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The Vilna Gaon: No Secret Escaped Him

by Rav Dov Eliach

Part I

In his three-volume work HaGaon (that was put together under the supervision of HaRav Chaim Kanievsky) Rav Dov Eliach brought together an enormous amount of material to try to give us some concept of what the Vilna Gaon was. The Gaon was outstanding in many aspects of human development. Our concepts do not do justice to what the Gaon really was. The section printed here is taken from Chapter Five, and is centered around the breadth of knowledge of the Gaon. When reading it, one should keep in mind that this is just one of many areas in which the Gaon lived at a such an outstanding level.

Rav Eliach has added a new series of volumes to the bookshelf of works related to the Gaon with the ongoing publication of Chumash HaGra, an arrangement of the comments of the Gaon arranged according to the parshiyos of Chumash, with the full Chumash text. So far Bereishis, Shemos and Bamidbar have appeared, and we eagerly await the completion of the series.

*

The Chazon Ish wrote, " . . . his level of Divine inspiration and the like, and his diligence and breadth of knowledge, in profound depth, in all the Torah that is now in our possession — we cannot imagine how it is even possible" (Kovetz Igros).

The Gaon's mechuton, the Chayei Odom, said of him, "His mind contained the entire Torah, both the revealed and hidden portions, to such an extent that it was unfathomable how an individual could hold so much in his head."

In describing someone who studied all of Talmud Bavli, one might say: "He completed Shas." If this person then reviewed it until he knew it perfectly, one could call him "an expert in Shas." If he studied the Talmud Yerushalmi too, then he is "an expert in Shas Bavli and Yerushalmi." Similarly, if he were to study other parts of Torah one could list all the areas of his expertise, and that would give a sense of what he had accomplished.

However this is not true of one who studied Torah diligently, in great depth, throughout his entire life, without neglecting anything in the entire Torah. Even by saying, "He studied and knew the entire Torah," one has not conveyed the scope of the Gaon's accomplishments, for people cannot really grasp what that is. As the Chazon Ish writes, "We cannot imagine how it is even possible."

Of the Torah it says, "Its size is longer than the earth and wider than the sea." The Gaon explained that the very yardstick for measuring the Torah is itself "longer than the land and wider than the sea" (Peninim MiShulchan HaGra, Iyov 11:9).

A Man Who Encompassed Everything

The Chazon Ish speaks about the Gaon's "breadth of knowledge, in profound depth, of the all the Torah that is now in our possession." What is "all the Torah that is now in our possession?"

The prime disciple of the Gaon, HaRav Chaim of Volozhin, explains:

"He did not neglect anything — small or large, Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, Mechilta, Sifro, Sifrei, Toseftos and all the midroshim, and the holy Zohar, the Tikkunim, Ma'asei Bereishis, Ma'asei Merkovoh, the Sefer Yetziroh, and all the holy works of the early Kabbalists and the Kisvei Arizal.

"To master all of them he exerted great and wondrous efforts that cannot be measured, analyzing their words and descending to amazing depths and shedding light where there was murkiness or copyists' errors in the texts, until pathways were illuminated through their holy words, and all was clear and elucidated. The Torah of truth was in his mouth; it was the absolute Torah. Everything that he studied was organized, structured, and preserved in his memory." (Introduction to the Bi'ur HaGra on Safra Detzni'usa)

The Sages said, "A person should always study Torah in the area that his heart desires" (Avodoh Zora 19a). People have different preferences. One focuses most of his attention on studying Tanach, while another loves to study Talmud. One studies practical halacha, while another concentrates on aggodoh and mussar. One prefers to cover ground, while another will not proceed until he has studied the topic in great depth.

This was not true of the Gaon, whose accomplishments were outstanding in every area of Torah study and every approach to it. He succeeded in intellectually developing every aspect of Torah, delving deeply into it until his studies had integrated all approaches and areas of G-d's Torah. He was a man who encompassed everything, an ish eshkolos in every sense of the term.

The Gaon spoke as little as possible, and especially avoided talking about himself. However, in a rare moment of revelation he once summarized what he had been privileged to achieve during his lifetime, and described the extent of his phenomenal command of Torah.

It was in his later years, when his disciple, Rav Menachem Mendel of Shklov, had finished transcribing his rebbi's commentary on Shir HaShirim. In his great joy over the completion of the project, the Gaon called his mechuton, the Rov of Serhi (where they were staying at the time) and he also called his eldest son, Rav Yehuda Leib who was married to the Rov's daughter. The Gaon told them to close the door and the window shutters of the room, even though it was the middle of the day. Inside, isolated and insulated from the rest of the world, they lit up the room with many candles in honor of the occasion.

The Gaon finished dictating his commentary to Rav Mendel in the presence of the others. Then he lifted his eyes heavenward, in tremendous devotion, and blessed and thanked Hashem for giving him a grasp of the light of the entire Torah, both its inner and outer parts.

In his elevated mood, the Gaon revealed many measures of his all-encompassing knowledge in all areas of wisdom, and his amazing and rare breadth of knowledge of the entire Torah. He listed all the external disciplines that are prerequisites to the understanding of Torah, along with their benefits. The Gaon had completely mastered each of these disciplines.

Afterwards, he said that, Boruch Hashem, he knew all the Torah that was given at Sinai. He also understood how all of Nevi'im and Kesuvim, as well as Mishnayos and the Oral Torah are hidden in the Written Torah. Now, in his old age, he had no remaining uncertainties regarding any halacha or topic in the entire Torah. He also knew all the details of the Oral Torah, including all the poskim through the Acharonim who comment on the Shulchan Oruch. He clarified and corrected errors in all the texts and left them like refined flour that is cleansed of all impurities.

The Gaon mastered all portions of the hidden Torah that we possess: the Zohar, the Tikkunei Zohar, Sefer Yetziroh, and the writings of the Arizal and the Pardes. Those too, he purified of all errors that had crept in and he corrected them based on proofs that were as clear as day. There were only two serious matters among the secrets of the Zohar that were unclear to him. After he told his listeners where those difficulties are found, he announced that if he knew of someone who understood them, he would go to him on foot, wherever he was. In the meantime, he was waiting for the Moshiach Tzidkeinu to come and explain them to him.

The Gaon also said that, as is well-known, there are six- hundred-twenty pillars of light, whose names and locations were not revealed. He, however, had grasped them and knew the names of each and every one, as well as where it was hidden in the Written Torah. This information is not in the world: the Gaon did not tell anyone and he did not write it down.

With this, the Gaon concluded his unusual survey of his knowledge and achievements in all of Torah and all areas of wisdom.

When the Rov of Serhi heard what the Gaon said about the six- hundred-twenty pillars of light, he fell at his feet and begged him to put these things into writing, even in a closed and sealed book, so that they would at least remain in the world. The Gaon refused however, saying that he was saving it for his first discourse in the World to Come.

The Gaon warned the three people in his presence not to reveal his awesome words to anyone. After the Gaon died however, Rav Mendel of Shklov told his friend, Rav Yisroel of Shklov, who wrote them down based on the verse, "That they should know the greatness of Torah and it should not be forgotten" (Introduction to Pe'as HaShulchon). Rav Mendel himself later published a few parts of the incident in his introduction to the Bi'ur HaGra on Ovos.

Backwards and Forwards

To ordinary people, the word "beki'us" is familiar from mundane matters — proficiency thus connotes a quantitative familiarity. The phrase, "boki in the entire Torah" would therefore imply knowledge of the whole text, meaning all the words of the text.

Clearly, however, this is not what is meant when we apply the term to gedolei Yisroel. What, then, is the nature of the expression we used to describe the Gaon, "no secret escaped him"?

Rav Chaim of Volozhin once told his students about the greatness of his brother, the amazing genius Rav Zelmaleh. He too was a close disciple of the Gaon. Rav Chaim noted his brother's profound beki'us in Torah, all parts of which he knew by heart. "Even in the days of the Tanoim and the Amoroim, he would have been considered a scholar," Rav Chaim said of his brother, in awe.

Surprised, one student said, "If so, then in what way was the master, the Gaon, greater than the student, Rav Zalman?"

Rav Chaim's face immediately lit up like a blazing flame, as it usually did when he spoke about his great rebbi, and he said: "Even if Rav Zelmaleh, my brother, had lived two thousand years, he would not reach the ankles of the Gaon!"

The students whispered amongst themselves, "Surely he means in terms of sharpness . . . "

But Rav Chaim scolded them and said, definitively, "Even in beki'us!"

At this, the students were astonished. How much was left for Rav Zelmaleh to learn that after two thousand years he still would not have reached the ankles of the Gaon?

Rav Chaim explained what he meant with an analogy:

Every Jew, young or old, scholar or layman, is able to say the prayer `Ashrei yoshvei veisecho' (Tehillim 145), by heart. I can testify that my brother, the holy genius Rav Zalman, was an expert in all the words of the Tanoim and Amoroim, in the revealed and the hidden portions of the Torah, in the Bavli and Yerushalmi, in the Zohar and in Eitz Chaim. All that we have from the words of the Sages, he could study and say by heart. Is this not amazing wisdom?

Yet, if a normal scholar were asked, "What is the word before the ninth verse of Ashrei, `Hashem is good to all who call to Him' (Tov Hashem . . . )?" With all his knowledge, he would have to start from the beginning of the previous verse, "Gracious and merciful, (Chanun veRachum)" and review it mentally up to its last word, `kindness (chossed).' And this is in the case of Ashrei, in which all the verses are arranged in alphabetical order. In other prayers or in Bircas Hamozone, one doesn't even have this alphabetical order to help him and would likely need a siddur in order to answer correctly.

Our master the Vilna Gaon however, knew all of Torah, both revealed and hidden, such that every word stood before his eyes — to the extent that for any word, he was able to give the preceding word on the spot. The entire Torah, backwards and forwards, was at his command, exactly like someone with an open book in front of him (Se'aras Eliyahu).

In this way, Rav Chaim showed that "beki'us in the entire Torah" is not the highest level, and that there exists a much greater level that only the Vilna Gaon achieved.

This distinction between the Gaon and his student Rav Zelmaleh was summarized in a pithy saying by the scholars of the time: "Rav Zalman was an expert in Shas from "Mei'eimosai" [the first mishna] to "Tanna Debei Eliyahu" [the last section of the end of Shas], but not from "Tanna Debei Eliyahu" to "Mei'eimosai." However the Gaon was a boki from "Mei'eimosai" to "Tanna Debei Eliyahu," as well as from "Tanna Debei Eliyahu" to "Mei'eimosai."

A Brisker Question — and Answer

The Brisker Rov, HaRav Yitzchok Zeev Soloveitchik, was surprised by this new concept of proficiency. What is the difference, he asked, if one knows how to read the Torah from the end to the beginning — has he fulfilled of the mitzvah of Torah study any better?

He then explained that knowing the Torah backwards and forwards is not just an additional skill. It is rather an indication of a higher, ideal level of knowledge. As it says in Mishlei (7:3), "Write them on the tablet of your heart." In other words, the words of Torah should be so familiar and clear to a person that it is as if they were written on a tablet in front of him. The ability to recite backwards is just an indication of this ideal level, since one who is reading from a text will be able to read backwards easily, unlike one who is reciting from memory alone.

This is the degree of Torah knowledge that is required - for it to be engraved on one's heart so deeply that one can read it backwards. The Vilna Gaon achieved this lofty level.

"Write Them on the Tablet of Your Heart"

Such a degree of proficiency is also a powerful key to understanding Torah. Command of the entire Torah like that of the Gaon can open new worlds in understanding the Torah.

Rav Shraga Feivush was a son-in-law of the Gaon, the Av Beis Din of Dubrovna and the publisher of Aderes Eliyahu, a collection of the Gaon's commentaries on the Torah. He once had a discussion with the Gaon about the spelling of various words without the additional letters (chosser) and with the additional letters (yesser) in the Torah portion that discusses the Menorah. The Gaon decided that his own approach was correct and based his decision on the tradition that in this parsha the letter yud appears a certain number of times and the letter vov appears a certain number of times. On the spot, the Gaon listed them by heart, one by one, like one counting money on his table (Aliyos Eliyahu).

Rav Menasheh of Ilyah suggested a new interpretation of a particular topic in tractates Shabbos and Eruvin that differed from Rashi and the other commentators. The Gaon asked him, "What forced you to explain it in this manner?"

Rav Menasheh answered, "From Kesuvos."

The Gaon questioned, "If so, then how do you resolve what such and such says in the gemara . . . ?"

Rav Menasheh was silent. He had no reply. But he was also shocked and amazed by the Gaon's tremendous beki'us and his grasp of the material. He had very subtly hinted his thoughts to the Gaon, and the Gaon immediately understood and reviewed the entire matter in his mind and then responded without any hesitation (Aliyos Eliyahu).

Another incident that Rav Menasheh from Ilyah told over: Regarding the verse in Tazria, "And it is not deeper in appearance than the skin" (Vayikra 13:4), Rashi wrote, "I do not know its meaning." Yet the Ramban and other commentators were surprised by Rashi's perplexity and explained the verse in various ways.

Rav Menasheh once came to the Gaon and began to confide his own opinion of how to explain Rashi's question on the Chumash. However, as soon as he began to present his ideas, the Gaon interrupted and said, "Rashi's question is clear," and he proceeded to explain all that Rav Menasheh had wished to tell him. Not only that, but he also answered Rashi's question according to a passage in Toras Kohanim.

When Rav Menasheh told the Radal about this incident, he added with astonishment, "The Gaon would respond in the same way to everything, whether [obscure] topics in Nego'im and Oholos or other laws that are well-known and practiced, for he organized and preserved all of them in his heart equally" (Aliyos Eliyahu).

This is an advanced fulfillment of the Talmudic statement, "Teach them thoroughly — the words of Torah should be sharp in your mouth, so that if someone asks you something, you should not stammer before telling him, but rather, [be able to] tell him immediately" (Kiddushin 30a).

Incidentally, the Sages learned this from the verse, "Tell wisdom that I am your sister . . ." and the verse, "Tie them on your fingers — write them on the tablet of your heart."

A Test on Tractate Succah

Rav Yisroel of Shklov tells of a student of the Vilna Gaon who came to visit his rebbi on Chol Hamoed Succos and asked the Gaon to test his knowledge of Tractate Succah by heart.

Before the holiday, the Gaon had told his students that it is important to know at least one tractate by heart so as not to lose time from Torah study while walking or sitting in darkness. One of his students decided to study Succah. After he had studied it many times and after his peers had tested him and found him fluent in it, he came to be tested by his rebbi.

A group of Torah scholars had come to visit the Gaon in honor of Succos, and they were sitting with him at the time. The young man entered and said to the Gaon, "I have learned Tractate Succah and I know it by heart."

The Gaon asked him, "Do you want me to ask you a question?"

The student agreed, saying, "After all, I know it by heart."

However, he was unable to respond to the Gaon's question.

What did the Gaon ask?

How many disputes are there in this tractate between R' Meir and R' Yehuda, and between R' Akiva and R' Tarfon; how many disputes between Abaye and Rava, and how many between Rav Papa and Rav Huna . . .?

The student, who was not expecting that sort of question, was stunned.

Then the Gaon then began to list the number of disputes one by one, noting how many times the halacha was decided in favor of each Tana or Amora. He then proceeded to dissect the tractate, down to the number of sugyos and shittos, and even mentioned how many laws in the tractate are derived from Tosefta and Yerushalmi.

When the Gaon counted the number of halachos dealt with in the Talmud (Bavli, Tosefta and Yerushalmi) regarding Succah, he noted that the number of succas mentioned as invalid is equal to the numerical equivalent of the word "Succah" spelled without a vov (85), and the number of kosher succas is equal to the numerical equivalent of the word "Succah" spelled with a vav (91) (introduction to the Pe'as HaShulchan).

Rav Yisroel of Shklov added: "That was the way he knew all of Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi and the entire Torah."

"All in all," Rav Chaim of Volozhin concluded, "all the words of the Tanoim and Amoroim that we are aware of, in both the revealed and hidden portions of the Torah, all were methodically arranged on his lips, organized in all areas and preserved in his heart, and he deduced lessons by counting their letters, to weigh on the scales of his holy intellect and to resolve with his truthful analytical abilities" (introduction to Shenos Eliyahu).

End of Part I

 

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