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The Gaon of Vilna

The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and His Image

Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 304
  • Book Info
    The Gaon of Vilna
    Book Description:

    A legendary figure in his own lifetime, Rabbi Eliahu ben Shlomo Zalman (1720-1797) was known as the "Gaon of Vilna." He was the acknowledged master of Talmudic studies in the vibrant intellectual center of Vilna, revered throughout Eastern Europe for his learning and his ability to traverse with ease seemingly opposed domains of thought and activity. After his death, the myth that had been woven around him became even more powerful and was expressed in various public images. The formation of these images was influenced as much by the needs and wishes of those who clung to and depended on them as by the actual figure of the Gaon. In this penetrating study, Immanuel Etkes sheds light on aspects of the Vilna Gaon's "real" character and traces several public images of him as they have developed and spread from the early nineteenth century until the present.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92507-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    Rabbi Eliyahu, the son of Shlomo Zalman, known as the Gaon of Vilna—or by the acronym Ha-GRA, for “ha-Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu”—enjoyed exceptional authority during his lifetime. Even among his rivals the Hasidic leaders, whom he persecuted, were those who acknowledged his status as the greatest scholar of his generation and who applied to him the epithet “unique in his generation.” In the eyes of his disciples and admirers, the Vilna Gaon was not only unique in his generation but also unparalleled in many generations. Some disciples and admirers accorded him the same status as the Sages of the...

    (pp. 10-36)

    During his lifetime the Gaon of Vilna wielded comprehensive and exceptionally powerful authority. Striking testimony to this effect is found in the words of the Hasidic leader Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady to his followers in Vilna in 1797: “According to all accounts, no one in the districts of Lithuania will raise his heart so high as not to yield his own opinion before that of ha-Gaon he-Hasid and to say wholeheartedly that the truth is not in his mouth, perish the thought.”¹ Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s remarks imply that, even were it possible to persuade rabbinical authorities that the path...

  6. 2 The Vilna Gaon and Haskalah
    (pp. 37-72)

    The cornerstone of the image of the Vilna Gaon as one of the forefathers of Haskalah in eastern Europe was laid by Rabbi Barukh of Shklov (1744–1808), also known as Barukh Schick, one of the pioneers of Haskalah in eastern Europe. In the introduction to his Hebrew translation of Euclid’sElements, Rabbi Barukh claims that, when he visited the revered sage in the winter of 1777–78, the latter advocated secular studies: “I heard from the holy one that, to the extent that a person is lacking in knowledge of secular subjects, he will lack one hundredfold in the...

  7. 3 The Vilna Gaon and the Beginning of the Struggle against Hasidism
    (pp. 73-95)

    During the intermediate days of Passover in 5532 (1772), the organized struggle against Hasidism was launched. The community of Vilna, the largest and most important of the Jewish communities of Poland and Lithuania, initiated the struggle and called on other communities to follow in its footsteps. This was not a struggle over ideas between two currents or what may be called a Kulturkampf. The community of Vilna and the communities associated with it started a total war against what they viewed as a deviant sect. The aim of this war was to remove Hasidism and the Hasidim from the world....

  8. 4 The Vilna Gaon and the Mitnagdim as Seen by the Hasidim
    (pp. 96-150)

    The organized struggle against Hasidism, which began in Vilna in 5532 (1772), continued for about thirty years. During that time the Hasidim were the objects of persecution and oppression. Community leaders who took part in the campaign against Hasidism passed ordinances that led to the social ostracism of the Hasidim, interfered with their sources of livelihood, prohibited people from eating meat that they had slaughtered, and prevented them from holding prayers in the manner they wished. It is easy to imagine the suffering and humiliation of the Hasidim in the areas where they were persecuted.¹ How did they respond?


  9. 5 Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin’s Response to Hasidism
    (pp. 151-208)

    In early 5563 (autumn 1802) Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin published an open letter to all “lovers of Torah” in Lithuania.¹ In that letter, he described the low condition to which study of Torah had sunk and called to the public to voluntarily promote the renewed flourishing of Torah study. The direct purpose of this call was to mobilize support for the new yeshiva that Rabbi Hayyim had just established in Volozhin, but it was also a call for the renewal of Torah study throughout Lithuania.

    Rabbi Hayyim’s letter and the establishment of the yeshiva in Volozhin were the first salient...

  10. 6 Talmudic Scholarship and the Rabbinate in Lithuanian Jewry during the Nineteenth Century
    (pp. 209-231)

    During the nineteenth century, the Jewish community of Lithuania was famous primarily as a center of Torah study.¹ Although the renown of Lithuanian Jewry has sometimes been related in idealized terms, it is grounded in reality. From many and various sources we find that there was indeed impressive growth in Torah study in Lithuania during the nineteenth century.² This phenomenon was reflected in the large number of young men who occupied the benches of houses of study and yeshivot, in the famousgedolei torah(masters of Torah), in the different types of Torah institutions, and in the veneration for studiousness...

  11. 7 Torah and Yira in the Thought and Practice of the Vilna Gaon
    (pp. 232-244)

    The unique authority enjoyed by the Vilna Gaon was not based solely on his achievements as a scholar, but, as we have seen, it was based on the combination of those achievements with a pious and ascetic way of life.¹ In this chapter I shall discuss extensively the character and purpose of the Gaon’s ascetic withdrawal. I shall also attempt to clarify his conception of the reciprocal relations and correct equilibrium between the value ofyiraand that of Torah study. In the background of this discussion is the assumption that the issue of how the value of Torah study...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 245-276)
  13. Glossary
    (pp. 277-280)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 281-294)
  15. Index
    (pp. 295-299)