Vilna Gaon

“When one is always happy even if a disease threatens them, their happiness will cancel it.”

The Gaon - A Short Biography

Rabbi Elijah Ben Solomon Zalman (The Vilna Gaon or the Gr'a). The Gaon was born in Seltz (Sielec, Belarus today), and grew up in Vilna (Vilnius) Lithuania, part of the Polish-Lithuanian Empire, which came under Russian Protectorate in 1768 and collapsed in 1795. The Gaon was born on the first day of Passover 5480 (1720) and passed away on the 5th day of sukkot 5558 (1797). He was a descendant of the legalist Rabbi Moses Rivkes of Vilna (1591-1671), author of the Be'er HaGolah (Well for the Exiles) (or Be'er HaGulah- the uncovered well) commentary on the Shulkhan Arukh. The Gaon was called also Hasid during his lifetime, meaning righteous one, a title he might have inherited from his great grandfather R. Eliyahu Hasid. Already in 5508 the documents of the Vilna Hevra Kadisha refers to him by this title. The title 'Gaon' seems to refer to his scholarship and 'Hasid' to his righteousness.

The Gaon was married twice: The first time to Hanna bat Yehudah Leib of Kaidan (Kėdainiai), and after her passing he married the widow Gitel bat Meir Luntz of Chelm. The Gaon had five daughters and three sons, all apparently from his first wife. These are his children: Daughter (unknown) b. 1741, d. 1756 after engagement but before marriage, Daughter, Cheina, 1748-1806, daughter, Peisa Basya, b. 1750, daughter unknown born 1752, son Shlomo Zalman 1758-1780, died during the Gaon's lifetime, son Yehudah Leib, 1816-1864, son Avraham 1765 – 1808, daughter Toyva 1768-1812.

Little is known about the Gaon's childhood. The stories tell of a child prodigy who studied under a teacher until age six. And at six and a half gave a lecture in the synagogue. His sons say that at age nine he was well versed in bible, Mishna and Gemarrah and at age eleven he studied the entire Talmudic tractate of Zevahim on the night of Simhat Torah. They claim that at the age of twelve he was well versed as well in the general sciences and especially in astronomy. The Gaon was not the Rabbi of Vilna but he did receive a monthly stipend from the Kehilla. He was seen as a scholar and a luminary and was supported by the community. His stipend was a bit less than the Rabbi. In addition to this, the Gaon's uncle Eliyahu Ben Zvi Kremer was a wealthy man who supported the Gaon as well, possibly from the family fund started by R. Moshe Rivkes to support torah scholars, which he was in charge of. Therefore, Shaul Stampfer describes him as being in a middle class economic situation. This does not contradict the claim that he personally led an ascetic lifestyle.

The Gaon was a recluse, who closed the shutters of his house during the day so as not to be disturbed in his study. He wrote all his notes which became his books, until the age of forty. He only took in students in the last 17 years of his life. These students became our main window to learn about the image of the Gaon as well as the keepers and editors of his writings. According to the sons of the Gaon the students are: R. Hayyim Itzkovitch of Volozhin, R. Shlomo of Vilkomir, R. Shlomo Zalman, brother of R. Hayyim Volozhiner, R. Saadya brother in law of R. Shlomo Zalman, R. Shlomo of Tulchyin, R. Zvi Hirsh of Siemiatycze, R. Shlomo of Mohilev (Mogilev), R. Biyamin Rivles, R. Menahem Mendel of Shklov and his brother, R. Simha Bunim of Shklov. One may add to that list, the three sons of the Gaon R. Abraham and R. Yehudah Leib and Shlomo Zalman who passed away at a young age.

We can add as well R. Yisrael of Shklov who met the Gaon in the last half year of his life, and possibly R. Hillel Rivlin son of R. Binyamin Rivles, as well as R. Yaakov Kahana who married the Gaon's niece and requested that his name not appear among the Gaon's students. The only close of friend of the Gaon was possibly the maggid, R. Yaakov of Dubno. Among people who were in touch with the Gaon we find as well R. Menashe of Ilya and of course the Gaon's grandson R. Yakov Moshe of Slonim who received most of the Gaon's writings from his father R Avraham.

The writings

The Gaon did not publish anything in his lifetime. It's not even clear whether he wrote anything in book form. His writings were his notes and his commentaries to classical biblical and Rabbinic works (Hazal Literature) of Judaism. This includes commentaries to the Bible, Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, Midrash, shuhan Arukh (as a compendium of halakha to show its sources in Hazal literature), as well as to Zoharic literature (which he saw as part of Hazal literature). There are few exceptions. One is his short commentary on Mishnat Hassidim which might have been a polemic with R. Emanuel Hai Ricci, since the Gaon interprets the Zimzum non-literally, as well as his book on trigonometry and astronomy entitled Ayil Meshulash which might have been notes on related Talmudic discussions. When the Gaon passed away, the Bet Din of Vilna was afraid that his writings would fall into irresponsible hands and published a ban on 13 Adar 5559 (1779) in which only seven of his unpublished works were to be published; They were:

The second work published was the commentary on mishna Zeraim called Shnot Eliyahu, in 1779. This also contained the first introduction written by the Gaon's sons as well as R. Hayyim of Volozhin and set the tone for all later biographies of the Gaon. The first detailed list of the Gaon's writings is given by his R. Yehoshua Heshel Levin in Aliyat Kir, where he describes 54 works. R. Shlomo of Tulchyn mentions 70 works of this Gaon on the cover of his collection 'Hadrat Kodesh'. R. Yisrael of Shklov mentions that there were 'over seventy works' of the Gaon and R. Avraham mentions thirty commentaries only on Zoharic texts alone.

The second work published was the commentary on mishna Zeraim called Shnot Eliyahu, in 1779. This also contained the first introduction written by the Gaon's sons as well as R. Hayyim of Volozhin and set the tone for all later biographies of the Gaon. The first detailed list of the Gaon's writings is given by his R. Yehoshua Heshel Levin in Aliyat Kir, where he describes 54 works. R. Shlomo of Tulchyn mentions 70 works of this Gaon on the cover of his collection 'Hadrat Kodesh'. R. Yisrael of Shklov mentions that there were 'over seventy works' of the Gaon and R. Avraham mentions thirty commentaries only on Zoharic texts alone.

Of the 54 books mentioned by R. Levin there are basically two types: Those written by the students based on the Gaon's ideas and those that were manuscripts of the Gaon and were edited by the students. For example: Shnot Eliyahu was written by the students but written while the Gaon was alive in the final 17 years of his life. Aderet Eliyahu is another example of a work written by the students. On the other hand, the kabbalistic commentaries such as the ones on tikunei Zohar, safra deZniuta, Raaya MeHeimna, commentary Yahel Or on the Zohar and commentary on Sefer Yezira, are all based on authentic manuscripts of the Gaon with little editing. It appears that the students hesitated to edit the Kabbalistic works. In some cases there were authentic manuscripts as well as collections by the students that got mixed together, such as the commentary to Shir Hashirim.

 

The commentary to the shulchan arukh was based on various manuscripts and many errors fell into it during the editing process as stated in the introduction to the Brothers Romm's Vilna edition of the Gaon's commentary to Orah Hayyim. Thankfully, there exist many manuscripts of the Gaon's writings, many written or copied by the close circle of the Gaon giving us an idea of how the books were formed.

Historical Influence

The Gaon was an ascetic who closed himself off from the world to study torah. His grandson, Yakov Moshe of Slonim testifies how he was at the Gaon's house for a visit after not seeing him for three years. It took days for the Gaon even to notice him and then he had time only for a brief chat and a dvar torah about the verse in Mishlei 'educate the young according to their path', and this was despite the fact that R. Avraham told Yakov Moshe that he was the Gaon's favourite grandchild. His sons claim that he closed the shutters during the day so not to be bothered and slept little at night 'and did not look outside [i.e. was not concerned with issues outside] his four cubits'. How did a man like this have any historical influence? Despite this, there are a historical events that the Gaon seems to have been involved with:

One: The struggle against the rising Hassidic movement of the students of the Baal Shem Tov in Eastern Europe. The Gaon signed both the first ban of 1772 and the second ban of 1781 against the Hassidic movement. The prestige of the Gaon as a torah scholar lent a significant boost of authority to the ban against Hassidism. Even if it does not appear that the Gaon played any active role in the actual opposition to hassidim on the social and political level, lending his name to the opposition gave it the aura of authority it needed. He also wrote a detailed, even if somewhat esoteric, letter explaining his opposition to Hassidut in 1796 a year before his death. The aggressive opposition to Hassidut declined radically already by the first half of the 19th century even if the ideological polemic lived on, and we can find students inclined to hassidut in the Volozhin yeshiva already during R. Hayyim's lifetime.

Two: Most of the students of the Gaon who were still alive in 1808, made aliyah to the land of Israel together with hundreds of followers and received financial support for this through the endeavours of R. Hayyim Volozhin. R. Menahem Mendel of Shklov led the Jerusalem community and R. Israel of Shklov led the community in Zfat. There are still some arguments among scholars concerning the nature of this aliyah, however the prevailing view is that this was inspired by the Gaon's vision and had an amount of messianic fervour to it.

Three: The yeshiva world and the study of Torah. Mordecai Wilansky wrote that after their passing, the Baal She Tov left a generation of students and the Gaon left books. Both statements seem to be wrong. Concerning the Gaon not only did he not leave books but rather only personal notes and commentaries that were later edited into book form by his students, but he seems to have taken an interest in students in the last 17 years of his life. These students paved the way for the renaissance of the yeshivot in Lithuania in the 19th century, particularly Hayyim of Volozhin who seems himself as acquiring this role due his being a student of the Gaon. All the yeshivot established in Lithuania following the establishment of Hayyim Volozhins yeshivat Etz Hayyim in Volozhin, saw themselves as followers of the Gaon and modelled themselves after the Volozhin yeshiva.

Four : The study of Torah in all its aspects: Aside from the emphasis on the study of Torah in the Volozhin yeshiva and its sister and daughter yeshivot in Lithuania, the sons and students of the Gaon actively copied, edited and promoted his books and wrote their own works on Halakha and Kabbalah. The Gaon's writings in Halakha promoted the idea of going back to the Talmudic sources, keeping away from over intellectual pilpul and studying torah in order to understand the practical halakhic implications. While this was the position of the Gaon and R. Hayyim, it was hard to eradicate the place of pilpul from the yeshiva study. The Gaon and Rav Hayyim promoted the study of rishonim and steered away from Ahronim. In addition, the Gaon was open to the general sciences especially where it enhanced the understanding of Torah. This can be seen not only from the Gaon's work Ayil Meshulash but from Sefer Habrit, By Pinhas Eliyahu Horovitz of Vilna, a Hebrew work including much information on the natural world, the author of which was close to the Gaon's circle. The study of Jewish history was encouraged as well and we have notes from the Gaon on Seder Olam Rabbah. The study of Hebrew grammer was encouraged as well as the study of Tanach (bible), midrash. The Gaon and R. Hayyim as well as Menahem Mendel of Shklov promoted the study of Kabbalah and saw this as the soul of torah study. They even developed some of their own ideas creating a new trend in kabbalistic thought which I refer to as Lithuanian Kabbalah. This refers to kabbalists influence by the Gaon's writings most of whom lived in or near Lithuania at the time. This interest in Kabbalah was mainly theoretical since the Gaon and even more R. Hayyim, opposed ecstatic Kabaalh and the use of personal revelations to reach new understandings in Halakha or kabbalah. This was another reason for their opposition to Hassidism. Eventually by the second half of the 19th century those involved in the study of kabbalah among the torah scholars in Lithuania and Belarus declined as R. Shlomo Eliasov laments, but still continued among a select few.

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