Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler

Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler

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Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler was an Orthodox
Orthodox Judaism
Orthodox Judaism , is the approach to Judaism which adheres to the traditional interpretation and application of the laws and ethics of the Torah as legislated in the Talmudic texts by the Sanhedrin and subsequently developed and applied by the later authorities known as the Gaonim, Rishonim, and...

In Judaism, a rabbi is a teacher of Torah. This title derives from the Hebrew word רבי , meaning "My Master" , which is the way a student would address a master of Torah...

, Talmud
The Talmud is a central text of mainstream Judaism. It takes the form of a record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history....

ic scholar, and Jewish philosopher of the 20th century. He is known as mashgiach ruchani
Mashgiach ruchani
Mashgiach ruchani or mashgiach for short, means a spiritual supervisor or guide. It is a title which usually refers to a rabbi who has an official position within a yeshiva and is responsible for the non-academic areas of yeshiva students' lives.The position of mashgiach ruchani arose with the...

("spiritual counselor") of the Ponevezh yeshiva
Ponevezh yeshiva
Ponevezh Yeshiva, often pronounced Ponevitch Yeshiva, is a world renowned yeshiva located in Bnei Brak, Israel. Donated by Henry Krausher, it was originally established in the town of Panevėžys, Lithuania...

 in Israel
The State of Israel is a parliamentary republic located in the Middle East, along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea...

 and through collections of his writings published posthumously by his pupils.


Eliyahu Dessler (who was known throughout his life as Eliyahu Leizer or Elya Lazer) was born in 1892 in Libau
Liepāja ; ), is a republican city in western Latvia, located on the Baltic Sea directly at 21°E. It is the largest city in the Kurzeme Region of Latvia, the third largest city in Latvia after Riga and Daugavpils and an important ice-free port...

, Courland
Courland is one of the historical and cultural regions of Latvia. The regions of Semigallia and Selonia are sometimes considered as part of Courland.- Geography and climate :...

Latvia , officially the Republic of Latvia , is a country in the Baltic region of Northern Europe. It is bordered to the north by Estonia , to the south by Lithuania , to the east by the Russian Federation , to the southeast by Belarus and shares maritime borders to the west with Sweden...

). His father, Reuven Dov Dessler
Reuven Dov Dessler
Reuven Dov Dessler was a rabbinic leader of the Musar movement and the director of the Kelm Talmud Torah from 1918 until 1931.He was born in 1863 in the city of Liepāja in Courland, Latvia. His parents were strong supporters of the Musar movement and especially of the efforts of Rabbi Simcha...

, was a disciple of one of the main leaders of the Mussar movement
Mussar movement
The Musar movement is a Jewish ethical, educational and cultural movement that developed in 19th century Eastern Europe, particularly among Orthodox Lithuanian Jews. The Hebrew term Musar , is from the book of Proverbs 1:2 meaning instruction, discipline, or conduct...

, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv
Simcha Zissel Ziv
Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv Broida , also known as the Alter of Kelm , was one of the foremost students of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter and one of the early leaders of the Musar movement...

, best known as the Alter (Elder) of Kelm. Eliyahu was orphaned of his mother at a young age. His father remarried, and would become a successful timber merchant in the city of Homel over the ensuing years, although he would lose virtually his whole fortune after the Russian Revolution
Russian Revolution of 1917
The Russian Revolution is the collective term for a series of revolutions in Russia in 1917, which destroyed the Tsarist autocracy and led to the creation of the Soviet Union. The Tsar was deposed and replaced by a provisional government in the first revolution of February 1917...

, which would prompt his son to relocate to England.

The young Elya was taught by private tutors. At the age of 14 (in 1906), he was to be one of the youngest students at the yeshiva
Yeshiva is a Jewish educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts, primarily the Talmud and Torah study. Study is usually done through daily shiurim and in study pairs called chavrutas...

 of Kelm, which was then being led by Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Braude, the son of the founder. Rabbi Dessler would later speak in fond terms on the study and self-perfection in the Kelm yeshiva. It was unusual in the sense that it provided its pupils with a secular education parallel to their religious studies, enabling them to earn a livelihood rather than having to take up rabbinic positions.

In Kelm, Eliyahu was a diligent student, and would receive semicha
, also , or is derived from a Hebrew word which means to "rely on" or "to be authorized". It generally refers to the ordination of a rabbi within Judaism. In this sense it is the "transmission" of rabbinic authority to give advice or judgment in Jewish law...

 (Rabbinic ordination) from his uncle, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski
Chaim Ozer Grodzinski
Chaim Ozer Grodzinski was a pre-eminent Av beis din , posek , and Talmudic scholar in Vilnius, Lithuania in the late 19th and early 20th centuries...

, who would be the spiritual leader of Orthodox Lithuanian Jewry until his death in 1939 and rarely granted ordinations.

In 1920 Rabbi Dessler married Bluma, the great-granddaughter of the "Alter" of Kelm. He entered business with his father, and declined a position as a rabbinical judge in Vilna.

After the death of his stepmother in 1928, Rabbi Dessler was forced to accompany his father to London for medical treatment, and decided to remain in the United Kingdom. His wife and children stayed behind for the time being.


In London Rabbi Dessler served in the rabbinate, initially in the East End
East End of London
The East End of London, also known simply as the East End, is the area of London, England, United Kingdom, east of the medieval walled City of London and north of the River Thames. Although not defined by universally accepted formal boundaries, the River Lea can be considered another boundary...

 and later in Dalston
Dalston is a district of north-east London, England, located in the London Borough of Hackney. It is situated northeast of Charing Cross. The area is identified in the London Plan as one of 35 major centres in Greater London...

, Northeast London. His family joined him in 1931, and his father was to spend his final years in the UK.

In Dalston Rabbi Dessler started tutoring a number of young people, and for a while he was the private tutor of the children of the wealthy Sassoon family. A pupil from this time, Aryeh Carmell
Aryeh Carmell
Aryeh Carmell was an Orthodox rabbi, scholar, and author.-Early life and education:Aryeh Carmell was born in London, England, in 1917, to a Russian family of Jews. He was educated at public Aryeh Carmell (1917–2006) was an Orthodox rabbi, scholar, and author.-Early life and education:Aryeh Carmell...

, would be one of the main disseminators of Rabbi Dessler's ideas after the latter's death.

His son left London in the early 1930s to study in the yeshiva of Kelm. He would not rejoin his family; during the war they would escape to the Far East, and eventually settled in the United States. Several months before the outbreak of World War II, his wife left for Lithuania with her daughter to visit relatives. The war would separate them, and the women would spend the war mainly in Australia.


In the early 1940s, Rabbi Dessler assumed leadership of the newly formed Gateshead
Gateshead is a town in Tyne and Wear, England and is the main settlement in the Metropolitan Borough of Gateshead. Historically a part of County Durham, it lies on the southern bank of the River Tyne opposite Newcastle upon Tyne and together they form the urban core of Tyneside...

A kollel is an institute for full-time, advanced study of the Talmud and rabbinic literature. Like a yeshiva, a kollel features shiurim and learning sedarim ; unlike a yeshiva, the student body of a kollel are all married men...

, an institute of religious study for married men, which was a novelty in Western Europe. During the ensuing years he would maintain a gruelling schedule to lead the kollel, raise its funds, and still tutor small groups of young people.


In the late 1940s, the leadership of the Ponevezh yeshiva in the Israeli town of Bnei Berak convinced Rabbi Dessler to assume the role of mashgiach ruchani (spiritual counsellor and lecturer on ethical issues). He relocated to Israel, and again gathered a small circle of students around him. One of his pupils there, Chaim Friedländer, would later fill his position as Ponevezh mashgiach.

Rabbi Dessler died quite suddenly in 1953 (Hebrew date 24 Tevet 5714), presumably of ischemic heart disease
Myocardial infarction
Myocardial infarction or acute myocardial infarction , commonly known as a heart attack, results from the interruption of blood supply to a part of the heart, causing heart cells to die...

. He had suffered from peripheral vascular disease in the months prior to his death.

Influence and ideas

While it is difficult to determine which teachers had most influence on Rabbi Dessler, it is apparent that he is a child of the yeshiva world of the early 20th century, which was then influenced heavily by the ethical Mussar movement, but has similarly gained proficiency in Kabbalah
Kabbalah/Kabala is a discipline and school of thought concerned with the esoteric aspect of Rabbinic Judaism. It was systematized in 11th-13th century Hachmei Provence and Spain, and again after the Expulsion from Spain, in 16th century Ottoman Palestine...

 and works of Hasidic Judaism
Hasidic Judaism
Hasidic Judaism or Hasidism, from the Hebrew —Ḥasidut in Sephardi, Chasidus in Ashkenazi, meaning "piety" , is a branch of Orthodox Judaism that promotes spirituality and joy through the popularisation and internalisation of Jewish mysticism as the fundamental aspects of the Jewish faith...

 and Jewish philosophy
Jewish philosophy
Jewish philosophy , includes all philosophy carried out by Jews, or, in relation to the religion of Judaism. Jewish philosophy, until modern Enlightenment and Emancipation, was pre-occupied with attempts to reconcile coherent new ideas into the tradition of Rabbinic Judaism; thus organizing...

. His method in interpreting tenets of Jewish philosophy reveals an adherence to the principles of the Maharal (Rabbi Loeb of Prague, 16th century). Another major influence appears to have been the 19th century Hasidic work, Tanya
The Tanya is an early work of Hasidic philosophy, by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Hasidism, first published in 1797. Its formal title is Likkutei Amarim , but is more commonly known by its opening word, Tanya, which means "it was taught in a beraita"...


Most of Rabbi Dessler's work has reached the public through the pupils he reared in England and Israel. Together, they edited his collected correspondence and ethical writings posthumously in the six-volume Michtav me-Eliyahu ("Letter from Elijah" which alludes to the letter that the prophet Elijah sent to the King of Judah that arrived after Elijah ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire), later translated into English and published as "Strive for Truth". This work is now widely studied and quoted in Orthodox Jewish circles.

Perhaps one of the most influential ideas, discussed in an essay in the first volume of Michtav me-Eliyahu, is the "Jewish philosophy of love." He observes that the perfect love from the point of view of Jewish philosophy is not "give and take" but focuses exclusively on giving. This idea is quoted often and has been developed by many religious thinkers.

Other remarkable points are his stance against preoccupation with materialism and technology, which, in his view, distance mankind from spirituality; see Divine Providence for discussion of these views.

One well known idea of his, expounded on in Michtav meEliyahu, is the Nekudas Habechira (point of free will). He states that everyone has a point in his service to G-d where he has to fight his evil inclination and other points where he there will be no battle, some where he will always give in to his evil inclination and some where he will always win over his evil inclination, and that this point moves as he learns to overcome his evil inclination or as he give in to it. For example, someone who adheres to Orthodox Judaism will have no problem keeping kosher, but may sometimes be tempted to rely on unreliable kosher supervision, while somebody farther away from religious practice will have to struggle with whether to eat a ham sandwich.