A Prophet, a Mystic, and a Genius

A History of the Vilna Gaon - Part I

The character of the Vilna Gaon in the Empires of Armageddon series is based on the life of a real person who lived and worked in Vilnius, Lithuania in the late stages of the 18th Century. The Gaon ... or Genius ... of Vilnius was perhaps the most influential and famous Talmudic scholar of his time. He was also a dabbler in the mysticism of Kabbalah, and a master of mathematics, science and nature. And a writer of prophecies.

Here's a compiled history of the Vilna Gaon I put together for subscribers to my website and my newsletter.

The following information comes from numerous sources that I’ve encountered in preparing for the Empires of Armageddon series. Most of these sources are in agreement about the majority of the main points of the Gaon’s life. But, because of the nature of the Gaon’s work and life – his reclusiveness; his deep involvement in the mystical elements of the Jewish faith (the Kabbalah); his prophetic messages; his defense of Jewish orthodoxy; his extraordinary grasp of mathematics and science – deciphering what some of those main points mean is all over the map.

So, what I’ve attempted to do here is stick to the basics, those aspects of his life and work that have the widest level of support.

The Gaon’s Life: Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman was born to a well-known rabbinical family in 1720 (or 1721 according to some others) in Vilna, the capital of Lithuania. Among Jews, Vilna (or Vilnius) was known as “Yerushalayim de Lita,” the Jerusalem of Lithuania, because it had a reputation for great Torah scholarship. And the Gaon was the crown of Vilna. In fact, after the death of the Gaon, the city never officially established anyone in the position of Chief Rabbi. After his death, the leader of the Jewish community was known simply as the Dayan, or the “Judge.”

The word "gaon" means genius. And the genius of Vilna was probably the most influential Jewish leader in modern history.

Elijah Zalman made his first public appearance at the age of seven, a discourse that displayed a fully developed intellect. At age eight, he was studying astronomy during his free time. By the time he was ten he had advanced to the point where he no longer needed a teacher. When he was still a young man, Rabbi Zalman chose "galus," a self-imposed exile in which he wandered from community to community as a beggar until he returned to Vilna several years later.

After a long period of seclusion and study, in his fifties, the Gaon became an ardent foe of the new and growing Hasidic movement of Judaism, and twice issued excommunication documents against any Jews practicing Hasidism, which he called heresy. Except for that conflict, he rarely took part in public affairs.

The Vilna Gaon died in 1797, aged 77, and was subsequently buried in Vilnius. The cemetery where he was buried was closed by the Tsarist Russian authorities in 1831 and partly built over. In the 1950s, Soviet authorities built a soccer stadium on the site, after the remains of the Vilna Gaon were removed.

The Gaon’s Impact:

Possibly the Gaon's single biggest contribution to the Jewish people was his corrective notes on most of the faith’s ancient texts, particularly the Talmud.

According to Jewish tradition, God handed down the Torah directly to Moses, who dutifully recorded it word-for-word. What is known as the Torah is the written word. On the other hand, the Talmud is the oral word of God – traditions handed down from one rabbi to another over generations. These oral traditions were then also written down.

Over the centuries, errors had crept into the various Talmudic texts of oral tradition due primarily to scribal mistakes. The rules for writing the Torah are so strict that scribal error is extraordinarily rare. The errors in some parts of the Talmud were serious obstacles to advanced study of the Talmud and other texts. The Gaon, with his phenomenal knowledge of the entirety of the Talmud and Torah literature, was possibly the only individual capable of creating authoritative corrections of these texts. There is almost no ancient Talmudic text that does not bear the notes of the Gaon.

To the Gaon, the study of Torah was of paramount importance. His son testified that for fifty years his father did not sleep for more than two hours in a twenty-four-hour period, and then only thirty minutes at a time. At the same time, the Gaon was a man with an extraordinary breadth of knowledge … most of it learned on his own.

According to some of the histories of the Gaon, there was no subject he did not know intimately, including mathematics, astronomy, science, music, philosophy and linguistics. He did not study the mathematical texts of his day, but deduced mathematical principles and formulas from the mathematics he found in the Torah and the Talmud. The Gaon’s interest in all of the sciences was based on his hope to gain Torah knowledge. He said if one did not know mathematics, astronomy, science, etc., then one could not fully appreciate the Torah.

I have seen an online copy, from the library of Columbia University, of what appears to me – it’s written in Hebrew, I believe – to be a mathematics textbook taken from the writings of the Vilna Gaon. In it are geometric diagrams and other drawings that appear could have been copies of the Gaon’s own drawings. When I looked, the last time the book was checked out was 1942.

Working with his most revered disciple, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, the Gaon is credited with being the founder of the yeshiva system of education. Until that late 1700’s, a Jewish young man learned on his own with a local rabbi. Some who showed promise traveled to other great rabbis and continued learning with them. There was no formalized type of higher education. The yeshiva was an attempt by the Jewish community to formalize its education, to put it in a “modern” framework and make it competitive with other types of disciplines.

The Gaon was not only well grounded in all fields of revealed knowledge, but he was also the greatest Kabbalist (mystic) of his time — even though he spoke out very strongly against the unfettered study of Kabbalah as one of his main objections to Chassidism, a sect of Judaism with growing popularity in his day that was reliant on Kabbalistic ideas.

The Ashkenazic Jewish community, especially in Jerusalem, was founded by the disciples of the Gaon of Vilna. In Jerusalem today most of the customs in Jewish law and prayer follow those of the Gaon. The influence of the Gaon was therefore enormous on his generation and on all later generations.

On Friday, I'll post the second half of the Gaon's history ... including some of the amazing prophecies he wrote in the late 1700's, one of which came true only a few years ago.