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The Chofetz Chayim and the Vilna Gaon: Similar Halachoth, Dissimilar Approaches

March 20, 2016

This past semester we had the opportunity to review the topic of the time concerning the weekly onset of the Sabbath. Using the Mishna Berura (to Orah Hayim 261) as a base text, we saw how in the olden days, the prevailing view was that the halachic day starts at sundown, and therefore if one wished to add to the Sabbath by accepting it while it was still Friday, he would have to accept the Sabbath, i.e., desist from performing forbidden labors, sometime before sunset. We also saw how Rabbeinu Tam believed, based on his understanding of the relevant Talmudic passages, that the halachic “sunset,” the dividing line between the halachic days, is something that occurs every day almost an hour after the setting of the sun that we are used to seeing. At the time, applying Rabbeinu Tam’s opinion was revolutionary. For centuries, the Jewish people greeted the Sabbath queen and saw her off at certain times of the day, and then slowly, they started doing so later. The weekly Sabbath shifted by about an hour, and that eventually became the prevailing custom among us, such that both the Shulhan Aruch and the Rema assume that the halacha follows Rabbeinu Tam. While there were notable holdouts who did not completely accept the new definition of the cutoff line between days, like the Shach and Yemenite Jewry, Rabbeinu Tam’s position held sway until the Vilna Gaon set forth his opinion. The Vilna Goan completely rejected Rabbeinu Tam’s approach because it simply does not fit with reality. What celestial phenomenon actually happens about an hour after sunset? Most of the stars, whether small, medium, or large, are already out by that time. It was better to revert to the classic understanding of sunset as explicated by the Geonim and Maimonides: sundown is sundown, and the Sabbath must start by then, and it departs only a matter of minutes afterward. The Chofetz Chayim, by mentioning the Vilna Gaon’s opinions concerning most halachoth, helped popularized the Gaon’s overall approach, and today the momentum has shifted. Most Jewish communities accept the Sabbath by sundown on Friday, and allow their constituents to begin forbidden labor well before even an hour has passed from the sundown the following day. Rabbeinu Tam would not be too satisfied with the status quo today; he ruled the way he did because he believed that the halacha should fit with the ancient cosmological models that the ancient Hebrews shared with others in the Near East, and felt that the sages’ later viewing the world and the orbits of the spheres as did the Alexandrian astronomers was improper, despite their stature.

Here’s where it got interesting. Rabbeinu Tam and the Shulhan Aruch and the others specifically adopted one position and rejected the other outright, while Maimonides and the Vilna Gaon took the second opinion and rejected the first. All of the pos’qim took sides on the issue, each one for his own reason(s), but the Chofetz Chayim does not present his readers with sufficient arguments for or against each position. Instead, he simply presents the opinions as being at odds with each other and identifies who subscribes to each opinion, and then he rules that both opinions ideally be followed. We should take in the Sabbath according to the earlier definition of sunset, but end the Sabbath according to the later opinion. This overall approach of trying to satisfy all major opinions was popularized by the Chofetz Chayim, but is, in a historical sense, the most revolutionary. And this shows us the defining difference between the methods of the Vilna Gaon and the Chofetz Chayim, even though it was the Chofetz Chayim who made the Vilna Gaon’s views so well known: The Vilna Gaon ruled according to the view that he felt fit the Talmudic sources and the reality, while the Chofetz Chayim did not weigh the merits of individual views, and instead sought somehow to satisfy all of them.

We then saw a number of the classic cases we discussed previously, where most notably, the Mishna Berura does not mention the actual opinion of the Vilna Gaon on the matter because, presumably, it stands at complete odds with the view the Chofetz Chayim was trying to advance.

In 31:8 the Chofetz Chayim is trying to advance the position that a blessing should not be recited when donning t’filln on Hol Hamoed, and the Vilna Gaon’s “lenient position” on the matter can be used as a “weight” to counter the position that a blessing should be recited on donning t’fillin. This would give the reader the impression that the Vilna Gaon ruled that t’fillin are worn without a blessing on Hol Hamoed, whereas in  reality the Vilna Gaon believed that there was no question about the blessing, because he held like the Shulhan Aruch, which ruled that t’fillin may not be worn on Hol Hamoed at all. Citing the Vilna Gaon accurately would have wrecked his entire thesis.

In 583:8, the Mishna Berura, in a discussion concerning the practice of Tashlich, does not mention the opinion of the Vilna Gaon: that Tashlich should not be done on Rosh Hashana, nor by a body of water. Citing the Vilna Gaon would have eliminated the entire point of the discussion. The same can be said about the entirety of mark 605. The Mishna Berura has much to say about how to perform kapparois, even though both the Shulhan Aruch and the Vilna Gaon prohibited them.

In Orah Hayim 2 and 8 the Mishna Berura discusses the issues of ad hoc head coverings when reciting blessings, and the idea that Jews should always wear hats even when indoors. He does not mention that the Vilna Gaon wrote that “the rule of the matter is that there is never any prohibition of going about with an uncovered head,” and that it is only during the times of the prayer that one should cover his head out of respect. Once again, the Vilna Gaon’s opinion is not mentioned,  because it is in such stark contrast to the view the Mishna Berura favored.

The Vilna Gaon would often mention who subscribed to views that he rejected; I know of no instance where the Mishna Berura cites the Vilna Gaon and then rejects his opinion.

The entire issue of reading part or all of the last verse of Parashath Zachor multiple times has its basis in  a  practice of the Vilna Gaon as cited by the Mishna Berura. Ma’aseh Rav 133 and 134 mention that the Vilna Gaon himself would be the one to read Zachor in the synagogue, and that he read the word as zecher, with a segol, as opposed to the traditional vowelization, zeicher, with a tzeirei. In Diqduq Eliyahu, the Vilna Gaon seems to say that the difference between the two vowels is the yud-like sound that is a natural part of the tzeirei vowel, much like the long hiriq (ee as in “bee”) has a natural yud sound. This issue is surprising, because as we wrote earlier, there are many disputed vowelizations throughout the Torah, and many actually affect the meaning, but in this case, there is no known manuscript or classic text that has the word zeicher vowelized with a segol, and even if such a variant vowelization existed, it would not change the meaning of the word. The Vilna Gaon also felt that the word should also be zecher in Psalm 145:7 (“Ashrei”), even though, once again, we have no such version. Be all this as it may, the Vilna Gaon apparently favored one view over the other, but it was the Chofetz Chayim who popularized trying to somehow satisfy all opinions.

But why did the Vilna Gaon feel that the word zeicher should be re-vowelized? Granted he made similar recommendations with regards to the prayer liturgy, and spent his life trying to edit the exact texts of the Talmud and Midrashim, but those are not part of the received Biblical text, the masora, and he did not suggest any other re-vowelizations throughout the entire Bible, nor did he attempt to reconcile some other known vowelizations that are subject to dispute. Why did he seem to care about only one word in the entire Bible, and is it more than a coincidence that it happens to be in the only parasha read every year by command of the Torah?

Here is how I see it. The Vilna Gaon likely did not really say that zeicher should be revowelized! Having a segolate noun of the tzeirei-segol form (e.g., sheivet, tribe, and neizer, diadem) is just as valid as the double segol form (e.g. kesef, silver, and qesher, knot). In the commentary  P’ulath Sachir to the printed versions of the Ma’aseh Rav, the author mentions that the Vilna Gaon’s students actually do not agree on how the Gaon said zecher/zeicher. Some dispute the Ma’aseh Rav, and claim he really said zeicher with a tzeirei. So what happened?

The Vilna Gaon was not always the regular Torah reader. That is why it was a novelty for him to be the reader for Zachor. He would normally only go up to the Torah for the sixth aliya. Further, he believed that the reading of Zachor was biblically ordained, and told his students that that was his opinion, so they naturally paid more attention to that reading, especially when their holy master was doing the reading. Next, the Vilna Gaon’s Hebrew definitely did not sound like that of other Litvaks. It, like most of his practices, was colored by his objective adoption of what he believed to be right, and therefore was unusual. (He also declined to speak Yiddish like the rest of the Jews, and strove only to speak Hebrew.) His vowels were the objective ones he describes in his other seifer (sefer?). While Ashkenazis allows for a segol that sounds like the e in “bet” and a tzeirei that sound like the ay in “way,” in truth the tzeirei should not have such a strong diphthong yud (y) sound, and in the Gaon’s opinion, the tzeirei was actually somewhere between the two sounds, similar to the way both the segol and tzeirei are pronounced in Modern Hebrew. Next, in the entire Parashath Zachor, the vowel tzeirei only occurs once in a syllable that is both open and accented, i.e. most distinguished from a segol: in the word zeicher! Therefore, when the Vilna Gaon read that word properly, to some of his students it sounded like what they knew was his version of a tzeirei, but to the less knowledgable students, it did not sound like a true, hard, Ashkenazic tzeirei, so it must have been a segol! This is similar to the fallacy that Ashkenazis is any pronunciation system that includes a weak sav and some sort of qamatz that is different from a patah, or that the forms of checkers or handball that are unusual are “Chinese.” The vowel was weaker than a tzeirei, so it must have been a segol. What about the tzeirei in eith and Amaleik? Wouldn’t they have noticed that those were weak? Not as much, because those syllables are closed and therefore less noticeable.

To sum up, the Ma’aseh Rav is not reporting that the Vilna Gaon felt the word zeicher should be vowelized with a segol, but rather that the Vilna Gaon did not, when the time came to speak proper biblical Hebrew, pronounce a tzeirei exactly like the way the other Ashkenazim were doing, and this fits with the Vilna Gaon’s life-goal of escaping the misguided “poilisher minhagim” that dominated in Europe.

Much like eating an inordinate amount of matza in a short period of time has come to overshadow the commandment to remember facets of the Exodus, the over pronunciation of the words of Zachor has now overshadowed the message of the parasha, and this is due in part to the Mishna Berura’s treatment of this issue as a mahloqeth that needs to have both sides satisfied.


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