Rabbi Eliezer Papo was a major exponent of the musar tradition. Born in Sarajevo in 1785, Rabbi Papo became an outstanding rabbinic scholar, deeply devoted to piety and spirituality. He authored books of halakhah, homiletics, and musar, and was profoundly committed to kabbalah as well. Rabbi Papo served as rabbi of the community of Selestria (Bulgaria). He died in 1826 at the age of forty-one.
In spite of the brevity of his life, Rabbi Papo achieved remarkable depth and breadth in his rabbinic scholarship, and left to posterity a significant literary legacy. It may be said that Rabbi Papo, in the early nineteenth century, was the exemplary spokesman of the Sephardic musar tradition of the eighteenth century.
Rabbi Papo stressed the need for sincere piety and saintliness. He generally felt that Jews should devote themselves to fulfilling G-d’s commandments, without worrying too much about the problems of this world. It was the world-to-come which has ultimate value; it was that goal to which Jews should direct their lives.
His attitude was one of acceptance: whatever happened was for the best since it was G-d’s will. Suffering and adversity were to be received with equanimity; they provided opportunities to demonstrate true faith in G-d and to repent.
Rabbi Papo taught that it was wrong to be overly concerned with earning a livelihood. To be sure, one had to work for a living, not relying on a miracle to sustain him and his family. But income is determined by G-d. If G-d wants someone to be poor, he will be poor no matter how hard he works. And if G-d wants him to be rich, he will be rich even if he does not work hard. We are all obliged to devote some time to making our living but we must realize that our level of success is determined by G-d.
Rabbi Papo stressed that one must have faith in the words of the sages, submitting to their authority, and indeed, practicing intellectual subservience to anyone greater than oneself. It is proper not to speak with definitive certainty, but to be open to the possibility that others may have more understanding of truth.
Rabbi Papo advocated a tradition-bound, static Judaism. He called for a life of piety and acceptance of G-d. He demanded total allegiance to rabbinic tradition, stressed the need to live according to traditional patterns and preferred the traditionalism of Moslem lands to the modernity of Europe. His ultimate focus was not on life in this world, but on the world to come.