Thursday marks the 300th anniversary of the Gaon of Vilna, the great 18-century Torah scholar Elijah ben Solomon Zalman.
The mysterious and aloof sage dedicated his life to studying Jewish religious texts. His commentaries on the Talmud and the Torah, published posthumously by his disciples, made the Gaon one of the most revered Jewish scholars, while Vilnius, the town where he spent most of his life and died in 1797, earned the name of the Jerusalem of the North.
“The Gaon was exceptional in his universal absorption and knowledge of all areas [of Jewish scholarship],” says Lara Lempertienė, the head of the Judaic Department at the Lithuanian National Library. “This amazed his disciples and contemporaries.”
Elijah ben Solomon Zalman was born in 1720 in Siealiec near Brest Litovsk in present-day Belarus. His father was an accomplished Talmud scholar, a descendant of Rabbi Isaac Kremer.
According to legend, six-year-old Elijah delivered a sermon in the Great Synagogue of Vilna, exhibiting a thorough understanding of rabbinical literature.
The fame of the Vilna Gaon spread while he was still alive, although his commentaries, assembled and edited by his disciples, were not published until after his death.
“The Gaon did not seek fame, he did not take up any post in the community, did not head a religious institution, even though any European city would have been proud to have a yeshiva founded by him,” Lempertienė previously told LRT.lt. “But that would have detracted him from his studies.”
The Gaon's lifestyle was ascetic, humble. He would take cold baths to stay energetic, keep his feet in ice water while working and only sleep several hours a day. “So he could spend more time on his studies,” according to Lempertienė.
The Vilna Gaon was initially buried in the cemetery of Šnipiškės. In the early 20th century, it was slated for destruction, so the remains of the Gaon and his family were moved to Sudervė Cemetery. It now houses a mausoleum.
The commemoration programme for the 300th anniversary of the Vilna Gaon on Thursday includes a ceremony at the Sudervė Jewish Cemetery.
The Foreign Ministry said the event was to be attended by Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius, chairwoman of the Lithuanian Jewish Community Faina Kukliansky and Yossef Levy, Israel's ambassador to Lithuania.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda is to have a telephone conversation with his Israeli counterpart, Reuven Rivlin, on the occasion of the anniversary.
Lithuania has designated 2020 the year of the History of Jews of Lithuania and of the Vilna Gaon.