ABRAHAM BEN ELIJAH OF WILNA:
By: Gotthard Deutsch
Russian Talmudist and author; born in Wilna about 1750; died there Dec. 14, 1808. The son of Elijah, the gaon of Wilna, a prominent Talmudist, he was educated under the supervision of his father, who was opposed to the fanciful mysticism of the Ḥasidim, as well as to the dry scholasticism which so absolutely dominated the rabbis of Poland at that time as to prevent the growth of all scientific interests. According to the custom of the time, he married at the age of twelve years, but continued his studies in the Talmudic colleges in other cities, and after a few years returned home, where he finished his studies under his father. It was due to his father's influence that he developed a literary activity of a far more scientific character than was usually found at that age or in that country. Especially interested in the history of the old homiletical literature, he edited the "Midrash Agadat Bereshit," with a number of other mostly pseudepigraphic works of similar character (Wilna, 1802), adding valuable notes. The best part of this edition is the preface, in which, for the first time so far as we know, an attempt was made to give a complete history of the midrashic literature. A plagiarist, Jacob ben Naphtali Herz, of Brody, reprinted this edition with the preface (Zolkiev, 1804), but was careful to omit the name of Elijah Gaon wherever the son had mentioned him. He omitted, also, on the title-page the mention of Abraham of Wilna's edition, referring only to the one which had been printed in Venice in 1618. Zunz, not knowing the real author, gave credit for the work to the plagiarist (Zunz, "G. V.," 2d ed. p. 268), and so did Zunz's critic, Getzel of Brody (, p. 4, Budapest, 1837).
This introduction was only part of his greater work, "Rab Po'alim" (From Many Works), published by Simon Chones, Warsaw, 1894. This book is an alphabetical index of all Midrashim known to the author. It seems that Abraham of Wilna believed literally in the statement that the eighty concubines of King Solomon (Cant. R. vi. 8) meant eighty Midrashim. This is at least testified to by Samuel Luria in a letter to Simon Chones ("Rab Po'alim," p. 9). The book, however, contains over one hundred and twenty midrashic works. While Abraham of Wilna shows greater interest in literature and literary questions than is found among his contemporaries, he has no idea of the meaning of literary criticism. He ascribes the Zohar to Simeon ben Yoḥai, in spite of the many proofs against its authenticity produced by various writers since the time of Abraham Zacuto. He makes, however, the admission that the book was preserved for several generations by oral tradition. So he considered the Pirḳe R. Eliezer (a fanciful Midrash written about the middle of the ninth century) to be written by R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus about 100. Still, in spite of its many shortcomings, the book is a very valuable one (even after Zunz has treated the same subject in his methodical manner), because the author has collected many valuable references from rabbinical literature.
Abraham's interest in secular knowledge, quite rare in his environment, is also manifest in the writing of a Hebrew geography, "Gebulot Ereẓ," published anonymously, Berlin, 1821. He edited Menahem Mendel's index to the Zohar, "Tamim Yaḥdaw," to which he added an introduction and notes, Wilna, 1808. Of his numerous manuscripts which contained glosses to the Talmud, Midrash, "Shulḥan 'Aruk," and explanatory notes to his father's works, a commentary on the introduction to the "Tiḳḳune Zohar" (Wilna, 1867), a commentary on Psalms i.-c., (Warsaw, 1887), "Sa'arat Eliyahu," exegetical notes and biographical data about his father (Jerusalem, 1889), and "Targum Abraham," notes on Targum Onkelos (Jerusalem, 1896), have been published. The last-mentioned were edited by his great-grandson Elijah, who calls himself Landau. Abraham of Wilna was very much interested in Talmudic philology and archeology; but while very industrious and well versed in rabbinical literature, he betrays a lack of secular knowledge.
Abraham Wilna, like his father, never officiated as rabbi, but was a highly respected member of the Jewish community of Wilna, in which he held various offices.
- Fuenn, Ḳiryah Neemanah, pp. 207 et seq., Wilna, 1860;
- idem, Keneset Yisrael, p. 21, Warsaw, 1880;
- Chones' introduction to Rab Po'alim, Warsaw, 1894.