The Jewish scholar Elijah ben Solomon (1720-1797) was one of the greatest authorities on classical Judaism. Known for his mental acumen and personal piety, he was given the exalted titles of Gaon (excellency) and Hasid (saint).
Elijah ben Solomon was born and died in Vilna, Poland (Vilna is now the capital of Lithuania). He displayed a prodigious intellect as a child, and at the age of 10 he insisted that he study by himself because he refused to be influenced by any special school of thought or methodology. Complete independence of thought characterized his profound scholarship. He remained in Vilna all of his life, except for a short period of voluntary exile that many scholars imposed upon themselves as an act of penance. His pilgrimage to Palestine was aborted, and he returned to his native city, where he dedicated his life to study. The community wished to designate him as their rabbi, but he refused. Out of deference they voted him a small stipend which often proved inadequate, and he had to rely upon his wife to manage the family's financial affairs. His modesty did not prevent his fame from becoming universal, and even as a young man many queries were addressed to him from the greatest scholars and authorities.
Elijah searched for truth wherever it could be found. His intellectual horizons were very broad, and he insisted that all disciplines—mathematics, astronomy, philology, and grammar—could assist in the true understanding of the basic works of classical Judaism. He mastered these subjects and wrote treatises on them.
The number of Elijah's works is said to exceed 70. Many of them have been published, others are in manuscript, and some are lost. He wrote commentaries on a number of biblical books, on the tractates of the Mishna, and on portions of the Jerusalem Talmud. His glosses to the entire Talmud (Babylonian and Jerusalem) display great linguistic insights, and his suggested textual emendations have been confirmed by later examination of manuscripts. He wrote a commentary on Joseph Caro's Shulhan Aruk. He also composed a treatise on Hebrew grammar, which the traditional scholars sought to overlook. Another area in which he did pioneer work was that of the early Tannaitic Midrashim, which precede the Talmud and which provide the first stratum of Jewish legal development.
Elijah's interest in classical Talmudic studies did not deter him from study of the Cabala, or Jewish mysticism, and he wrote a commentary on the Zohar, the magnum opus of Cabala, which is generally considered to be the work of Moses de Leon.
While Elijah strenuously avoided involvement in communal affairs, he did emerge from his isolation by twice issuing bans of excommunication against the Hasidim (Pietists), whose deprecation of scholarly pursuits as deterrents to genuine spiritual immersion was considered by him as a serious danger to the classical Jewish tradition. Elijah Gaon has been acclaimed as the last great theologian of classical rabbinism whose writings closed one great period of Jewish history but whose personal example has been an endless inspiration to subsequent generations.
Further Reading on Elijah ben Solomon
Detailed biographical studies of Elijah ben Solomon are in Leo Jung, ed., The Jewish Library, vol 6: Jewish Leaders (1953), and Simon Noveck, ed., Great Jewish Personalities in Ancient and Medieval Times (1959). See also Louis Ginzberg, Students, Scholars and Saints (1928).
Additional Biography Sources
Shulman, Yaacov Dovid, The Vilna Gaon: the story of Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, New York: C.I.S. Publishers, 1994.