Yeshivat Har Etzion has a special jewel on exhibit in its vast library – writings and artifacts of the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797), the most influential Jewish leader in modern history.
Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman was born in Vilna, Lithuania. Already at a young age, he displayed tremendous genius, and even spoke articulately in front of great Torah sages. From the age of ten, the Gra (Gaon Rabbenu Eliyahu) was self-taught. His dedication to Torah led him on a lifelong mission to discover the original sources for different halachot and Jewish writings. It also fired his crusade to correct the inaccurate passages in printed Jewish volumes – gemora, chazal - that had become included in sefarim due to scribal errors.
Examples of these ancient texts, some in the Gaon's own handwriting, are currently on display at the Har Etzion Library in Alon Shvut.
Most of those items on display are from the private collection of Mr. Yishayahu Winograd of Jerusalem, who is a descendant of the students of the Vilna Gaon who came to Eretz Yisrael. His family goes back many generations in Jerusalem. Mr. Winograd is a bibliographer and has a great affinity for the Gra, and published an extensive bibliography about and written by the Gra.
The Yeshiva has also added special items from its own library collection.
Library Director Aharon Bejell honored me with a tour of the collection, which included for a limited time an original copy of the Talmud Yerushalmi book of Zeraim with the Gra's own notes in the margins.
The Exhibit at Har Etzion reflects the different aspects of the life and life work of the Vilna Gaon. Aharon showed me a leather-bound Tanach cover owned and used by the Gra (the Tanach no longer existing), and a copy of an inscribed sefer on halacha, "Sefer Ateret Tzvi", that Rabbi Eliyahu received as a bar mitzvah gift (the same year he married – age13!!).
On display are maps on the tribal division of Israel, created from the detailed description by the Gra, and a rendering of the Third Temple, also from the explanation of the Gra.
Other sefarim with the corrections of the Vilna Gaon were also on exhibit, Aharon explained, but the Gra did not officially publish anything during his lifetime. All the writings of the Gra were published by his students after his passing.
Aharon said, "In his later life, he had chosen students in a Bet Midrash. They recorded things they heard from their mentor, the Gra, or they told stories about him. All those passages [on a wide-range of topics] show the Gaon himself was involved in all areas a Torah."
In the exhibit are copies of the Gra's commentary on Mishna, Torah and kabbalah.
Aharon noted that the Gaon of Vilna professed that a talmid chacham needs to know general sciences in order to understand Torah better." On display is an ancient copy of Euclid's work on mathematics, which the Gaon had his student Rabbi Baruch of Shklov translate into Hebrew.
The Exhibit includes many first printings of different sefarim from the early 1800s.
The Gra and Redemption
Aharon added, "The Vilna Gaon was very excited about redemption. He had a very messianic character. He wrote all the sources for halachot in the shulchan aruch and intended to make Aliya to Eretz Yisrael, and there write one unified shulchan aruch for Ashkenazim and Sephardim together. Another step on his path to Messianic times."
His attempt to move to Israel failed for unknown reasons, Aharon said. When he returned to Vilna he said, "From the Heavens, they did not allow me to go."
However, the Library's director continued, "The Gaon and his students developed the concept of Meshiach Ben Yosef who will prepare the foundations for Geula before Meshiach Ben David. His students went to Eretz Yisrael 100 years before Secular Zionism. He encouraged them to deal with the hardships, with every day life, wand build cities and Torah institutions. The Gaon inspired them to overcome the difficulties."
Aharon explained that the Exhibit is a very appropriate one for Yeshivat Har Etzion, which represents the "same energies of Torah and Geula together. We feel that we are continuing the Gaon's legacy."
Join me on my private tour of the Har Etzion Library Exhibit:
Voices TV invites you to join us to learn about the Gaon and his legacy:
Voices TV invites you on its tour of the Har Etzion Exhibit itself: