Separation from the Worldly (Perishut)

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


By Rav Elyakim Krumbein





            "To each his own Gra." We often hear similar declarations made about prominent personalities, whose greatness is multi-faceted, and who attracted a diversified group of followers, and thus impacted upon many different circles. The life of each individual influenced by the notable leader revolves around a particular element, one novel and creative aspect of that personage. I connect with a leader through that which for me has existential importance; all the rest "speaks" to me less, if at all. We have already noted the self awareness (in itself praiseworthy) on the part of talmidim at Vololzhin of the fact that they omitted the element of "piety" from the image of the Gra that they projected, because it was more convenient for them to think of him exclusively as the "Gaon."


            And so, to each his own Gra, and the present author is no exception. It is, however, important to broaden one's perspective and try to understand the Gaon of Vilna as he was; to trace those traits which for various reasons we may have decided not to emulate, and to familiarize ourselves with aspects of his personality that might be inspiring – but "from a distance." Having opened the door, we might choose an even more daring path and prepare ourselves to examine characteristics that are not only far from us, but even evoke in us a sense of strangeness or puzzlement. We will then consider that side of him that we may find incomprehensible, a riddle that hovers over him. The magnitude of the Gra's personality include these aspects as well.




            The Gra was famous for his perishut. The importance of this quality in the Gra's legacy stands out, for example, in the designation that stuck to the community of his followers who immigrated to Eretz Israel and settled in Safed and Jerusalem: the community of "Perushim."


            What is "perishut"? The traditional mussar literature that advocated the cultivation of this quality defined its parameters and the ways of its attainment. The author of the Mesilat Yesharim speaks of the three components of perishut:


There is separateness relating to pleasure, separateness relating to ritual law, and separateness relating to [social] conduct….

Separateness relating to pleasure… taking from the world no more than what necessity requires.

Separateness in the realm of the laws consists of being unfailingly stringent in their observance, taking into consideration even a lone dissenting view3 even though it has not been accepted as authoritative.

Separateness in [social] conduct consists in seclusion10 and separation from civil society in order to direct one’s heart to Divine service and the proper understanding of same….


            Among the three, the Gra emphasized the third component – separateness in social conduct. His sons, who authored the introduction to his commentary on the Shulchan Arukh, speak there from personal experience about their father's noteworthy perishut. From his youth he was accustomed to learn in seclusion in the forests, and nobody knew where to find him, except for his wife, who brought him food. For several years he went into "exile," wandering incognito through eastern and central Europe. Even after he returned home, he never inquired about his children's welfare, and never wrote to them even when they lived far away so that he didn't see them for long periods of time. All this – so as not to neglect his Torah study. His daughter who had already buried several children came to him during one of her pregnancies so that he might pray on behalf of the child she was carrying. The Gaon answered her briefly, advised her what to do so that the child should live (give the child a new first name, and as a second name the name of one of his brothers who had died), and returned to his studies without engaging with her in an extended conversation.


            We may understand from here that the Gra's motivation in separating himself from worldly life, including natural social contact, was the aim of Torah study. This understanding is confirmed by the following story: The Gra's nephew arrived in Vilna in the wake of his search after certain expensive silver articles that his wife had brought as her dowry from her father's house, but had been stolen shortly after their marriage. He went into his uncle to inquire about his wellbeing, and told him about his affairs. The Gaon expressed his amazement - how it could be that a member of his family would neglect Torah study in order to restore lost articles. Seeing the extent to which the Gra was concerned about neglecting Torah study, it is easy to understand his reservations about cultivating social connections.


            This also follows from the way the Gra defines "devarim beteilim" ("vain words"), as reported by R. Chayyim of Volozhin who heard this from the mouth of the Gra himself:[1]


Our master said that everything is included, except for what is needed for business, or to respond out of honor, and it good to distance oneself even from this, that he should signal that he cannot interrupt his studies, and we are not concerned about arrogance.


            That is to say, even with respect to a person who must be shown honor, it is preferable that one politely and tersely "signal" (in as few words as possible) that he is engaged in Torah study. The Gra assures us that such conduct is not tainted with arrogance. R. Chayyim continues:


I asked him whether there is any allowance or room for leniency, and did he really mean a strict prohibition. And he answered that there is no room for any allowance, and that careful attention is required so that the his yetzer not "show" him that there is an allowance…


            It may be understood from here that the Gaon was aware of the difficulty in maintaining such a level of perishut, and that it requires "careful attention" against the wiles of the yetzer. He would guide and encourage his disciples to adhere to this approach. He advised one of them to stand firm in his position: "He who is stubborn will succeed." He further proposed that one study "in a distant place so that he not be troubled by the members of his household."[2]


            The Gra's minimization of his contact with his family went beyond conversation and show of interest, and touched upon even more concrete needs. The Gra based himself on the words of Chazal in tractate Eiruvin (21a), who expounded the verse in Shir Ha-shirim, "His locks are wavy, and black as a raven":


With whom do you find [words of Torah…. Rabba said: [You find these only] with him who for their sake blackens his face like a raven. Rava said: With him who can bring himself to be cruel to his children and household like a raven, as was the case with Rav Adda bar Matana. He was about to go away to the beit midrash, when his wife said to him: What shall I do with your children? He said to her: Are there no more herbs in the marsh?


            Rav Adda expected from his wife that she should feed her children with herbs from the marsh, before he abandon his studies so that he be able to provide for his family. The maintenance of Torah scholars and their families is likened here to the situation of young ravens, which are not fed by their parents, as Rashi explains, following Chazal, the verse: "He gives to the beast its food, and to the young ravens which cry" (Tehilim 147:9):


To the young ravens – Our Rabbis have explained that it is cruel to its young (i.e. doesn't feed them), and the Holy One, blessed be He, has mercy upon them, and prepares bugs from their feces, and they enter their mouths.


            The Gra praises this quality in his commentary to Mishlei (23:30):


A man of valor is one who is mighty of heart with perfect trust to perform mitzvot at all times and to meditate upon the Torah day and night, even though there is no food or clothing in his house, and his children and the members of his household cry out to him: Provide us with our support and maintenance. And he does not heed them at all, or listen to their cries. As it says: "Black as a raven," that he makes himself cruel to his children… For he sacrifices all his loves, for the love of God, His Torah and His commandments.


            According to the testimony of his disciple, the author of "Pe'at ha-Shulchan," the Gra himself found himself in such a situation. It happened that one of the trustees who was supposed to transfer to him a fixed allowance from the community, took the money for himself:


The Gaon did not tell anybody, and he suffered such great poverty to the point that his righteous wife and their young children lacked food to eat, and she appeared before him and he ordered her to go with her young children to his neighbors at meal time, and it is the way of children to ask for food when they see other people eating and they will give them [to eat]. And he did not want to reveal the matter that his maintenance had been cut off, owing to his perfect trust, and so that nobody be embarrassed on his account, until the trustee took ill, and was about to die, and he confessed before all that for several years he did not give the Gra his allowance, and the trustee died. And for something like this, one may call our master pious and holy…


            It is difficult not to raise moral questions about such conduct. Is this the way a person should relate to his responsibility to provide for his wife and children? Do the values of trust in God and constancy in Torah study make such demands?[3] The traditional halakhic sources do not recommend such behavior. The Rambam omits the precedent of Rav Adda bar Matana in the relevant place in Hilkhot Talmud Torah (3:12):


The words of Torah will not be permanently acquired by a person who applies himself feebly [to obtain] them, and not by those who study amid pleasure and [an abundance] of food and drink. Rather, one must give up his life for them, constantly straining his body to the point of discomfort, without granting sleep to his eyes or slumber to his eyelids. The Sages alluded to this concept, [interpreting Bemidbar 19:14:] "This is the Torah, a man should he die in a tent..." [to mean that] the Torah cannot be permanently acquired except by a person who gives up his life in the tents of wisdom….


            Mastery of Torah requires that a person make great demands of himself, but there is no mention here of disregarding his obligations to his family. The Rambam expects a Torah scholar to support himself from the labor of his hands (ibid. 11):


All Torah that is not accompanied by work will eventually be negated and lead to sin. Ultimately, such a person will steal from others.


            The Rema also discusses the livelihood of Torah scholars (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De'a 246:21):


… He should make Torah his principal occupation and his work his casual one. He should minimize his business pursuits and occupy himself with Torah. And he should remove fleeting pleasures from his heart, and work each day enough to maintain himself, if he otherwise has not what to eat, and the rest of the day and night, he should occupy himself with Torah. It is a great virtue to maintain oneself from one's own efforts… All this holds in the case of a healthy person who can engage a little in work or worldly occupation and maintain himself. But an elderly or sick person is permitted to benefit from his Torah and have others provide for him. And some say that even in the case of a healthy person, this is permitted….


            The question is whether a person is obligated to work, or whether he is permitted to live off of others who are prepared to support him. In any event, there is no indication here that one is permitted to ignore the need to deal with the issue, and that one may rely on Providence to find a solution, in the manner of "the raven's young." But according to the Gra, the test of one's love of God, His Torah and His mitzvot is whether it overpowers the letter of the law, as codified in the Shulchan Arukh.[4]


            Even if we set aside the problematic family dynamics and go back to the strict demands that the Gra placed upon himself, it is easy to identify with the sense of astonishment that took hold of his disciples. R. Avraham Simcha of Amtzislov relates what he heard from his uncle, R. Chayyim of Volozhin.[5] R. Chayyim once arrived in Vilna on a Friday, and the Gra's attendant urgently summoned him to his master's house. When he arrived, he found the Gra in deep distress:


His countenance was darker than black and his head was heavy for him, wrapped in a kerchief. Our master of blessed memory said to him: Please, save me, so that I may understand a certain matter in the Yerushalmi with which I am having difficulty and which I cannot understand. My uncle answered saying: How am I to understand that with which our master is having difficulty. He answered him with these words: Nevertheless two [heads] are better than one. And my uncle delved into the problem, came up with a way to understand the matter, and shared it with our master, of blessed memory: I see the beginning of an approach to understand the matter and our master will finish it to completion. And as soon as he began to present his understanding, our master's face lit up and he filled with joy and immediately removed the kerchief around his head and ordered his attendant to bring him a little food.


            R. Chayyim didn't understand why his master asked to eat, and so he asked the members of his family to explain the matter. They answered that this was already the third day that food had not touched his lips.


            Thus far we have seen the Gra's perishut, which was primarily social, as part of his extraordinary diligence. The truth, however, is that his social perishut was important to him from other perspectives as well. This may be learned, for example, from a famous personal letter of his that was printed many times and was given the name "Alim li-Terufa" ("Pages Bearing a Remedy"). The letter under discussion was written while the Gra was on his way to Eretz Israel (the shores of which he never reached), and it contains moral guidelines for his wife and family. Here is a citation from the letter:[6]


The principal safeguard is seclusion, that you should not, God forbid, leave the house, save for some exceedingly great need… And even in the synagogue you should be very short and leave quickly. It is better to pray at home, for in the synagogue it is impossible to be saved from envy, and from hearing vain talk and gossip, and one is punished for this. And all the more so on Shabbat and Yom Tov when people gather together to talk… It is better not to pray at all.


            The admonition "not to leave the house," when directed at a woman, is certainly not based on the consideration of diligence in Torah study. As the Gaon notes, society poses a spiritual danger, filled with the stumbling blocks of idle gossip and evil character traits. Secluding oneself in the confines of one's home can shield a person from these calamities.




            Perishut, however, is liable to exact a price. One who secludes himself is likely to be spared the damaging influence of others, but on the other hand, the possibility of having a positive effect on the public is limited. Two stories about R. Yaakov Krantz, the "Maggid of Dubnow," who was close to the Gaon, touch upon this matter. According to the first story, which I heard on a number of occasions, but the source of which I have been unable to locate, the Gaon asked the Maggid to rebuke him. The Maggid did as requested by his master, and told him that while he reached great heights by virtue of his seclusion, by doing so he withheld his good from the community at large. The real challenge, the Maggid continued, is to integrate into society, and nevertheless maintain one's personal spiritual level. It is related that the Gra was moved to tears by the Maggid's words, but he claimed that he had no choice, because he was truly concerned that a change in his lifestyle might lead him to ruin.


            According to a different story – one that seems to be more authoritative – the Maggid asked the Gaon on his own initiative, what is the recommended way to impact upon the generation. It is reasonable to assume that the Maggid was referring to the special significance that such a question bears when directed at the Gaon of Vilna: You who are the light of the generation, but nevertheless hardly ever leave the walls of your bet midrash - how do you mean to leave your mark on the Jewish people? Does not your absolute perishut jeopardize the legacy that you will leave for posterity? The Gaon replied with a parable. Imagine for yourself a tall glass encircled by shorter glasses, at a lower level in relation to the glass in the center, and around all of them a circle of even shorter glasses. When the glass in the center fills up and spills over, the other glasses automatically "drink" from it, first the inner circles and then the outer circle. When a leader fills himself with Torah and holiness, he need not move from his place, for his influence reaches all the members of his generation on its own, in ever expanding circles.


            Did this theory work? In hindsight, it is impossible to deny that the Gra had an enormous impact despite his seclusion. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that several of his most important disciples, and their disciples as well, who disseminated his teachings to the wider public, did not cling to perishut to such an extent. Several of them held public office as Rabbis and Maggidim. R. Chayyim of Volozhin, who established "the mother of the Yeshivot," served in the Rabbinate and was involved in public affairs. He did not content himself with a close circle of select disciples, as did his master, but rather he personally disseminated his teachings, even among regular people. Active dissemination of Torah was an important ideal in the philosophy of the yeshiva headed by R. Chayyim, and he trained his most promising disciples to take this mission upon themselves. The Gra's disciples who drove the aliya movement to Eretz Israel, e.g. R. Israel and R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, were active community leaders, in addition to their Torah greatness. It stands to reason that the preservation of the Gaon's legacy for future generations did not rely exclusively on the parable of the glasses, but rather it was supported by ardent and thought-out public activism.


We have here learned about aspects of the Gra's personality that emphasize the distance between him and us: love of Torah that recognizes no boundaries, uncompromising clinging to study that gave the Gaon the appellation that was used by R. Chayyim of Volozhin and R. Israel of Shklov – "like an angel who stands and serves in Heaven." When we saw what the Gra was prepared to do in order to support this achievement, the ramifications for his own life and that of his family, this caused us to go back and examine our own attitudes on the matter. It is fitting to cite here the words of R. Avraham Kook in the biography that he wrote of his father-in-law, R. Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Teomim, called "Eder Ha-yakar." Rav Kook writes that knowing the biography of a righteous might have two possible benefits. The first benefit is practical – when a person sees the ways of a great Torah scholar, he might attempt to adopt them, if only in part, in order to raise himself to a higher level. The second benefit is more "intellectual":


The intellectual benefit is the greatness of the soul which grows with every vision lofty and glorious in holiness that stands before it, for the great spectacle itself raises the spirit and ennobles the heart, even if one cannot even imagine adopting practical measures to liken oneself to what is far raised up and elevated above him.


In the presence of a vision of a giant in spirit, the soul expands and enlarges. In our particular case, we are challenged by a personality who is shrouded in mystery and wrapped in riddles, and it may be presumed that the Gra's close disciples were no less challenged. This did not stop them from expressing their admiration and wonder with respect to this greatness that came into the world, greatness that attests to the greatness of the Torah, its perfection and its Divine source. It would be no exaggeration if the sense of amazement that rises from the accounts of the Gra's disciples would remind us of Israel's assembly at the foot of Mount Sinai, when they witnessed the Divine word reaching Moshe, and this served as the basis for the belief in the Torah in future generations ("they will also believe in you for ever"). As is known, Moshe himself led a life of abstinence which sometimes jarred those who were close to him. Perhaps the purpose of all the anomalies that we encountered in relation to the Gaon was to reenact in miniature the reality of "as for you, stand here with me[7]," with absolute separation and perishut, in order to give the Torah to Israel.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] Keter Rosh, 70.

[2] Ibid. 51-52.

[3] Not to mention the difficulty in understanding his giving priority to the honor of the corrupt trustee over the maintenance of his wife and children who did no wrong.

[4] It might perhaps be argued that the Gra took care of his children by finding the "solution" that involved "house visits" to the neighbors. But it is difficult to belief that any court would regard such conduct as a fulfillment of the husband's obligation to maintain his wife and children. It might be added that if we have correctly assessed the situation that we are dealing here with a deviation from accepted law, it is impossible not to compare this to the attack of the Mitnagdim on the Chassidim who deviated from the accepted times of prayer, in favor of values which in their eyes justified such action.

[5] Brought in "Aliyot Eliyahu."

[6] The herein translated text is the result of comparison of various versions of this letter, which has come to us in different readings owing to the many times it was copied and published. The published Hebrew version is formulated in second person masculine, but it is commonly assumed that it was addressed to the Gra's wife, and the masculine gender represents imprecision on the part of the translator from the original Yiddish letter.

[7] Devarim 5, 27.