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Zalman Shazar

(1889 - 1974)

Shneur Zalman Shazar (Rubashov) was the third president of the State of Israel, scholar and writer, member of the First to Third Knessets. Shazar (acronym for Shneur Zalman Rubashov) was born in 1889 in the Belorussian town of Mir in the province of Minsk. In 1892, after a disastrous fire in Mir, the family moved to the nearby townlet of Stolbtsy, where Shazar received a ?eder education under the influence of Chabad, in addition to being influenced by his parents’ Zionism. The influence of his Hebrew teacher and the writings of Ber Borochov brought him to the Po’alei Zion Movement and, during the 1905 revolution, he was active in propagating the movement’s ideas and organizing Jewish self-defense units in Belorussia and Ukraine.

Attending the clandestine Po’alei Zion conference in Minsk in July 1906, he became acquainted with Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and started to participate in the editorial and publishing activities of the movement. In 1907, he moved to Vilna, where he first met and worked with Borochov, Jacob Zerubavel, and Ra?el Yanait, and translated Russian articles written by Borochov and Ben-Zvi into Yiddish for the movement’s journal, Der Proletarisher Gedank. Arrested along with the other leading members of the movement in the summer of 1907, he was jailed for two months. After his release, he enrolled as a student at the “Academy of Jewish Studies,” then newly established in St. Petersburg by Baron David Guenzburg. The historian Simon Dubnow and the Hebrew writer and scholar J.L. Katzenelson (“Buki ben Yogli”) were two distinguished faculty members, who particularly influenced the young Shazar. To support himself he edited Der Yidisher Emigrant, organ of the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA), and also wrote for Yiddish papers Der Fray in Russia, and Dos Naye Lebn in the United States.

In 1911, Shazar spent the summer in Ere? Israel working in the kevu?ah in Merhavyah and met Berl Katznelson and the poetess Ra?el. He left Russia the following year and attended the universities of Freiburg-im-Breisgau and Strasbourg. While confined to Berlin as an enemy alien during World War I, he continued his studies at the University of Berlin, attending courses with historian Friedrich Meinecke. Shazar’s fields of specialization were East European Jewish history, the Shabbatean movement, and biblical criticism. Shazar was also involved in Zionist activity, contributing regularly to the Juedische Rundschau.

In 1916, he was one of the founders of the Labor Zionist movement and, in 1917, of the He-?alutz Movement in Germany. At the Po’alei Zion conference held in Stockholm in 1919, he was appointed, along with Nachman Syrkin, Na?um Nir, and ?ayyim Fineman, to survey conditions in Palestine and work out a program for cooperative economic development. He helped edit the report prepared in Yiddish by the mission in 1920 and wrote the chapters on Jewish labor and the kevu?ot.

In 1920, he married Rachel Katznelson, whom he had first met in St. Petersburg, in Jerusalem. Shazar participated in the Po’alei Zion Conference in Vienna in 1920, where the movement split on the issue of how to relate to Communism. Shazar emerged as one of the spokesmen of the group that objected to Communism. He opened the founding assembly of the World He-?alutz Organization in 1921 and, from 1922 to 1924, lectured on history at the Jewish Pedagogic Institute in Vienna.

Settling in Palestine in 1924, Shazar became a member of the Secretariat of the Histadrut and joined the editorial staff of its daily  Davar, becoming the paper’s editor-in-chief and head of the Histadrut publishing house, Am Oved, in 1944. He served in these capacities until 1949. All along he carried out numerous missions abroad on behalf of the Histadrut, the World Po’alei Zion, Mapai, and the Zionist movement. Shazar was a member of the Jewish Agency delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in November 1947 and, at that time, established contact with the Lubavitcher rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, convincing him to establish Kefar ?abad in Israel. Ever since his boyhood Shazar had been emotionally and intellectually involved with the Chabad Movement. In later years he regularly visited Kefar ?abad. During his two visits to the United States as president, in 1966 and 1971, he called on Schneersohn in Brooklyn.

Shazar was elected to the First Knesset on the Mapai list and served as minister of education and culture from 1949 to 1951 and, in this capacity, was responsible for passing the Compulsory Education Law of 1949. He served as a member of the Knesset until October 1956, when he resigned.

Following the Soviet government’s refusal to accept him as Israeli ambassador to Moscow, he became a member of the Jewish Agency Executive in 1952 and headed the Department of Information. In 1954, he was appointed head of the Department of Education and Culture in the Diaspora. From 1956 to 1960 he was acting chairman of the Agency’s Jerusalem Executive.

On May 21, 1963, the Knesset elected Shazar as the third President of the State of Israel and, on March 26, 1968, he was reelected for a second five-year term. During his presidency he represented Israel in numerous state visits abroad. During the 1964 visit of Pope Paul VI, the pope was received on his arrival at Megiddo by President Shazar, who also took leave of him in Jerusalem.

Like his predecessor, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Shazar made his residence a center for Israeli and Jewish scholars, writers, and artists. The Bible Study Group, first established by David Ben-Gurion, met there regularly, as did the circle for Study of Diaspora Jewry conducted in cooperation with the Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry. A year after completing his two terms as president, Shazar died.

Shazar’s writings span 70 years. His literary work took many forms, from poetry and autobiographical fiction, to scholarly treatises and journalistic articles. He wrote freely in both Yiddish and Hebrew, and was noted for his unique style, that applied both lyricism and biblical influences to contemporary issues. He first produced a “magazine” at the age of ten, and a piece he wrote appeared in Ha-Meli? of March 17, 1903.

His first Yiddish article, a plea for the unification of the Socialist Zionist parties, appeared in America in 1910, and his first Hebrew article – an impression of his visit to the Western Wall – in Jerusalem in 1911. His career as Labor Zionist editor began after World War I in the German Po’alei Zion’s Oyf der Shvel (1918) and the Viennese Das Arbeitende Eretz Yisrael (1921–23). After the Po’alei Zion split of 1920, Shazar sharply attacked the left’s decision not to participate in the Zionist Congress. Writing for A?dut ha-Avodah’s weekly, Kunteres, during his participation in the Labor Zionist research mission, he gave notable expression to the reaction evoked by the Arab attacks in Jerusalem in 1920: “Is Jerusalem to be another Kishinev?” From the first issue of Davar until the 1970s, he contributed not only hundreds of unsigned editorials, but, under his own name and pseudonyms, essays on numerous topics. From 1930 to 1932, he edited the monthly A?dut ha-Avodah with Chaim *Arlosoroff, and from 1953 the yearbooks of Davar.

As early as his student days, Shazar had been drawn to the study of the Shabbatean movement and to biblical criticism. In the former he was attracted by the passion for national redemption which he sensed as central within the mystic yearning of European Jewry in the dark days of the 17th century. He wrote his first article on the subject in Ha-Shilo’a? in 1913. His work about Jewish mysticism was published in the Russian Jewish Encyclopedia and numerous studies. His contribution to the field was acclaimed by Gershom Scholem.

Shazar played a pioneering role in introducing modern Bible criticism in the Hebrew language. He had himself studied under Professor Novak at Strasbourg, and in 1914 he translated from Russian into Hebrew essays on the subject by Max Soloveichik (Solieli). Shazar’s contribution to Yiddish philology grew out of his study under Dubnow of responsa literature as a source for East European Jewish history of the 15th to the 17th centuries. Coming upon numerous Yiddish phrases in the testimony of witnesses, he collected and analyzed the linguistic material. In his preface to an edition of Eduard Gans’s speeches of 1821–23, Shazar cast light on the inner world of early 19th-century German-Jewish assimilationists, and founders of Jewish scholarship. His essays on Marx and Lassalle expressed his interest in the Jewish role in socialism, while his essays on Borochov, Ben-Zvi, Syrkin, and Berl Katznelson illuminate the beginnings of the Socialist Jewish Labor movement. The wide scope of Shazar’s cultural knowledge and interests added depth to the many contacts and meetings involved in his activity as president of the state.

His autobiographical sketches, collected in Kokhevei Boker (1950; Morning Stars, 1967) and reprinted many times, appeared in English, French, Yiddish, and Spanish translations. His biographical evaluations of leaders in Zionism and Jewish culture were assembled in Or Ishim (1963). A bibliography of the writings of Shazar from 1903 to 1973, a new edition of Or Ishim in three volumes, and an album on Shazar were all published in 1973. Shazar’s verse, including much translation, appeared in many journals; his Yiddish translation of a selection of Ra?el’s lyrics appeared in 1932. Correspondence between Ra?el and Shazar was published in Ha-?ofim Ha-Shanim: Mikhtavim 19091963, Ra?el ve-Zalman Shazar (1999).


A. Manor, Zalman Shazar: Yi?udo ve-Ye?irato (1961); idem, Nesi Yisrael, Zalman Shazar (1970); Zalman Shazar: Nasi ve-Sofer (1969); Leksikon Kressel, Al Po'alo ha-Mada'i shel Zalman Shazar (1969); S. Kraus, Nasi ve-?asid: Masekhet ha-Kesharim she-Nirkemah bein ha-Rabbi mi-Lubavitch ve-?asido R' Shne'or Zalman Robashov-Shazar (1999).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.