JUDAISM: Elijah Ben Solomon:

The divisions within Christianity are well known in the West, but not the divisions in Judaism and Islam.  Hence the interest of this bio sent by John Gehl of the Jewish scholar and spiritual leader Elijah ben Solomon (1720-1797), whose scholarship embraced mastery of every field of study in the Jewish literature up to his own time.       

Born in Sielec, Lithuania, into a long line of scholars, Elijah traveled among the Jewish communities of Poland and Germany in 1740-45 and then settled in Vilna, which was the cultural center of East European Jewry. There he lived as a recluse, devoting himself to study and prayer. By the time he was 30 his reputation as a scholar had spread throughout the Jewish world, and as a mark of respect they began calling him the Gaon of Vilna, the title Gaon being an ancient Hebrew honorific term for "majesty." Although he refused to act as a rabbi in his own community, Elijah was one of the first authoritative critics of rabbinical texts. He prepared commentaries on the Talmud and on Hebrew classics, introducing the methods of textual criticism in the study of the Bible and the Talmud. He also broadened Jewish learning to include the natural sciences, and asserted that a complete understanding of Jewish law and literature required the study of mathematics, astronomy, geography, botany and zoology. He encouraged translations of works on these subjects into Hebrew and made his own contribution by writing a Hebrew grammar as well as treatises on mathematics and astronomy.

Elijah is sometimes remembered in a less than favorable light for his strenuous opposition to the spread of Hasidism among the Jewish population. Hasidism was a pietistic mystical movement that he considered superstitious and unscholarly, deserving the strongest condemnation and rejection by the Jewish community.  His opposition succeeded in temporarily checking the movement's spread in Lithuania. Elijah's writings were published posthumously and include commentaries and numerous annotations on the Bible, Talmud, Midrash, and other works. One of his best-known books is The Village Gaon Views Life,

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: February 1, 2005