The Beauty of the Torah

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein

 

THE VILNA GAON

By Rav Elyakim Krumbein

 

 

Shiur 2: The beauty of the Torah

Rav Elyakim Krumbein

 

 

            We ended the previous shiur with our mouths agape, awed by the Vilna Gaon's amazing erudition.  We saw how the Gra not only enjoyed total mastery, forwards and backwards, of tractate Sukka, but he also knew how to extract from it all the disagreements between Abaye and Rava, all the types of valid and invalid sukkot, and the like.  How are we to understand this astounding phenomenon? This certainly attests to an extraordinary gift, to put it mildly.  It seems, however, that were we to stop here, we would miss a large part of the conceptual and educational message concealed in this story.  For the question that arises here is what is the value of this ability to effortlessly list all the Tannaitic disputes mentioned in the tractate? On the face of it, it is nothing more than a game, an amusement, a show of ultimate intellectual virtuosity.  And in continuation of this question, it may be presumed that even one who is graced with such natural ability, must invest a certain effort in order to achieve the perfect mastery demonstrated by the Gra.  But on the assumption that we do not recognize the value of knowing the number of disputes between Abaye and Rava, does not all the time and effort devoted to achieve this goal constitute nothing less than bittul Torah, neglect of real Torah study?[1]

 

I.  THE VALUE OF THE LOVE OF TORAH IN THE GRA’S TEACHINGS

 

            It seems, however, that if we carefully examine the wording of the story, we will be able to understand part of its significance for the Gra's circle of admirers.  The Gaon counted all the aforementioned elements found in tractate Sukka "as one counts pearls." The Gra said what he said not to show his interlocutor "what is meant by fluency," and certainly not in order to show off his talents, but as one who counts jewels.  All of these disagreements charmed the Gaon with their beauty.  He mentions them one by one, as one who shows his treasures to his guests, picking up each piece with a loving hand, washing it in the light of the sun so that all those present, he included, can enjoy its splendor.  And in the end he knows the overall sum of the items, because none of them escaped his admiring attention.  The way that the Gra "knew the number of all of them" is reminiscent of the shepherd who knows the overall count of his beloved flock because he is familiar with each and every sheep and lamb, or of the metaphor through which the Psalmist describes God: "He counts the numbers of the stars; he call them all by their names" (Tehilim 147:4).  The Gra's fluency undoubtedly depended upon his intellectual prowess, and also on his tremendous diligence, but a third force – profound love of Torah ­is the quality which underlies the two others, ignites them, and fuels them.

 

            This point stands out in the account of the Gra's diligence which is also brought in the introduction to Pe'at Ha-shulchan.  R. Israel of Shklov tells us that the Gra "would review every chapter and tractate hundreds and thousands of times, owing to his great love for Torah.  Once on a long night in Tevet he went over one mishna in the order of Taharot all night." Here R.  Israel adds a depiction that has become part of the myth surrounding the Gra: In his youth, R. Eliyahu would learn in an unheated room in the cold of winter, and "he had a basin of cold water in which he would put his feet, so that he not fall asleep."

 

            The cultivation of the love of Torah as the basis for diligence prominently appears in Nefesh Ha-chayim, authored by the Gra's disciple, R. Chayim of Volozhin.  In addition to teaching the value of discipline, R. Chayim dedicated the great majority of the fourth section of his book, the section that was meant to inculcate the centrality of Torah study, to one educational goal: "To excite the hearts of those who desire to cleave to the love of His Torah (blessed be He) and to dwell in the shadow of the most high and terrible" (chap. 1).  R. Chayim knew, as did his master, that cleaving to Torah must be built on endearment, and not only on discipline and commitment.

 

            Let us go back once again to the incident involving the study of tractate Sukka, and consider another point that requires explanation.  The Gra calculated the sum of invalid sukkot, which is equal to the numerical value of the letters compromising the word, sukka, written in defective manner without a vav, i.e., eighty five.  The list of valid sukkot is equal to the numerical value of the letters comprising the word sukka written plene, i.e., ninety one.  The reporter of this story notes that this list was taken from "the tractate," i.e., from the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds and the Tosefta.  Here too it sounds like we have entered the realm of intellectual amusement, and that the objective is that we be impressed by the intellectual genius that is required in order to channel the halakhic data in such a way that they parallel the numerical value of the word "sukka." But once again it seems that were we to dismiss the matter with such talk, we would be making a grave mistake.  Despite the fact that on the face of it the Gra's words seem to fall into the category of a "vort" – a brilliant Torah idea – it is important to understand that this similarity is only on the surface.

 

II.  CHASIDIC “VORTS

            Let us preface our remarks with a few words about a vort.  I have not investigated the development of this phenomenon, but it is clear that it was greatly cultivated by the Chasidic movement.  I would like to understand the Chasidic variety, so that we can clarify the difference between it and its Mitnaged counterpart.  A vort is a short, novel, and brilliant Torah discourse.  It is characterized by the surprise it arouses in and the impression it leaves upon those who hear it, generally as a result of an unexpected textual interpretation.  The force of a vort lies in its ability to hang an idea on words, the plain meaning of which is altogether different, and this by way of the creative talents of the scholar offering his brilliant insight.  These two elements, the surprise and the scholar's genius that allows him to create a connection between unconnected things, stir up the listener's astonishment, and it is this impression that helps implant the conceptual content of the brilliant idea in his heart.  In addition, often the vort is expected to answer a certain difficulty, and its success in this mission impresses the listener even more.

 

            All of the excitement surrounding these unique qualities of a vort divert our attention from a possible criticism – is it possible to believe that the authors of our sanctified texts truly had such an idea in mind, far as it may be from the plain meaning of their words? Even if the proposed explanation accords with the words themselves, does it fit in with the general context in which they were written? Accepting the vort relies more on the pleasure that it arouses, than on an analytic examination of the reasonableness of the explanation.  And sometimes it seems that the implausibility only reinforces the explanation's power of persuasion.

 

            The Chasidim were indeed aware of the special place assigned by them to the phenomenon of exegetical brilliance, as is clear from the following anecdote.  It is related about one of the great halakhic authorities of his time, R.  Meir Margaliyot, that when he began to study Gemara as a child, his parents invited their friends to mark the joyous occasion, as was the customary practice.  At the center of the event stood the boy himself who was supposed to recite by heart a section of what he had learned.  And so, little Meir stood on the table, and began to recite a mishna found in the chapter that he had been learning, Elu metzi'ot

 

If a man's father's lost article and his teacher's [need attention], his teacher's takes precedence, because his father brought him into world, whereas his teacher, who instructed him in wisdom, brings him to the future world.

 

            Having said this, the boy immediately fell silent, deep in his thoughts.  When his father asked him why he does not continue with his recitation, little Meir answered that he was struck by a difficulty.  Surely the mishna gives precedence to a person's teacher who taught him Torah over his father, but that same week he had studied the weekly Torah reading with his teacher, and he had learned the words of Rashi on Bamidbar 3:1:

 

And these are offspring of Aharon and Moshe – But it mentions only the sons of Aharon! But they also are called the sons of Moshe because he taught them Torah.  This tells us that whoever teaches the Torah to the son of his fellow man Scripture regards it to him as though he had begotten him.

 

            I therefore don't understand, said little Meir, why it should be considered a praise for Moshe that he is regarded "as though he had begotten" the son of Aharon.  Surely the teacher who teaches a person Torah is greater than his father who begot him!

 

            All those present were greatly impressed by the boy's cleverness.  His father then said to him: You have asked well; perhaps you will now offer an answer!

 

            The boy's brow wrinkled for a moment, and then suddenly his eyes lit up: Rashi says that "Scripture regards (ma'ale) it to him," but what he means to say is that the Torah raises (ma'ale) the teacher and attaches greater importance to him than it would have had he begotten the child. 

 

            In the joyous atmosphere that filled the room as these words of Torah were spoken, the boy's mother rushed in among the celebrants, snatched her son from table, and smothered him in her embrace.  He must stop this public show, she cried out.  Outside stands a non-Jewish farmer, staring at the boy through the window, and casting upon him an evil eye.

 

            The next part of the story took place many years later, when R.  Meir Margaliyot drew near to the Chasidic movement and became the Ba'al Shem Tov's disciple.  At some point, the Besht reminded him of that occurrence when he was a child, and added: "I was that 'non-Jewish farmer,' who eyed you through the window.  At that moment I bestowed upon you the spirit of Chasidut, and it was that spirit that gave you the power to propose your novel idea."

 

            This is the story, which implies that the Chasidic movement saw itself as enjoying a copyright on a certain style of brilliant exegesis that is capable of ignoring the broader context, as in our example.  For even if we assume that the explanation offered by little Meir resolved the local difficulty, surely the expression, "Scripture regards it to him as though," is very familiar to us from many Rabbinic statements.  What then could have prompted the Sages to use it in this place, not in its usual sense, namely as a statement of comparison (as is implied by the plain meaning of the word "ke-ilu," as though), but rather as a bestowal of superiority?

 

III.  A MITNAGED “VORT”?

 

            Let us return now from this discussion regarding the nature of a "vort" in the Chasidic tradition, to the Gra and his numerical calculations.  Once again, we are liable to relate to his words in accordance with the criteria for a brilliant Torah statement – intellectual invention that stirs up excitement.  But if we pay attention, we will understand that the direction taken by this vort is very different, and essentially the very opposite, and its impressive force is built on different foundations in comparison to what we saw above.  The Gra's words were not meant to resolve a local difficulty, but rather to make a general statement.  For all the passages discussing invalid sukkot were clearly understood, each one on its own, by that disciple of the Gra who knew the tractate by heart.  When the Gra said that the number of invalid sukkot equals the numerical value of the letters forming the word sukka, he was essentially arguing that there is a dimension of understanding the Torah that goes beyond the local and specific law.  The number of invalid sukkot is not a chance datum, nor does it stem from some illusion, but rather it was calculated from the outset based on the logic of the Torah itself (which according to the Gra has a numerical quality).  Nothing in the Torah is coincidental.  Not only is each passage understandable as it is, but rather all the passages, all the discussions and all the laws fit in together in accordance with a comprehensive plan.

 

            Here we see the difference between the Chasid and the Mitnaged.  Just as the Chasidic mentality is impressed by stories about supernatural miracles, so it tends to explanations that stray from the plain meaning of the text.  A Chasidic vort fills a function in the world of exegesis that parallels the role of the miracle in the real world.  In contrast, the Mitnaged searches after truth and understanding; deviations from nature and the plain meaning of the text do not interest him.  It is important to emphasize this point, because to the modern ear, the numerical calculation proposed by the Gra is liable to be understood as a mere frivolity or coincidence.  We are even likely to question the certainty of his calculation.  For example, is it not reasonable to assume that several "invalid" sukkot, similar one to the other, were counted here separately though they could have been counted as one? Nevertheless, in the context of his overall teaching, the words of the Gra are stated here as testimony to the beauty of the Torah, as a comprehensive logical system resting on the foundations of understanding.  It is this beauty that excites the soul of the Mitnaged and ignites his imagination.

 

            The Gaon's love for understanding things in their plain sense and from a comprehensive perspective is evident from another surprising statement, brought in his name by the author of Pe'at Ha-shulchan.  His remarks relate to the well known phenomenon of "chisurei michasra," where the Amoraim resolve a certain difficulty in a mishna by proposing that something is missing and that words must be added.  Such resolutions in the Gemara themselves raise a certain difficulty: Could not the Mishna, the wording of which is so precise, have formulated its intentions in clearer manner? Now it is reported that the Gra had a surprising approach to this whole matter:

 

He knew all the "chisurei michasras" in the Talmud that they lacked nothing, as they were arranged by our holy Rabbi [Yehuda HaNasi] in the Mishna, and it was not his way to omit anything.  Only that Rabbi [Yehuda HaNasi] agreed with one Tanna, in accordance with whose position he wrote the mishna in anonymous fashion, not lacking anything according to him; whereas the Gemara agreed with the other Tanna, and it was according to him that it said that "[the mishna] is surely lacking something and it means to say as follows."

 

            That is to say, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi formulated the mishna in precise manner, but in accordance with a halakhic position that was not accepted by the later Amoraim.  And they on their part asserted that, in accordance with their position, something must be added to the mishna so that it matches the actual Halakha.  The mishna itself, however, can be understood according to its plain sense, without adding anything.

 

            If we go back to the Gra's words regarding valid and invalid sukkot, it is important to pay attention to the fact that the Gra did not arrive at his numbers from an examination of the usual Talmud alone, but by joining together all the halakhic sources of Chazal, including the Tosefta and the Jerusalem Talmud.  Here is the place to mention another quality that distinguished the Gra's learning: his emphasis on mastery of all the halakhic sources of Chazal.  He toiled to emend the readings of the ancient texts outside the Babylonian Talmud, which relatively speaking were ignored by most Talmud scholars.  The story before us provides us with insight into his view on this matter.  All the sources of Chazal were coordinated with each other from the outset, to the extent that only by considering all of them is it possible to reach a complete and precise picture of the issue of valid and invalid sukkot.  It is difficult to know whether, according to R. Eliyahu, this coordination was explicitly intended by the Sages who composed these works, or whether the mysterious hand of "the holy spirit" arranged this coordination without the knowledge of the authors themselves.  In any event, this approach is altogether different from that of modern scholarship, which sees each work as the product of a specific school, environment or period, and understands that the relationship between the various works must be investigated – is there influence, contribution or disagreement.  The modern scholar is also likely to approach each work of Chazal – the Talmud or the Tosefta – as an edited work bringing together the teachings of various different schools.  The Gra, as stated, adopted a unified approach.[2]

 

            In short, the Gra's message that is reflected here and in many other statements of his is that the Torah conceals a single, great truth that arises out of a comprehensive perspective on the Torah in its greatness.  The many details arrange and reconcile themselves in light of this truth and receive new meaning from it.  In the coming weeks, we will see additional expressions of this fundamental principle.

 

IV.  “HE IMMEDIATELY ANSWERED”

 

            Connected to this is another important aspect of the Vilna Gaon's personal approach, which offered a message to his own generation and to later generations.  I wish to illustrate it with another event related by R.  Israel of Shklov, based on the words of R. Chayim of Volozhin.  R. Chayim had a brother, R. Zalman, who had brilliant talent and amazing devotedness to Torah.  R. Zalman had difficulty with a mishna in tractate Beitza:

 

"One may send wine, flour, oil, or pulse, but not grain.  Rabbi Shimon permits grain.[3]" There is a difficulty, for the word "grain" is superfluous.  For this R. Zalman, z"l, went to Vilna before our master the Gaon to ask him, and he immediately answered him: This word alludes to the Tosefta taught there in the Gemara: "It was taught: "Rabbi Shimon allows grain, e.g., wheat, to prepare thereof food for a wheat dish eaten in Lod; barley, to give to his cattle, [and] lentils to prepare thereof groats." This is what is written in the mishna: "in grain," not all grain, but only these.  And he was very amazed by this, and a thousand like it.

 

            The substance of the Gra's answer to R. Zalman's question accords with his way of uniting the various sections of the Torah – a superfluous word in the Mishna alludes to a law recorded in the Tosefta – in this case, the intention is to restrict Rabbi Shimon's allowance to specific cases.  But I have brought this story to draw your attention to one word: the Gra answered him "immediately." This is a general characterization that is very common in stories about questions asked of the Gra – the answer was given immediately and with no delay.  I wish to bring another example, one connected to R.  Chayim of Volozhin himself.  R. Chayim was accustomed to appear before the Gra several times a year, and lay out his questions before him.  It once happened that he was unable to visit him for a whole year, and a large number of questions had piled up before him.

 

When he arrived there, he received him warmly (because R. Chayim was very much loved in the Gra's house) and they exchanged greetings.  The Gra marveled about R.  Chayim, why he had refrained for so long from appearing before him in his usual manner, and he answered him that it was not in his hands whatsoever, until he cast all his affairs off of him.  The Gra then said to him: Surely you have a list of questions and uncertainties.  R. Chayim then removed a page, and it was written front and back over an entire folio page, and R. Chayim said as follows: I read to him, and he answered, I asked, and he answered, until after about an hour, he answered all my questions that I had brought with me.  And R. Chayim was very, very dumbfounded.[4]

 

            As in the previous stories, the person involved in the incident was dumbfounded when he was exposed to R. Eliyahu's brilliance.  But here again, we would miss the point were we not to reach the more fundamental conclusion, which is also astonishing.  The certainty, the confidence, the quickness, and the clarity with which the Gra would answer questions directed at him – and we are dealing with difficult questions that perplexed people who were themselves Torah giants – mark an understanding relating to Torah that is not self-evident.  From our own experience, Torah can appear as open to different understandings and disagreements, this because it is shrouded in uncertainty.  Halakhic decisions require a process of struggle with doubts, which turns certainty into an unattainable pretention.  The Gra, however, projects a different picture.  Certain truth exists, and it is reachable.  The Gra merited such certainty.  By way of his talents, and by virtue of his toil and devotion – he proved to the members of his generation that such certainty exists.  The fog lifts, the doubts dissipate, and the beauty of the Torah reveals itself from another perspective: a picture that shines brightly in its details, without any uncertainties.

 

            We shall see additional expressions and ramifications of this idea in the next shiur.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] To sharpen the point, we know that the Gra's inclination to organize his studies in numerical patterns was extensive.  The Gra authored a book called "Ma'aseh Torah." The book is comprised of lists of statements of Chazal organized according to the numbers mentioned in them: one, two, ten, twenty two, and so forth.

[2] Typical here is the Gra's method of emending texts.  Later in his introduction, R. Israel of Shklov states that the Gra would establish the correct reading by way of comparisons with the rest of the sources of the Oral Law.  The assumption here is that presumably all the sources support and confirm each other. 

[3] The general intent of the mishna is that one is permitted to send gifts of food on Yom Tov, if the food is ready to eat in its present form.  We shall not go into the details, as they are not essential for our purposes.

[4] This story was recorded by a senior disciple of R. Chayyim of Volozhin, the author of Nachalat David, and it appears at the end of Sa'arat Eliyahu, printed together with Aliyot Eliyahu, by R. Yehoshua Heschel Levin (mentioned in the previous shiur).