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Shiur 1: Returning to the Vilna Gaon

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein

            Welcome to a new series of shiurim on the legacy of the Vilna Gaon (the Gra).


Two years ago we were privileged to examine the personality and teachings of the Gra.[1] We learned that this giant of a man embodies a fascinating and challenging world that impacts upon our lives to this very day.


We studied various aspects of the Gra's legacy, including: his approach to Torah study, his unique genius, his moral teachings, his attitude toward Kabbala, his involvement in general studies, and more. We certainly did not exhaust these issues, and more importantly, we did not even begin to touch upon several other, very important questions. I am therefore pleased to invite you to continue on a journey through which we will become acquainted with this most remarkable man, who, while he was holed up in his bet midrash, and in his seclusion and withdrawal from social life, succeeded in initiating overarching processes within the Jewish people.


We will focus this year on two key issues:


1. The halakhic teachings of the Vilna Gaon: We touched upon this subject in the past, but now we will address it in a more frontal and focused manner. The Gra's halakhic approach has two poles. On the one hand, the Gaon maintained a certain scholarly approach, one that is reflected in principles, emphases and theoretical method. The other pole is the practical expression of the Gra's scholarly opinions; for the Vilna Gaon translated his theoretical approach into practical halakhic decision-making and leadership, and these he tried to instill into the public through his disciples. On both levels, the theoretical and the practical, the Gra was highly independent and influential. In our shiurim we will examine the evolution of certain issues regarding which the Gra maintained a unique halakhic view that echoes to this day. We will see what stood behind that view, and how it relates to the general approach of the Gra.


2. The Gra's struggle with the Chassidic movement: The early biographers of the Vilna Gaon tended to ignore this turbulent and difficult issue, but in recent decades it has been the subject of renewed study and research. There are different approaches to understanding the dispute, but it appears that these approaches do not contradict each other. For this reason, we will endeavor to understand the nature of the dispute from different perspectives: halakhic, educational-moral, theological and historical.


In the coming shiurim we will take into consideration the fact that two years have passed since we ended our previous study. We will from time to time refresh our memories regarding what we have already learned, and we will draw connections between the lessons of the past and the new issues before us. This will allow new readers, who did not participate in the previous series, to join this series.


I wish to mention already at this point that I will be happy to receive illuminating comments and responses from you, my readers. Much did I learn from you in the past, and some of your ideas have even been incorporated into the coming shiurim. My address: [email protected] .


The Plan for the Immediate Future


At the end of the previous series we started to examine the practical halakhic teachings of the Vilna Gaon, and as noted, the coming shiurim will be devoted to an expansion upon this topic. The two works of the Gra around which our study will be centered are his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh and Ma'ase Rav. The commentary to the Shulchan Arukh was written by the Vilna Gaon himself, the writing of the work having been completed when he was about forty years old. Ma'ase Rav, in contrast, was written by one of his disciples, and it is a collection of the Gra's actual practices. The book is based on what his disciples witnessed during a relatively late period of the Gaon's life.


What questions will we address in this framework? Our questions will relate, on the one hand, to the Gra's Torah methodology, and on the other hand, to his general outlook and fundamental approach. What was the Gra's objective in his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh, and how is it achieved? Does his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh reflect his own halakhic positions, or was it intended to explain the halakhic rulings of the Shulchan Arukh as they appeared before him? What characterizes the Gra as explicator of the Shulchan Arukh in comparison to other commentators? What is the relationship between the Gaon's phenomenal independence in Torah study, on the one hand, and submission to tradition, on the other? Along with these questions, we must assess the extent of the Gra's influence in these areas. To what extent were his practices, as well as his theoretical method, accepted? What brought about their acceptance, and what limited the scope of their influence?


Our approach to these matters will be based on examples taken from the Gra's teachings, from which we will try to learn about his position on the questions mentioned above.


We will first consider one of the Gra's novel practices, a practice that made a decisive contribution to the Ashkenazi liturgy. This issue is of great importance, and also complex, and therefore we will devote the next three shiurim to its clarification. I refer to the Gaon's position regarding piyyutim. This issue will open for us a window onto the Gra's original scholarship and his power as a halakhic decisor of recent generations, who was not afraid to pave an independent path even when it veered from the path taken by the authorities of earlier generations.


Piyyutim in the Liturgy


            The tradition of reciting piyyutim in the liturgy is ancient and distinguished. It is rooted in the period of the great paytanim living in Eretz Israel in the sixth to eight centuries. From there it spread to many different countries, and was especially well received in Ashkenaz from time immemorial.


The Ashkenazi rite of prayer which prevailed during the Gra's period in Poland and Lithuania, included piyyutim which were recited on special days – on holidays and on special Shabbatot. These piyyutim were written with the intention of being recited in the framework of communal prayer, as additions to the blessings before and after Shema and the cantor's repetition of the Amida prayer, and especially around the Kedusha.


This practice, however, did not come to be accepted without opposition. The earliest source for strong opposition to the recitation of piyyutim is the polemical letter of Pirkoy ben Baboy, a Babylonian sage from the beginning of the eighth century. In those days there was a turbulent struggle between the Torah centers of Babylonia and Eretz Israel over spiritual hegemony in the Jewish world. In his letter, Pirkoy represents the Babylonian teachings, and sharply criticizes the practices in Eretz Israel.


Pirkoy concludes from talmudic sources that anyone who adds to the liturgical formulations fixed by the Sages violates a prohibition. What is more, the recitation of piyyutim constitutes an interruption in the blessings and in the Amida prayer. In addition, Chazal established the nature and content of each unit in the liturgy, while the paytanim allowed themselves great freedom. For example, they added poetic content to the Yotzer Or blessing that deals not at all with the creation of light or the sanctity of the angels, but rather with the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt or with the special commandments of the particular holiday. Pirkoy's objections continued to be raised for centuries in the ongoing polemic about the recitation of piyyutim.


In this context, we must ask what is the position of the Gra? As we saw previously, the Gaon's fundamental outlook is that everything we do must be firmly anchored in the sources. The Gra did not accept the dictum that guided other authorities: "Go out and see what the people are doing." In his opinion, every practice – as ancient and majestic as it may be – must be rejected without hesitation, if it is found to lack talmudic, or at least midrashic foundation. This view was the prime cause of the Gra's insistence that the priestly benediction be recited every day, and his rejection of the practice to recite the Yir'u Eineinu blessing, which has no talmudic source. Accordingly, we would expect the Vilna Gaon to identify completely with the opinion that negates the recitation of piyyutim. This is a matter that must be examined: Does reality actually match our expectation?


Two main sources, which were already mentioned in our prefatory remarks, will be used to clarify this issue. The way in which the Gra analyzed the halakhic sources pertaining to this issue is found primarily in his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh. On the other hand, Ma'ase Rav describes the Gra's actual practice, as observed in real time by his disciples. The combination of the two should provide us with a complete picture of his position.


In this shiur we will focus on the first aspect - the theoretical foundation on which the Gra built his halakhic view regarding the recitation of piyyutim. How did he analyze the issue in terms of its sources? What awaits us here is a methodological revolution, one that only Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna was capable of leading.


We must preface by saying that understanding the Gra's commentary to the Shulchan Arukh, especially the longer passages, is a major and demanding challenge. His writing is allusive and concise to the extreme, and therefore the danger of error is great. But we will gird ourselves with courage and do our best, and hope that God will come to our aid.


The Prohibition to Lengthen or Shorten Blessings – What Does it Mean?


The primary source for the dispute among the Rishonim and the Posekim regarding the matter at hand is the well-known Mishna in tractate Berakhot, which refers to the blessings recited before and after the Shema:


In the morning two blessings are to be recited before it and one after it. In the evening two are recited before it and two after it, one long and one short. Where they said that a long one should be recited, it is not permitted to recite a short one; [where they ordained] a short one a long one is not permitted. [A prayer which they ordered] to be concluded [with a benediction] must not be left without such a conclusion; [one which they ordered] to be left without such a conclusion must not be concluded. (Berakhot 11a)


The Mishna limits a person's authority to change the wording of the blessings established by the Sages: One may not "lengthen" or "shorten" the fixed text. But what is meant by "lengthen" and "shorten"? Many of the early authorities (e.g., the Rashba in his novellae to Berakhot) understood these terms as code words for certain paradigms for blessings. According to the Rashba, the Sages did not make detailed demands regarding the wording of the blessings, and therefore lengthening and shortening cannot relate to the wording of the blessings. The Rashba maintains (contrary to what most of us feel today) that except for a number of basic parameters, the Sages left the formulation of the blessings and prayers in the hands of the people. The formal halakhic requirements are minimal – one must mention the basic idea of the blessing, one must use the basic formula for a blessing, which includes mention of God's name and His sovereignty, and there are also a number of local requirements explicitly mentioned by the Sages. Beyond that, the wording of the blessings and prayers is a free and open matter. The fixed formulations that we use today have the authority of custom, but they are not based on any binding enactment of the Sages.


According to this group of Rishonim, the aforementioned Mishna must be understood in light of what it says in the continuation: "[A prayer] which they ordered to be concluded [with a benediction] must not be left without such a conclusion; one which they ordered to be left without such a conclusion must not be concluded." A "long" blessing is one that opens and closes with the formula: "Blessed are You, O Lord," as opposed to a "short" blessing where that formula appears only at the beginning or only at the end. According to this, the Mishna does not prohibit lengthening the wording found in the body of the blessing; what is forbidden is changing the opening and closing formulas. In his commentary to that Mishna, the Rambam writes in a similar spirit:


Any blessing opening with "Blessed" and closing with "Blessed" is called "long," and one that is not like that is called "short." And the meaning of eino rashai is that he has no permission, that is, it is not permitted for him to do so.


            The Gra (Orach Chayyim 68, 1) cites this discussion, but afterwards brings the Rambam's ruling in Hilkhot Berakhot:


The text of all the blessings was ordained by Ezra and his court. It is not fitting to alter it, to add to it, or to detract from it. Whoever alters the text of a blessing from that ordained by the Sages is making an error. A blessing that does not include the mention of God's name and His sovereignty [over the world] is not considered a blessing unless it is recited in proximity to a blessing [which meets these criteria]. (Hilkhot Berakhot 1:5)


What is the source of the prohibition "to add to it, or to detract from it"? The Vilna Gaon points to our Mishna - this itself is the prohibition "to lengthen or to shorten," which should now be understood according to its plain sense as a general prohibition to alter the blessings with deletions or insertions.[2] This prohibition is not necessarily connected to changes in the opening and closing formulas, in contrast to what the Rambam himself writes in his commentary to that Mishna. How are we to resolve the contradiction in the words of the Rambam? The Vilna Gaon writes:


It would appear that the Rambam in his code retracted what he wrote in his commentary, and explained "to lengthen or to shorten" in the literal sense. This is what he wrote: "to add or to detract."


This question also affects our understanding of the first part of the Mishna, which says regarding the blessings recited before Shema – "one long and one short." According to the other Rishonim, this means that these blessings represent two types – one that opens and closes with "Blessed" and one that only closes with "Blessed." According to the Rambam there, the reference is to the Yotzer blessing which opens and closes with "Blessed" (long) as opposed to the Ahava blessing which only closes with "Blessed" (short). But the Gra explains the reference is to length in the literal sense – the length of the text. In this sense the Yotzer blessing is long, and the Ahava blessing is short. Below we will see the precise explanation according to the Gra.


The path taken here by the Vilna Gaon is typical of his general approach. The Gra is drawn to the magic of interpretations that are close to the plain sense of the words, since he sees this magic as a sign that the interpretation is correct. This applies to the matter of "long and short."


The Tosefta as a Key to Understanding the Meaning of "To Lengthen or to Shorten"


In his typical manner, the Gra adduces a major proof to his position from the Tosefta:


Why did they say one short [blessing]? Where they said that a long one should be recited, it is not permitted to recite a short one; [where they ordained] a short one a long one is not permitted. [A prayer which they ordered] to be concluded [with a benediction] must not be left without such a conclusion; [one which they ordered] to be left without such a conclusion must not be concluded…

[Where they said] to begin [the blessing] with [the word] "Blessed," it is not permitted to begin without "Blessed"; and [where they said] not to begin with "Blessed," it is not permitted to begin with "Blessed"…

These are the blessings which are [coined to be] short: One who blesses over fruit, and over commandments, and the zimmun blessing, and the last blessing in the Grace after Meals. And these are the blessings which are [coined to be] long: the blessings of fast days, and the blessings of Rosh Hashana, and the blessings of Yom Kippur…

These are the blessings which are not to be concluded with [the word] "Blessed": One who blesses over fruit, and over the commandments, and the zimmun blessing, and the last blessing in the Grace after Meals. Rabbi Yose Hagelili would conclude the last blessing in the Grace after Meals with [the word] "Blessed," and he would recite it as a long blessing. (Tosefta, Berakhot 1:5-7)


The Tosefta clearly relates to two separate issues: Whether or not we recite a long blessing, and whether or not we conclude the blessing with the word "Blessed." The distinction is so absolute that the Tosefta brings separate lists of blessing that are coined to be short and blessings that are not to be concluded with the word "Blessed." From this the Gra concludes:


And furthermore, since it says: "These are the blessings which are [coined to be] short," [and] "These are the blessings which are not to be concluded with [the word] 'Blessed,'" this implies that these are two [different] things, and regarding both of them it says: "Over fruit and over the commandments," and it says that Rabbi Yose HaGelili would conclude, etc., and he would recite it as a long blessing – this means that they disagreed about two things.


On the other hand, when we examine the specifics of the two lists, the "short" blessings and the blessings that are not to be concluded with "Blessed," it turns out that they are entirely congruent. The Gra concedes that this identity is not accidental, as is stated here in the Yerushalmi:


R. Yuden said: The short formula opens with "Blessed," but does not close with "Blessed." The long formula opens with "Blessed" and closes with "Blessed." (Yerushalmi, Berakhot 1:5)


According to the Gra, this should be understood as follows:


That which is stated in the aforementioned Yerushalmi: "The long formula, etc." – it is not for that reason that it is called long or short, but rather it explains the laws applying to them. For a long blessing opens and closes [with "Blessed"], while a short blessing opens but does not close [with "Blessed"]… For the one depends on the other, but it is not for this reason that it is called short.


It turns out then that there is a correspondence and dependence between the two factors – the length of the blessing and whether or not it is to be concluded with the word "Blessed." This is dependence, not identity. The terms "long" and "short" should be understood according to their plain sense.


Are the Lists of Short and Long Blessings in the Tosefta Complete or only Partial?


Another question of interpretation, one that is crucially important, arises in connection with the Tosefta. It should be remembered that the Tosefta lists the short blessings as opposed to the long blessings:


These are the blessings which are [coined to be] short: One who blesses over fruit, and over commandments, and the zimmun blessing, and the last blessing in the Grace after Meals. And these are the blessings which are [coined to be] long: the blessings of fast days, and the blessings of Rosh Hashana, and the blessings of Yom Kippur…


When we come across such a list in the writings of Chazal, we can always ask: Is this a partial list that was primarily intended to provide examples, or is it a full list that absolutely exhausts the scope of the law? Those who study the Talmud are used to grappling with this question: Sometimes the Tanna has no intention of giving the entire list, in which case we say: "He taught and omitted" ("tanna veshiyer"). In other case, he means to cover the entire topic: "He taught and left nothing omitted."


It is clear that the Rishonim who identify a "long" blessing with a blessing that is "to be concluded with the word "Blessed" must say here that "he taught and omitted," as there are many blessings that open and close with "Blessed," but not are not mentioned here among the "long" blessings.


The Gra, however, assumes just the opposite – that the list of long blessings is exhaustive (we will immediately discuss the list of short blessings) and fully defines the category. According to this assumption, the list becomes a proof against the interpretation offered by those Rishonim:


Moreover, that which it says: "These are the blessing which are [coined to be] long" – from the fact that it lists only these, infer from this that it means "long" literally.


But the question remains how does the Gra know that the list is complete, and not deliberately incomplete?


The answer to this question is self-evident, as this is what emerges from the passage in the Yerushalmi that the Gra cites in his commentary ad loc. The Yerushalmi opens by quoting the Tosefta, and then adds its own commentary:


These are the blessings which are [coined to be] long: the blessings of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and the blessings of public fast days… These are the blessings which are [coined to be] short: One who blesses over fruit, and over commandments, and the zimmun blessing, and the last blessing in the Grace after Meals. But all other blessings, a person may lengthen them. (Yerushalmi, Berakhot 1:5)


It would appear that the Gemara understands that these lists are precise and include all cases, so that whatever is not listed here is governed by a different law. Therefore the Gemara infers from here that a blessing that does not appear in the list of short blessings "a person may lengthen." But we immediately understand that this conclusion is absurd: if a person "may lengthen" any blessing that is not "short," why does the Tosefta offer only a few blessings that one may lengthen? Surely that list should also be understood as comprehensive! According to the Gra's explanation which we will immediately see, this will all make sense.


According to the Vilna Gaon, both lists relate to the question that is the heart of our issue: May one add to the fixed text of a blessing? Regarding the blessings included in the list of short blessings, the law is that lekhatchila one should not add to them; but regarding the blessings included in the list of long blessings, lekhatchila one should add to them. That is to say, regarding the blessings included in the list of long blessings, the fixed formula is explicitly the basis for additions, and the correct way to recite those blessings is to add formulations that expand upon their content. As it is stated there in the Yerushalmi regarding the blessing recited on fast days:


It was taught: One must lengthen the Go'el Yisrael blessing on a fast day. But the six [blessings] that he adds [on the fast day], he must not lengthen.


Regarding most of the blessings recited on a fast day, one must not add to the fixed text, but as for the Go'el Yisrael blessing, one should do so. This is not merely an allowance, but the preferred practice. This halakha applies to those blessings about which it says: "These are the blessings which are coined to be long."


The conclusion of the Yerushalmi is therefore clear: Regarding blessings which are not included in either of the two lists, there is no need lekhatchila to lengthen them, but on the other hand there is also no need to keep them short. One is permitted to lengthen them if he so desires.


Later in the Yerushalmi, Chizkiya cites another Baraita:  


If one lengthens [a blessing], it is reprehensible; if he shortens it, it is praiseworthy.


            According to the Gra, this Baraita as well refers to those blessings which are not included in either of the two lists in the Tosefta. As we saw above, those blessings one is permitted to lengthen or shorten. According to this Baraita, it is preferable to shorten. Thus writes the Gra:


He says regarding the rest of the blessings, about which it is not stated that they should be either long or short, one is permitted to lengthen or shorten [= recite the minimal text], only that "if he lengthens, it is reprehensible…


            To summarize the matter – there are certain blessings (listed explicitly in the Tosefta) that lekhatchila one should lengthen, and there are other blessings that one is forbidden to lengthen. As for the majority of blessings, there is a fundamental allowance to lengthen them, but it is preferable - according to the Yerushalmi – not to do so. The Gra notes: "It seems that one should rely on this Yerushalmi." This approach is not that of the Rambam, who absolutely forbids any deviations from the formulas established by the Ezra and his court. Nor is it that of the Rashba, who permits changes in the wording of the blessings in a most sweeping manner.


Two Types of "Lengthening"


It follows from what we have seen that according to the Gra there are two types of lengthening. One level determines whether one should open or close the blessing with the word "Blessed." Regarding this, it suffices that the blessing not be very short, like the blessings recited over foods or the commandments. But there is also the issue of lengthening the text of the blessing beyond the fundamental formulation set by the Sages. Such lengthening is necessary with respect to certain blessings mentioned in the Tosefta, and prohibited with respect to other blessings mentioned there. As for the rest, the Yerushalmi concludes that while one is allowed to lengthen them, it is preferable not to exploit this allowance.


The Gra's Methodological Revolution


What we see in this course of the Gra's thinking is the methodological revolution to which I referred above. The way that the Gra uses sources outside the Babylonian Talmud – the Yerushalmi and the Tosefta – is exceedingly far-reaching (well beyond that of the Rishonim who related to our Tosefta). According to him, the Tosefta provides us with the fundamental definitions of short and long blessings; the blessings that it mentions do not merely illustrate the law, but rather they define it. The Tosefta's authoritative interpretation does not appear in the Babylonian Talmud, but only in the Yerushalmi, and this Yerushalmi establishes the law. Thus, the heart of the discussion is not found in the Mishna, nor even in the "usual" Talmud.


The Gra completes this revolution when he goes back and interprets our Mishna in accordance with his view, in such a way that greatly limits its significance. Our Mishna had described the first two blessings of Shema[3]as: "one long and one short," and afterwards it prohibited changing their wording. On the face of it, this Mishna should be an important source regarding the question of additions to the prayer. But not according to the Gra.


We must understand in what sense these two blessings are long and short according to the Gra. On the one hand, he maintains that with respect to the need for an opening and closing formula, the first two blessings of the Shema are both "long."[4] On the other hand, in terms of the allowance to add to the text, the determining factor is the specification mentioned in the Tosefta, and the blessings of Shema are not mentioned there! Thus, the blessings of Shema fall into the category of blessings regarding which there is no explicit Baraita, and therefore the Yerushalmi's ruling in their regard is that one is permitted to add to them, but this is not desirable. The two blessings are similar in these two senses; what then does the Mishna mean here? Why, and regarding what, does it say about these blessings that "one is long and one is short"? The Gra has an original solution to this difficulty:


In relation to the Yotzer Or blessing [the Ahava blessing] is called "short." It only says "long and short" because of the next clause: "Where they said to recite a short one." And as it says in the aforementioned Tosefta: "Why did they say: One long, etc.," that is to say, not that they are truly long or short, but because of the next clause: "Where they said," that one is not permitted to change them…."


In other words, here too the Mishna uses the terms "long and short," but here the words are relative. The Ahava blessing is short in comparison to the Yotzer blessing, the text of which is longer. The Mishna requires that we preserve this relationship between the blessings and forbids changing it through additions or deletions. In the final analysis, the first clause of the Mishna is dealing with a local law that applies exclusively to the blessings of Shema. But the fundamental and guiding principle regarding this issue is found outside the Mishna and the Talmud, that is to say, in the Tosefta and the Yerushalmi.


The Next Step


In light of his theoretical analysis of the issue, the Gra should have reached practical conclusions. However, the Yerushalmi is not a simple source. It does not establish a binding law, but merely states that additions to the liturgy are not forbidden, but one who passes up on them is praiseworthy. By its very nature, such a statement leaves an expanse of freedom, or if you will, of uncertainty. It, therefore, remains to be seen how things will turn out. This we will leave for the continuation of our discussion.


In conclusion, I wish to reiterate: I will be happy to receive your illuminating comments and responses.



(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] The Gra's Legacy, by Rav Elyakim Krumbein (

[2] This is the understanding that the Gra attributes to the Rambam, but later in his remarks he demonstrates a more complex approach to this Mishna, as we will see below.

[3] This is the Gra's understanding, and regarding this matter he accepts the Rambam's explanation.

[4] The Ahava blessing lacks an opening formula for a side reason: It is adjacent to another blessing, and therefore the opening formula of the Yotzer blessing frees it from the need to open once again with the word "Blessed."