By the 1900s, the bulk of the financial funding for these charitable activities came from the United States. By then, many of Vilna’s Jews were secular, and the city was home to a flourishing Yiddish culture. Yet even secular Yiddishe mamas paid tribute to their city’s special place in Jewish hearts as a renowned center of Torah learning by exhorting their young progeny: “Vil nor, gaon – If you will it, you too can be a genius.”
The Vilna Gaon
He held no public office. Indeed, he rarely left his room. Yet Rav Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, the Vilna Gaon, remains one of modern Jewry’s most influential figures.
Born in 1720, he mastered Tanach by the age of three. At seven, he gave an impressive lecture in the Great Synagogue. When he was a young man he went into exile for a few years; the rigors of life on the open road were considered good for building one’s middos. After he returned to Vilna, he again immersed himself in his Torah studies. In addition to his phenomenal knowledge of both revealed and hidden Torah, he was an expert in Hebrew grammar and linguistics, astronomy, geometry, and several other sciences.
While it’s well known that he rarely wasted time or words – after conversing briefly with a sister he hadn’t seen in years, he excused himself by explaining that they’d see each other in Olam Haba, but this world was for Torah study – he was still considerate of others. One story concerns the small stipend the Gaon received from the community so he could continue to learn Torah undisturbed. According to one of his talmidim, Rav Yisrael of Shklov, it once happened that the person entrusted with delivering this stipend decided to pocket the money for himself. When the Gaon didn’t say anything – he knew the other fellow was a poor man who needed the money – the man pocketed the money again. And so it continued for two years. Although the Gaon and his family were suffering from hunger, the Gaon refused to cause problems for a fellow Jew. It was only when the poor man confessed his sins while dying that the matter became known.
Yet the Gaon wasn’t entirely separated from the world. He taught a small group of exceptional talmidim, one of whom was Rav Chaim of Volozhin, the founder of Etz Chaim, the first modern yeshiva.
Also known as the Volozhin Yeshiva, it was founded partly in response to changes in the Jewish world. In the past, the best Jewish minds engaged in full-time Torah study. They studied either on their own or with their local rav in the community’s beis medrash. Those who showed exceptional promise might go to a larger city, to study with the outstanding Torah leaders of the day. But in the eighteenth century the Enlightenment opened doors that had previously been closed to Jews, and thus began a competition for the Jewish people’s “best and brightest.” A new kind of formalized higher education in Torah was needed, and Etz Chaim was the response. Rav Chaim implemented the Gaon’s teaching methodology in his study hall, and Etz Chaim became the model for other Lithuanian yeshivos, both then and today.
The Vilna Shas
An old Jewish saying advises: “Go to Lodz for money and to Vilna for wisdom.” While Vilna was renowned for its many Torah scholars – there was the seventeenth-century chief rabbi Moshe ben Yitzchak Yehuda Lima, the twentieth-century rav of Vilna Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, and many others – the city’s name is linked to Torah learning in yet another way: the famed Vilna Shas published by the printing house Widow and Brothers Romm.