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Rabbi Israel Salanter

(1810 - 1883)


  • 1810--Born in Lithuania.
  • At an early age he came under the influence of [Rabbi] Zundel, a figure who went around in common dress and placed a strong emphasis on the quality of humility. Zundel instructed Salanter to study "musar," the literature of medieval Jewish moralistic and ethical teachings.
  • Salanter established his own following, and was appointed the head of a yeshivah in Vilna, where he lived in poverty. In 1842 he established the first Musar society.
  • 1848--Salanter left Vilna when he refused a Professorship in Talmud at a government-run seminary (Such institutions usually had conversionist objectives).
  • He moved to Kovno, a known centre of reformist and "enlightenment" forces. Under Salanter it was transformed into a traditional Orthodox community.
  • In Kovno Salanter established a "musar shtiebel," a small synagogue where ethical texts were studied. This act aroused some opposition, since it was viewed as separation from the main community.
  • Later in his life, Salanter moved to Germany where he was successful in transplanting the Lithuanian "style" of Jewish life and learning. He attempted to establish an advanced academy for married students ("kolel p'rushim") in Berlin.
  • He continued to travel through Europe fund-raising and assisting in the organization of local Jewish communities (especially in Paris).

Main Elements of the Musar Ideology

    Though Salanter was not a systematic or theoretical thinker, there are a number of important points that figure strongly in his teachings:
  • Talmudic study is not an end in itself. It must be accompanied by ethical study and conduct.
  • It is not proper to withdraw from daily life. Religious Jews should be fully involved in the affairs of their community. (This was in contrast to precedents such as that of the "Ga'on" of Vilna).
  • Salanter strove to create a new spiritual leadership for Jewish communities, which expressed emotional as well as intellectual qualities.
  • Moralistic passages from the Bible, Rabbinic literature and medieval literature should be regularly recited in an atmosphere and tone that would affect the student emotionally.
  • The student should constantly subject himself to self-examination, recording his personal shortcomings.
  • Musar would inject relevance and vitality into traditional Judaism that would provide a more attractive alternative to Reform and secularism.

The Influence of the Musar Movement

Following Salanter's death the movement was directed by Rabbi Isaac Blaser (known as "Rabbi Itze'le Peterburger," 1837-1907) With considerable resistance, Musar study became a part of the curriculum of the important Lithuanian yeshivot, initially at Slobodka under Rabbi Nathan Zvi Finkel (1849-1927). The influence of Musar teaching was more deeply felt there perhaps than among the businessmen and traders, as Salanter had hoped.

The yeshivah would appoint a moral supervisor (mashgiah ruhani) who would hold a weekly musar lesson.

Particular strains of Musar developed. The most notable was that of Novaradok, known for its extremes: The young adherents of this school would go out of their way to place themselves in situations of public humiliation, by wearing rags and acting oddly, in order to overcome any sense of pride, which they viewed as the gravest of sins.

Sources: Prof. Eliezer Siegel's Home Page