By Immanuel Etkes, Jeffrey Green
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Extra resources for The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and His Image
And he illuminated our eyes by his holy writings on revealed and hidden things. ” 63 Thus, had the Gaon not appeared, the generation would have been forsaken in darkness. Another of his disciples, Rabbi Menashe of Ilia, describes the Gaon’s mission as being messianic in character: As it appears, the length of our exile shows that we must be near to the footsteps of our messiah, and we must clear the way before him, the way ha-gaon he-hasid 33 of truth; . . 64 Whereas Rabbi H . ayyim emphasized the Gaon’s contribution in revealing the secrets of the Torah, Rabbi Menashe, a rationalistic scholar inﬂuenced by Haskalah, describes the Gaon as someone who had paved the way for the advent of the messiah by rehabilitating the path of plain meaning and truth in the study of Torah.
32 This is the essence of what Rabbi Israel heard from his colleague Rabbi Menahem Mendel about the ceremony that the Gaon held when he ﬁnished his interpretation of the Song of Songs. I use the word ceremony because from the testimony presented here it appears that the Gaon did indeed initiate an event of exceptional character. The invitation of his son’s father-in-law and his son to join him and his disciple, and the instruction he gave to close the windows and light candles in full daylight, and of course the words he said to those present—all of this indicates his intention to make the conclusion of his commentary on the Song of Songs into an event of ceremonial character.
Why were his disciples drawn to him, and why did he receive such extensive recognition and authority among his contemporaries? Furthermore, what is the meaning of his sons’ and disciples’ efforts to erect a monument to him in the introductions they wrote to his works? Finally, how is it that, of all the great Torah scholars who lived and were active during the eighteenth century, such a powerful myth should have grown ha-gaon he-hasid 35 up around the Vilna Gaon? The latter question is especially important because this man neither served as rabbi of an important community nor left a body of Halakhic rulings.