Vilna Gaon

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Elijah Ben Solomon, the Vilna Gaon
Elijah Ben Solomon, the Vilna Gaon
Elijah (Eliyahu) Ben Solomon Kremer, born April 23 1720, Vilna (now Vilnius), Lithuania; where he died on October 9 1797, was a prominent Jewish rabbi, Talmud scholar, and Kabbalist. He is commonly referred to in Hebrew as ha'Gaon ha'Chasid mi'Vilna, meaning "the saintly genius from Vilna", or in similar forms (Gaon of Vilna, Gaon mi Vilno, or Vilna Gaon), and as The Gra (a Hebrew acronym of "Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu").
Contents

Youth and education

He gave evidence of the possession of extraordinary talents while still a child. As young as three years old he had committed the Bible to memory. At the age of seven he was taught Talmud by Moses Margalit, rabbi of Kaidan and the author of a commentary to the Jerusalem Talmud, and was supposed to know several of the treatises by heart. The Vilna Gaon is well known for having possessed a photographic memory. By eight he was studying astronomy during lunch time. From the age of ten he continued his studies without the aid of a teacher. When he reached a more mature age Elijah wandered in various parts of Poland and Germany, as was the custom of the Talmudists of the time.

He returned to his native town in 1748, having even then acquired considerable renown; for when he was hardly twenty years old many rabbis submitted their halakhic difficulties to him for decision. Non-Jewish scholars sought his insights to mathematics and astronomy.

Methods of study

Elijah applied to the Talmud and rabbinic literature proper philological methods. He made an attempt toward a critical examination of the text; and thus, very often with a single reference to a parallel passage, or with a textual emendation, overthrew tenuous decisions of his rabbinic predecessors.

He devoted much time to the study of the Hebrew Bible and Hebrew grammar, and was knowledgeable in the secular sciences, enriching the latter by his original contributions. His pupils and friends had to pursue the same plain and simple methods of study that he followed. He also exhorted them not to neglect the secular sciences, maintaining that Judaism could only gain by studying them. Elijah was also attracted to the study of Kabbalah; but from his controversy with Hasidic Judaism it would seem that he was not prepared to follow the mystics to the full extent of their teachings.
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Vilna Gaon (Zalkind, Ber)

Elijah was very modest and disinterested; and he declined to accept the office of rabbi, though it was often offered to him on the most flattering terms. In his later years he also refused to give approbations, though this was the privilege of great rabbis; he thought too humbly of himself to assume such authority. He led a retired life, only lecturing from time to time to a few chosen pupils.

In 1755, when Elijah was only thirty-five, Jonathan Eybeschütz, then sixty-five years old, applied to Elijah for an examination of and decision concerning his amulets, which were a subject of discord between himself and Rabbi Jacob Emden. Elijah, in a letter to Eybeschütz, stated that, while in full sympathy with him, he did not believe that words coming from a stranger like himself, who had not even the advantage of old age, would be of any weight with the contending parties.

Antagonism to Hasidism

When Hasidic Judaism became influential in his native town Elijah, joining the rabbis and heads of the Polish communities, took steps to check the Hasidic influence. In 1777 the first excommunication by the Mitnagdim was launched at Vilna against the Hasidim, while a letter was also addressed to all the large communities, exhorting them to deal with the Hasidim after the example of Vilna, and to watch them until they had recanted. The letter was acted upon by several communities; and in Brody, during the fair, the cherem (ban of excommunication) was pronounced against the Hasidim.

In 1781, when the Hasidim renewed their proselytizing work under the leadership of their rabbi, Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Elijah excommunicated them again, declaring them to be heretics with whom no pious Jew might intermarry. Elijah also accused Shneur Zalman and his adherents of belief in pantheism, which is generally considered heretical in Judaism. The charges may or may not have been well-founded. Hasidic Jews generally do accept panentheism, and without clear systematic study of these two similar theologies, one can read the same texts and interpret them as either pantheism or panentheism.

After this, Elijah went into retirement again, and the Hasidim seized the opportunity to spread a rumor that Elijah sided with them and that he repented of having persecuted them. Elijah then sent two of his pupils (1796) with letters to all the communities of Poland, declaring that he had not changed his attitude in the matter, and that the assertions of the Hasidim were pure inventions. Still, Elijah had seen beforehand that all the excommunications would be of no avail, and that they would not stop the tide of Hasidism.

Other work

Except in this instance, Elijah almost never took part in public affairs; and, so far as is known, he did not preside over any great school in Vilna. He was satisfied, as has been already stated, with lecturing in his bet ha-midrash to a few chosen pupils, whom he initiated into his scientific methods. He taught them Hebrew grammar, Hebrew Bible, and Mishna, subjects which were largely neglected by the Talmudists of that time. He was especially anxious to introduce them to the study of the midrash literature, and the minor treatises of the Talmud, which were very little known by the scholars of his time.

He laid special stress on the study of the Jerusalem Talmud, which had been almost entirely neglected for centuries. Being convinced that the study of the Torah is the very life of Judaism, and that this study must be conducted in a scientific and not in a merely scholastic manner, he encouraged his chief pupil, Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, to found a yeshiva (college) in which rabbinic literature should be taught. Chaim did not carry out the injunction of his master until some years after the death of the latter. The college was opened at Volozhin in 1803.

Ascetism

Elijah led an ascetic life. He interpreted literally the words of the ancient rabbis, that the Torah can be acquired only by abandoning all pleasures and by cheerfully accepting suffering; and as he lived up to this principle, he was revered by his countrymen as a saint, being called by some of his contemporaries "the Hasid".

Elijah once started on a trip to the Land of Israel, but did not get beyond Germany (although in the very early nineteenth century, waves of his students did manage the trip, settling mostly in the city of Tzfat. While at Königsberg he wrote to his family a letter which was published under the title Alim li-Terufah, Minsk, 1836.

Works

Elijah was a voluminous author; and there is hardly an ancient Hebrew book of any importance to which he did not write a commentary, or at least provide marginal glosses and notes, which were mostly dictated to his pupils; but nothing of his was published in his lifetime.

Influence

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An older Vilna Gaon
He was one of the most influential Rabbinic authorities since the Middle Ages, and - although he is counted as an Acharon - he is held by many authorities after him as belonging to the Rishonim (Rabbinic authorities of the Middle Ages). Large groups of people, including many yeshivas, uphold the set of customs (minhag) that can be traced back to him: the minhag ha-Gra.

His main student Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, founded the first yeshiva in his home town of Volozhin, Lithuania (now in Belarus). The results of this move, which met with the Vilna Gaon's approval, revolutionised Torah study, and the results of this process are still felt in Orthodox Jewry.

External links

Biography (University of Calgary) (http://www.acs.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/TalmudMap/ShA/ShAGra.html)

Biography by Eliezer C. Abrahamson (http://members.aol.com/LazerA/VilnaGaon.htm)

New Lithuanian Kabbalah School of GRA (http://kabala.lietuvoje.info/)

References

Etkes, Immanuel, et al. The Gaon of Vilna: the man and his image (University of California Press, 2002) ISBN 0520223942

"The Gaon of Vilna and the Haskalah movement," by Emanuel Etkes, reprinted in Dan, Jospeh (ed.). Studies in Jewish thought (Praeger, NY, 1989) ISBN 0275930386

"The mystical experiences of the Gaon of Vilna," in Jacobs, Louis (ed.). Jewish mystical testimonies (Schocken Books, NY, 1977) ISBN 0805236414

Landau, Betzalel and Rosenblum, Yonason. The Vilna Gaon: the life and teachings of Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna (Mesorah Pub., Ltd., 1994) ISBN 0899064418

Shulman, Yaacov Dovid. The Vilna Gaon: The story of Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer ( C.I.S. Publishers, 1994) ISBN 1560622784

Ackerman, C.D. (trans.) Even Sheleimah: the Vilna Gaon looks at life (Targum Press, 1994) ISBN 0944070965

Schapiro, Moshe. Journey of the Soul: The Vilna Gaon on Yonah/Johan: an allegorical commentary adapted from the Vilna Gaon's Aderes Eliyahu (Mesorah Pub., Ltd., 1997). ISBN 1578191610

Freedman, Chaim. Eliyahu's Branches: The Descendants of the Vilna Gaon (Of Blessed and Saintly Memory) and His Family (Avotaynu, 1997) ISBN 1886223068

Rosenstein, Neil. The Gaon of Vilna and his Cousinhood (Center for Jewish Genealogy, 1997) ISBN 0961057858de:Gaon von Wilna he:הגאון מוילנא

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