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Isser Yehuda Unterman (1886 - 1976)

Previous Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel

Isser Yehuda Unterman, the second Ashkenazi Chief Rabi of Israel, was born in 1886 in Brest-Litovsk (Brisk). His father was a teacher. Among Unterman's ancestors we find Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller (1579 - 1654), author of the Mishnah commentary Tosefot Yom Tov, and Rabbi Shaul Wahl Katzenellenbogen (1540 - 1616). About him the legend tells that he was elected King of Poland for one day.

Already in a young age Unterman was known as the "Illui of Brisk". In 1898 he was invited to become one of the founding students of Yeshiva Anaf Etz Chaim in Maltsch. For some time he also studied at the Mir Yeshiva, but later returned to Maltsch.

After his marriage Unterman continued his studies at the Kollel of the Volozhin Yeshiva where he was ordained. During his studies in Volozhin he opened a Yeshiva in the neighboring town of Vishnevo. This yeshiva was very successful - even the Hafetz Chaim sent one of his nephews to study there. Unterman developed laryngitis which ended his regular teaching career. He chose the rabbinate. He was appointed rabbi in Mohilna near Minsk. Later he moved to Amstibova.

In 1923 Unterman was chosen to be rabbi of Liverpool. He immediately learned fluent English and quickly became acclimated to his position. He worked with the youth of the community and united all the Jewish congregations of Liverpool under one umbrella organization. He strengthened the local yeshiva and brought students from Germany and other countries. He also established a Talmud Torah academy in Liverpool.

During the air raids of World War II Unterman refused to abandon his post. But he paid regular visits to the members of his congregation, which were dispersed among various villages and to Jewish internees of camps for foreigners. Unterman established a home for refugee children outside of Liverpool.

In 1946 Unterman was elected Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yafo. As in Liverpool Unterman strengthened Torah institutions and public services like rabbinical courts. He served as a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council.

In 1956 he was appointed Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel. He took full advantage of his position and advocated various issues, especially for the understanding between the religious and the secular population.

He wrote many responsa on halakhic problems. In these responsa he applied in a new and practical way the methods he had learned in his youth in the Lithuanian yeshivot. Among the topics he discussed are: the principle of pikuach nefesh, the reliability of the testimony of doctors for the purpose of religious law, marriage and divorce laws, questions of status, heart transplantation and conversion procedures.

The Department for Jewish Zionist Education