Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

24 Shevat 5762 - February 6, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Gaon: The Publication Of A Major New Work

Yisroel Friedman interviews the author, Rav Dov Eliach

Rav Dov Eliach, author of Avi Hayeshivos, Peninim Mishulchon Govohah, and Peninim Mishulchon HaGro, spent over five years researching and writing his major new three-volume work on the life of the Vilna Gaon ztvk'l, a number of excerpts from which have appeared in these pages. Rabbi Eliach's lengthy and extensive ingathering of information on the Gaon's life and works was accompanied by an equally painstaking process of corroboration and verification, resulting in a finished work that presents a comprehensive portrait of the Gaon that is both highly accurate and very reliable.

The book casts light on several obscure aspects of the Gaon's life and thought and also contains new material based on hitherto unpublished manuscripts and documentation. The combination of the wealth of available information and Rav Eliach's long years of careful work, gives us a bright and sharply-focused evaluation of the Gaon's tremendous contribution to his own and to future generations.

With the book's long awaited appearance around Chanukah, Yisroel Friedman interviewed Rabbi Eliach to discuss the finished product and, perhaps more importantly, the effort and struggle that went into creating it.

Some Background

YF: Rav Eliach, does the book have any bias?

Rav Eliach: The answer depends on what you define as a bias. The two centuries that have elapsed since the Gaon's petiroh have seen a tremendous amount of involvement in his life and work. A great deal has been written about him, with each author being influenced by his own considerations and motivations.

I had only one aim before me: namely, taking all due care yet without stinting on time or effort, to arrive at a historically accurate portrayal of the Gaon himself, and naturally, of his greatness in Torah. Of course, allowance must also be made for our own limitations in assessing him. If you want to look upon such an aim as representing a particular bias, then the book most definitely is biased.

YF: Another new work about the Gaon? But why at this particular time?

Rav Eliach: It would be sufficient to answer that such a project is always a correct and fitting thing to do. However, the truth is that my interest was first aroused seven years ago upon completion of my last project, Peninim Mishulchon Govohah on the Torah. I engaged in some mental stock taking and tried to determine what the next topic I could work on might be that would enrich our literature.

Ever since the appearance of my work Avi Hayeshivos about the life of our master Rav Chaim of Volozhin zt'l, a number of friends had been prodding me to continue what I had started. They said, "Now that you've become acquainted with the Gaon's school of thought via the life of his great talmid, and have also been instrumental in revealing divrei Torah from the Gaon's talmidim in Peninim Mishulchon Govohah, perhaps you ought to undertake an evaluation of the tzaddik himself, our master the Gaon."

So many people have delved into the Gaon's life over the years yet no comprehensive written work about him has emerged from among the ranks of those who take his teachings as their inspiration and guiding light.

Since the appearance of Aliyos Eliyohu, which laid the foundations for future research of the Gaon's life, many generations have passed. Things that it was then proper to mention in brief or only by way of allusion, need to be expanded upon nowadays. Moreover, a great deal of new material has been accumulating, all of which ought to have been collected together in one volume.

YF: Wasn't the two-hundredth anniversary of the Gaon's petiroh that was then approaching, also a consideration?

Rav Eliach: It was certainly a target date and it served as a catalyst to speed up the pace of the work, but it wasn't the main reason for undertaking the project.

Progress of the Actual Work

YF: What in fact caused the delay in the work's completion, until over four years after the bicentennial?

Rav Eliach: The "blame" can be laid first on Peninim Mishulchon HaGro. As the work of collecting material was progressing, I saw that the Gaon's divrei Torah on the Chumash that have been quoted in his name for generations had been published in a number of different collections, and even with all of them together, only part of the material is there.

I thought to myself, "Here is something I can do. While I'm putting the biographical work together, perhaps I can also manage a short intermediary project, an easy task of collection and compilation, which ought not to involve too much effort."

However, once I actually started the work and began checking the primary source of each teaching that is quoted in the Gaon's name and examining each posuk and statement of Chazal's in context, I discovered that the job was going to be neither easy nor quick. It is absolutely impossible to prepare any piece of the Gaon's Torah for publication, even short pieces and vertlach, without thoroughly investigating the sources and aiming for the greatest possible accuracy that one can hope to attain after two hundred years have elapsed. I also obtained many new pieces from manuscripts and seforim, with the result that the work stretched out and it was Peninim Mishulchon HaGro that appeared for the two hundredth yahrtzeit, while the biography was put aside.

Upon returning to the biographical work, I again made the same naive mistake of thinking that I could make do with a short, rushed job. In retrospect, it seems that I was supposed to have this impression. There is no doubt in my mind that had I known that the work would stretch out for five difficult years, I would have had serious misgivings about taking on such a burden.

YF: Judging from the series of articles that you published in our paper, it appears that even in the course of the work you didn't learn your lesson. We always had the impression that the book was about to be published.

Rav Eliach: Absolutely right! As I said, I attribute much of this to Providence! Let me take this opportunity to apologize to the public for the delays in the book's appearance. I very much hope that this is no exception to the rule that, "Every delay is for the good," and that the final result is sufficient compensation for the wait.

One apparent loss as a result of the delay was the chance to publish some completely new material from manuscripts and other sources, which appeared in the meantime in articles. At one time, I considered issuing just one volume that would have assured me of being the first to publish several things. However, I decided that a book is not like a newspaper and that the chance to publish a scoop ought not to outweigh the importance of ensuring that the book would be as complete and as reliable as possible.

The work portrays a great man's character and his approach. It is a single entity and could not be subdivided and broken down into pieces, neither in its composition nor in its publication. There was no choice but to wait until the work was completed.

At any rate, this is the time to thank all those who waited impatiently and pushed me to "finish already." Oi, what I went through so often, with their questions and their complaints! There were days when I almost didn't go out in public to attend simchas and the like, from fear of encountering these nudniks and their pressuring, when I myself wanted nothing in the world more than to have everything already behind me. Don't forget that writing a book like this exhausts one and wears one out.

YF: Why did the work actually take so long: over five years I think?

Rav Eliach: That's right, over five years of searching and gathering, digging and collecting, and constant investigation and checking.

From what you've already seen in the articles that have been published, you must have noticed that the book is not just a collection of stories, though many actual incidents are recorded. We checked the stories extremely rigorously, in the earliest possible sources. Had we satisfied ourselves with less, the book would have appeared years ago.

My aim was to portray the Gaon's character and thought, and to illuminate every aspect of his life and work and every period and event in his life, to the extent that someone as small as myself, standing so far removed in time, was able. All this research took up huge amounts of time, checking through hundreds of books and other sources, and making comparisons and clarifications. I spent over an entire year researching just one of the topics in the book.

All this apart, simply dealing with a figure of such giant proportions as the Gaon involves much questioning and soul searching; some sections were written and erased alternately until they assumed their final form. When one considers the Gaon, any problems caused by our distance from him in time are dwarfed by the problems cause by our distance from grasping anything about the awesome greatness of his angelic figure. I was constantly aware that I was exposing myself to problems whether I decided to write a particular thing, or whether I decided not to.

An Awesome Responsibility

YF: This leads us to the next question: weren't you nervous about approaching such a subject?

Rav Eliach: Of course, I trembled in fear. The impressions of that fear are contained in a poem that I wrote back then, entitled "Remove Your Shoes From Your Feet," which appears in the introductory chapter that bears the same name. The chapter's opening words are "Here I am, poor in deeds, terrified and scared, for I am at the entrance . . . "

The gedolim to whom I presented all my doubts and perplexities were the ones who tipped the scales in the project's favor at the outset and they remained supportive throughout. Were it not for their encouragement, and mainly for all the clear directions that I received from them, I would not have had the strength or the determination to see the project through to the end.

Nevertheless, I was constantly accompanied by fear, inspired by the realization of the weight of the responsibility which I had shouldered. It had a positive and a constructive effect though, and I sincerely hope that it is noticeable in the final result.

I received particular support from HaRav Chaim Kanievsky, who put himself out for the book's sake to an extraordinary degree. Just knowing that HaRav Kanievsky was prepared to give up his precious time and sacrifice part of his tight learning schedule in order to spend long periods sitting with me and advising me, was encouragement in itself and it heightened my sense of mission. With the actual guidance and support that he extended to me throughout the project, I was able to rest assured that I was headed in the right direction.

It happened on more than one occasion that after having spent long days and weeks researching a particular topic, I would come to him and raise doubts and uncertainties that had occurred to me, playing devil's advocate as it were, in an attempt to determine whether my presentation of the material might not be tainted by emotions or personal preferences. Only after receiving his verdict would the topic finally be incorporated into the book.

In addition, I attempted to obtain reactions from the reader's point of view, and handed out several chapters to different people, among them some well known gedolei Torah.

Developing a Feeling for Authenticity

YF: Is The Gaon, a continuation in any sense, of Avi Hayeshivos?

Rav Eliach: The book is not a sequel; it stands on its own merits. However, my involvement with the Gaon is certainly an outgrowth of Avi Hayeshivos. Rav Chaim Volozhiner took me into the Gaon's chamber and since then, I have developed a bond with him and his teachings. I also learned a lot in the course of the research for the earlier work that enabled me to conduct the necessary research for this one.

When one investigates the Gaon's life thoroughly and, rather than "peeping" inside briefly, taking away a few stories and leaving, one immerses oneself in all the subject's complications and ramifications, one gets a "feel" for it and reaches a position where one can confirm or repudiate new stories or details that one comes across.

For example, the Chazon Ish zt'l had a lifelong bond to the Gaon's Torah, both to his practices and to his written works whose contents he deliberated on a great deal. HaRav Chaim Kanievsky told me that when he learned in yeshiva in Petach Tikvah, he heard people saying that it had been the Gaon's practice to eat sweets on erev Yom Kippur so as to fulfill the day's mitzvoh of eating as much as possible. He asked the Chazon Ish about the story's veracity and his uncle replied, "That was not the Gaon!" Such a story did not fit the Gaon as the Chazon Ish knew he had been.

Evidently, someone who is attached to the Gaon's teachings, and has broad knowledge and experience of his Torah and his behavior, is able to "sniff" such a story and pronounce a verdict as to its authenticity. Does it fit the Gaon's personality at all? In other words, close acquaintance helps one to determine the degree of "inner" truth contained in any report.

YF: This would seem to be a test that every story has to undergo.

Rav Eliach: Certainly. HaRav Eliashiv demonstrated this to me with an example that is brought in the biography of Rabbi Akiva Eiger zt'l. A teshuvoh of Rabbi Akiva Eiger's was once brought to Rav Chaim Volozhiner and the messenger who brought it testified that it had been written on the same day that the question to which it responded had been received. Rav Chaim was very impressed by this and said that if he had one additional witness that this was the case, he would travel from town to town and from village to village and proclaim that Rabbi Akiva Eiger was greater than his own rebbe, the Gaon.

This story is baseless and could only have arisen in a quarter where all knowledge whatsoever of the Gaon's approach and the procedures in his beis hamedrash was lacking, though this contention is in no way meant to diminish the towering stature of that gaon among geonim, Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Rav Chaim Volozhiner's admiration of whom is noted in my book).

Furthermore, HaRav Eliashiv pointed out that there are several other strange things about the story. Why did Rav Chaim need a second witness? Were life and death issues at stake? And even if so, what would be the purpose in going around making such a tasteless and pointless announcement? Altogether, the story lacks any logical basis and has not the slightest ring of truth. The original writer even attributed the story to the Avnei Nezer zt'l.

"So you, see," Rav Eliashiv told me, "every story one wants to publish requires thorough verification."

I think that I have tried to fulfill Rav Eliashiv's directive as far as I possibly could. I tried to determine whether a story stood up to common sense scrutiny and simple logic. Was it free of inner contradictions, halachic inaccuracies or errors of historical fact? I tried to set a finely sifted finished product before the readers.

An Old Vessel Full of New Material

YF: Three volumes of finely sifted material . . . this in itself is a tremendous novelty. Is there new material as well? Have you managed to come up with any new revelations?

Rav Eliach: [Yes,] hundreds of them, both great and small, are incorporated in the book, in the text and among the photographs and facsimiles of manuscripts. Among the latter are some manuscripts in the Gaon's own holy handwriting that are being published for the first time, for which I am indebted to HaRav Shlomo Brevda, who opened his library to me for the sake of the book's enhancement, and even showed me an easy way of identifying the Gaon's handwriting.

There are many minor but newly discovered facts and stories. There are also major new discoveries, in the form of entire chapters and topics that have hitherto not been treated, such as the Gaon's standing as a rebbe to his own talmidim and his having been an address to which many of his contemporaries used to turn, and the account of the spread of his teachings through those of his talmidim who served as maggidim. The book clarifies the reasons for his self-imposed exile and the cause of his imprisonment and naturally, his opposition to chassidus. Other topics include new testimonies about the episode of Rabbi Avrohom, the ger tzedek zt'l, Hy'd, usually known as Graf Pototzki, earlier sources on the subject of the Gaon's "lots" (the goral HaGro), an attempt at describing his daily timetable and a discussion of his never completed journey to Eretz Yisroel.

Many chapters contain new ideas, that originated as a result of fitting various details or stories together or by viewing the Gaon's own words in the light of someone else's seemingly insignificant words. The complete mosaic is very impressive and this in itself is really the most astounding revelation of all.

For example, the many quotes from gedolei Yisroel of all generations about the Gaon (most of which are brought in the first chapter, "Remove Your Shoes . . ." and the final chapter, "Eliyohu Zochur Latov"), demonstrate to us how far we are from a minimal appreciation of even a portion of his greatness. Here one sees how gedolei Yisroel viewed him, as a heavenly angel and as a soul that belonged to earlier generations that had come into this world out of turn, as it were, in order to fill the breaches in our religion and to stem the continuous descent of the generations.

What is remarkable is that the veneration extended to the Gaon in certain circles, such as the botei medrash of the Noda BiYehuda, Rabbi Akiva Eiger, the Chasam Sofer and others, is so effusive as to approach even that of the Gaon's closest talmidim.

The Gaon as a Public Figure

YF: Was the Gaon involved in communal affairs?

Rav Eliach: If you are referring to holding a position or occupying a communal office, the answer is no! The Gaon refrained from serving in any capacity that might have interfered with his tremendous diligence in learning Torah. If however, you are asking whether he lent assistance at times of communal need, or engaged in activities to defend our religion, in the broadest sense of the term, the answer is a resounding yes!

YF: For example . . .

Rav Eliach: It should suffice to mention one of the important points that the book brings out, namely the struggle against Haskoloh ("enlightenment"). HaRav Chaim Kanievsky told me that it was worthwhile to have written the entire book if only for that one chapter. In this chapter I show, that even though the fire of Haskoloh first broke out in Berlin, far away from the Gaon's Lithuania where it only arrived two generations later, the Gaon was nevertheless one of the first to battle against it.

Another such subject is the campaign he waged against chassidus, though the pages of a newspaper are not the correct forum for dwelling on this topic. I will just note that even though he was not the first, and certainly not the only one who campaigned against the movement, it is his name that is associated with the opposition more than any other. Indeed, he was involved in this issue for over thirty years.

If communal involvement means working to increase Torah study among the rank and file, the Gaon himself was instrumental in arranging shiurim for the baalebatim of Vilna. He even set aside his usual practice and delivered the first shiur from the Ein Yaakov. If communal involvement means coming to the rescue in difficult times [he did this too]. During one of the wars, he offered the people encouragement and ruled as to how they should pray.

He himself held a special prayer in Vilna's Great Synagogue, and the story of the rescue that is associated with that occasion is related in the chapter entitled "Man Of Wonders."

When all is said and done though, his main influence was simply through his personality, a gaon whose greatness recalled that of earlier generations and whose radiance filled his surroundings. The various testimonies about this influence that we quote are themselves highly impressive.

YF: What about disseminating Torah and generally raising Torah's prestige?

Rav Eliach: Here lay his main influence, though not only through his personal radiance, powerful though it was. For example, he fostered the love of Torah that could be found throughout Lithuania and especially in the capital Vilna, where both impoverished and well to do Jews set aside regular, fixed times for learning. He also engaged in practical work for this cause, speaking to his talmidim and to those who visited him about increasing the ranks of Torah scholars who labor and toil in learning.

With regard to learning itself, he worked to retrieve the greatness of earlier times by emphasizing the importance of arriving at the straightforward and truthful meaning of texts, by stubbornly following Chazal at all times and in every respect, and by stressing other fundamentals of Torah study, which he bequeathed to his own and to all subsequent generations.

In passing, I made an interesting new discovery in connection with his role in the founding of the Volozhin yeshiva, known as Eim Hayeshivos. In reference to your earlier question too, about connections with my book Avi Hayeshivos, this provides a firm link.

In my first work I mentioned a tradition that we have received from our teachers the roshei yeshiva according to which Rav Chaim Volozhiner founded his yeshiva with the Gaon's consent, or perhaps even at his direct instruction. It is known that at first, the Gaon was against the plan but that later on, he supported it enthusiastically, once he realized that Rav Chaim's motivations were one hundred percent pure.

One perplexing point remains though. It is commonly accepted that the yeshiva was founded in 5563 (1803), in other words, five years after the Gaon's petiroh. Why did Rav Chaim wait so long?

I came across a small, seemingly insignificant piece of information. In the sefer Shulchon Hakerioh by Rav Dov Ber Dovid Rifman zt'l, the author relates that his father, Rav Peretz zt'l was a talmid of Rav Chaim Volozhiner's, together with his friend Rav M. Yakboshtater zt'l and that he heard Rav Chaim being maspid his rebbe the Gaon straight after the yom tov when the Gaon was niftar (during Succos 5558 (1798).

Rav Rifman writes, "Rabbeinu Chaim zt'l of . . . Volozhin, came [to] his yeshiva after chag haSuccos, during the chol hamoed of which Eliyohu ascended Heavenward in a tempest, and my father z'l heard the first hesped from his rebbe, the talmid of the gaon Rav A.V. zt'l, and he trembled when he told us this."

This brief testimony yields a number of pieces of information: First, Rav Chaim eulogized the Gaon immediately following the former's petiroh, an important piece of knowledge but one that we would have assumed anyway. Second, the occasion made such a powerful impression upon the listeners that when speaking about it years later, they still trembled. The most important thing for us though is that we can now resolve the question of the date of Volozhin's opening which was, indeed, before the Gaon's petiroh.

I recently obtained a fascinating document: an original letter from the Netziv of Volozhin zt'l, Rav Chaim Volozhiner's grandson, dated Adar II 5635 (1875), in which he mentions that the yeshiva has been open, "for the past eighty years and more," in other words since before 5555 (1795)! That means at least three years before the Gaon's petiroh.

This solves the riddle and validates our tradition from our teachers, which seemed strange as mentioned above. With the information provided by these two sources, the tradition is borne out and the question disappears. The Volozhin yeshiva was indeed opened during the Gaon's lifetime and with his approval.

Some Open Questions

YF: Now tell us some behind the scenes information. Perhaps you can reveal what didn't make it into the book?

Rav Eliach: I can tell you as follows: on the whole, anything questionable, or lacking in basis, was omitted. Also, in dealing with certain emotional issues, to which some groups are especially sensitive, the gedolim asked me to leave out revelations and expressions that are of a particularly harsh nature. In deference to their wishes, I therefore tried to maintain maximal restraint. But of course, this wasn't what you had in mind. You meant that I should leak something of a classified nature.

YF: Something a bit more substantial . . . just a brief word that doesn't reveal too much.

Rav Eliach: That's not easy, yet perhaps it's worthwhile, in order to demonstrate how a project dealing with the Gaon's life is a virtual mine field and how careful one has to be.

Approximately fifty years ago the existence of a sefer entitled Kol Hator, which deals with the pathways to the future redemption, was first made public and a sharp debate sprung up around the work.

Some view it as having issued from a holy source. According to them, its author was one of the Gaon's talmidim, and in it he gave accurate expression to his rebbe's outlook on the matter. Others deny the work's authenticity altogether. They maintain that it is a work of fraud and deceit.

These then, are the two, irreconcilable extremes. Both parties number worthy Jews and well known Torah scholars among them.

I myself have a certain "inner feeling" that as of yet is not quite a definite opinion, though it is based on a number of fundamental proofs. I was unable to address the issue in writing however before learning the sefer and its contents thoroughly, drawing up a serious study of all aspects of the issue and presenting my findings to the gedolei haTorah. At any rate, my own leanings on the subject are irrelevant to any public discussion and naturally, I gave them no expression in the book.

I can further reveal that friends of mine from both sides of the debate have tried to get me to investigate the matter. One side made a very enticing offer, to finance several months of research irrespective of the outcome. I nonetheless refused.

My present instructions from the gedolei Yisroel, which is naturally the path I have followed, are to make do with mentioning the sefer's appearance and to note that its authenticity, and therefore its reliability, are the subject of debate.

YF: What about the Gaon's portrait? Do you have a definite opinion as to which one is the most reliable?

Rav Eliach: It's important to realize that we don't possess a single photograph of the Gaon. Those were the days of portraiture and it is only painted portraits that have come down to us. Interestingly enough, the collection of portraits of the Gaon is quite large, numbering tens of pictures, which is out of the ordinary for personalities of those times. It's hard to arrive at a firm opinion concerning a picture's authenticity. It all depends on the artist's skill and on how well he knew the Gaon -- and none of them apparently knew him personally.

For the cover, we have nonetheless chosen a picture that has not been published before. The picture belongs to the Pines family who are descendants of the Gaon, and they have a tradition regarding its authenticity. The picture is almost identical to the earliest known picture, which is in the archives of the Cracow National Museum and which was also given to us for publication purposes.

Whereas most of the portraits of the Gaon were painted outside Lithuania, the Cracow picture was painted in Vilna, one generation after the Gaon, by a well known, professional painter. This gives it relative reliability, which is compounded by the strong likeness between it and the Pines family's picture, especially in view of the fact that they both follow the general pattern of the other, better known pictures of the Gaon. We also came across pictures of a different type but this was the one that we chose, for the reasons that I have explained.


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