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11 Nissan 5765 - April 20, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







The Vilna Gaon: A Man of Piety

by Rav Dov Eliach

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 Six, and is centered around the piety 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.

This year Rav Eliach has added a new series of volumes to the bookshelf of works related to the Gaon with the 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 Shemos has appeared, and we eagerly await Bamidbor.

The Chazon Ish wrote of the Gaon: " . . . his level of Divine inspiration and the like, and his diligence and breadth of knowledge, in profound depth, in all the Torah — we cannot imagine how it is even possible." After reading this material one can say the same thing about the Gaon's level of piety.


In his youth, the Gaon once traveled through Europe in self- imposed exile. Rav Yonoson Eibeschutz testified that wherever the Gaon traveled, word went out of his great and lofty deeds (Luchos HaEidus). One such incident took place in Prussia, and the Gaon himself told it over many times.

It was Taanis Esther and the Gaon was far from any town where he could hear Megillas Esther with a congregation that Purim night. He tried very hard to find a wagon to take him to a larger Jewish community, but he had already despaired of finding a wagon that normally carried passengers. The only wagon he could find was a freight wagon, carrying a load of pots and pans. But it was going where he wanted to go, and his fervent desire to fulfill the mitzvah properly decided things for him. The Gaon boarded the wagon.

On the way there was an accident and the wagon overturned, spilling out all its contents. The Gaon, too, fell from the wagon, and was hurt. Moreover, the enraged wagon driver began to beat him, as though it were the Gaon's fault that the wagon had overturned and the pots and pans had broken.

Nevertheless, the Gaon's spirit was not broken. He was so completely focused on fulfilling the time-bound mitzvah that the wagon driver's blows didn't concern him at all. He simply continued on foot to the nearest city as fast as he could, so that he could hear the Megilloh reading.

As if all that he had gone through were not enough, when he reached the city, injured and weary, he found that he was too late and the Megilloh reading had already concluded in the local synagogue.

He began to search for men who could join him to form a minyan, but he was unsuccessful.

Still, the Gaon did not despair. He offered to pay a number of the local citizens to join him in a minyan. Only then did he manage to hire a bare minyan of men, each man at the inflated price of two valuable gold coins. With no alternative he also agreed to their stubborn demand to be paid in advance. Yet, no sooner had the Gaon begun reading the Megilloh than the hired men began to joke and scoff. A short time later, they all ran away. In the end, the Gaon was forced to conclude the Megilloh reading on his own.

His pain and distress over the incident were so great that every time he recounted the story, he again cried long and bitter tears of sorrow and resentment. But his complaints were not about the blows and humiliations that he had received, nor about his having been cheated by scoundrels, nor even over his monetary loss. He mourned only his tremendous loss of not having heard the Megilloh with a congregation.

The basic halachic requirement to read the Megilloh on the night of Purim can be fulfilled by a lone individual reading it to himself. It is certainly preferable to read it in public with a minyan, but there is no question that one has completely fulfilled the basic requirement by reading it in private. Nonetheless, the Gaon went to these enormous lengths just to be able to fulfill this preferable way of hearing the Megilloh.

Although this story showed his greatness, as well the incredible self-sacrifice he was willing to offer in order to fulfill even the optional, preferable details of a Rabbinic enactment, nonetheless since, in the end, his attempts were unsuccessful, he was filled with sadness (Aliyos Eliyahu).


R' Shmuel Chossid of Rasein described the Gaon's countenance during the reading of the Megilloh every year. R' Shmuel once had the opportunity to stand beside the Gaon during Megilloh reading and he looked at him and saw that his face was like a holy flame. R' Shmuel was so awestruck that he declared that one could have lit a match from his blazing face (Sha'arei Tzion).

On his trip home, the Gaon once again showed what risks he was willing to take in order to fulfill a mitzvah properly. Due to his physical weakness, he decided to take a wagon that would travel day and night without any stops. But since he wanted to pray all the prayers in peace and serenity, he paid the driver extra to stop and wait for him each time he needed to pray Shemoneh Esrei, so that he would not have to pray on the moving wagon.

On one of these short stops, as he stood in prayer, immersed with all his heart in his service of G-d, the wagon driver drove off with his horses and wagon, leaving the Gaon standing alone on the road, bereft of all his possessions (Introduction to Pe'as HaShulchan).

Meticulous About Mitzvos

The Gaon was so concerned about performing all the mitzvos meticulously that he was periodically stricken with anxiety over whether he had performed certain mitzvos properly, according to all the various opinions. For example, since he was a firstborn, he redeemed himself from a Cohen as an adult, not wanting to rely on the redemption performed by his father.

Some say that the Gaon did this because, in his opinion, the redemption should be done with current coins worth five selo'im of silver, rather than with special pure silver coins that were not legal tender. Since the Gaon's father had redeemed him with special silver coins, as was customary in those days, the Gaon redeemed himself a second time and even made a blessing (Ma'aseh Rav).

A similar incident took place with the Gaon's student, R' Zelmaleh. He was once listening to a Torah lecture from the Gaon in the course of which the Gaon gave his assessment of the amount necessary to redeem a firstborn son. On the spot, Rav Zalman jumped up, removed his garment, and gave it to a Kohen who sat beside him, declaring, "This is to redeem my firstborn son, who died a number of years ago" (Toldos Odom).

Others say that the Gaon's concern regarding his own redemption was doubt as to the true lineage of the Kohen who redeemed him, and it was for this reason that he redeemed himself from a number of Kohanim, including Rav Meir HaKohen of the Rappaport family, whose members are accepted as Kohanim meyuchosim (Aliyos Eliyahu). In fact, the Radal said that his grandfather, who was a son of Rav Meir, had a document describing his lineage all the way up to Ezra HaKohen.

He also redeemed himself from his student, Rav Yaakov Kahane, author of the Ge'on Yaakov on Eruvin, as well as the son-in-law of his brother, Rav Yissochor Ber (Publisher's introduction to Ge'on Yaakov). Some also list another Kohen, Rav Dov HaKohen, who was called "Rosh Barzel," whom the Gaon asked to come from Amsterdam so that he could redeem himself from him (Horishon LeShosheles Brisk — Rav Dov HaKohen was the maternal grandfather of the Beis HaLevi).

The Gaon was careful to avoid even a remote chance of violating a mitzvah, even when it was because he came upon an opinion of some weight that is stringent in the matter or because the circumstances gave him some reason for concern.

For example, when he was in exile he was once a guest of one of the leading rabbonim of the generation. When he lay down to sleep, his host repeatedly covered him with a leather coat. Due to a fear that the garment might contain shatnez according to the opinion of the Rambam (even though it is not cited by the Shulchan Oruch), the Gaon removed the coat again and again. Finally, the host switched the garment for another — and he also undid the stitches of the first coat because of the Gaon's concern.

Because of his fear of sin the Gaon refrained from immersing in a mikveh on Shabbos. He felt it was "impossible to avoid squeezing [out the water from one's hair], in which case the benefit [of immersing] is outweighed by the loss [from Shabbos desecration]" (Ma'aseh Rav). One who frequented the Gaon's beis medrash wrote about him that "he criticized those who immersed on Shabbos morning. I heard from his students that he disapproved of their purification and he would chastise them" (Sefer HaLikutim). This is despite the fact that generally he "was careful about the immersion of a ba'al keri before prayer and he cautioned strongly not to pray before immersing" (Beis Yaakov — Tosefes Ma'aseh Rav). He advised people to immerse right after the conclusion of Shabbos (Ma'aseh Rav).


The Chofetz Chaim heard about another episode from the Gaon's period of exile from a student of the Gaon. One day, the Gaon hired a Jewish wagon driver. During the journey, the horse bolted from the path and galloped into a field, crushing plants beneath its hooves. The owner of the field, a coarse gentile farmer, noticed what happened and ran over to the wagon in a fury. In the meantime, however, the wagon driver disappeared, so the farmer rained his blows upon the Gaon, whom he found still sitting in the wagon.

The Gaon's first thought was to retort, "What have I done to deserve your wrath? It was the wagon driver who failed to control his animal properly." But he immediately strengthened himself and was silent.

The Gaon later remarked that had he said what he initially wanted to say, he would have been informing (mesirah) on the wagon driver. The Chofetz Chaim explained that according to the halacha, the wagon driver was probably not responsible to pay for the damage caused by his animal, and even if he was obligated to pay, he did not deserve to be beaten. By implicating the wagon driver, the Gaon would have been inciting the gentile against an innocent fellow Jew.

The sin of being an informer is so great, added the Gaon, that had he transgressed it, he would have been forced to be reincarnated as a dog, and all his Torah and mitzvos would not have sufficed to save him (Shem Olom).

Sensitivity to Any Potential Transgression

As a true G-d-fearing man, who zealously avoided even a hint of sin at every moment of his life, the Gaon's sensitivities were heightened to such a degree that he could instantly sense anything suspicious in a way that no one else could.

A story is told by a rov in Vilna, HaRav Yisroel Ginzburg, who heard it from his father. His father was very close with the Gaon and served as the ba'al tokei'a in the beis medrash of the Gaon, and he was there when the incident took place.

A fancy carriage was once hired on behalf of the Gaon — a "dancing coach" as he called it — to take the Gaon on a trip for health reasons. The Gaon's books had already been loaded onto the carriage along with everything else the Gaon needed for the journey, and the Gaon himself went down to board the coach. He had no more than placed his foot on the floor of the carriage, when he recoiled and declared that the wagon was "a carriage of the yetzer [hora]" because the floor was covered with shatnez.

Those who were there said that the rug was made of camel hair (called camel hor in Yiddish) and thus there was no possibility of shatnez. But the Gaon insisted that it was made from sheep's wool. He explained that it is called "camel hor" because it is combed (and the word "camel" in Yiddish can mean either "camel" or "comb"). He then turned around and went home, forgoing the entire trip (Aliyos Eliyahu).

The aforementioned Rav Yisroel, who knew the Gaon very well from the days when his father attended him as well as from the times the Gaon spent in his father's home in the summer months, related another, similar episode as well:

Before Succos one year, a wealthy man by the name of Rav Chaim Yehoshua from Slonim sent the Gaon beautiful hadassim that he had obtained from Koenigsburg. The Gaon's brother, Rav Yissochor Ber, accepted the hadassim from the messenger who brought them and held them out to his brother. The Gaon at first took them with great joy, rejoicing at the opportunity to glorify a mitzvah. But as soon as he had taken them in his hand, he threw them to the ground, saying that he could sense that they were hybrids and not pure myrtle.

Some add that the Gaon cut the hadassim into pieces so that they could not be resold (Aliyos Eliyahu).


The Gaon had contempt for monetary gain (sonei botza), and besides refusing to accept any public or rabbinical position, he kept far away from tainted money. R' Yisroel of Shklov related that "when he traveled to the Land of Israel, a number of wealthy individuals contributed towards his travel expenses and when he decided not to go . . . he gave back each person's money" (Introduction to the Pe'as HaShulchan).

Rav Menashe of Ilia recounted a personal experience: The wealthy Rav Isaac of Chatovitz fell ill and was unable to leave his house. At that time he sent a letter and ten gold coins with Rav Menashe to give to the Gaon to help pay for the expenses of his beis medrash. Upon receiving the coins, the Gaon glanced at them and immediately returned eight, keeping only two.

Rav Menashe was bewildered and tried to make sense of the incident. Finally, Rav Sa'adya, a close disciple of the Gaon, explained that the Gaon had realized at a glance that eight of the coins were slightly smaller and lighter than normal. The Gaon was therefore in doubt as to whether they were halachically permissible. His question was whether the degree of deviation that applies to silver coins to make them forbidden to own also applies to gold coins. On the other hand, he also did not want to accept them and melt them down, because that would be contrary to the instructions of the owner of the coins who had donated them specifically to be used towards expenses.

When Rav Menashe told this story to Rav Dovid Luria, he expressed his amazement at the Gaon's knowledge. In this case, besides expertise in understanding the halacha based on the gemora, the Gaon also demonstrated a clear understanding of how to evaluate a coin and an ability to compare the size and value of modern currency to the selo'im of Talmudic times. Furthermore, with one glance, he was able to tell which coins were the right size and which were deficient (Aliyos Eliyahu).

Just a "Kosher Jew" or "A Pious One"?

It was not for naught that the Gaon was called "the pious one" (hachossid). His synagogue was also called, "dem chossid's kloiz [the shul of the pious one]." He earned this appellation through his tremendous piety, asceticism, and meticulous fulfillment of every mitzvah. As Rav Moshe Chaim Luzatto defined the term in Mesillas Yeshorim, "Chassidus [piety] refers to the fulfillment of all the mitzvos with all of their minutiae, as far as a person possibly can." As Rav Chaim Volozhin, the Gaon's disciple, would say, "The primary [criterion] of piety is [to have] great zeal in mitzvos and to be meticulous with them, fulfilling them as cautiously and precisely as possible (Kol HaKosuv LeChaim).

In his great humility, the Gaon was troubled when he heard how people referred to him. He would say, "The term `chossid' applies only to one who is pious with his Creator by going beyond the letter of the law, as delineated by the Sages. One who only does not deviate from all that is explained in the Talmud and the four volumes of Shulchan Oruch is not deserving of the title `Pious,' but is rather `Yisroel kosher' [a Kosher Jew]. One who is remiss in this has not fulfilled his [basic] obligation as a Jew" (Introduction of Rav Yissochor Ber to Ma'aseh Rav).

Rav Yissochor Ber, who related this story, added, "How appropriate are the words to one who fulfilled them himself . . ."

It is clear however, why as early as the year 5508 (1748), when the Gaon was less than thirty years old, he is already referred to as "the Pious Rebbi Eliyahu" or "the pious one of our congregation" and so forth. Rav Yonoson Eibeschutz labeled him, "Unique and special, the pious, holy, and pure one," when the Gaon was about thirty-five years old.

The Gaon would even seek out mitzvos that most people never fulfill in their lives. He sought to put himself in a situation, at least once in his lifetime, such that he would be obligated to fulfill them (Introduction to Sha'ar HaMitzvos).

For example, one of the Gaon's students wrote that the Gaon, "said that all the halachic authorities agree that even in the Diaspora, one is obligated to give matnos kehuna to Kohanim" (Biur HaGra, Shabbos 10b). Therefore, another student attests, "I saw that he bought a bechor, that is an animal that was pregnant with a bechor, and personally gave it to a Kohen and made a blessing of Shehechiyonu" (Ma'aseh Rav 102).

"He also slaughtered a calf and gave the foreleg and the jaw with the tongue and the stomach to the Kohen and on that occasion, too, he made a blessing of Shehechiyonu" (ibid.).

He also instructed that even in the Diaspora, challah separated from dough should be given to a Kohen to eat, according to the conditions listed in the Shulchan Oruch.

The Gaon gave these gifts to Rav Aryeh Leib Romshishker of Vilna. When he gave them to him, the Gaon told him to carry them prominently in his hand, in order to publicize the performance of the mitzvah (Tosefes Ma'aseh Rav).

The Gaon similarly tried to fulfill the various mitzvos of gifts to the poor, as well as other mitzvos related to the Land of Israel after he found an opinion in the gemora and Rishonim requiring one to fulfill them in the Diaspora, as well.

The Gaon therefore "requested that Rav Aharon of Wirshipeh give him a piece of land, four cubits by four cubits, as a gift. He [the Gaon] planted a fruit tree there. He thereby observed [the mitzvah of] orlah for three years and in the fourth year, [he fulfilled the mitzvah of] neta reva'i."

Similarly, he purchased a wheat field in order to grow wheat to make shemurah matzos. He traveled there with his entire entourage and they harvested the wheat and kept it under guard. They left a corner of the field untouched [in fulfillment of the mitzvah of pe'ah], gave ma'aser oni, and fulfilled the mitzvah of leket. When the opportunity arose, they also fulfilled the mitzvah of shichechoh" (ibid.).

The Gaon once built an extension onto his house so that he could fulfill the mitzvah of building a railing to protect people from falling. He felt that everyone should try as much as possible to fulfill all the mitzvos in the Torah at least once. Therefore, although one who does not have a house is exempt from the mitzvah of building a railing — and one who is not wearing a four-cornered garment is exempt from tzitzis — one should nevertheless try to put oneself in a position to fulfill these mitzvos (Shu"t Mitzpeh Aryeh [Tinyono], vol. I Yoreh Deah 672).

The Gaon's nephew once came to visit him. The Gaon asked him if he owned his own Sefer Torah. When his nephew answered that he did not, the Gaon instructed him to appoint an agent to purchase a Sefer Torah on his behalf.

His nephew pointed out that one who purchases a Torah scroll is not as praiseworthy as one who wrote it himself. In the words of the Sages, "If one acquires a Torah scroll from the market, it is as if he snatched a mitzvah from the market. He who wrote it is extolled by the Torah as if he received it from Mount Sinai" (Menochos 30a).

The Gaon responded, "If only I would have the opportunity to snatch such mitzvos as these" (She'iltos, Hanhogos MeHaGrach MiVolozhin, 136).

The Gaon instructed his followers to wear tefillin the entire day, as the Tanoim and Amoro'im did. He recommended this not only for those who devote all their time to Torah study, but also for those who work to earn a livelihood. He felt that involvement in labor or business was like casual eating and does not constitute inattentiveness to the tefillin. Only jest and lightheadedness are forbidden as hesech hada'as.

The Gaon remarked that just as the Smag traveled throughout the Land of Israel exhorting people to wear tzitzis for the entire day (Introduction to the Smag), he too, if he had the strength, would go out to awaken the Jews to wear tefillin the entire day. For every moment that one wears tefillin, he fulfills eight mitzvos. The Gaon was distressed all his life that this mitzvah was abandoned and forgotten by the masses (Keser Rosh).

Rav Chaim of Volozhin added in the name of the Gaon that there is no reason to fear that one who wears tefillin all day is guilty of arrogance. On the contrary, it is appropriate to publicize this mitzvah, and hopefully those who see it will do so as well (ibid.). In the Gaon's beis medrash in Vilna, everyone was required to study all day in tallis and tefillin. They were especially particular to wear tallis and tefillin at Minchah, according to the custom of the Gaon.

The Gaon himself, of course, wore tefillin the entire day. The Chayei Odom wrote, "The head is the instrument of thought, and he would always bind it with the tefillin of the head and of the arm, to subjugate his mind and his heart to the Creator, blessed is His Name" (Tzavo'as Ba'al Kenesses Yechezkel).

It was to matters like this that the grandson of the Gaon referred in his statement, "He gave pleasure to his Creator by fulfilling everything, small and large, that is mentioned in the Talmud, even that which the halachic authorities omitted" (Introduction to the Biyur HaGra). Engraved on the Gaon's tombstone is this line (among others): "He restored many forgotten mitzvos and reestablished them."

In the Gaon's own words:

A person has 248 limbs and parallel to them are 248 positive mitzvos. Each [body part] draws a life-force from the mitzvos. Therefore, one who dishonors any mitzvah is injuring himself, for he becomes lacking, because he is lacking the life-force from that mitzvah . . . But one who fears neglecting any mitzvah and fulfills everything, will be complete in all his limbs.

(Biyur HaGra on Mishlei)

Divine Assistance in Service of G-d

In his commentary on Mishlei, the Gaon explains that when a person attempts to fulfill all 613 mitzvos in the Torah, he receives Heavenly assistance to do this. In the Gaon's words: "In everything that a person does, he is given a special force (ruach) from above that helps him to do more of the same . . . this is what is meant by [the axiom], `One mitzvah brings another'" (Ovos 1:23).

The Gaon said that in line with this principle the Almighty may even sometimes cause a perfect tzaddik to commit a minor sin inadvertently, in order to give him the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of teshuvoh (Imrei No'am).

Tradition has it that one time when the Gaon was jailed, the court decided to require him to take an oath before releasing him.

Rav Chaim Volozhin's remarks on the incident were: My master and rebbi fulfilled the entire Torah, including Rabbinic commandments. According to the Smag, there is a Rabbinic mitzvah to swear to a true statement. But how could the Rebbe ever come to fulfill this mitzvah? Clearly [in the prison incident] Hashem arranged for him to have the opportunity to do so.

An interesting episode from the period of the Gaon's imprisonment demonstrates how this holy man refused to compromise even one iota on his stringent approach to the mitzvos, even when he was behind bars.

As one of his students recorded, "When our master and teacher was in prison on Succos, due to our sins, he tried with all his might to stay awake, running from place to place, holding his eyelids open, and using all kinds of tricks so as not even to take a nap outside of a succah, until they allowed him to go into a succah" (Tosefes Ma'aseh Rav).

To fully appreciate the self-sacrifice involved, we note that it was in the year 5550 that the Gaon was jailed over Succos, when he was already an elderly man of seventy. It seems likely that it was because of his age that he was ultimately released before his original sentence had been completed.

With similar self-sacrifice for each detail of every mitzvah, it is no wonder that he merited the fulfillment of the verse, "He will do the will of those who fear Him," and he managed to find a kosher succah even behind prison walls.

During the aforementioned incarceration, a minyan for prayers was arranged for him, as well as a sefer Torah for public Torah reading.

This was not the case during his first imprisonment in the winter of 5548 (1788). That time, he was held for interrogation and was forced to miss the Torah reading for four consecutive Shabbosos. Therefore, when he was released, he asked someone to read all four portions from the Torah for him (Tosefes Ma'aseh Rav).

The Gaon also saw the fulfillment of the verse, "He will guard the feet of his pious ones." As the Gaon took great care to heed even Rabbinic enactments, he was saved by Heaven from violating even minor prohibitions. The Gaon once participated in the teno'im held in Oshminah for the children of Rav Yom Tov Lipman of Kapuliah and Rav Noach Mindes of Vilna, who was a mechuton of the Gaon. During the course of the celebration, a cup of wine was poured for the Gaon. The Gaon refused to drink it, repeating the words of the gemora, that food and drink from under a bed are forbidden because of the evil spirit that rests upon them (Pesochim 112a).

Everyone gathered was shocked until they investigated and found that someone had, indeed, stored the wine under his bed for safekeeping (Aliyos Eliyahu).

There was another incident in which the Gaon revealed a serious problem in a way that aroused much astonishment. One erev Pesach the Gaon was fasting because it was the Fast of the Firstborns, even though usually on erev Pesach he joined a seudas mitzvah, which exempts a firstborn from fasting. It is not clear whether or not this fact has any bearing on the story, but since the entire story is so shrouded in mystery, the storyteller included this detail.

In the evening, not long before the festival was to begin, the Gaon summoned his close friend, the wealthy Reb Leib Ber of Vilna, and asked him where he had obtained his shemurah matzos. Reb Leib named the man from whom he had purchased the matzos. The Gaon then declared, "Your shemurah matzos are absolute chometz!"

In shock, Reb Leib retreated from the Gaon's room and told his sons and students who were sitting in the adjoining room what the Gaon had said. When the Gaon heard that Reb Leib was taking his time, he hurried to him and declared unequivocally, "[As with all chometz] it must not be seen and must not be found!"

Reb Leib rushed home to gather all his matzos and to throw them into the Villia River, which runs through the city. Since it was late, he could not find a wagon to transport them, and was forced to use a wheelbarrow. With a little help, he managed to load all the matzos, as well as the cooked foods for the festival that contained matzoh, into the wheelbarrow and he threw them into the river. In the meantime, the Gaon sent Reb Leib thirty of his own matzos.

The basis for the Gaon's claim remained ever a mystery to Reb Leib and to everyone else. No one present had the nerve to ask him what was wrong with Reb Leib's matzos. Some time later the author of Aliyos Eliyahu asked the son- in-law of Reb Leib, Rav Yechezkel Landau, av beis din of Vilna, about the incident. He was familiar with the story, but did not think it a matter of esoteric mysteries. He thought that it was probably a matter of a stringency of the Gaon's that he wanted his close followers to adhere to (Aliyos Eliyahu).

End of Part I


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