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2 Iyar 5765 - May 11, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Vilna Gaon: A Man of Piety

by Rav Dov Eliach

Part II

In his three-volume work, HaGaon, (that was put together under the supervision of HaRav Chaim Kanievsky) Rav Dov Eliach brought together an enormous amount of material, to try to give us some concept of what the Vilna Gaon was. The Gaon was outstanding in many aspects of human development. Our concepts do not do justice to what the Gaon really was. The section printed here is taken from Chapter Six, and is centered around the piety of the Gaon. When reading it, one should keep in mind that this is just one of many areas in which the Gaon lived at a such an outstanding level.

This year, Rav Eliach has added a new series of volumes to the bookshelf of works related to the Gaon, with the publication of Chumash HaGra, an arrangement of the comments of the Gaon arranged according to the parshiyos of Chumash, with the full Chumash text. So far, Shemos has appeared, and we eagerly await Bamidbor.

The Chazon Ish wrote of the Gaon: ". . . his level of Divine inspiration and the like, and his diligence and breadth of knowledge, in profound depth, in all the Torah — we cannot imagine how it is even possible." After reading this material, one can say the same thing about the Gaon's level of piety.

The first part included stories of the extreme lengths to which the Gaon went to fulfill even Rabbinic details of mitzvos, such as reading a Megilloh with a minyan. It also cited various mitzvos that the Gaon emphasized, such as wearing tefillin the whole day.


Regarding the prohibition of usury, one of the scholars of Vilna wrote that the Gaon was very concerned about the sin of ribbis and pointed out that a person charging or paying interest to a fellow Jew was adding to his sin continually, every moment that his loans were accruing forbidden interest: "I have heard that our pious one, may he live long, protests greatly [against usury] and says that this sin is repugnant and is continuous, day and night, [so that] even on the awesome day [of Yom Kippur], [a person involved in usury may] stand and weep [in shul], yet not budge from this never- ending sin" (Sefer HaLikutim ).

The Gaon recounted a story of a man who had a dream in which he saw a deceased man named Reb Yitzchok, whose wife Minka had lent money with interest. Reb Yitzchok had spent his whole life studying Torah and doing mitzvos, but in the dream, he appeared depressed. The man who had the dream was surprised and asked, "You passed away a number of years ago already — why are you depressed?"

Reb Yitzchok answered, "Because of a severe sin."

He asked him again which sin it was and Reb Yitzchok replied, "The sin of usury."

The dreamer again asked in surprise, "Why didn't you point to the lenient rulings given by the Acharonim?"

Reb Yitzchok responded, "The Heavenly Court does not agree with the leniencies and strikes and punishes for this sin."

Beyond the Letter of the Law

During the Gaon's famous self-imposed exile, he was once hosted by a certain family. The baby suddenly began to cry loudly, but none of the family members heard her, so no one responded. Seeing this, the Gaon approached her cradle and tried to calm her. As he rocked the cradle, he sang a very popular lullaby. The song, called "Sleep, My Child," included the words, "And I will find you an appropriate bridegroom."

Years later, when the girl had grown up and reached marriageable age, a young Torah student arrived one day at their home bearing a letter from the Gaon. In the letter, the Gaon said that they need not accept his proposal, but since he had uttered the sentence, "And I will find you an appropriate bridegroom," he was suggesting the young man who was the bearer of the letter.

In concluding the letter, the Gaon reiterated that they need not accept the suggestion, but that he saw fit to fulfill his obligation by presenting this young man who, in his opinion, seemed to be a fitting match. The family saw that it was, indeed, an appropriate suggestion — and there could certainly be no better matchmaker — and so they agreed to the match. (Heard from Rav Yisroel Spinner, who heard it from his rebbe HaRav Chaim Shereshevsky, who heard it from his father, who heard it from HaRav Chaim Soloveitchik.)

This is an example of how far the Gaon went, well beyond the letter of the law. He had never promised the family anything, but since he had uttered those words, even though they were not meant to be taken seriously but merely to quiet a crying baby, the Gaon considered them a promise that should be kept.

Once, on a trip from his home in Vilna, the Gaon lodged at the home of a certain honest man. The host served him supper. The Gaon took a bite of the food, but his stomach was upset that day, causing him to retch immediately. When the host returned and saw the full plate of food, he urged the Gaon to eat. The Gaon again put some food into his mouth, and again he retched. This repeated itself a third and fourth time. One of the Gaon's greatest disciples was with him at the time. He asked the Gaon why he was torturing himself in this way, since it was obvious that he was unable to eat.

The Gaon responded that the Sages said, "All that your host tells you [to do], you must do" (Pesochim 86a). Whenever it says, "You must do (aseh)," even concerning a Rabbinic commandment, you must try up to the point where it becomes life-threatening (Introduction of his sons to the Bi'ur HaGra on Shulchan Oruch. HaRav Shlomo Brevda reported that the Chazon Ish was skeptical if the story is true. However, in Me'ir Einei Yisroel a similar story is told about the Chofetz Chaim.).

Rejoice in the Opportunity to Glorify a Mitzvah

The Gaon's sons testify that "he dedicated his heart and soul to G-d from his youth . . . he sacrificed himself to fulfill all the minutiae dictated by the Sages, even that which was not cited in the Shulchan Oruch . . . each with the utmost diligence and perfection" (Introduction of the Gaon's sons to the Bi'ur HaGra on Shulchan Oruch).

Rav Chaim of Volozhin describes him as follows:

His extreme diligence with regard to their holy words, to do and to fulfill with wondrous zealousness and extreme holiness all the stringencies and matters of piety mentioned in their holy words, with all their details, minutiae, and kavonos, cannot be measured.

(Introduction to Bi'ur HaGra on Safro Detzni'uso)

Once the Gaon refused to drink wine that was poured for him, and it turned out that the wine had been stored under a bed. The Gaon's students said that he was very strict regarding food and drink that had been under a bed, even if they were there only briefly, and even if only in the daytime. According to some accounts, he was more lenient for others, allowing them to feed such food to their animals. Others maintain that he even allowed others "to drink of it, since it was only [under the bed] briefly and during the daytime" (Ma'aseh Rav).

In other cases, the Gaon forbade the food even to others. His mechuton the Chayei Odom wrote, "I heard that the Gaon, the pious one, of blessed memory, instructed that a radish that had been placed under a bed be cut into tiny pieces and discarded so that no one would find it" (Binas Odom). Likewise, someone once slept upon a box of sugar and the Gaon forbade use of the sugar and instructed that it be thrown into the river, even though it had not been under a bed made for sleeping (Shu"t Binyan Olom).

The Gaon's student Rav Yaakov Kahane (who was the son-in-law of his brother) related that once, when he joined the Gaon for the Purim meal, someone brought the Gaon beautiful apples and lemons as mishlo'ach monos. The Gaon's disciple Rav Zelmaleh fell asleep at the table and his hand touched the basket of fruit. The Gaon said that the fruit should be chopped into tiny pieces and disposed of in the lavatory so that no one would find them and eat them. He would not even permit them to be sold to a gentile, for fear that they would subsequently be resold to a Jew (Tosefes Ma'aseh Rav). All this, despite the fact that Rav Zalman did not actually touch the fruit, but merely the basket.

The Gaon once lodged in a village. His host wished to serve him fish. According to this account, before eating fish the Gaon always insisted on inspecting them for their signs of kashrus while they were still alive in the water. The host, therefore, went out of his way to bring the fish to the Gaon in a bucket of water. Suddenly, one fish jumped out of the bucket and landed under a bed. The Gaon instructed that since there were gentiles living in the village, it would be appropriate to sell this fish to them instead of using it (Shu"t Eitz Ephraim).

The incidents recounted here have substantial differences. In some a sleeping person was involved, and in several others it was just an unoccupied bed. As a result, the Gaon's rulings were also substantially different. Nonetheless, the common factor is that, in contrast to most halachic authorities, who are lenient in this matter, the Gaon was inclined to be extremely stringent in this area.

The Chayei Odom wrote about the Gaon, "He did not take even a step that was not thought out; they were all based on a golden foundation — the Torah." He supported his statement with an example that demonstrates the extent of what the Gaon demanded of himself. At his son's wedding, the Gaon "urged us to dance before the bride. We asked him to dance also and he responded, `When Moshiach comes!' " (Tzavo'as Ba'al Kenesses Yechezkel).

Some have stressed that the Gaon's custom of following extreme stringencies was based on a system of gradual and sequential growth. A given level of stringency can only be accepted if the previous one has been mastered. The basic obligation is to fulfill the pure meaning of a halochoh, and only afterwards may one go beyond the letter of the law (Menuchoh UKedushoh).

Particular Concern for Customs: Minhagei Yisroel

A fundamental principle of halochoh for the Gaon was that any enactment of the Sages endures, even if the original reason given for it no longer applies. This was the reason that he was so careful with the laws of gilui (various drinks left out uncovered), despite the fact that the original reason for the enactment was the danger from venom that may have been deposited by a snake, and snakes are not found in our environs today.

In the Shulchan Oruch it is written, "Drinks that were left uncovered were forbidden by the Sages for fear that a snake may have drunk from it and deposited its venom within [the drink]. Now that snakes do not live near us, it is permissible" (Yoreh De'ah 116:1). The Gaon himself, in his commentary on these words, brings the sources of the position of the Shulchan Oruch. Nevertheless, he himself was very stringent in this area (Ma'aseh Rav) and he generally prohibited such drinks.

By way of explanation his students wrote, "He would say that everything that the Sages prohibited or decreed — for any reason and even if the reason we were given no longer applies — remains in force. For they revealed to us only one reason among many that they had which they kept private" (Tosefes Ma'aseh Rav).

A disciple of the Gaon, the maggid Rav Pinchas of Plotzk, attended the Gaon for a long period of time. He was well aware of the Gaon's insistence on avoiding drinks that had been left uncovered. As such, Rav Pinchas always made sure to bring the Gaon's drinking water from the pump in the courtyard of the Great Synagogue of Vilna.

One time, on a stormy winter night, Rav Pinchas did not want to go to the trouble of going to the pump, and instead he brought the water from an open barrel standing nearby. The following day, after Shacharis, the Gaon reproved him, asking why he had given him water that had been left uncovered.

How did the Gaon know this? To impress upon his student the seriousness of the issue, the Gaon told him that throughout his prayers, an image appeared in his mind that disturbed him and distracted him from his prayers. This, he said, was caused by drinking the uncovered water (Aliyos Eliyohu).

The Gaon's biographer Rav Yehoshua Herschel Levin wrote, "In his writings, it is apparent that he had as a goal that none of the holy words of the Talmud be violated or ignored. Wherever his holy eyes saw that people were being lax against the dictates of the Sages, he protested" (Aliyos Eliyahu).

The Gaon himself commented on the verse, "Do not move the eternal boundaries that your ancestors established" (Mishlei 22:28): "A boundary that was eternal and your ancestors kept it — do not say that we do not keep it any more. Rather, even if is not done, you must keep it" (Bi'ur HaGra on Mishlei).

The Gaon was most careful about doing things that could lead onlookers to act leniently — similar to the way the Sages were stricter with their own enactments than with the laws of the Torah. For example, the Gaon said that on the eighth day of Succos in the Diaspora, one should eat in a succah and even sleep in it. He was very stringent about this "for the words of the Sages are more strict than the wine of Torah [itself]" (Ma'aseh Rav).

One year, the weather was extremely cold on the eighth day of Succos, yet the Gaon insisted that his followers sleep in the succah. The Chayei Odom explained that, "although on the other days [of Succos], [such frigid weather would have] exempted them from [sleeping in the] succah, in this case, he wanted to demonstrate the halochoh, and so he instructed his talmidim to dress warmly and to sleep in the succah" (Chayei Odom 152:5).

The Chayei Odom related another similar incident. "During the war, they decreed that in Vilna Jews must wear non-Jewish clothing. I heard the Gaon, our master Rav Eliyahu, say that one must martyr himself rather than do this." The Chayei Odom commented that "although [the basis for] this [ruling] is far from obvious, [from the Gaon's strong conclusion] one can see how severe this prohibition is. Every spiritually sensitive person must take these things to heart."

"Jewish Customs are like Torah"

The Gaon was truly concerned about every halochoh and custom, and even matters mentioned by the Sages that involved only normal manners and proper social behavior. "He trembled about even a minor matter mentioned in the Talmud Bavli or Yerushalmi. He literally sacrificed himself even for seemingly trivial matters that are detailed in the Talmud, even issues of derech eretz," according to Rav Eliyahu Ragoler, a student of Rav Chaim of Volozhin (Shu"t Yad Eliyahu 25).

A family member quotes the Gaon's explanation of a famous expression — "A Jewish custom is Torah (Minhag Yisroel — Torah hi)." How can a custom be compared to Torah?

The idea is that the Torah includes Torah-based and Rabbinic commandments and the Sages erected protective fences around these commandments to ensure that the Torah would be kept. Likewise, it is incumbent upon each individual to erect such fences for himself, based on what is necessary according to his own nature, as the Sages have said, "A person must know himself" (Brochos 61b).

After all, the goal of the evil inclination is to start by breaching the fence so that he will subsequently be able to attack the fundamentals of Torah. Who would listen to his incitement if it were directly against a Torah commandment, or if it urged him to transgress a severe prohibition?

This is what is meant by, "A Jewish custom is Torah." Every individual must be as careful not to breach a custom as not to breach a Torah commandment, for neglecting a custom will ultimately lead to neglecting the fundamentals of the Torah (Peninim MiShulchan HaGra).

On the other hand, the Gaon insisted that observance of recent, less entrenched customs should not be allowed to conflict with observance of halochoh. As such, he invalidated customs that might result in serious infractions of halochoh. For this reason, he discontinued the custom of setting up trees in honor of Shavuos, "for it is customary for other nations to set up trees on their holiday" (Chayei Odom 131:13). "Since it is a custom and not a law, now that it has become a non-Jewish ritual it is proper to abolish it" (Ma'aseh Rav).

Rav Shmuel Salant quoted the Gaon as saying, "One should not innovate stringencies and prohibitions that are not mentioned in the Talmud Bavli or Yerushalmi." And it was because of this that the Gaon said that there is no need to adhere to Rav Yehuda HeChossid's Will regarding shidduchim (Shenos Dor VaDor).

The Priestly Blessing

It is an ancient custom in Ashkenazic communities in the Diaspora, that kohanim do not give the Priestly Blessing on a daily basis but only on yom tov, in contrast to Sephardim who do so every day (Rema Orach Chaim 128:44). The Gaon was inclined to institute it all year round and considered doing so a number of times in his beis medrash.

One day the Gaon resolved that on the following day, the kohanim would bless their brethren. However, on that very day, he was arrested by the Vilna police on false charges. The Gaon saw this as Heaven's way of preventing him from implementing his plan and therefore he did not attempt to alter the custom again (Aliyos Eliyahu).

The Gaon's disciple Rav Chaim of Volozhin once also decided to tell the kohanim of Volozhin to perform the Priestly Blessings the following day. Overnight, however, the synagogue burned down (Ma'alos HaSulam). The Volozhin community concluded that apparently there are deeper reasons for not saying the Priestly Blessing every day, perhaps connected to the Heavenly influence that would be drawn down by the Blessing were it performed daily in the Diaspora (Shu"t Meishiv Davar 104). One writer suggested that it was, "perhaps out of respect for our predecessors [who did not practice the Priestly Blessings daily]" (Ma'alos HaSulam). This is also the reason given as to why the Gaon was prevented by Heaven from publishing the Shulchan Oruch HeChadash, which he wanted to write.

The Gaon's disciples in Jerusalem did, in fact, implement their rebbi's opinion and they performed the Priestly Blessing every day. In the words of Rav Yisroel of Shklov, "In our kollel, from the day that we were privileged to establish our yeshiva in the Land of Israel and in the holy city of Jerusalem, our custom is that the kohanim chant the Priestly Blessing every day, and also on Shabbos and yom tov, in keeping with the halochoh. This is the opinion of our great master" (Pe'as HaShulchan). To this day, in Yerushalayim and in many parts of Eretz Yisroel, the custom is for everyone to perform the Priestly Blessing every day.

The Gaon was also uncomfortable with the popular custom of his day that a person who was seeing someone off would bless him with the words of the Priestly Blessing. The reason for his reservation was not given. However, the Gaon's student Rav Sa'adya explained that this is because in the Gemora all that is mentioned is to escort someone. No blessing is cited. (Sefer HaLikutim [manuscript]).

Nevi'im and Kesuvim on Parchment

The Torah reading in the beis medrash of the Gaon was precise and beautiful. We find a description of Rav Zundel Chalfan, who was "distinguished in Torah and prominent," and "was privileged to read Torah for the Gaon in the city of Serhi, for he was wonderfully precise and an expert in the mesorah" (Da'as Kedoshim).

Concerning the obligation to review the Torah section every week (Shenayim Mikro ve'Echod Targum — reading the Hebrew text twice and the Aramaic text once), the Gaon was quoted as saying, "One must be very meticulous and precise regarding the [Aramaic] Targum on each and every verse, and not say it with his lips while his heart is elsewhere, fulfilling [the saying that Hashem loves even the errors and omissions that people make] as it says vedilugo etc., as many people habitually do. Therefore, less with kavonoh is better [than more without kavonoh]. It is proper to learn one section each day with Rashi's commentary, as well as the other commentaries, and with Targum and to have his interpretation in mind while reading the Chumash [and I have heard the above from the Gaon, the pious one]" (Sefer HaLikutim [manuscript]).

"Immediately after [the morning] tefilloh, one should read some of the parshoh, the text twice along with the Targum once, so that he completes [it] on erev Shabbos. He should not read the Targum after each verse but rather after each section, such as a pesuchah or setumah or at a place that appears to be the end of a subject" (Ma'aseh Rav).

The Gaon would get maftir on Parshas Zochor and he would read it from the Torah himself. He would also read the Megilloh himself, for it is better to do any mitzvah oneself than to fulfill it through an agent (Shu"t Binyan Shlomo).

The Gaon followed the opinion of the Levush that the haftorah should be read from a scroll that is rolled like a sefer Torah. One person should read it aloud and the rest of the congregation listen and thereby fulfill their obligation, as with the Torah reading (Ma'aseh Rav).

He read the other four megillos the same way: "On Shabbos chol hamoed on Pesach and Succos, and on the second day of Shavuos [in the Diaspora] . . . they read the megilloh with the appropriate tune from a scroll like a sefer Torah, with columns. One person would read and everyone else would listen. The reader would recite two blessings: al mikro megilloh and shehechiyonu" (ibid.).

Under the Gaon's influence, all the congregations of Vilna read the megillos this way. From there, the Gaon's custom spread to many communities in Lithuania until "it spread to many nearby countries as well" (Chayei Odom).

The Gaon made a special effort to have all of Nevi'im and Kesuvim written out on parchment, even though there was no need to do so for public readings since there are no haftoros from Kesuvim such as Iyov and Mishlei (Sefer HaLikutim [manuscript]).

One day, the Gaon invited his well-known wealthy relatives from Vilna, Rav Yosef Pesseles and his nephew Rav Leib bar Ber, and asked them to fund the writing of all twenty-four books of Tanach on ruled parchment as prescribed by halochoh. The two immediately agreed and even undertook to personally see that it would be done in the best possible way (Mesoras HaTorah VehaNevi'im).

To this end, they hired expert sofrim and paid them handsomely. They instructed them to "write all twenty-four books of Scriptures on parchment with [the appropriate] ink, sirtut [ruled lines on the scroll], [standard scroll] rolling, the sanctification of the Divine Names and adherence to all other scribal laws." Over a number of months the sofrim and editors worked diligently and precisely, and on the seventh of Adar in the year 5543 (1783) they finished. That night the gevirim celebrated the special occasion, inviting the scholars and prominent members of the community to a festive meal (Bircas Yosef).

Rav Pesach Pinfer, a rov in Vilna, related that as this innovation of writing the books of Tanach on parchment spread throughout the Jewish communities, sofrim and editors began to visit Vilna to copy the spelling (chaseros veyeseros) and arrangements (pesuchos and setumos) of the scrolls there (Mesoras HaTorah VehaNevi'im). This is mentioned by Rav Yechiel Heller who wrote that the Gaon was "a pillar who strengthened this mitzvah of writing the Nevi'im and his glosses of the Nevi'im are in the possession of proficient scribes to this very day. Undoubtedly, everything in this matter was done under his supervision" (Amudei Ohr).

Rav Shlomo HaKohen, av beis din of Vilna and author of Cheshek Shlomo, also writes that he researched the text of Kesuvim, and he records that he referred to "the Kesuvim scrolls that are found in the beis medrash of the righteous Rav Aryeh Leib bar Ber, of blessed memory, . . . And it is known that [those scrolls] were transcribed in the time of the Gra and under his supervision."

Rav Pesach Pinfer also recounts that there were those who did not understand the importance of specifying the pesuchos and setumos even in Nevi'im and Kesuvim, and even mocked it as an innovation of the beis medrash of the Gaon. In his words, "There are scribes and rabbonim who view it as a joke that came into practice after the Gra originated it."

However, in the course of his research he found ancient manuscripts of Tanach that included pesuchos and setumos written nine hundred years prior to the Gaon. Among them were the ancient Nevi'im and Kesuvim that are known today as, "Keser Aram Tzova," a manuscript from Aleppo, Syria. In Parma, Italy alone, he found sixty manuscripts including some from Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Germany respectively. All of them were arranged with pesuchos and setumos. Many similar manuscripts were found from all over the world (Mesoras HaTorah VehaNevi'im).

It should be added that, by now, the matter has been indisputably confirmed by other manuscripts, including the Cairo Geniza.

Endless Engagement in Countless Mitzvos

To sum up the principle of the Gaon discussed here, we would say that even phenomenal diligence in Torah, day and night, should not come at the expense of other modes of worship and care in halochoh.

The Gaon's extraordinary toil in Torah, as illustrated in other chapters of HaGaon, did not keep him from dedicating tremendous time and energy to observing every mitzvah, large and small, with all its details and minutiae. He even sought out mitzvos that he otherwise would never have been obligated to perform. Rav Chaim of Volozhin testified, "Any tongue would tire of telling all the ways and aspects of his piety and asceticism, and his wonderful holiness and many deeds" (his introduction to Shenos Eliyahu).

On the contrary, the Chazon Ish wrote that "toil in Torah engenders extreme love and self-sacrifice for the fulfillment of all the details of the halochoh over which one has labored. It will become absolutely clear to him that this is his raison d'etre."

Rav Shaul Katzenellenbogen, av beis din of Vilna, wrote the following in praise of Rav Chaim of Volozhin:

His way in holiness, was like that of his rebbi, our great master, the Gaon, the pious one, Rav Eliyahu of Vilna: to sacrifice himself to fulfill [even] every Rabbinic matter. We find that the scholars of the Talmud praised themselves for this . . . (Bava Metzia 75b).

(Rav Katzenellenbogen's approbation to Nefesh HaChaim)

In the Gaon's words, "Mitzvos must be pursued, if one wants to have the opportunity to perform them" (his commentary on Mishlei 2:17). He explained the dictum of the Sages, "A person should always be like an ox to the yoke and like a donkey to a load," (Avodoh Zora 5b) as follows: "Like an ox to the yoke" refers to the yoke of Torah. "Like a donkey to a load" means that "he should carry upon himself the yoke of mitzvos and pursue them and perform them" (Bi'ur HaGra on Mishlei 14:4).

The Gaon would say, "In truth, each and every utterance in the Torah that left the mouth of the Almighty is an independent mitzvah. Actually, the mitzvos are too numerous to be counted, to the extent that one who has the requisite depth of intellect and an understanding heart will be able to act so that everything he does, in all its details, large and small, will be according to [specific principles of] the Torah and the mitzvos. [He will thus have] a mitzvah at every moment [adding up to] countless mitzvos. Many such deeds are mentioned in the Gemora and Midroshim of people who lived all aspects of their lives according to the Torah.

"As such, the number 613 that is mentioned [with regard to the number of mitzvos] refers only to the roots. But they divide into many branches. In truth, we do not know which are roots and which are branches. But this we need not know, for the entire Torah and all the mitzvos in all of their principles and details and minutiae are included in every mitzvah and every utterance of the Torah" (Ma'alos HaTorah).


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