Sunday 23 June 2024

476) Did the Vilna Gaon’s Religious Zionism precede modern Secular Zionism?

A 1835 letter written by R. Hillel Rivlin from the Holy Land  to his family back in Shklov


In the previous post, we examined the work by Dr Arie Morgenstern entitled ‘Hastening the Redemption,’[1] which supports the notion that various waves of Aliya during the early nineteenth century were undertaken by students of the Vilna Gaon and on his command. Hundreds of families left Europe to settle in the Holy Land in what was believed to be the beginning stages of the final Redemption, and they were inspired by the Kabbalistic and messianic Zionism of the Vilna Gaon. This Redemption was to be a pragmatic and practical process of rebuilding and settlement of the Land that would involve human effort and not rely on supernatural intervention.

This notion, however, has been severely challenged by Professor Immanuel Etkes in his work  entitled ‘The Invention of a Tradition.[2] Morgenstern’s work is convincingly and meticulously researched based on recently discovered communications by the leaders of the Mitnagdic Aliya, such as R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov and R. Yisrael of Shklov − and so is Etkes’ work based on historical facts and convincing argumentation. Etkes is backed by scholars like Yoseph Avivi, David Assaf, Israel Yuval, Benjamin Brown, Ada Rapoport-Albert, David Assaf, David Biale and Allan Nadler (a student of Isadore Twersky). 

This means that we are confronted by a fascinating and important head-to-head historical, political and theological deliberation, on a topic of major significance, let alone interest. 

Post-1967 messianic Zionism

Etkes frames his book counter-chronologically and quite politically around what he considers to be the growth of a particular branch of messianic religious Zionism emerging in the post-1967 war era, concentrated in the settlements of the newly conquered territories. This movement was inspired by R. Menachem Mendel Kasher (1895-1983) who published his haTekufa haGedola (The Great Era) which included a refutation of the Satmar Rebbe’s ruling that Zionism was against the Halacha. R. Kasher appended another work to his main book, and that was the anonymous Kol haTor (Voice of the Dove). Kol haTor promoted the idea that the Vilna Gaon had started a messianic Zionist movement that flourished in the early nineteenth century. The notion of a historical messianic Zionism, beginning with the ‘Old Yishuv’ (Old Settlement) was then introduced to the school curricula and was seen as a counter-narrative to the ‘modern’ Zionist version of a secular origin to Zionism with the ‘New Yishuv’ developing a few decades later in the late nineteenth century. 

The so-called “Rivlinian myth

Etkes argues that the problem occurs with the attribution of the authorship of the book Kol haTor. In the 1970s and 1980s Kol haTor was regarded as an authoritative work produced by someone very close to the Vilna Gaon. Instead, Etkes demonstrates that it was written, more than a century later, in the 1940s by R. Shlomo Zalman Rivlin (1886–1962)! Etkes considers what he calls the Rivlinian mythto be the foundation of this new ideology. 

The prominent Rivlin family indeed goes back to the Vilna Gaon with one of his students being R. Binyamin Rivlin, who was also his cousin. Ektes argues that the myth was later invented by R. Shlomo Zalman Rivlin, that his ancestor, R. Binyamin Rivlin’s son, R. Hillel Rivlin “received messianic instruction from the Gaon of Vilna to immigrate to the Land of Israel” (Foreword by David Biale in Etkes 2024:viii). 

During the 1990s the Rivlin family was celebrated in a special Knesset session commemorating two hundred years of the Rivlin family as the “ostensible founders of Zionism” (ibid.). Another member of the family, Reuven Rivlin served as the tenth president of Israel between 2014 and 2021. 

According to Etkes, this all goes back to what he considers to be the intentional 1940 misattribution of the work Kol haTor to the earlier generation of the students of the Vilna Gaon allegedly introducing messianic Zionism before historical secular Zionism: 

“The Gaon of Vilna had no special messianic teaching, Kabbalistic or otherwise. He never gave instructions to his disciples to immigrate to the Land of Israel, especially not for messianic reasons. The whole argument is fabricated...[and] is based on a historical fallacy that seeks to erase the secular modernist origins of Zionism” (Ibid.). 

In 2009, at a conference on the bicentennial of the immigration of the Gaon of Vilna’s students to the Land of Israel, soon-to-be president Reuven Rivlin made the following remarks: 

“Our [Rivlin] family can take pride in the steadfastness and the deep roots we have struck in the Land of Israel over the past two centuries, being among the first immigrants to come here, a century before the Zionist movement. Some of the family was blessed to serve as trailblazers of the immigration movement commanded by the Gaon of Vilna and his students. Herzl and his associates in the Zionist enterprise can take credit for many things, but the credit for primacy is reserved for our great grandparents, who changed the situation in the Land of Israel and laid the foundations for Zionism. This was the first true Aliyah”[3] 

Here Reuven Rivlin echoes the sentiments expressed in Kol haTor that religious Zionism preceded secular Zionism; and that the “first true Aliyah” was on the instruction of the Vilna Gaon. Kol haTor was allegedly written by the students of the Vilna Gaon based on the messianic vision he had conveyed to R. Hillel Rivlin but according to Etkes, Kol haTor was actually written much later by R. Shlomo Zalman Rivlin in around 1940. 

Chazon Tzion and Kol haTor

Another similar work by R. Shlomo Zalman Rivlin, but this time clearly in his name, was Chazon Tzion (Vision of Zion). Both Kol haTor and Chazon Tzion were published by R. Shlomo Zalman Rivlin in the late 1940s. It is in these two works that we find: 

“[t]he first appearance of the myth of the Gaon of Vilna and his disciples as ‘the first Zionists’” (Etkes 2024:6). 

Chazon Tzion describes not just Zionism but a veritable messianic Zionist movement emerging from the Vilna Gaon, in Shklov, in the late eighteenth century. The Vilna Gaon is said to have appointed two members of the Rivlin family as the leaders of this new movement, namely, R. Binyamin Rivlin and his son R. Hillel Rivlin. The movement was to capitalise on the new messianic energy prevalent in the world at that time which would reach its fruition in the Land of Israel if sufficiently large numbers of Jews began to go on Aliya. 

Kol haTor was purported to be a distillation of the Vilna Gaon’s teachings which he gave to his student R. Hillel Rivlin. Messianic Zionism was reflected in this book using Kabbalistic language, imagery and gematriot (numerical calculations). 

Etkes points these fabrications out because he notes that contrary to the actual history, these works are used as primary sources by: 

“rabbis and educators from Religious Zionism [who] have increasingly come to rely on Kol ha-Tor as a book that reflects, supposedly, the Messianic Zionist doctrine of the Gaon of Vilna. The passionate adoption among some Religious Zionists of the myth about the Gaon of Vilna and his students as being the first Zionists is a denial of the fact that Zionism was a modern national movement, with all that this implies” (Etkes 2024:7). 

The style and content of Chazon Tzion is matched by the style and content of Kol haTor. We know that both books were published by R. Shlomo Zalman Rivlin in 1947. We know Chazon Tzion was written by R. Shlomo Zalman Rivlin and we can therefore conclude that Kol haTor was also written by the same person in the 1940s and, therefore, cannot be of earlier provenance dating back to the time of the Students of the Vilna Gaon: 

“This conceptual identity can serve as an indication that both books were indeed penned by a single author, to wit Shlomo Zalman Rivlin” (Etkes 2024:20). 

Indeed, the opening page of Kol haTor does not claim that it was written by R. Hillel Rivlin, but, rather, is based on his writings: 

“The Prelude to the Messiah: A Precis of the Seven Chapters on Redemption by the Kabbalistic Gaon R. Hillel Shklover, Relative and Disciple of the GRA [Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna] of Blessed Memory.” 

Etkes doubts that R. Hillel (Shklover) Rivlin was even one of the disciples of the Vilna Gaon. He goes through various accounts and lists of the students of the Vilna Gaon and R. Hillel’s name does not appear. [4] There is written testimony that R. Hillel Rivlin visited the house of the Vilna Gaon – they were relatives but he does not appear to have been one of his students. 

R. Shlomo Zalman Rivlin claims that Kol haTor is a precis or synopsis of the Vilna Gaon’s messianic Zionist teachings to his student, R. Hillel Rivlin, however: 

“Shlomo Zalman does not cite a single sentence from the original work that he supposedly held in front of him” (Ekes 2024:23).   

Surprisingly, considering the great thirst for later generations to glean as much as they can about the Vilna Gaon, there is no mention of a manuscript of Kol haTor before its publication by R. Shlomo Zalman Rivlin in 1947. 

The reason for the early eighteenth-century Aliyot by the students of the Vilna Gaon

If the messianic Zionism of the Vilna Gaon was a fabrication, then why did hundreds of students of the Vilna Gaon go on Aliya? According to Etkes’ research, they went primarily to study Torah in the Holy Land. Etkes has uncovered vast networks of fundraising activity aimed at keeping and maintaining a scholarly elite in perpetual study without them having to be distracted by the burdens of earning a livelihood. 

The Chassidim, in similarly well-structured earlier Chassidic Aliyot during 1740s, 1750s, and 1760s also wanted to live in the holiness of the Land and study there: 

“[T]he Hasidim residing in the Land of Israel were not expected to work for a living but rather to pray and study Torah, while their Hasidic brethren in Eastern Europe were expected to support them. This arrangement was based on three justifications. For one, the Hasidim residing in the Land of Israel are public emissaries who are fulfilling the mitzvah of settlement in the Land of Israel; although this mitzvah applies to every Jew, since it is inconceivable that all or most Jews will settle in the Land of Israel, the immigrant Hasidim serve to represent all of their brethren in the Diaspora” (Etkes 2024:2). 

This pattern was repeated by the Mitnagdic students of the Vilna Gaon who, a few decades later, established learning centres, kollels and study houses in Safed and Jerusalem, funded by their brethren in Europe. They too were not expected to work for a living but would be sustained by a financial package known as the Chalukah. 

Soon, however, there were so many people needing to rely on the Chalukah that disagreements erupted amongst those responsible for the funding. Many more immigrants arrived from Europe and they were not from the original scholarly class. By the 1840s it became impossible to sustain the large population by donation funds alone and various initiatives were set up to teach job skills and provide general education. The local Sefaradi community that had always lived in the Land welcomed these initiatives but the Ashkenazi immigrants boycotted them (Etkes 2024:5). 

This way, Etkes explains the motivation for these Aliyot, starting as an enterprise to encourage a scholarly elite to perfect their studies in the Holy Land and serve as a merit for the Jews who remained behind but who continued to support them. With time the number of immigrants grew while the number of scholars declined and an economy began to emerge. But absent in this scheme, according to Etkes, was the alleged messianic Zionism of early settlers as falsely and anachronistically portrayed by R. R. Shlomo Zalman Rivlin. 

Examining the content of Chazon Tzion by R. Shlomo Zalman Rivlin

R. Shlomo Zalman Rivlin was born in Jerusalem in 1884 and died there in 1962. Chazon Tzion was first published in 1947 and is an account of the emergence of a school messianic Zionism centred around Shklov in White Russia and inspired by the Vilna Gaon. It began during the late eighteenth century under R. Binyamin Rivlin. The Vilna Gaon passed away in 1797. It describes how R. Binyamin Rivlin at the age of 52, together with his business partner Yehoshua Zeitlin, received a tremendous amount of money after selling a forest to the Russian government. R. Binyamin Rivlin felt this had to be a sign from Heaven and he had a dream to confirm that. He duly approached his teacher and cousin, the Vilna Gaon to interpret the dream and this is how Chazon Tzion describes the unfolding events: 

“The Gaon solved [the puzzle of] R. Binyamin’s dream and informed him that his wealth had been given to him from heaven so that he would work for the settlement of the Holy Land…And he found hints and heavenly instruction for him and his son R. Hillel to immigrate…and reside in the Land of Israel and do all in their power for the Return to Zion” (Chazon Tzion:20).[5] 

When R. Binyamin Rivlin returned to Shklov, he began to preach that the first stage of the Redemption required human initiative and the efforts of the nation: 

“[O]n the second day of Rosh Hashanah of 1781…R. Binyamin mounted the platform of the Great Synagogue in Shklov and with passion and enthusiasm delivered a sermon on the commandment of the ‘Return to Zion’…For it is precisely from here, from this very country [White Russia], and especially from our town of Shklov, that the Redemption is to be launched. And who is to launch it?—We are! It is upon us that the prophet[6] has, in the name of God, conferred the vaunted task” (Chazon Tzion:22). 

Then in an overtly messianic proclamation referring to the Vilna Gaon, the story continues: 

“And we are certain of the holy prophecy, for with us stands a great and mighty general—Messiah ben Ephraim ben Yosef; he is with us in all our ways and in all we do. And happy the man who joins the pioneers in the community of immigrants ascending the mount of the Lord; and all those who tarry, it is their duty, at the least, to be among the participants aiding those who return with great financial support, as it is said ‘and those who return, by zedaka’ [righteousness, but also charity]” (Chazon Tzion:25). 

On this, Etkes points out that the: 

“idea that the Gaon is the embodiment of Messiah ben Yosef plays a central role in the Rivlinian myth” (Etkes 2024:13). 

As a result of this, R. Binyamin Rivlin and his son R. Hillel Rivlin set out on a fundraising mission and the religious Zionist movement entitled Chazon Tzion was born. Reflecting what was soon to become very secular Zionistic notions, the religious Zionist movement of the Vilna Gaon allegedly: 

“called for the transformation of the language of Hebrew into a new spoken language and even composed melodies for songs about Zion” (Etkes 2024:13). 

After the Vilna Gaon’s passing in 1797, R. Binyamin Rivlin took over and became the leader of this movement of messianic Mitnagdim, Chazon Tzion. In time the reigns of the movement were passed on to his son, R. Hillel Rivlin who continued with intense fundraising activity. According to Chazon Tzion, there is no doubt about the messianic nature of this movement and its magnitude. A large convention was supposedly held in Shklov in 1806, which was: 

“attended by community rabbis, philanthropists, and businessmen from across the Russian Empire” (Etkes citing Chazon Tzion:42-43). 

Chazon Tzion claims in no uncertain terms that:

“The main purpose of the Vilna Gaon and his disciples and of the Hazon Zion movement [was] to hasten the Redemption via action…They took upon themselves the role of preparing the ground for the Redemption, which was to come in 1840, based on the Zohar” (Chazon Tzion:37–38).[7] 

Chazon Tzion describes how there was to be a transfer of the centre of Torah study to Jerusalem and the building of Jerusalem with new neighbourhoods. In this sense, Vilna was no longer the Jerusalem of Lithuania. There was also to be a benefit of metaphysical significance, continuous R. Shlomo Zalman Rivlin, because the building of Jerusalem would count as a “war of God against Amalek” (Chazon Tzion:38–39). He also explained that the building of the Land would be the proclivity of the poor people. Importantly, though, the entire messianic program must be kept secret “so as to not be interfered with by the Gentiles” (Chazon Tzion:40). 

Etkes’ interpretation of Chazon Tzion

Etkes, a historian, questions the historicity of this entire depiction by R. Shlomo Zalman Rivlin in his Chazon Tzion. He writes: 

“[A]nyone versed in the history of Eastern European Jews in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and in the history of nineteenth century Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel and the history of Zionism, does not require special scrutiny to discern that the story of the Hazon Zion movement has no basis in reality. This tale is no more than an anachronistic projection of the Hibat Zion movement from the 1880s onto the late eighteenth century” (Etkes 2024:14). 

These very ideas of intense fundraising to finance Aliyah, the promotion of Hebrew as a modern language and composing songs and poetry for the Land of Israel appear to be exact replications of the style of the later secular Chibat Zion movement.  Even the claim that the movement of Chazon Tzion must remain secretive for fear of the Gentiles seems to directly reflect the fear of the Turkish government’s response during the ‘First Aliyah’ of Chibat Tzion around 1882 and 1904; and the idea that the poor shall build the Land is an echo of what Theodor Herzl wrote in Der Judenstaat (Etkes 2024:15). 

Etkes further challenges R. Shlomo Zalman Rivlin’s description of his ancestors’ messianic Zionist activity in Shklov under the direction and instruction of the Vilna Gaon. He argues that if this ‘historical account’ was accurate and especially if it emanated from the Vilna Gaon, then others would have written about it, long before 1940: 

“It is inconceivable that such a movement, had it existed, would have left no trace in the writings of contemporaries” (Etkes 2024:15). 

The fact is that R. Binyamin Rivlin published his own book in 1804, entitled Gvi’ei Gavia Kesef (Goblets of Silver). Yet, amazingly, if one reads that work from cover to cover, there is not a single: 

“shred of the Messianic Zionist ideas that Shlomo Zalman has R. Binyamin say in the sermons he attributes to him in the book Hazon Zion” (Etkes 2024:16). 

Etkes adds that R. Shlomo Zalman Rivlin’s describing R. Binyamin Rivlin as having Yehoshua Zeitlin as his wealthy business partner in the forest business, has no basis in reality. 

Another observation of Etkes concerns R. Shlomo Zalman Rivlin’s describing how R. Binyamin Rivlin’s son, R. Hillel Rivlin, took over the leadership of Chazon Tzion when his father got old. R. Hillel Rivlin is said to have headed the first wave of Aliya of the students of the Vilna Gaon in 1808.  Etkes shows, based on letters and documents, that R. Hillel did not participate in the early Aliyot. The earliest time he could have gone on Aliya would have been 1832 as archival documents show that he only received his travel passport for the Holy Land in that year (Etkes 2024:17). 


In the previous article, we looked at Arie Morgenstern’s research, based largely on recently discovered written correspondence between Vilna and Eretz Yisrael and Morgenstern convincingly shows a distinct messianic bent and motivation behind the Aliyot of the students of the Vilna Gaon. Morgenstern also maintains that these early nineteenth-century Aliyot were not just inspired by the Vilna Gaon, but conducted under his direct instruction. 

Etkes denies both these positions: 

“…there isn’t the slightest hint of the existence of a Messianic Zionist doctrine that he instilled in his disciples, a doctrine that motivated their immigration to the Land of Israel” (Etkes 2024:25). 

This is a fascinating scholarly head-on collision, as it were, over a fundamental issue, especially concerning a rabbi of the stature of the Vilna Gaon. 

My humble personal thoughts on the matter are that perhaps there is some degree of political bias at play, pulling in different directions. I am, however, thoroughly convinced of the reliability of Morgenstern’s source documents and am also thoroughly convinced of Etkes’ refutation of the Kol haTor as an authentic work and his notion that a “tradition” has been “invented.” 

But I think that one other critical thought component needs to be introduced to this discussion. That is the research by Yehuda Liebes.[8] Liebes demonstrates that the Vilna Gaon was a surprisingly intense Kabbalist with a surprising messianic vision. Some of his students actually believed he was the Messiah. Liebes has uncovered extreme mystical tendencies prevalent amongst the students of the Vilna Gaon and adduces the evidence from their copious writings. Here is one example of Liebes’ findings from the writings of the Vilna Gaon’s student, R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov: 

כמה דברים הוצרכתי להסתיר ולדבר בדרך רמז, כי אסור לגלות אפילו מפה לאוזן כו׳

“I have had to hide many things and speak [only] in hints, for it is forbidden to reveal [these teachings] even from mouth to ear [let alone to publish them]” (R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov in Frumkin, Toledot Chachmei Yerushalayim, vol 3, 1929:160, footnote 2).[9] 

This is why I believe Liebes by highlighting a refuted and underestimated intense and radical mysticism within the school of Vilna holds a key to some reconciliation between Morgenstern and Etkes, and may provide a fuller context for this important and enigmatic matter.

[1] Morgenstern, A., 2006, Hastening Redemption: Messianism and the Resettlement of the Land of Israel, Oxford University Press.

[2] Etkes, I., 2024, The Invention of a Tradition: The Messianic Zionism of the Gaon of Vilna, Translated by Saadya Sternberg, Stanford University Press.

[3] Rivlin: The immigration of the students of the Vilna Gaon—foundations of Zionism], Arutz-7, Oct 15, 2009, http://

[4] See Aliyot Eliyahu, the first biography of the Gaon, published in Vilna in 1856. R. Hillel Rivlin is mentioned in the book, but not in the list of students. See also the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, in the preface written by his sons, R. Avraham and R. Yehuda Leib. They mention R. Binyamin Rivlin as a student Gaon, but not his son, R. Hillel.

[5] Shlomo Zalman Rivlin, Chazon Zion, Shklov veYerushalayim, 20.

[6] This is a reference to “I shall bring them from the land of the north and gather them from the corners of the earth” (Jeremiah 31:7). Russia is believed to be the “land of the north.”

[8] Liebes, Y., n.d., ‘Tzidkat haTzadik: Yachas haGaon miVilna veChugo kelapei haShabtaut [The Righteousness of the Tzadik: The relationship of the Vilna Gaon and his group towards Sabbatianism]’ (Hebrew), Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1-93.

[9] Translation is mine.


  1. Just about everything Etkes & co are in desperation to claim to be of relatively recent vintage were of the seeping cultural bedrock of the yishuv hayashan going back several generations prior.To it's origin. Even less religious of theirs offspring attest to that.
    Ho ho people are that much in need to spread a revisionist pseudo- agenda to build a phony tabula rasa

    so much for kotzk.

  2. Remarkable what people can conjure up