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28 Iyar 5764 - May 19, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Hashem's Torah Is Perfect and Complete: The Vilna Gaon's Monumental Torah Edifice

by Rabbi Dov Eliach

Part Two: Along the Pathways of the PaRDeS

For Shavuos, this exploration of the Gaon's teachings about Torah, to help us appreciate the wonderful gift that Hashem gave us.

Multiple Levels

The Vilna Gaon taught that the Oral Torah is not merely an interpretation of the Written Torah, onto which it is superimposed in order to provide explanation as a transparency is placed over the bare outline of a picture to provide further depth and detail. He showed how Torah Shebe'al Peh is a direct outgrowth of the Written Torah. The spelling and sequence of the words and pesukim of the Written Torah are replete with allusions to the laws contained in the Mishnah, the synopsis of the Oral Torah. The Gaon maintained that the application of a comparable process of inference to the text of the Mishnah forms the basis of the gemora's discussions, which basically elaborate the Mishnah.

The Gaon went yet further and asserted that the levels of both pshat, the text's simple meaning, and drush, the meaning yielded by the orally transmitted methods of expounding the text, are valid in the study of the Mishnah as well as in the study of the Written Torah. Thus, the gemora's understanding of a mishnah may differ from that obtained by a simple reading, but application of the methods of drush will show that it is alluded to in the text. It is also legitimate to interpret a mishnah according to its plain meaning, even when the gemora understands it differently.

This is the testimony of the Gaon's talmidim Rav Binyomin Rivlin zt'l (in his work Gevi'i Gevia Hakesef, explaining the mishnah in Bovo Kama 14) and Rav Menasheh of Iliya (in the introduction to his work Binas Mikro). The Reshash (on Pesochim 74) also refers to this having been the Gaon's practice (in explaining the mishnah in Brochos 7:2). He quotes the Tosafos Yom Tov (Nozir 5:5) who writes that it is quite acceptable to advance alternative explanations of mishnayos to those of Chazal in the gemora. This, he notes, is the established tradition of the commentators to the Written Torah. The only condition is that they should not result in interpreting any laws in contradiction to the opinions of the Sages of the Talmud.

Depth Within Depth, Meaning Within Meaning

At the end of Margoliyos Hatorah on NaCh and the Five Megillos, written by the Gaon's talmid Rav Tzvi Hirsch zt'l of Semiatitz, the copier, Rav Mordechai son of Rav Nechemia zt'l, writes: "Each strand of this threefold cord [i.e. the Written Torah, the Oral Torah and the concealed Torah teachings] can be interpreted according to pshat [simple meaning], remez [allusion], drush [expounding] and sod [secret teachings]: Scripture, Mishnah and Talmud.

"Even regarding the holy Zohar and the writings of the Arizal, I heard from Rav Aryeh Leib -- who heard from his father the Gaon -- that it contains pshat, remez, drush and sod. These are secrets within secrets."

Rav Chaim Berlin zt'l, is also mentioned (in Olom Asiyah on Tanach, on pp. 29 and 82) as having repeated this in the Gaon's name.

Pshat and drush often yield clearly differing interpretations of the same text -- which are nevertheless both valid. The text carries more than one meaning and the different methods of interpretation complement rather than contradict one another. Pshat and sod, on the other hand, never differ. They are simply differing aspects, or levels of the selfsame teaching.

The Gaon's comments about the aggodoh -- the homiletic passages of Shas where Chazal impart mussar and other non-halachic teachings -- help explain this idea. In his commentary to Mishlei, the Gaon explains that the aggodos are the means by which Chazal convey the Torah secrets that are "Hashem's glory" (25:2) and asserts that "all the Torah's secret teachings are secreted within them" (24:30).

However, they are not mere allegory. Elsewhere the Gaon writes, "everything is true in the plainest sense but they also contain inner meaning -- not the inner meaning of the scholars of philosophy, which relegates it to the rubbish heap but that of the scholars of truth" (Yoreh Dei'ah 179:13).

He also wrote: "This is the wonderful virtue of the Divine Torah over all other works on other branches of knowledge and ethics that are written in parable or riddle form . . .this Torah -- both its outer and inner aspects -- is all true and precise. This is something wondrous, that is relevant to nothing else save the capacity of Divine wisdom" (Likkutei HaGra from manuscript, Mishlei 1:6).

Fidelity of the Simple Meaning and Concealed Teachings

Several observations on the Gaon's approach, made by his talmidim and by later gedolim, enhance our understanding of this relationship between pshat and sod. Rav Mendel of Shklov writes, "I shall state clearly that which I heard explicitly from his holy lips. He never explained any posuk unless he knew its hidden meaning and clothed it in the plain meaning."

Rav Mendel explains that this formed the basis of his arrangement of the Gaon's commentary to Mishlei. "Although there are a number of pesukim that at first glance seem simple, I have not omitted them. They seem simple but [in reality] are ladders reaching from the ground to the heavens, as the wise [reader] will understand" (Introduction to the Gaon's commentary on Mishlei).

Rav Mendel's colleague, Rav Yisroel of Shklov writes: "All his ideas about understanding revealed Torah were firmly bound to the chain of kabboloh, no secret of which escaped him, as I heard from my beloved friend . . .Rav Mendel . . . who heard from his holy lips when he received his commentary to seder Taharos, that he did not resolve upon any underlying principle or explanation that he developed in seder Taharos until he knew its inner essence according to the concealed Torah" (Introduction to Taklin Chadetin).

Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg zt'l, author of Hakesav Vehakabboloh, expressed this idea very succinctly. "They attest in the name of our great teacher the Gaon, who said that the order of a person's study should be from the bottom upwards [i.e. from a simpler level of understanding to a deeper and more elevated one] while his attainment [i.e. comprehension] should guide him from the top downwards. When he understands the concealed meaning properly, he will understand everything properly, pshat, remez, drush and sod. So long as one doesn't understand the sod, even the pshat is unclear" (from his work Iyun tefilloh, section on Shabbos shacharis, on the words luchos avonim).

A pivotal aspect of the Gaon's central idea of Torah's unity is the harmony that exists between the revealed Torah and the kabboloh, both of which issue from the same Divine Source and both of which are rooted in the Written Torah. There were those who pointed to laws over which the Sages of the revealed Torah disagreed with those of the kabboloh as evidence of two distinct approaches. The Gaon would say that these people only "discovered" these "contradictions" because they did not understand how to explain the Zohar properly "for how could the holy Torah's concealed approach argue with its revealed approach?" (Rav Chaim of Volozhin quoting the Gaon, in the Introduction to the Gaon's commentary to the Zohar).

The Parallel between Revealed Torah and Concealed Torah

In the Gaon's view, the body of written kabboloh that we possess today and the relationship to one another of the various works that comprise it, parallels the arrangement of the Oral Torah. The first scholars of kabboloh set down all the teachings that had been received at Har Sinai in Safra Detseni'uso. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai then came and provided elucidation of that work, revealing further secrets in the holy Zohar. However, there is nothing in the Zohar, the Tikkunim and the Idros that is not alluded to in Safra Detseni'uso.

Later came the Arizal who revealed yet more secrets that were nonetheless all hinted at already in the existing seforim. He clarified and expanded the very same teachings that had been presented in the Zohar. His teachings were set out in an orderly manner in a number of sections (the Shemoneh She'orim) including the Eitz Chaim, which his talmidim produced.

The Gaon's approach to the various kabboloh works is clearly and beautifully presented by Rav Chaim of Volozhin in his introduction to the Gaon's commentary to Safra Detseni'uso. Rav Chaim begins by reviewing his rebbe's colossal achievements in tracing the roots of the Shulchan Oruch.

"In his holy written works, he trod and illumined a new and holy path for us, which nobody had traversed for several generations before him. It is a firm and clear path through [both] revealed and concealed [Torah]. We shall take this path upwards, climbing ever higher, discovering the sources, and the sources of the sources for the laws.

"He performed a wondrous feat in his commentary on Shulchan Oruch, where he encompassed the multitude of laws mentioned in the holy writings according to their sources in the two Talmudim, which he pointed out. He finely examined and sifted [the rulings] until he produced a pure and lucid extract of the opinions of the Rishonim z'l.

"And also in his commentary to the Mishnah, he encompassed all the teachings of the Amoraim in the two Talmudim and [also showed how] all the Toseftos and Beraissos are clearly alluded to in the Mishnah.

"In the same way, this commentary on Safra Detseni'uso is an awe inspiring achievement, in which he reveals his tremendous power. He demonstrates how all the procedures of creation and of [Yechezkel's] vision of the Divine Merkovoh that are set out in the holy Zohar, the Idros, the Tikkunim and the writings of the Arizal -- their general principles and [also] their details -- are contained and arranged according to their order and rules in the source of sources, this elevated and holy volume, Safra Detseni'uso."

Not only did the Gaon trace the roots of the entire contents of the later works of kabboloh to Safra Detseni'uso, he also clearly showed how they are all contained within the Written Torah.

Rav Chaim continues: "He went even further, with a grand idea which he arrived at through his toil. There is nothing in the teachings of the holy Zohar, the Tikkunim and the Ra'aya Mehemena, that is not alluded to in the Written Torah. There are heaps and heaps of the deepest secrets [alluded to] by each and every stroke [of the Torah's letters]."

Rav Chaim stresses that it was not merely the Gaon's brilliance that enabled him to comprehend all this but the sheer hard work that he invested. "This had always been his holy practice -- to understand, to contemplate and to engage in unimaginably great and mighty labors that one would grow tired from describing. With tremendous and wondrous attachment, in abundant holiness and wondrous purity, to the point where he merited understanding them thoroughly and how they were all clearly and genuinely present in their source and in the ultimate, original source."

Delve into It Unceasingly for It Contains Everything

Towards the end of the Gaon's life, his utter mastery of Torah and ability to pinpoint the source of each and every one of Chazal's teachings in the Written Torah, led him to reverse the usual order of Torah study and wholly devote himself to reviewing the Oral Torah from the Written Torah, by scrutinizing its letters, words and language -- a far more elevated level of study than learning the Oral Torah separately.

The younger brother of Rav Refoel Hacohen of Hamburg served as rov of the town of Chutatz and when Rav Refoel was elderly, he stayed with him for some time. Rav Refoel once mentioned the Gaon's name in the course of conversation and his brother noticed a reverential shudder pass through him as he did so. He asked Rav Refoel in what way the Vilna Gaon had been greater than the other geonim of his day to elicit such respect.

Rav Refoel's sight was dim due to old age and he asked his brother to go to the bookcase and bring him a certain sefer whose position he described, without specifying what sefer it was. His brother fetched the book he wanted; it was a Tanach.

"The Gaon was fluent in this sefer," Rav Refoel exclaimed excitedly and went on to explain how the Gaon had known where all the contents of the Talmud and the other parts of the Oral Torah were secreted within Tanach (Aliyos Eliyahu, in the introduction Ma'alos Hasulam, note 11, from the records of the Radal, who heard it himself from Rav Refoel's brother).

Rav Yisroel of Shklov adds that the Gaon also knew where all the books of Nevi'im and Kesuvim are alluded to in the five Chumoshim (Introduction to Pe'as Hashulchan, quoting Rav Mendel of Shklov who heard this from the Gaon).

The Gaon also found allusions to Chazal's teachings in the trop, the tunes to which the Torah is read which are assigned by tradition to each word. A number of explanations of pesukim and of statements by Chazal based on the trop and the names of the different tunes are quoted from the Gaon (see for example Peninim Mishulchan HaGra, Bereishis 44:18; Shemos 1:14; 30:12, 14; 33:4-5; Vayikra 11:41; 25:46; Bamidbor 31:50; Devorim 14:22; 15:8 and see also Shaarei Zohar, Nedorim 37, who gathers explanations of the names of all the tunes from the Zohar).

Rav Shaul Katzenellenbogen zt'l, who was av beis Din of Vilna and a frequent visitor to the Gaon's home in his final years, related that in his last years, the Gaon learned mainly from a Chumash, contemplating its words as a route to studying the Oral Torah to which they alluded (Aliyos Eliyahu ibid. Rav Y.H. Levin zt'l, quoting his father Rav E. Z. Levin zt'l, who heard this from Rav Shaul).

Another source attests that this was the Gaon's practice during the last three years of his life and notes that it was also the practice of the Sha'agas Aryeh zt'l (Toldos Yitzchok by Rav Yitzchok Cahana zt'l, a talmid of Rav Y. I. Chover zt'l, Yerushalayim 5637, pg. 10).

Joining the Oral Torah to the Written Torah

In his introduction to Zichru Toras Moshe, the Gaon's mechuton, the Chayei Odom writes, "He learned the way we were commanded to learn by Moshe Rabbenu . . . He would learn the Written Torah together with its orally transmitted explanation using his knowledge of how to expound each letter and its vowels, as is apparent from his work on the Torah. All this goes for the revealed part of Torah. And he was even wiser in the concealed part, to the extent that if all the seas were ink etc. it would not suffice to explain his words. Everything he said was in the form of allusions, that require lengthy explanation."

Study of the Gaon's commentary to Tikkunei Zohar reveals that this practice was not a mere system or a particular kind of approach to learning but a definite form of avodas Hashem (beyond the actual mitzvah of learning Torah) and a way of rectifying the spiritual worlds.

The Gaon maintains that there are two ways of bringing about this rectification through learning the Oral Torah: "One is by determining which view to follow where opinions differ and the other is by connecting it to the Written Torah" (Tikkun Twenty-One, Vilna ed. p. 46a, col. 1. Thanks to my friend Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel who brought this source to my attention.). See also the text boxes that accompany this article.

Referring to the Gaon's practice of determining the sources for Chazal's teachings in the Written Torah, Rav Tzvi Hirsch Farber zt'l of London concludes: "Every man of heart can see from this that the Torah is Hashem's writing, for it is impossible for flesh and blood to allude in a small volume to worlds of infinity" (Kerem Hatzevi, Devorim pg. 159)

Six Hundred and Thirteen Roots

As well as showing how the Written Torah serves as the source of all the Oral Torah, both revealed and concealed on all levels, the Gaon astounds us with a further revelation. In his work Ma'alos Hatorah, the Gaon's brother Rav Avrohom zt'l writes:

"When the number six hundred and thirteen [mitzvos] is mentioned, this refers only to the number of roots but these proliferate into many [more] branches. In truth, knowing which are roots and which are branches is beyond our understanding. But we do not need to know anyway because the entire Torah and all the mitzvos -- the principles, details and fine points thereof -- are contained within every individual mitzvah and within every word of Torah,.

"This is why the Torah is compared to a tree -- `It is a tree of life . . .' (Mishlei 3:18) -- because a tree branches out from a single root into a number of boughs. Each bough has several branches and each branch bears several fruits. Within each fruit are a number of seeds, each of which has the power to grow into another whole tree. In addition, each bough can be replanted and will grow into a whole, complete tree. So it is with the Torah and its mitzvos. Each individual word and mitzvah contains all the mitzvos and all the words."

In other words, not only does the Torah as a whole allude to and contain entire worlds of meaning but each and every word and mitzvah also contain within them all the other mitzvos.

Rav Aharon Kotler zt'l, used this idea to explain a comment that is repeated in the Gaon's name. The Gaon was of the opinion that there is no reason to don Rabbenu Tam tefillin since the halochoh follows the opinion of Rashi, the Rambam and the other poskim who disagree with him.

The Gaon once remarked that when he reached the Upper World, he would go over to Rabbenu Tam and spend three days disproving his opinion to him. (Although the time of "three days" is not mentioned in the usual version of the story which is brought in Rav Chaim of Volozhin's Kesser Rosh and in other sources, it appears in Beis Yaakov by Rav Boruch Broide of Kelm [Yerushalayim 5644] where a handwritten account of Rav Yisroel of Shklov is quoted: "I heard from his talmid [Rav Chaim] that our teacher used to say that he had questions on Rabbenu Tam's opinion which he would ask him for three days in the World to Come . . ." See the Gaon's commentary to Tikkunei Zohar Chodosh, Avodoh Zora 77 regarding the support for Rabbenu Tam's tefillin that is cited from the Zohar.)

Reb Aharon expressed his amazement over what there could be to spend three days discussing. The entire topic occupies no more than one line of gemora in maseches Menochos, which is explained one way by Rashi and another way by Rabbenu Tam. What was the Gaon referring to that could occupy him for three days?

Moreover, in his commentary to Shulchan Oruch which he wrote for general study, the Gaon's comments are extremely concise. If that is how he saw fit to express himself for the general public, one imagines that his communication with Rabbenu Tam would be all the more brief. What would take three entire days?

It is said in the Gaon's name and also mentioned in Ma'alos Hatorah, Reb Aharon explained, that each word in the Torah has branches and sub-branches yet is also connected to all of the rest of the Torah. When refuting Rabbenu Tam's opinion about tefillin then, the Gaon will certainly show how his arguments are reflected in each of the Torah's other mitzvos. Given the Gaon's fearsome and exalted power, Reb Aharon concluded, such a lengthy discourse could easily take three days (from Rav Yisroel Spinner, who heard this from Reb Aharon himself).

Discerning the Full Detail

Quoting the Gaon, his brother writes further in Ma'alos Hatorah, "In truth, the mitzvos abound tremendously and cannot be numbered. Any person who has a penetrating intellect and an understanding heart and can conduct himself in all his affairs and in every respect, big and small, according to the Torah's mitzvos, will be fulfilling mitzvos at every moment. The gemora and the midroshim contain many such accounts about how the Sages z'l, conducted themselves according to the Torah in every respect."

This idea of the Gaon's forms the basis of the sefer Eved Hamelech on the Torah by Rav Shmuel Houminer zt'l. On the title page the author writes that he sets out "to explain all Hashem's mitzvos . . . both those numbered among the 613 and those that are not . . . everything that Chazal learned from pesukim in Tanach that we ought to do or ought to refrain from doing . . ." (See also the introduction and the letter of haskomoh from Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt'l).

For his part, the author of Ma'alos Hatorah succeeded in enumerating two lots of six hundred and thirteen ways of the world which he gathered from the gemora, midroshim and Yalkut that are alluded to in the Torah from parshas Bereishis to parshas Noach (as his descendant Rav Meir ben Eliyohu testifies in Milchamos Hashem [in manuscript]).

End of Part 2 of 3

Rav Zelmele Continues his Teacher's Path

Rav Zelmele of Volozhin zt'l, who, with his brother Rav Chaim, was the Gaon's closest talmid, followed his teacher in seeking the Scriptural sources for halachos in the Oral Torah where these were not identified by earlier works. Some were apparent from the simple meaning; others depended on hints or allusions but all were straightforward and firmly based.

Rav Zelmele once remarked that when he studied Tanach as a youngster, he knew for sure that it contained wonderful things but on the whole it was a closed book to him. When he studied Written Torah again however, after having learned Shas, both Bavli and Yerushalmi, as well as the rest of the Oral Torah, he found much that was new and that made good sense. Chazal's teachings had opened the way for him to appreciate the light of the Written Torah.

Henceforth, he used pesukim to help him remember the Oral Torah, because multitudes of halochos hung upon every nuance of their terse language. Sometimes, he was able to memorize a hundred halachos or more, through one, short parsha (Toldos Odom, perek 4).

The Gaon's Approach: Earlier Advocates

In his introduction to his commentary on Chumash, the Rokei'ach writes, "The Talmud issues from the Torah. It requires great depth, understanding and comprehension to see how it does so . . . for the Talmud extends to over a thousand seforim, with the Oral Torah, the debates and the close study of the mitzvos and laws, what is permitted and forbidden -- and it all issues from the Written Torah. Torah study is thus equal to all else, for `Is there anything that Moshe did not allude to in the Torah?' etc."

A wonderful passage in the Or Hachaim's commentary to the Chumash (Vayikra 13:37) sheds light on the Gaon's understanding of the relationship between the Written and the Oral Torah.

"The Master, Boruch Hu, in His wisdom . . . inscribed in the Written Torah all the Oral Torah that He told Moshe, but He didn't inform Moshe where everything that He'd told him orally was alluded to in writing. This is the work of bnei Yisroel, who toil in Torah: to reconcile the halachos that were told to Moshe at Sinai, and the secrets and droshos and find them all a place in the Written Torah. Thus, one finds that the Tanoim came and composed Toras Cohanim and the Sifrei etc. All of their expounding of the Scriptures correspond to the halachos, which they clothed in [Scriptural sources within] Hashem's perfect Written Torah.

"Following them, to this day, this is the holy work of bnei Torah -- to scrutinize the pesukim and reconcile them with the statements in the Oral Torah . . . This task was not conveyed to Moshe in its entirety . . . This is why they z'l, said that Rabbi Akiva was expounding droshos that Moshe did not know. This does not mean that he didn't know the actual teachings - - after all, everything comes from him, `even what experienced scholars are going to derive' -- just that he didn't know they are supported and precisely alluded to in the Torah" (Thanks to my brother, Rav Avrohom Yeshaya for bringing this source to my attention).

The Gaon's Approach: Later Followers

In his sefer, Revid Hazohov, Rav Dov Ber Treves zt'l, one of the greatest Torah scholars in Vilna in the Gaon's time, discovered the sources in the Written Torah for numerous laws. Rav Tzvi Hirsch of Semiatitz zt'l, a talmid of Rav Chaim of Volozhin, did the same for the concealed Torah. In his sefer, Margoliyos Hatorah, he cites the teachings of the Arizal and of other mekubolim, showing their sources in pesukim.

Another of Rav Chaim's talmidim, Rav Eliyahu Ragoler zt'l, writes in a letter to his son-in-law, "Learn a fixed, daily shiur of Chumash with Rashi, according to the plain meaning, without any of the commentaries on Rashi whatsoever . . . review the shiur five times. Really, the main purpose in learning is [achieved] through fluency in the Written Torah, for this enables one to remember Chazal's midroshim in Shas . . . For Hashem's sake, do not swerve from this path, for this is the main foundation of Torah. Happy is the man who learns Chumash and the posuk, `Bereishis' at the beginning of his learning, before he reaches the stage of gemora."

The Netziv zt'l was another outstanding follower of this approach, which is the main thrust of all his writings. All his comments in Ha'ameik Dovor, his great commentary to Chumash, revolve around the teachings of the Talmudim and midroshim and their relationship to the pesukim. Moreover, in numerous places, the Netziv demonstrates from pesukim the great merit that the Written Torah itself attaches to the study of the Oral Torah.

He writes that his commentary elucidates, "the profundity of the plain meaning, interwoven with Chazal's teachings. . . Moreover, when one truly appreciates the power of the Talmud and its study and what it achieves for Yisroel [as will happen] when one arrives at the parsha, `Kadeish li kol bechor' (Shemos 13:1- 10) and with a virtual majority of the parshos in sefer Devorim, where I show (10:8) that scripture refers to Talmud as "Aron Beris Hashem" because it is the means through which Hashem's Providence is bestowed upon Yisroel . . ." (from a letter to the savant Avrohom Eliyahu Harkavy, 12th Teves 5641, printed in Shenos Dor Vodor by Rav Reuven Dov Dessler, Yerushalayim, 5760, pg. 183).


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