Rabbi Salant 100 Years Later

The 100th anniversary of the death of the first Chief Rabbi of modern Jerusalem, Rabbi Shmuel Salant, occurs this week.

Hillel Fendel,

Rabbi Salant on a postage stamp
Rabbi Salant on a postage stamp
Israel news photo

The 100th anniversary of the death of the first Chief Rabbi of modern Jerusalem, Rabbi Shmuel Salant, occurs this week.

Rabbi Salant was particularly known for his wise leadership and guidance of the fast-growing and not-totally-united religious population of Jerusalem, his Halakhic-legal rulings, and his open-door policy for all who wished to consult with him. Advised once to set specific hours for receiving the public, Rabbi Salant said, “We must try to adhere to G-d’s traits; He also doesn’t have specific hours.”

Rabbi Shmuel Salant is not to be confused to be with Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salant (Salanter), the father of the Mussar movement. The two are not related, although they did study together for a while in the same yeshiva, and Rabbi Shmuel married the daughter of Rabbi Yisrael’s teacher, Rabbi Yosef Zundel.

Rabbi Shmuel was born in 1816 near the then-Russian city of Białystok, and received his rabbinical ordination at the early age of 13. At the age of 24, married and father of one – his only child – he was advised by his doctor to move to a warm climate location. He had earlier promised his father-in-law to join him in the Holy Land, and the young family arrived in Jerusalem in 1841, at which point his father-in-law handed over to Rabbi Shmuel the task of “teacher and Rabbinic decisor” of the Ashkenazi community in Jerusalem. He held this position, even as it developed into a full-fledged Chief Rabbinate position, until his death nearly 70 years later, in August 1909.

For most of this period, he lived in a small “apartment” that had only one window. Only around 1893 did Rabbi Salant agree to move to a newer building that had air and light – and only because it was built for the Etz Chaim Yeshiva on the express condition that he live there.

During the period of his leadership in Jerusalem, the Jewish population of Jerusalem grew from 500 to more than 40,000.  Rabbi Salant also traveled abroad for two extended periods in order to collect funds; he made sure to distribute them equally between the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim. 

One of his main projects was the Etz Chaim school that he founded and headed. Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, there was no central school for the youngsters; many of them were self-taught by their fathers or by private tutors, depending on the family’s financial status. Rabbi Salant realized that this situation could not continue, gathered the various teachers together, and, together with other leading rabbis, started Etz Chaim – which later spawned the famous Yeshivat Etz Chaim, still open today in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Meir Aurbach and Rabbi Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Teomim, Rabbi A. I. Kook’s father-in-law, served together with Rabbi Salant – at his request - as spiritual leaders of Jerusalem for various periods. However, Rabbi Salant survived both of them.

Rabbi Salant took middle-of-the-road positions on the controversial issues of the day, such as Zionism, support for the expansion of Jerusalem, the shemittah sale dispensation (to which he originally objected, but later supported), and secular education.

Rabbi Salant did not author any major Torah works.  Only in 1998 did his great-grandson Rabbi Nissan Aharon Tukechinsky – son of the famed Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tukechinsky – collect his responsa and rulings, which he published in three volumes.

Rabbi Shmuel Salant died on the 29th of Av (August 16) in 1909, and is buried on the Mount of Olives. He was barely eulogized, at his request. His gravestone was an ancient pillar that had stood in the yard of the Old City’s Hurva courtyard, where he had lived.