The Gra's Commentary to the Shulchan Arukh

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


The Gra's legacy

By Rav Elyakim Krumbein



Shiur 22: THe Gra's commentary to the SHulchan Arukh





            Before we begin with the subject of this week's shiur, let us discuss a point that has come to our attention, with the help of our readers, in connection with shiur no. 8.


At the time, I cited the following passage from R. Israel of Shklov's introduction to his Pe'at Ha-shulchan:


And he knew the names and essence of all the people in the world, how they are alluded to in the written Torah, as our master wrote in his commentary to Sifra de-Tzeni'uta… And I heard from a certain elder, the halakhic decisor in the city of Mileslavi, who ministered to our holy master in days of old. He saw that a certain Gaon came from far away to hear the words of the living God from our master. And he said to our master: My lord certainly knows the names of all people where they are [alluded to] in the written Torah, as the Ramban writes regarding the incident involving Avner….


I mentioned there in a footnote that I was unable to identify the reference regarding the Ramban and Avner, and I asked the readers to help me locate the source. I wish to present the following which was sent to me by Aharon Kravitz:


Undoubtedly the reference is to the well-known Aggada brought in Seder Ha-dorot (Yemot Olam, fifth millennium, 4954), as follows:


"And I have a tradition that the Ramban had a certain disciple, named Rav Avner, who became an apostate, and his fortune had it that he rose in power and his dread spread through the entire land. One Yom Kippur he sent for his master, the Ramban, and in his presence, he himself slaughtered a pig, cut it up, cooked it, ate it, and after eating it, asked his master how many sins liable for the punishment of karet did he commit. His master answered four, while he said five. He would have argued with his master, but his master turned his eyes against him in anger, and so he remained silent, for he still retained some fear of his master. In the end his master asked him who had brought him to apostasy, and he answered that he had once heard that [the Ramban] had preached about Parashat Ha'azinu, saying that that section included all the mitzvot and everything in the world. And since he thought this to be impossible, he turned into a different man. His master responded saying: I stand by what I said, ask whatever you wish. Exceedingly puzzled, the man said to him: If so show me please if you find my name written there. And the Ramban said: You have spoken well, from my hand you may seek it. And immediately he went into a corner and prayed, and then returned with the verse: "I said, I would scatter them into corners, I would make the remembrance of them to cease from among men (amarti af'eihem ashbita mei-enosh zikhram" (Devarim 32:26). [Putting together] the third letter in each word, there is the name of the man, R. Avner. When he heard this, his face fell and he asked his master whether there is a cure for his wound. And the master said: You heard the words of the verse. And the master went off on his way, and immediately the man took a boat without a sailor or oar and entered it and went wherever the wind took him, and nothing was ever heard from him again (see Emek ha-Melekh, part 1, chap. 4).


Once again, my thanks to Aharon Kravitz.[1]




            In the previous two shiurim we discussed two examples of how the Gra dealt with gaps between his halakhic positions and what had been accepted in practice in earlier generations. The Gra hardly ever took conventional practice into consideration, and he aspired to ground practical Halakha in the sources. At this point I would like to expand our perspective. If we wish to understand the Gra's halakhic approach and achievement, we must examine his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh, which is perhaps his most important literary effort with respect to the revealed dimension of the Torah.


            The publication of the Gra's commentary began in 5663 (1803), when the Shulchan Arukh with the Gra's commentary was published in the city of Shklov. It was brought to press by R. Israel of Shklov, a close disciple of the Gra in the last year of the Gaon's life. R. Israel was undoubtedly selected for the job with the agreement of the Gra's sons and close disciples. Otherwise, it would simply have been inconceivable that they would have deposited into his hands the precious volumes with the hand-written notes of the Gra.


            The fact that R. Israel of Shklov received the support and counsel of the other leading rabbis in the Gra's circle is alluded to in the words of R. Chayyim of Volozhin, in his introduction to the commentary. R. Chayyim notes that the excessive brevity adopted by the Gra is liable to make it difficult for the student:


And even though the truth is that were the matters explained at greater length, they would be more beneficial, we did not want to change the wording of our holy master that is found in his very own holy handwriting, for he sailed in the Talmud that is wider than the sea and contented himself with his brevity. And even now after careful examination, anyone who studies it will find what he is seeking, when he sets his heart to understand the words of our great master, as is fitting for a disciple to understand the views of the master of masters and sage of sages…


            The phrase, "we did not want to change," testifies to the fact that R. Chayyim, the Gra's foremost student, was involved in the ongoing work and took part in establishing the editorial policy.


            I have emphasized that R. Israel enjoyed very significant support and backing, because it seems that after the fact not everyone was happy with the finished product, as we shall see below.




R. Israel relates in his introduction to the work that he had faced great difficulties when he first undertook the task. What were these difficulties and what method did the editor adopt to overcome them?


Anyone who examines the Gra's commentary to the Shulchan Arukh in a superficial manner will notice a striking characteristic: "likkutim" ("selections"). After the Gra explains a particular ruling of the Shulchan Arukh, we are likely to find an additional passage which includes a comment on the same ruling, which is introduced by the word "likkut." Sometimes there is more than one such passage. Usually, there are significant differences between the initial passage and the likkutim.


How did these likkutim come into being? R. Israel relates that the Gra had first composed a commentary that followed the order of the Shulchan Arukh, paragraph after paragraph, in four volumes. Afterwards, however, the Gra continued to examine the material and expand upon his commentary, this time not in accordance with the order of the Shulchan Arukh. R. Israel found the results of this re-examination – which the Gaon himself called "likkutim" – recorded in three volumes. According to R. Israel, these likkutim comprise three "editions." That is to say, the Gra may possibly have returned to any particular halakha one, two or even three times, in order to add proofs, sources, discussion or a decision regarding a dispute between authorities, when in the previous edition the law remained in doubt.


This explains the phenomenon of the likkutim, but we must now pay attention to another point: In the Gra's commentary to Orach Chayyim, as it is printed before us, and as opposed to the other parts of his commentary – there are no likkutim at all! This does not stem from the fact that the Gra did not write likkutim on Orach Chayyim. Indeed, he authored such likkutim, but the editor, R. Israel of Shklov, thought that it would be inappropriate to bring before those studying the Gra's Torah a commentary which is in effect a patchwork. He writes as follows:


This was my entire effort, to order them in proper manner, and to connect each one to its proper place, and that it should be as if they were said at one time. For they were greatly scattered in these editions. God has seen my afflictions and my efforts in all my toils, until I published this book, and I joined them one to the next. I had so much work with this that I am unable to spell it out…


Together with his desire to join all of the Gra's teachings in one integrated work, R. Israel tells us that he was exceedingly careful to report his teacher's words with precision:


I further put myself under a heavy yoke, to stand guard while editing this holy book, to protect it from all impurity and error. For owing to the great profundity of his golden language, a mistake like a spider web will cause harm like a cart rope,[2] distorting the final intention of our master the author. I entered into this with all my might, proofreading it three or four times, and then examining once again the commentary of the Gaon, of blessed memory. I found no rest from this work, night or day, I toiled in the work for the sake of heaven. My other fixed studies I set aside, placing my efforts exclusively in these analyses. I greatly feared for the honor of our great teacher, and was exceedingly cautious not to change a single letter of his golden language.


            R. Israel saw no contradiction at all between the extreme caution that he took in order to present a precise reproduction of the original, and his daring plan to turn the various versions of the Gra's commentary into a single, unified work. Indeed, he ends by saying:


I toiled to join together the various versions, making sure that the seams between them not be evident, to the point that nobody would have known about the different versions, had I not mentioned them.


            R. Israel could not have been any more explicit. He wanted the student to receive the text of the Gra's commentary without "seams," in such a way that he would never have imagined that the editor had made any changes or additions, or sensed that the Gra's commentary to the Shulchan Arukh had been written in layers.


            At the end of this introduction, alongside his words of gratitude to God for having privileged him to be a disciple of the Gra, R. Israel expresses his hope and intention to continue the project with the other sections of the Shulchan Arukh.


            This hope, however, was never realized. In Yoreh De'ah, which was published three years later in Horodna, we find the Gra's commentary in the format familiar to us with the "likkutim." This volume was brought to press by another disciple of the Gra who lived in Shklov and was older than R. Israel – R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov. It would seem that the Gra's disciples who had accepted the responsibility of publishing their master's writings decided not to continue with R. Israel's editing policy, and together with the change in policy, the editor himself was replaced.


A harsh and unequivocal proof of the dissatisfaction with the work of R. Israel may be found in the introduction written by the Gra's sons to their father's commentary on Orach Chayyim. We noted in the past that the Gra's sons exploited the opportunity to publish a general appreciation of their father's heroic personality. In the framework of this account, they provided a list of the names of the Gra's most outstanding disciples. The name of R. Israel of Shklov, who had deeply invested of himself in order to publish the Gra's commentary to Orach Chayyim, is missing from the list. Dr. Aryeh Morgenstern was undoubtedly right when he referred to this omission as "embarrassing."


How are we to understand this dissatisfaction with R. Israel's work? It is possible that there were places where one might have argued with the way that the editor combined the various versions into a single work. R. Israel's decision sometimes reflected an understanding that was questionable, or even wrong, in the opinion of other authoritative disciples of the Gra. But more fundamental, perhaps, was their aversion - or at least after the fact regret – to tampering with the words of the Gra, and changing their form according to the understanding of the editor, even if the change is correct. As the years passed following the death of the Gra, many wanted to publish his teachings, and the fear of imprecise or incorrect citations grew. The Gra's close disciples, and especially his sons, made great efforts to preserve control over the Gra's writings and their publication, but they were not always successful. Bestowing official support to a new edition of such a central work like the Gra's commentary to the Shulchan Arukh, was liable to further stir up passions and make it all the more difficult to impose restraints on the posthumous publication of the Gaon's teachings.




            Let us now move on from the story of the editing and publishing of the Gra's commentary to the Shulchan Arukh to the essence of the commentary itself. What exactly was the Gra's goal when he composed this work? The Gra clearly invested great effort in it, which found expression in the great number of versions. What did he wish to accomplish with this project?


            To answer this question, let us go back once again to the introduction of R. Chayyim of Volozhin. R. Chayyim devotes his opening words to the importance of being meticulous about the full and precise fulfillment of Halakha. These comments are directed toward the controversy with the Chassidim, and present the gist of R. Chayyim's position which would later be spelled out in detail in his Nefesh ha-Chayyim. As opposed to other Mitnagdim, R. Chayyim presents a dialectic position. He does not reject the values of inner service of God advocated by the Chassidim, but he criticizes the preference that they give to these values over the values of Torah study and observance of its commandments. R. Chayyim agrees that purity of thought is indeed an important value, but it is impossible to ascend to the highest rungs of inner service, while skipping over the more basic levels of proper halakhic observance. Thus, it is right to see halakhic meticulousness as the most important element.


            Emphasizing the place of Halakha explains the considerable attention that the Gra paid to the Shulchan Arukh. But if fell upon R. Chayyim not only to explain the very importance of Halakha, but also to clarify what precisely it was that the Gra did to glorify it. The answer is that the Gra's enterprise was a joining of Torah study, which is the central value in the life of a Jew, to the study and observance of Halakha.


            Why did the Gra undertake this project; why was it necessary? In order to explain this, R. Chayyim establishes an important – and truth be said, surprising - guiding principle. The surprise lies in the fact that R. Chayyim is famous for spreading the idea of "Torah for its own sake," that is to say, studying Torah for the very purpose of understanding the Torah, and not for the sake of any other goal. Here, however, in his introduction to the Gra's commentary to the Shulchan Arukh, he writes: "This is the totality of the fruit of Talmud study – to derive from it the law to be observed in practice."


            There are two sides to this principle. On the one hand, from the perspective of Talmud study, the central goal of Talmud study is halakhic decision-making. On the other hand, from the perspective of Halakha, it is supposed to be decided from the Talmud itself, and not from halakhic codes that arrange the practical conclusions in a way that is convenient for the reader. Such codes were indeed written by the great halakhic authorities, the Shulchan Arukh being the prime example. But these works were written only because there was no alternative, as the leaders of the nation saw "that few are the elite who sail upon the sea of the Talmud and find in it every case… Those who can rule (on practical matters) from the Talmud have dwindled."


            This course adopted by the halakhic codifiers was necessary, but it also had detrimental effects. For many, the availability of halakhic codes made the study of the sources superfluous:


Many have cast off from themselves the yoke of studying the Talmud in order to derive the laws from it, saying that study for practical purposes is exclusively the study of the Shulchan Arukh. And even if they learn Gemara, they do so only to sharpen the mind. And some have abandoned the Talmud altogether, contenting themselves solely with the study of the Shulchan Arukh. This is not the straight path…


            R. Chayyim complains about the separation between Halakha and the study of the sources. He criticizes the idea that Halakha should be studied from halakhic codes, and that Gemara is studied "to sharpen the mind." In essence, R. Chayyim finds fault with what is accepted today as "analytical, yeshiva-style" study, and advocates study aimed at deriving practical Halakha from the sources. Today such an approach is prevalent in the Sefardic Yeshivot, Rav Ovadya Yosef, shelita, being one of its greatest protagonists. A similar approach was accepted in certain Mussar circles in Eastern Europe. In traditional Lithuanian Yeshivot, however, any study seeking halakhic conclusions was regarded as inferior to "pure" Torah study.


            In any event, according to R. Chayyim, the Gra's goal in writing his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh was to restore the connection between normative Halakha and Torah study. From now on, when one studies the Halakha in the Shulchan Arukh, he can simultaneously examine its sources in the Gemara and the rest of rabbinic literature, as understood by the Rishonim. As a result, we will no longer observe a particular halakha because so it is written in the Shulchan Arukh, but because so it emerges from the talmudic passage and the discussion of the Rishonim. From now on, it became possible for everyone to reach a point that his halakhic conduct was based on "the source." This goal accords with the Gra's general approach, as we have often seen in the past.


            Now that we have explained the goal of the Gra's commentary, we must still examine the Gra's methodology. In particular, we must ask whether the Gra was in fact the first to clarify the sources of the Shulchan Arukh's rulings? Specifically, was this not the objective of the Beit Yosef on the Tur?




            With this question lingering, this series of shiurim on the Gra and his heritage will go out for a break. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you when it will resume. Certain areas in the Gra's teachings have not yet been treated at length; in particular, his fight against the Chassidim and his messianic thought. In any event, I hope to find the opportunity to continue our meetings with this heroic figure and his disciples.


            I wish to offer special thanks for the comments and questions that I have received from you, my dear readers, over the course of the year. Your letters have taught me that this study fills an important need. May we benefit from the Gaon's merits, and may we learn from him the values of devotion, intellectual honesty, cleaving to the Torah and serving God.


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] From a historical perspective, the tradition apparently relates to Avner of Burgos, a Jewish convert to Christianity and missionary activist. He lived in the generation following the Ramban, but does not appear to have been one of his disciples.

[2] "Woe to them that draw iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart rope" (Yeshaya 5:18). The metaphor means that a minor error, as fine as the web, ends up creating great misunderstanding.