Exterior of the Rabbi Yitsḥak Elḥanan Spektor orphanage, Kaunas, Lithuania, 1927. Photograph by Gorshayn. (YIVO)

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Spektor, Yitsḥak Elḥanan

(1817–1896), rabbi, leader of traditional Jewry in Russia, halakhic authority, and supporter of the Ḥibat Tsiyon (Love of Zion) movement. Yitsḥak Elḥanan Spektor served as rabbi in various communities in the Russia Empire, the most important of which was Kovno in Lithuania (1864–1896). He was considered a moderate in his halakhic rulings, devoting much of his decision making to finding dispensations that would permit ‘agunot (literally, “chained” women—the wives of missing or disappeared husbands) to remarry. Many of his responsa were widely regarded as authoritative.

As a religious leader, Spektor maneuvered between competing factions in Lithuanian Jewish society, taking care not to side with one against the other. Thus, he identified with the traditional rabbinate of his day, but refrained from entering into confrontation with maskilim. He even accepted honorary membership in the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (OPE), explaining that the philosophy to which he was giving his support was compatible with traditional Jewish values. Spektor also gave some support to the Ḥibat Tsiyon movement and a helping hand to the early leaders of Musar. The Kolel Perushim of Kovno, whose goal was to train a new generation of Torah scholars to serve as rabbis, was established under his patronage in 1879. Leadership of the kolel was in the hands of Rabbi Yisra’el Salanter and his students.

Russian authorities viewed Spektor as the representative of traditional Russian Jewry. In matters pertaining to the Jewish community at large, he cooperated with the secular leadership of Russian Jewry: the barons of the Gintsburg familyYa‘akov Poliakov, Avraham Eliyahu Harkavy, and others. He was the driving force behind the conferences of Russian rabbis of 1879 and 1885 and the meetings of community representatives that were convened in the wake of the pogroms of 1881–1882.

Spektor supported the position of the secular leadership of Russian Jewry not to encourage emigration in response to the riots. He mobilized secular leadership to lobby Russian authorities to revoke decrees he saw as detrimental to Jewish society, such as those providing for supervision over heders, a reduction in Talmudic studies and the introduction of general studies into the yeshivas, a requirement that traditional rabbis obtain a general education, a ban on kosher slaughtering, and the denial of kosher food to Jewish soldiers serving in the Russian army. Although Spektor favored the teaching of Russian in the heders and yeshivas, he insisted that rabbis and traditional teachers be granted authority to supervise the teachers of the Russian language. Spektor did not hesitate to oppose Baron Gintsburg’s proposal to establish a rabbinical seminary in Russia (1882).

As for the Ḥibat Tsiyon movement, Spektor supported Kovno’s delegation of representatives to the Katowice Conference and in 1884 even hosted a gathering in his home in its support. At the Druskininkai Conference three years later, he was nominated as an honorary trustee, but declined the position. He worked on obtaining a rabbinical dispensation allowing engagement in agricultural labor during the sabbatical year (1888–1889); in the end, it was he who formulated the dispensation.

Spektor’s publications include Be’er Yitsḥak (1858), Naḥal Yitsḥak (2 vols., 1872–1884), and ‘En Yitsḥak (2 vols., 1889–1895). Although Spektor was at the crossroads of the discussion of halakhic issues in his day, his authority derived chiefly from his charismatic personality. He served as an arbitrator in many community conflicts, and his influence extended to Jewish communities outside of Russia. He saw himself as Russian Jewry’s representative to the greater Jewish world; in the wake of the pogroms of 1881 he organized the collection of detailed reports on the attacks, which were smuggled to London and found their way to the Western press, generating widespread protests. He remained in contact with rabbis and lay leaders of Jewish communities in Western Europe—for example, Esriel Hildesheimer in Berlin, Nathan Adler in London, and Yehudah Lebetzki and Zadok Kahn in Paris.

Suggested Reading

Note ha-Levi Lipshits (Notelis Lipsicas), Rabi Yitsḥak Elḥanan, zatsal (Kedainiai, Lith., 1933); Samuel K. Mirsky, “Isaac Elhanan Spektor,” in Guardian of Our Heritage, pp. 303–317 (New York, 1958); Ephraim Shimoff, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spektor: Life and Letters (Jerusalem, 1959), letters in Hebrew, biography in English.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 291, Talmud Torah Sha’are Torah, Jaffa, Records, 1890s-1930s.



Translated from Hebrew by David Strauss