||Only edition of this work on the customs of the R. Elijah ben Solomon Zalman of Vilna by R. Baruch ben Jacob Broda. In two parts, the first part are additions to Ma’aseh Rav, the standard work on the Vilna Gaon’s customs, making it an essential work for anyone concerned about those customs. The second part is on Mishnayot from Seder Tohorot.
R. Elijah ben Solomon Zalman of Vilna (Vilna Gaon, Gra, 1720-97), one of the greatest spiritual and intellectual leaders of Jewry in modern times. A man of iron will, Elijah combined the personal life of an intellectual hermit with active and polemical leadership in Jewish society through his overwhelming influence on a chosen circle of disciples. Born in Selets, Grodno province, he came from a well-known rabbinical and scholarly family, whose members included R. Moses Rivkes. From his childhood, the Vilna Gaon showed unusual gifts. At the age of six and a half, he gave a homily in the synagogue of Vilna and answered with great perception the rabbi's questions on it. When he was seven, Abraham Katzenellenbogen, rabbi of Brest-Litovsk, took him to R. Moses Margalioth of Keidany (Kedainiai), with whom the Vilna Gaon studied for a time. However he mainly studied on his own, and thus remained untrammeled by the conventional methods of talmudic education of his day. Besides the Torah and the Oral Law, the Vilna Gaon also studied Kabbalah, and before the age of 13 attempted to cultivate "practical" Kabbalah and to create a golem. The Vilna Gaon stated, however, that "while I was making it, an image appeared above me, and I ceased from making it, for I said, doubtless God is preventing me" (R. Ḥayyim of Volozhin, in Sifra de Ẓeni'uta (with a commentary by the Vilna Gaon), introd.). Elijah also acquainted himself with astronomy, geometry, algebra, and geography in order to understand certain talmudic laws and discussions. Thus his main concern with astronomy was to understand the rules of the Jewish calendar. For similar reasons he paid great attention to Hebrew grammar (see below). After his marriage around the age of 18 he would seclude himself in a small house outside the city and concentrate on learning day and night.
After staying briefly with his father-in-law in Keidany, the Vilna Gaon traveled throughout Poland and Germany and visited important communities, including those of Zolkiew (Zholkva), Lissa (Leszano), and Berlin. Subsequently he settled in Vilna, where he remained until his death. He received financial support from the bequest of R. Moses Rivkes (who left a foundation for scholars in his family) and was additionally assisted by a sum allocated him by the community board, which also provided him with a rented apartment. In about 1785 his weekly allowance was raised by the community to 28 zlotys, which was higher than the stipend of the av bet din, the rabbi, or the shtadlan. Since there were many outstanding scholars in Vilna at the time, the financial assistance given to Elijah, although he did not hold communal office, testifies to the high esteem in which he was held, despite his extreme personal modesty.
In Vilna his exceptional diligence in study became even more pronounced. To shut out distraction, the Vilna Gaon would close the windows of his room by day and study by candlelight. In winter he studied in an unheated room placing his feet in cold water to prevent himself from falling asleep (Israel of Shklov, Sefer Pe'at ha-Shulḥan (Safed, 1836), introd.). According to the Vilna Gaon's sons he did not sleep more than two hours a day, and never for more than half an hour at a time. He noted his comments and remarks in the margin of the page he was studying. The Vilna Gaon made a special study of the Jerusalem Talmud, "opening up new horizons and clarifying incomprehensible passages" (his son Abraham in his eulogy Sa'arat Eliyahu). When he was 40 Elijah evinced a revolutionary change in his life. According to his students, he gave up studying exclusively by himself and began to teach, giving lectures to a group of outstanding scholars. In 1768, a wealthy relative, Elijah Peseles, bought a plot near Elijah's home where the edifice he built was dedicated to prayer and study. The master's "prayer room" was later enlarged and became the bet ha-midrash (Klaus) of the Gaon. Several of Elijah's disciples, including R. Hayyim of Volozhin and the brothers R. Menahem Mendel and R. Simḥah Bunem of Shklov, recorded his observations and explanations, and hence through them and Elijah's sons his teachings were disseminated. Elijah at this time generally refrained from contact with people who were not close to him. An exception was the "Maggid of Dubno," R. Jacob ben Ze'ev Krantz , whose friendship he sought, and to whom he once wrote: "Come, my friend, to my house and do not delay to revive and entertain me." Though his views had been sought earlier, only at this time did the Vilna Gaon also begin to express opinions on public issues. When in 1756 he was requested by R. Jonathan Eybeschuetz 's party to express his opinion on the controversy with R. Jacob Emden , Elijah modestly refused to arbitrate, saying: "Who am I, a man from a distant land, a man young in years, of retiring disposition, that they should listen to me." However his intellectual and spiritual influence continued to grow, and according to the testimony of his contemporaries, "without his knowledge no important activity can be carried out" (I. Klausner, Vilna bi-Tekufat ha-Ga'on (1942), 237).