Was the Vilna Gaon a Zionist?

06/04/08

Dear TTJ:

Would you please disprove for me, what it says in the following article about the Vilna Gaon ZT"L and his students. It confuses me.

http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/941834.html

Why would a Tzaddik like the Vilna Gaon, and his students, be for a Zionist / Messianic idea like this? Surely they must have known about the 3 Shvuos.

Thank you.

Yonah Weiss

Dear Mr. Weiss,

It is true that the Vilna Gaon planned to go to Eretz Yisroel and turned back in the middle of the trip, and it is true that his students came. But to my knowledge it has not been proven that they came for messianic reasons. Their numbers were not enough to be considered "b'chomah" and they came with permission from the Ottoman government. Perhaps academics and the secular writers of Haaretz call anyone who believes in the messiah "messianic".

As to the rumor that the Gaon wanted to re-establish the Sanhedrin, it has been disproven by Dov Eliach in his work "Hagaon" page 1288. The rumor was started by Yehuda Leib Hakohein Fishman (a.k.a. Maimon), who was a strong religious Zionist, signator of the Israeli declaration of independence, and an advocate of re-establishing the Sanhedrin. He based it on a letter written by Baruch Chomah, head of a secret messianic society in Jerusalem called Talmidei Tishbi, who wrote to his father in London advocating the Sanhedrin, and citing a rumor that this had been the Vilna Gaon's purpose in coming to Eretz Yisroel, and that the reason he had turned back was that he realized that the rabbanim in Eretz Yisroel would not agree with the idea. Boruch Chomah signed the letter with the initials shin samech, which Fishman claimed stood for Shmuel Salant, the venerated Rav of Yerushalayim. Actually, however, Rabbi Salant opposed Chomah's secret society vehemently, and Chomah himself wrote harshly of Rabbi Salant in the very same letter. Chomah's father replied to him dismissing the rumor as baseless. As to the initials shin samech, it is nothing more than beis ches (for Boruch Chomah) inverted to the end of the alphabet.

Rabbi Menachem Kasher originally accepted Fishman's claim in his work Torah Shleimah, volume 15; but afterwards realized his mistake and took it back in his volume 16.

In fact, the Vilna Gaon's own commentary on Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 242 disproves this rumor, for he writes explicitly that one cannot reestablish the Sanhedrin and semicha in our times! (This is in contrast to the Rambam who writes that if all the sages of Eretz Yisroel agree to restart semicha, they can restart it.)

However, if someone could be found who has semicha in a continuous chain from Moshe, then he could give someone else semicha and it could continue from there. There is nothing messianic or Zionist about that; some of the middle Amoraim in Eretz Yisroel still had semicha. So perhaps Reb Yisroel of Shklov, in keeping with the Gaon's ruling, went searching for such a person among the Ten Tribes. The only problem I have with this story is that semicha can only be transmitted in Eretz Yisroel, and the Ten Tribes have not lived in Eretz Yisroel for 2500 years.

It seems like this mysterious story of the Gaon traveling to Eretz Yisroel and turning back midway inspired many wild guesses, and there were secret societies claiming to have traditions about the Gaon's intent. The Sefer Kol Hator and other similar works claim to represent the Gaon's views and serve as a legimitization for religious Zionism.

The Kol Hator, it was claimed, was written by Rabbi Hillel of Shklov, a close talmid of the Gaon. But the Kol Hator we have today is not the authentic work of Rabbi Hillel Mishklov, if there ever was such a work. Shlomo Zalman Rivlin (1886-1962) published parts of it in the late 1940's. He himself admitted that this was an abridged version. The alleged original manuscript disappeared during the Zionist war of independence, and has never been found. Only two copies of the abridged version remained, and they were the basis for subsequent printings by Kasher and the Kol Hator institute. In 1994 a new edition appeared with some new sections based on a notebook found in the house of Shlomo Zalman Rivlin. The notebook was written in the handwriting of Dr. Elazar Hurvitz, who is today a professor at YU. Apparently Rivlin dictated it to Hurvitz. It is possible that Hurvitz himself aided in composing the document.

Rabbi Kasher writes in his introduction to Kol Hator (p. 537), "There is no knowledge of where the original manuscript is, nor do we have the copy, which Rabbi Dr. Elazar Hurvitz told me he wrote and prepared for printing all seven chapters."

Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch in a 1968 essay proved that the Kol Hator contains many modern Hebrew words and thus cannot be the original, if there ever was one.

Furthermore, much of the history of Reb Hillel Mishklov's leading role in the aliyas talmidei hagra is only known to us from Shlomo Zalman Rivlin's book Chazon Tzion, which he published at about the same time as Kol Hator (possibly with the purpose of boosting the authority of Kol Hator). Later scholars, such as the same Aryeh Morgenstern quoted in Haaretz, in his book Geulah Bederech Hateva, have shown that much of this history was falsified, that Reb Hillel was not the leader of the 1809 aliyah at all, and that he first came to Eretz Yisroel much later.

Hersh Lowenthal