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ELIJAH, GAON OF VILNA (1720-1797).

Great Talmudist and revered spiritual leader of Lithuanian Jewry. Tradition has it that at the age of 10 he was already well versed in the Talmud and had outgrown the need for instructors. The title “Gaon” was given him because of his extraordinary genius. The Gaon brought a new approach to Talmud study by stressing the factual and logical interpretation of the Bible text and Jewish law. In brief and concise marginal notes to Talmudic and Midrashic literature he shed light on the most difficult passages. His power of concentration and perseverance was extraordinary. It is related that for 50 years he slept no more than two hours a night. Although he gave his entire life to sacred studies, he recognized the necessity for secular learning. This recognition represented a revolutionary idea for the rabbis of his time, who generally considered worldly study as damaging to the traditional Jewish way of life. He wrote a work on mathematics and a Hebrew grammar.

Elijah’s fame spread quickly, but he remained a most unassuming and modest man. Sternly pious, he led a life of self-denial, shunning all fame and offers of rabbinical posts. He lived in seclusion on a tiny allowance granted to him and his family by the town’s Jewish community. The spread of Hasidism drew him out of his retirement. He feared that this new movement would lead its followers astray, and therefore he advocated the harshest measures against them. His favorite pupil, Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, established a rabbinical college at Volozhin where the Gaon of Vilna’s methods of study were put into practice.

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