Page 86 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 6 (1947-1948)

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THE BOOKS OF ELIJAH GAON
By
J
u l i u s
H.
G
r e e n s t o n e
R
ABBI Abraham Danzig, the famous author of
Hayye Adam
and a younger contemporary of the Wilno Gaon, declared
in his eulogy on that sage that the Gaon wrote seventy books,
half of them dealing with Kaballah. This estimate was probably
just a round number and was not intended to be taken literally.
A disciple of the Gaon puts the number of his works at seventy-
two, while the most carefully edited bibliography, by Joshua
Heshel Lewin, included in
Aliyot Eliyahu
(Wilno 1856), lists only
fifty-four items, many of which were still in manuscript at that
time.
The Gaon’s main purpose in life was to study, to penetrate into
the exact meaning of the Bible, Talmud and all the products of
the genius of his predecessors. Even teaching was only inci-
dental with him. His disciples were mostly men of mature scholar-
ship and considerable renown when they first came to sit at his
feet. He spent the first forty years of his life in private study and
complete seclusion, mastering the chief sources of Jewish literary
endeavor and making notes on the works which he studied. I t
was only after the Wilno community provided him with a house
of worship and study that he began to come in contact with
scholars who sought his presence and submitted to the rigorous
rules of learning which he evolved. These brought about a revo-
lution in the method of study and investigation hitherto prevalent
among scholars.
I t is doubtful whether the Gaon consciously set out at any
time to write a book. Even his extensive commentaries on the
Shulhan Aruk
and on some of the kabbalistic classic works were
not intended to be complete books. They were originally merely
notes jotted down in the course of study, possibly with the inten-
tion of elaborating on them later on. The fact that not a single
work of his was published during his life time indicates that the
Gaon had no intention of having his works serve as guides for
others. Of course, the great humility which characterized his
life was probably a factor in his reluctance to have any of his
works appear in print.
In one instance, recorded by one of his disciples, Menahem
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