Elijah Ben Solomon Zalman, the Gaon of Vilna

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A great 18th-century Jewish scholar and spiritual leader who marked the thinking of eastern Europe's Jewish communities

Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, who was born in 1720 in Seletz, near Grodno, was considered to be a genius from his childhood. Even before he was thirteen years old and passed the bar mitzvah ritual admitting him into the Jewish community as an adult, he had already become interested in the natural and religious sciences.

He married at eighteen, and had many children. After a stay in Keidany with his father-in-law, he travelled to Poland and Germany and visited numerous Jewish communities. Then he settled on the outskirts of Vilna in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and later moved into a house of study in the city which was created for him and which he directed.

Thanks to an inheritance, he and his family had a home and a small stipend for life, in addition to the regular salary paid him by the city's Jewish community, which had elected him its gaon or spiritual leader. By the time he was thirty years old, his reputation had spread beyond his own community, but he nonetheless firmly refused to become a rabbi or to accept any other official position. He preferred to remain a spiritual leader and live a secluded life devoted to study.

The story goes that he studied at night by candlelight in order to be able to concentrate, and slept only two or three hours a day. This also enabled him to keep up a voluminous correspondence with rabbis and especially to study the compilation of law known as the Jerusalem Talmud.

When he was over forty, he emerged from seclusion and began to teach some twenty pupils. His reputation grew even further. An important rabbi from Jerusalem paid tribute to him as "the brilliant light of the century". His advice was much sought-after and his opinions had the weight of authority.

The dispute with Hassidism

However, a pietist movement known as Hassidism developed in Galicia and spread rapidly to Jewish communities throughout eastern Europe. Its mysticism appeared to many as an antidote to hard times, and instilled in them a complete change of heart. Hassidism, which in a sense "democratized" the faith, preached the joyful adoration of God, rejected asceticism and attempted to make the medieval mystical doctrine of Kabbalah widely accessible.

The gaon of Vilna was violently hostile to the Hassidim, whom he described as "mystics like leprosy on the body of Israel." He thought the Hassidic cult of the Tsaddikim (Just Men endowed with divine power and perception) could give rise to false Messiahs. He managed to have their centres closed and pronounced an anathema (here m) on their books.

The Czarist authorities became involved and the dispute became more than a purely theological debate. A number of Hassidic leaders were even briefly imprisoned. In 1777, two of the movement's leaders, Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk and Schneur Zalman of Liadi, vainly attempted to bring about a reconciliation. …