Eliyyahu ben Shelomoh Zalman

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ELIYYAHU BEN SHELOMOH ZALMAN (17201797), known as the Vilna Gaon, was a scholar and theologian. Born in Selets, Lithuania, to a family renowned for its Talmudic erudition, Eliyyahu became one of the major intellectual and spiritual figures in Judaism, the preeminent representative of rabbinism in the eighteenth century. At an early age he displayed both a prodigious memory and a striking aptitude for analysis, which he applied to all branches of Jewish learningthe Torah, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, rabbinic codes, and Qabbalah. As a youth, his authoritative knowledge was acknowledged throughout Ashkenazic Jewry, and he soon became known simply as "the Gaon," the genius (an honorific title not to be confused with the title of the heads of the Babylonian yeshivot a thousand years earlier). After his marriage and a tour of the Jewish communities of Poland and Germany, Eliyyahu settled in Vilnius (Vilna), where he lived for the rest of this life except for a brief, and unsuccessful, pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In Vilnius, Eliyyahu was supported by the community although he eschewed public office and formal rabbinical positions for the life of the solitary scholar. After the age of forty, he began to lecture to a small group of disciples, who subsequently broadcast his scholarly and religious teachings through a network of Talmudic academies that was established in Lithuania and continues to this day in Israel and the United States.

At the heart of the Gaon's approach was his extreme intellectuality, his determination to reach truth through a rigorous, untrammeled study of the classics of the Jewish tradition. This belief in the supreme religious worth of study was expressed in the rabbi's quasi-ascetic regimenhe was reported to sleep only two hours a night and to forbid talk not devoted to the Torahand, perhaps more fundamentally, in his dedication to acquiring all the skills and information essential to an elucidation of the sacred texts. Thus, following the example of a small minority of Ashkenazic sages through the centuries, Eliyyahu taught himself mathematics, astronomy, geography, and anatomy through the medium of medieval Hebrew science, and, in at least one case, approved the further transmission of scientific knowledge to traditional Jews by encouraging a student to translate Euclid into Hebrew.

Equally at variance with contemporary practice, although buttressed by precedent and authority, the Gaon opposed the practice of explaining textual problems in the Talmud through an overreliance on the hermeneutic techniques of illuq or pilpul (dialectic reasoning). Instead, he insisted on a thorough study of all the cognate sources and especially the Jerusalem Talmud, which had been long neglected in favor of the Babylonian Talmud. On the basis of his mastery of classic rabbinics, but without access to manuscript variants, he was able and willing to suggest a large number of emendations and corrections in the Talmudic text, many of which resulted in contradicting the interpretations of post-Talmudic masters. This approach may be dubbed critical, and indeed Eliyyahu has been called "the father of Talmud criticism." But the Gaon's source criticism, as well as his investigations into scientific teachings, were grounded in and defined by an assumption of the infallibility of tradition. Textual emendations or astronomical charts were permissible as ancillary tools in exegesis, not as competing sources of authority. The Talmud and subsequent Jewish law could only be explicated by these devices, never overruled; indeed, the point of the endeavor was to demonstrate the eternal veracity of the biblical canon and rabbinic tradition as a whole, the possibility of understanding God's purpose through a life of uninterrupted study of his words.

This basic theological stance led the Vilna Gaon to spearhead the opposition to the new form of Jewish religiosity that emerged in his time, the Hasidic movement. Regarding the anti-intellectualism and spiritualism of Hasidism as a perversion of Judaism, Eliyyahu signed a writ of excommunication against the asidim in 1772 and refused to meet with a delegation of Hasidic masters including Shneʾur Zalman of Lyady. Under the Gaon's aegis, Vilnius became the center of anti-Hasidic propaganda and activity. The venom of the opposition was heightened in response to the publication in 1781 of one of the basic tracts of Hasidic doctrine, Yaʿaqov Yosef of Polonnoye's Toledot Yaʿaqov Yosef, which severely criticized the rabbinical leadership of the age and laid out the radical new doctrine of the tsaddiq, or "righteous man," a term referring to the Hasidic master. The Gaon again ordered the excommunication of the new sect and called for the burning of its literature. It was only after his death in 1797 that the breach between the two camps of traditional Jewry in eastern Europe could begin to be healed.

The Vilna Gaon's denunciation of Hasidism was in no way a rejection of mysticism on the part of a rigid rationalistas it has often been portrayed in popular literature. On the contrary, the Gaon was a consistent student of Jewish mysticism, and he had an exceptionally vivid visionary life, although he consciously constrained his mystical graces and revelations from interfering in his legal and scholarly functions. He believed that true charisma inhered only in the Torah, not in its teachers. His students reveled in his personality and produced a bountiful hagiographic literature about him, and for over a century he was revered as a saint by masses of Jews in eastern Europe.

The Gaon never published his views. His writings, including notes and jottings not intended for the public eye, were published by his disciples after his death. These include commentaries on most of the Bible, the Mishnah, the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, the Mekhiltaʾ, Sifrei, and Sifraʾ (three halakhic midrashim ); glosses on the Zohar, Sefer yetsirah, and other qabbalistic classics; treatises on mathematics, astronomy, and Hebrew grammar; and perhaps his most important work, his commentary on the Shulhan ʿarukh.


There is no full-fledged scholarly biography of the Vilna Gaon, although the literature on him is enormous. The most accessible treatments of his teachings and personality are two charming essays in works by major modern Jewish scholars: Louis Ginzberg's Students, Scholars, and Saints (Philadelphia, 1928), pp. 125144, and Solomon Schechter's Studies in Judaism, vol. 1 (1896; Cleveland, 1958), pp. 298320. More recent scholarship has revealed a good deal about Eliyyahu's personality and influence; particularly interesting are H. H. Ben-Sasson's "The Personality of Elijah, Gaon of Vilna, and His Historical Influence" (in Hebrew), Zion 31 (1966): 3986, 197216, and Immanuel Etkes's "The Gaon of Vilna and the Haskalah: Image and Reality" (in Hebrew), in Studies in the History of the Jewish Community in the Middle Ages and Modern Times Dedicated to Professor Jacob Katz, edited by Yosef Salmon (Jerusalem, 1982), pp. 192217. A brief but fascinating glimpse into the Gaon's mystical life can be found in R. J. Zwi Werblowsky's Joseph Karo: Lawyer and Mystic (London, 1962), pp. 311316. A succinct, useful outline of his life and teachings is the Hebrew pamphlet by Israel Klausner, The Gaon Eliyyahu of Vilna (Tel Aviv, 1969).

New Sources

Etkes, Immanuel. The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and His Image. Translated by Jeff Green. Berkeley, 2002.

Halamish, Moshe, Yosef Rivlin, and Refaʾel Shuhat, eds. Vilna Gaon and His Disciples (in Hebrew). Ramat-Gan, Israel, 2003.

Leiman, Sid (Shnayer) Z. "When a Rabbi Is Accused of Heresy: The Stance of the Gaon of Vilna in the Emden-Eibeschuetz Controversy." Meʿah Sheʿarim (2001): 251263.

Lempertas, Izraelis, comp. The Gaon of Vilnius and the Annals of Jewish Culture: Materials of the International Scientific Conference, 1997. Vilnius, 1998.

Schochet, Elijah Judah. The Hasidic Movement and the Gaon of Vilna. Northvale, N.J., 1994.

Michael Stanislawski (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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