The Gra, the Lithuanian Tradition, and Us: Questions Please!

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein



By Rav Elyakim Krumbein



Lecture 1:

The Gra, the Lithuanian Tradition, and Us: Questions Please!



Why should we be concerned about the Gra[1] and his legacy? Why is it important for us to connect with this personality, research and get to know him?


Answering this depends, of course, on who “we” are.  Most people picture the Gra as a perfect Torah genius and as a guardian of sacred Jewish values.  Based on this image, if he were living among us today we would expect him to be the head of the Lithuanian faction of the Agudat Yisrael’s Council of Torah Sages.  Therefore, one who is tied to today’s Lithuanian Chareidi world would surely be interested in our topic.  On the other hand, even Jews who are very far from what is generally taken to be the Gra’s spiritual world, but are interested in the upheavals that formed the Jewish national character in modern times, can’t ignore the Vilna Gaon, who was one of our history’s most influential personalities.


However, as we open this series, I’d like to suggest that the Gra’s spiritual world has sent out roots far beyond what might have appeared at first glance.  We’re bound to be surprised at the various ways that the meaning of the Gra’s legacy is much more than academic. Many Jews, with very different spiritual identities, connect with the Gra and his influence, often directly.


This claim is bound to sound strange, since in our generation even many who are true to the Torah and tradition distance themselves consciously and intentionally from the world of the Gra.  We are living in a period when the world of faith is undergoing renewal and growing more diverse.  Orthodoxy, which one generation ago was fighting for its existence against the forces of ferment and criticism, is today developing more and more, and has managed to include a broad expanse of opinions, possibilities and challenges.  In our own times, a good portion of these forces of renewal are directed at the individual Jew’s quest to serve his Creator, to live a life of meaning and to attain emotional spiritual fulfillment.  We are witness to a spiritual tendency that wants to redeem mundane existence not through law and statute, or through halakhic study that gives the world order and rational-moral structure (as in Rav Soloveitchik’s description in Halakhic Man), but through erasing the borders between this world and the world to come, seeing the brightness of the Divine Presence here and now.  In a spiritual climate like this, the Jew’s orientation is directed outwards: away from the conventional education and institutionalized learning, and away from halakhic discipline and routine service.  The contemporary spiritual seeker does not necessarily intend to abandon halakhic observance and study – but they don’t really excite him. It may be impossible to live without the mitzvot, and it’s understood that one must connect with them, but the seeker’s heart is really elsewhere.


If we restate this situation using explicit names, the connection to our original question will become clear. The dichotomy here is between the Lithuanian-Mitnagdic world-view advocating a stable, but also frozen and mandatory tradition; and the vibrant flow of the Neo-Chasidic movement (as opposed to traditional Chasidut, the remnants of Eastern Europe’s Chasidic courts).  This brings to mind the image of a teenager who, bored with his familiar setting, leaves it to search for fulfillment in other places.  So our generation, though educated with laws, mitzvot, and the details of the Halakha, raises up its eyes to new vistas of challenge and inspiration.


If so, you might ask again, why should modern Jews like these be interested in that distant sage, who closed his shutters and wrapped himself in his Torah like a tallit, and whose life totally belonged to the eighteenth century (the Gra was born on the first day of Pesach in 5480 [1720] and passed away on the 19th of Tishrei 5558 [1797])?


But permit me to continue with the image we just began.  I suggest that our teenager, after he has gained fulfillment and gained a new perspective outside the home where he grew up, may perhaps come back to visit his old home.  Perhaps he will begin to wonder what’s really in that old house.  Now he can reflect on what he originally took for granted and surprisingly feel that the time has come to look at the roots from which he grew and derived sustenance, at their secret and magic, and reveal anew that the initial source of his powers and the foundations of his spiritual world still derive from there.  Through this reflection it becomes clear that he is not able to deny his first home without denying his own identity.  It amazes him to reveal that this house isn’t as depressing as he had imagined; it is actually full of charm, substance, and exciting experiences.  I don’t claim that he has to turn back the wheels of time and close the door on the newly expanded horizons he has gained in his life.  But there are treasures right in front of us to which we don’t pay attention, and after being distanced from them we are able to grasp them with the benefit of a new perspective.


Furthermore, the Gra, from his perspective, wanted to speak to us in our century.  Perhaps we can go as far as to say that he wants to speak to us now, in the present tense.  How is this possible?  Didn’t all of the Gra’s life revolve around learning Torah and wasn’t he interested in nothing else?  But it turns out that the Gra saw himself as a leader.  But what kind of leader is it that doesn’t keep in contact with the community at large?  What kind of leader holds no official position – not a rav, not a judge on a rabbinical court – and was nevertheless supported by the Vilna Jewish community who recognized his greatness?  However one must agree that the Vilna Gaon was a strange leader: a leader for generations.  He saw far ahead, and developed his messages through which he sought to influence eternity, much more than the generation in which he was “planted”.  The question can still be asked:  Can a person of two hundred and fifty years ago, as great as might be, still engage in dialogue with us, who live in a world that he couldn’t have recognized or imagined?


We will show that the legacy of the Gra and his students is embedded deep in the being of many of us, and when we learn this legacy, we are apt to reveal ourselves.  We will speak in detail about what we mean by this.  Where is “Lithuania”- its importance, its culture, and its spirituality – present in our lives?


A few answers


Indeed, the Gra’s influence is more apparent in the yeshiva world than anywhere else, so anyone who was fortunate enough to have learned in any of the different types of yeshivot must appreciate him.  As is well known, the Gra was the creator of the modern yeshiva world, though his student Rav Chaim, the founder of Yeshivat Volozhin.  Even though the yeshiva as an institution has gone through many metamorphoses since the founding of the “Mother of Yeshivot,” today’s yeshivot can still be seen as derivatives of the ideal of the Gra and his beit midrash.


But the truth is that our obligation towards the Lithuanian tradition goes much further.  For instance, those of us that see ourselves as religious-Zionists, and identify with that stream of the Jewish community that symbolizes a historic revolution in religious thought, must ask themselves, who exactly created this track?  Who affirmed that masses of Torah observant Jews could join forces with those that had cast off the yoke of tradition in order to bring about the redemption through human hands?  Who preached this?  The greats of Lithuania took an essential and central part in today’s national revival.


Rav Shmuel Mohliver and Rav Kook of blessed memory were students of Yeshivat Volozhin.  Rav Reines, the great Torah giant who founded the Mizrachi movement, was Lithuanian.  A secret chapter of the Chovevei Tzion movement was active in Volozhin, and Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer and Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein were members.  Now, of course, there was no lack of famous Lithuanians who opposed the Zionist movement, but I still think we aren’t mistaken if we say that support for Zionism was relatively stronger in the world of the “Mitnagdim” than in the courts of the great and influential Chasidic rebbes.  In those courts –Ger, Munkatch, Satmar, Belz, and (though today people pay less attention to this) Chabad-Lubavitch – the Chibat Tzion movement met up with reactions that ranged from tolerant interest and indifference to coldness and antagonism.  In the midst of the Holocaust, Rav Yissachar Teichtel of blessed memory notes in his book “Eim Habanim Semeicha” as a “revelation” to his readership, that the Belzer Rebbe was open to the possibility that the redemption of the people of Israel in his day would come about through those that weren’t Torah observant.  However, this private statement, said in his innermost chambers, can’t compare with the public and unequivocal support the Netziv expressed on behalf of Chibat Tzion in his day, in the main beit midrash of Yeshivat Volozhin.  This Lithuanian tradition stretches almost to our day through the giant image of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik of blessed memory.


With God’s help I hope that in the future we will understand how it is no accident that Zionist sympathy strengthened among those that carried on the Gra’s tradition, and that the Gra himself took a central position in the movement to revive the people of Israel.


Even the Judaism of the modern United States, especially its Orthodoxy, was formed to a great measure, and maybe even decidedly, by Lithuanian Jews that reached American shores at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  These great waves of immigration were mostly composed of Russian Jewish refugees.  This community formed the American Jewish communal organizations, in education, welfare, and more, in a way that overshadowed all that had preceded them. The name of one of the great Torah giants of Lithuania – Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spector – flies over one of the most important institutions that was founded in those days, Yeshiva University.  Those immigrants made a point of printing for themselves the “Nefesh Ha-Chaim,” the classic Mitnagdic work of the Gra’s student Rav Chaim Volozhin, in the third decade of the twentieth century, after the European editions had been sold out.[2]   The composition of the religious Jewish community changed significantly only after World War II, with the massive immigration of Chasidic Jewish refugees.


Even the openness to the general world and secular learning, which typified American Orthodoxy until lately – has a clearly Lithuanian flavor.  We can expand on this and say that the fact that in the eyes of a large portion of the religious community it is acceptable to value general higher education without giving up on Torah and mitzvot draws not a little (alongside the influence of German Jewry) from norms that were rooted in Lithuanian Judaism.  Even here it is impossible to ignore the Gra’s direct and indirect role.  His total connectedness to Torah lived in peace with his interest and openness to general learning.  Even his approaches to learning Torah itself, which included to a large measure a critical approach and pursuit of understanding things in a straightforward way (“pshat”), paved the way for these intellectual values to be considered acceptable in the Jewish community.  The image of the Vilna Gaon created an opening for the growth of these trends among Torah-true intellectuals to this day.  It is not surprising that one of the Gra’s sons, Rav Avraham, was one of the pioneers of midrashic research, and spent his time collecting and clarifying proper texts through manuscripts scattered around Europe’s libraries.[3]


Given all of this, one must still exercise great caution when dealing with the Gra’s influence over the generations. We must differentiate between the Gra’s own positions and later developments.  Certainly all of the phenomena we listed here were shaped by many factors.  Nevertheless, we claim that history would have been much different if not for the striking presence of the Gra in Lithuanian consciousness.  To all of this, with the help of God, we will come back to later.


Areas of Involvement and Activity


In every realm that occupied Rav Eliyahu of Vilna, he influenced and left his mark on subsequent generations.  What are those realms?  We will review some of them in order to make an initial acquaintance with the Gra.


Torah Learning:

There is no doubt that learning Torah is the first topic on our list.  The Gra was outstanding in his devotion to Torah learning, and in his legendary diligence – that sounds to our ears as bordering on superhuman.  Even his achievements in learning were unique.  The Gra had complete mastery and knowledge in all of the secrets of the Torah, in all of rabbinic literature and the Rishonim.  It was recognized that his knowledge of all of these was clear and certain.  The Gaon constantly emphasized that Torah and its learning are the central value in Jewish life, and it is plausible that he is responsible for this principle having wide acceptance in the Jewish people.  Even his method of learning deeply influenced future generations.


Ethics and Jewish Thought:

The second realm that the Gra was very involved in was ethics (mussar) and character perfection.  This motif is a common thread throughout his writings.  The Gaon was known as an admirer of the Ramchal, author of the classic Mussar work, “Mesillat Yesharim.”  The Gra’s statements on Jewish ethics connect with his particular world-view, which also reflects itself in many of his writings, for instance, his commentaries on the Tanakh.


Opposition to Chassidut:

The Gra’s thought also connects up with another realm where he took a public stance, his opposition to the Chassidic movement.  He was the main fighter against the movement and demanded taking sharp and serious steps against the Chassidim.  The public campaign that he initiated created an atmosphere of struggle that dominated Jewish communal life in his day, and whose echoes are still heard in one way or another until the present day.


The Gra’s Halakhic Rulings and Customs:

The Gaon was also an expert halakhic authority that was not averse to taking unconventional positions, and many unique customs were created in his beit midrash. Some of the Gra’s customs and halakhic rulings, despite their innovation, nevertheless gained wide practical acceptance.  A striking example of this is his ruling with regards to the halakhic time considered twilight (“bein hashemashot”), that directly opposed the accepted halakha in his time, and has now become in practice the more widely accepted approach.  


Jewish Mysticism:

Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna was at home not only in the revealed Torah, but also in the realm of the secret Torah.  He was perhaps the greatest kabbalist of his generation.  The hidden wisdom was, as far as he was concerned, an integral part of the Torah, and he worked hard to clarify it with the same devotion and diligence that he gave to Talmud and other sources of the revealed Torah.



The Gra began a movement of aliya to the land of Israel that was actualized, after he passed away, by his students – with the aim of hastening Israel’s redemption.  On the one hand, he developed a complete conceptual messianic approach that included ways of hastening the coming of the Messiah.  But he also motivated his students on a practical level, and it seems that he even demanded of them to reach Israel and to invest their energy in tangibly building the land and bringing about the ingathering of the exiles.  The students of the Gra became the deciding element in the settlement in Israel in the nineteenth century, and paved the way to absorb the masses that afterwards made aliya through Chibat Tzion and the Zionist movement.




What are the sources for what we know about the Gra?  First and foremost are those works he wrote himself. The Gra did not write about himself, but presumably saw his teaching as the essence of his life, and therefore his books and writings are an important source.  His commentary on the Shulchan Arukh was written by his own hand, but most of the Gra’s Torah works were dictated to his students.  Beyond this there are reports and anecdotes about the Gra, as well as quotes of his statements, all with varying levels of reliability.  Of course, the more a source is first hand – for instance, a student who heard the words himself – the more reliable it is.  There are also biographies and anthologies focusing on the Gra.  The first was “Aliyot Eliyahu,” published in the nineteenth century, and edited by a very distinguished author that did very thorough work: Rav Yehoshua Heshel Levin of Vilna.  Rav Levin was an important Torah personality and a scholar who vied against the Netziv for leadership of Yeshivat Volozhin.  The life of the Gra and his ways were sketched by a number of additional authors, most notably Betzalel Landau and Rav Yehuda Leib Maimon.  The latter gathered many anecdotes and oral traditions that were well known in the Lithuania of his day, and also published a number of the Gra’s works.  In our generation the personality of Rav Eliyahu of Vilna continues to arouse interest, and we benefit from the important discoveries of scholars like Immanuel Etkes and Aryeh Morgenstern, who fill in important aspects of his biography and personality.


We will add here a few words about the reliability of these reports and stories.  The comparison with Chassidic stories immediately comes to mind, that developed and even transformed into a literary genre parallel to the formation and gathering of traditions about the Gra.  It is commonplace to doubt the historical authenticity of Chassidic stories.  There are those that claim that Mitnagdic stories are more reliable than Chassidic ones.  I am open to such a possibility, but that isn’t the main point.  We aren’t dealing only with Rabbeinu Eliyahu himself, but also with his influence and legacy.  Therefore, besides the “hard” factual data of his life, it is important for us to clarify how the Gra was perceived and what function he served in the communal consciousness of his time and afterwards.  This aim can be served even by stories about whose historical accuracy we aren’t so sure.


In any event, among the first sources that we will turn to in this series, we’ll emphasize one special and unique type: introductions to works written by students of the Gra, and dedicated to describing his personality.  Of course we must remember that these writers had an agenda beyond giving over the facts.  The circle of the Gra’s students was a group infused with a feeling of mission.


This mission began to be publicly evident with the passing of the Gra.  In the lifetime of the Gra none of his own books were published, and this is because his students, the obvious candidates for directing the work of editing and printing, were preoccupied with learning his Torah.  The Gra was an overflowing fountain, and in the last decades of his life his chosen students constantly learned with him and wrote down his teachings.  Every moment was precious, and no one had time for anything else.  However, with his passing, the time came for his students to begin to act on preserving his legacy, and to publish the Gra’s works, opening them up for the public.  Besides publicizing the Torah of their teacher, those who carried on his legacy strived to publicize his great personality and to empower it as a source of inspiration and direction for the whole Jewish people.  To this end they also published words of admiration about their teacher that were printed in the introductions to other works, both those they wrote themselves and those books of the Gra that they published.


The First Step


We open with words of admiration that were written by one of the Gaon’s great students, Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov.  First we should make an acquaintance with this special student, whom we will meet again in different contexts.  Rav Yisrael only knew the Gaon for a half year.  Yet, during that half year before the passing of the Gaon, Rav Yisrael merited becoming exceedingly close to him, especially during the last twenty days of the Gaon’s life, when he served the Gra “like a servant to a king.”[4]  Afterwards Rav Yisrael was a dominant leader in the aliya of the Gra’s students to the land of Israel, and he stood at the head of the settlement of Tzfat until it was effectively destroyed in the tragic earthquake of 5597.  Rav Yisrael of Shklov wrote a central work on the laws of the mitzvot of the land of Israel called, “Pe’at Ha-shulchan.”  His main recollections of the Gra appear in his introduction to this book.  Indeed, his acquaintance with the Gra was deep but short-lived, as we said, but he was a very admired figure in the group of the Gra’s students (as evidenced by his being entrusted with editing the commentary to the Shulchan Arukh), and he was well-versed in the experiences, anecdotes, and stories that were prevalent even in the life of the rav, so we can deem his reports first-hand.


First example: One of Rav Yisrael’s acquaintances heard from the Gaon that every man must have one tractate of the Talmud memorized, so he can fulfill the mitzva to “meditate on it (the Torah) by day and night,” constantly, even while walking from one place to another.  That rav immediately began to keep the Gra’s command, and after a while returned to him and told him that he was fortunate to learn Tractate Sukka by heart.


Our master responded, “Do you want me to ask you something about this tractate and you’ll answer me?”  He responded, “Didn’t I learn it all by heart?”  The Gra then asked him one thing and that rav didn’t know the answer.  That was, how many arguments are there in that tractate between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda, and between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon, and between Rabba and Rav Yosef, and Abbayei and Rava . . . Afterwards our rav opened his holy mouth and counted, as one who counts pearls, and he “cut into pieces the limbs” of the whole tractate: how many times arguments between tannaim and amoraim appeared; and how many times the halakha is like one or another sage; and how many sections and opinions there are; and how many laws come from passages in the Tosefta and the Yerushalmi; and the amount of invalid sukkot, that corresponds to the numeric equivalent of the word “sukka” when written without a “vav” (85); and he would also list the amount of valid sukkot mentioned in the tractate in the Bavli, Tosefta, and Yerushalmi that correspond to the numerical equivalent of the word “sukka” when written with a “vav” (91). . .


In the next shiur I want to reflect on this amazing story, but not right now.  Better, I think, for us to hold on to the taste of the amazement.


(Translated by Eliezer Kwass)

[1] The Vilna Gaon is commonly known by the acronym Gra, which stands for Ha-Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu (E and A are both represented by an aleph in Hebrew).

[2] The Vilna edition of 5634 (1874) was the last printed on European soil.

[3] His findings are included in his book Rav Pe’alim.  Scholars that followed him argued with many of his assertions, but this doesn’t detract from the importance of his work.

[4] All this we know from what Rav Yisrael himself wrote in his introduction to the Gra’s commentary on Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayim.