Protecting the Image: Was Rav Hayyim of Volozhin’s Portrayal of the Vilna Gaon an Altered Image?

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Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman (1720–1797), known as the Vilna Gaon (the Gra), became an icon of Torah learning, saintliness, and devotion to Torah values, but beyond his inner circle he was not known well. After his passing, it was left to students and family members to curate the Gaon’s image and teachings. R. Hayyim of Volozhin, his leading disciple, was the first to create a narrative describing the Gaon. His introductions to the Vilna Gaon’s works set the tone for the other students and family members. However, there were several disagreements within this inner circle, some presented during R. Hayyim’s lifetime and others after his passing. The discrepancies are especially evident in views expressed regarding the Gaon’s relationship to secular knowledge and his attitude towards Kabbalah. These disagreements demonstrate both how R. Hayyim carefully selected what he wanted to present from the Gaon’s biography in order to protect his image and how his characterization of the Gra’s views evolved from a scholar well-read in theosophical Kabbalah to a mystic with spiritual abilities—all the while distinguishing the Gaon from the views of Hasidim.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)75-99
Number of pages25
JournalJewish History
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Jul 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature B.V.


  • Gaon of Vilna
  • Hasidism
  • Kabbalah
  • Mitnagdim
  • Rabbinic biography


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