A Window on the Mind of The Gaon

By Dr. George Natann Schlesinger

In the course of the long history of our People, there have been countless intellectual giants who, by virtue of their immense scholarship and saintly conduct, acted as the guardians of our sacred tradition’s vitality and ensured its transmission from generation to generation.  Yet, when the mere word “Gaon” (the Genius) is mentioned, it is universally understood to refer to Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman of Vilna, zt”l.

Millions of words have been spoken and written about him — starting over 200 years ago with the great Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady declaring, “He is…the unique Great Man of his generation,”1 — and continuing unabated down to our own time.  Louis Ginzberg, a great-grand-nephew of the Gaon (who may not have always followed the rulings of his great-grand-uncle) wrote:

The service of God was everything to him, and he used to say “Elijah can serve God without any rewards”…He always was in a joyful mood and in high spirits, though his trials were not few.  For several years he and his family had to suffer [terribly] from a petty official by reason of the dishonesty of a petty official…who kept for himself the weekly allowances granted to the Gaon from a legacy…the Gaon preferred to suffer rather than to inform the authorities…He argued that putting a man to shame [amounts to] bloodshed, and [one] must not cause bloodshed even to save one’s life.  He was not at all conscious of the heroic element in his suffering…He often sold all his furniture to assist the poor or gave away his last meal.  He did it joyfully…2

Thus it may be preferable for us to concentrate on a single poignant aspect of the Gaon’s attitude toward Torah study which is not widely known.

How Does One Acquire Real Knowledge?

One of the disciples approached the Gaon, saying: “Following your honor’s instruction to master perfectly at least one tractate, I have studied every page in Masechet Sukkot dozens of times and I am ready for a test.”  The Gaon was pleased, and his first question was:  “How many times are the phrases “proper sukkah” and “defective sukkah” mentioned in that book?”  The astonished student drew a complete blank.  His teacher explained that the first phrase occurs 91 times and the second 85 times.  Remarkably, the numerical value of a fully written out S U K H (samech, vav kaf, heh) is 60+6+20+5=91, and correspondingly, a full (k’sherah) sukkah is mentioned 91 times; while the numerical value of a deficiently spelled sukkah (minus the vav) is 91-6=85, and indeed, the term “deficient sukkah” occurs 85 times!

Such a master stroke surely boggles the mind.  However, one may be wondering: is it necessary, or even advisable, to count the number of times this or that word occurs, rather than focus entirely on the intricate arguments the texts contain?  We will learn the answer to that question after we explore the Gaon’s approach to the study of Torah.

The Brain’s Dormant Powers

The Gaon urged upon his disciples an awareness of the brain’s wondrous elasticity:  our mental capacities, such as concentration, comprehension, memory, and how much of what is presented to our senses is absorbed depends on the magnitude of our minds’ expansion, which varies directly with the intensity of motivation.  Contemporary psychologists agree that mental performance is determined only partially by innate brain structure and that motivation is of crucial importance.3

The Chafetz Chaim, zt”l, often spoke of an octogenarian whose memory was greatly diminished, yet he could give a full account of the Czar’s visit to his village some 75 years earlier because, as a child, he had been totally spellbound by that extraordinary event.  Consequently, as he was capable of perceiving what normally remains unnoticed, and stored it in his enhanced memory, he could accurately recall even the uniforms worn by each member of the monarch’s entourage — including the shape and color of their coats’ buttons.  The Chofetz Chaim wished to dramatize the mind’s radically increased capacity achieved through very strong exhilaration.4  The great tzaddik of this century took it for granted that the exuberance generated by the precious, engrossing experience associated with immersion in the “…ordinances of the Lord…which are more desirable than fine gold and sweeter than honey” is bound to electrify the mind and enhance its faculties to an incalculable extent.

Vill Nor:  Goen!

We previously asked why the Gaon should be preoccupied with seemingly insignificant matters, such as the number of times a word appears.  The answer to that question should be clear now.  The Gaon did not count words, phrases or names.  However, his motivation was enormous; he felt (in his humility) privileged far beyond what he deserved and was perpetually spellbound by his intimacy with Divinely originated text.  The result was a stupendous increase in his mental faculties, among them, involuntarily taking note of details to which the mind is otherwise blind.  The question he posed to his student had the profound pedagogical objective of communicating to him the idea that complete mastering of a tractate demands approaching it with a great deal of exuberance.

Some have gone to the extreme and claimed that motivation is everything.  Thus, in Yiddish, the pun on “Der Vilner Gaon” has been “Vill nor: Goen!” (“You need only to will it, and you become a genius!”).  This is an exaggeration.  The right formula seems to be a great innate intellect combined with the most intense devotion.

Incidentally, many who have had intense contact with the yeshivah and the secular worlds have expressed puzzlement: why, the greatest minds in the academic world cannot be compared to the first-rate Torah giant, even of this century?  The fabulous depth, width, lightening speed of comprehension of Rabbis Chaim Ozer (also of Vilna), Isser Zalman Melzer or Aharon Cohen (a dean of the Hebron Yeshiva5) used to leave one bedazzled in a way never to be experienced when in contact with the highest echelons of the academic world?

Unquestionably, there are hundreds if immensely gifted, as well as highly motivated university professors.  Still they do not regard their work as Divinely mandated holy task, to the exclusion of everything else.  The topmost gedolai Torah — unlike highly celebrated scientists — have a thirst for, and immerse themselves totally in their pursuits and are utterly free of motives, like remuneration, recognition, fame and so on.  Their devotion is of an entirely higher order.

Dr. Schlesinger is professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  He is the author of more than 350 articles and 10 books, including New Perspectives on Old Time Religion (Oxford University Press).


  1. Igrot Baal Hatanya, igrot 56-57.
  2. As it is known, the Gaon disapproved of the Liady Rebbe, yet the latter said when the former passed away, “A great catastrophe has befallen me! Now opposition against me will come from the very highest, exalted source.” (cf. A. Marcus Hachasidut, (Netzach Publishers) p.159.  Incidentally, this testifies to the tzidkut of the great Rebbe.
  3. Students, Scholars and Saints, (Philadelphia, 1928) p.144.
  4. Psychologist R. Oche, in his book Before the Gates of Excellence (Cambridge University Press, 1990), deals exhaustively with the role of motivation.
  5. He was said to have “violated” the basic law of the Theory of Relativity that nothing exceeds the speed of light. The speed of Reb Aharon’s comprehension, reasoning and finding complex solutions to tough problems exceed the speed of light!
This article was featured in the Fall 1997 issue of Jewish Action.
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