Based on new historical research, Dr. Arie Morgenstern presents a breakthrough theory explaining the Gra’s uncompleted journey to Eretz Yisrael
The nineteenth of Tishrei, the third day of Chol HaMoed Sukkot, 5758, will complete the 200th year since the passing of the Gaon, the Chassid*, Rav Eliyahu of Vilna, known by the Hebrew acronym as “the Gra.” The title “The Gaon,” containing the definite article, expresses his unique position among the very greatest individuals who ever arose within the Jewish nation. His absolute mastery of all branches of Torah, beginning with Hebrew grammar, Mishnah, both Talmuds, gaonic literature, rishonim, acharonim, midrash, kabbalah; his phenomenal memory; his mastery of general knowledge, beginning with astronomy and mathematics and ending with music — all this set him off as a superhuman figure.
With his powerful intellect, he penetrated the halachic sources, whether from the Talmud or directly from the written Torah. His authority was such that he disputed the earlier authorities, including the Rambam and Rav Joseph Caro. The Gra researched and corrected the printed Talmudic and midrashic texts and found their sources.
“I have no permission from Heaven…”
Writing a biography of the Gra has been hampered by the lack of primary sources. The Gra himself never published any of his works and certainly never wrote anything about himself. Everything published in his name was provided mainly by his sons, grandsons and disciples. Their writings reflect a particular slant concerning the Gra’s persona and overlook other aspects of his complex personality: they stress his unique intellectual greatness, but omit description of his human side. At best, there are only hints concerning his relationships with members of his family.
Yet there is an even greater mystery surrounding one of the well-known episodes in the Gra’s life: his aborted aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. It is inconceivable that such an episode should not receive appropriate examination. After all, every moment in the Gra’s life was precious to him, every action was carefully evaluated. And if he decided to appropriate his time and efforts towards aliyah, it would seem that he viewed the journey as of the utmost importance, outweighing all that would be lost on account of the trip. Yet only once is the episode clearly mentioned, in his sons’ introduction to the Gra’s notes to Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim, and even there with dry terseness, without a real examination of the nature of the attempted aliyah. This is what the Gra’s son wrote:
In his old age I asked him many times why he did not complete his aliyah to the Holy Land, and he did not answer. Once, I pressed him and he replied, “I have no permission from Heaven.”
From the persistence of his son’s questioning, it appears that everyone expected the Gra to complete his holy mission. But the Gra’s terse and cloudy response was calculated to sharpen the force of his message, as if to say “don’t discuss the matter because it was decreed in Heaven that I was prevented from going, and consequently one should not investigate the matter further.”
The response “I have no permission from Heaven” became well-known. A eulogizer, Rav Aharon of Kalshin, mentions it in the course of praising the Gra’s piety in returning all the money that was lent to him prior to his trip:
And once he considered traveling to the Holy Land but was prevented from Heaven from doing so. And he returned each one’s money which had been sent to him as a gift, and kept none of it.
Even his disciple, Rav Yisrael Shklov, who emigrated to Eretz Yisrael, only mentions the Gra’s trip in relation to his return of the money, as an example of his piety, but failed to address the essential question as to why he went and why he returned.
Other testimony to the trip is the famous letter the Gra sent to his family from one of the stops on his journey. The letter is the one large work which is unquestionably from the Gra’s own hand. In contrast to his usual extremely concise, terse style as commentator, we have here an expansive, literary creation, and it is worthwhile to carefully examine what it contains as well as what is missing.
The letter is primarily a musar letter. It is full of instructions to his family, mainly to his wife, on how to act in his absence and how to train their sons and daughters in the paths of musar and modesty. Here and there are expressions of his love for Eretz Yisrael, the destination of his journey. For example:
And I, thank God, am traveling to the Holy Land which everyone looks forward to seeing; the craving of all Israel, and the craving of God; all the higher and lower worlds’ desires are directed towards it.
But not a word concerning the purpose of his trip. It is difficult to assume that the entire purpose for the journey is revealed by his expressions of love for the Holy Land. One would have expected that at a time when the Gra was still in an inspired state and had every intention of completing his journey, that he would have expressed a more personal statement of the objective of his trip which could have more effectively consoled and strengthened his family in his absence. Yet not a word — even after he hints that his trip is not intended to be temporary and that he is considering the possibility that his family will join him there.
Another mention of the Gra’s journey to Eretz Yisrael was recently revealed, reflecting what Rav Meir HaKohen of Volozhin quoted from Rav Chaim Volozhin who heard from the Gra himself:
When the Chassid journeyed to the Holy Land, he traveled by way of Amsterdam. In a small village on his way to Amsterdam, he was the guest of an honored and very wealthy individual, whose sons-in-law were also exceptional people, and the Chassid recuperated there for several weeks from his travel weariness. [Manuscript shown to me by the bibliographer, Yeshaya Winograd.]
The fact that Amsterdam is a city through which the Gra would pass on his journey to Eretz Yisrael seems surprising, for the direct route from Vilna to Eretz Yisrael is south, by way of Odessa to the Black Sea and through Turkey. Why then, would the Gra have traveled through Amsterdam, which seems to be an almost opposite westerly route? It should also be pointed out that the address from which the above-mentioned letter was sent is Koenigsberg, which is west from the normal route for travelers from Vilna to Eretz Yisrael. Both sources complement each other in determining the Gra’s route. One would think that if one were bent on distorting the events, he might have used more plausible means. The very bizarre nature of the events as unconsciously related testify to their authenticity. We need only examine why, in fact, the Gra troubled himself to take such a circuitous, westerly route through Amsterdam, on the way to Eretz Yisrael.
The mention of Amsterdam as one of the Gra’s stops, where he remained for a considerable period of time, prompted me to follow the Gra’s footsteps to Holland, hoping to find some hint of the purpose of his journey. I surmised that there was a link between the strange route he took and the objective of his journey. I therefore sought additional evidence for what has already been revealed. In view of the Gra’s custom of concealing personal matters on his travels, I recognized from the outset that my search might run into a stone wall: I was apprehensive that I would find nothing in Holland.
Nevertheless, I searched all the central archives in the main cities of Holland, checked all the registries of names and the record of all those who had entered and left Holland during the years l760-l783 — and I found nothing. I had about given up; some of the names of the Jews entering Holland were spurious, some were anonymous, most mentioned their first names, including the name Eliyahu, but I found nothing that would advance my investigation. But, lo and behold, in a search of the records of the community of the Hague, I uncovered pages containing records of cash disbursements under the heading “Eretz Yisrael.” The records encompassed a 40-year period between l749-l789. Each record was made close to the date of the expenditure and specified the year and the weekly Torah portion in which it was made. Here and there, the date is missing, presumably because the record was made long after the event, and the other particulars were recorded from memory.
When I examined the records, I found that they contained accountings of cash disbursements for Eretz Yisrael. Most were for monies given to emissaries from Eretz Yisrael who came to the Hague and received donations on behalf of their native communities. I found that occasionally monies were given as personal gifts to the emissaries.
Here and there, money was given not to an emissary from Eretz Yisrael, but to one who was “going to Eretz Yisrael.” When I stumbled into this category for the first time, my breath stopped. Is there a chance that I might here find a trace of the Gra? The entries on the pages were jumbled and it was impossible to read them quickly. After several minutes of tension-packed searching, I found one simple line which read:
l778, to Rav Eliyahu from Vilna who is going to Eretz Yisrael, 5.5 gold coins.
Knowledge of the Gra’s stay in the Hague sometime in the summer of l778 (5538) is the last piece of information that we possess concerning the Gra’s trip to Eretz Yisrael. There is no certainty as to the meaning of “I have no permission from Heaven” to ascend to Eretz Yisrael. It seems that the failure of the Gra’s family, and especially his disciples, to refer to his attempted journey to Eretz Yisrael reflects an attempt to mask the failure of his mission. How is one to explain the fact that his disciples who did ascend to Eretz Yisrael never addressed themselves to such a central episode in the life of their revered rebbe? Furthermore, they never clearly characterize their own aliyah as a concretization of the spiritual will of the Gra. We hear this only from a secondary source — the writings of Rav Aryeh Ne’eman — that Rav Chaim Volozhin was the individual who sent his friends, the disciples of the Gra, to Eretz Yisrael in l800.
The Gra’s Attempt to Bring the End Closer by Revealing the Secrets of the Torah
The year of the Gra’s journey, 1778, was during a period wrapped in messianic expectations: a sense of the imminence of the End of Days was not merely the hidden, esoteric hope of individuals. Rather, it encompassed broad groups to whom calculations of the keitz (the “End”) had reached, via the dissemination of literature or by word of mouth. Thus writes Rav Meshulem Phoebus Heller in 1777:
What appears from what we can see and hear concerning the journey to the Holy Land of many gedolim in what is revealed (niglah) and in what is hidden (nistar)…and surely it is a great yearning for Zion…Surely the Messiah’s coming is near… and I need not remind you of this, for I know that in accordance with what is written in the Ari’s writings about the refinement of holiness (Birur HaKedushah), which becomes clearer every day until the refinement is complete with the arrival of the Messiah speedily in our days. The refinement comes through Torah and mitzvot. However, the main refinement is through prayer (Likkutim Yekarim, p. 26).
I surmised that there was a link between the strange route the Gra took and the objective of his journey.
In this light, one might postulate that the controversy between Mitnagdim and Chassidim can also be explained with reference to their respective perspectives on the subject of Redemption. Both camps base themselves on the kabbalah of the Ari, but the practical application is one of the primary points of difference; or more precisely, the practical obligation to pursue “refinements.”
The great aliyah of the Chassidim in l777 produced a powerful impression in their own camp, as well as in the camp of the Mitnagdim, and this is what prompted the Gra to attempt aliyah. My assumption is that the Gra felt that the Chassidim who had made aliyah would fail to bring the Redemption because the means they employed to bring it about were erroneous, and that aliyah to Eretz Yisrael, though a precondition of Redemption, is insufficient in itself. It is necessary to effect certain mystical actions to complete “the process of refinements” (tahalich habirurim) and to insure the concretization of the Redemption. The Chassidim are mainly concerned with the prayer of the tzaddik, who possesses the proper intentions (kavanot). However, the Gra maintained that this is not the way; that on the contrary, this approach may delay the entire process. I believe this was the reason the Gra hurried to Eretz Yisrael in l778, in the footsteps of the Chassidim who had arrived the previous year.
“The process of refinements” is a process which strives to bring about the tikkun of reality by casting aside the negative spiritual forces which interfere with the natural order. These forces of evil became admixed with holiness shortly after Creation had taken place. The aim of “refinements” is the restoration of the divine harmony that existed at the time of Creation — this is to be achieved by severing evil from holiness so that the harmony can no longer be broken. Only when the “process of refinements” is completed will a new reality be established, allowing for a condition of redemption. Only then can the Messiah come. There is general agreement on this fundamental concept.
As noted above, however, the disagreement concerns the means for effecting the “process of refinements:” in the Chassidic view, clarification is primarily effected by the prayer of a tzaddik who knows the proper mystical intentions required in his prayer. According to the Gra, the world will achieve tikkun through exact and proper fulfillment of the mitzvot; however, as long as there is no uniform practice of the mitzvot, the “process of refinements” is impeded. Therefore, a halachic work which achieves unanimous agreement will facilitate the path to hasten the Redemption.
This concept of the Gra, of tikkun through precision in mitzvot, is recorded in the introduction of Rav Yisrael Shklov to the P’at HaShulchan. From there it is clear that there were two matters which the Gra could not resolve, constituting a stumbling block in the completion of the “process of refinements.” Only when the solution to these difficulties would be found could the process be completed and the path to the coming of the Messiah be facilitated.
He (Rav Menachem Mendel Shklov) then said that he (the Gra) said that he knew the entire Torah given at Sinai to its ultimate purpose…only two weighty matters in the esoteric Torah in the Zohar were difficult to him. And he told him (Rav Menachem Mendel) where they are. And if the Gra knew someone who understood them he would travel to him by foot and would then wait for the Messiah (Introduction to P’at HaShulchan).
In contrast to the picture painted by his sons and disciples, who portrayed him as secluded from the surrounding world, the Gra emerges as one alive even to matters remote from him, when they interested him. This was the case regarding important scholarly writings and rare manuscripts. The Gra’s interest in obtaining rare Kabbalistic works is reflected in a letter sent by him and his brother, Rav Yissachar Ber, to Rav Saul Amsterdam in l776. In that letter, he specifically requests the Pirkei Heicholot of Rav Yishmael ben Elisha and works on the Zohar, such as that of Rav Moshe Cordovero.** Similarly, he very likely learned that the manuscripts of Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto were extant in Amsterdam and wished to acquire them to enhance his knowledge. In general, Amsterdam was then known as a central place for Hebrew books; works were brought there to be published and there was a central location for old Hebrew manuscripts. Persons of unquestioned reliability attest to the Gra’s knowledge concerning the wealth of literature hidden in the libraries of Amsterdam. One of those who fired the Gra’s imagination was Rav Yaakov Kahana, grandson of Rav Saul Amsterdam, who married the Gra’s niece. From the time he came to Vilna in l777 for his wedding, he became a close disciple of the Gra.
In one place, Rav Yisrael Shklov explains where the Gra took his license to disagree with all the rishonim (early scholars) who preceded him.
…the gaonim and the Rambam, in their preoccupation with the study of the Babylonian Talmud in order to decide the practical halachah, did not apply their labors to clarify the Jerusalem Talmud and the Toseftot (Introduction to P’at HaShulchan).
The Gra’s attitude towards the Rambam was one of great respect, as indicated by the numerous times in his notes to the Shulchan Aruch where he defends the Rambam against other rishonim. Nevertheless, his critique of the Rambam was not merely due to the latter’s inadequate use of the Jerusalem Talmud, but also because of his incomplete knowledge of the 4 branches of learning: p’shat, remez, drush and sod-pardes:
But they did not see the pardes, not he (the Ramo), nor the Rambam (Biur HaGra to Y.D. 246:l8).
His critique of the Rambam was also directed against the Rambam’s preoccupation with philosophy. In the Gra’s view, philosophy distanced one from the simple meaning of the text and led to distorted interpretation.
The Gra’s attitude to philosophy was well-known to his disciples. Rav Yisrael relates what he heard:
When he completed his commentary on The Song of Songs, he lifted his eyes upward with great deveikut and with thanksgiving to His Name that he was worthy to grasp the light of Torah, in its inner and outer meaning. And he said: all knowledge is necessary to understand our holy Torah and is included in it. He knew them thoroughly and mentioned algebra, geometry and music and praised it profusely. He said that all the ta’amim of the Torah, the secret of the songs of the Levites and the secrets of the Tikkunei Zohar, are incomprehensible without it [music]….Concerning philosophy he said that he studied it thoroughly and extracted only two good things; the rest should be discarded…(Introduction to P’at HaShulchan).
The Gra wished to write a Shulchan Aruch with one viewpoint. The question remains, why did he not, in fact, compose such a work as he had planned? The Gra’s sons answer in their introduction to Orach Chaim:
Concerning two matters I heard from his holy mouth that his Creator did not approve. In his old age, I asked him many times why he did not complete his journey to the Holy Land, and he did not respond. Once I pressed him and he replied, “I have no permission from Heaven.” He also promised me that he would compose the laws from the four Turim with one final point of view which he held based on solid proofs to which there is no rebuttal. I asked him several years before his passing [about his intention to create a universally accepted body of halachah], and one time he replied, “I have no permission from Heaven.” I said, he was fit but the generation was not.
The importance of this source is incalculable and one may treat it as a primary source, testimony of the Gra himself, for the words are cited as testimony heard from the Gra’s mouth. The one transmitting these words is the Gra’s own son, based on his conversation with his father. One should remember that there are very few instances of direct testimony from the Gra. Most opinions of the Gra’s position are based on impressions or extrapolations from his words. This testimony may bring us to an understanding of the Gra’s perception of his purpose in life.
It appears that the Heavenly obstruction of his two projects profoundly affected the Gra and its impact was never erased. He accepted the judgement of Heaven and decided to remain silent concerning his attempted unsuccessful aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. However, the failure of his journey to Eretz Yisrael is ultimately linked to the fact that he was no longer preoccupied with his idea of disseminating a summary of halachah “based on solid proofs to which there is no rebuttal.” His attempt to revisit the creation of Rav Yosef Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch — and to thereby bring the redemption — never materialized. Apparently, the reason that the Gra returned from his journey is connected with the fact that he did not succeed in clarifying the two sugyot in the esoteric Torah that eluded his understanding. It was in order to achieve this clarification that he journeyed to Amsterdam prior to aliyah. Without having achieved clarification, without completing the revelation of all the secrets of the Torah and completion of the “process of refinements,” without these he could not achieve the purpose of his aliyah to the Holy Land.
The Last 18 years of the Gra’s life: l779-l797
The Gra’s return from his trip represents a point of departure in his life. At this point, a new period begins, characterized by an orientation different from all that preceded it. Heretofore, the Gra had as his objective the absolute mastery of the totality of Torah literature in order to present an original halachic code as it was given at Sinai. For this purpose, the Gra marshalled all his intellectual and spiritual abilities, imposed seclusion upon himself (his contacts with those surrounding him, including his family, were minimal) and apparently he had no disciples. In his famous letter, which he sent from Koenigsberg, he mentions his yearnings for his children and his books, but makes no mention of the existence of disciples. He placed the entire burden of fulfilling his objective on himself alone. He apparently felt that the association of disciples might detract from his concentration and prevent him from reaching his objective.
On the other hand, from the time the Gra returned from his trip, shortly before Rosh Hashanah, 5539 (l778), an essential change in his orientation took place: he resolved to alter his approach and to begin transmitting his Torah to his generation. For this purpose, he established a beit midrash in Vilna for a small group of disciples, each possessed of outstanding ability and inner resolve for unlimited study. The method of learning was individual; each student was taught one subject or tractate by the Gra, so that he acquired a complete and profound understanding of it. In addition, all acquired a broad knowledge of the Gra’s Torah. It was understood that the disciples would commit what they studied with him to writing. And in fact, the Gra’s sons characterize the period of the Gra’s last 18 years as a period distinguished by his efforts to bequeath his spiritual inheritance, in both substance and methods of study, to his generation. They give no indication that any change had occurred in the life of the Gra and they certainly did not connect the change with his abortive attempt at aliyah. This is what they write in the introduction to the Gra’s commentary on Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim:
And to elevate his contemporaries he established a house filled with Torah, where there were those who constantly stood on their guard around the table of God, full and fresh from Bible, Mishnah and Gemara; and he would also sit with them at specific times, and he instructed them how to master the entire Talmud in a few years and know the sources of all the Laws of the four parts of Shulchan Aruch perfectly. And he admonished them not to engage much in pilpul which may prove to be tenuous and sometimes, Heaven forbid, leads to contentiousness, which is destructive of His will, for through it sin is increased and truth is banished from the assembly of God…and they studied during his life for 18 years and he was satisfied that they had fulfilled his will…
In contrast to the picture of him as secluded from the surrounding world, the Gra emerges as one alive even to matters remote from him…
It appears that the Gra’s decision to return from his attempted journey to Eretz Yisrael was part of the change in his conception of the means necessary to bring about the Redemption. He previously had embraced the view that the Redemption could be hastened by the revelation of the secrets of the Torah and the completion of the “process of refinements,” and that he, with his unique God-given abilities, could himself achieve this. He now came to the recognition that the Redemption could be hastened through joint human effort whose central focus could be characterized as “redemption through natural means,” such as aliyah and settlement of the Land, building Jerusalem and the revitalization of the desolate Land: spiritual Redemption of the nation hand-in-hand with the physical redemption of the Land. And in fact, shortly after the Gra’s death, nearly all his disciples emigrated to Eretz Yisrael, laying the groundwork for the new yishuv. There can be no doubt that their aliyah was directly inspired by the Gra himself.
* Paradoxically, the term Chassid, by which the Gaon was known, and which refers to a saint, or pious one, is the very name of the movement (Chassidim) founded by Rav Israel Baal Shem Tov, whose chief opponent was the Gaon himself.
**Kitvei HaGaonim, Tzvi HaLevi Horowitz, Pietrokow, l928, p.7.
Dr. Morgenstern is a research fellow at the Dinur Historical Institute and teaches in the Jewish History Department at Hebrew University. He is the author of several books and articles, including Messianism and the Settlement of Eretz Yisrael and Geulah b’Derech haTeva. The present article is part of a larger work, soon to be published in Israel, concerning l8th century attempts to hasten the Redemption. A fuller version of this essay will be presented by Dr. Morgenstern as the opening lecture of the International Conference on “The Gra and His Historical Influence,” which will begin in Jerusalem on December 31, 1997.
This article was translated from the Hebrew manuscript by Matis Greenblatt, literary editor of Jewish Action.