THE VILNA GAON
By Rav Elyakim Krumbein
SHIUR #03: THE PLAIN SENSE (PESHAT) OF A TEXT
LITHUANIAN ATTITUDE TOWARDS MIRACLE STORIES
Before returning to the point at which we closed the previous shiur,
I would like to expand a little on an issue that was mentioned in the past and
has considerable methodological importance.
We rely in great measure on information culled from reports and stories,
and we raised the question of the reliability of such reports. We argued that there is more room to
believe stories told about the Gra than tales told about the Chassidic masters. Now that we have already begun to
draw facts and gain impressions from such traditions, I wish to add a few
remarks concerning the issue of credibility – all this despite the fact that the
source upon which I will be basing my remarks is itself nothing more than a
The following anecdote is told by an important disciple of R. Chayyim of
Volozhin, R. David Tebel (the author of "Nachalat David"):
R. Chayyim of Volozhin sat with some of his senior disciples, and spoke
about the greatness of his brother, R. Zalman (whom we also mentioned in a
previous shiur). R. Chayyim
related that he was so great in Torah that even in the days of the Tannaim and
Amoraim he would have been deemed a great Torah scholar. Following this extreme praise, one of
those present asked R. Chayyim: "This being the case, how would you describe the
greatness of R. Zalman's master, namely, the Gra?" R. Chayyim filled with
emotion and said: "Were my brother to have lived a thousand years, he would not
have reached the ankles of the Gra, z"l," neither in sharpness nor in
erudition. On this the reporter of
this story adds:
people were astonished to hear such words issue forth from the mouth of R.
Chayyim, z"l, whose words were always refined and distilled. How then could he say such a thing
that even in erudition he would not in a thousand years have reached the ankles
of the Gra, z"l.
The reporter continues to testify that R. Chayyim noted his disciple's
astonishment and immediately explained himself in a precise and persuasive
manner. What is important for us at
this point is not the specifics of his answer, but the initial reaction aroused
by his words. Exaggeration and
hyperbole were uncharacteristic of R. Chayyim of Volozhin, and one senses that
for his disciples as well, the need to be precise in his presentation of the
facts is not set aside by the honor due to one's teacher. R.
Chayyim understood their reservations from the looks on their faces,
without them having to say a word about the matter.
Indeed, this trait of R. Chayyim is evident from words that he himself
wrote in his introduction to the Gra's commentary to "Sifra de-Tzeni'uta
(part of the Zohar; we shall return to this introduction in the future). R. Chayyim deals there with the Gra
as a kabbalist. He mentions that the
Gra frequently merited heavenly "revelations." This fact follows from, among
other things, the many times that he wrote or said: "It has been revealed to
me." But R. Chayyim adds:
not yet been able to clarify whether these revelations came to him while he was
awake, or perhaps they came in his sleep, his soul ascending to the heavenly
academies. But I have truly
understood that his soul definitely ascended every night from the day that he
reached his holy discernment. But
regarding revelations in an awakened state, I have no definite knowledge,
because he was too closed and sealed to reveal [such things]… There is only one
wondrous thing that I heard from his holy mouth that implies that he had great
and awesome revelations even while he was awake…
It would appear that R. Chayyim's goal here was to impress his readers
regarding his master's greatness.
What would have been easier for him to do than simply to decide, on the basis of
that "one wondrous thing" that he had heard from the Gra, that indeed he
regularly enjoyed spiritual revelations, not only in his sleep, but even in an
awakened state? But his great caution did not allow him to say more than what he
had solid grounds to argue ("implies").
Indeed, the words written by the kabbalist, R. Yitzchak Eizik Chaver,
a famous kabbalist from the Lithuanian school, regarding R. Chayyim of Volozhin,
seem to be right on the target:
Gaon and truly pious man, our master, R. Chayyim of Volozhin, of blessed memory
– most of the members of our generation remember about him… that more than being
a great Torah sage, who toiled in Torah and piety and excessive humility,
learning and teaching, he was also very wise [in his ability] to measure his
words, without exaggerating about anything, and without saying anything based on
guesswork. And he had the trait of
the wise: regarding that which he did not see, he said I saw not, and regarding
that which he did not hear, he said I heard not.
This is something well known to all of the masses of Israel in this
generation, young and old alike.
These words are instructive, in my opinion, not only about the
personality of R. Chayyim of Volozhin, but also about his many admirers. Shunning exaggeration and hyperbole
was a deeply ingrained trait among the Lithuanians, and it stands to reason that
this fact is cause to relate seriously to their traditions, at least in a
relative sense. Nonetheless one must
read their words together with an understanding of their objectives. No matter how hard a reporter strives
to be precise, there is no escaping the influence of his agenda on the written
II. THE FOUNDATIONS OF CERTAINTY
Let us now go back to the words of R. Israel of Shklov in his
introduction to Pe'at Ha-shulchan.
We pointed out the certainty, the speed, and the confidence with which
the Gaon would ordinarily respond to questions addressed to him on Torah
matters. R. Israel cites first hand
testimony from his friend, R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, that the Gaon himself
gave emotional expression to his feeling of certainty regarding his achievements
in Torah study. R. Menachem Mendel
learned the Gra's commentary to Shir Ha-shirim from the Gra himself, and
he describes what happened when the Gra completed his commentary:
happy, and he rejoiced in the joy of his holy Torah… and he ordered that his
room be closed, and the windows were closed during the day, and they lit many
candles. And when he completed his
commentary, he raised his eyes heavenward, with great devotion, blessing and
thanksgiving to His great name (blessed be His name), who allowed him to merit
attaining the light of all the Torah, both its inner and outer aspects…
The Gra then delivered a long monologue, the first half of which we shall
skip for the time being (but we shall return to it). Let us focus on that which is
connected to our topic:
Afterwards he said that he knew the entire Torah that was given at Sinai in
perfect manner, and all the Prophets and the Writings and the Mishna and the
Oral Law, how they are concealed within it, and that in his old age he is left
with no doubts whatsoever concerning some law or passage in the entire Torah,
and that he knows the entire Oral Law and all the Codes down to the Acharonim
on the Shulchan Arukh, and that he clarified them and emended all the
errors and turned them into fine flour clean of chaff. And as for the esoteric lore, all
that is in our hands, the Zohars, the Tikunei Zohar, Sefer
Yetzira, the writings of the Ari, z"l, and the Pardes, he has
finished them and he knows them perfectly, having cleaned them from the chaff
and the many mistakes that had entered into them… And he warned them not to
reveal anything of this, but after his ascent to heaven, his disciple, the
aforementioned rabbi, related this to me.
We see then that the Gaon was capable of saying about himself that he had
attained perfect knowledge of the Torah, with no uncertainties and no errors due
to incorrect readings. What he knew
was even more reliable than the books themselves, which constitute the source of
knowledge of every Torah scholar.
This is because the books themselves are likely to be filled with the mistakes
introduced by copyists and printers, whereas the Gra's knowledge of Torah was so
perfect that he could discern the mistakes in the texts before him and correct
them. I allow myself to say with
confidence that such a statement – self-testimony of absolute knowledge of the
Torah – cannot be found anywhere else in our literature as issuing from the
mouth of one of the great scholars in Israel.
The Gaon's order not to publicize his remarks is very understandable, for
they are likely to put him under suspicion of arrogance. It must immediately be added that if
the Gra allowed himself to voice these words, even if only in his closest
circle, it is clear that according to his own self-perception, such a suspicion
would be unjustified. As to his
confidence regarding his textual emendations, it should be noted that his daring
in this matter is striking in light of the severe prohibition that Rabbeinu Tam,
in the introduction to his Sefer Ha-yashar, cast upon emending texts
"inside." Rabbeinu Tam's position was accepted, and therefore we find the
emendations of the greatest authorities restricted to the margin (e.g.,
Hagahot ha-Bach on the Talmud), and not "inside" the text itself. Textual emendation was seen from
early times as a dangerous and unsure endeavor.
But even this lack of certainty is missing in the case of R. Eliyahu of
As we saw in the previous shiur, even had the Gra not explicitly
voiced these things, they reflect a living reality that was known to anyone who
entered into a discussion of Torah matters with him. This reality of certain and perfect
knowledge of the Torah projected itself not only on the image of the Gra, but
also on the face of the Torah itself.
The question that I would like to address is: Upon what is this certainty
based? What are its roots? It seems that we can point to three principles or
fundamental qualities upon which it draws.
Two of them have already been mentioned in the past, but nevertheless we
shall repeat them now in order to better appreciate their significance.
One fact we shall mention briefly: the Gra's scope and mastery of the
entire Torah. We saw how the Gra's
novel ideas were connected to his vast knowledge, for example, when he explained
that the wording of the Mishna in tractate Beitza alludes to a law found
in the Tosefta. When a particular
understanding is confirmed from different places in Torah literature, one's
certainty about it increases. In
order to better understand this idea, consider modern researchers who try to
confirm their arguments by matching information obtained from several sources,
and even a variety of disciplines.
III. RENEWING THE WORLD OF THE PLAIN SENSE
OF A TEXT
The second foundation underlying the Gra's certainty – the one which we
will expand upon here – is his devotion to the plain sense (peshat) of a
text. The plain sense enjoys a very
strong power of persuasion. Someone
who is offered two explanations, both of which resolve the difficulties of a
particular text in equal fashion, will presumably accept the simpler explanation
as the "true" one. What is more, we
are occasionally prepared to accept the simple explanation even if it leaves
certain difficulties that could be resolved were we to accept the alternative
explanation. The Gra was known for
the strong emphasis that he placed on the plain meaning of a text, and for his
distancing himself from pilpul and casuistry. His method marks an important turning
point with respect to the methodology of the Acharonim who preceded him.
We saw above how the Gaon understood the talmudic idea of "chasurei
mechasra" – those cases where the Gemara explains a mishna by adding words
that are not written. According to
him, the Gemara's objective is to suit the mishna to the halakhic position of
the Amoraim, which is different than that intended by the author of the mishna. The mishna itself can be explained
without any addition. In practice,
the Gra's attitude allows one to explain the mishna in its plain sense, as
opposed to the interpretation given in the Gemara. The Gra taught his disciples that it
is possible to explain the mishna not in accordance with the understanding of
the Gemara, even outside the context of "chisurei mechasra." R. Menashe
of Ilya brings in his name that just as there is a plain sense and a midrashic
sense regarding Scripture, so is there a plain sense and a midrashic sense
regarding the words of the Tannaim.
The Amoraim sometimes adopt a midrashic method regarding a mishna, but
permission is granted to the student to interpret it according to its plain
sense, though for Halakhic purposes the Amoraic interpretation is the decisive
Many such explanations have been reported in the name of the Gra, some of
them appearing in his work on the Mishna, "Shenot Eliyahu."
One of the Acharonim, R. Shmuel
Strashun of Vilna (the Rashash) noted one example, and commented: "It would seem
that he explained this against the Gemara."
In the generations that followed the Gra, when such explanations started to
characterize "Haskala" inclinations that were becoming prevalent in the Jewish
world, the Halakhic authorities were not always comfortable recognizing this
approach of the Gra. The author of
the "Arukh Ha-shulchan" said that the Gra undoubtedly introduced such an
explanation with the following reservation: "Had Chazal not explained
otherwise, it would have been possible to say…."
It is, however, difficult to set aside or diminish the importance of this
approach of the Gra, for his love for the plain sense of a text stood out in
many different contexts.
The Gra understands the verse, "Bread of deceit is sweet to a man, but
afterwards his mouth shall be filled with gravel" (Mishlei 20:17), as a
that comes to a person through great wrongdoing and cunning is very sweet to
him, but afterwards his mouth will be filled with gravel because of it. The idea is that it is sweet for a
person to propose laws that are not good, explanations that are false, and grand
homilies and distinctions, in order to glorify and elevate oneself. But afterwards, his mouth shall be
One of the Gra's disciples was R. Pinchas the Maggid of Polotsk. This R. Pinchas wrote a commentary on
the book of Tehilim, called Midrash Chakhamim. In his introduction, he apologizes,
in the manner of authors, for the utility (or lack thereof) of his work: Surely
the book of Tehilim was treated extensively by the greatest of
commentators? He argues, however, that what is still necessary is a commentary
that will explain each psalm in an embracing manner and in accordance with the
plain sense of the text. He views
himself as being particularly fit for the task:
stood for me in my credit that I ministered to the true Gaon, the holy light…
the mighty hammer, our master R. Eliyahu, zt"l, of Vilna. This may be likened to one who enters
into a perfume shop, who no matter what absorbs the scents. I entered into his shop, and absorbed
his fragrant scent, not to follow down a crooked path after explanations… that
are far from the plain sense of the word.
Whatever is closer to the plain sense is truer.
Not only in his exegesis of Scripture and Mishna did the Gra give
preference to simple explanations, but also in his study of Gemara and in his
Halakhic deliberations. On this
point, it is worthwhile to compare the Gaon of Vilna to one of his great
contemporaries, R. Aryeh Leib Ginzburg, the author of the Sha'agat Aryeh. The Sha'agat Aryeh was a rabbi
in Volozhin, and R. Chayyim of Volozhin was also a disciple of his, in addition
to his well known relationship to the Gra.
The Gra and the Sha'agat Aryeh had many points in common,
and they knew about each other, though it is not known whether or not they ever
actually met. Regarding the issue
under discussion – adopting the plain sense and forsaking pilpul – the
Sha'agat Aryeh writes that in his book he has followed this approach, and
that he views it as a blessed change.
He critically examines the pilpulistic approach that he had
followed all his life, and he writes that all that "he didn't commit to writing,
for it is all carried away by the wind, and it is nothing but vanity, even
though I was as careful as possible that the essence of the pilpul
reflect the truth of Torah, nevertheless it is impossible that untrue words
should not become intermingled." And indeed, in his book, he commits to writing
only those things that are follow the straight path and are absolutely true,
with no pilpul. It may be
inferred from this that the Sha'agat Aryeh was the Gra's spiritual
partner in his peshat revolution.
Nevertheless, R. Chayyim of Volozhin reports what his two teachers had to
say about each other: "The Gra said about the Sha'agat Aryeh that he went
to great lengths in pilpul, and the Sha'agat Aryeh said about the
Gra that he went to great lengths in peshat." The Gra's devotion to the
plain sense of the text was exceptional in the eyes of his colleague.
The ramifications of this approach are striking to anybody who considers
the many practical rulings of the Gaon.
The Gra forbade the eating of chadash in our time even outside
Eretz Israel, as follows from the plain understanding of the law, and refrained
from relying on the impressive justifications proposed by the Acharonim
in order to explain the customary practice to be lenient on the matter. His understanding of "bein
ha-shemashot," according to which "sunset" is the moment that the sun
disappears from the horizon, seems to be self-evident linguistically and
realistically, but it stands in contrast to the understanding that was accepted
since the days of the Rishonim, which was based on an ancient and
complicated astronomical theory. The
accepted practice in Eretz Israel, according to which the priests recite the
priestly blessing every day – fits in with the plain sense of the law, but runs
counter to the common practice in Ashkenazi communities for centuries, which
relied on side factors that do not appear in the primary halakhic sources. He insisted that people eat in the
sukka outside Eretz Israel during the entire day of Shemini Atzeret,
once again in accordance with the plain sense of the law, and against all the
explanations that were given to reconcile the prevailing laxity on the matter.
To conclude this matter, I wish to make two comments:
First, not everything which was viewed as "the plain sense" by the Gra or
his contemporaries would be regarded as such in our time.
Second, one should not understand from this that the Gra advocated
peshat exclusively. On the
contrary, the Gra firmly believed in the traditional four elements of study and
exegesis: "peshat" – plain meaning; "remez" – hints (allegoric or
symbolic meaning); "derash" – inquiry (midrashic meaning); "sod" –
mystery (mystical meaning). Many of
the Gra's explanations of Scriptural verses are on the level of remez,
and especially, metaphor. It would,
however, still be correct to say that his attitude toward peshat was
unique, and that oftentimes the spirit of peshat rested on the other
modes that the Gaon followed.
IV. THE WAY OF “PESHAT” IN THE
This approach was strong in the teachings of the Vilna Gaon and deeply
influenced the Torah scholars of Lithuania.
We can bring an example from one of the most popular Torah works, the
Torah Temima, authored by R. Baruch Epstein.
R. Baruch Epstein studied in the yeshiva of Volozhin, he was the nephew
of the Netziv and the son of the author of the Arukh Ha-shulchan. The author cites the teachings of
Chazal on the verses, arranged according to the order of the verses, and he
attaches to the citations words of explanation.
He frequently cites the words of earlier commentators and halakhic
authorities, briefly comments on the difficulties in their positions, and then
suggests an alternative which he sees as simpler.
In the following example (from Torah Temima, Bamidbar,
chap. 15), he summarily rejects Rashi's explanation:
your heart and after your eyes" – It was taught: "After your heart" -
this refers to heresy (minnut); and so it
says (Tehilim 14): "The fool has said in his heart, There is no God" (Berakhot
Torah Temima: The meaning of "minnut" here is obviously the
denial of the existence of God, as is clear from the proof-text: "The fool has
said in his heart, There is no God." But Rashi explained (Berakhot, ad
loc.): "Minnut – those who turn the reasons of the Torah into an erroneous and
idolatrous midrash. As the verse
states: 'The fool has said in his heart, There is no God.'" I do not understand
why he toiled to give such a forced explanation, and not in accordance with its
plain meaning and the plain meaning of the verse, as I explained above.
Indeed, the plain meaning as an exegetical standard in the rabbinic world
gathered pace with the help of the Gra, and contact with modern currents
apparently contributed to its continued strengthening in the following
generations. We see that R. Baruch Epstein, at the beginning of
the twentieth century, felt sufficiently confident to direct criticism at the
greatest of commentators, Rashi.
Those who continued to promote the Gra's tradition did not maintain that his
approach was reserved for geniuses like him, but rather it constituted an
educational approach for the community of Torah students as a whole.
Thus far we have dealt with two of the pillars of "certainty" in the
Gaon's teachings: comprehensive erudition and the plain meaning of the text. A third pillar of great importance
still awaits us, and this will be the subject of the next shiur.
(Translated by David