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The Gaon of Vilna

The Man and His Image

Immanuel Etkes

Publication Year: 2002

A legendary figure in his own lifetime, Rabbi Eliahu ben Shlomo Zalman (1720-1797) was known as the "Gaon of Vilna." He was the acknowledged master of Talmudic studies in the vibrant intellectual center of Vilna, revered throughout Eastern Europe for his learning and his ability to traverse with ease seemingly opposed domains of thought and activity. After his death, the myth that had been woven around him became even more powerful and was expressed in various public images. The formation of these images was influenced as much by the needs and wishes of those who clung to and depended on them as by the actual figure of the Gaon. In this penetrating study, Immanuel Etkes sheds light on aspects of the Vilna Gaon's "real" character and traces several public images of him as they have developed and spread from the early nineteenth century until the present.

Published by: University of California Press

Series: S. Mark Taper Foundation Imprint in Jewish Studies


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-7

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pp. vii-9

The initiative for publishing the Hebrew edition of this book originatedin the various events that took place to commemorate the bicentennial ofthe Gaon of Vilna’s death. One significant experience was a week’s tourof Vilna and other Jewish sites in Lithuania in which I took part, alongwith dozens of colleagues who study the Jews of eastern Europe and...

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pp. 1-9

Rabbi Eliyahu, the son of Shlomo Zalman, known as the Gaon of Vilna—or by the acronym Ha-GRA, for “ha-Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu”—enjoyed exceptional authority during his lifetime. Even among his rivals the Hasidic leaders, whom he persecuted, were those who acknowledged his status as the greatest scholar of his generation and who applied to him...

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1. Ha-Gaon He-Hasid: In His Own Time and for Succeeding Generations

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pp. 10-36

During his lifetime the Gaon of Vilna wielded comprehensive and excep-tionally powerful authority. Striking testimony to this effect is found inthe words of the Hasidic leader Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady to his followers in Vilna in 1797: “According to all accounts, no one in the districtsof Lithuania will raise his heart so high as not to yield his own opinion...

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2. The Vilna Gaon and Haskalah

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pp. 37-72

The cornerstone of the image of the Vilna Gaon as one of the forefathers of Haskalah in eastern Europe was laid by Rabbi Barukh of Shklov (1744 –1808), also known as Barukh Schick, one of the pioneers of Has-kalah in eastern Europe. In the introduction to his Hebrew translation of Euclid’s Elements, Rabbi Barukh claims that, when he visited the revered...

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3. The Vilna Gaon and the Beginning of the Struggle against Hasidism

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pp. 73-95

During the intermediate days of Passover in 5532 (1772), the organized struggle against Hasidism was launched. The community of Vilna, th elargest and most important of the Jewish communities of Poland and Lithuania, initiated the struggle and called on other communities to follow in its footsteps. This was not a struggle over ideas between two ...

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4. The Vilna Gaon and the Mitnagdim as Seen by the Hasidim

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pp. 96-150

The organized struggle against Hasidism, which began in Vilna in 5532 (1772), continued for about thirty years. During that time the Hasidimwere the objects of persecution and oppression. Community leaders who took part in the campaign against Hasidism passed ordinances that led to the social ostracism of the Hasidim, interfered with their sources of...

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5. Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin’s Response to Hasidism

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pp. 151-208

In early 5563 (autumn 1802) Rabbi H. ayyim of Volozhin published anopen letter to all “lovers of Torah” in Lithuania.1 In that letter, he described the low condition to which study of Torah had sunk and called to the public to voluntarily promote the renewed flourishing of Torah study. The direct purpose of this call was to mobilize support for the new...

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6. Talmudic Scholarship and the Rabbinate in Lithuanian Jewry during the Nineteenth Century

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pp. 209-231

During the nineteenth century, the Jewish community of Lithuania was famous primarily as a center of Torah study.1 Although the renown of Lithuanian Jewry has sometimes been related in idealized terms, it is grounded in reality. From many and various sources we find that there was indeed impressive growth in Torah study in Lithuania during the...

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7. Torah and Yira in the Thought and Practice of the Vilna Gaon

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pp. 232-244

The unique authority enjoyed by the Vilna Gaon was not based solely on his achievements as a scholar, but, as we have seen, it was based on the combination of those achievements with a pious and ascetic way of life.1In this chapter I shall discuss extensively the character and purpose of the Gaon’s ascetic withdrawal. I shall also attempt to clarify his concep-...


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pp. 245-276


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pp. 277-280


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pp. 281-294


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pp. 295-299

E-ISBN-13: 9780520925076
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520223943

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2002

Series Title: S. Mark Taper Foundation Imprint in Jewish Studies