Photo Credit: Israel Mizrahi

One of the greatest figures in Judaism, recognized as one of its most brilliant minds, was Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, the Vilna Gaon (1720-97). Despite his wide influence and acclaim, very little remained of his own writings. The myriad of publications that we have in the Vilna Gaon’s name today are nearly all written by disciples, or expounded from his very brief notes. It is said that after the age of 40, the Vilna Gaon nearly ceased from writing at all, so what we do have in existence was from his younger years. His disciple, the famed R. Chaim of Volozhin, wrote of the Gaon: “Even if we merit to have all his writings published, it would be just a fraction of a fraction of his knowledge, to the extent that his knowledge cannot even be measured – comparable to a drop of water in the great ocean, such is the comparison between his writings and his knowledge.”

What was published, though, was nearly all after his passing, and much of it is obscured in the murkiness of what was authentic, what less so, what was expounded from his teachings and what was a commentary by his disciples.


I acquired this week a first edition of one such work, one of the very first published, entitled Eliyah Rabbah, published in Brunn in 1802. This sefer was brought to the press and printed by Rabbi Meir of Shad, a disciple of the Gaon who studied Mishnah Tahorot, the subject of this publication, with the Gaon. The publisher writes how these are chiddushim published from his notes from the teachings of the Gaon when they were learning together. The publication came with several prominent endorsements, including approbations of R. Mordechai Banet of Nikolsburg, R. Shmuel Landau of Prague and R. Eliezer Fleckles. A personal letter in support of financially assisting R. Meir of Shad written by the Vilna Gaon appears in the beginning of the book, as well as a letter by the brother of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Yissachar Ber.

Almost immediately after the publication, dispute arose between two camps, those that believed that this was a collection of authentic thoughts written by the disciple of the Gaon, and those that claim that this was a plagiarized work, copied from the commentary on Seder Taharot written by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov, disciple of the Gaon of Vilna.

The detractors claimed that R. Meir borrowed the manuscript from R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov and hurriedly transcribed it, thus resulting in numerous errors. Others, including Rabbi N. N. Rabinowitz, the author of Dikdukei Soferim, defended this publication, and wrote that it was indeed published by R. Meir, and edited by R. Yaakov Kahana, disciple of the Gaon of Vilna and son-in-law of the brother of the Gaon of Vilna, the above-mentioned R. Yissachar Ber, based on brief notes which R. Meir of Shad wrote while he studied with the Gaon of Vilna.

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Israel Mizrahi is the owner of Mizrahi Bookstore in Brooklyn, NY, and He can be reached at [email protected].