Jewish Personalities

10 Facts About Gaon of Vilna

1. Rabbi Eliyahu, the Vilna Gaon, was known by such rare titles as “the chosid” [pious]” or “Gaon” (genius) alone, as well as by his acronym “the Gra” (see below).

2. The Gra was diagnosed at age 6 as a prodigy. He delivered a complicated and brilliant discourse at the Great Synagogue in Vilna that he heard from his father and a brilliant discourse that he had prepared by himself. His book “Shnos Eliyahu” mention an innovative interpretation that he had said when he was seven years old.

3. At the age of nine, he began studying Kabbalah, and at the age of ten, he was able to study himself and did not need teachers. Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, his student, testified that even before reaching the age of thirteen, the Gra was able to create a “Golem”, but stopped in the middle because he was prevented from doing so by heaven.

4. The Gra refused to serve in an official rabbinical post in Vilna or in any other position, because of his humility and his desire not to waste time from Torah study.

5. According to his son’s testimony, the Gra intended to create a new Code of Jewish Law that would decide all the Jewish legal dissensions through irrefutable proofs, but didn’t manage to carry it out.

6. Despite his brilliance, the Gra promoted studying Torah according to pshat, the literal level of Torah which focuses on Jewish law, despite he himself having unparalleled wide-ranging scholarship in all branches of Torah study.

7. The Gra is the only one of the Achronim (Torah scholars who lived in the last 400 years), whose teachings are considered as authoritative of the Rishonim (Torah scholars from the Medieval Age).

8. His students testified that the Vilna Gaon was not only well-versed in the Torah, but also many secular disciplines such as mathematics, engineering, biology, astronomy, geography, linguistics and music. Despite that, the Gra was opposed to studying these disciplines because he didn’t see them as worthwhile.

9. The Gra desired to make aliya to the Land of Israel and even started out on a journey to do so, but in the end was unable to. He encouraged his students to do so, and many of them did make aliya and settled in the Land of Israel.

10. The Gra’s greatest disciple was Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, the author of “Nefesh Hachayim” and the one who founded the “mother of all yeshivas” — the famous Volozhin yeshiva which produced many of the greatest Torah scholars in recent generations. 


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