Dessler, Elijah Eliezer

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DESSLER, ELIJAH ELIEZER (1891–1954), one of the personalities of the *Musar movement. Dessler was born in Homel, Russia. His father, Reuben Baer, had been a pupil and subsequently one of the directors of the bet ha-talmud in the small town of Kelme (Lithuania), founded by Simḥah Zissel Ziv, the outstanding disciple of Israel *Lipkin (Salanter), founder of the Musar movement. Reuben Baer's home, however, was in Homel where he engaged in business, and there Dessler passed his early youth. At the Kelme bet ha-talmud, he pursued talmudic studies and his teachers included ẓevi Hirsch Broda and Nahum Velvel Ziv, leading exponents of Musar. On the outbreak of World War i he returned to Homel, studying at the yeshivah established there by refugees from the Lithuanian yeshivot and administered by his father. In Homel he came close also to ḥasidic circles and was influenced by their ideas. In 1919 he married the daughter of Nahum Velvel Ziv and went to Riga where he engaged unsuccessfully in business. In 1929 he settled in London where he became the rabbi of a synagogue, first in East London and then in North-East London, and became the supervisor of a large talmud torah. He exercised a profound influence on the teaching of Musar, not only because of the profundity of his ideas but on account of his personal ethical conduct. In 1941 he accepted an invitation to become directorof a kolel for advanced Talmud study in *Gateshead, England, where he also lectured on Musar. He served in an honorary capacity, earning his livelihood by giving private lessons. The kolel added to the prestige and development of the Gateshead yeshivah and his influence extended beyond England to other countries, through its graduates who served as heads of yeshivot. In 1947 Dessler accepted the invitation of Rabbi Joseph Kahaneman to become the spiritual supervisor of Ponevezh yeshivah in Bene-Berak, Israel, and there he remained until his death. His teachings were a harmonious combination of the doctrine of Musar, particularly as taught in Kelme, with the concepts of Jewish religious philosophy, *Kabbalah, and *Ḥasidism. Some of his ideas were published by his pupils, in part from his own manuscripts and in part from notes taken from his lectures, Mikhtav me-Eliyahu (3 vols., 1955–64). The work contains attempts at a confrontation between Jewish and general philosophy, arising from the problems raised by those of his pupils who had studied philosophy. A periodical named after him is published at irregular intervals in London by his followers, in which his ideas are discussed.


L. Carmell, in: L. Jung (ed.), Guardians of our Heritage (1958), 675–99; Mikhtav me-Eliyahu, 1 (1955), biography at the beginning.

[Zvi Kaplan]