of the community. In Germany he also met with the Rabbi of Wurzburg, Rabbi Seligmann Baer Bamberger (1807-1878), one of the last great Gaonim of German Jewry. They discussed the status of the various Kollelim in Jerusalem and ways to manage them. Although new settlements in Israel were being funded by their mother countries, the communities which had been living in Israel for centuries no longer had a source of income. Hundreds of people died of hunger, particularly young children and infants. The situation threatened to engulf the entire country.
Upon the return of Rabbi Salant from Europe in 1860, Rabbi Meir Auerbach wanted to step down and return the post of Rabbi of Jerusalem back to Rabbi Salant. Rabbi Salant, in his keen wisdom and insight saw the tremendous benefit of having Rabbi Auerbach involved in communal affairs. He convinced Rabbi Auerbach to stay on to assist him since he himself was caught up in overseeing the financial viability of the community and therefore had little time to fill his role as sole Chief Rabbi. Rabbi Auerbach was thus persuaded to remain in the Jerusalem Rabbinate together with Rabbi Salant. As assistant Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Auerbach assisted Rabbi Shmuel Salant in the spiritual and material wellbeing of Jerusalem and continued to play a most critical role in all the communal affairs of the country. Rabbi Auerbach also played an essential role on the Jerusalem Rabbinical Board of Directors of the Rabbi Meir Baal Haneis Salant charity founded in 1860 by Rabbis Zundel and Shmuel Salant. In rising to the monumental challenge of administering to the desperate financial woes of the vast majority of families in Eretz Yisroel, Rabbi Shmuel Salant had thrown himself into communal work and particularly the central Rabbi Meir Baal Haneis Salant charity fund which provided for destitute and impoverished families and saved them from oblivion. During Rabbi Shmuel Salant's lifetime and later until after World War One, with the unanimous backing and blessing of all the great Rabbinical leaders around the world, all charity collected throughout the world on behalf and in the name of Rabbi Meir Baal Haneis, were under the sole jurisdiction of the Rabbi Meir Baal Haneis charity fund and distributed by Rabbi Shmuel Salant.
In 1866 when the cholera plague rained death and destruction on Jerusalem and all the various Ashkenazy groups and organizations were in disarray, Rabbi Shmuel Salant and Rabbi Auerbach felt that it would be an urgent need and tremendous advantage to the entire city to create an umbrella organization which would unite all the various factions and which would work harmoniously and in unison for the benefit of the Klal. Thus was born the Vaad Haklali which eventually became the central institution which dealt with all Jerusalem's vast and varied issues, both financial and spiritual.
In 1878 Rabbi Meir Auerbach passed away, and once again the entire burden fell on the shoulders of Rabbi Salant and he returned to his post as Chief Rabbi for Ashkenazim. In 1888 Rabbi Salant's eyesight began to fail. He did not however allow this debilitating disability to stop his wide-ranging activities in the communal affairs of the country. In 1900, however, he enlisted as his assistant in the Rabbi Meir Baal Haneis Salant charity fund, Rabbi Elijah David Rabinowitz-Teomim, Chief Rabbi of Mir, and world famous scholar and author. Rabbi Rabinowitz-Teomim was born near Kovno in 1845. In 1873 he was invited to the rabbinate of Panevez, the fifth largest city in Lithuania. Twenty years later he was appointed Chief Rabbi of Mir. At the turn of the century Rabbi Rabinowitz-Teomim settled in Israel and was immediately chosen by the ailing Rabbi Salant to assist him. For five years they worked tirelessly together for the benefit of the Jewish settlement. Unfortunately, Rabbi Rabinowitz-Teomim predeceased Rabbi Salant, passing away in 1905 at the early age of sixty.
Rabbi Salant was regarded as a distinguished Talmudist and an excellent and sagacious leader. Many of his positions in Jewish law are known through the writings of his students. He was also known for his moderation and tolerance of all classes of Jews. Although serving as the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, he carried on excellent relations with Chief Rabbi & Chacham Bashi Rabbi Yaakov Shaul Elyashar, his Sephardic counterpart, and they acted in harmony and unison concerning the welfare matters of the community.
Among the myriads of accomplishments that Rabbi Salant did for the community was the founding of the Bikur Cholim Hospital. Rabbi Salant encouraged people to move into new neighborhoods outside of the Old City walls, and during his tenure as Chief Rabbi, the population of Jerusalem grew from 5,000 to 30,000 Jews.
Rabbi Shmuel Salant was also instrumental in collecting the necessary funding to build the Beis Yaakov Synagogue, located in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. The cornerstone was laid in 1856 in the presence of Rabbi Salant, and other dignitaries such as Baron Alphonse James de Rothschild, brother of Edmond James de Rothschild, who dedicated much of his life supporting the Jews of Palestine. It was officially named Beis Yaakov after their father James (Yaakov) Rothschild. It remained Jerusalem's main synagogue until the 20th century, when it was reduced to rubble by Jordanian soldiers during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
Rabbi Shmuel Salant passed away on Monday, 16 August / 29th Av 1909 and was buried the next day on the Mount of Olives in the Perushim section alongside his father-in-law Rabbi Zundel Salant. Many of Jerusalem's great leaders, who were also friends and colleagues of Rabbi Shmuel Salant, are interred in that very same area; Rabbi Rabinowitz-Teomim, Rabbi Chaim Berlin, Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin, Rabbi Yitzchok Blazer, Rabbi Meir Auerbach, Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, Rabbi Eliyahu Kletzkin, and many others.
On the following day Tuesday August 17, 1909, the New York Times had a lengthy column reporting the death of Rabbi Salant along with a biography of his life.
Before he left this world, Rabbi Salant inscribed his last will and testimony and pledged that all who continue supporting the Rabbi Meir Baal Haneis Salant charity will merit heavenly blessings and divine mercy.
The remarkable legacy of Rabbi Meir Baal Haneis Salant is vibrantly alive and potent to this very day. Stories abound of men and women who, during personal need and crisis, experienced miraculous help when they gave charity to this holy fund.