Though Jewish communities everywhere create world-famous artists, scholars, and leaders, greater Lithuania has somehow produced a surprising wealth of talented and innovative “Litvaks,” as Lithuanian Jews are known. Even today, Jews of Lithuanian descent appear across art, sciences, and culture. (Just a few of our current giants: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Harrison Ford, and John Stewart.) But perhaps the most important “genius Litvak” was the great 18th-century Torah scholar Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Shlomo Zalman, better known as the Gaon of Vilna.
Since the venerable sage, born in 1720, is about to celebrate his 303rd birthday this April, here are just a few tales about one of European Judaism’s most influential figures.
Legend has it this child prodigy memorized the entire Hebrew Bible by age four, studied Talmud at barely seven, and understood astronomy at age eight.
“His sons said he never slept more than two hours daily, divided into four half-hour parts.”
Unlike many rabbis, he believed the natural sciences and mathematics were important for understanding the Torah.
He was strongly opposed to the then-fledgling Hasidic movement.
The Last of His Kind
After his death, the city of Vilna never again named another officially in the position of chief Rabbi. (A Jewish community leader after his death was known as the Dayan, the “Judge.”)
To learn about the 300th birthday celebrations the Lithuanian government arranged to commemorate his life just a few years ago visit Aish.com. Then, discover more about one of history’s more important rabbis at Jpost.com, Jewishhistory.org, and Jewishvirtuallibrary.org.