April 23, 2020, marked the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Vilna Gaon. Sadly, plans to celebrate this momentous milestone in Lithuania and Israel were thwarted by the coronavirus. The Lithuanian Embassy in Israel is keen to ensure that the Gaon’s birth and life are acknowledged and celebrated and have sent out the following message:
“The year 2020 was designated by the Government of Lithuania as the year of the Vilna Gaon and the history of the Jews of Lithuania. We have launched a social media campaign for the occasion, which has been prepared by the Lithuanian and Israeli Ministries of Foreign Affairs.”
So who was this illustrious Jewish sage and why has this tri-centenary attracted so much attention?
Eliyahu Ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer often known as HaGra, (acronym) was born in the town of Seltz (now Belarus near Brest Litovsk) in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1720. He was somewhat of a child prodigy and legend has it that by the age of four, he had memorized the entire Tanach (Hebrew Bible). When he was barely seven, Rabbi Moshe Margalit of Keidan taught him Talmud. In his free time at the age of eight, he was studying astronomy. The Gaon never held a formal title or position. His life was one of love, fear and devotion to God. Nevertheless his contemporaries throughout Europe deferred to his authority. Lithuanian Jewry considered him to be their acknowledged leader. Jerusalem historian and Holocaust survivor Masha Greenbaum in her book, The Jews of Lithuania notes:
“Generations after his death, his personal characteristics inspired religious movements and trends that spanned the entire Jewish world.”
Despite being a prolific writer, none of his works were published in his lifetime. This was left to his descendants to take care of. He was married twice. His first wife is named as Chana of Keidan the daughter of Yehuda Leib of Keidan. Soon after they were married, the couple moved to Vilna, where they opened a shop Chana ran. According to one source, the Gaon and his first wife produced nine children: five daughters and four sons. Chana bore the brunt of rearing the children while her husband devoted himself entirely to his learning, writing and practicing of a very ascetic form of Judaism. He literally understood the words of the Jewish sages to mean that the Torah could only be acquired by forsaking all pleasures and joyfully accepting suffering. Chana was four years younger than her husband and died at the age of 58.
Despite his asceticism, the Gaon did connect with the outside world. He would go into self imposed “exile” as a kind of penance and wander alone across Europe especially in Poland and in Germany where he explored the academic heights of science, mathematics and astronomy, adding them to his superhuman intellectual repertoire and engaging in scholarly exchanges with Jews and non-Jews alike. In 1778 he ordered his disciple Rabbi Baruch of Shklov to translate Euclid’s Geometery into Hebrew. In the introduction, Rabbi Baruch fittingly summarized the Gaon’s doctrine thus:
“If a man is deficient in the sciences, he will be deficient a hundred fold in knowledge of Torah, for Torah and science go together.”
Almost 100 years later, his ethical teachings inspired Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, who founded the Mussar movement in the town of Kelm in Lithuania. The Gaon’s teachings went on to influence Ashkenazi Judaism in many parts of Europe including Latvia, Estonia, Belarus and some parts of Poland. Some 500 of his closest disciples, known as Perushim, came to Israel and settled in places like Safed in the early 1800s. After various calamities and disasters including plagues and an earthquake, they moved to Jerusalem. To this very day the majority of Ashkenazi communities in Jerusalem follow the customs of the Vilna Gaon known as Minhag Lita (the custom of Lithuania) with Jews of Lithuanian descent being referred to as Litvaks. The Litvak way of life was at complete odds with the Hassidic movement which had gained enormous ground in Eastern Europe at around the same time. It’s founder, Rabbi Yisrael Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov espoused a form of Judaism that was the very antithesis of the Gaon’s teachings. He apealed to the uneducated working Jew, emphasizing the individual’s need to get in touch with his own spirituality by accessing emotions rather than rational intellect. He encouraged his followers to worship God through the soul, through the senses, through song and meditation and by following the Hassidic Rebbes who set up their own “Courts” and dynasties throughout the shtetls and towns of Eastern Europe. The Gaon frowned on these ideas and associated the movement with a type of blasphemy that contaminated Torah Judaism. Hassidism was attacked for allegedly incorporating the secret teachings of the false messiah Shabbetai Zvi, and the more contemporary beliefs and teachings of Jacob Frank. The term misnageid or mitnaged (in modern Hebrew) entered the vocabulary of Lithuanian Jewry when the opposing Hassidim described the way that the Gaon and his people were acting against them. Purportedly one of the Gaon’s greatest disciples, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhyn embraced the term and mainstream Litvaks became known as isnagdim - (opposers). Thus began a great rift between the two groups that continued until after the Haskalah (enlightenment). The Gaon took drastic action and issued several cherems (excommunication) orders against Hassidim in 1777, 1781 and in letters written in 1796.
In my native South Africa where the majority of Jews hailed from Lithuania, it was impossible to escape the influence of Litvak values, culture, and social attitudes. Despite the fact that the majority of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants were not observant, the stamp of the Gaon’s strictly conservative and ethical Litvak Judaism was heavily imprinted on their way of life.
In 1997 my wife and I undertook a roots trip to Lithuania and Belarus. We decided to avail ourselves of the services of a private guide. Among the “must see” sights recommended to us were places connected to the Gaon of Vilna. We were allocated a Yiddish-speaking local 60-year-old by the name of David, who doubled as a guide and driver. Our first day was designated as Vilna day which included highlights of the city’s ancient history including the life and times of the Vilna Gaon.
My first impression of Vilna was extremely positive. I had expected to see a post Communist reconstructed ugly hotchpotch of breeze blocks and Soviet architecture. Instead it turned out to be a very compact attractive city with wide boulevards, museums, churches, parks and stately European style architecture. Vilna is also located on the Neris River which flows through its center adding a certain pastoral ambience to the place. I remember how our guide David began by giving us a bird’s eye view of Lithuanian Jewish history. We learned that the Jews were first welcomed into the Duchy of Lithuania in the 14th century. One of the reasons why Jews and other minorities sought refuge there was because of the high level of tolerance and the welcoming attitude to migrants. Jews, because of their cosmopolitan backgrounds, trades and professions, languages and international trade connections were seen as particularly useful assets to the country. The Jews allied themselves to the nobility and ruling classes which proved to be a mistake in the longer term. Over time they became tax and debt collectors alienating themselves from the common people. A manifestation of the backlash occurred with the Chmielnicki Cossack uprising which took place between 1648 and 1657 in the eastern territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth resulting in the murder of thousands of Jews and the destruction of more than 300 communities. Surprisingly the Gaon was born only 63 years after the pogroms. By then the life of the Jewish community had returned to a degree of normality. Though mindful of the recent past, Jews were able to live their lives in relative peace. Sadly this ended with the Holocaust when 88% of Lithuanian Jewry were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.
The Vilna Gaon died in 1797, aged 77, and was subsequently buried in the Šnipiškės cemetery in Vilna, now in the Žirmūnai elderate. The cemetery was closed by the Tsarist Russian authorities in 1831 and partly built over. In the 1950s, the Soviet authorities decided to build a stadium and concert hall on the site. They allowed the remains of the Vilna Gaon to be removed and re-interred at the new cemetery. The family tomb, which includes the resting places of members of the Gaon’s family and also the remains (a finger) of the Ger Tzedek, Count Valentin Potocki, a Polish nobleman who converted to Judaism and was burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church because he renounced Catholicism. Every year scores of visitors come to Vilna to pay homage to the Gaon and to recite prayers at the tomb. Rabbi Shnayer Leiman, professor emeritus of Jewish history and literature in the Department of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College is an authority on Jewish Vilna. While spending Shabbat in Vilna, we were very fortunate to run into the professor and his tour group. I vividly remember his account of the Gaon’s reburial. The account has subsequently been written up in an article by Leiman titled:
“Who is buried in the Vilna Gaon’s Tomb?”
The three members of the chevrah kadisha charged with moving the bodies of these Torah giants approached their task with great trepidation. On the appointed day for digging up the graves, they fasted and beseeched those about to be moved for forgiveness for disturbing their resting place. They first had to dig up the graves and then place the bodies, which had been wrapped only in the traditional burial shrouds, in coffins for transfer to the new cemetery. When the three finished opening the Gaon’s grave and lifted him into a coffin, they were astounded to find that his body had not degenerated nor rotted at all in nearly two centuries. They were able to discern that even the hairs on his beard remained unchanged from the day of his petirah (departure from this life).
Despite the dark history surrounding the demise of Lithuanian Jewry in the 20th Century, the leaders of the modern Lithuanian state have made great efforts to resurrect and resuscitate the legacy of its country’s Jews. In 1989 a Jewish museum was established by the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture in Vilna. In 1997 the Museum was renamed The Vilna Gaon Museum to commemorate the death of the Talmudic Scholar. Today tourists can visit quite a few sites that are associated with the great sage. The main site is the Vilna Gaon Family mausoleum in the Jewish cemetery on the Sudervs Road in Vilna. The second most important site is the historical Jewish quarter in downtown Vilna, where one can wander down streets and pass by buildings that existed during the Gaon’s life time including Gaon street (Lith. Gaono gatvė) and Jewish Street (Lith. Žydų gatvė) where a monument dedicated to the Vilna Gaon was erected. The Vilna Gaon lived with his family at number 8 Jewish Street (Žydų street 8). The family home stood next to the Great Synagogue of Vilna which was burned and looted by the Nazis and demolished by the Soviets who wanted to remove all traces of Jewish culture in the city. Quite miraculously, three original pieces from the Great Synagogue of Vilna survived the destruction and are now on display at the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum: a door of the Holy Ark, a reader’s desk, and a bas-relief with the Ten Commandments. In 2011 the then Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius announced plans for the partial restoration of the site after significant archaeological ruins were uncovered. The project is now underway and is scheduled to be completed in 2023. Several buildings in the Jewish Quarter were closely connected with the Gaon’s life and scholarly activity including the building of “The Widow and Brothers Rom” printing house. The printing house changed locations several times. It is thought that one of the most iconic editions of the Babylonian Talmud was printed in a building on 4 Šiaulių Street in modern downtown Vilna.
Sadly because of the pandemic this year, most of the commemorative events of the Gaon‘s birth have been postponed until the autumn.
For those interested in learning more about the Gaon and the fascinating history of Lithuanian Jewry, it is worth visiting the Lithuanian government‘s excellent social media site which is very user friendly and also provides information about planned and postponed events in 2020: http://lrv.lt/en/relevant-information/gaon300/the-year-of-the-vilna-gaon-jewish-history-in-lithuania