Vilna Gaon or Elijah of Vilna (23 Apr 1720- 9 Oct 1797) was born in Vilnius, capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. He was one of the most influential Rabbinic authorities since the time of the middle ages, and is often referred to as "the saintly genius from Vilnius."
His training began early, it is said that by the age of seven he was being taught the Talmud by Rabbi Moses Margalit of Kedainiai, a noted author and well respected Rabbi himself. At the age of ten he began to study alone and by the age of eleven had memorized the entire Talmud. With all this learning he even found time to study astronomy in his free time.
Included in his early training, were his wanderings around Europe, a common practice of the time. With his great knowledge and understanding he became well known in many countries, by his early twenties he was answering questions about Jewish law that were submitted by Rabbis from around the world. He was sought out by Jews and non-Jews for help with mathematics and astronomy. By the time he returned to Vilnius in the late 1740's he had become quite well known.
Much has been written about the Gaon of Vilna, and a study of his life would benefit anyone. It is the purpose of this article, however to point out some great books that are available about him and his family. His descendants can be found throughout the world, spreading his great influence as they live their own lives.
The headstone at right, located at Willesden Jewish Cemetery in London, is of Therese Gollancz, wife of Sir Hermann Gollancz, who for many years was the minister of Bayswater Synagogue, London. As it is stated on her headstone, she was "worthy of her ancestry -the Great-Great-Granddaughter of the "Vilna Gaon".
Two books that researchers will find most beneficial are; "Rabbi Elijah (1720-1797), the Gaon of Vilna and his Cousinhood" by Neil Rosenstein (FHL book #929.273 K86) and "Eliyahu's branches the descendants of the Vilna Gaon (of blessed and saintly memory) and his family" by Chaim Freedman (FHL book #947.93/V1 D2). Both of these sources would be wonderful for families members to read and a study of his life would be of great benefit to all.