This Day in Jewish History

1797: The Vilna Gaon Dies

Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman had a photographic memory and knew Torah by heart at 11 - and also did well at math and astronomy.

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On this day in 1797, Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman – known as the Gaon (genius, or sage) of Vilna, or by the Hebrew acronym the “Gra” (standing for “the genius, our rabbi Eliyahu”) – died, at the age of 77.  The Gaon of Vilna is universally recognized as one of the most learned and important rabbinical authorities of all time; his interpretations of Jewish law and commentary still guide many Ashkenazi Jews to this day.

Born in Vilna (today Vilnius, Lithuania), Eliyahu demonstrated a photographic memory from a very young age; by 11 he was said to have committed the entire Talmud to memory. He also distinguished himself in his study of secular subjects, including mathematics and astronomy. As a young man, he took upon himself the status of galut (exile), leaving his hometown and wandering as a mendicant from community to community in Poland and Germany. Even before he returned to Vilna in 1748, he was acknowledged as an authority whom far older rabbis would consult on matters of Jewish law.

Rabbi Eliyahu was also distinguished by his unusual modesty and asceticism. He believed that Torah study was the foremost mitzvah (commandment), and that devoting one’s life to study required forfeiting other pleasures. He refused to take an official position within the Jewish community and did not stand at the head of a yeshiva. (He did, however, encourage his student Rabbi Chaim Volozhin to open a yeshiva for the systematic study of Jewish subjects  - it is the model that guides Ashkenazi yeshivot to this day.) His approach emphasized the literal meaning of the text being studied. Although he wrote voluminously, none of his books on the Torah, the Babylonian Talmud, and on various kabbalistic works were published during his lifetime.

That last point about his interpretive approach may seem ironic, since the Gaon of Vilna is remembered as the great opponent of his day to the nascent Hasidic movement, which emphasized Kabbalah and the mystical and spiritual experience in general. Rabbi Elihayu’s objection to Hasidut (he headed what were called the Mitnagdim – opponents), however, was centered on what he felt was its de-emphasis on study and lax attitude toward observance. His conflict with the movement led to his decision to declare a herem (ban) on the Hasidim of Vilna.

As something of a proto-Zionist, Rabbi Eliyahu began a journey to Palestine but never got beyond Germany. Several decades after his death, however, three groups of his followers came to the Holy Land, settling first in Tiberias and Safed, and then in Jerusalem, where they reestablished an Ashkenazi Jewish presence in the city.

In the centuries following his death, the wide swathe of those influenced by Rabbi Eliyahu’s teachings have ranged from the so-called Lithuanian school of ultra-Orthodoxy in contemporary Israel to the largely non-religious, rationalist Haskalah movement.