The Incomparable Gaon of Vilna

The fourth day of Sukkot of this year will mark the 200th yahrzeit of the Vilna Gaon.  Yet despite this long passage of time, his unique contributions to Jewish life and learning still reverberate in our homes, our synagogues and our yeshivot.  Noted author, Rabbi Moshe Meiselman illuminates the facets of this monumental legacy.

In the history of the Jewish people, certain unique individuals have appeared at times of crisis and transition, whose overwhelming influence has determined all of subsequent Jewish life.  These individuals shape and determine the natures of both Jewish life and learning.  When the yeshivot in Babylonia began to wane and the center of Jewish life moved to Europe, Rashi appeared as the dominant individual in France and Germany.  He determined the nature of all of Jewish life and learning for hundreds of years to come.  In Spain, this role was assumed by Rav Yitzchak Alfasi, the “Rif.”  After the Expulsion from Spain, Rav Yosef Karo emerged as that individual:  his Shulchan Aruch not only determined all of Jewish practice, but also became the main focus of all Torah learning for generations.

The mid-eighteenth century stood astride two tumultuous periods in Jewish history.  The latter half of the 17th century and the early 18th century were marred by the Chmelnicki massacres of 1648-1649 and by the disillusionment following the false messianic era of Shabbetai Tzvi and Jacob Frank.  This sequence of events threw all of Jewish life into upheaval.  By the end of the 18th century, the effects of modernization and emancipation would forever change the nature of the Jewish community.  It was during this transitional period, that one of the most unique figures of Jewish history appeared, the Gaon of Vilna.

Rav Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman was born on Tuesday, the first day of Pesach, the 15th of Nisan, 5480 (April 23, 1720) and passed away on Sunday, the fourth day of Sukkot, the 18th of Tishrei, 5558 (October 8, 1797).  While he was born to a distinguished family, very little is known about the details of his parental home.  On his mother’s side, he was descended from Rav Moshe Rivkes, the author of the Be’er HaGolah, a fundamental commentary on the entire Shulchan Aruch.  On his father’s side, he was descended from Rav Moshe Kramer, a legendary member of the Vilna rabbinate.  He was named for his paternal great-grandfather Rav Eliyahu Chassid, who was known and named for his piety.

The young Eliyahu was recognized immediately as a prodigious genius.  He was possessed of a photographic memory, immediate complete photographic recall, and brilliant analytic ability.  His immediate mastery and total recall of all that he had ever learned foretold a life of high achievement for him.  However, the most outstanding trait that set him totally apart from all of his contemporaries was his saintliness.  To his contemporaries he was not known as The Gaon, but as The Chassid.  From early childhood, he divorced himself from anything but single-minded pursuit of spiritual excellence.  The motto of kol ma’asecho yihiyu l’shem Shamayim (all of your activities should be for the sake of Heaven), determined his entire life from early childhood.  Thus he combined superhuman talent with superhuman ability to work in a totally focused manner.  It is told that he slept two hours in every 24-hour period.

He involved himself with no other activity other than the learning of Torah.  Hence, at a very early age, he achieved a mastery of the entire Torah that was unique.  However, whereas his goal was complete control of the entire Torah, he also acquired all of the disciplines that were necessary for such complete control.  He was a master of Hebrew grammar and wrote a number of treatises setting down the fundamental principles of grammar.  He mastered  Euclidean geometry and wrote a famous treatise, Ayil Meshulosh.  However, his influence on Jewish history was not found in any of these areas.  The Gaon of Vilna forever changed the way Torah is learned and lived.  His philosophy of life has become the approach of all subsequent Lithuanian Jewry and his method of learning has become the basis of most yeshivot in the twentieth century.  His approach to halachah changed the practice of countless Jews.

The learning of Torah is a threefold process.  1) On the one hand, Torah unfolds as a legal system.  A large part of Torah learning is the understanding of the legal system.  2) On the other hand, the learning of Torah is also the fitting together of a complex logical structure.  Halachah is not just a series of ad hoc laws;  they are all tied together by a total, logical system of underlying concepts.  3) The learning of Torah is also a system of text analysis of the Talmud and other texts.

While all Torah learning generally involves all three aspects, at different points of Jewish history one finds that specific aspects dominate.  We find relative integration of all three types of learning among most rishonim.  However, after the end of the period of rishonim, this situation radically changed.  The Shulchan Aruch not only codified all of Jewish law, but immediately after its emergence, became the central focus of all learning.  A simple analysis of most 16th- and 17th-century Torah literature will show that it is overwhelmingly an analysis of the legal system of Torah.  The 16th-century literature is primarily teshuvot and the 17th century provided the major commentaries of the Shulchan Aruch.  Most Torah learning, even through the early 18th century, revolved around the Shulchan Aruch.  This not only reflects the nature of Torah study, but also reflects the nature of halachic development.  Legal systems have their own form of dynamic.  They rely more heavily on practice and precedent than they do on legal source and conceptual analysis.  Law recognizes the current reality as a dominant force in making legal decisions.  Hence, when the Shulchan Aruch became the primary focus of learning and the major creative force of Torah learning was in legal development, the use of Talmudic sources in halachic analysis and the various approaches of rishonim were of secondary importance.  Rav Yonatan Eyebshitz was the leading rosh yeshivah of his day.  His major contribution to halachic literature were his shiurim in the form of Urim ve’Tumim and Kreiti Upleiti, both commentaries to the Shulchan Aruch, whereas he did not publish his commentary to Shas, which was only recently published.

All of this was changed by the Vilna Gaon. In his view, the legal aspect of Torah practice and Torah learning was secondary to the issue of text analysis.  He exerted major efforts in first establishing proper texts, a matter of major concern for one who saw Talmudic text analysis as his primary objective.  He then established the method of using rishonim as the benchmark of proper text analysis.  Finally, all halachic decision-making, in his view, was consequent to proper text analysis from the perspective of the various rishonim.  Only in choosing between equally valid approaches of various rishonim did he allow practice and custom to be operative.  His major contribution to halachic literature was the Biur Hagra to Shulchan Aruch.  The purpose of this work is to show the textual sources for all of Jewish practice and to evaluate all practice in light of the various opinions of rishonim who advocate them.  Henceforth, analysis of a halachah or a minhag meant an analysis of a Talmudic text according to an interpretation by a specific rishon.  The validity of a practice had to be justified by its source, rather than the simple fact of tradition and practice.  It goes without saying that from time to time the Gaon concluded that various previously accepted practices had to be changed.

Such revolutionary change as the Gaon envisaged occurred in stages.  Under his influence, his leading student, Rav Chaim of Volozhin, opened Yeshivat Eitz Chaim in Volozhin.  This was the first yeshivah as it is known today.  While previously various rabbanim taught their students, and people in every city learnt individually, until the opening of the yeshivah in Volozhin, there was no institution with a full educational structure in Eastern Europe.  The course of study reflected the Gaon’s approach.  Hence, the major topic of study was the Talmud and its commentaries.  Shulchan Aruch was a secondary study, as it was consequent to Talmudic study not prior to it.  As discussed above, Shulchan Aruch in particular, and halachah in general, depend upon a proper understanding of the Talmud and its interpretation by the various rishonim.  Volozhin was the leading yeshivah in Eastern Europe, and its graduates became the leading rabbanim and roshei yeshivah in Europe.

The clearest way to evaluate the Gaon’s influence is to contrast Hungarian and Lithuanian methods of learning.  The entire revolution of the Gaon did not touch Hungary, which was under the influence of the Chatam Sofer.  The difference between Lithuanian and Hungarian learning and halachic decision-making reflects either the presence or lack of the Vilna Gaon’s influence.

The full influence of the Gaon in halachah can be viewed by an evaluation of the two main halachic compendia of the twentieth century, the Aruch HaShulchan and the Mishnah Berurah.  In the tradition of the Gaon, the Aruch haShulchan begins with Talmudic analysis and ends with halachic conclusion.  However, strains of pre-Gaon halachah are still evident in its approach, in the author’s refusal to totally abandon practice in the face of halachic purity.  The Mishnah Berurah is closer to the Gaon in a dual sense.  It is the first major halachic compendium to utilize so extensively the Gaon’s rulings from the Biur HaGra.  In addition, the author more completely based himself on text analysis than any previous halachic compendium.  This is especially clear in Biur Halachah.  In the Mishnah Berurah, simple precedent and custom that are not solidly based on text analysis do not disappear, but do recede into the background.  With the Mishnah Berurah, the Gaon’s revolution in halachah reached its fullest expression.  This is not only a statement of an intellectual revolution.  The Mishnah Berurah has become the major authority and last word in halachah to the contemporary Lithuanian community and also, in a very large way, to non-Lithuanians as well.  The Gaon’s revolution has become mainstream halachah.

The Gaon’s greatest halachic impact was on the Israeli community and its halachic practice.  Although he never realized his goal of settling in the Land of Israel, the early yishuv of Ashkenazic Jews in the early 19th century was composed of his talmidim.  Many of the Gaon’s more revolutionary halachic rulings were not accepted in Lithuania because of the break they represented with accepted practice.  When his students established proper practice for the Ashkenazi community in Israel, they introduced the Gaon’s rulings as normative.  Hence, in Israel, no one wears tefillin on Chol HaMoed.  Birkat Kohanim is recited every day.  In Maariv, “Baruch Hashem L’olam” is eliminated.  These are a few examples of rulings of the Gaon which were too radical to be introduced into European communities but have become standard halachah in Israel.  When the Gaon’s students arrived in Israel, they found no established tradition for dealing with the countless issues relating to mitzvot hateluyot be’aretz (mitzvot specific to living in Eretz Yisrael).  The monumental work P’at HaShulchan, authored by Rav Yisrael of Shklov, a student of the Gaon, established the basis for all subsequent practice and established the Gaon as the supreme authority in this area.

The Gaon’s revolution in Torah learning was more easily realized.  His approach to text analysis became the basis for the curriculum of Volozhin, the mother of all subsequent yeshivot.  The norm for the curriculum in contemporary yeshivot reflects the Gaon’s insistence on Talmudic text analysis via rishonim.  With the post-Holocaust joining of various communities, the Gaon’s deep effect on Lithuanian learning spread, at least in a partial sense, to those communities somewhat removed from his direct influence.

The Gaon, in his insistence on viewing all of Torah as an integrated reality, also mastered the entire literature of the kabbalah and viewed this as inseparable from the rest of Torah.  His world view, if not his halachic positions, was based in kabbalistic, as much as Talmudic and midrashic sources.  This is evident both in his own writings and in the nature of Nefesh HaChaim by Rav Chaim of Volozhin.  The author viewed his work as a statement of the Gaon’s world view fully explicated and textually based.  In it, he integrates all sources in a unified manner.  There are no divisions between halachic, aggadic, midrashic or kabbalistic works.  Torah is viewed as one integrated unity. This is also evident in all of the Gaon’s non-halachic writings as well.

The Gaon was a prolific writer.  He authored numerous works in all areas of Torah, most of which remained unpublished and were lost during the Holocaust.  He wrote four major halachic works.  His major work, as previously mentioned, was his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch.  The second is his textual emendations establishing the proper text for the entire literature of the Talmudic period.  The Gaon’s text has become the norm for subsequent learning.  The third was the Gaon’s commentary to Yerushalmi Zeraim.  This makes the Yerushalmi Talmud accessible to all and shows the basis for the Gaon’s rulings, which are the halachic norm in mitzvot hateluyot be’aretz.  The last was the Gaon’s commentary to Teharot, which is a transcription by a disciple of the Gaon’s shiurim.

The Gaon authored commentaries on much of Tanach, the most extensive being his commentary to Mishlei* which has become a standard text and is probably the most influential of his non-halachic writings.

Many of the Gaon’s writings were in the realm of kabbalah.  While some of these were published, the majority have been lost.  It is not within the expertise of this author to be able to evaluate the impact of the Gaon in the area of kabbalah.  What can be fairly stated, though, is that because of the Gaon, kabbalah became part of the standard fare of a certain percentage of Lithuanian talmidei chachamim.

Some try to make a point of the Gaon’s involvement in intellectual areas other than Torah.  The Gaon used these as a means of developing a total understanding of Torah.  They were a means to his ends and never became ends in themselves.  None of his students ever continued this work.  Only someone of the Gaon’s stature could master all of these disciplines and integrate them into one total intellectual picture.

The Gaon never sought publicity.  He never held public office.  He lived his life in poverty, pursuing his single-minded goal of mastery of the entire Torah, as a means to his ultimate end of maximum service of God.  However, in his quiet and unobtrusive manner, he established the foundations for Judaism in the modern era.  It was his saintliness and total command of the Torah that gave him the authority to effect such major changes and to have such profound impact.

* The kabbalistic portions were dictated by the Gaon to his disciple, Rav Menachem Mendel of Shklov, while the non-kabbalistic parts were paraphrased by Rav Menachem and approved by the Gaon.

Rabbi Meiselman is Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivas Toras Moshe in Jerusalem, and author of Jewish Woman in Jewish Law.

This article was featured in the Fall 1997 issue of Jewish Action.