Shiur #08: The Vilna Gaon as Halakha's Guardian

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein

            At the end of the last shiur we distinguished between two aspects of the Gra's enterprise in his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh and his meticulous search for the source of every halakha. Anchoring a law in a primary source has, of course, an epistemological dimension: clarifying the halakhic truth. According to the Gra, locating a law's source in the words of Chazal is the surest, if not the exclusive way of ascertaining the reliability of the ruling. However, establishing the source of the law has a much broader phenomenological meaning. We are dealing with a fundamental perspective on the observance of Halakha and serving God. God is worshipped through a connection to the Torah which has reached us via the sanctified sources of the Written and Oral Law. This connection finds expression in the way we clarify the ruling, but the need for it is a more general matter. The laws of the Torah are but details of the actions, the frameworks and the ways by which this connection is achieved. This aspect of Halakha is more important than spontaneous service, religious feeling and even scholarly reasoning, which originate in "a stirring from below," and to which is assigned only secondary place. Hence the Gra's reservations regarding certain widespread customs, which take mitzvaacts (e.g., reading the Haggada) and apply them in circumstances never dreamed of by pure Halakha, based on some positive religious sentiment. Hence also the Gra's preference that a person integrate his personal petitions into the framework of the standard prayers, and his belief that this framework enhances one's personal petitions.


This impression is reinforced also by other issues that we have discussed. Regarding the reading of the Megillot, we saw how as an outcrop of his defense of the customary practice of reciting a blessing before reading the Megillot, the Gra effectively changed the fundamental nature of the reading, and turned it into a public reading from a parchment scroll. The innovation here reached the point that a Shehecheyanu blessing was attached to this reading, something which is not mentioned anywhere in the halakhic tradition prior to the Vilna Gaon. On the face of it, it would seem that this type of innovation is completely out of character for the Gra. But in fact, the Gra's objective is transparent, and it accords perfectly with his principles. The reading of the Megillot should not be seen merely as a customary practice, a kind of a grassroots initiative which acquired a place in the liturgy, for the legitimacy of such a practice is in doubt. Surely, the Gra opposed adding psalms to the prayer book, including those whose recitation is very widespread today, like the reading of Le-David Hashem Ori during the month of Elul, or LaMenatze'ach in a house of mourning.[1] Therefore, if the Megillot are to be read in the synagogue, this should only be done in adherence to fixed halakhic parameters.


The Gra believed that this reading must accord with the official patterns instituted by Chazal for the reading of Megillot, which can be found in the laws of Purim. The book of Esther, despite its halakhic uniqueness in comparison to the rest of the Megillot,[2] is not fundamentally different from the other Megillot. It is one representative of a particular genre of biblical books, i.e., the Megillot, which are meant to be read in public in their entirety.[3] If we study the laws of public Megilla reading, and think that they were stated only in the framework of the observance of Purim, we are wrong in our understanding. Megilla reading is a general enactment embracing all the Megillot, even Ruth and Kohelet. Therefore the blessing recited over the reading of the book of Esther is "al Mikra Megilla" ("about the reading of the Megilla"), a general formulation that is appropriate for all of the Megillot.


This example is consistent with the general view of the Vilna Gaon, that the service of God is performed primarily and at its best in a well-rooted halakhic context, in accordance with the forms of defined mitzvot. Sometimes this will lead to a rejection of customs that were established without regard for the sources. Other times it will lead to the opposite result - a new interpretation of what had appeared to be an initiative without any precedent. This interpretation will reveal in surprising manner that in fact we are dealing with an element of an ancient enactment with a respected place in the tradition of the Sages of the Oral Law. This was the case with the practice concerning the Megillot.


Integration versus Preserving Boundaries


Thus far we have seen that the dichotomy of observing Halakha in fixed forms as opposed to spontaneous deviation from them is a problem that occupied the Vilna Gaon in several contexts. His guiding principle is the priority given to Halakha that is rooted in sources. Wherever feasible, the Gra resolved the dilemma through the integration of personal service into fixed frameworks.


However, a different angle on this struggle rises from the Gra's treatment of the issue of piyyutim. In light of what was said above, there would have been room to require that the piyyutim be included in the body of the blessings. The Vilna Gaon, however, opposed such a step, based on his assessment that this solution was not applicable. Were we to try here as well to include spontaneous service within the limits of binding Halakha, the gain would be outweighed by the loss. The integration of the impressive additions of the paytanim, which derive from unrestrained artistic freedom, into the fixed formulas of the prayers would have changed these formulas beyond recognition. In fact, the fixed formula would have lost its identity as a binding framework. Therefore, the need to preserve the framework demands "border control," and it is inevitable that some of those applying "to enter" will be turned away.


The extent and manner in which the integrations are created are determined by the Halakha itself. There is an accepted way to integrate one's personal contribution into the liturgy: between the Sim shalom blessing and the Yiheyu le-ratzon passage. But one must nevertheless be careful about exceptions; even when it is possible to issue a permit – "one who shortens is praiseworthy."


In this spirit, let us add one more comment about the Elokai netzor passage. The Gra approved of integrating personal prayer into a fixed halakhic framework, but nevertheless here too he stands guard in the opposite direction – he tries to prevent inserting a personal prayer into the fixed liturgy. In his commentary to the Mishna, Shenot Eliyahu, he writes:


One is forbidden to direct his prayer at his own needs; rather one must pray that all of Israel should reach absolute perfection… but not for himself. Rather he should pray for himself in Elokai netzor, for the Elokai netzor prayer is for himself.  (Shenot Eliyahu, Berakhot 5:1)


Despite the positive element of joining personal petitions to the Amida prayer, one must be careful to combine the two in the only correct manner, namely, by adding the personal petitions after the Sim shalom blessing. As with respect to the piyyutim, the Gra maintains that inserting personal petitions into the body of binding prayer (and here we are dealing at the level of intention, without any change of the text) is a breach of the boundaries of prayer that impairs its integrity. Personal petitions must, on the one hand, be linked to the Amida prayer, but, on the other hand, they must remain separate and distinct from it.[4]


Barukh Hu u-varukh Shemo


The need to preserve a pure halakhic framework brought the Gra to oppose other additions as well. The Shulchan Arukh rules that one who hears the name of God mentioned in the context of a blessing should recite: Barukh Hu u-Varukh Shemo (Orach Chayyim 124:5). This practice is not found in the Talmud, and is first mentioned in a responsum of the Rosh:


And I heard from my father, of blessed memory,[5] that he would say after each and every blessing that he heard everywhere: Barukh Hu u-Varukh Shemo. This is what Moshe said: "When I call upon the name of the Lord, ascribe greatness to our God" (Devarim 32:3). And furthermore, even when mention is made of a righteous man of flesh and flood, one must bless him, as it is stated: "The mention of the righteous is blessed" (Mishlei 10:7). (Responsa ha-Rosh, 4, 19)


The Tur cites his father's responsum, and it is the words of the Tur that turned what started out as a pious act of a great Torah scholar into a common halakhic norm. How did the Gra respond to this development? In his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh (ad loc.) he cites the Gemara that apparently served as the source of the Rosh's practice:


Rabbi [Yehuda HaNasi] said: "When I call upon the name of the Lord, ascribe greatness to our God" – Moshe said to Israel: When I mention the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, you ascribe greatness [to Him]. Chananya the son of the brother of Rabbi Yehoshua said: "The mention of the righteous is blessed" – the prophet said to Israel: When I

mention the Righteous one of all worlds – you give a blessing. (Yoma 37a)


But the Gemara does not derive from here a halakhathat one must say: Barukh Hu u-Varukh Shemo, and therefore the Gra concludes: "See the Tur," that is to say: See the Tur who took this additional step.


In any event, what the Gra apparently means to say is that the custom has a source, and therefore it is "approved." However, we learn from Ma'aseh Rav (43) that the Gra opposed the congregation's recitation of Barukh Hu u-Varukh Shemo during the cantor's repetition of the Amida service, this being against the implied position of the Rosh, the Tur and the Shulchan Arukh.[6] It says there as follows:


To follow the cantor's prayer from a Siddur, and to respond with Amen after every blessing, and not to be particular about Barukh Hu uVarukh Shemo, because the cantor does not wait until the people have finished [reciting those words]and one forfeits the [cantor's] repetition of the prayer.


According to this, each individual is obligated to listen to every blessing and to respond with Amen. One who is particular about saying Barukh Hu uVarukh Shemo is liable to miss hearing the entire prayer, because the cantor will continue with the blessing while the congregation is still reciting its line, so that they will not hear all of the blessing. The Tosefet Ma'aseh Rav (ad loc.) cites another, more fundamental reason in the name of the Gra, namely, that the words Barukh Hu uVarukh Shemo constitute an interruption, and the congregation must respond with Amen to the blessings that are recited properly, without additions. Once again we see that a statement of praise, which expresses proper religious feeling, is rejected because it does not really belong in the context in which it is recited: in our case, in the Amida prayer.


Bowing down in Kaddish


The Gra also struggled to preserve the form of the liturgy in connection with the custom of bowing down during the recitation of Kaddish. The Tur writes as follows:


As for the number of bowings in the Kaddish,Rav Nachshon writes that four of them are obligatory, and one is optional. Yitgadel ve-yitkadash – and he bows; Ba'agala u-vizman kariv. Yehe shemei rabba – and he bows; Yitbarach shemei de-kudesha berikh Hu – and he bows; Ve-yitaleh ve-yitpa'ar – and he bows; these are obligatory. Oseh shalom bi-meromav – and he bows; this is optional. The five bowings correspond to the five [Divine] names in the verse: "From the rising of the sun to its setting" (Tehilim 113:3). (Orach Chayyim 56)


The Beit Yosef deals with the manner of these bowings, but does not question the practice itself. As stated by the Tur, the custom has no source in the words of Chazal, but rather it rests on the authority of Rav Nachshon.


Nevertheless, the Gemara does discuss the matter of bowings in the Amida prayer. We learn from this discussion about the obligation to bow down at certain fixed points in the prayer, alongside reservations about doing so at other points:


Our Rabbis taught: These are the blessings during the saying of which one bows [in the Amida prayer]: The blessing of the Patriarchs, at the beginning and at the end, and the thanksgiving blessing, at the beginning and at the end. If one wants to bow down at the end of each blessing and at the beginning of each blessing, he is instructed not to do so…

But it has been taught: To bow in the thanksgiving blessing is reprehensible — that refers to the thanksgiving in Hallel. But it has been taught: To kneel in the thanksgiving blessing and in the thanksgiving blessing of Hallel is reprehensible? The former statement refers to the thanksgiving in the Grace after Meals. (Berakhot 34a-b)


The Gemara's remarks indicate that there are places in the Amida prayer where one should bow down, and other places where it is preferable that one not do so, and there is even something reprehensible about bowing down in those places. The reservation about unnecessary bowings has been explained in two ways: The Tosafot in Berakhot (ad loc.) explain that one should not bow down at the beginning and at the end of the other blessings, "so that he not come to uproot the words of the Sages, so that people not say that everyone is practicing stringency as he sees fit, and there is no rabbinic enactment here; and we are concerned about arrogance.


According to the Tosafot's explanation, there is something wrong in the very idea of extra bowings. Such bowings cause harm to the rabbinic enactment. If everybody bows down wherever he likes, in practice there will be no indication which bowings are obligatory, and this will give the impression that bowing is a matter handed over to the discretion of each and every individual. In addition, bowing down in a place where such an action is not obligatory can be seen as an act of arrogance – wrapping oneself in a mantle of demonstrative piety. According to this, there would be room to see this prohibition regarding bowing as a blanket prohibition.


However, regarding the "reprehensibility" of bowing down in the thanksgiving blessing in Hallel or in the thanksgiving blessing in the Grace after Meals, the author of the Tur (113, 4) explains that the prohibition is local. One may only bow down in a place where bowing down fits in with the content of the prayer, that is, when the person praying expresses his submission before God; but in places where he praises God without expressing feelings of submission, there is no reason to bow down. From here we see that there is no sweeping prohibition to bow down in places where Chazal did not require one to do so; it is only in specific places that bowing down is banned.


Relevant here is the famous story about Rabbi Akiva, that when he would pray alone, "a person would leave him in this corner, and find him in a different corner. All this why – because of his kneelings and bowings" (Berakhot 31a). From here too we see that there is no general prohibition against bowing down while praying. The Tosafot there raise a difficulty in light of the Talmudic reservations about unnecessary bowings. According to one answer, Rabbi Akiva only bowed down during the free supplications that are recited after the Amida prayer, but during the Amida prayer itself bowing is forbidden.


In any case, Rav Nachshon's determination requiring bowing down during the recitation of the Kaddish accords with the approach that does not reject bowings in places where Chazal did not obligate them. In contrast, in an almost expected manner, the Gra says the following in his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh:


It seems, however, that one should not bow down at all during Kaddish as one should not add to the bowings. And one should not say that since he is not in the middle of the Amida prayer, we do not care, as the Tosafot write in Berakhot 31a (that Rabbi Akiva was permitted to bow down during the supplications after the Amida prayer)… for there we are dealing with the supplications of an individual, something that was not fixed in the liturgy. But in that which was fixed, even not in the Amida prayer, one should not bow down, for even one who bows down in the thanksgiving blessing of the Grace after Meals and of Hallel is reprehensible. (Commentary of the Gra, Orach Chayyim 56)


The Vilna Gaon does not share the view of the Taz, that the prohibition of bowing down in Hallel and in the Grace after Meals is a local prohibition. In his eyes, this prohibition expresses a general rule that in the framework of the entire fixed and binding prayer service, one should not add any bowing down whatsoever. Hence, it is evident that this prohibition applies during the recitation of Kaddish as well. The allowance to bow down is valid only in the framework of personal prayers, which are not obligatory.[7]


With regard to the matter of bowing down as well, the Gra assumes the role of the "gatekeeper" who protects the paths of binding Halakha against the penetration of expressions of religious sentiment, which are liable to give reign to individual initiative rather than connect the servant of God to the Torah. Once again he creates a "sterile" area around the fixed liturgy that is clean of attempts to expand mitzvaacts beyond the defined boundaries set by the Sages.


The Form of the Gra's Commentary - a Second Look


After all of this, it is important to note that expressions of personal religious feeling are not prohibited according to the Vilna Gaon. We saw in the previous shiur that personal prayer is permitted, as a simple matter and without any limitation, outside the framework of the Amida prayer prescribed by Halakha. There is also no way to ignore the Gra's practice of reciting the piyyutim, not casually but with a proper melody and with excitement, after the conclusion of the Amida prayer. As we noted, this practice highlights a different aspect of the Gra's personality as a servant of God. But what the Gra emphasizes is the need to separate all these from the demands of the mitzvot and the Halakha, and to guard against mixing them together. In addition, it is clear that according to his spiritual and educational outlook, the connection to the world of Halakha must be dominant, because it is preferable to all personal expression stemming from man's religious world. This emphasis was adopted by the Gra's followers, even at the expense of practices that he himself performed. They felt that the focus placed on preserving the prayer as a fixed service cannot be reconciled with the recitation of piyyutim, and therefore they abandoned them.


We will end this time with two comments. Our first comment we will make by way of brief allusion. If it seems to you that what we said here is connected to the Gra's struggle against the Chassidim, you are right. We will return to this matter at some time in the future.


As for the second point, in the past we marveled about the literary from of the Gra's commentary to the Shulchan Arukh. Can shorthand, almost to the point of obscurity, be used to express a weighty Torah statement, which is supposed to influence the public? We did not provide a complete answer to this question, and now too we will not do so. At this point, however, we wish to raise another point.


Interpretation by its very nature is a project of expansion. The source being explained is short and obscure. The role of the interpreter is to clarify, to expand upon things until everything is clearly elucidated. The commentator believes that in this way he reinvigorates the source, for in the absence of human understanding, the source is static and powerless.


In contrast, for the Vilna Gaon, the world of Halakha is a specification of the supreme Torah source. An act of mitzva lives and exists in reality because it activates the source, that source that is "short," concise and specific. Its vitality is stored in that very point, even without any interpretation on our part, and therefore we are not meant to interpret it. Our goal should be to infuse life into the action – by connecting it to its source. The literary form of the Gra's commentary expresses this approach in a most precise manner.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] "… And similarly after the Aleinu passage we do not recite verses or psalms, in accordance with his view that verses and psalms should not be fixed, with the exception of the Psalm of the Day" (Ma'aseh Rav 53, 66).

[2] Primarily in that even an individual is required to read the book of Esther, in the event that he is unable to participate in a public reading; and also with regard to the principle of "publicizing the miracle," which is a key element in the observance of the mitzva.

[3] This leads to a solution of a difficulty for which I have not yet heard a convincing answer: What is unique about these five biblical books, as opposed to the rest of the biblical canon, that justifies defining them as "Megillot"? In light of what has been said, it may be suggested that the definition does not depend primarily on the books' content, for in this respect it is hard to find common ground between them. Rather it is based on their function. Like the other books of the Bible, the Megillot surely preserve historical memory and sacred thought. In addition, however, they were written from the outset in order to be read in public in their entirety, presumably at fixed or special times. This stands out with respect to the book of Esther, the circumstances of whose writing we know. The "letter of Purim" was sent out to the far reaches of the Jewish world in order to be read in public and thus spread the message of the new holiday, and not in order to be studied.  

[4] However, the matter requires further study, as this contradicts the words of the Gemara (Avoda Zara 8a) and the ruling of the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayyim 119:1), which all allow brief personal petitions in the Amidah. It is clear that the Gra does not disagree with these sources (see his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh, ad loc.).

[5] The reference here is to the Rosh's father, Rabbi Yechiel. The Chida writes in Birkei Yosef, in the name of Sefer Charedim, that the custom has a source in the Midrash, but I was unable to find it.

[6] For section 124 in the Tur and the Shulchan Arukh, where this ruling is found, deals exclusively with the cantor's repetition of the Amida service.

[7] According to the Gra, thought must be given to the other instances where we today bow down, e.g., for Borkhu, or during the Aleinu passage.