“Who can count, who can measure,
The bounds of his heart’s breadth?
His novel Torah insights are endless,
Into Hashem’s perfect Torah,
All as clean as fine meal,
As it was given at Sinai,
Would that they be engraved in a book.”
— from an introduction by the sons of the Gra to a volume containing their father’s Bi’ur al Kammoh Aggodos, Vilna, 5560 (1800)
The following is translated and adapted from the monumental three-volume work HaGaon by Rav Dov Eliach. It is taken from the second volume, chapter 21, entitled, “Toras Hashem Temimoh.”
Whole and Perfect
Becoming acquainted with the vast corpus of the Gaon’s Torah writings is a very revealing experience, which transforms one’s understanding both of Torah’s Heavenly origin and of what ‘knowing Torah’ can actually mean. A single aspect of the Gaon’s Torah touches upon both these ideas — its revelation of Torah as a single, integrated whole.
‘Torah’s wholeness’ is the key to appreciating the Gaon’s method of laboring at Torah study. The term means complete, deep, thorough, orderly and lucid knowledge of the entire Torah.
It means fully fathoming the significance of every word, every vowel, every pause and everytrop, so that all are consistent with both the plain meaning and the rules of grammar.
Torah’s wholeness, as reflected in the Gaon’s writings, demonstrates that “Hashem’s Torah is perfect” (Tehillim 19:8). From every one of Torah’s branches, subdivisions and details, it becomes apparent that all Torah comprises one, perfect unit containing multiple layers of meaning and interpretation that interlock and are dependent upon one another but which are all ultimately rooted in the source of sources, the Written Torah.
Torah’s perfection is apparent from the Oral Torah’s being secreted within the Written Torah. In the Oral Torah itself, all the writings of the poskim are contained within the words of Chazal in the two Talmudim. Everything in the Talmud derives from scrutiny of the concise language of the Mishnah, while the contents of the Mishnah itself are derived through the established methods of expounding the words and pesukim of the Written Torah.
Torah’s perfection also means that the revealed Torah and the concealed Torah — Kabboloh — are not at variance with one another. They both come from the same Source, with roots in the Written Torah. Moreover, Kabboloh is built on the same pattern and displays the same wholeness and integrity as the revealed Torah.
A further aspect of Torah’s perfection conveyed in the Gaon’s writings is the fact that it contains allusions to every event in the world’s history and to every component of creation. This deepens our understanding of the statement that “Yisroel, the Torah and Hakodosh Boruch Hu are one.” The Torah itself shows that this is so.
The Gaon demonstrated all this and showed the harmony and consistency between the different levels and aspects, and how they are all used together to explain Torah thoroughly and accurately. To be confronted with the full splendor of the Gaon’s vast and orderly system is to grasp the force of its testimony to Torah’s Divine origin. It at once refutes all the shameful theories that attempt to undermine the power of the Oral Torah and the authority of the Sages in each generation, from the Sages of the Mishnah and Talmud, down to the most recentposkim.
The pesukim of the Written Torah not only contain Chazal’s teachings, but also an allusion to the very existence of the Talmud. The Gaon pointed to the words “(eish) dos lomo” (Devorim 33:2), whose letters, when rearranged, spell “talmud” (Likutim Midivrei HaGra at the end ofDevar Eliyohu on Iyov and Rav Yisroel MiShklov writing in Taklin Chadetin, Shekolim perek 6, end of halochoh 5. See also the Netziv’s Ha’amek Dovor on that posuk.)
Source of the Oral Torah
The Gaon writes, “Kabboloh [received tradition, i.e. the methods that Chazal received for expounding the pesukim] constitutes the connection between the two Torahs [i.e. Written and Oral], bringing the secrets of the orally received tradition [to bear] on Scripture. This is why the earlier scholars occupied themselves exclusively with expounding the pesukim, and it is the same with the simple droshos like the Sifro and Sifrei, which give Scriptural sources forhalochos that were transmitted orally . . . all this belongs to the secrets of Kabboloh”(commentary to Tikkunei Zohar, 36b, beginning De’ihu rozo).
The Gaon’s son-in-law, HaRav Shraga Feivish of Dubrovna zt’l, testified that from the time he began learning with his father-in-law, he saw that the Gaon’s sole desire was to follow in the footsteps of the tannoim and amoraim. Like them, he sought to determine the sources ofhalochos — either explicit or inferred from the differences between words or from additional or missing letters — in the Written Torah (his introduction to the first edition of Aderes Eliyohu).
HaRav Chaim of Volozhin zt’l, HaRav Yisroel and HaRav Mendel of Shklov zt’l, all write that the Gaon managed to identify the source of every statement of Chazal’s in the gemora andmidroshim, “deriving heaps [of halochos] from every pen stroke” (Rav Chaim’s introduction toShenos Eliyohu).
Rav Yisroel points to the Gaon’s treatises on Zero’im, Kodshim and Taharos as evidence of his having identified the sources in Scripture of each and every mishnah. Rav Yisroel quotes from this work, which he saw in manuscript, referring to it as “his explanations of mishnayos hidden within Scripture” (his introduction to Pe’as Hashulchon, quotes are in simonim 9:31 and 12:15).
This work of the Gaon’s was eventually published in 5647 (1887) as Me’oros HaGra which contained “Scriptural allusions” on nine masechtos “copied with great precision from his own holy manuscript . . .” as the title page notes.
The Gaon’s commentary to maseches Ovos, which was originally published by HaRav Mendel of Shklov and the Gaon’s sons, forms part of the Me’oros. It is said that at the head of the commentary, the Gaon wrote that the name Ovos alludes to the gemora’s statement (Shabbos 49) that “those that are written in the Torah are called ovos” (made in connection with principles of Shabbos — ovos melochos).
Examples of the Gaon’s approach abound in his seforim and in the records of his Torah. “He said much [on the Scriptural sources of the Mishnah and the gemora’s source in themishnayos] and demonstrated it vividly,” writes one of his talmidim.
” . . . He literally had the entire Torah on his lips . . . He counted all the words and letters inShas, Sifro and Tosefta, like those who possessed true knowledge knew how to do. I will record here some of what I heard when I was in Vilna with our teacher. He showed an allusion in the posuk, “And you shall smash their altars” (Devorim 12:6) to the mishnah, “There are three [different laws of] houses” in Avodoh Zora (3:7)” (Quoted in Likutei Torah MeihaGra. The actual explanation is in Aderes Eliyohu, Devorim 12:6 and brought in Peninim Mishulchan HaGra in Devorim).
A rov once asked the Gaon about an emendation he had made in Ovos DeRabbi Nosson. The original version read simply, “Moshe was sanctified in the cloud . . . in order to receive the Torah.” The Gaon changed it to, “Moshe ascended in the cloud and was covered in the cloud and was sanctified in the cloud…” He explained that this was how the gemora in Yoma (4) read and that the text of the Talmud Bavli is reliable.
He also pointed out an allusion to this version in the posuk: the word anan, cloud, is writtenayin- nun-nun. These are the initials of the words oloh (he ascended), niscaseh (he was covered) and niskadeish (he was sanctified — introduction to Pe’as Hashulchon in the name of Rav Saadiah, to whom the Gaon transmitted his glosses on the minor masechtos).
The Gaon cited an allusion in the Torah to one of the most widespread Jewish customs. In communities all over the world, the mention of Homon’s name during the reading of Megillas Esther triggers an outburst of banging, clapping and other loud noises. The posuk that speaks about the penalty of lashes contains the words vehoyo im bin hacos horosho (it shall be, if the wicked party deserves a beating) (Devorim 25:2). The last letters of the first three words arehei-mem-nun which spell Homon. And the following words are hacos horosho, meaning, “Beat the wicked one!”
The story is told that Rav Itzele of Volozhin zt’l, when he was approximately ten years old, accompanied his father Rav Chaim the Gaon’s close talmid on a visit to the Gaon. Upon entering the Gaon’s presence they realized that he was preoccupied, for he was deep in thought and did not notice that they had come in. When the Gaon gave them his attention, Rev Chaim asked him to tell them the problem that he had been pondering.
The Gaon replied that he had been trying to find an allusion in the Torah to one of Chazal’s teachings but it had so far eluded him. After bnei Yisroel had crossed the Yam Suf the Torah states: “And the sea returned . . . to its [original] strength . . .” (Shemos 14:27). Chazal comment that the word le’eisono, to its strength, can also be read [if the alef and tof are transposed] as leteno’o, meaning to its stipulation. This teaches us that when He endowed the sea with its power and its regular course of flow at its creation, Hakodosh Boruch Hu stipulated with it that it should split for bnei Yisroel. Where in the Torah did Chazal see any allusion to such a condition?
No sooner had the Gaon finished speaking than young Itzele asked his father to seek his rebbe’s permission for him to answer. The Gaon gave his consent and the boy began:
In parshas Bereishis (1:9) Hakodosh Boruch Hu declares, “Let the water gather to one place and let the dry land be visible.” The last words seem superfluous. If the waters all gather in one place, isn’t it obvious that land would be visible in those places where water had been hitherto? Apparently then, these words are not to be understood as a continuation of the previous phrase but as a new, separate declaration, referring to a place that at that time was actually covered with water but where dry land would be visible at some later date. This, said the young Itzele, was the Yam Suf which Hashem stipulated from the beginning should split for bnei Yisroel.
The Gaon is said to have been highly pleased with this answer, commenting that he was certain that Reb Itzele “would one day be a great darshan in Yisroel” (Kol Shachal, Vilna 5657 (1897) by Rav Shlomo Yechezkel Segal, drush dalet. Thanks to Rav C.D. Kaplan for drawing our attention to this source.)
The Gemora is Contained in the Mishnah
The Gaon maintained that the very same principle is applicable to all the subsequent development of the Oral Torah. All the discussions of the amoroim in the gemora are essentially elucidation of the teachings of the tannoim in the Mishnah, as arranged by Rabbi Yehuda Hanossi. Moreover, even the Toseftos and Beraissos are alluded to in the Mishnah.
Rabbenu Chananel writes, “The essentials of whatever appears in the external mishnayos [i.e.Toseftos and the like] are in our Mishnah, but not every scholar knows how [to show this].” Thegemora (Taanis 21) itself actually mentions this idea (Rabbenu Chananel is quoted inChiddushei Umeoros HaGra, Yerushalayim 5759, in the editor’s introduction quoting his father, HaRav Yaakov Chaim Sofer. HaRav Chaim Kanievsky pointed out to me that the gemora says this.)
Rav Yisroel of Shklov also mentions the Gaon’s ability to demonstrate the mishnaic source of any Tosefta. He relates that Rav Zelmele of Volozhin travelled to Vilna to ask the Gaon about a single word in a mishnah with which he was having difficulty. The Gaon showed him that that word was an allusion to a lengthy discussion in the Tosefta. “He was very amazed,” concludes Rav Yisroel “and there were a thousand other such instances” (introduction to Pe’as Hashulchon. The story was told by Rav Zelmele’s brother, HaRav Chaim of Volozhin.)
HaRav Meir of Vilna, one of the Gaon’s talmidim, who published his work Eliyohu Rabbah onTaharos, relates that when they were learning through the mishnayos, after every perek he would read the Toseftos that dealt with those topics upon his rebbe’s instructions, “so that I should know how the Mishnah and the Tosefta fit together and I should have them as one unit” (introduction to Eliyohu Rabbah).
The Mishnah’s Precision
Rabbenu Hakodosh arranged the Mishnah with such wisdom and precision that it encompasses the Oral Torah in its entirety. In consequence, its language is often very terse and many extensive topics are alluded to in a few concise words. Given its comprehensive character, how are we to understand the gemora’s frequent statement that a mishnah is “chisurei mechsura,” meaning, “the text is missing something,” which the gemora then proceeds to supply?
The Gaon compared such mishnayos to the work of a tailor who takes a length of material and cuts it into odd and differently-shaped pieces. To the uninitiated observer, some pieces seem to have extra sections and others seem to be missing sections. The tailor however, knows that each piece has to be exactly the way it is so that when sewn up, all the pieces together will form a complete garment.
Rav Avrohom, the Gaon’s son, writes, “I heard from my father, the renowned gaon and pious one . . . that when Chazal on occasion say, “It is missing and this is how it is to be learned,” nothing is really missing from the text of the mishnah. The existence of [or the need to make] the addition is really already evident due to the clarity of the language of Rabbenu Hakodoshz’l. In order to make it clearer to multitudes who merely glance at it [and are unable to infer fully from the nuances of the language] it has to be explained more explicitly. Whoever studies his words will see that it [i.e. the addition] is included in the text [perhaps] in a single extra letter” (Rav Pe’olim, letter Reish).
Rav Yisroel of Shklov also mentions the Gaon’s ability to explain every chisurei mechsura in the gemora in a way that showed that nothing at all was missing from the mishnah. However he quotes the Gaon as having given a different reason for this being so. It hinges on the approach that Rabbenu Hakodosh followed one opinion, according to which nothing is missing, whereas the gemora followed a differing opinion, according to which further words have to be inserted. The Gaon found an allusion to the chisurei mechsura method in Shir Hashirim (7:2)(introduction to Pe’as Hashulchon).
Discussions of the Poskim are Contained in the Gemora
The Gaon’s approach to determining halochoh was fully consistent with his view of the Mishnahas the record of halochos alluded to in the Written Torah and of the gemora as the elucidation of the Mishnah. In elucidating the rulings of the Mechaber and the glosses of the Ramo inShulchan Oruch, he showed how the gemora served as their source. He viewed the decisions and rulings of the later authorities as further development of — or more accurately as conclusions drawn from — the discussions of the gemora. He toiled and labored to uncover the foundations of these rulings in the gemora and pointed to them as the sources of the halochos.
Obviously, this was also the hallmark of the Gaon’s own approach to determining the halochoh: every ruling was based upon Chazal, in the light of his understanding of the gemora. Something for which no source could be found in the gemora lacked foundation and could not be upheld.
The aim of the Biur HaGra on Shulchan Oruch is thus, “to draw attention to and to point out the source in Shas, according to its differing opinions, when learning Shulchan Oruch,” as Rav Chaim of Volozhin put it in his introduction to that work. Anyone who learns the Gaon’s biurproperly, realizes that in citing numerous sources he is not simply listing references but demonstrating how to arrive at the basic building blocks of each halochoh, whose source he had brilliantly determined. The insight that this affords into the workings of each halochohfacilitates the resolution of new points of doubt that arise concerning it.
As Rav Chaim writes, “He wrought wonders in his explanation of Shulchan Oruch, where he encompassed all the numerous halochos that are mentioned in their holy writings with their sources, which he demonstrated in the two Talmudim, Bavli and Yerushalmi. He finely ground, picked and sifted the clearest extract of all the opinions of the Rishonim z’l” (introduction toSafro Detseni’uso).
HaRav Shlomo Eliashiv zt’l, author of Leshem Shevo Ve’achlomoh, once noted that truth is the Gaon’s hallmark, because in all his decisions, he always sought the primary sources — theTalmudim themselves — both in determining halochoh and in his writings on the concealed Torah. In a letter to HaRav Naftali Hertz Halevi zt’l, the rov of Yaffo, HaRav Eliashiv discussed the Gaon’s approach and wrote:
“Let us learn from the elders, meaning our master and teacher the Gaon . . . who, though he achieved wondrous things, nevertheless based himself entirely on what is written in the Zohar and the Tikkunim. That which all the [other] mekubolim took from the Arizal, he took from themidroshim of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. This is why everything he wrote is presented simply as explanations of the Medrashei Rashbi. This was his holy approach in the revealed Torah as well.
“He thus merited having the truth issue from his lips and achieving all that he did achieve. It befits us to follow his holy path as well, not offering any of our own conjectures but drawing pure waters from deep wells, that are from the words of the Rav and the Gaon only.”
Brevity in Recording the Oral Torah
The Gaon’s talmidim once asked him why he recorded his insights, explanations and glosses in such terse language. He explained that the halochoh is, “You may not write down that which is to be transmitted orally” (Gittin 60). The only reason that it was permitted to write down the Oral Torah is that otherwise Torah would have been forgotten. Thus, the briefer we can be in our writing the better.
He added that this is the reason that the Mishnah is written in such concise language. Rebbi and his fellow Sages who arranged the Mishnah permitted the Oral Torah to be written down in order to save Torah. But they were extremely careful and tried to be as brief as possible. A number of the tannoim of the Mishnah used to make their own records of halochos as an aid to memory but because of the prohibition against writing halochos (Gittin ibid.), they did so in the briefest possible way, similar to shorthand. Obviously this left plenty of room for later Sages to seek explanations and interpretations of these writings.
The Gaon concluded that he also tried to render his own writing as concise as possible, recording no more than was absolutely necessary. Writing down Oral Torah was never permitted for any more than the minimum (introduction to Toras Yeruchom by Rav Zeev Shachnowitz, vol. II: “I have seen it quoted in the name of the gaon of his generation Rav Gershon Tanchum, rov of Minsk . . .”)