Gaon of Vilna Elijah

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Famed Rabbinic scholar (1720–97). Elijah lived for most of his life in the Lithuanian town of Vilna, his renown being such that he was given, even in his lifetime, the title Gaon (see GEONIM). Judaism knows nothing of hermits but Elijah came closest to the hermit ideal, although he did marry at the age of 18 and had a family. Secluded in his study for most of the day and night, he engaged unceasingly in profound investigation into all the classical Jewish texts. He occupied no official Rabbinic position but was supported very generously by the Vilna community.

The Gaon believed that it was essential for a Jewish scholar to have sufficient knowledge of secular subjects such as mathematics, astronomy, botany, and zoology, to be able to understand the many Talmudic passages which take such knowledge for granted. Secular learning, however, was for the Gaon only a means to the supreme task of ‘toiling in the Torah’, as the Rabbis call this intense activity.

The Gaon is one of the three key figures belonging to the transitional period from medievalism to modernity in Jewish life and thought (the other two are the Baal Shem Tov and Moses Mendelssohn). The Haskalah movement, founded by Mendelssohn, sought, mistakenly, to claim the Gaon for themselves. To be sure, the Gaon was a critical scholar, in the limited sense referred to above, but he was far removed from any attitude of broad tolerance towards views which diverged from the traditional path.

Although the Gaon took little part in communal affairs, he led the opposition to the Hasidic movement, convinced that the Hasidic doctrine of panentheism, that everything is in God, is a heretical doctrine. It is not going too far to say that the Gaon persecuted the Hasidim, placing their leaders under the ban (see HEREM).

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.

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