Interview with Raphael Shuchat on R. Hayyim’s of Volozhin’s Conversations

Mitnagged Spirituality may sound incongruous to many, may be even an oxymoron. Modern American Jewish studies focuses almost predominantly on Hasidut and Neo-Hasidut, but strikingly less so on Lithuanian Jewish spirituality.  However, there have been over 25 years of conferences on the thought of the Vilna Gaon and his followers, mainly at Bar Ilan University. Little of this material has become integrated into English language studies of modernity.

Over the course of the last generation the writings of the circle of the Vilna Gaon and his students have been explicated by Idel, Etkes, Liebes, Shuchat, Baumgarten, Brill, Waks, Avivi, and others. New manuscripts are being edited and new connections to the history of Jewish thought are being worked out. Idel showed the influence of Abulafia on some of the Gaon’s students, Liebes showed the influence of Sabbatian writings, Eliezer Baumgarten has given us some of the best explications of Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin’s Nefesh HaHayyim, as well as fine explications of Rabbi Isaac Haver, Menachem Mendel of Shklov, Naftali Hertz Halevi, and Shlomo Elyashiv. I have written on the use of philosophic terms, prayer, and suffering. In fact, our last conference was in January 2020, right before COVID.

Moshe Idel in one of his recent books devoted a chapter to Lithuanian Kabbalah claiming that it should be added to our roster of major trends in Jewish Mysticism, a major trend which Gershom Scholem ignored. Raphael Shuchat’s edited DAAT volume (2015) on Lithuanian Kabbalah is a good place to start.  Raphael Shuchat’s recent book Rav Hayyim Volozhin’s Conversations with Students of the Yeshiva [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: Idra Publications, 2021) contributes to the ever-growing roster of new works.

Rabbi Dr. Raphael Shuchat who has an MA from Hebrew University and a PhD from Bar Ilan has been working for his entire career on the Vilna Gaon and his disciples. His dissertation turned into book on the Vilna Gaon’s concepts of redemption received the Minister of Education’s Prize in 1997, He edited, together with Moshe Hallamish, a volume of the papers of one of the Gra conferences in 2003. He teaches Jewish Philosophy at the School for Basic Jewish Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

Rabbi Dr.Raphael Shuchat received a major grant from the Israel Science Foundation to publish some of the manuscripts of this circle which still needed to be published. His work, together with Dr. Eliezer Baumgarten,  on Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin’s hanhagot, his pietistic statements, is discussed below. He is also working on new edition of the Gaon’s commentary on Shir Hashirim based on 6 mss., together with Dr. Roi Goldshmidt.

R. Hayyim Volozhin’s Conversations with Students of the Yeshiva (Tel Aviv: Idra Publications, 2021)

Shuchat’s new Hebrew volume R. Hayyim Volozhin’s Conversations is not about new ideas, rather it is the needed journeyman’s work for a field. Zev Gries worked on the hanhagot (pious directives) of early Hasidism in 1979 and published in the 1980’s. The publishing of the manuscripts of R. Hayyim’s hanhagot and a comparison of the recensions was desperately needed. For those who ae familiar with the published Maaseh Rav on the pietistic practices of this circle, this book will be a pleasant update, if not then this will be a technical and possibly tedious. For those new to the topic, start with reading of R. Hayyim’s Nefesh Hahayim, recently translated into English

Turning to content, one of the best new nuggets in this book is that the Vilna Gaon said to learn Zohar for one hour a day after the morning prayers. But that this directive was edited out from the printed editions.  And we know from other sources that R. Hayyim advocated the basic study of Zohar and Shaarei Orah of R. Yosef Gikatilla, as well as the summery of Cordovero’s Pardes Rimonim- Assis Rimonim by R. Shmuel Gallico,

We also find out that there were students with a hassidic devotion in the Volozhin yeshiva and R. Hayyim even had a grandson, Shlomo Eliyahu Ben Yosef Rabinovich, who was so inclined. 

We also see a focus on discerning from where do magical and clairvoyant powers used by Rabbis come from. It seems the Vilna Gaon relegated Hasidic powers to the demonic side, while claiming their own powers including exorcism as from the magical power of Torah and the performance of yihudim. Shuchat does not address the undercurrent of Western European mesmerism that was part of early 19th century Lithuanian Jewry.  

My favorite tidbit is that R. Hayyim claimed to have a method of divination through studying Torah with enthusiasm and when one reaches certain level of lishmah (lishmah here defined as a moment of enthusiastic oneness or ecstasy- it does not mean for its own intellectual sake) at that moment, they should think of the topic they seek guidance in and make a request whether to do or not, and whatever comes into their mind at that moment,  this is what they should do. The Goral HaGra- the Vilna Gaon’s method of prognosis of the future is a piece of 20th century pseudepigrapha, but these concerns go back to the Vilna Gaon himself.

Finally, one of the pious directives that interests me, is that one manuscript exhorts the reader to visualize every letter and word of prayer as one says them, one visualizes while praying similar to the directive of Rabbi Hayyim’s student Zundel of Salant in his prayer directives. And one of the recensions exhorts one only to visualize the divine names. Neither visualization practice became part of the later image of Mitnaggdim.

Dr. Raphael Shuchat speaks about the Vilna Gaon
  1. What are the hanhagot literature of R. Hayyim?

The hanhagot (ethical behavior) literature of R. Hayyim referred to as the ‘sheiltot‘, meaning, questions, posed by students of the Volozhin yeshiva to him. The sheiltot are similar to the hanhagot literature of other Eastern European Rabbis of the time, especially among the hassidim, but differ in that they discusses halakhic issues and well as issues from Jewish thought and kabbalah.  These hanhagot were circulating among the students of the Volozhin yeshiva in the last years of Rav Hayyim’s life before any of his printed works were known.

The importance of the sheiltot is that they give us a portal into R. Hayyim’s view of Judaism. The questions are in every aspect of Jewish life. Therefore it differs from posthumous Nefesh Hahayyim, his main work, which was intended as a Rabbinic-Kabbalistic world view of Judaism as an alternative to the Hassidic View.

2. What is Keter Rosh?

Keter Rosh, already printed in 1914, was the first published and the best-known collection of the sheiltot questions and came out in many editions. It contains many of the questions in the other collections but not all of them. However, it also was heavily edited sometimes changing the meaning of the answer.  The book claims that the sheiltot were written down by R. Asher HaCohen Ashkenazi, while he attended the Volozhin yeshiva in 1819. Keter Rosh was published in 1914 by R. Shlomo Ashkenazi the grandson of R. Asher Askenazi and the nephew of R. Eliyahu Landau. However, other collections of sheiltot, like the Podro manuscript, contain sheiltot not found in Keter Rosh.

Keter Rosh was not the first published collection of Sheiltot of Rav Hayyim. The first is found in Shaarei Rahamim 1871, and an additional collection is contained in Hanhagot Yesharot 1893 and then again in a collection referred to as Orhot Hayyim in 1896 published by R. Eliyahu Landau together with Tosefet Maaseh Rav. The manuscript was the aforementioned text written by R. Asher Ashkenazi and was the basis of Keter Rosh.

In my book, I back to the sources and look at five manuscripts that were the basis of these printed editions and some that were not published. The manuscripts are ascribed to various authors including R. Yisrael of Shklov, which is unlikely, since he had left to Israel already by 1809. The printed editions give the feeling that the sheiltot are mostly concerning halakhah however these manuscripts demonstrate that at least half of them are in matters of hashkafah (Jewish thought).

3. What were the new revelations discovered in these conversations – sheiltot?

We learn that R. Hayyim first met the Gaon at the age of 19, or that in the latter years of his life he has a special room designated for meditating (heder Hitbodedut). Maybe the most interesting quote is found in the Podro collection where R. Hayyim says: “The Gra said that the main effort of man must be concerning transgressions between man and man in all their details”.

There are also interesting sources concerning the hassidim. In Nefesh Hahayyim R. Hayyim never mentioned the hassidim by name, but in the sheiltot he (or the student) refers to them as the “kat” (group or cult) or the ‘known’ ones.

The sheiltot point out ideological disagreements with hassidism but R. Hayyim was tolerant towards them in day to day life permitting students with a hassidic inclination to study at the yeshiva. We discover that he had a grandson who became a hassid and how he told him to keep the halakhot of the Talmud and not to speak about the Gaon.

The most obvious questions in the collection concern torah study, especially R. Hayyim’s rejection of Pilpul (casuistry)  and how he saw the study of Talmud “aliba dehilkheta”, to understand the practical halakhic outcome. However, R. Hayyim does make it an imperative to study all of the Bible, Hebrew grammar from Sefer Hamaslul, midrash, agaddah, musar (for non scholars), and Zohar.

The material shows that R. Hayyim frequently warned against ecstatic experiences and revelations referring to them as coming from the other side (impurity or demons).    He also brings many statements and stories in the name of the Vilna Gaon in this context. All this is congruent with R. Hayyim’s introduction to the Gaon’s commentary on Sifra diTzniuta, where he portrays the Gaon as being against personal revelations outside of Torah. It is of interest for researchers to note that R. Hayyim is the only student of the Gaon to speak of this problem concerning revelations and ecstatic experiences.

4. Why were these hanhagot not published before?

Most of these sheiltot were published at one time or another as I mentioned before. However, they were appended to existing books almost as an afterthought and the origin was not explained clearly so they were not taken seriously. When we examine the manuscripts; one is in the handwriting of R. Yosef Zundel of Salant, a close student of R. Hayyim, whose student R. Yisrael of Salant founded the Musar Movement in Lithuania. Another ms. is in the handwriting of R. Shmuel Moltzen who published the book Even Shleimah, a popular collection of the Vilna Gaon’s ideas.

5. What is the role of Torah and Torah Lishmah in his R. Hayyim’s path?

Torah study and particularly torah lishmah, in its purist state as a mystical connection for R. Hayyim is the basis of all human spirituality as shown in the entire fourth part of Nefesh Hahayyim.

The sheiltot discuss Torah study in a very practical way since it is instructional for the students. The goal of Talmud study to derive the practical halakhah and to understand how it arises from the theoretical discussion. “People says that studying poskim with out the Gemara is like [eating] fish without pepper whereas Our Rabbi said it’s like pepper without the fish”(sheiltot).  

However, he interprets this in a mystical way, in that the study of Torah is an act of connecting to the Divine will which is a way of clinging to God (devekut). As R. Hayyim says in his commentary to Pirkei Avot , Ruah Hayyim, “The act of studying Torah is the main goal and the knowledge gained is secondary”.

In the sheiltot it says: “Our Rabbi said: the Zohar writes that one who merits a halakha inherits one world, refers to any law.” The idea of inheriting a world refers to attaining a certain spiritual ability and clarity as the Torah is the Divine logos for mankind.

R. Hayyim claims that divination is only possible, or allowed, if it’s done while studying Torah lishmah, as it says in the sheiltot:

{indent} “[Our Rabbi] revealed a secret to me: To take advice from the Torah [as a way of divination]: when one has studied with enthusiasm until they feel that they have studied to a certain level of lishmah, at that moment, they should think of a request whether to do or not, and whatever comes into their mind at that moment,  this is what they should do, for this is advice from the Torah”.

This can only be understood if we realize that for R. Hayyim the act of Torah study as a form of Torah lishmah is a form of unio mystico in which human knowledge and Divine knowledge can touch, even for a moment.  

6. What should be the curriculum?

 R. Hayyim told his students to study grammar and Zohar but no official time slots were allotted for this in the yeshiva. We know of scholars who studied kabbalah privately with R. Hayyim.  Concerning kabbalah it says in the Yosef Zundel ms.: “To learn Zohar and Shaarei Orah [by R. Joseph Gikkatila- 13th century] in order to understand the connotations [kinuyim] in the Zohar… and the summary of  Pardes Rimonim [referring to Asis Rimonim by R. Menahem Azariah of Fano] is good to study”. R. Hayyim is following the Gaon who in the original version of Masseh Rav written by R. Yassakhar Ber in paragraph 60 [which was censored in most editions of Maaseh Rav afterwards] it says to learn Zohar for one hour a day after the morning prayers. 

In the sheiltot it says: “It is good to learn the book maslul”. This book is on Hebrew grammar and refers to the book written by Hayyim ben Naftali Hertz Keslin published in Hamburg in 1788.

7. What were the spiritual powers of the Gra?

 In most of R. Hayyim’s introductions to the Gaon’s works he refrains from mentioning any special spiritual abilities of the Gaon except his knowledge of and devotion to Torah study. However, in his later introduction to Sifra diTzniuta he mentions that the Gaon attempted to produce a Golem, had angelic maggidim appear to him to teach him torah (which he refused) and had a revelation of Elijah the prophet. This, it appears, was a change in tactic, from hiding the Gaon’s spiritual side in order not to lend support to Hassidism, to describing the Gaon as one of great spiritual exponents, who downplayed these abilities in order to study torah.

The sheiltot are of this second opinion and reflects R.  Hayyim’s position in the last years of his life. It is interesting to compare this to  R. Menahem Mendel of Shklov’s introduction to Pirkei Avot, in which he describes the Gaon as having astonishing spiritual powers.

The question of whether this is an agenda oriented description or not. R. Hayyim in general does not shy away in the sheiltot from describing the Gaon’s abilities even as an exorcist  or a controller of demons, but claims that all this was secondary to Torah study and for the Gaon this was meaningless as an end in itself.

8. What is R. Hayyim’s method of prayer? How does prayer relate to Torah?

In the sheiltot, as in Nefesh Hahayim, the main purpose of prayer is adoration and not supplication. The purpose of adoration is a connection in which the human being can strengthen the spiritual side of reality therefore rectifying the world by adding holiness to the cosmic balance.

In Nefesh Ha-hayyim, R. Hayyim seems to downplay the intent of the tefilla by emphasizing the reciting of the letters of the tefilla, however in the sheiltot the intent is considered central and the pronunciation of the words as secondary. I think it has to do with R. Hayyim’s different audiences. Nefesh Ha-hayyim is addressing people who are spiritually developed, whereas the sheiltot are addressing students of the yeshiva.

Another interesting notion is that R. Hayyim told R. Yisrael of Shklov that when praying with the Sephardim, (in the land of Israel), not to deviate from their customs.   

Even prayer receives its potency through one’s spiritual level attained while studying Torah.  

 R. Hayyim writes in Nefesh HaHayyim: “The essence of prayer depends entirely on Torah study, and without it, prayer is not heard, heaven forbid, as it is written, ‘He who turns a deaf ear to instruction – his prayer is an abomination (Prov. 28:9)”.

Nevertheless, for R. Hayyim, Torah study itself as a way to achieve devekut (clinging to God): “When engaged in study and contemplation of the Torah, there is certainly no need to pay any thought to devekut, for by study and contemplation alone he cleaves to God’s will and His  word, and God is one with His will and His word”.

In addition, “[R. Hayyim] said that he would give all [the merit] of his prayers for one new halakhic novelae [hidush] from the gemarah”. For this act of discovering new ideas from the Torah is connecting to the Divine will.

9. What was the polemic against Hasidic Rebbes who claimed prognostic powers?

These manuscripts reject Hassidic Rebbes’ abilities to know the future or esoteric knowledge.

I will offer two short examples. Not only is the sheiltot literature the only place where the word Hassidim is mentioned in connection to R. Hayyim, but there are two unusual statements: One, concerning the Hassidic Rebbes and one concerning the Baal Shem tov: “I heard one [person] say to the Gra [the Vilna Gaon] that the Rebbes of the Hassidim know nothing without deception. The Gra answered: No. There are things [techniques] they practice and through them they know some things in the near future and some mysterious ideas (see Nahmanides, Exodus. 17, 7)”.

In this quote, the anonymous person claims that all the Rebbes are charlatans but the Gra counters and claims they are using known techniques to reach hidden knowledge, of which the Gra disapproves. The addition in brackets was probably added by the writer or copier and it refers to Nahmanides’ claim that one can receive secret knowledge from the “other side” , meaning the side of impurity, through various techniques.

The second quote can be found in the R. Yosef Zundel manuscript: ” My teacher [R. Hayyim]  said that everything the Besht knew was through nocturnal divination by way of dreams [sheelat Halom]. [However] the Gra of blessed memory, had an ascent of soul without the use of Divine names [yihudim], just naturally”. The contrast here is to demonstrate the level of the man of Torah who is naturally spiritual and therefore, can certainly gain insights from the upper worlds, however the Hassidim need to use techniques to reach these levels due to their inferior spiritual abilities).

10. What was the rejection of the Hasdic concept of Intentional Sin for the Sake of Heaven?

Performing a sin for heaven’s sake (aveirah lishmah), is mentioned in the Talmud as a legitimate action in special circumstances. The Talmud goes as far as to say: “Greater is a sin for heaven’s sake [lishmah] than a transgression not for heaven’s sake” (b. Nazir 23B). Early Hassidic leaders used this idea to justify bending certain rabbinic based halakhot, such as praying the daily prayers in their specific time frame. These thinkers saw the importance of the right mind set and preparation as overriding the time factor.

R. Hayyim claims that the idea of aveirah lishah for Jews was only allowed before the Torah was given. In the sheiltot it says: “aveirah lishmah: this was allowed only before the giving of the Torah [therefore Jacob married two sisters] . The ‘known’ ones,[i.e. the hassidim] say that anything can be included in aveirah lishmah. However if that were true, why would we need the 613 commandments, whatever we know to be lishmah we would do and what not we would not do? But in truth, after the giving of the Torah we cannot dislodge from the Torah and the mitzvot or the words of the Sages. we cannot rely upon the ideas of our evil inclination…

[Aveirah lishmah] refers to before the giving of the Torah, or for a non-Jew even today. They can worship God in any way they see fit as long as it is for His sake and they must keep the seven Noahide laws. But the people  of Israel were given the Torah which puts boundaries and limitations on our actions”.

11. Why were the minhagim based on the Zohar debated and why did the Gra choose to get involved?

The Gaon and R. Hayyim opposed basing Jewish law on the Zohar. R. Hayyim, in the name of the Gaon, claims that those who thought that there are conflicts between halakha and the Zohar either misunderstood the halakha or the Zohar: “I heard from him [R. Hayyim] that the Gra said that the Zohar is never contrary to the Gemara, only there are those who do not know the meaning of the Zohar or of the Gemara and therefore they say that there is a difference of opinion” (sheiltot).  It is interesting to note that when R. Hayyim takes on major argument  he always bring quotes from the Gaon to strengthen his position.

I will bring just one example:

[indent] “Our Rabbi asked the Gra (of blessed memory) about wearing the tefillin of Rabbenu Tam. This is what Rabbi Hayyim said: Regarding a person who does not go four cubit without tefillin, you don’t put on tefillin according to Rabbenu Tam so as not to remove the Rashi tefillin, But what about me, [R. Hayyim, who does not wear tefillin all day?].What is wrong with me [R. Hayyim] putting on tefillin of Rabbenu Tam to satisfy all the opinions?

[The Gaon] answered: If you want to satisfy all the opinions you must put on 24 pairs of tefillin. He [R. Hayyim] was astonished and wondered what the 24 options were. [The Gaon] answered: Go and check. He checked and found them……

Our Rabbi, [R. Hayyim] said [to the Gaon]: But the holy Zohar states that tefillin of Rabbenu Tam are of the world to come and the Arizal states clearly to put them on?

He [the Gaon] answered:  I am scrupulous about the world to come. Those who are, let them put on tefillin of Rabbenu Tam. However, this is not the real meaning of the Zohar. After hearing this from the Gaon, from that day on, our rabbi did not put on Rabbenu Tam tefillin”. (Podro 72)

12. What have you found new in the Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) commentary?

The Gaon’s commentary  on Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) was first published in Mikhtav Eliyahu (Prague 1811) however is was a small part of the commentary. The entire work was published in Warsaw 5602 (1842) by Zeev ben Isaac Israel as two commentaries- nigleh and nistar (revealed and hidden). The publisher claims that he copied the work from a manuscript owned by the Gaon’s grandson, possibly R. Yakov Moshe of Slonim. It is clear R. Yisrael Shklov’s Introduction to Peat HaShulkan that the Gaon wrote a full commentary on Shir Hashirim. However, It is unclear if the Gaon wrote the commentary himself or if R. Menahem Mendel wrote it on his behalf as a scribe. The latter seems more probable.

The work was published again in Warsaw in 5647 (1886) by Shmuel Luria in a different format. The two commentaries were united into one but an additional kabbalistic commentary was added to the simple commentary in chapters one and two. In addition to this, the publisher added the commentary of R. Avraham, the son of the Gaon, at the end of the book as well as the Rokeah’s commentary to the song of songs. This edition was reprinted again in its entirety in Jerusalem in 1895 by R. Naftali Hertz Halevi in his Siddur Hagra and again in Jerusalem in 1982.

In the aforementioned Warsaw 1886 edition, one commentary is referred to as the commentary according to the simple meaning (Al pi Ha-nigle) and one referred to as the mystical or kabbalistic commentary (Al pi ha-Nistar). My new edition of Shir Hashirim contains both commentaries in their entirety. For the first commentary we have three manuscripts and for the second, which is slightly more kabbalistic in orientation we have six manuscripts. One in the handwriting of R. Yosef Ziundel of Salant and one that seems to have been copied during the Gaon’s lifetime.

13. I know that you have done extensive research on the Vilna Gaon’s understanding of messianism and the quest to settle in the land of Israel.

There is limited material concerning R. Hayyim and messianism or the aliyah to Israel of the Students of the Gra. Howver, we do have testimonies concerning his involvement in helping to raise funds for this aliyah in 1808.  R. Yisrael of Shklov describes R. Hayyim as the person discussed their potential aliyah with. R. Hayyim obviously supported this endeavor. We also have sources that R. Hayyim was in charge of the local fund for the prushim in Israel and made sure that scholars and non-scholars alike benefited from the fund.

The Gaon on Tikunei Zohar writes that his generation is Ikvot Meshicha, (the foot prints of the messianic period). In a unique quote found in the sheiltot (149) and in the R. Yosef Zundel manuscript, we find a similar statement by R. Hayyim:

“I heard from our Rabbi on the verse: ‘She fell and will not arise again the daughter of Israel’ [Amos 5,2] our Sages taught the meaning: ‘ She fell, and will not[fall again], arise O daughter of Israel’ [Berachot 4b]. He said that the daughter of Israel is referred to as falling like the falling sukkah of David. Meaning, every day she is falling for every day is more cursed than the previous one, therefore, she falls until she reaches the lowest level and cannot fall anymore. And Now we have already reached [the point]’ Arise o daughter of Israel”.

14. Do you allow the possibility that some of the presentations of the Vilna Gaon or of R Hayyim are hagiography?

It is possible that the stories alluding to R. Hayyim’s spiritual abilities were dramatized. It’s also possible that some of the stories about the Gaon were dramatized but there is no other source with which to corroborate them.

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