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Elijah ben Solomon

(1720-1797) (Zalman of Wilno, known also as Gaon of Wilno)
Elijah ben Solomon was an unquestioned rabbinical authority who wielded significant influence on the Jews of Eastern Europe.

Born in Sielec, near Grodno, into a family of teachers of the Talmud, Ben Solomon already was already studying the Bible and Talmud on his own at the age of just six, and even giving learned sermons in the Wilno synagogue. He also used his talents to study lay subjects, such as philosophy, astronomy, mathematics and anatomy. Ben Solomon's superior intelligence and broad knowledge meant he came to be known as "Gaon"-i.e., "genius".

At twenty, he left his wife and their home in Wilno and went to Poland and then to Germany, which took a total of eight years. He returned to Wilno, never to leave that city again. He did not accept any office, but instead devoted himself wholly to his studies. He knew both the Babylon and Jerusalem Talmuds, which at that time was a rarity.
Gaon was interested in various Talmud manuscripts and searched for its correct versions, and concentrated on language and translation. He was active in the community life of the Lithuanian Jews. When he turned forty, he began teaching a group of pupils who then spread his teachings. Many of them became the founders of famous Lithuanian yeshivot-rabbinical academies. They also contributed to their master's fame by publishing his writings posthumously, since he refused to allow them to be published while he was still alive. He left 70 works, most of which are commentaries on the Bible, the Mishnah, both Talmuds and the codex of Shalchan Aruch. They also contain reflections on the greatest mystics, as well as works on astronomy, geography, the Bible and Hebrew grammar.

The Judaism presented by Gaon was opposed to both Haskalah and Chasidic movements. Elijah rejected the superiority of rationalism, giving precedence to the Torah. He also rejected the Chasidic approach to Judaism, which was based on emotion, intuition and the rejection of intellect. Gaon of Wilno feared that Chasidism could be transformed into a misguided pseudo-Messianic movement, with effects similar to those of Sabbatai Tsvi. This led him to condemn Chasidism as an aberration of Judaism. He did not want to talk with the Chasidim, and called all those who joined them heretics. Under Elijah's leadership, Wilno became a center of the mitnagdim-opponents of Chasidism.
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