The Legacy of the Vilna Gaon and His Lessons For Our Times

Sage wisdom from ‘Elijah of Vilna’ for these trying times

| Topics: Vilna Gaon, Jewish Thought
Photo: Nati Shohat/Flash90

The Vilna Gaon, or “Genius of Vilna,” was one of the greatest Jewish scholars since Maimonides. Born Elijah Ben Solomon Zalman (1720-1797) he once said something with profound implication for us today:

“The principal safeguard is seclusion, that you should not, G-d forbid, leave the house, save for some exceedingly great need. And even in the synagogue, you should be very short and leave quickly. It is better to pray at home for in the synagogue, it is impossible to be saved from envy and from hearing vain talk and gossip.”

During these trying times, I have found great wisdom in the Vilna Gaon’s idea of seclusion, as the only way to preserve our mental sanity at times like this is to seclude ourselves in study, using our isolation to enhance our knowledge about the world around us by reading books, learning a new language, writing, and advancing our understanding of the Jewish faith.

Of course, the Vilna Gaon did not believe in seclusion for the same reason that we are social distancing now. There was no COVID back then. For him, it was his way of life, as being a hermit permitted him to be more productive in his studies of the Torah.

Professor Maoz Kahana of the Jewish History Department at Tel Aviv University explained in an exclusive interview with Israel Today that the Vilna Gaon felt that: “A smart person doesn’t take responsibility for the community. He secludes himself in a small cloister. He did not become a rabbi of a yeshiva. He prefered to get in touch with all the Torah, the mitzvah and the Halacha to hold it in his mind. This was his project, to seclude himself in a room and not to be in touch with anyone.”

In Eliyahu’s Branches by Chaim Friedman, the two sons of the Vilna Gaon, Yehuda Leib and Avraham, said much the same in recalling that when their father studied, he barely slept for several days as “he researched, corrected texts and wrote compositions on Bible, Mishnah, Babylonian Gamarah, Yerushalmi Gemarah, Toseftah, Mekhilta, Safra, Sifri, Seder Avot De Rabbi Natan. On Massoret and grammar, he wrote more than one hundred principles. On algebra and trigonometry, there are a number of manuscripts. His learning was engraved on his lips and in his heart, and he knew all the opinions of the rabbis and scholars. He did not waste his time with idleness, as we saw that even when he talked to us, he was brief and to the point.”

Although the Vilna Gaon refused to head a yeshiva, he did set up a private group known as the “Kloys of the Goan,” who “functioned in a room belonging to him. There were a small number of privileged scholars who studied with the Gaon and absorbed his teachings. Through the teachings of these disciples and the yeshivot they established, the Gaon’s influence molded the life of Lithuanian Jewry.”

Professor Kahana noted that he did not teach the Kloys of the Gaon, but rather they absorbed his ideas: “This is the ideal scholarship for generations. The deeper notion of our thoughts is powerful. To make a change is not only the result of public opinion. If you want to try something different, you should appreciate your thoughts and insights about each part of the Torah. Somehow, the inner value he provided was disseminated to the Jewish world and changed it in many ways,” even though none of his manuscripts were published in his lifetime.

According to Professor Kahana, the whole idea that the world was created just for studying Torah was established by the Vilna Gaon: “The Jewish nation should revolve around deeper understanding of the Torah. The Vilna Gaon supported secular studies, as many secular studies can lead to a complete understanding of the Torah. For this reason, he supported studying mathematics, physics, music, medicine, etc.”

“He had a relationship to Eretz Yisrael, which caused his students to come to Israel in the early decades of the 19th century,” Professor Kahana noted. “They came to Safed and Jerusalem and established new Ashkenazi communities in Israel. They established the Hurva Synagogue, a famous shul in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem. The Purashim, the students of the Gaon community today, still own it. It was established by the righteous scholars when they made Aliyah in the early 19th century.”

There are some who say that the Vilna Gaon was an early supporter of political Zionism: “The Rivlin family, who were students of the Gaon and made Aliyah, claim that “Kol Hator,” is taken from the Gaon’s writings. In this book, the Gaon promotes an idea of actual efforts for bringing redemption by making Aliyah, just like Zionism promotes. Many scholars tend to think that the Rivlin family actually created these writings and the Gaon never thought of it this way.”

Professor Kahana noted that this work has greatly influenced the religious Zionist movement to this day.


The God Who is There

The Vilna Gaon’s introduction to the Book of Esther is especially relevant for our times, as the story of Purim occurred when the Jewish people were in exile and facing physical destruction. G-d was hidden from their presence, just as G-d is hidden from our presence now. In the story, the Vilna Gaon recounts that there once was a king who had a son, but the son committed some serious offenses, so he was expelled to a forest.

“The king’s son quickly concluded that his father had abandoned him and forgotten him,” the Vilna Gaon writes. “But it was not so. In fact, the father was most concerned for his son, afraid that the wild beasts in the forest or the ministers who hated his son would try to attack him. So, the king dispatched his servants into the forest to look after his son. However, the king instructed his servants to make sure that his son remained unaware of their presence, so the son would still feel the need to repent for the sins against the father.” As it turned out, these servants saved the son in the forest on countless occasions.

The Vilna Gaon explains that just like the son of the king in the forest, “all our narrow escapes from day to day as well as all our joys and blessings come from our Father in Heaven, who is always sending his angels to protect us, nourish us and guide us.” Thus, even during these dark times, we can cling to the Torah for spiritual guidance and know that G-d has not forsaken us, even though we might not feel his presence at this moment.


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