Sunday 10 March 2024

465) Did R. Chaim of Volozhin intentionally alter the image of the Vilna Gaon?


A 1704 manuscript of an early Hebrew translation of Euclid’s Elements. Later, in 1780, the first printed Hebrew edition of Euclid's Elements, was published in Amsterdam, translated into Hebrew by R. Baruch Schick of Shklov, on the instruction of the Vilna Gaon. 


Based on a comparison between the various representations of the Vilna Gaon’s worldview by his different students, it seems that his main student, R. Chaim of Volozhin, meticulously selected, if not shaped, only certain aspects of his teacher’s ideology to present to future generations. We shall examine how R. Chaim of Volozhin crafted an image of the Vilna Gaon as: 

1) a religious scholar not interested in the secular scholarship; 

2a) a theoretical or theosophical master of mysticism with no interest in theurgical or practical Kabbalah;

2b) a master practical Kabbalist (the previous characterisation of the Vilna Gaon as a 'theoretical Kabbalist' was later changed to present him as 'practical Kabbalist'), and

3) a spiritual innovator who intended to present an ‘authorised’ version of mysticism, in lieu of Chassidism, to the Lithuanian Mitnagdim. 

These representations are then compared to how other students and family members charactersied and witnessed the Vilna Gaon, and to what the Gaon himself had expressed on these matters.


This article based extensively on the research by Rabbi Dr Raphael Shuchat[1] − looks at the possibility that R. Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821), regarded as the main student of the Vilna Gaon, may have intentionally altered the image we now hold of the Vilna Gaon. 

One imagines that the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), also known as the Gra, would have had a huge following during his lifetime, however, the reality was that “beyond his inner circle he was not known well” (Shuchat 2023). This means that it was left to his various students and disciples to portray an image of their teacher that was to become the ‘historic persona’ of the Vilna Gaon that the later generations were to inherit: 

“[T]here were several disagreements within this inner circle, some presented during R. Hayyim’s lifetime and others after his passing… Comparison of R. Hayyim’s portrayal of the Gaon with those of other students and family members, as well as with the Gra’s own writings demonstrates that he manipulated his teacher’s image by disclosing certain aspects and intentionally remaining silent on others” (Shuchat 2023). 

Early testimonies concerning the persona of the Vilna Gaon

According to testimonies, the Vilna Gaon kept well out of the public arena. He did not have many close disciples and it was very difficult to get to know him. Even his own sons, R. Avraham and R. Yehudah Leib expressed how aloof their father was. Writing in the Introduction to their father’s Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim) they express how little communication took place within the family: 

“He never looked beyond his four cubits… Never did he ask of the welfare of his children, neither did he ever send them a letter of greetings or read theirs.” 

The Vilna Gaon’s grandson, R. Yaakov Moshe of Slonim, writes in a similar manner: 

“I had not been in Vilna for three years, and when I came to see him [the Gaon], he did not ask me anything concerning the welfare of my family or my children except after a few days…despite the fact that I was his favorite grandchild”[2] 

In the original manuscript of the abovementioned text, the words “after a few weeks” were crossed out and replaced with “after a few days.” 

The slow emergence of biographical information

Although the famous Vilna Gaon passed away in 1797, it took fifty-nine years for his first biography to be published in 1856. Another work, Maaseh Rav, which recorded his personal customs, and which one imagines should have been in great demand, took thirty-five years to be published in 1832. Compare this to other rabbinic works that were often published within the lifetimes of the individual. 

The very first book to be published was the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on Mishlei (Proverbs), edited by R. Menahem Mendel of Shklov, a few months after the Gaon’s passing. He writes that his teacher dictated the ideas to him and that he has now presented them in writing, but he glaringly omits any details of the Vilna Gaon’s worldview or biography. 

The second work to be published was Shenot Eliyahu (a commentary on Seder Zeraim in the Talmud Yerushalmi). In the various Introductions by the different students some biographical details are shared for the first time. It is here that R. Chaim of Volozhin seems to push himself to centre stage as the main and authoritative representative of the Vilna Gaon: 

“[O]wing to his shrewdness as a public figure, R. Hayyim undertook to establish himself as the main representative of the Gaon’s legacy. In furtherance of this goal, when Shenot Eliyahu was being prepared for publication in 1799 in Lemberg, R. Hayyim’s authored an introduction that highlighted his relationship with the Gaon” (Shuchat 2023). 

As the various accounts of the Vilna Gaon slowly began to emerge, one immediately noticed important discrepancies and contradictions in their content. One of the reasons for this may have been fierce conflicts between the nascent Chassidim and the Mitnagdim (opponents to the Chassidic movement) as well as the Maskilim (members of the Enlightenment movement): 

“Attempts to censor, or at least omit, certain biographical elements[,] aimed to avoid inflaming the already existing struggle between Hasidim and Mitnagdim and to distance the image of the Gaon as far as possible from the Maskilim” (Shuchat 2023). 

Vilna Gaon on secular studies and Kabbalah

Surprisingly, it is very difficult to establish exactly what the Vilna Gaon’s relationship to two immensely important topics were. The first was how he viewed secular studies in an age of Enlightenment and the second was how he viewed Kabbalah in an age of Chassidic mysticism. There is a very distinct pattern in how the Vilna Gaon’s views on these two burning issues were presented by the different students. 

a) Secular studies

On the matter of secular studies, the most outspoken, albeit contradictory testimonials come from R. Chaim of Volozhin (negating the Gaon’s interest in secular studies) and both R. Yisrael of Shklov and R. Yakov Moshe of Slonim and others (promoting the idea that the Gaon was interested in secular studies). 

R. Chaim of Volozhin painted a picture of the Vilna Gaon’s complete and utter opposition to secular studies: 

“R. Hayyim consistently omitted all biographical facts relating to the Gaon’s knowledge of secular studies—possibly to disassociate the Gaon’s image from that of the Maskilim” (Shuchat 2023). 

But we know that that was not the case in reality because: 

“[i]t is widely recognized that the Gra had a personal interest in general knowledge, especially the exact sciences; the evidence is abundant” (Shuchat 2023). 

R. Yisrael of Shklov, the Vilna Gaon’s youngest student, also supports this view that the Vilna Gaon promoted secular studies. He  writes: 

“This is what he [the Gra] said: All knowledge is necessary for [understanding] our holy Torah… He knew them all thoroughly and mentioned them: algebra, trigonometry, geometry, and music which he praised greatly. ... Only with regard to medicine [did he limit his study thereof]. He knew human anatomy and all things relevant to this, however regarding the composition and prescribing of medicines, his saintly father commanded him not to study this so as not to diminish his Torah study in case he might have to save lives. ... And regarding the wisdom of philosophy he said that he had studied it thoroughly.”[3] 

Similarly, R. Barukh Shick of Shklov describes the Vilna Gaon’s interest in geometry and general science as follows: 

“I heard from his holy mouth that to the extent that one lacks in knowledge of other wisdom, he will lack one hundred-fold in Torah knowledge. For Torah and [general] knowledge are linked one to another ... and he commanded me to copy into our holy language whatever is possible from general knowledge.”[4] 

Interestingly, this testimony was from a work that was printed while the Vilna Gaon was still alive, and this seems to authenticate it. 

The Vilna Gaon’s (favourite) grandson R. Yaakov Moshe of Slonim together with his uncle, R. Yehudah Leib, the Gaon’s son, testified (in their Introduction to Gra’s Commentary on the Zohar, published in Vilna in 1810): 

“[The Vilna Gaon] embellished the heavens teaching new ideas on astronomy… He explained the constellations…and their paths… All [the world’s] glory was seen by him [the Gra]… the wisdom of algebra, three hundred and three new principles never seen before in the land of Judea. He researched and prepared a wondrous chart of fractions.”[5] 

It wasn’t just science that the Vilna Gaon was interested in but also philosophy. In a document containing his signature, the Vilna Gaon requested a copy of Aristotle’s work on ethics (Sefer haMidot leAristo). 

“Accordingly, the fact that R. Hayyim of Volozhin was utterly silent on this point in his introductions to the Gra’s works and in all of his own writings appears to be a deliberate lacuna… [Yet, significantly,] Hayyim never negated any statements made by other students or family members of the Gra concerning his positive attitude to secular studies” (Shuchat 2023). 

Yet the notion of the Vilna Gaon’s opposition to secular studies persisted despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For example, a contemporary of R. Chaim of Volozhin, R. Eliyahu Rogaler, writes rather derisively that the Vilna Gaon only made time for secular wisdom when he was in places where it is forbidden to study Torah (such as the bathroom).[6] 

b) Kabbalah

On the matter of mystical or Kabbalah studies, R. Chaim of Volozhin together with R. Menahem Mendel of Shklov, promoted the image of the Vilna Gaon as a Kabbalist par excellence. 

However, R. Chaim of Volozhin’s view is somewhat nuanced. In his earlier writings, R. Chaim of Volozhin was reluctant to over-emphasise his teacher’s involvement with Kabbalah, lest he depict his teacher as drifting too close to the camp of Chassidim. In his later writing, R. Chaim of Volozhin reversed and amended his original view and indeed began promoting his teacher as a mystic par excellence. 

The reason for this ‘shift in policy’ is fascinating because it seems that later, as the Chassidic movement grew, R. Chaim of Volozhin wanted to present the Lithuanian Mitnagdim with a ‘sanitised’ form of mysticism to replace the mysticism of the Chassidism. 

Significantly, R. Chaim of Volozhin never got involved with the Vilna Gaon’s intense fight against the rise of Chassidism. On the contrary, although he was ideologically opposed to Chassidism, he even allowed Chassidic students to study in his famous Volozhin Yeshiva, founded in 1802. 

It was in this area of Chassidism and mysticism that R. Chaim of Volozhin became rather creative. While he lauded his teacher’s profound mystical knowledge, he made a point to emphasise that his Kabbalistic knowledge was only technical, not practical.

In other words, he claimed that the Vilna gaon only studied theoretical or theosophical Kabbalah, but did not venture into theurgic, ecstatic or practical Kabbalah. He described his teacher as a Kabbalistic theorist, not a Kabbalistic practitioner. 

With time, however, R. Chaim of Volozhin begins to dramatically reappraise his earlier position and he indeed depicts his teacher as a master Kabbalistic practitioner. The Vilna Gaon is no longer described as someone just well-versed in the theories and principles involved in the study of mysticism, but he is depicted as a practising mystic. 

This is a complete about-turn in R. Chaim of Volozhin’s framing of his teacher. Why did this radical reframing of the Vilna Gaon take place? Why did the Vilna Gaon have to go from being portrayed initially as a student of theosophical Kabbalah, and later to an avowed mystic with supernatural and spiritual abilities “expert in the use of divine names for purposes of practical Kabbalah”? (Shuchat 2023). 

“[L]ate in his life R. Hayyim changed his strategy regarding the Gaon’s relation to Kabbalah. In his early years he thought that representing the Gra as a mystic would only serve to justify Hasidic claims that their rebbes were [also][7] mystics. However, as the Hasidic movement grew, R. Hayyim resolved that there was greater value to publicly disclose that the Gaon was a mystic of even greater spiritual powers than the Hasidic leaders” (Shuchat 2023). 

Initially, R. Chaim of Volozhin was not yet aware of the threat Chassidism was to pose to the Lithuanian community. The Chassidim were mystics and studied mysticism, so he depicted the head of the opposition Lithuanian community to also study and master mysticism. The competition was evened out. But as the Chassidic movement grew by leaps and bounds, it suddenly became necessary to show that the head of the opposition the Vilna Gaon even surpassed the Chassidim with his mastery of practical Kabbalah. 

In 1820, a year before R. Chaim of Volozhin passed away, he wrote about the Vilna Gaon in a manner in which he had never been described before. He described his teacher in “almost messianic tones” (Shuchat 2023). This way, the Vilna Gaon went from being a great theoretical Kabbalistic scholar to someone who played “a major role in [the] transmission of Kabbalah” (Shuchat 2023) and acted as a link between the Ari Zal of Lurianic Kabbalah and future generations, thus bypassing the Chassidic movement. The Vilna Gaon is depicted as such a great practical Kabbalist that Maggidim (spiritual beings) approach him, but he turns them away because he wants to master Torah without help from the spiritual world: 

“R. Hayyim was now willing to depict the Gra as a mystic who was learned in all kabbalistic writings and who dreamt that Moses was in his house;[8] had a heavenly revelation concerning the meaning of prayer;[9] attempted to create a golem before attaining the age of majority;[10] received messages from angelic maggidim [spiritual beings][11] whom he dismissed;[12] and wrote that he had received a revelation from the patriarch Jacob as well as from Elijah”[13] (Shuchat 2023). 

A Lithuanian alternative to Chassidism

This strategy of R. Chaim of Volozhin served him well in his efforts to present a Lithuanian alternative to Chassidism.[20] In his Nefesh haChaim, which he asked his son to publish only after his death, he revealed his audacious plan: 

“Every section of the work contains both an alternative kabbalistic approach to Judaism and a critique of Hasidism, which enabled R. Hayyim to depict the Gra as a mystic par excellence while emphasizing the difference between him and the Hasidic mystics” (Shuchat 2023). 

The new form of Lithuanian mysticism was now conceptualised as being far superior to the Chassidic mysticism. R. Chaim of Volozhin argues that the Baal Shem Tov’s method, which he said was to use dream questions (sheilat chalom),[14] was inferior to the method adopted by the Vilna Gaon, which was a natural ascension of the soul (aliyat haNeshamah) which was a result of diligent Torah study. The Baal Shem needed help from the supernal worlds, by asking for assistance from supernal beings to achieve his aliyot, or spiritual ascensions. The Vilna Gaon, on the other hand, did not need Maggidim or other assistance, but managed to ascend through means of the Torah which he studied. 

“R. Hayyim claims that the Gra merely had a natural ascent of soul at night arising from his immersion in Torah thought” (Shuchat 2023). 

In the new system of Lithuanian mysticism proposed by R. Chaim of Volozhin, the use of regular Torah study afforded the means of spiritual experientialism. R. Chaim Volozhiner writes that: 

“[The Vilna Gaon’s] soul abhorred revelations that were not connected to Torah [study] ... that even what the soul perceives through lofty perceptions during sleep by ascent of one’s soul to the supernal academy, is not to be regarded as too important. For the main thing is what one perceives in this world through toil and work by choosing good and making time for Torah study.”[15] 

To sum up the dramatic change in R. Chaim of Volozhin’s framing of the Vilna Goan’s relationship to Kabbalah: 

“In his later years, Rav Hayyim’s position concerning the image of the Gra evolved. He was portrayed not only as a [theoretical][16] scholar of Kabbalah but even as a practicing mystic who merited divine inspiration. However, the Gra insisted that mystical inspiration could be attained only through Torah study, without the intervention of angelic beings or mystical techniques” (Shuchat 2023). 

R. Chaim of Volozhin developed his idea to create a form of superior Lithuanian mysticism involving Torah study. Instead of Chassidut, he suggested an alternative mystical source, namely, Torah study. He is recorded in the Sheiltot as suggesting the following methodology: 

“When one learns [Torah] with great enthusiasm and feels that they are now studying Torah for its own sake, one can turn their thought to a specific request whether to do or not ... and whatever comes to mind that is what he should do. 

He similarly writes in his Nefesh haChaim: 

“When one studies and meditates on the Torah there is certainly no need to pursue devekut [a Chassidic term describing cleaving to G-d][17] at all. For through the study and meditation of the Torah, one clings to the will and the word of God… For He… and his will and his word are one.”[18] 

In a sense, one could say that R. Chaim of Volozhin tried to turn Torah study into an experiential form of Lithuanian Deveikut. 


R. Chaim of Volozhin presents some interesting framing and then reframing of the Vilna Gaon. R. Chiam of Volozhin ignores or rejects the notion that the Gaon was positive about secular sciences. He first frames his teacher as a theoretical and theosophical mystical scholar and then later reframes him as a practical Kabbalist who turns spiritual beings away because he doesn’t need their help. R Chaim of Volozhin does this because he appears to be threatened by the growth of Chassidism and he presents a counter form of Lithuanian mysticism which meditates on Torah study. 

Yet just like R. Chaim of Volozhin may have misrepresented his teacher’s approach to secular studies, he may also have gone too far in representing his teacher’s approach to mysticism. 

R. Chaim of Volozhin first tried to show that the Vilna Gaon was a theoretical Kabbalist as opposed to a practical Kabbalah. But Shuchat shows that the Vilna Gaon did not object to mystical techniques or to the use of divine names to effect practical outcomes. 

Later, R. Chaim of Volozhin changed the characterisation of his teacher to that of a master of practical Kabbalah who even chased Maggidim away because he didn’t require their assistance. But again, Shuchat shows that the Vilna Gaon was not opposed to Maggidim, and in fact, referred to them simply as reflections of one’s own soul: 

“[T]he idea of a maggid who appears to a person is [in actuality] his own soul. It speaks with his soul face-to-face while being clothed in the mitzvot that he fulfilled.”[19] 

According to Shuchat, not only did R. Chaim Volozhiner ignore or perhaps misrepresent the Vilna Gaon’s view on the importance of secular studies because he “was totally silent on the Gra’s interest in the sciences but he additionally misframed his teacher’s approach to Kabbalah (in both his initial and later formulations thereof). 

The same may apply to the matter of providing an alternate mystical system for Lithuanians based exclusively on Torah study: 

“We are led to the conclusion that R. Hayyim’s view of a spirituality based on Torah study alone, while having roots in the Gaon’s writings, was R. Hayyim’s innovation, presented as an alternative view to Hasidic charismatic spirituality…R. Hayyim may have altered or fine-tuned some sources to make them fit the narrative of his new thesis” (Shuchat 2023).


Perhaps it may be possible to explain some of R. Chaim of Volozhin's 'innovations'  by considering the importance he placed on independent thought. Independence of thought was something so key to his approach that it came even at the expense of contradicting earlier authoritative rabbinic sources. This was a methodology he had learned from the Vilna Gaon himself (Chut ha Meshulash, end of siman 11). The important role independence of thought played in R. Chiam of Volozhin's approach is something that Dr Avi Harel pointed out to me, and I wonder if this characteristic of R. Chaim might explain his sometimes rather blatant innovations.

[1] Shuchat R., 2923, ‘Protecting the Image: Was Rav Hayyim of Volozhin's Portrayal of the Vilna Gaon an Altered Image’, Jewish History. 

[2] Montreal, Yehudah Elberg Collection MS 5, fol. 31v, Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, National Library of Israel no. 40380.

[3] Pe’at haShulchan (Safed, 1836; repr. Jerusalem, 1968), Introduction, 5.

[4] Baruch Schick of Shklov, The Book of Euclid [Hebrew] (The Hague, 1780), Introduction.

[5] Montreal, Yehudah Elberg Collection MS 5, fol. 31v.

[6]Toldot Eliyahu (Vilna, 1900; repr. Jerusalem, 1937), 53.

[7] Square brackets are mine.

[8] Introduction to Safra deTzeniuta, 3a.

[9] Introduction to Safra deTzeniuta, 3b.

[10] Introduction to Safra deTzeniuta, 4a.

[11] Square brackets are mine.

[12] Introduction to Safra deTzeniuta, 4a.

[13] Introduction to Safra deTzeniuta, 4b. 

[14] This is where one poses a question before going to sleep and expects the answer to manifest by the next morning.

[15] Introduction to Safra deTzeniuta, 4a.

[16] Square brackets are mine.

[17] Square brackets are mine.

[18] Nefesh haChaim, gate 4, ch. 10.

[19] Yahel Or (Vilna, 1882), 60.

[20] See עמנואל אטקס, יחיד בדורו, פרק חמישי, תגובתו של ר׳ חיים מוולוז׳ין לחסידות, עמ׳ 222-164. I thank Dr Avi Harel for pointing this source out to me. 


  1. Interesting. Perhaps partly for those reasons, there seems to be some ambivalence in the higher echelons of the yeshiva world for even Gra stories from reputable sources. A reader left a comment to my article "The Vilna Gaon, Aristotle, and The Solar System"( with a source quoting R' Shlomo Zalman Auerbach rejecting outright the significance of a Gra story printed by R' Mendel of Shklov.

    1. Thanks. I know that this is one of your specialties. Regarding R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Yehuda Liebes has surprisingly shown that his writings mirrored R. Heshil Tzoref, and that he (R. M.M.) may have been responsible for bringing Sabbatian ideas into Lithuania. That might also have something to do with 'rejecting' him as a reliable source.