Eliyahu from Vilnius and learning Torah

Eliyahu from Vilnius was very influential. It was his emphasis that learning Torah is the central thing . Yet the need for an authoritative biography has not been filled.. So far all we have is the type of silly, story book tales you can see in religious book stores. A few years back I was hanging out in Netivot in southern Israel, and there was a three volume set (HaGeon by Aliach) that was very well done, and people were telling me I should buy it. I did not because I was about to come to Uman and I had already too much baggage. But later I found out that three volume set was subject to excommunication. The book was apparently was not politically correct. I am pretty sure that there must have been people that did not like the idea that the Gra (short for the Vilna Geon, Eliyahu from Vilnius) was against certain subgroups in the world of Orthodox Judaism. But why that should be a surprise to people, I do not know. Or why that should be a reason to suppress the only well researched book written on an academic level on the Gra.

It is fairly well known the Gra thought that a well known group of Orthodox Jews was the Sitra Achra. [Or had fallen into the "Dark Side" in English vernacular and were teaching doctrines that  were subverting the Torah, all while pretending to be committed Orthodox Jews. [This group using  good and experienced operators, was able  by the use of psychological methods, to alter the loyalties of an individual so deftly that he himself did not suspect that he has  changed.] What is the great news? We know this. It is uncomfortable to know this for people that find inspiration in the teachings of Breslov but that is no reason to subvert the simple historical facts . In fact, there is an idea of  Nachman  that helps me to deal with the fact that there are disagreements between tzadikim (saints). He considers arguments between saints to be an essential part of the natural order,-without which there could not be free will. [Ontological undecidablity see Kelley Ross and Schelling ]

When I asked someone from Bnei Brak to bring me this three volume set, I was told it was written by a "baal teshuva" (newly religious). The ultimate put-down. However, the book was by a well known grandson of a famous Rav in Bnei Brak and he was asked to write the book by  Rav Kanievsky and  research for five years was done to produce it.] At any rate, my learning partner suggested that it is important to find this book because apparently it has a good analysis of how the Gra thought people should learn Torah.


Sanhedrin 61a in Tosphot. I have asked on Tosphot that in his approach he is expanding the area of prohibition of bowing (Deuteronomy 17) to include the way of the idol not in a way of honor[quadrant IV]. And yet we see in the Gemara itself that it does a similar thing. It says we would know from "bowing" to absolve a way of dishonor to idols that one usually sacrifices to[quadrant III]. But we would not know to absolve service in a way of dishonor towards idols one worships in a different way of dishonor. So we need "How do they serve.?"to absolve that.
So we clearly are expanding some kind of prohibition into quadrant III.What could it be? It is not going the be "how do they serve?" because that is what we are about to use to tell us not to expand the the prohibition there.

That is to say we might think such and such a thing so we have a verse to exclude it. But I am wondering on the Gemara itself why would we think to expand it? Well the Gemara itself gives a reason. What is it with exposing oneself to Peor is liable, so also all types of service that are not honorable are liable. But how does that reasoning help to expand bowing to serve that is dishonorable that is its way that Tosphot requires in order to answer his question?

Actually I dont think this last answer is right, and rather the real reason we would have expanded the prohibition into quadrant III is just because idolatry is forbidden. i.e from the verse "least he will go and serve"


I would like to suggest that people should go out and get themselves a full set of the Talmud and Musar (Ethics) books and poskim {Tur, Shulchan Aruch, Rambam, Reb Chaim Soloveitchik's book on the Rambam, the Chidushei HaRambam which is a revolution in understanding of the Rambam} and learn Torah at home.  The reason for this is that learning Torah is a mitzvah and obligation that is upon every person. Just like it is a mitzvah to get married and have children so is it a mitzvah to learn Torah.

There is a mitzvah to get married we know from the verse, "Be fruitful and multiply."(Genesis 1) And it is listed on every list of the 613 commandments. It shows up on the list of the Sma'g [Sefer Hamiztvot Hagadol] and Sma'k(Sefer Hamitzvot Hakatan) and in Maimonides and all those who counted the mitzvot. Well, so is learning Torah. "And thou shalt teach them to your children and speak of them on the way and when you sit in your home and when you get up and when you sit down." Deuteronomy 6
 Now you can help someone else get married and that is a kindness. But it does not mean that now you don't need to get married. Similarly you can help others learn Torah, but that does not mean you have fulfilled your obligation of learning Torah.

And we know that any public institution has pitfalls. But when you are at home and you are learning Torah then there is nothing between you and the Torah at all. You are getting the information directly and you are not dependent on any other person. And often institutions that are built for certain purposes can become obstacles to that very purpose. I used to have a theory that this is in fact always the case. Every institution eventually turns against the very purpose for which it was made.


Rav Eliyahu from Vilna. The Vilna Geon

Rav Eliyahu from Vilna held from learning Torah to a high degree. But there obstacles preventing people from learning Torah. And the main one seems to be  a kind of spiritual obstacle. It seems like the Torah is so precious that one needs some kind of extra merit to be able to learn and keep it. At least this looks like what the Vilna Geon was thinking. The Torah is the main thing. And the tzadik is connected and tied to the Torah. So for people that have fallen from the Torah, the way to get back to Torah is to be close to a tzadik.

 I think however the only advice is that one should do his best to go out and get the basic books of Torah and to learn them on his own. That is  the Old Testament,  The Babylonian Talmud, the poskim--that is the Rambam, Tur, and the Shulchan Aruch of Joseph Karo, the  basic commentaries Rabbi Akiva Eiger, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik [Chidushei HaRambam], and the writings of Isaac Luria. Do this in your own home so  you are not dependent on others to have a place to learn Torah.

And there is something to be gained from this endeavor.  He who accepts on himself the yoke of Torah from heave there is removed from him the yoke of the government and the yoke of making a living.

And if anyone needs to learn Torah it is certainly not just frum(Orthodox) people. Everyone needs to learn Torah because everyone needs to become free from the government and free of  drudgery. I have never hear of a person who enjoys waiting in line at government agencies or enjoys interaction with any government, or enjoys having his time wasted on drudgery. Why not take the words of the sages at face value and start to learn Torah today?
But clearly not everyone is fit to learn Torah. There are obstacles that are placed in front of people to keep them from this great gift. There are questions in philosophy which make even the existence of a law given by the First Cause impossible. That is metaphysics has had a good number of of people that thought it is impossible. And then there are questions in one's own mind? I can't account for all the questions but I think a good deal of them have to do with abuse of Torah. And there are lots of variations of that. Like, "If Torah is so great why is so and so a jerk?" Or "If Torah is so great why did so and so suffer." These are all good questions. The last was asked by Job and God told him that his questions were good questions and that his friends that claimed he was suffering because of sin were in fact wrong. And in fact we know from the very beginning of the book that he was suffering in spite of his being righteous. So by analogy to the first question it is possible to say it also is a valid question. But in spite of this it is expected of us to do our best to discover Gods will for our lives and to fulfill it. That fact that others do not succeed to not mean we should follow their example.

This does not mean not to go to university. The Vilna Geon clearly himself  wrote  book on Trigonometry and told one of his students to translate all of Euclid into Hebrew and to publish it. Not does this mean not to work for a living. It only means that when one is not working or doing university he should learn Torah in every day in this way. To have one session in the Old Testament in Hebrew. He should start from the beginning and have place marker in the book and just say the words in order. If one does not understand Hebrew then he should learn it with an English translation along side of it. Don't do any commentaries because then you will never finish it.  You  need to get to the end. Then the second time you can add commentaries if you want. Then you need to have a separate session with the Gemara. Start from Brachot and say page after page until you have finished Shas at least once. And the same goes for the Rambam and the Tur and the writings of Isaac Luria.

I should mention  that none of the above requires one to accept any particular set  of beliefs.  All one is required according to Rabbi Joseph Albo is rather common sense propositions. That things had a beginning and so needed something to begin them- a first cause you could call it. And that there was only one first cause. Not two or more. Its seems straightforward enough. It is hard to know what kind on alternative reality people need to believe in in order to deny either of these simple propositions.


The Kabalah of Isaac Luria

1) Learn the Eitz Chaim (Tree of Life) of Isaac Luria Ashkenazi. [No introductions. Just the actual book itself. Introductions are a waste of time at best and mostly pervert the meaning of Isaac Luria.] If possible, learn it with Talmud and Musar. But even by itself the Tree of Life of Isaac Luria is an amazing masterpiece. And it is different from other masterpieces in that it has the ability to open up the higher spiritual worlds,- if one learns it in the right way. The other writings of the Ari [abbreviation for HaElohi Rabbi Isaac Luria]--the Pri Eitz Chaim and the Shemona Shearim [Eight Gates] are good, but without the background of the Eitz Chaim are not possible to understand.

2) A word of warning: All books of chasidut on Kabalah written after the events of the time of Shabatai Tzvi (note 6)  borrow a lot from Shabatai Tzvi and his false prophet, Natan. Even when they are not crypto followers of the Shatz [short for Shabatai Tzvi], they unknowingly use his basic approach to Kabalah. So it is important to give people an idea of which books were not affected by the teachings of the Shatz, and thus can be learned and studied without fear of being infected by the terrible virus (in a spiritual sense) that affected the Shatz. The books of Kabalah that were unaffected by the Shatz and have no secret teachings which stem from the Shatz are Sefardic. That means Rabbi Yaakov Abuchazeira's (note 1) books and Shalom Sharabi's (note 2) are all highly recommended. Almost all books of Kabalaist type of teachings in the Ashekenazic world after the Shatz are full of interpretations that come directly from the Shatz, even though I think this happened unintentionally. [But in these sensitive areas intention does not mean much. A mistake is still a mistake. It is just like a mistake in making a bridge  in which it does not matter how well meaning the student is. A mistake is still a mistake.] [I just know that people are wondering about the Ramchal (note 5) and Komarna. I think they are OK, but it is safer to go with the Sefaradi books I mentioned above. I hate to say it, as I myself am Ashkenazi, but in this case the Sefardim got it right. Notes (note 1) Rabbi Yaakov Abuchatzira wrote many books and a lot do not deal with Kabalah at all. But there are books in which he deals with some Kabalah and they are excellent. (note 2) The Nahar Shalom by the Reshash [short for Shalom Sharabi] has a vast system based on modifications that the Ari added towards the end of the Eitz Chaim and the famous Drush HaDaat. (note 3) Pri Eitz Chaim is a book by Reb Chaim Vital about how to apply the concepts of the Eitz Chaim to prayer (note 4) The Eitz Chaim is the text from Isaac Luria which gives the basic structure of all the higher spiritual worlds. (note 5) Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lutzato, author of the famous Musar book, Mesilat Yesharim (note 6) The Shatz was a false messiah. His follower Rabbi Nathan in Israel was a tremendously and famous, brilliant, scholar of Talmud and Kabalah wrote very influential books on Kabalah that initiated approaches and ideas in Kabalah that were and still are widely accepted by Ashkenaic Jews. Perhaps a bit more detail is proper here. The Shatz was basically weak minded Baal Teshuva. When he came to the most famous tzadik Hador in those days Nathan from Gaza, Nathan told him that he is the messiah. I mean how would you react if you got an interview with Reb Moshe Feinstein and he told you that you are the messiah? After that this Tadik and the Shatz were accepted by 99% of world Jewry as being the promised Messiah. Just by mentioning the name of the Shatz people did amazing miracles all over the world.--Witnessed and recorded and notarized. Even up to the revival of the dead. This was even in places that people never saw the Shatz. After he became an apostate the Jewish people went through a period of great regret and there was a purge of all documents that could tie anyone to that movement.

 Appendix ) The Tzadik of Komarna wrote a kind of running commentary on the Five Books of Moses based on the Ari'zal and to me it looks very straightforward and kosher.

) The student of The Vilna Geon, Reb Chaim from Voloshin has a book called the Nefesh Hachaim which is the best of all Kabalah based books to come out of the Ashkenazi Jewish world . ) There are dangers of learning Kabalah for people that are not properly spiritually prepared, even authentic Kabalah. All the more so is there danger in learning Kabalah that is not authentic.

 )  kabalah is best learned as a part of a normal Torah curriculum,  Babylonian Talmud, The Yerushalmi Talmud, The Poskim Rishonim i.e. the Rif the Rosh the Tur and the whole Shulchan Aruch with all its commentaries with the writings of the Ari .

 I think  that Musar is important. But Musar is a highly limited tool in character correction.  (Musar means books of classical ethics based on the Torah and Talmud.) And then I think about Kabalah. And it occurs to me my own very inspiring experience with learning the writings of Isaac Luria. And then it occurs to me the effect I have seen Kabalah usually has on people.
 And then I think about the Gemara, Rashi, and Topsphot. Also I think about my experience and then I think about other people's.

 My suggestion is to learn the written Law along with the oral explanation-- the Mishna and the Gemara. Also Musar [Ethics] for character improvement. Also Kabalah after doing the Talmud a few times. The reason is that without Kabalah it is very hard to see what is going on inside of the Torah. I mean to say the we Jews think that the Torah is divinely inspired, and that it hints to great hidden wisdom. But it is hard to see any of that wisdom on the surface level. So Kabalah is an attempt to scratch the surface of the Torah to discover its hidden depths. Kabalah has a bad name by gentiles as if it is some kind of magic. If that would be what it is about, then their critique would be justified. But that is not what it is about at all. When you sit down to learn Torah whether the Oral or written Torah don't you wonder what is the deeper meaning of the stories about Abraham, Isaac, Yaakov? That is what people like the Gra {The Villna Geon} Isaac Luria, and Moshe Kardovaro, and Shalom Sharabi wanted to understand.

However Kabalah is at best a commentary on the Oral and Written Law. It is not meant to take the place of Talmud learning and it was never intended to do so.  And at this point it is important to justify the Oral Law.
What is is and why is it necessary?

When we come to look at the Written Law/the Old Testament we find the first issue that confronts us is that of interpretation.. How do you resolve things that look like contradictions? Or how do you solve the problem that sometimes a verse says things that could have been said with less words. What are the extra words for? When we assume that this document is divinely inspired we have to know that there is a good reason for every word. This is the place of the Oral Torah. That is to resolve these issues. The Talmud does not claim to be Divine. It only claims to be a rigorous examination of the verse of the Torah and the highly human attempt to get one coherent doctrine out of it. It assumes that it is not open to individual interpretation. It is meant to be a book of Laws for the Jewish people. and no law book is open to individual interpretation.
How would it look in a court of Law if the defendant could say to the judge Your honor I am afraid you interpretation of this law about murder is incorrect. In fact it does not mean what you say at all. It only means not to murder unless you are angry and can't help yourself.
Also I think it is important to make a difference between the idea of a tzadik and the idea of the written and Oral Law.

 The tzadik/saint is not supposed to be a replacement for the Torah. However we also know that it is common in Breslov to conceive the Tzadik/saint as being the central issue.


Idolatry seems to have two different parts.One is accepting a different god other that the God of Israel as ones god. The other is actual service towards anything under God. That is the set of everything or anything under God. [That is how the Rambam out it in his commentary to the Mishna.]

Why I say this is because   that accepting any other god as ones god besides the God of Israel is idolatry.But Abyee in Tractate Sanhedrin page 61b that serving an idol from love or fear is also liable--So we see at least to Abyee that one does not need to accept this other god as ones god in order to be liable. Service alone is enough.

[For general information I should mention that "serve" in this context means that you have an idol or a statue of some physical object someplace and one either serves it according to its generally accepted way (like throwing stones at it --if that is its service) --or sacrificing an animal, or pouring  wine, or offering incense, or bowing.] These last four are learned from verses in the Book of Deuteronomy e.g. "Least he will go and sacrifice"]

Abyee brings a proof from a braita- -(a teaching from the period of the Tenaim but was not part of the Mishna).
In short, we see from the Braita is that there is such thing as serving idols accidentally. I can't go into the details right now and they don't matter for what Abyee needs the braita for.
Abyee goes through the different possibilities what this "accidentally serving idols" might mean. After he has gone through all the logical possibilities and nothing works, he decides that it must means from love or fear.

What I wanted to get to in this essay is this one simple point--apparently idolatry needs some level of knowledge that you don't usually need in normal prohibitions-- even to Abyee.The reason I say this is lets looks at what Abyee actually says.

He asks, if he bows down to a house of idols but thinks it is a synagogue, then he has not done anything wrong--his heart is towards Heaven . If he knows it is a house of idols, then he is liable. If it is the statue of  king then if he accepts it as his god, he is liable, and if not then he has not done anything wrong.

What I wanted to point out, is that why can't Abyee take the usual case of "accident"--one has two pieces of fat in front of him. One is forbidden fat, and the other allowed fat; and he eats one and finds out later it was forbidden. So why can't we say "accidentally" there is a synagogue and a  Buddhist temple and he walks in and prays the afternoon prayer and he found out it was a Buddhist temple.

Clearly we see that this would not be liable to either Abyee or Rava. Why Not? Because clearly idolatry needs a higher degree of knowledge that normal prohibitions just like Shabat.

I just wanted to mention here why this is important. Most people do not have an idea of what idolatry is. So they take hybrids are being prime examples. This does not serve in the cause of intellectual clarity. For example take Hinduism. If you take the Bahavagad Gita it looks like worship of  a god who seems much like the First Cause, the God of Israel. But if you take a look at normal worship in India it seems to be clearly idolatry. It is not good to take a hybrid and use it as a prime example because that just confuses things. This is why we need to go to the Gemara directly to understand in it essence what exactly does the prohibition of idolatry include and what does it exclude.