Rabbinic scholars and public figures in nineteenth-century Vilna. Shemu’el Strashun (1793–1872) continued the Lithuanian style of scholarship that had been formulated by the Gaon of Vilna. Shemu’el’s son Matityahu (1817–1885) was a rabbi and a prominent maskil, biblical commentator, bibliographer, historian, and community organizer.
Born in Zaskevich, Belorussia, Shemu’el ben Yosef Strashun acquired a general education in addition to his rabbinic studies. He was married to Sara, the daughter of David Strashun, and took her surname. In 1812, Strashun moved to Vilna with his extended family and studied at a bet midrash established by his father-in-law. In 1827 he himself belonged to a group of local scholars who established the short-lived Yeshivat ha-Arba‘im.
As a scholar and researcher, Strashun’s most significant work was his Hagahot ha-Rashash ‘al Talmud Bavli on the Babylonian Talmud (first published as part of the 1864 edition of the Babylonian Talmud, then as an appendix to the 1885 edition), offering variant readings of the text. He was also a member of the proofreaders’ group in the Romm publishing house in Vilna. In this vein, he published similar analyses of Midrash Rabah (1843), the Oraḥ ḥayim section of the Shulḥan ‘arukh (1859), the writings of Maimonides (1870), and the five (biblical) scrolls (1885).
Khaykl Lunski (ca. 1881–1942 or 1943), chief librarian of the Strashun Library until its destruction by the Nazis during World War II, Vilna, ca. 1930s. (YIVO)
Active in public affairs, by 1825 Strashun was serving on the governing body of the Vilna kahal, and he was a gaba’i (administrative official) of Ha-Tsedakah ha-Gedolah, the organization administering the social welfare system for Jews. In 1864, he joined the Ḥevrat Mekitse Nirdamim (Society of Those Who Awaken the Sleeping), an international group that promoted publication of older Hebrew manuscripts.
Matityahu (Mathias) Strashun was a prominent second-generation representative of the Haskalah in Vilna. By 1832, he had revealed his affiliation with the movement in a letter to Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon (Ribal), and in 1841, Strashun was a member of the teaching staff at the Haskalah-inspired school in Vilna established by Nisan Rozenthal. That same year, Strashun published an exegetical article in the maskilic periodical Pirḥe tsafon.
When Max Lilienthal visited Vilna in 1841–1842, Strashun was prominent among the members of local circles supporting Lilienthal’s project for government-sponsored secular and religious education. With a group of other maskilim, Strashun signed a request to the government to allow Lilienthal to extend his stay in the city. Similarly, in 1843 Strashun joined others in requesting the government to forbid the wearing of traditional Jewish garb.
In the 1860s, Strashun joined Ḥevrat Mekitse Nirdamim, and in 1865 he was chosen to be an honorary member of the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (OPE). At the beginning of the 1870s, he took advantage of his public position and his good connections with state authorities to deal with the issue of Jewish conscription into the Russian army.
Strashun was the author of Sefer matat-Yah (Book of God’s Gift; the Hebrew title is a play on his own name; 1893), a commentary on the Midrash Rabah. He also published articles in Hebrew-language periodicals and newspapers, including Pirḥe Tsafon, Ha-Yonah, Kerem ḥemed, Ha-Magid, Ha-Karmel, ‘Ale hadas, Ha-Levanon, and Ha-Asif. Considered one of the first historians of the Vilna Jewish community, Strashun’s long article “Reḥovot kiryah” (Streets of the City) was printed as a supplement to Shemu’el Yosef Fuenn’s work Kiryah ne’emanah (A Faithful City; 1860).
As a major book collector, Strashun owned thousands of Hebrew texts and manuscripts, including religious writings, fiction, poetry, scientific works, Jewish and Karaite historical works, travel accounts, and Hasidic texts. A detailed list of the works in Strashun’s collection was published in the catalogue Likute shoshanim (A Bunch of Roses; 1889). Some years after his death, the collection served as the basis of the famous Strashun Library, which remained in Vilna until the Holocaust.
For most of his life Strashun was involved in Vilna’s Jewish communal affairs, out of interest and because he was one of the wealthier members of the Jewish population. He served as a gaba’i for several important public bodies, among them the Torah Study Society; the Burial Society; Ha-Tsedakah ha-Gedolah, and the Kupat Tsedakot ‘Oniye Erets Yisra’el, which provided charity to Jews in the Land of Israel. Strashun also served as rosh ha-kahal (community head). In 1868 he was chosen to serve on the board of the State Bank, a position that led to his receipt of a governmental gold medal in 1878. Always a well-known philanthropist, in his will he bequeathed large sums of money for various public purposes.
Tsevi Harkavi, Le-Ḥeker mishpaḥot (Jerusalem, 1953), pp. 44–48; Tsevi Harkavi, Rabi Shemu’el Strashun mi-Vilna’ (Jerusalem, 1956/57); Israel Klausner (Yisra’el Kloizner), Vilna, Yerushalayim de-Lita: Dorot ri’shonim, 1495–1881 (Loḥame ha-Geta’ot, Isr., 1988); Mordechai Zalkin, Ba-‘Alot ha-shaḥar (Jerusalem, 2000); Mordechai Zalkin, “Samuel and Mattityahu Strashun: Between Tradition and Innovation,” in Mattityahu Strashun, 1817–1885: Scholar, Leader, and Book Collector, ed. Yermiyahu Aharon Taub, cur. Aviva E. Astrinsky, pp. 1–28 (New York, 2001).
Translated from Hebrew by I. Michael Aronson