The Torah, the paupers, and the Vilna Gaon

A Yiddish story offers a crucial lesson on extending open hospitality to the poorest among us, one that has not faded in the hundreds of years since it was first told (Vayera)

R. Eliyahu of Vilna, the Vilna Gaon, by Winograd. (Wikipedia, public domain)
R. Eliyahu of Vilna, the Vilna Gaon, by Winograd. (Wikipedia, public domain)

This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, describes the dire consequences for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah when their burghers attempt to bar the entrance of two angels disguised as paupers. We find all too much resonance from this passage in our broken world today.

Those of us who hope to heed its warnings may be encouraged to know that the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) also took this particular passage to heart, as the following story about that great master of Torah attests. The Gaon, who was famous for his single-minded devotion to study, did not care to spend his time consulting with the lay leaders of the Vilna community — and when he was compelled to, the results could be unpredictable. 

The story alludes to the Council of Four Lands (“HaVa’ad Arba’ Aratzos”), the central body of Jewish authority in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during most of the Gaon’s life.

The Vilna Gaon had made an agreement with the trustees of his community that he was not to be summoned to a meeting unless it involved a proposed new communal regulation.

Once, the trustees wanted to pass a regulation that no outside paupers would be admitted to Vilna. They called a meeting and sent for the Gaon to join them.

The Gaon came. When he heard what the question was, he said to the trustees: “We had an agreement that you wouldn’t summon me to a meeting unless it had to do with a new regulation.”

“Yes, Rabbi,” they responded. “This is a new regulation that we’re proposing.”

“No,” said the Gaon, “it’s an old regulation, established long ago by the Four Lands.”

“The Four Lands?” wondered the trustees. “We didn’t know about that. The record books of the Council of Four Lands mention no such regulation.”

“Not today’s Four Lands,” said the Gaon. “The ones from long ago: ‘Sodom, Gemorah, Admah and Tsvoyim, which God overthrew in His anger and in His wrath’” (Deut. 29:22). They had a regulation forbidding the admission of any paupers.”  

* * *

Jonah Boyarin and I have translated the story from Mordkhe Lipson’s 1928 Yiddish collection: Di Velt Dertseylt: Mayses, Vertlekh, Hanhogos un Mides fun Anshey-Shem bay Yidn,As the Story Goes:” Tales, Sayings, Customs, and Qualities of Old World Jewish Luminaries. We are in the process of preparing a book-length translation of the work. We extend our heartfelt gratitude to the National Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellowship for its support of this project.

Jonathan Boyarin is the Diann G. and Thomas A. Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at Cornell University. His most recent book is Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side (Princeton University Press).

Jonah S. Boyarin (@JonahNYC) is a writer, anti-racism educator, Yiddish translator, and born-and-raised New Yorker. The Jewish Week recently named him one of 2020’s “36 under 36.” Jonah always roots for the underdog, except when it comes to his beloved NY Yankees.

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