Rav Eliyahu HaGaon MiVilna
Founder of Mitnagdut

Born: 1720 in Seltz, Byelorussia.
Died: 1797 in Vilna (Vilnius), Lithuania.
Buried: Saltoniskiu Cemetery, Vilna

Rav Eliyahu HaGaon MiVilna, or Rabbi Elijah the Vilna Gaon, was an eighteenth century Lithuanian Jewish scholar. Though he never accepted an official appointment, he was widely regarded as the Chief Rabbi of Vilna, and was titled its Gaon. The term translates as "genius", and hadn't been formally applied since the period of the Babylonian, Egyptian, and North African Gaonim, approximately the 7th through 11th centuries C.E. Rav Eliyahu is commonly referred to as the "Gra", a Hebrew abbreviarion for "Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu".

The Gra was rightly called a genius. At the age of seven he delivered a lecture in the Great Synogogue of Vilna, and by the age of ten he had advanced far ahead of any teacher, studying Talmud, Kaballah, mathematics, astronomy, history, and music with famed eagerness and diligence. When he was 35, he was called upon to help resolve the Eybeschulz / Emden schism, a wildly divisive controversy in which Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschulz accused Rabbi Yaakov Emden of writing amulets containing Sabbatean inscriptions. Adherents to the Sabbatean heresy sought to achieve closeness to God by sinning, and in the 18th century Eastern European Jewry was convulsed with a paranoia wherein any Rabbi with mystic inclinations could be accused of Sabbateanism.

Among other contributions to Jewish scholarship, the Vilna Gaon authored notes correcting trancription errors in the Talmud and Kaballah. His writtings include commentaries on the following works: From time to time in his commentaries on the Talmud, the Vilna Gaon would even disagree with that source over its interpretation of the Mishnah, therein picking a fight with his predeccessors by about 1500 years. As a teacher, he also criticized the stifling educational methods of pilpul (hair splitting dialectic) and chilluk (sophistry). Under the leadership of the Gaon, Vilna became Europe's premiere center of Torah study, acquiring the honorific nickname "the Jerusalem of Lithuania". The Vilna Gaon's student, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, founded the Volozhiner Yeshiva, also an influential institution.

The Vilna Gaon was a fervent opponent of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov's populist Hasidic movement. Hasidism emphasized ecstatic worship available to the simplest Jews, and its adherents were accused of laxity in observing Torah law. In 1772, the Vilna Gaon applied a charem, or ban of excommunication, to all Hasidim; the ban persisted for 30 years. Part of it reads, "Everywhere they should be torn up by the roots... so that not two of them should remain together." Following the ban's application, the Hasidic leaders Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk and Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lyady tried to see the Gaon, but he refused to meet with them.

The followers of the Vilna Gaon were called Misnagdim (singular: Mitnageid), or "opponents". Today, all Orthodox Jews either observe Hasidism or Mitnagdut, "opposition". The acrimony between the two branches of Orthodoxy has dulled and each tends to tolerate, even respect, the other. Since the 18th century they have drawn closer together, as Hasidism eventually itself produced a number of scholars and also corrected its counter-legalistic tendencies. However, some members Hasidic sect of Chabad-Lubavitch bear a grudge towards the Vilna Gaon for disrespecting their Rabbis.

What follows is an incomplete list of books by the Vilna Gaon; most of them were transcribed by his son Rabbi Avraham or by his students. These are mostly books of moral advice and Jewish thought- his commentaries tend to be published alongside and under the name of the texts that they comment on:

The Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, at 12 Pamenkalnio Street and 4 Pylimo Street, Vilnius, houses a collection including
ritual objects, and everyday items used or produced by Lithuanian Jews; Jewish documentation - books, letters, posters, cigarette packet pieces with hand written notes, some copies of Ghetto diaries, seals of various organizations, translations, periodicals, proclamations, archival material from the former the USSR; art works by prewar artists B. Michtom, S. Efron, M. Katz, L. Mergashilski, E. Lurje. Also contemporary pieces by A. Jacovskis, B. Bindler, M. Percov, H. Skliutauskaite, M. Levitan-Babiansdkiene, and others.


Childhood indoctrination
A.P. Medeivil Jewish History*, as taught by Mrs. Feinberg
The late 90s PBS documentary "A World Apart"
"If not higher than that", a short story by I.L. Peretz

Abrahamson, Eliezer C. http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/biography/vilnagaon.html.
Bowman, Steven. A review of The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and his Image, by Immanuel Etkes.
Levin, Louis. http://beljewhist.virtualave.net/Gaon.htm.


*In response to some confusion, this is not a real Advanced Placement class offered by the College Board. A.P. tests in Medeival and Modern Jewish History classes are administered by Yeshiva University in New York City, and students can recieve college credit at Y.U. for these two classes. I never intended to attend Y.U., but I took A.P. Med. JHist in high school because it was fucked up and interesting.

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