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April 23: The Vilna Gaon

April 23, 2011

Vilna GaonElijah ben Shlomo Zalman, the Gaon (“genius”) of Vilna, was born in Brest-Litovsk on this date in 1720. He was one of the most influential Talmudists and rabbinical authorities to come along in centuries. He had a photographic memory (he was reputed to have memorized the entire Talmud by age 11) and a broad grasp of secular subjects; in addition to a large body of commentaries on Jewish texts, he produced books on mathematics and grammar. None of his voluminous writings, however, were published during his lifetime. The Gaon was a leading opponent of Hasidism as it spread its influence through Galicia and other provinces; he launched the excommunication of Hasidic leaders in 1777. More than 500 of his followers moved to Palestine between 1808 and 1812, which marked the beginning of the modern settlement of Israel.

“The entire purpose of our existence is to overcome our negative habits.” —Elijah Vilna Gaon