Elijah ben Solomon Zalman
ELIJAH BEN SOLOMON ZALMAN
ELIJAH BEN SOLOMON ZALMAN (the "Vilna Gaon " or "Elijah Gaon "; acronym Ha-GRA = H a-G aon R abbi E liyahu; 1720–1797), one of the greatest spiritual and intellectual leaders of Jewry in modern times. A man of iron will, Elijah combined the personal life of an intellectual hermit with active and polemical leadership in Jewish society through his overwhelming influence on a chosen circle of disciples. Born in Selets, Grodno province, he came from a well-known rabbinical and scholarly family, whose members included Moses Rivkes. From his childhood, Elijah showed unusual gifts. At the age of six and a half, he gave a homily in the synagogue of Vilna and answered with great perception the rabbi's questions on it. When he was seven, Abraham Katzenellenbogen, rabbi of Brest-Litovsk, took him to Moses Margalioth of Keidany (Kedainiai), with whom Elijah studied for a time. However he mainly studied on his own, and thus remained untrammeled by the conventional methods of talmudic education of his day. Besides the Torah and the Oral Law, Elijah also studied Kabbalah, and before the age of 13 attempted to cultivate "practical" Kabbalah and to create a golem. Elijah stated, however, that "while I was making it, an image appeared above me, and I ceased from making it, for I said, doubtless God is preventing me" (Ḥayyim of Volozhin, in Sifra de Ẓeni'uta (with a commentary by the Vilna Gaon), introd.). Elijah also acquainted himself with astronomy, geometry, algebra, and geography in order to understand certain talmudic laws and discussions. Thus his main concern with astronomy was to understand the rules of the Jewish calendar. For similar reasons he paid great attention to Hebrew grammar (see below). After his marriage around the age of 18 he would seclude himself in a small house outside the city and concentrate on learning day and night.
After staying briefly with his father-in-law in Keidany, Elijah traveled throughout Poland and Germany and visited important communities, including those of Zolkiew (Zholkva), Lissa (Leszano), and Berlin. Subsequently he settled in Vilna, where he remained until his death. He received financial support from the bequest of Moses Rivkes (who left a foundation for scholars in his family) and was additionally assisted by a sum allocated him by the community board, which also provided him with a rented apartment. In about 1785 his weekly allowance was raised by the community to 28 zlotys, which was higher than the stipend of the av bet din, the rabbi, or the shtadlan. Since there were many outstanding scholars in Vilna at the time, the financial assistance given to Elijah, although he did not hold communal office, testifies to the high esteem in which he was held, despite his extreme personal modesty.
In Vilna his exceptional diligence in study became even more pronounced. To shut out distraction, Elijah would close the windows of his room by day and study by candlelight. In winter he studied in an unheated room placing his feet in cold water to prevent himself from falling asleep (Israel of Shklov, Sefer Pe'at ha-Shulḥan (Safed, 1836), introd.). According to Elijah's sons he did not sleep more than two hours a day, and never for more than half an hour at a time. He noted his comments and remarks in the margin of the page he was studying. Elijah made a special study of the Jerusalem Talmud, "opening up new horizons and clarifying incomprehensible passages" (his son Abraham in his eulogy Sa'arat Eliyahu). When he was 40 Elijah evinced a revolutionary change in his life. According to his students, he gave up studying exclusively by himself and began to teach, giving lectures to a group of outstanding scholars. In 1768, a wealthy relative, Elijah Peseles, bought a plot near Elijah's home where the edifice he built was dedicated to prayer and study. The master's "prayer room" was later enlarged and became the bet ha-midrash (Klaus) of the Gaon. Several of Elijah's disciples, including Ḥayyim of Volozhin and the brothers Menahem Mendel and Simḥah Bunem of Shklov, recorded his observations and explanations, and hence through them and Elijah's sons his teachings were disseminated. Elijah at this time generally refrained from contact with people who were not close to him. An exception was the "Maggid of Dubno," Jacob b. Ze'ev *Krantz, whose friendship he sought, and to whom he once wrote: "Come, my friend, to my house and do not delay to revive and entertain me." Though his views had been sought earlier, only at this time did the Gaon also begin to express opinions on public issues. When in 1756 he was requested by Jonathan *Eybeschuetz's party to express his opinion on the controversy with Jacob *Emden, Elijah modestly refused to arbitrate, saying: "Who am I, a man from a distant land, a man young in years, of retiring disposition, that they should listen to me." However his intellectual and spiritual influence continued to grow, and according to the testimony of his contemporaries, "without his knowledge no important activity can be carried out" (I. Klausner, Vilna bi-Tekufat ha-Ga'on (1942), 237).
Elijah encouraged the translation of works on the natural sciences into Hebrew but opposed philosophy and Haskalah, seeing them as a threat to faith and tradition. He violently opposed the ḥasidic movement. Although he devoted considerable attention to Kabbalah he looked with concern on any suggestion of giving Kabbalah precedence over halakhic studies, and he also objected to changes in prayer rites and new customs that were being introduced by Ḥasidim. He was apprehensive over the possibility of the creation of a new group which would lead to a split in the community. When the first groups of Ḥasidim were organized in Belorussia and Lithuania the leaders of the Shklov community asked Elijah what policy they should adopt toward the new sect; Elijah replied that it should be fought. Etkes demonstrates that Elijah was the one who initiated the rejection of the Ḥasidim. The Vilna community decided to close the prayer rooms of the Ḥasidim, burn their works, and excommunicate them. In 1772 its leaders dispatched letters to a number of other communities urging them to combat the new movement.
Thus, under the leadership of Elijah, Vilna became the center of opposition to Ḥasidism. In 1772 and 1777 Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk and Shneur Zalman of Lyady, the heads of the ḥasidic movement in Belorussia, attempted to meet Elijah to demonstrate that the new movement did not conflict with traditional Judaism, but the Gaon refused to see them. After publication of Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye's Toledot Ya'akov-Yosef (1781), Elijah's fight against Ḥasidism intensified. Through his influence, the ban was again pronounced on the Ḥasidim, and emissaries were sent to rouse the communities against the movement. Around 1794 the Gaon gave instructions that the Ẓavva'at ha-Ribash ("Testament of R. Israel Ba'al Shem Tov") should be publicly burned in Vilna. In 1796, the Ḥasidim having spread a rumor that Elijah regretted his stand against the movement, the Gaon replied in a letter sent by special emissaries to the communities of Lithuania and Belorussia: "I will continue to stand on guard, and it is the duty of every believing Jew to repudiate and pursue them [the Ḥasidim] with all manner of afflictions and subdue them, because they have sin in their hearts and are like a sore on the body of Israel." When several Ḥasidim in Minsk cast doubts on the authenticity of Elijah's signature on the letter the community leaders sent two emissaries to Vilna to clarify the matter and Elijah responded with an even sharper condemnation of Ḥasidism. Because of the denigration of the Gaon in ḥasidic circles, the leaders of the Minsk community threatened excommunication to anyone impugning Elijah's honor. In the dispute which broke out in Vilna between the heads of the community and Samuel, the av bet din, Elijah opposed Samuel, although they were related. Elijah's intervention resulted in a judgment by the rabbis ruling that Samuel had broken an oath and was guilty of other instances of bad conduct. Samuel's supporters thereupon tried to persuade the state court to prevent payment of the community's weekly allowance to Elijah, since he did not hold a formal position in the communal institutions. The community leaders, however, vigorously condemned this action and imprisoned the preceptor Joel for defaming Elijah. At that time a son of one of the community leaders ran away to a monastery and became converted to Christianity. When the youth was kidnapped from the monastery to induce him to return to Judaism, the ecclesiastical and state authorities arrested several suspects and charged them with the kidnapping. Elijah was also interrogated and imprisoned for a month in February 1788; in September 1789 he was again imprisoned for 12 weeks but the term was commuted. After his death, the opposition to the ḥasidic movement abated somewhat but did not die out completely.
Elijah had decided, before 1783, to immigrate to Ereẓ Israel. He set out alone with the intention of sending for his family later, and on his way sent them a letter – a kind of spiritual testament. The missive reflects his delicate feelings toward his children, his wife, and his mother. He requested his wife not to economize on the tuition of his sons and to care for their health and diet. He also gave instructions for the education of his daughters and admonished them to refrain from taking oaths, cursing, deceit, or quarreling. He considered that vain talk was one of the greatest sins and therefore advised making few visits, even to synagogue, and praying at home, alone, in order to avoid idle talk and jealousy as much as possible. He warned them not to covet wealth and honor, because "it is known that all This World is vanity" (in his Alim li-Terufah, 1836). For unknown reasons Elijah did not reach Ereẓ Israel and returned to Vilna.
Over time, Elijah became known as the Gaon and Ḥasid. The first appellation is based on his enormous scholarship that spanned the entirety of rabbinic literature, including the vast world of Midrash and kabbalistic literature. In addition, the depth of his knowledge and understanding is evident in his writings. The combination of Elijah's asceticism and almost obsessive devotion to Torah study and religious observance earned him the title of Ḥasid. Through his teachings and actions Elijah did much to form the characteristics of the "Litvak" Mitnaggedim peculiar to Lithuanian Jewish culture whose achievements attained their pinnacle of expression in the 19th century in the many celebrated yeshivot of Lithuania, such as those of Volozhin and Mir. The semi-legendary figure of saint and intellectual giant towered over Lithuanian Jewry and influenced its cultural life in the 19th and into the 20th centuries.
The importance of the spiritual activity of the Vilna Gaon stemmed primarily from the vast range of subjects with which he dealt. There is no subject relevant to Judaism on which he did not write a book or notes and glosses that at times amount to a complete book. The Bible, the Talmud, including the minor tractates, the tannaitic Midrashim, the Zohar and the Tikkunei ha-Zohar, the Shulḥan Arukh, Hebrew grammar, and a long list of general sciences such as geometry, measurements, astronomy, and medicine – all these occupied the Gaon of Vilna, to such an extent that it may be said of him that no Jewish or general topic which had a bearing on Judaism was alien to him. Even in the order of the prayers and in the piyyutim he formulated new readings that have been accepted (e.g., in the hymn for the termination of the Sabbath, instead of "our seed and wealth he shall multiply as the sand," he read, "our seed and peace").
The fundamental base of his outlook was the concept of the eternity of the Torah, with all its details and minutiae, in actual practice. He regarded the slightest attack on any single detail of the halakhah, or the undermining of a single precept of the Torah, as a blow at the foundations of the Torah as a whole. His outlook on the absolute eternity of the Torah he expressed strikingly in his commentary to the Sifra de-Ẓeni'uta (Ch. 5): "Everything that was, is, and will be, is included in the Torah. And not only principles, but even the details of each species, the minutest details of every human being, as well as of every creature, plant, and mineral – all are included in the Pentateuch." This belief also encompassed the Oral Law, whence his punctiliousness about every smallest detail of the halakhah which established the content and the mode of observance of the precepts of the Torah. In consequence of this outlook the Vilna Gaon came to revive many customs and early prohibitions no longer mentioned even in the Shulḥan Arukh but mentioned in the talmudic sources, or for which he found support in these sources.
The Vilna Gaon interested himself in secular sciences to the extent that he saw in them an aid to the understanding of the Torah. It was his opinion that "all knowledge is necessary for our holy Torah and is included in it." "To the degree that a man is lacking in knowledge and secular sciences he will lack one hundred fold in the wisdom of the Torah" (introduction to Baruch of Shklov's Euclid, The Hague, 1780). For this reason he influenced the physician Baruch of Shklov to translate into Hebrew works in such secular sciences as he found necessary for this purpose. He also desired to see the works of Josephus translated into Hebrew, "since they are in aid to the understanding of many passages in the Talmud and Midrash which deal with topics connected with the Holy Land in ancient times." According to a statement dated 1778, he regarded the lack of interest in secular sciences that was widespread in the circles of talmudic scholars as a profanation of Israel's name among the nations, "who like the roaring of many waters will raise their voice against us, saying, where is your wisdom? And the name of Heaven will be profaned" (ibid.).
After deeply studying many branches of science, he tried his hand at writing works on mathematics (Ayil Meshullash, 1833), on geography (Ẓurat ha-Areẓ, Shklov, 1822), on astronomy, and on the calculation of the seasons and planetary motions (in Mss.). He also greatly valued music and said that "most of the cantillation of the Torah, the secrets of the levitical songs, and the secrets of the Tikkunei ha-Zohar, cannot be understood without it" (Israel of Shklov, introduction to Elijah's Pe'at ha-Shulḥan, 1836). Similarly he greatly interested himself in medicine. However he had no knowledge of foreign languages and derived all his secular knowledge from Hebrew sources, most of which had been compiled during the Middle Ages. As a result he had no idea of Newton's theory or the theory of Lavoisier and his entire scientific thinking was bound up with the theory of the four elements. Despite this Elijah was far removed from the *Haskalah, which spread in his time in the circles of German Jewry. He imposed a severe punishment upon the preacher Abba of Glussk who identified himself with the maskilim when in Berlin, and in a conversation with Elijah expressed himself to the effect that "Rashi did not succeed in interpreting the Torah according to the plain meaning of the Scripture, and the authors of the Midrash as is well known are not masters of the correct literal meaning" (J.H. Lewin, Aliyyot Eliyahu (1856), n. 34). He did not join battle with the Haskalah movement because at that time the maskilim still stood within the bounds of traditional Judaism. They saw no contradiction between Elijah's attitude to secular sciences and the activities of Moses Mendelssohn and some of them had connections with both of these simultaneously.
Elijah's chief strength lay in halakhah. The fact that many halakhot and dicta in the Talmud are quoted in a fragmentary or defective form in one place, but in full or in a more correct version elsewhere, roused in him the determination to establish the correct reading of many halakhot by comparing the different sources. Emendations of the text not based upon investigation of the sources but the result of mere conjecture he regarded as "an absolute crime… for which excommunication is merited" (Be'ur ha-Gra to Sh. Ar., yd 279:2). Frequently he succeeded in explaining difficult problems in the Talmud by establishing the correct readings. His eschewal of casuistic hair-splitting, of which he said that "through it transgression increases, iniquity grows, pleasant speech is lost, and truth driven from the congregation of the Lord" (introd. by his sons Judah Leib and Abraham to Be'ur ha-Gra to Sh. Ar., oḤ), was also connected with this desire to clarify the readings of the halakhot. Hence he also demanded of the student "that he should delve into the subject with integrity, detest piling up difficulties, admit to the truth even if uttered by school children, and all his intellectual desires be nullified as against the truth" (ibid.). He regarded the commentary of Rashi as ideal for the study of the Talmud, since his comments "are very straightforward to the discerning" (ibid.). In the same spirit of this approach to the study of the Talmud he also established rules for the study of the Mishnah. The rabbis of the Talmud were accustomed in his opinion to explain the words of Mishnah as they explained the words of the Torah, i.e., both according to the plain meaning and exegetically. Expositions of the Mishnah on the basis of the assumption "there is a lacuna and this is what was taught" are exegetical. According to the Gaon, in actual fact the Mishnah lacks nothing, but Judah i occasionally cites a Mishnah which expressed the view of one of the halakhic scholars, and as the amoraim inclined to a different view, they understood the Mishnah as if it were defective through omissions, in order that it should conform with their view. This view of the relationship between the Mishnah and the Gemara is expressed with complete consistency in his commentary on the Mishnah. At times he deviates from the conclusions of the Gemara in connection with certain mishnayot and explains them in accordance with the literal meaning of the passage (see, e.g., his commentary to Ber. 4:1 and 7:2).
The Vilna Gaon included within the Torah the Zohar, the Tikkunei ha-Zohar, and other early kabbalistic books like the Sefer ha-Bahir, of which he had a profound and extensive knowledge. Here, too, he paid special attention to establishing the correct readings. His chief aim, however, was to explain the Kabbalah sources in such a way as to abolish any contradictions between them and the talmudic sources. Wherever he found such contradictions he ascribed them to error in the understanding of the Kabbalah sources or of the words of the Talmud. He applied the same thoroughness to the kabbalistic works of Isaac *Luria, in which he delved deeply, and "he brought them out of the darkness caused by copyists' errors" (Ḥayyim of Volozhin in the introduction to the commentary to the Sifra de-Ẓeni'uta). His method of exposition in Kabbalah literature was also directed to understanding the words in their plain sense, although pupils said that in every literal interpretation he gave there was latent the esoteric meaning of the passage. Because of his attachment to Kabbalah he took a negative attitude to philosophy, which he designated "the accursed." In particular his criticism was directed against Maimonides who rejected the efficacy of the use of Divine Names, charms, and amulets, thus denying the possibility of practical Kabbalah, which Elijah had followed from his early youth (Be'ur ha-Gra to Sh. Ar., yd 179:6). In his critical observations against philosophy he did not refrain from sharply attacking even Moses *Isserles. When the Gaon gives the view of Isserles who, following Maimonides, interprets pardes as wisdom, he comments, "Neither he nor Maimonides saw the pardes" (ibid. to yd 246:4). Despite all his vast knowledge and understanding of Kabbalah, Elijah opposed preference being given to its study over that of the halakhah, as he opposed changes in the text of the liturgy and new customs, in which he saw echoes of Shabbateanism. In Ḥasidism's stress on the fundamental of the love of God and the service of God in joy which it regarded as being on a higher level than Torah study, he saw contempt for the importance of Torah. Elijah's spiritual path starts with ritual observance and Torah study. Only after one has perfected these two aspects of religious life can one enter the realm of mystic experience. Mysticism is attained through perfection of the self, not by enthusiasm.
The curriculum he laid down conforms to the demands of the Mishnah (Avot 5:21). He demanded that girls should also have a certain knowledge of the Bible and laid particular importance on their acquiring a knowledge of the Book of Proverbs and conducting themselves according to its principles.
Over 70 works and commentaries are attributed to Elijah. More than 50 have appeared in print while several of his manuscripts have been completely lost. Up to the age of 40 he wrote only for his own use. Subsequently he would teach his novellae to his pupils who could take down only part of his teachings as he did not pause to allow time for this. None of his works was published during his lifetime. His commentary to the Shulḥan Arukh (oḤ, Shklov, 1803; yd, Grodno, 1806; eh, Vilna and Grodno, 1819; Ḥm, Koenigsberg, 1855), Ayil Meshullash, fragments of a commentary on Scripture, and parts of a commentary on several aggadot which are extant were written by his own hand. Of his other teachings there remained notes written in haste on the margins of books and later copied – at times with errors that distort the meaning – by his sons or pupils. Of these notes, Hayyim *Volozhiner said (introduction to Be'ur ha-Gra to Sh. Ar., oḤ) that they are "like the stars which appear small but beneath which the whole world stands." In the scholarly circles of Vilna and beyond, several Torah novellae were also known that were transmitted in his name, and in order to make sure that everything attributed to him actually emanated from him, a proclamation was issued by the Vilna bet din on Kislev 19, 1798 forbidding anything to be published in the name of Elijah until it had been made absolutely certain that it was in his actual handwriting (Shenot Eliyahu to mishnayot of Seder Zera'im, Lemberg, 1799). The unsatisfactory external form of the Gaon's spiritual testament resulted in the fact that his great work in establishing the correct readings was not fully exploited.
The Gaon wrote commentaries to practically all the books of Scripture and to several of the books of the Mishnah. Among his expositions of the Mishnah, his commentary on that of Arugah (Kil. 3:1) became especially well-known in scholarly circles (Be'ur al ha-Arugah, in: Zerahiah Gerondi, Sefer ha-Ẓara (Shklov, 1803). Knowledge of geometry is necessary for its understanding, for which reason previous commentators of the Mishnah had experienced difficulty in explaining it. Israel b. Samuel of Shklov, the pupil of the Gaon, who, during the years he dwelt in Ereẓ Israel interested himself especially in the Gaon's novellae to Zera'im (from the standpoint of their value for agricultural work in Israel), testifies: "He toiled on the theme of Arugah for as long a time as it would have taken him to complete half the Babylonian Talmud, rejecting all the explanations of the early commentators and expounding it by a new and true system" (introduction to Pe'at ha-Shulḥan, 1836). He also wrote commentaries and glosses on the tannaitic Midrashim – Mekhilta (1844), Sifra (1911), Sifrei (1866) – on various parts of the Tosefta, on the Jerusalem Talmud, on the whole of the Babylonian Talmud, and on the aggadot of the Talmud. Among his commentaries on the sources of the Kabbalah are a commentary to the Sefer Yezirah (Grodno, 1806), the Sifra de-Ẓeni'uta (Vilna and Grodno, 1820), the Zohar (Vilna, 1810), the Tikkunei ha-Zohar (1867), the Ra'aya Meheimna (1858), and the Sefer ha-Bahir (1883). Many attempts have been made to collate his teachings and sayings. The most reliable such collection is Ma'aseh Rav (Zolkiew, 1808, and many more editions) by Issachar Ber of Vilna.
A singular aspect of the Gaon's writings was his constant emendation of the text. Elijah made textual emendations throughout all of rabbinic and kabbalistic literature. He combined two methods of emendation: (a) assuming that all rabbinic literature is a seamless whole, Elijah harmonized parallel sources, and (b) he corrected texts even when he had no textual sources. Rather, his amazing command of the entire literature allowed him to speculate as to the correct reading of the text. He even based some of his legal decisions on such emendations. Later historians claim that in emending the text, Elijah was a forerunner of modern scientific philological scholarship. However, what the Gaon did and how he did it is vastly different from modern scholarship. Nevertheless, he was a pioneer in thinking that many if not all of the available printed editions were filled with errors.
The Gaon's kabbalistic writing had great influence on the religious thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries, starting with his student Ḥayyim Volozhiner, continuing through such ḥasidic giants as Abraham of *Sochaczew and *Ẓadok ha-Kohen of Lublin, to Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen *Kook. His kabbalistic ideas were explicated and expanded upon by Isaac Ḥaver and Solomon Eliashiv, author of the Leshem Shevo ve-Aḥlamah.
[Samuel Kalman Mirsky /
David Derovan (2nd ed.)]
Elijah's study of Hebrew, Dikduk Eliyahu ("Elijah's Grammar"), was first published by Ẓevi the grammarian (1833), and later in an edition by A.L. Gordon (Mishnat ha-Gra, 1874). Employing the methodology of the medieval grammarians, the study concerns itself with details from the field of phonology. It includes chapters on consonants, vowels, the sheva, the dagesh, and rules of accentuation in the Bible. In an additional list, Elijah summarizes the general principles of vocalization by means of mnemotechnical symbols and numbers. In the second part of the work, apparently authentic, are summaries of the categories of words in Hebrew (noun, verb, particle), and a short description of their morphological structure (conjugations and declensions). Here also the description is concise; at times it is summarized by numerical symbols.
Many grammatical observations are also found in Elijah's commentary on the Pentateuch (e.g., Gen. 1:1–7) and on the Prophets and Hagiographa. His entire exegesis on the first verses of the Torah is a morphological analysis, a summary of the rules of vocalization. His purism in defining the meanings of words, especially in distinguishing between synonyms, is apparent throughout his commentaries. At times he distinguishes between synonyms by using the etymology of the words (e.g., dal, "poor," is from dal minneh – "it became less for him," i.e., "his wealth was taken from him"). Similarly, linguistic and literary observations, accompanied by examples, are to be found in his commentary on the "thirty-two principles of exegesis of Rabbi Yose ha-Galili."
[Menahem Zevi Kaddari]
S.J. Fuenn, Kiryah Ne'emanah (1860, 19152), 144–70; S.J. Jazkan, Rabbenu Eliyahu mi-Vilna (1900), incl. bibl.; M. Silber, The Gaon of Wilna (1905); M. Teitelboim, Ha-Rav mi-Ladi u-Mifleget Ḥabad (1913); L. Ginzberg, The Gaon, Rabbi Elijah (1920); Dubnow, Ḥasidut, index; I. Klausner, Vilna bi-Tekufat ha-Ga'on (1942); idem, Ha-Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu mi-Vilna (1969); I. Unna, Rabbenu Eliyahu mi-Vilna u-Tekufato (1946); M.G. Barg, Ha-GRA mi-Vilnah (1948); J.I. Dienstag, Rabbenu Eliyahu mi-Vilna, Reshimah Bibliografit (1949; repr. from Talpioth, vol. 4, 1949); M.M. Yoshor, in: L. Jung (ed.), Jewish Leaders (1953), 25–50; B. Katz, Rabbanut, Ḥasidut, Haskalah, 2 vols. (1956–58); B. Landau, Ha-Ga'on he-Ḥasid mi-Vilna (1965); H.H. Ben-Sasson, in: Zion, 31 (1966), 39–86, 197–216; M. Wilensky, Ḥasidim u-Mitnaggedim, 2 vols. (1970); M.S. Samet, in: Meḥkarim le-Zekher Ẓevi Avneri (1970), 233–57. add. bibliography: A. Feldman, The Juggler and the King: An Elaboration of the Vilna Gaon's Insights into the Hidden Wisdom of the Sages (1990); Y.I. Herczeg (ed.), Vilna Gaon Haggadah (1993); E.J. Schochet, The Hasidic Movement and the Gaon of Vilna (1994); J. Levisohn, in: Le'ela, 44 (1997), 9–19; I. Lempertas (ed.), The Gaon of Vilnius and the Annals of Jewish Culture (1998); R. Schnold, The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and His Legacy (1998); E. Etkes, The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and His Image (Heb., 1998; Eng., 2002); Y. Vinograd, Thesaurus of the Books of the Vilna Gaon: Detailed and Annotated Bibliography of Books By and About the Gaon Hasid R. Eliahu (2003); M. Hallamish, Y. Rivlin, and R. Schuchat (eds.), The Vilna Gaon and His Disciples (2003). as a grammarian: Elijah b. Solomon Zalman, Berak ha-Shaḥar (1863), references to Elijah's commentary on synonyms by Samuel b. Abraham of Slutsk; Y.L. Maimon (ed.), Sefer ha-gra, 1 (1954), 201–41; J.H. Greenstone, in: jba, 6 (1947/48), 76–83.
Elijah ben Solomon
Elijah ben Solomon
The Jewish scholar Elijah ben Solomon (1720-1797) was one of the greatest authorities on classical Judaism. Known for his mental acumen and personal piety, he was given the exalted titles of Gaon (excellency) and Hasid (saint).
Elijah ben Solomon was born and died in Vilna, Poland (Vilna is now the capital of Lithuania). He displayed a prodigious intellect as a child, and at the age of 10 he insisted that he study by himself because he refused to be influenced by any special school of thought or methodology. Complete independence of thought characterized his profound scholarship. He remained in Vilna all of his life, except for a short period of voluntary exile that many scholars imposed upon themselves as an act of penance. His pilgrimage to Palestine was aborted, and he returned to his native city, where he dedicated his life to study. The community wished to designate him as their rabbi, but he refused. Out of deference they voted him a small stipend which often proved inadequate, and he had to rely upon his wife to manage the family's financial affairs. His modesty did not prevent his fame from becoming universal, and even as a young man many queries were addressed to him from the greatest scholars and authorities.
Elijah searched for truth wherever it could be found. His intellectual horizons were very broad, and he insisted that all disciplines—mathematics, astronomy, philology, and grammar—could assist in the true understanding of the basic works of classical Judaism. He mastered these subjects and wrote treatises on them.
The number of Elijah's works is said to exceed 70. Many of them have been published, others are in manuscript, and some are lost. He wrote commentaries on a number of biblical books, on the tractates of the Mishna, and on portions of the Jerusalem Talmud. His glosses to the entire Talmud (Babylonian and Jerusalem) display great linguistic insights, and his suggested textual emendations have been confirmed by later examination of manuscripts. He wrote a commentary on Joseph Caro's Shulhan Aruk. He also composed a treatise on Hebrew grammar, which the traditional scholars sought to overlook. Another area in which he did pioneer work was that of the early Tannaitic Midrashim, which precede the Talmud and which provide the first stratum of Jewish legal development.
Elijah's interest in classical Talmudic studies did not deter him from study of the Cabala, or Jewish mysticism, and he wrote a commentary on the Zohar, the magnum opus of Cabala, which is generally considered to be the work of Moses de Leon.
While Elijah strenuously avoided involvement in communal affairs, he did emerge from his isolation by twice issuing bans of excommunication against the Hasidim (Pietists), whose deprecation of scholarly pursuits as deterrents to genuine spiritual immersion was considered by him as a serious danger to the classical Jewish tradition. Elijah Gaon has been acclaimed as the last great theologian of classical rabbinism whose writings closed one great period of Jewish history but whose personal example has been an endless inspiration to subsequent generations.
Detailed biographical studies of Elijah ben Solomon are in Leo Jung, ed., The Jewish Library, vol 6: Jewish Leaders (1953), and Simon Noveck, ed., Great Jewish Personalities in Ancient and Medieval Times (1959). See also Louis Ginzberg, Students, Scholars and Saints (1928).
Shulman, Yaacov Dovid, The Vilna Gaon: the story of Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, New York: C.I.S. Publishers, 1994. □