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The Gra as a Kabbalastic

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein



By Rav Elyakim Krumbein








            Last week we discussed R. Chayim Volozhiner's perception of the Torah as a single entity. According to him, the Torah itself is an integrated weave, a mesh of inner connections that create a dialogue and correspondence between all its parts, and especially between conclusions and their sources. Consequently, study of the exoteric law, at its highest level, connects the final halakhic conclusion to its source in the Mishna and Talmud.


            Let us now continue with R. Chayim's remarks in his introduction to the Gra's commentary to Sifra De-tzeni'uta, and thereby pass over to the other side of the parallel: the structure of the esoteric Torah. What we have here is a comprehensive understanding of Kabbala, which is unique in its developmental dimension. The development is both historical and literary, and it touches upon the literary development of the exoteric law.


Apply this also to the hidden, inner part, the soul of our holy Torah, which is also called the Oral Law, as we have it by tradition, mouth to mouth, going back to Moshe at Sinai. For our ancient Rabbis, masters of the mysteries, filled with the spirit of our holy God, and before whom no gates were locked, saw fit to compose a tract, holy of holies, in brief, wonder of wonders of His Torah, for reasons known to them, for their disciples, in a concise manner, and so that people who are not fit and prepared to receive the supernal light not break through to God to gaze. There they included and concealed all the luminaries, a multitude of hidden things, Ma'aseh Bereishit ("the work, i.e., secrets, of Creation") and Ma'aseh Merkava ("the work, i.e., secrets of the Chariot"), the Heikhalot ("palaces") of holiness… His holy spirit appeared to them to call it by the name of Sifra De-tzeni'uta, as is it concealed [mutzna], wondrous and covered, revealed only to the modest [tzenu'in], and based on the verse, "But with the lowly [tzenu'im] is wisdom" (Mishlei 22:2). This sealed book is like the Mishna in the revealed part of our holy Torah; all the early generations made use of its light, handing it down mouth to mouth and in secret to their holy disciples…


            The ancient Sages of the Kabbala acted in much the same way as did Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi with respect to the Mishna. They too stood before a practical need that necessitated a literary effort. They did not face the danger that the tradition would be forgotten, but they wanted to pass on their teachings in a concise form, and so too they wished to conceal them from those who were not fit to study them. Sifra De-tzeni'uta, a short and concise tract, includes and "conceals" within it the entire esoteric lore.


He raised a faithful shepherd to tend to Yaakov His nation and Israel His inheritance, the holy and godly Tanna, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, peace be upon him… To him alone was permission granted from heaven, and he began to reveal wondrous things, Ma'aseh Bereishit and Ma'aseh Merkava, that are included and hidden in Sifra De-tzeni'uta… Heaven agreed with him to compose the book of the Zohar, all of whose holy words are based on this Sifra De-tzeni'uta, as is clearly evident in the two Idrot[1] and in various places in the Zohar where it says: "We learned in Sifra De-tzeni'uta." He cites and selects from its limited and brief statements, and upon them he builds chambers in heaven, mystery of mysteries, awesome, elevated and lofty…


            Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi), the author of the Zohar, bases his discussions on Sifra De-tzeni'uta.  As proof to this, R. Chayim cites the expression that appears in the Zohar, "We learned in Sifra De-tzeni'uta," which serves as a heading for a citation from Sifra De-tzeni'uta that Rashbi wishes to analyze. R. Chayim later asserts that the role of the Zohar in relation to Sifra De-tzeni'uta parallels the role of the two Talmuds in relation to the Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi's Mishna. R. Chayim does not explain why Rashbi was permitted to spell out what Sifra de-Tzeni'uta had kept hidden, or what his purpose was in doing so.


            The next stage in the story of Kabbala was R. Yitzchak Luria, the Ari. Here R. Chayim explains more precisely the necessity for the works of the Ari, who is generally considered the greatest kabbalist of the later generations. Owing to the many wanderings, exiles and misfortunes of the Jewish people, the esoteric tradition was in danger of being forgotten, despite the existence of the Zohar, because "its great light was concealed from us… and we lacked the strength to understand and comprehend the depths of Ma'aseh Bereishit and Ma'aseh Merkava." This situation was corrected by "our master, our holy Rabbi, the godly and awesome Ari, of blessed memory, who delved into and expanded the discussion concerning Ma'aseh Bereishit and Ma'aseh Merkava." R. Chayim, however, emphasizes that even the Ari's explanations are merely a decoding of the Zohar's allusions, and in the end, the "Mishna" of the esoteric lore is Sifra De-tzeni'uta:


All of his holy words and wondrous expositions follow and flow from their source in the holy Zohar and in the Idrot and in the Tikkunim.[2] And the ultimate source of all his holy writings, and of the Idrot, and of the holy Zohar, and of the Tikkunim, they all go to and are drawn to one place, they are all alluded to in our "Mishna," the holy book, Sifra De-tzeni'uta.


            In order to complete the parallel between the esoteric law and the exoteric law, R. Chayim establishes his fundamental approach to the study of Kabbala at its highest level. It should come as no surprise that his position on this issue is very similar to what he writes regarding the exoteric law.


The primary occupation in the hidden, inner part of our holy Torah, in which the righteous walk in their upright way, is to contemplate all the holy words of the ancients and the writings of the Ari, of blessed memory, to include them in their source in the holy Zohar, and in the Idrot, and in the Tikkunim. And afterwards, to go further, into the inner sanctum, and include and clarify them all together in their ultimate source, in our "Mishna," in Sifra De-tzeni'uta.


            We see then that the primary goal of the student of the esoteric law is to join the truths of the Kabbala, which were spelled out by the Ari, to their source in the Zohar literature, and from there "into the inner sanctum," to "their ultimate source," Sifra De-tzeni'uta. What he says here is similar to his view regarding study of the exoteric law, but what is added here is the dimension of holiness, which explains the objective. For when the student rises with all that he knows to its ultimate literary source, he enters, according to R. Chayim, "into the inner sanctum." Sifra De-tzeni'uta is the source not only in the literary sense, but also "the ultimate source" of the holiness of the esoteric law. If we remember that in the forefront of R. Chayim's consciousness stands the parallel between the esoteric law and the exoteric law, it would not be fallacious, in my opinion, to reach a certain conclusion. In the previous shiur we saw that also with respect to the exoteric law, connecting the Halakha to its literary source, follows from a fundamental understanding regarding Torah study. In light of what was said here, it seems that according to R. Chayim, the Mishna and the Gemara, which the Sages wrote with their holy spirit, are the source, not only of Halakha's certainty, but also of its sanctity. The student's job is to connect the Halakha to this spring which flows from the Mishna and the Gemara to the Shulchan Arukh and the Posekim. We shall return to this point in the coming shiurim.




            This entire description was meant to help us understand the Vilna Gaon's historic role. For this purpose, R. Chayim summarizes the state of the Torah – both the exoteric and the esoteric – before the Gra began to shine on Israel's spiritual horizon:


However, not many are wise enough to reflect upon the sources, even with respect to the exoteric part of our holy Torah, to issue rulings from the sea of the Talmud, the Bavli and the Yerushalmi, based on clean and clear opinions, and also to include all the words of the Amora'im, their particulars and minutiae, in the Mishna. And also because regarding the hidden, inner part of our holy Torah, owing to our many sins, all vision is sealed up, so that one cannot contemplate the holy words of the ancients and the writings of the Ari, of blessed memory, so that they may rise to their sources in the Idrot, and the holy Zohar, and the Tikkunim… Who will approach the inner sanctum, the innermost chamber, to include them all together, clarified and arranged in the ultimate source, in our "Mishna," Sifra De-tzeni'uta, for the days are few, and those who work in the fields are few, and you know not how long.


            The great mission of entering the "innermost" chamber and uniting the two Torahs at their source is, "owing to our many sins," beyond our power. Hence the two lines of development – that of the exoteric law and the esoteric law – will unite in the figure of one person:


Until He, blessed be His name, for the sake of His justice, to make His Torah great and glorious, and to show us the wonders of His Torah… There was one great man, the likes of whom we did not see for generations, to whom God gave a knowing heart and seeing eyes… He is the world genius, the pious and holy, our great and holy master, may he rest in peace. This was always his approach to the holy, to enlighten himself, to contemplate, to toil in immeasurable ways… until he merited to fully understand them, so that they should all rise up, clear in their truth, in their sources and in their ultimate source. It was he who in his holy books cleared and illuminated the path before us, the holy path through which no man passed for generations before him, a clear path through the revealed and hidden parts [of the Torah], a course running higher and higher until it reaches the ultimate source. As he did wonders in his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh, where he included all the many laws in their sources in the two Talmuds, the Bavli and the Yerushalmi… And more than this in his commentary to the Mishna, where he included all the words of the Amora'im in the two Talmuds and all the Toseftot and Baraitot in our Mishna, in clear allusions…


            The Gra's unique mission was to demonstrate the unity of all the words of the Torah at their source. This mission is the rationale of his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh, where he anchors every law in the Talmud. In his commentary to the Mishna as well, the Gra demonstrates how all the words of the Sages in the Baraitot and in the Talmud are included in the Mishna. R. Chayim concludes with his explanation of the Gra's commentary to Sifra De-tzeni'uta:


So too he showed us his great and awesome fire in his commentary to Sefer de-Tzeni'uta, where he showed that the entire Ma'aseh Bereishit and Ma'aseh Merkava, arranged in the holy Zohar and in the Idrot and in the Tikkunim and in the writing of the Ari, of blessed memory, their general principles and their particulars, are included and properly arranged in the ultimate source in this holy book, Sifra De-tzeni'uta… This was brought about by God, who let us know that even when we are in the land of our enemies, as is the case today, at the lowest possible level, may God have mercy – nevertheless, God is our light, reviving us with the dew of lights…


            R. Chayim is so excited by this amazing phenomenon, that he states with certainty that the Gra's appearance in the world was a unique and intentional kindness from Heaven.




            What we have seen constitutes the fundamental core of what R. Chayim says here, but we are not done. R. Chayim uses this opportunity to describe a side of the Gra that apparently was less well known to the public, and as R. Chayim himself writes, there were even those who denied the existence of this side of the Gra. It was generally accepted in the community at large that the Chassidic movement had a stronger connection to the esoteric law than did the world of the Mitnagdim, which focused on Torah study in its classic sense. It is natural that the Gra, as leader of the Mitnagdim, would be perceived by many as uninterested in the Kabbala. Added to this was the fact that the Gra did not dispense blessings, nor did he present himself as one who performs wonders and miracles, or as one who is capable of cancelling evil decrees.[3] This stands in contrast to the Ba'al Shem Tov, who saw it as his role to communicate and mediate in an active manner between the people and the heavenly court.


            R. Chayim knew the extent to which this perception of the Gra was mistaken, and in his introduction to the Gra's commentary to Sifra de-Tzeni'uta, the Gra's most important kabbalistic work, he tried to change it. Not only was the Gra a kabbalist, but he was a kabbalist of enormous proportions, to the extent that R. Chayim placed him alongside the most important figures in this area – Rashbi and the Ari. R. Chayim notes that the Gra knew the Zohar literature by heart – just as he was fluent in the sources of the exoteric law – to the point of knowing "the count of letters." He toiled with all his famous and legendary vigilance to understand the words of the Zohar and emend its readings. But over and beyond his study of Kabbala, R. Chayim notes biographical details which demonstrate that the Gra was connected to the "heavenly worlds" in an unmediated, experiential and constant fashion. On the other hand, we see from these reports how exceptional the Gra was in this regard compared to other kabbalists. It is possible that his uniqueness was not understood by all the members of his generation, and for this reason as well, they had difficulty seeing him as a kabbalist.


R. Chayim reports about a matter that touches upon the place of heavenly revelations in the study of Kabbala. It is well known that the great kabbalists thrived on supernatural revelations as a source of knowledge. R. Yosef Karo would learn from a maggid (angel), whose words he recorded in a book that to this day is called "Maggid Meisharim." The Ari would visit the graves of the righteous in the Galilee in order to experience revelations of mysteries by the souls of the righteous, and he would also encourage his students to do the same. The Ramchal as well had an angel/maggid from whom he learned. This being the case, if the Gra were a world-class kabbalist, it would be expected that he too be experienced in such revelations. R. Chayim informs us that the Gra did not have an actual maggid, but not because he was not fit to have one, but because he did not want one. Most kabbalists would have seen it as a great accomplishment to be in permanent communication with a personal maggid, but the Gra did not agree to behave in the manner expected of any other student of Kabbala. Why not? The question is fascinating, and the answer is of exceeding importance. He writes as follows:


Most important of all… he was only satisfied with the wisdom and understanding achieved through toil, and with great efforts. When compassion was shown him from heaven, and the springs of wisdom were revealed to him – the greatest mysteries and secrets – this was for him a gift from God, but his soul did not want anything else. Even though they wanted to give him from heaven, without toil and wearying of the flesh, supernal mysteries and secrets, by way of maggidim, masters of the mysteries, officers of the Torah, he did not raise his eyes to this; it was in his power, but he pushed it away. For I heard from his holy mouth that many times heavenly maggidim appeared early at his door with their request that they wished to teach him the mysteries of the Torah without any toil, but he did not listen to them at all. One of the maggidim greatly beseeched him, but nevertheless… he told him: I do not want my comprehension of God's Torah to be by way of an intermediary whatsoever. My eyes are only raised to Him; that which He wishes to reveal to me, and give me a share in His Torah, through my toil with all my power, He will give me wisdom and understanding from His mouth, He will give me an understanding heart and He will turn my kidneys into two springs, and I will know that I have found favor in His eyes. I want nothing but from His mouth, and I have no desire for that which is attained through maggidim and officers of the Torah, for which I did not toil.


            According to the Gra himself, what moved him to reject all the angels who rose up early to greet him? I wish to cite here the interpretation offered by my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, who addressed this issue in his book, "Torah Lishma." He brings one explanation, according to which the Gra was concerned about "charismatic anarchy," rejection of Halakha as a result of being carried away by mystical visions. R. Lamm, however, argues that "this is not the entire explanation." According to him, the Gra's words express the "principle of dissociation" between the intellectual activity of Torah study and emotional religious life:


His repeated references to the ease and facility with which such secret information is obtained indicate that, in addition to any dangers which may flow from pneumatic lawlessness, the Gaon placed a special value on intellection per se; he held that mental toil and effort are positive goods in their own right, and that they distinguish the intellectual enterprise from the emotional and charismatic life, and hence the two must be kept rigorously separate from each other. The Dissociation Principle, anticipated by the Gaon and fully developed by R. Chayim, seeks to erect a wall of demarcation between the two domains not only in order to protect the Halakha from being overwhelmed by the unpredictable and uncertain course of mysticism, but also to protect the mind from being clouded by a fog of imprecise sentiment that would cripple its analytic capacity. The Principle guards against the infection of the halakhist-intellectual by the virus of indolence; it makes easy returns and great triumphs unattainable without investing the hard work and diligent exertion which are the absolute conditions of the valid intellectual enterprise.[4]


            According to R. Lamm, there are two reasons that the Gra distanced himself from maggidim. First of all, communication with spiritual forces is a "charismatic," non-intellectual activity, which takes place in an ecstatic state, and as such it impairs one's clarity of thinking and analytic capacity, i.e., it impairs Torah study. It should immediately be noted that there is no hint of this consideration in the Gra's words, and accordingly, it should not be accepted as reflecting his intention.[5] The second consideration is that learning from maggidim is easy and effortless, and the Gaon saw a value in independent learning that involves effort and "wearying of the flesh." The Gra recoiled from idleness and easy profits – even spiritual ones – and was only satisfied with achievements that he reached on his own. This consideration is indeed explicitly mentioned in the words of the Gra cited above.


            This state of mind, the refusal to receive Torah in passive fashion from others ("intermediaries," as the Gra puts it), and the obligation of the Torah student himself to examine and clarify everything on his own without compromise, is a traditional value in the Torah learning of the Mitnagdim, especially in the Volozhin tradition. R. Chayim regularly cited his master (as is stated in R. Chayim's volume of responsa, "Chut Ha-meshulash") that a halakhic decisor should not bow down before the views of others, even if they are great authorities, if the ruling contradicts the halakhic conclusion which seems correct to him. Independence in study and in intellectual investigation is a spiritual asset that drove generations of Yeshiva students, and without it the Brisker revolution would have been unimaginable.


            Nevertheless, even this explanation does not do justice to the Gaon's meaning here, and in my opinion, it misses the main point. The Gra's rejection of maggidim is a corollary of his fundamental understanding of Torah, which we have examined here as expounded by his disciple, R. Chayim. We will clarify this point in our next shiur.


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] Idra Rabba and Idra Zuta, two parts of the Zohar.

[2] Tikkunei Zohar, which is part of the Zohar.

[3] One can only note with astonishment the immense gap between the ways of the Vilna Gaon and the common practice today, when important Lithuanian Roshei Yeshiva and rabbis serve as sources of blessings and wonder-stories.

[4] R. Norman Lamm, Torah Lishmah: Torah for Torah's Sake In the Works of Rabbi Chayim of Volozhin and His Contemporaries. Ktav, 1989.

[5] This consideration is found in the Nefesh Ha-chayim where he discusses the need to guard one's intellectual concentration during study, as cited by R. Lamm, but it is absent in the words of R. Chayyim under discussion here.