Vilna Essay, Research Paper
Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna – The Vilna Gaon
The “Gra” , popularly referred to as the Vilna Gaon was born in Vilna,Lithuania in 1720. His full name was Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna. The word “Gaon” means genius and that is proper for The Vilna Gaon. The Vilna Gaon was probably the most influential Jewish leader in modern history.
The Gaon was even amazing as a child , at age 7 he gave a shiur in the great synagogue in Vilna. By age 10 he had already advanced to the point where he no longer needed a teacher, and was studying by himself to acquire the knowledge of torah in both its revealed and mystical ways. To the Gaon, limud haTorah was very important . His greatness in learning was unsurpassable. The Gaon’s son testified that for fifty years his father did not sleep for more than two hours in a twenty-four hour period. Every minute of his like was devoted to torah study. When he was still a young man, Rabbi Eliyahu accepted upon himself “galus”, self-imposed exile (a not unheard of practice at that time), in which he wandered from community to community as a beggar. This lasted for a period of some years whereupon he returned to the city of Vilna. Although offered many jobs as a Rabbi or to start a yeshiva he never excepted. Despite efforts on his part to hide his great righteousness and phenomenal knowledge, he was soon famed as a great tzadik and Torah scholar. At the age of 35 he was approached by one of the leading Rabbis of that time, Rabbi Yonason Eybschutz, to act as an intermediary in the conflict between him and another great Rabbi, Rabbi Yakov Emden. He cleared a new path to Talmud study, focusing on getting a clear understanding through analysis of the principles and approaches of the rishonim. His method went against that of the pilpul system of the Polish yeshivas, which was a framework of questions and answers.
His knowledge was amazing. He was capable of stating from memory the number of times any sage was mentioned in any particular book of the Talmud. The Gaon considered secular knowledge to be a big part of Torah study and was knowledgeable in almost all secular fields and authored books on grammar and mathematics. His righteousness and kindness were also amazing. Despite his personal poverty he always gave 20% of his income to tzedakah. When he was told of a special need such as marrying off an orphan girl or redeeming a captive, he would frequently take money from his personal earnings to contribute. Despite his constant learning he always kept an ear out for people in need and was known to interrupt his studies in order to meet with the relatives of a person in need to convince them to help their relative out.
There is a story of the Gaon which illustrates the kind of kindness he was capable of. The city of Vilna paid a small monthly pay to the Gaon. (It should be noted that the Gaon refused to accept any official position in the community despite the fact that he was generally viewed as the leader of the community.) The individual who was responsible for delivering this money would take this money for himself. The Gaon, who realized what was happening, never accused him of doing this nor told anyone of it because he did not want to shame the person responsible. We would not even know of this incident if the guilty person had not confessed on his deathbed.
For forty years he studied in isolation, from that point on he began to take in students from the outstanding Torah scholars of that time. These students taught and published most of the writings we have today from the Gaon. These works included ; Aderet Eliyahu ,a commentary on the torah ; Shenot Eliyahu , a commentary on the mishnah ; Biur Hagra , a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, as well as many more. His commentary on the torah show the oneness of the written torah and oral torah. The Vilna Gaon was known in Vilna and throughout the world for his phenomenal knowledge and great character .
Possibly the Gaon’s single biggest contribution to the Jewish people was his corrective notes on the Talmud. Over the centuries errors had crept into the various texts due primarily to scribal mistakes. These errors were serious obstacles to advanced study of the Talmud and other texts. The Gaon, with his phenomenal knowledge of the entirety of the Torah literature, was possibly the only individual capable of creating authoritative corrections of these texts. There is almost no ancient Torah text that does not bear the notes of the Gaon. These corrections appear in the Vilna edition of the Talmud (Haga’ot Hagra).
For many years the Gaon desired to travel to the land of Israel and settle there. The Gaon actually began the traveling at one point but was unable to complete the trip (the reason for this is unclear). It was during this trip that the Gaon wrote his famous letter back to his wife instructing her on various ethical issues such as educating their children during their separation. This letter has become a classic in it’s own right. Ultimately, about ten years after the Gaon passed away, many of his leading students followed in their master’s footsteps and settled in the land of Israel.
Here is that letter:
(This letter was sent by the Gaon, R. Eliyahu of Vilna, zt’l while traveling to the holy land of Eretz Yisrael, to encourage and instruct his family in the ways of Mussar. T his classic letter was written in a manner which would bring fire into the hearts of his family in the ways of fearing and carrying out the word of HASHEM)
I ask you to refrain from becoming sad, as you truly promised me, and not to worry (or: as Mother promised me – besides, what is there to worry about?). It is common for men to leave their wives in order to travel and wander destitute for years to make money. But I, thank G-d, am traveling to the Holy Land – which everyone longs to see – the Jewish people’s Most Beloved (or: Hashem’s Most Beloved, desired by all heavenly and earthly beings). And I am traveling in peace, thank G-d. You are also aware that I have left behind my children, for whom my heart moans, and all my precious books, and I am as a stranger in a foreign country. Yes, I have left everything behind….
It is well-known that this world is all emptiness, that every amusement is worthless, and woe is anyone who pursues vanity, which is worthless. And don’t envy the rich, for “riches are hoarded by their owner to his misfortune” (Koheles 5:12); “As he had come from his mother’s womb, naked will he return…exactly as he came he must depart, and what did he gain by toiling for the wind?” (ib. 14, 15); “Even if he should live a thousand years twice over, but find no contentment – do not all go to the same place?” (Ib. 6:6); “Even if man lives many years, let him rejoice in all of them, but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is futility” (ib. 11:8); “And of joy, what does it accomplish?” (ib. 2:2). Tomorrow you will cry for having laughed today. Do not lust after imaginary honor, for it is worthless, and time is a traitor: it is like scales, which lift the light and lower the weighty. The world is like one who drinks salty water: he thinks it quenches his thirst, but it only makes him thirstier. No one leaves the world with even half his cravings fulfilled (Koheles Rabbah 1). “What profit does one have from all his toils under the sun” (Koheles 1:3)? Remember our predecessors, all of whose love, desire and joy have ceased to exist (see Koheles 9:6), but who are being judged severely for them. And of what benefit is gratification to man – whose end is dust, maggots and worms, as he is bound to die – when all his enjoyments turn to bitterness in the grave? And what is this world, whose days are full of anguish and pain which prevent one from sleeping? Neither is death a mikveh.
Man will be judged for everything he says; even the slightest expression is not overlooked. Therefore I exhort you to train yourself to sit as much as possible, because the sin of the tongue is the most severe, as our Sages said (Tosefta Pe’ah 1): “These are the things…and lashon hara is equivalent to them all.” I don’t have to elaborate on this most serious sin of all. “All man’s toil is for his mouth” (Koheles 6:7). Our Sages said that all man’s mitzvos and teachings are not enough to counterbalance what comes out of his mouth. “What should be a man’s pursuit in this world? He should be silent” (Chullin 89a). One must seal his lips as tight as two millstones. Idle words are like powerful weapons which can reach from one end of the world to the other. Now this is true concerning mere excessive speech. Where forbidden speech is concerned – e.g. lashon hara, mocking, swearing, vowing, fighting and cursing – especially in the synagogue, and on Shabbos and Yom Tov – for every utterance of this type it is impossible to imagine the pain and suffering one will receive (Zohar)! No word is lost; everything is recorded. Winged beings attach themselves to everyone, recording all they say. “For a bird of the skies may carry the sound, and some winged creature may tell the matter” (Koheles 10:20). “Let not your mouth cause your flesh to sin, and do not tell the messenger that it was an error. Why should G-d be angered by your speech and destroy the work of your hands?” (ib. 5:5).
Purchase all your needs through a messenger, even if this would cost two or three times as much. “Is there a limit to what G-d can provide?” (Bamidbar 11:23). Hashem feeds all creatures, from the greatest to the smallest (see A.Z. 3), and provides all their needs. And on Shabbos and Yom Tov do not speak at all about things that are not urgent, and be brief even with what is important, for the Shabbos is very holy and our Sages barely permitted the exchange of greetings on it (Yerushalmi Shabbos, and Tosfos Shab. 113). See how strict they were concerning even a single expression! Continue to give great honor to the Shabbos as when I was there. Do not cut back [on your Shabbos] expenses, since “Man’s entire sustenance [for the year is fixed for him from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur,] except [the expenditure for Sabbaths and Festivals,] etc.” (Beitzah 16a). I also implore and plead with you to guide your daughters very carefully to refrain from cursing, swearing, lying and fighting. Rather, everything they do should be done peacefully, with love, affection and gentleness.
I have left behind several Yiddish books on Mussar (morality). See that [the children] read them constantly, especially on the Holy Shabbos, when Mussar is the only thing they should read. Always instruct them according to Mussar books. Don’t hold back from hitting them when they curse, swear or lie. Don’t be lenient with them, because parents will be punished severely for the corruption of their children, G-d forbid. And even if one constantly teaches them Mussar, but they do not follow it, one’s sorrow and shame in the World-to-Come will be great. As it is written (Vayikra 21:9), “She defiles her father” – [in such a case] the son of a righteous man is called “the son of a wicked man” (Sanhedrin 52a). Similarly in other matters, lashon hara and gossip.
Their eating and drinking should always be preceded and followed by the appropriate blessings. They must be careful to say the blessings, Birkas Hamazon and Krias Shema with proper kavanah (intent). Most importantly, they must not wander outside the home and must obey and respect you and my mother and all their elders. They also need to observe all that is written in the Mussar books.
Raise your own children as well correctly and sensitively, and pay their tutor well, for “Man’s entire sustenance for the year is fixed for him from Rosh Hashanah…except TiShReY (Talmud, Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh and Yom Tov – Beitzah 16a). I have also left books for them. For Hashem’s sake, guide them well and gently. Take care of their health and make sure that they always have enough to eat. First have them learn the entire Chumash, seeing to it that they know it almost by heart. The learning must be done without undue pressure, rather gently, because it is best absorbed when one is relaxed. Give them coins, etc., as a reward. Always focus your attention on these matters and not on others, because all else is trivial. For man can salvage nothing from his labor to take with him (see Koheles 5:14), except two white garments (shrouds). Also (Tehillim 49), “A man will not redeem his brother…Fear not when a man grows rich…For when he dies, he shall carry nothing away….” Don’t say, “I will leave a portion for my children” – who will tell you in the grave? The children of man are like grasses of the field, some blossom and some fade (Eruvin 54a). Everyone is born under his constellation and Divine Providence. They are glad when he dies and he goes into the nether world. [At his death] Resh Lakish left his children a kav of saffron, and he applied to himself the verse (Tehillim 49:11), “…and they leave their wealth to others” (Gittin 47a). Woe to all who plan on leaving [wealth] to their children! The only reward from sons and daughters is through their Torah and good deeds. Their sustenance is fixed for them. It is also known that women earn merit by making their children learn Torah, etc. (Berachos 17a). And our Sages said (Tanna D’Vei Eliyahu Rabba 9): “The only proper wife is one that does her husband’s will.”
Of course, I am writing you words of the Living G-d. Therefore, I am certain that you will follow all that I have written. Nevertheless, I wish to strongly advise you not to deviate from anything that I have written. Read this letter every week, especially on Shabbos before and during the meal, in order to prevent idle talk and, even worse, lashon hara and the like, G-d forbid. I reiterate my request that you guide your sons and daughters with words of kindness and Mussar that will find a place in their heart. This is true especially if we merit to arrive in Eretz Yisrael, because one must be extra cautious to follow Hashem’s ways there. Therefore, train them well, since one must work hard on one’s speech and character traits, and only through good habits can we control ourselves (Shaarey Teshuvah). All beginnings are hard (Mechilta Yisro). But afterwards, one is worthy of praise (Mishlei 20:14). For the wicked person knows that he is taking the wrong path, but it is hard for him to change. But this is man’s main task, not to go after his desires, but (Tehillim 32:9) “to restrain himself with a bit and bridle when he is being groomed.” Man must deprive himself until he dies, not by fasting or asceticism, but by controlling his mouth and desires. This is teshuvah. And this is the whole reward of the World-to-Come, as it is written (Mishlei 6:23): “For the commandment is a lamp and the Torah is a light” – but “the way to life is the rebuke that disciplines.” And that is worth more than any amount of fasting and self-affliction! For every second that man controls his tongue, he merits some of the “hidden [by Hashem for the righteous] light,” something which no angel or [other] creature can imagine (Midrash). And it is stated (Tehillim 34:13,14): “Who is the man who desires life, and loves days that he may see good? Guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceitfully.” This will atone for any sin and save one from Gehinnom, as we find (Mishlei 21:23): “He who guards his mouth [from too much eating and drinking] and tongue [from idle words] guards himself from trouble.” Also (ib. 18:21): “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Woe to one who gives away his life for one word! Then what advantage is there to one who has a tongue (see Koheles 10:11)? And, “Everything has a cure except, etc.” It is most important to refrain from speaking words of praise about anyone. How much more so does this apply to speaking ill of anyone! Why must one speak about others? “The mouth that speaks strangely is a deep pit; he who angers Hashem falls into it” (Mishlei 22:14).
Concerning solitude, the main thing is to remain at home. Even your visit to the synagogue should be very short. In fact, it is better to pray at home, for it is impossible to be spared from jealousy or from hearing idle talk or lashon hara in the synagogue. And one receives punishment for this, as we find (Shabbos 33a), “Also one who hears and is silent….” This is even the more so on Shabbos and Yom Tov when they gather to talk – It is then better that you don’t pray at all. Refrain also from going to the cemetery (especially women), as it leads to all kinds of sorrow and sin. It is also advisable that your daughter not go to the synagogue, because she’ll see beautiful clothes there, become jealous and talk about it at home. This will lead to lashon hara, etc. She should rather cling to Mussar and not become jealous of anything in this world, where everything is vanity and illusions, appearing and disappearing overnight (Yonah 4:10). “Though he grows as high as the sky, his head reaching the clouds, he perishes forever…” (Iyov 20:6,7). “For property does not last forever, or a crown for all generations” (Mishlei 27:24). And even while it exists it is worthless, loathsome and disdained by any sensible person. Woe to him who is impressed by it. Envy only the fear of Hashem (ib. 23:17). She should not say, “How can I earn a share in the World-to-Come? – I can’t do it!” For we have learned (Berachos 17a): “One may do much or one may do little, provided he directs his heart to heaven.” For the sake of Hashem, give a fifth of all earnings to charity. Do not give less, as I have already warned you, because that causes the transgression of several positive and negative mitzvahs every minute! It also implies a rejection of the Holy Torah, G-d forbid.
But the main way to merit Olam Haba is by guarding one’s tongue. That is worth more than all the Torah and good deeds. This is the meaning of (Isaiah 32:9) “tranquil women” (Berachos 17a), because the mouth is the holiest of the holy. Among my books is a copy of Mishlei with Yiddish translation. For the sake of Hashem, have them read it daily. It is better than any Mussar book. They should also read Koheles a lot, because it points out the vanity of this world, and other books as well. But G-d forbid that reading should be the objective! Reading Mussar alone does not necessarily move one to act differently. Going out into the world without a good understanding of it defeats the whole purpose. It is like one sows without having plowed; the wind and birds will carry the seeds away, because they aren’t closed off and protected. So is he who merely reads Mussar like him who plants without a fence; pigs will eat and trample on everything. Some plant on stone. This is comparable to a heart of stone which cannot be penetrated unless it is struck until it breaks open. That’s why I wrote you to hit our children if they don’t obey you. “Train a lad in the way he ought to go” (Mishlei 22:6). This is an important principle of education.
I also wish to appeal to my son-in-law to adhere to all the above. Read to the children as I have stated and learn for the sake of Heaven. Become well-versed in it for Hashem’s sake. Don’t pay attention to those who say that it is unnecessary for the child, G-d forbid. To the contrary, “Train a lad, etc.” It is easier to remove the skin of a nut before it hardens into a shell.
Most importantly, it is through such study that one merits everything, as our Sages stated (Avos 6:1): “Rabbi Meir said, ‘Whoever studies Torah for its own sake merits many things; furthermore, the whole world is worthwhile for his sake alone.’” You should study Tractate Avos, especially Avos D’Rabbi Noson, and Tractate Derech Eretz, since Derech Eretz (good manners) are more important than Torah study. Honor both your mother-in-law and your children’s great grandmother. Also always treat everyone with politeness and respect.
My Dear Mother, I know that you don’t need my advice, because you are very modest. Nevertheless, I wish someone would read this letter to you, for it consists of words of the Living G-d. I beg of you not to grieve over me, as you promised me, and G-d willing, if I merit to arrive at the gate of heaven in the holy city of Jerusalem, I will pray for you as I promised. And if we deserve it, we shall all be reunited, please G-d. I also ask my wife to honor my mother, as the Torah dictates, especially since she is a widow to whom it is a grave sin to cause even the slightest pain. I also ask you, Mother, to please cause peace to reign between you, and that you should strive to bring happiness one to the other. This is a great mitzvah incumbent upon everyone, as we find (Reishis Chochmah): “When man is judged, he will be asked,”Did you make your fellow a king over you?” We see that one must gladly enhance his friend’s honor. In fact, the main goal of the Torah is to bring joy to man. Even if one of you should happen to act improperly, excuse each other and live in peace for Hashem’s name. I also ask of you, Mother, to supervise and guide my children with gentle words, so that they will accept them. I instruct my sons and daughters to honor her, and not to fight among themselves at all, but to settle everything peacefully. May the Master of Peace grant you, my sons, daughters, sons-in-law, brother and all Israel life and peace.
Your loving Eliyahu the son of R. Shlomo Zalman ztz”l
The Gaon was the leading opponent of Chassidus, a movement founded by Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov in the 1730s . The Chassidim instituted a number of changes in standard Jewish practice and many great leaders viewed them as a breakaway sect from true Judaism in the manner of similar movements in the past. The emphasis of Chassidus on mysticism was particularly worrisome in this regard. Chassidus also placed a very strong emphasis on fervent worship. While this is well within the boundaries of traditional Judaism, many of the opponents of Chassidus, called ‘Misnagdim’, misunderstood this emphasis as detracting from the importance of Torah study. The reasons behind this great controversy are complex. The controversy ended in the early 1800s with the introduction of the anti-religious Haskalah movement which created a need for all religious Jews to form a common front.
Despite the Gaon’s opposition to Chassidus he was widely recognized by all groups as the leading torah authority of his time. After the Gaon passed away certain individual Chassidim expressed happiness at the news of his death, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, one of the most prominent leaders of Chassidus at that time, issued a public letter forbidding such statements and requiring his followers to speak of the greatness of the Gaon.
The Gaon passed away in 1797 leaving behind a tremendous legacy, both from his vast and varied writings on all Torah subjects and from his outstanding students who went on to spread Torah throughout the people of Israel. One of the most famous of the Gaon’s students was Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, founder of the Volozhiner Yeshiva. This yeshiva followed the Gaon’s approach to learning. It was the premier center of Torah study for about 100 years and is the ancestor of most of the yeshivas that exist today.