A math loving, star-gazing mystic - the Vilna Gaon reexamined

2020 marks 300 years since we were gifted with the extraordinary Torah mind of the Vilna Gaon.

Vilna Gaon (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Vilna Gaon
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In 1720, on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nisan, the first day of Passover, a child was born in an area now known as Belarus, in a town called Sialiec (Syalets), some 300 kilometers south of a larger, more famous city that in the minds of many would forever be associated with this particular child: Vilna. The name given to this child by his mother Traina (from a town then called Seltz and today known as Selet, near Grodno) and his father Shlomo Zalman, son of Yissakhar Ber, was Eliyahu.
This child would later be known as The Gaon (genius) of Vilna. The newborn Eliyahu was named for his paternal great-grandfather, Rabbi Eliyahu, who was known as “Hasid” (d. 1710), “the pious one.”
The elder Eliyahu was the son of Rabbi Moshe (d. 1688), the Av Beit Din of Vilna, who also had a stall in the local market and was therefore known as R’ Moshe Kremer (or Kramer – meaning shopkeeper). Despite assertions to the contrary, the family name was neither Kremer nor Kramer; no contemporaneous sources refer to the Vilna Gaon by those surnames (although there are sources that refer to him as Eliyahu Zalmanovitch, i.e., son of Zalman). Another of the younger Eliyahu’s ancestors was Rabbi Moshe Rivkas (1596-1671) an illustrious scholar whose commentary, which provides annotation for the laws codified in the Shulchan Aruch, has become a standard feature in every edition of the Code of Jewish Law.
The Vilna Gaon – also known by the acronym G”ra (Gaon, R’ Eliyah), or simply as HaGaon, The Genius – never held an official rabbinic position, never served as the rabbi of a city or as head of a yeshiva. He did not publish a single book in his lifetime. And yet, the scope of the Vilna Gaon’s influence, authority and fame in his lifetime and far beyond are immeasurable. Other than the force of his personality, which was apparently quite formidable, aside from being steeped in holiness and brilliance, no clear explanation is available. His authority was bestowed upon him by his followers; it was clear to them that his piety, as well as his scholarship – both its breadth and its depth – were unparalleled.
A small, select group of The Gaon’s students (and their students) produced a library of works (all published posthumously) based on his teachings, on subjects spanning the entire spectrum of rabbinic literature. It is primarily from the introductions to these volumes, produced by the Gaon’s family and students, that we are able to glimpse into the personality and genius of the Gaon, though it should be noted that each is written from the vantage point of the author/editor and provides a subjective perspective. A more complete picture emerges only when these perspectives are pieced together.
The Gaon rarely involved himself in public debate or current events. One of the few topics on which he did weigh in involved what would become known as hassidism. The Gaon felt that certain practices and beliefs adopted by the early hassidim were dangerous and heretical. He was outspoken in his condemnation of hassidic practice and theology; nonetheless, even the greatest and most influential of his adversaries spoke of him with great respect, reverence and awe. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad-Lubavitch, is one such hassidic figure: “From what I understand, there is no one in Lithuania who dares not set aside his own personal views, in the face of the righteous Gaon, and dares say that (the Gaon) is mistaken. (Igrot Hakodesh of Admor Hazaken, NY: 1987, p.88).
Apparently, the first published mention of the Gaon appeared in a letter he penned in 1755 which Rav Yehonasan Eibeschuts (Luhot Edut) published as a defense of his own position in the famed Emden-Eibeschuts controversy. While it is likely that the Gaon actually demurred from being actively involved in this controversy and did not support either side, his letter angered Rabbi Emden.
“Who is this Eliyahu from Vilna,” he stormed? The Gaon was a relatively unknown 35-year-old at the time the letter was published, but soon enough, Rabbi Emden would adopt a far more respectful tone regarding the Vilna Gaon.
LEGENDS ABOUT the Gaon’s sharp mind and wondrous memory abound. Although it is difficult to separate fact from hagiography, the accounts by those who had firsthand knowledge describe an unparalleled genius with an eidetic memory who had complete mastery of all Torah knowledge, and a similar command of general knowledge. Those who came in contact with him were impressed both by his deep understanding as well as his absolute mastery of primary sources.
His sons, for example, describe his mastery of Talmud: By the age of six, he no longer had need for a teacher. After completing study of the “revealed Torah,” over a six-month period at the age of nine he completed the entire corpus of Jewish mysticism, including all of the writings of the Lurianic school.
The Gaon’s primary student, Rav Chaim of Volozhin, who went on to found the famous Yeshiva of Volozhin, described his teacher’s mastery of theoretical and practical Kabbalah, to the point of being able to create a golem before his bar mitzvah (The Gaon himself stated that he abandoned this project when he sensed “Heavenly displeasure”). Another student, R’ Israel of Shklov, in the introduction to his “Pe’at Hashulchan,” recalled that on the day The G”ra concluded his commentary to Shir Hashirim, the G”ra confided to close family and students that he had mastered all of Torah, and all of human knowledge – other than pharmacology. The Gaon’s father discouraged him from studying the medical arts; he had no doubt that his son would master this subject, and would then be required – morally, ethically and religiously – to spend his days and nights ministering to the sick, rendering him unavailable to pursue Torah study.
R’ Israel recounts the events of that day in detail:
“He ordered that his room be closed, and the windows were closed during the day, and many candles were lit. When he finished his commentary, he lifted up his eyes with intense concentration, with blessing, and with thanksgiving to God’s great name for allowing him to apprehend the light of the entire Torah, both its inner and its outer elements. He said: All the sciences are necessary for our holy Torah, and are included in it,” and he knew them all perfectly. And he mentioned them – algebra, trigonometry, geometry, and music, and he praised them greatly. He said then that much of the logic of the Torah, the mysteries of the songs of the Levites, and the mysteries of Tikkunei Hazohar cannot be understood without (scientific knowledge). And with (this knowledge) everyone… can resurrect the dead with the secrets that are hidden in the Torah. He explained the nature of all the sciences and said that he comprehended them all in perfect manner, except for medicine. He knew surgery and related matters, and he had wanted to study pharmacology from the doctors of his time, but his righteous father had forbidden him to do so, so as not to neglect his Torah studies. Afterwards, he said that the entire Torah that had been given at Sinai he knew to perfection.”
The centrality of scientific subjects to a deep understanding of Torah is manifest in a work on mathematics titled Ayil Meshulosh, attributed to the Gaon. R. Baruch of Shklov reports that in 5538 (1778) he visited the G”ra, who encouraged him to translate Euclid:
“I heard from his holy mouth that in accordance with what a person lacks in general knowledge, he will be lacking a hundredfold in Torah knowledge, for Torah and general wisdom are closely joined together… and he commanded me to translate into our holy language what is possible from general knowledge… so that wisdom will increase among our people Israel…
The Gaon’s sons also reported that as an eight-year-old, their father spent half an hour a day for 10 days studying astronomy – and mastered the discipline.
He lived an ascetic life, dedicating all of his physical and mental capacity to his studies and eschewing worldly pleasures, indulging in physical necessities such as food and sleep only in the minimum he deemed necessary.
HOW CAN the Vilna Gaon’s unique place in the pantheon of Jewish thought be evaluated 300 years after his birth? Those who consider themselves his followers form what might seem to the untrained eye to be an impossibly diverse group, with each sub-school identifying with different aspects of his life’s work.
The great yeshiva of Volozhin and the subsequent generations of physical and spiritual descendants of the yeshiva itself and of its founders, including the Soloveitchik and Berlin families; the rabbinic dynasties that founded the various ultra-Orthodox “Brisk” yeshivas; the vanguard of American Modern Orthodoxy, Yeshivat Rabbenu Yitzchak Elchanan – all see the Vilna Gaon as their spiritual founder. In a lecture I attended many years ago, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik remarked: “You call me ‘the Rov’ as if I am an authority, but if I had lived in Vilna during the time of the Gaon, they wouldn’t have let me clean the study hall for Shabbat.” Such was the profound distance Rabbi Soloveitchik felt between his own scholarship and the greatness of the Gaon. The intellectual shadow cast by Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna was immense; to this day, virtually the entire non-hassidic Ashkenazi Torah world considers the Vilna Gaon its greatest sage.
The Gaon’s approach to Jewish law was, in many ways, radical – and in many ways, strikingly conservative. He considered the Talmud the ultimate arbiter of Jewish law, and was not afraid of disregarding opinions and interpretations of post-Talmudic authorities in favor of a close adherence to the Talmudic discussion. To his mind, later commentaries were only valid to the extent that they clarify the Talmud. R’ Chaim of Volozhin quoted him as stating that one should not be afraid to hand down a ruling – even if one’s conclusions contradict those of the Shulchan Aruch. This approach, which was not universally accepted, effectively sets aside generations of post-Talmudic discussion and argument. Disciples of the Gaon consider him a singular throwback, ascribing to him a stature parallel to the earlier authorities who lived a millennium ago. While they generally adhere to his rulings, they do not generally follow his lead by ruling independently against the Shulchan Aruch, which has been the accepted, mainstream codification of Jewish Law for centuries.
This being said, while subsequent generations of scholars have not always adhered to every ruling or custom set down by the Gaon, they set his level of scholarship as the benchmark for their own learning.
THE VILNA GAON’S impact went beyond the confines of halachic discourse. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1809-1883), the founder of the mussar movement, was a student of Rav Yosef Zundel of Salant, a central disciple of Rav Chaim Volozhin, who, in turn, was a dedicated disciple of the Vilna Gaon. The Gaon’s ethical teachings came to life through Rabbi Yisrael Salanter and his students. The Yeshivas of Slobodka, Kelm, Telz, Novardok, Mir, Hebron – were all founded by students of the Gaon, and students of his students. In a very literal sense, the mussar movement can be seen as an outgrowth of the Vilna Gaon’s moral and ethical legacy.
Another element of his scholarship that had a tremendous impact on Jewish learning was his keen critical eye. The many judicious corrections of rabbinic texts published in his name are considered the foundational work of what would one day become the academic study of Rabbinics.
His influence extended beyond the Beit Midrash, as well. The Gaon was a trailblazer in the (secular) academy, and many early Haskala figures cited his interest in all areas of scientific knowledge as license and inspiration for their movement.
Aside from being a teacher and ascetic, a legalist and kabbalist, the Vilna Gaon was also a lover of Zion, and not merely in an abstract sense. Twice in his life he set out for the Holy Land, but each time his dreams were frustrated, and he returned to Vilna. Explanations and interpretations of these failed attempts were as varied as his disciples: His halachically-focused students offered legal explanations for the “change of course,” while his more mystical students offered more esoteric explanations. And yet, many of his students and family members continued the journey he aborted, at his command. Together with Jews who made their way to the Holy Land from across the Middle East and north Africa, as well as followers of the Baal Shem Tov, the disciples of the Gaon of Vilna established the “old Yishuv,” laying the foundations for the modern State of Israel.
WHEN THE history of Zionism is taught, the “First Aliyah” is dated to 1881 and the arrival of agricultural pioneers. However, beginning in 1808, students of the Gaon began to arrive in the Holy Land, motivated by mystical and messianic considerations in the return to Zion and bearing the teachings and traditions of their inspirational teacher. An important text that reflects these teachings work is the Kol Hator (The Song of the Nightingale), a somewhat controversial, eschatological text based on ideas ascribed to the Vilna Gaon. The Kol Hator describes the return to Israel and the rebuilding of Jerusalem as the catalysts of an “awakening from above” that would usher in the messianic age.
The Kol Hator s teachings center on an obscure mystical figure, sometimes referred to as the “First Messiah,” or Messiah ben Yosef (the son of Joseph). It was explained that the Vilna Gaon (as others, such as the Arizal before him) saw himself as a candidate for this position. Later, he had an epiphany, from which he understood that he was not meant to take an active role in this process. Rather, he reportedly explained to his disciples, his soul was more like the soul of Moses; just as Moses had to remain outside of Israel, and only his students could enter the Promised Land, so, too, the Vilna Gaon could not enter the land, but his students would cross over and complete the mission. Some of his students explain his aborted journey to Israel as the result of this epiphany.
Many of the Gaon’s students eventually settled in Jerusalem, rebuilding and enlarging the Holy City, and other cities, as their teacher told them they should, and the Land of Israel came back to life. Among these pioneering students of the Gaon were the Rivlin family, relatives of the Vilna Gaon and ancestors of President Reuven Rivlin. Benjamin Netanyahu is a descendant of the Vilna Gaon, as well.
SOME 300 years after his birth, the Vilna Gaon continues to shape the Jewish world. Scholars continue to debate almost every aspect of his life and influence. Yeshiva students measure their own devotion and scholastic accomplishments against the impossibly high benchmark set by the Gaon, while students of the Mussar movement see his saintliness and modesty as the standard of righteousness.
The library of his mystical teachings is larger than the combined output of all of his so-called adversaries in the hassidic schools of thought, and his work is still being studied – by mystics and academics alike. In the three centuries since his ideas and halachic rulings were published, not a day has gone by without a yeshiva student or a university student examining a teaching or an emendation of the Gaon. ‘Lithuanian’ and Hasidic yeshiva students, mystics, Haskala scholars, rationalists, religious Zionists, secular Zionists, the president and the prime minister of the State of Israel – all look to the same man for inspiration. That is quite an accomplishment, and quite a legacy.
The Land of Israel itself, which is now bursting with life and buzzing with creative energy, came back to life at least partially due to the self-sacrifice and labor of his students and followers. 300 years ago, all of this was unimaginable by everyone – except for one man, one genius: The Vilna Gaon.
The writer, a rabbi, author and educator who lives in Givat Ze’ev, is a senior lecturer in Bar-Ilan University.