Rabbeinu Eliyahu of Vilna – The Vilna Gaon
Our Sages have said, “If the Rav is like an angel of G-d, then seek Torah from his mouth. And if not, then do not seek Torah from him.” Rabbi Eliyahu, the Vilna Gaon, was one of those rare figures that all people, from the smallest to the greatest – all those who had the merit of seeing his majestic face and all who heard him speak – considered him like an angel of G-d. It was in this way that he appeared to his contemporaries, and for us he has remained like this up to our days.
Rabbeinu Eliyahu had many things bequeathed to him by birth. He possessed all the abilities and characteristics that belonged to the Tannaim and Amoraim. He became famous for all generations by the name of “the Gaon,” and when we simply say “the Gaon” everyone understands that the reference is to Rabbeinu Eliyahu of Vilna.
The Gra (as he was also known) was born on the first day of Passover 5480 (1720). The people of Vilna recounted that the young Eliyahu was a very beautiful child, a pure soul in a pure body. He was gifted with extraordinary intelligence that had no equal for the centuries that preceded or followed him. From his earliest childhood, at the age of three, he astounded the great men of Vilna by his power of recollection, his absolute mastery of Tanach, and the speed of his comprehension.
One day he was asked, “Where in the Chumash is there a verse that contains eight words that all end with the letter mem?” And the little Eliyahu, who wasn’t even four years old at the time, instantly answered, “It’s the verse in Parsha Vayishlach: ‘Two hundred she-goats and twenty he-goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams’ [Genesis 32:15].”
Around the age of seven, he gave a discourse at the great synagogue in Vilna that marveled all his listeners.
The Gra studied with a Rav until the age of seven, for after that time nobody was found who could teach him Torah. He then studied alone with great diligence until becoming an expert in all fields of Torah, revealed as well as hidden.
Still very young, his parents married him off to a young girl from the town of Keidan in Lithuania. After getting married, he remained in Keidan, enclosed in his room where he studied Torah day and night in holiness and purity. Even by day he studied by candlelight, his shutters being closed so that the noise from the street wouldn’t bother him. The Gra always said, “The adjective lamdan [scholar] that we apply to a Talmid Chacham is formed in the same way as the word gazlan [thief]. In the same way that we do not call someone a thief because he has the opportunity and knows how to steal (applying it instead only to someone whose occupation is stealing), so too is it impossible to call someone a scholar because he can study. We only apply it to someone whose permanent occupation is study.”
He spoke little, even at home with his family. One day his sister (who he had not seen for years) came to pay a visit. When she entered his room, he greeted her and asked about her family. He then said, “My sister, we will see each other in the World to Come. There is no time here in this world. I have to study Torah.”
While he was still young, he took it upon himself to go into exile, and went roaming about for years in the towns of Poland and Germany. Even though disguised as a poor man, he couldn’t manage to hide his spiritual loftiness and piety from people. Everyone recognized his grandeur, and he became known the world over as a Gaon and Tzaddik.
On returning from his exile he settled in Vilna, where he once again began to diligently study Torah day and night. He didn’t want to become a Rav or Rosh Yeshiva, but instead remained in the shadow of his tent, enveloped in his Tallit and wearing his Tefillin, with words of Torah constantly in his mouth.
The extent of his diligence was indescribable. His son gives us the following account: “For 50 years, my father did not sleep more than half an hour at a time, and not more than two hours during an entire day. So as not to fall asleep during the long winter nights, he studied in a house that was not heated, with his feet immersed in cold water. He never went two yards without Torah and Tefillin, and he never had a useless conversation in his entire life. Before his death, while crying abundantly, he confessed to having sinned in losing four minutes of Torah study.”
His Torah knowledge was phenomenal. He reviewed his entire studies every 30 days, and the whole Torah was permanently engraved on his heart. He knew how many times the name of each Tanna and each Amora appeared in every tractate, and all his books were covered over with notes. His commentaries were published under the tile Hagaot HaGra [Notes of the Gra]. He also wrote books on grammar, astronomy and geometry, and he was knowledgeable in medicine and other sciences. Some thinkers who met him were stunned to see someone who was living in the tent of Torah, yet surpassing them nevertheless in all subjects and secular sciences of their specialty.
His genius demonstrated itself not only in study, but also by his good deeds and sterling character. His student Rabbi Israel of Shklov recounts the following story:
It happened one day that the synagogue official who brought the Gaon funds (which the community allotted him every month) took this money for himself. The Gaon didn’t want to cause problems for this man, for he was poor, and so he didn’t reveal anything to anyone. Feeling that no one was aware of what he had done, the man continued to act in the same way. The Gaon didn’t complain about him, and for two years he never told anyone that he himself and his family were suffering from hunger. In no way was it acceptable to the Gaon that he should humiliate a Jew. It was only when this synagogue official fell ill and confessed to his sin on his deathbed that the matter became known.
Because of his Torah and uprightness, everyone simply called him “the pious one”. When the Gaon heard this, he was opposed to it and said, “I am not worthy of this name. I only wish to merit saying that I properly adhere to the Shulchan Aruch.”
The Gaon greatly longed to go to Eretz Israel and establish his Beth Midrash there. Later on in life, he left Vilna and set off for the Holy Land. He traveled as far as Koenigsberg, Germany, where he wrote his famous letter (“the letter of the Gra”) to his mother, wife, and family. In that letter his pure soul is reflected in all its beauty. However, he did not merit entering Eretz Israel. There are several legends and popular stories as to why he returned, but no one knows the real reason. Yet if the Gaon was not able to see the land that he yearned for, his desire was fulfilled after his death. During the six years that followed, many of his thousands of disciples went to Eretz Israel and founded the community of Perushim in Sefat and Jerusalem.
In 5557 (1796), the Gaon fell ill and felt that his days were numbered. On the eve of the last Yom Kippur before his death, he called all his descendants and, crying abundantly (contrary to his normal practice), he blessed them. On the third day of Chol HaMoed Sukkot (Tishri 19, 5558), he asked to be given an etrog and lulav. He then got up, recited the blessing on the lulav, and didn’t let go of it until his death. A few moments before passing away, he took his Tzitzit in his hand and said, “How it is difficult to leave this world of action, where by a mitzvah as simple as this, which costs but a few pennies, one can merit seeing the face of the Shechinah!”