Vilna Gaon – the Interpreter of Jewish Holy Books


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Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, called the Vilna Gaon, is one of the most prominent Jewish thinkers  and interpreters of the holy books of Judaism of the eighteenth century. Gaon in Hebrew means genius, sage. There are many legends about the wisdom and life of the Vilna Gaon. It was because of his and his students’ work that Vilnius became a center of Jewish culture, and sometimes even called the Jerusalem of Lithuania.

Elijah was born in 1720 in the village of Sielce, in what is now Belarus. He was very talented from an early age. When Elijah turned seven, his father brought him to Vilnius to preach in the Great Synagogue on one rather complex Talmudic issue (the Talmud is a collection of jewish religious writings). A rabbi, a teacher of Judaism in the synagogue, checked to see whether or not the child had learned the sermon by heart. Convinced that Elijah reasoned freely and independently, he was impressed by the boy's wisdom.

Elijah studied at a yeshiva – a Jewish spiritual seminary – in Kėdainiai for several years. Later he moved to Vilnius with his parents. He married and began to study the Torah, the main religious Jewish text. While Elijah was studying, his wife ran the store. The legend says that Elijah slept only three to four hours a day because he wanted to devote all his time to reading religious texts. To overcome drowsiness he kept his feet in ice water or worked in a cold room. He and his family lived very ascetically – they avoided luxury and ate simple food (he liked potatoes the most).

Although Elijah’s glory quickly became global, he was modest. He didn’t start his own school, or publish books – after Gaon's death they were published by his students. He started taking students only at the age of forty. He explained the sacred texts of Judaism to a small circle of friends and followers. He became famous in the world at the age of thirty-five when he settled a dispute between two prominent German Talmudic interpreters over amulets – objects of magical power. He dedicated the last twenty-five years of his life to the fight against Hasideans – a movement that originated in western Ukraine in the 18th century, which criticised the study of sacred texts and asceticism. The Hasidians believed that the best way to worship God was through personal piety.

Elijah was also interested in science and history. His history studies helped him to understand the holy books by explaining the circumstances in which they were written. While reading and interpreting the Talmud, the Vilna Gaon found and corrected a number of mistakes made by the transcribers of the text. His changes to the Talmud are still considered correct today.

He died in 1797 during one of the most important Jewish holidays Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles which commemorates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and their journey to the Holy Land. Sadness is forbidden during Sukkot, so the Gaon’s contemporaries took it as a sign that he was indeed righteous. Crowds of people attended his funeral.

In the second half of the twentieth century the tomb of Gaon was transferred to the Sudervė Jewish cemetery in Vilnius. There is also a street in the capital named after the sage where there is a monument dedicated to him. Lithuania declared  2020 to be the year of Vilna Gaon and Lithuanian Jewish history.

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