The Gra's legacy
By Rav Elyakim Krumbein
Shiur 22: THe Gra's commentary to the
I. "REPAYING A DEBT IS A MITZVA"
Before we begin with the subject of this week's shiur, let us
discuss a point that has come to our attention, with the help of our readers, in
connection with shiur no. 8.
time, I cited the following passage from R. Israel of Shklov's introduction to
his Pe'at Ha-shulchan:
knew the names and essence of all the people in the world, how they are alluded
to in the written Torah, as our master wrote in his commentary to Sifra
de-Tzeni'uta… And I heard from a certain elder, the halakhic decisor in the
city of Mileslavi, who ministered to our holy master in days of old. He saw that
a certain Gaon came from far away to hear the words of the living God from our
master. And he said to our master: My lord certainly knows the names of all
people where they are [alluded to] in the written Torah, as the Ramban writes
regarding the incident involving Avner….
mentioned there in a footnote that I was unable to identify the reference
regarding the Ramban and Avner, and I asked the readers to help me locate the
source. I wish to present the following which was sent to me by Aharon Kravitz:
Undoubtedly the reference is to the well-known Aggada brought in Seder
Ha-dorot (Yemot Olam, fifth millennium, 4954), as follows:
have a tradition that the Ramban had a certain disciple, named Rav Avner, who
became an apostate, and his fortune had it that he rose in power and his dread
spread through the entire land. One Yom Kippur he sent for his master, the
Ramban, and in his presence, he himself slaughtered a pig, cut it up, cooked it,
ate it, and after eating it, asked his master how many sins liable for the
punishment of karet did he commit. His master answered four, while he
said five. He would have argued with his master, but his master turned his eyes
against him in anger, and so he remained silent, for he still retained some fear
of his master. In the end his master asked him who had brought him to apostasy,
and he answered that he had once heard that [the Ramban] had preached about
Parashat Ha'azinu, saying that that section included all the mitzvot
and everything in the world. And since he thought this to be impossible, he
turned into a different man. His master responded saying: I stand by what I
said, ask whatever you wish. Exceedingly puzzled, the man said to him: If so
show me please if you find my name written there. And the Ramban said: You have
spoken well, from my hand you may seek it. And immediately he went into a corner
and prayed, and then returned with the verse: "I said, I would scatter them into
corners, I would make the remembrance of them to cease from among men (amarti
af'eihem ashbita mei-enosh zikhram" (Devarim 32:26). [Putting
together] the third letter in each word, there is the name of the man, R. Avner.
When he heard this, his face fell and he asked his master whether there is a
cure for his wound. And the master said: You heard the words of the verse. And
the master went off on his way, and immediately the man took a boat without a
sailor or oar and entered it and went wherever the wind took him, and nothing
was ever heard from him again (see Emek ha-Melekh, part 1, chap. 4).
again, my thanks to Aharon Kravitz.
PUBLISHING THE GRA'S COMMENTARY
In the previous two shiurim we discussed two examples of how the
Gra dealt with gaps between his halakhic positions and what had been accepted in
practice in earlier generations. The Gra hardly ever took conventional practice
into consideration, and he aspired to ground practical Halakha in the sources.
At this point I would like to expand our perspective. If we wish to understand
the Gra's halakhic approach and achievement, we must examine his commentary to
the Shulchan Arukh, which is perhaps his most important literary effort
with respect to the revealed dimension of the Torah.
The publication of the Gra's commentary began in 5663 (1803), when the
Shulchan Arukh with the Gra's commentary was published in the city of
Shklov. It was brought to press by R. Israel of Shklov, a close disciple of the
Gra in the last year of the Gaon's life. R. Israel was undoubtedly selected for
the job with the agreement of the Gra's sons and close disciples. Otherwise, it
would simply have been inconceivable that they would have deposited into his
hands the precious volumes with the hand-written notes of the Gra.
The fact that R. Israel of Shklov received the support and counsel of the
other leading rabbis in the Gra's circle is alluded to in the words of R.
Chayyim of Volozhin, in his introduction to the commentary. R. Chayyim notes
that the excessive brevity adopted by the Gra is liable to make it difficult for
though the truth is that were the matters explained at greater length, they
would be more beneficial, we did not want to change the wording of our holy
master that is found in his very own holy handwriting, for he sailed in the
Talmud that is wider than the sea and contented himself with his brevity. And
even now after careful examination, anyone who studies it will find what he is
seeking, when he sets his heart to understand the words of our great master, as
is fitting for a disciple to understand the views of the master of masters and
sage of sages…
The phrase, "we did not want to change," testifies to the
fact that R. Chayyim, the Gra's foremost student, was involved in the ongoing
work and took part in establishing the editorial policy.
I have emphasized that R. Israel enjoyed very significant support and
backing, because it seems that after the fact not everyone was happy with the
finished product, as we shall see below.
ISRAEL OF SHLOV'S WORK METHOD
relates in his introduction to the work that he had faced great difficulties
when he first undertook the task. What were these difficulties and what method
did the editor adopt to overcome them?
who examines the Gra's commentary to the Shulchan Arukh in a superficial
manner will notice a striking characteristic: "likkutim" ("selections").
After the Gra explains a particular ruling of the Shulchan Arukh, we are
likely to find an additional passage which includes a comment on the same
ruling, which is introduced by the word "likkut." Sometimes there is more
than one such passage. Usually, there are significant differences between the
initial passage and the likkutim.
these likkutim come into being? R. Israel relates that the Gra had first
composed a commentary that followed the order of the Shulchan Arukh,
paragraph after paragraph, in four volumes. Afterwards, however, the Gra
continued to examine the material and expand upon his commentary, this time not
in accordance with the order of the Shulchan Arukh. R. Israel found the
results of this re-examination – which the Gaon himself called "likkutim"
– recorded in three volumes. According to R. Israel, these likkutim
comprise three "editions." That is to say, the Gra may possibly have returned to
any particular halakha one, two or even three times, in order to add proofs,
sources, discussion or a decision regarding a dispute between authorities, when
in the previous edition the law remained in doubt.
explains the phenomenon of the likkutim, but we must now pay attention to
another point: In the Gra's commentary to Orach Chayyim, as it is printed
before us, and as opposed to the other parts of his commentary – there are no
likkutim at all! This does not stem from the fact that the Gra did not write
likkutim on Orach Chayyim. Indeed, he authored such likkutim,
but the editor, R. Israel of Shklov, thought that it would be inappropriate to
bring before those studying the Gra's Torah a commentary which is in effect a
patchwork. He writes as follows:
my entire effort, to order them in proper manner, and to connect each one to its
proper place, and that it should be as if they were said at one time. For they
were greatly scattered in these editions. God has seen my afflictions and my
efforts in all my toils, until I published this book, and I joined them one to
the next. I had so much work with this that I am unable to spell it out…
with his desire to join all of the Gra's teachings in one integrated work, R.
Israel tells us that he was exceedingly careful to report his teacher's words
put myself under a heavy yoke, to stand guard while editing this holy book, to
protect it from all impurity and error. For owing to the great profundity of his
golden language, a mistake like a spider web will cause harm like a cart rope,
distorting the final intention of our master the author. I entered into this
with all my might, proofreading it three or four times, and then examining once
again the commentary of the Gaon, of blessed memory. I found no rest from this
work, night or day, I toiled in the work for the sake of heaven. My other fixed
studies I set aside, placing my efforts exclusively in these analyses. I greatly
feared for the honor of our great teacher, and was exceedingly cautious not to
change a single letter of his golden language.
R. Israel saw no contradiction at all between the extreme caution that he
took in order to present a precise reproduction of the original, and his daring
plan to turn the various versions of the Gra's commentary into a single, unified
work. Indeed, he ends by saying:
to join together the various versions, making sure that the seams between them
not be evident, to the point that nobody would have known about the different
versions, had I not mentioned them.
R. Israel could not have been any more explicit. He wanted the student to
receive the text of the Gra's commentary without "seams," in such a way that he
would never have imagined that the editor had made any changes or additions, or
sensed that the Gra's commentary to the Shulchan Arukh had been written
At the end of this introduction, alongside his words of gratitude to God
for having privileged him to be a disciple of the Gra, R. Israel expresses his
hope and intention to continue the project with the other sections of the
This hope, however,
was never realized. In Yoreh De'ah, which was published three years later
in Horodna, we find the Gra's commentary in the format familiar to us with the "likkutim."
This volume was brought to press by another disciple of the Gra who lived in
Shklov and was older than R. Israel – R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov. It would
seem that the Gra's disciples who had accepted the responsibility of publishing
their master's writings decided not to continue with R. Israel's editing policy,
and together with the change in policy, the editor himself was replaced.
and unequivocal proof of the dissatisfaction with the work of R. Israel may be
found in the introduction written by the Gra's sons to their father's commentary
on Orach Chayyim. We noted in the past that the Gra's sons exploited the
opportunity to publish a general appreciation of their father's heroic
personality. In the framework of this account, they provided a list of the names
of the Gra's most outstanding disciples. The name of R. Israel of Shklov, who
had deeply invested of himself in order to publish the Gra's commentary to
Orach Chayyim, is missing from the list. Dr. Aryeh Morgenstern was
undoubtedly right when he referred to this omission as "embarrassing."
we to understand this dissatisfaction with R. Israel's work? It is possible that
there were places where one might have argued with the way that the editor
combined the various versions into a single work. R. Israel's decision sometimes
reflected an understanding that was questionable, or even wrong, in the opinion
of other authoritative disciples of the Gra. But more fundamental, perhaps, was
their aversion - or at least after the fact regret – to tampering with the words
of the Gra, and changing their form according to the understanding of the
editor, even if the change is correct. As the years passed following the death
of the Gra, many wanted to publish his teachings, and the fear of imprecise or
incorrect citations grew. The Gra's close disciples, and especially his sons,
made great efforts to preserve control over the Gra's writings and their
publication, but they were not always successful. Bestowing official support to
a new edition of such a central work like the Gra's commentary to the
Shulchan Arukh, was liable to further stir up passions and make it all the
more difficult to impose restraints on the posthumous publication of the Gaon's
OBJECTIVE OF THE GRA'S COMMENTARY TO THE SHULCHAN ARUKH
Let us now move on from the story of the editing and publishing of the
Gra's commentary to the Shulchan Arukh to the essence of the commentary
itself. What exactly was the Gra's goal when he composed this work? The Gra
clearly invested great effort in it, which found expression in the great number
of versions. What did he wish to accomplish with this project?
To answer this question, let us go back once again to the introduction of
R. Chayyim of Volozhin. R. Chayyim devotes his opening words to the importance
of being meticulous about the full and precise fulfillment of Halakha. These
comments are directed toward the controversy with the Chassidim, and present the
gist of R. Chayyim's position which would later be spelled out in detail in his
Nefesh ha-Chayyim. As opposed to other Mitnagdim, R. Chayyim presents a
dialectic position. He does not reject the values of inner service of God
advocated by the Chassidim, but he criticizes the preference that they give to
these values over the values of Torah study and observance of its commandments.
R. Chayyim agrees that purity of thought is indeed an important value, but it is
impossible to ascend to the highest rungs of inner service, while skipping over
the more basic levels of proper halakhic observance. Thus, it is right to see
halakhic meticulousness as the most important element.
Emphasizing the place of Halakha explains the considerable attention that
the Gra paid to the Shulchan Arukh. But if fell upon R. Chayyim not only
to explain the very importance of Halakha, but also to clarify what precisely it
was that the Gra did to glorify it. The answer is that the Gra's enterprise was
a joining of Torah study, which is the central value in the life of a Jew, to
the study and observance of Halakha.
Why did the Gra undertake this project; why was it necessary? In order to
explain this, R. Chayyim establishes an important – and truth be said,
surprising - guiding principle. The surprise lies in the fact that R. Chayyim is
famous for spreading the idea of "Torah for its own sake," that is to say,
studying Torah for the very purpose of understanding the Torah, and not for the
sake of any other goal. Here, however, in his introduction to the Gra's
commentary to the Shulchan Arukh, he writes: "This is the totality of the
fruit of Talmud study – to derive from it the law to be observed in practice."
There are two sides to this principle. On the one hand, from the
perspective of Talmud study, the central goal of Talmud study is halakhic
decision-making. On the other hand, from the perspective of Halakha, it is
supposed to be decided from the Talmud itself, and not from halakhic codes that
arrange the practical conclusions in a way that is convenient for the reader.
Such codes were indeed written by the great halakhic authorities, the
Shulchan Arukh being the prime example. But these works were written only
because there was no alternative, as the leaders of the nation saw "that few are
the elite who sail upon the sea of the Talmud and find in it every case… Those
who can rule (on practical matters) from the Talmud have dwindled."
This course adopted by the halakhic codifiers was necessary, but it also
had detrimental effects. For many, the availability of halakhic codes made the
study of the sources superfluous:
cast off from themselves the yoke of studying the Talmud in order to derive the
laws from it, saying that study for practical purposes is exclusively the study
of the Shulchan Arukh. And even if they learn Gemara, they do so only to
sharpen the mind. And some have abandoned the Talmud altogether, contenting
themselves solely with the study of the Shulchan Arukh. This is not the
R. Chayyim complains about the separation between Halakha and the study
of the sources. He criticizes the idea that Halakha should be studied from
halakhic codes, and that Gemara is studied "to sharpen the mind." In essence, R.
Chayyim finds fault with what is accepted today as "analytical, yeshiva-style"
study, and advocates study aimed at deriving practical Halakha from the sources.
Today such an approach is prevalent in the Sefardic Yeshivot, Rav Ovadya Yosef,
shelita, being one of its greatest protagonists. A similar approach was
accepted in certain Mussar circles in Eastern Europe. In traditional Lithuanian
Yeshivot, however, any study seeking halakhic conclusions was regarded as
inferior to "pure" Torah study.
In any event, according to R. Chayyim, the Gra's goal in writing his
commentary to the Shulchan Arukh was to restore the connection between
normative Halakha and Torah study. From now on, when one studies the Halakha in
the Shulchan Arukh, he can simultaneously examine its sources in the
Gemara and the rest of rabbinic literature, as understood by the Rishonim.
As a result, we will no longer observe a particular halakha because so it is
written in the Shulchan Arukh, but because so it emerges from the
talmudic passage and the discussion of the Rishonim. From now on, it
became possible for everyone to reach a point that his halakhic conduct was
based on "the source." This goal accords with the Gra's general approach, as we
have often seen in the past.
Now that we have explained the goal of the Gra's commentary, we must
still examine the Gra's methodology. In particular, we must ask whether the Gra
was in fact the first to clarify the sources of the Shulchan Arukh's
rulings? Specifically, was this not the objective of the Beit Yosef on
OUT FOR A BREAK…
With this question lingering, this series of shiurim on the Gra
and his heritage will go out for a break. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you when
it will resume. Certain areas in the Gra's teachings have not yet been treated
at length; in particular, his fight against the Chassidim and his messianic
thought. In any event, I hope to find the opportunity to continue our meetings
with this heroic figure and his disciples.
I wish to offer special thanks for the comments and questions that I have
received from you, my dear readers, over the course of the year. Your letters
have taught me that this study fills an important need. May we benefit from the
Gaon's merits, and may we learn from him the values of devotion, intellectual
honesty, cleaving to the Torah and serving God.
(Translated by David