THE VILNA GAON
By Rav Elyakim Krumbein
2: The beauty of the Torah
Rav Elyakim Krumbein
We ended the previous shiur with our mouths agape, awed by the
Vilna Gaon's amazing erudition. We
saw how the Gra not only enjoyed total mastery, forwards and backwards, of
tractate Sukka, but he also knew how to extract from it all the
disagreements between Abaye and Rava, all the types of valid and invalid
sukkot, and the like. How are we
to understand this astounding phenomenon? This certainly attests to an
extraordinary gift, to put it mildly.
It seems, however, that were we to stop here, we would miss a large part
of the conceptual and educational message concealed in this story. For the question that arises here is
what is the value of this ability to effortlessly list all the Tannaitic
disputes mentioned in the tractate? On the face of it, it is nothing more than a
game, an amusement, a show of ultimate intellectual virtuosity. And in continuation of this question,
it may be presumed that even one who is graced with such natural ability, must
invest a certain effort in order to achieve the perfect mastery demonstrated by
the Gra. But on the assumption that
we do not recognize the value of knowing the number of disputes between Abaye
and Rava, does not all the time and effort devoted to achieve this goal
constitute nothing less than bittul Torah, neglect of real Torah study?
I. THE VALUE OF THE LOVE OF TORAH IN THE
It seems, however, that if we carefully examine the wording of the story,
we will be able to understand part of its significance for the Gra's circle of
admirers. The Gaon counted all the
aforementioned elements found in tractate Sukka "as one counts pearls."
The Gra said what he said not to show his interlocutor "what is meant by
fluency," and certainly not in order to show off his talents, but as one who
counts jewels. All of these
disagreements charmed the Gaon with their beauty.
He mentions them one by one, as one who shows his treasures to his
guests, picking up each piece with a loving hand, washing it in the light of the
sun so that all those present, he included, can enjoy its splendor. And in the end he knows the overall
sum of the items, because none of them escaped his admiring attention. The way that the Gra "knew the number
of all of them" is reminiscent of the shepherd who knows the overall count of
his beloved flock because he is familiar with each and every sheep and lamb, or
of the metaphor through which the Psalmist describes God: "He counts the numbers
of the stars; he call them all by their names" (Tehilim 147:4). The Gra's fluency undoubtedly
depended upon his intellectual prowess, and also on his tremendous diligence,
but a third force profound love of Torah is the quality which underlies the
two others, ignites them, and fuels them.
This point stands out in the account of the Gra's diligence which is also
brought in the introduction to Pe'at Ha-shulchan. R. Israel of Shklov tells us that the
Gra "would review every chapter and tractate hundreds and thousands of times,
owing to his great love for Torah.
Once on a long night in Tevet he went over one mishna in the order of Taharot
all night." Here R. Israel adds
a depiction that has become part of the myth surrounding the Gra: In his youth,
R. Eliyahu would learn in an unheated room in the cold of winter, and "he had a
basin of cold water in which he would put his feet, so that he not fall asleep."
The cultivation of the love of Torah as the basis for diligence
prominently appears in Nefesh Ha-chayim, authored by the Gra's
disciple, R. Chayim of Volozhin. In
addition to teaching the value of discipline, R. Chayim dedicated the great
majority of the fourth section of his book, the section that was meant to
inculcate the centrality of Torah study, to one educational goal: "To excite the
hearts of those who desire to cleave to the love of His Torah (blessed be He)
and to dwell in the shadow of the most high and terrible" (chap. 1). R. Chayim knew, as did his master,
that cleaving to Torah must be built on endearment, and not only on discipline
Let us go back once again to the incident involving the study of tractate
Sukka, and consider another point that requires explanation. The Gra calculated the sum of invalid
sukkot, which is equal to the numerical value of the letters compromising
the word, sukka, written in defective manner without a vav, i.e.,
eighty five. The list of valid
sukkot is equal to the numerical value of the letters comprising the
word sukka written plene, i.e., ninety one. The reporter of this story notes that
this list was taken from "the tractate," i.e., from the Babylonian and Jerusalem
Talmuds and the Tosefta. Here too it
sounds like we have entered the realm of intellectual amusement, and that the
objective is that we be impressed by the intellectual genius that is required in
order to channel the halakhic data in such a way that they parallel the
numerical value of the word "sukka." But once again it seems that were we
to dismiss the matter with such talk, we would be making a grave mistake. Despite the fact that on the face of
it the Gra's words seem to fall into the category of a "vort" a
brilliant Torah idea it is important to understand that this similarity is
only on the surface.
II. CHASIDIC VORTS
Let us preface our remarks with a few words about a vort. I have not investigated the
development of this phenomenon, but it is clear that it was greatly cultivated
by the Chasidic movement. I would
like to understand the Chasidic variety, so that we can clarify the difference
between it and its Mitnaged counterpart.
A vort is a short, novel, and brilliant Torah discourse. It is characterized by the surprise
it arouses in and the impression it leaves upon those who hear it, generally as
a result of an unexpected textual interpretation.
The force of a vort lies in its ability to hang an idea on words,
the plain meaning of which is altogether different, and this by way of the
creative talents of the scholar offering his brilliant insight. These two elements, the surprise and
the scholar's genius that allows him to create a connection between unconnected
things, stir up the listener's astonishment, and it is this impression that
helps implant the conceptual content of the brilliant idea in his heart. In addition, often the vort is
expected to answer a certain difficulty, and its success in this mission
impresses the listener even more.
All of the excitement surrounding these unique qualities of a vort
divert our attention from a possible criticism is it possible to believe that
the authors of our sanctified texts truly had such an idea in mind, far as it
may be from the plain meaning of their words? Even if the proposed explanation
accords with the words themselves, does it fit in with the general context in
which they were written? Accepting the vort relies more on the pleasure
that it arouses, than on an analytic examination of the reasonableness of the
explanation. And sometimes it seems
that the implausibility only reinforces the explanation's power of persuasion.
The Chasidim were indeed aware of the special place assigned by them to
the phenomenon of exegetical brilliance, as is clear from the following
anecdote. It is related about one of
the great halakhic authorities of his time, R.
Meir Margaliyot, that when he began to study Gemara as a child, his
parents invited their friends to mark the joyous occasion, as was the customary
practice. At the center of the event
stood the boy himself who was supposed to recite by heart a section of what he
had learned. And so, little Meir
stood on the table, and began to recite a mishna found in the chapter that he
had been learning, Elu metzi'ot
man's father's lost article and his teacher's [need attention], his teacher's
takes precedence, because his father brought him into world, whereas his
teacher, who instructed him in wisdom, brings him to the future world.
Having said this, the boy immediately fell silent, deep in his thoughts. When his father asked him why he does
not continue with his recitation, little Meir answered that he was struck by a
difficulty. Surely the mishna gives
precedence to a person's teacher who taught him Torah over his father, but that
same week he had studied the weekly Torah reading with his teacher, and he had
learned the words of Rashi on Bamidbar 3:1:
are offspring of Aharon and Moshe But it mentions only the sons of Aharon! But
they also are called the sons of Moshe because he taught them Torah. This tells us that whoever teaches
the Torah to the son of his fellow man Scripture regards it to him as though he
had begotten him.
I therefore don't understand, said little Meir, why it should be
considered a praise for Moshe that he is regarded "as though he had begotten"
the son of Aharon. Surely the
teacher who teaches a person Torah is greater than his father who begot him!
All those present were greatly impressed by the boy's cleverness. His father then said to him: You have
asked well; perhaps you will now offer an answer!
The boy's brow wrinkled for a moment, and then suddenly his eyes lit up:
Rashi says that "Scripture regards (ma'ale) it to him," but what
he means to say is that the Torah raises (ma'ale) the teacher and
attaches greater importance to him than it would have had he begotten the child.
In the joyous atmosphere that filled the room as these words of Torah
were spoken, the boy's mother rushed in among the celebrants, snatched her son
from table, and smothered him in her embrace.
He must stop this public show, she cried out. Outside stands a non-Jewish farmer,
staring at the boy through the window, and casting upon him an evil eye.
The next part of the story took place many years later, when R. Meir Margaliyot drew near to the
Chasidic movement and became the Ba'al Shem Tov's disciple. At some point, the Besht reminded him
of that occurrence when he was a child, and added: "I was that 'non-Jewish
farmer,' who eyed you through the window.
At that moment I bestowed upon you the spirit of Chasidut, and it was
that spirit that gave you the power to propose your novel idea."
This is the story, which implies that the Chasidic movement saw itself as
enjoying a copyright on a certain style of brilliant exegesis that is capable of
ignoring the broader context, as in our example.
For even if we assume that the explanation offered by little Meir
resolved the local difficulty, surely the expression, "Scripture regards it to
him as though," is very familiar to us from many Rabbinic statements. What then could have prompted the
Sages to use it in this place, not in its usual sense, namely as a statement of
comparison (as is implied by the plain meaning of the word "ke-ilu," as
though), but rather as a bestowal of superiority?
III. A MITNAGED VORT?
Let us return now from this discussion regarding the nature of a "vort"
in the Chasidic tradition, to the Gra and his numerical calculations. Once again, we are liable to relate
to his words in accordance with the criteria for a brilliant Torah statement
intellectual invention that stirs up excitement.
But if we pay attention, we will understand that the direction taken by
this vort is very different, and essentially the very opposite, and its
impressive force is built on different foundations in comparison to what we saw
above. The Gra's words were not
meant to resolve a local difficulty, but rather to make a general statement. For all the passages discussing
invalid sukkot were clearly understood, each one on its own, by that
disciple of the Gra who knew the tractate by heart. When the Gra said that the number of
invalid sukkot equals the numerical value of the letters forming the word
sukka, he was essentially arguing that there is a dimension of
understanding the Torah that goes beyond the local and specific law. The number of invalid sukkot
is not a chance datum, nor does it stem from some illusion, but rather it was
calculated from the outset based on the logic of the Torah itself (which
according to the Gra has a numerical quality).
Nothing in the Torah is coincidental.
Not only is each passage understandable as it is, but rather all the
passages, all the discussions and all the laws fit in together in accordance
with a comprehensive plan.
Here we see the difference between the Chasid and the Mitnaged. Just as the Chasidic mentality is
impressed by stories about supernatural miracles, so it tends to explanations
that stray from the plain meaning of the text.
A Chasidic vort fills a function in the world of exegesis that
parallels the role of the miracle in the real world. In contrast, the Mitnaged searches
after truth and understanding; deviations from nature and the plain meaning of
the text do not interest him. It is
important to emphasize this point, because to the modern ear, the numerical
calculation proposed by the Gra is liable to be understood as a mere frivolity
or coincidence. We are even likely
to question the certainty of his calculation.
For example, is it not reasonable to assume that several "invalid"
sukkot, similar one to the other, were counted here separately though
they could have been counted as one? Nevertheless, in the context of his overall
teaching, the words of the Gra are stated here as testimony to the beauty of the
Torah, as a comprehensive logical system resting on the foundations of
understanding. It is this beauty
that excites the soul of the Mitnaged and ignites his imagination.
The Gaon's love for understanding things in their plain sense and from a
comprehensive perspective is evident from another surprising statement, brought
in his name by the author of Pe'at Ha-shulchan. His remarks relate to the well known
phenomenon of "chisurei michasra," where the Amoraim resolve a certain
difficulty in a mishna by proposing that something is missing and that words
must be added. Such resolutions in
the Gemara themselves raise a certain difficulty: Could not the Mishna, the
wording of which is so precise, have formulated its intentions in clearer
manner? Now it is reported that the Gra had a surprising approach to this whole
all the "chisurei michasras" in the Talmud that they lacked nothing, as
they were arranged by our holy Rabbi [Yehuda HaNasi] in the Mishna, and it was
not his way to omit anything. Only
that Rabbi [Yehuda HaNasi] agreed with one Tanna, in accordance with whose
position he wrote the mishna in anonymous fashion, not lacking anything
according to him; whereas the Gemara agreed with the other Tanna, and it was
according to him that it said that "[the mishna] is surely lacking something and
it means to say as follows."
That is to say, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi formulated the mishna in precise
manner, but in accordance with a halakhic position that was not accepted by the
later Amoraim. And they on their
part asserted that, in accordance with their position, something must be added
to the mishna so that it matches the actual Halakha. The mishna itself, however, can be
understood according to its plain sense, without adding anything.
If we go back to the Gra's words regarding valid and invalid sukkot,
it is important to pay attention to the fact that the Gra did not arrive at his
numbers from an examination of the usual Talmud alone, but by joining together
all the halakhic sources of Chazal, including the Tosefta and the
Jerusalem Talmud. Here is the place
to mention another quality that distinguished the Gra's learning: his emphasis
on mastery of all the halakhic sources of Chazal. He toiled to emend the readings of
the ancient texts outside the Babylonian Talmud, which relatively speaking were
ignored by most Talmud scholars. The
story before us provides us with insight into his view on this matter. All the sources of Chazal were
coordinated with each other from the outset, to the extent that only by
considering all of them is it possible to reach a complete and precise picture
of the issue of valid and invalid sukkot.
It is difficult to know whether, according to R. Eliyahu, this
coordination was explicitly intended by the Sages who composed these works, or
whether the mysterious hand of "the holy spirit" arranged this coordination
without the knowledge of the authors themselves.
In any event, this approach is altogether different from that of modern
scholarship, which sees each work as the product of a specific school,
environment or period, and understands that the relationship between the various
works must be investigated is there influence, contribution or disagreement. The modern scholar is also likely to
approach each work of Chazal the Talmud or the Tosefta as an edited
work bringing together the teachings of various different schools. The Gra, as stated, adopted a unified
In short, the Gra's message that is reflected here and in many other
statements of his is that the Torah conceals a single, great truth that arises
out of a comprehensive perspective on the Torah in its greatness. The many details arrange and
reconcile themselves in light of this truth and receive new meaning from it. In the coming weeks, we will see
additional expressions of this fundamental principle.
IV. HE IMMEDIATELY ANSWERED
Connected to this is another important aspect of the Vilna Gaon's
personal approach, which offered a message to his own generation and to later
generations. I wish to illustrate it
with another event related by R.
Israel of Shklov, based on the words of R. Chayim of Volozhin. R. Chayim had a brother, R. Zalman,
who had brilliant talent and amazing devotedness to Torah. R. Zalman had difficulty with a
mishna in tractate Beitza:
send wine, flour, oil, or pulse, but not grain.
Rabbi Shimon permits grain."
There is a difficulty, for the word "grain" is superfluous. For this R. Zalman, z"l, went
to Vilna before our master the Gaon to ask him, and he immediately answered him:
This word alludes to the Tosefta taught there in the Gemara: "It was taught:
"Rabbi Shimon allows grain, e.g., wheat, to prepare thereof food for a wheat
dish eaten in Lod; barley, to give to his cattle, [and] lentils to prepare
thereof groats." This is what is written in the mishna: "in grain," not all
grain, but only these. And he was
very amazed by this, and a thousand like it.
The substance of the Gra's answer to R. Zalman's question accords with
his way of uniting the various sections of the Torah a superfluous word in the
Mishna alludes to a law recorded in the Tosefta in this case, the intention is
to restrict Rabbi Shimon's allowance to specific cases. But I have brought this story to draw
your attention to one word: the Gra answered him "immediately." This is a
general characterization that is very common in stories about questions asked of
the Gra the answer was given immediately and with no delay. I wish to bring another example, one
connected to R. Chayim of Volozhin
himself. R. Chayim was accustomed to
appear before the Gra several times a year, and lay out his questions before
him. It once happened that he was
unable to visit him for a whole year, and a large number of questions had piled
up before him.
arrived there, he received him warmly (because R. Chayim was very much loved in
the Gra's house) and they exchanged greetings.
The Gra marveled about R.
Chayim, why he had refrained for so long from appearing before him in his usual
manner, and he answered him that it was not in his hands whatsoever, until he
cast all his affairs off of him. The
Gra then said to him: Surely you have a list of questions and uncertainties. R. Chayim then removed a page, and it
was written front and back over an entire folio page, and R. Chayim said as
follows: I read to him, and he answered, I asked, and he answered, until after
about an hour, he answered all my questions that I had brought with me. And R. Chayim was very, very
As in the previous stories, the person involved in the incident was
dumbfounded when he was exposed to R. Eliyahu's brilliance. But here again, we would miss the
point were we not to reach the more fundamental conclusion, which is also
astonishing. The certainty, the
confidence, the quickness, and the clarity with which the Gra would answer
questions directed at him and we are dealing with difficult questions that
perplexed people who were themselves Torah giants mark an understanding
relating to Torah that is not self-evident.
From our own experience, Torah can appear as open to different
understandings and disagreements, this because it is shrouded in uncertainty. Halakhic decisions require a process
of struggle with doubts, which turns certainty into an unattainable pretention. The Gra, however, projects a
different picture. Certain truth
exists, and it is reachable. The Gra
merited such certainty. By way of
his talents, and by virtue of his toil and devotion he proved to the members
of his generation that such certainty exists.
The fog lifts, the doubts dissipate, and the beauty of the Torah reveals
itself from another perspective: a picture that shines brightly in its details,
without any uncertainties.
We shall see additional expressions and ramifications of this idea in the
(Translated by David