Who is Buried in the Vilna Gaon's Tomb?  - Jewish Action Winter 5759

The commemoration of the 200th yahrzeit of the Vilna Gaon (19 Tishrei, 1797-1997) last year saw the transformation of the Gaon from unrivaled Torah scholar and pietist to Lithuanian national hero. Amid much fanfare, the commemorative activities ranged from the issuing of a Lithuanian first-day cover with the Gaon’s portrait to the erection of a bust of the Gaon at the site of his former klaus. At ceremonies attended by the President of Lithuania and members of the Lithuanian parliament, and accompanied by the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra, the Gaon was praised repeatedly for "his intellectual openness; his humanistic values; his tolerance, which was even harnessed to buttress a plan for advancing Jewish-Christian relations; and his almost Erasmus-like humanism, which led him to perform scientific research in parallel with his religious studies."1

Such revisionism smacks of intellectual dishonesty. Surely, some of the Lithuanian academics (Jewish and non-Jewish) who participated in the commemoration knew better. Even if well-meaning, these efforts on the part of the Lithuanian authorities were suffused with anachronism, caricature and factual error. However disturbing these developments may be, even more disturbing to us are the egregious errors that abound in recent Jewish accounts of the Vilna Gaon and his final resting place.

A biography of the Vilna Gaon, published in 1994 by the ArtScroll History Series, provides what appears to be a definitive account of the Vilna Gaon’s final resting place:2

Another casualty of the Soviets was the ancient Jewish cemetery in Shnipishok, the resting place of the Gaon and many of the other Torah giants who lived in Vilna. Prior to the leveling of the cemetery and replacing it with housing for more than ten thousand people, the Soviets granted the Vilna community permission to move seven graves from the ancient cemetery to the Jewish cemetery on Zaretcha Street, which itself has been in use for two centuries. After lengthy and heartrending deliberations, the community selected six others to be reinterred with the Gaon: his father, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman; his son, Rabbi Avraham; Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel; Rabbi Yehudah Safra v’Dayyna (known by the acronym Yesod); Rabbi Avraham Danzig, author of Chayei Adam; and Rabbi Shmuel ben Avigdor, the last rav of Vilna; as well as the remains of Avraham ben Avraham.3

The three members of the chevrah kadisha charged with moving the bodies of these Torah giants approached their task with great trepidation. On the appointed day for digging up the graves, they fasted and beseeched those about to be moved for forgiveness for disturbing their resting place. They first had to dig up the graves and then place the bodies, which had been wrapped only in the traditional burial shrouds, in coffins for transfer to the new cemetery. When the three finished opening the Gaon’s grave and lifted him into a coffin, they were astounded to find that his body had not degenerated nor rotted at all in nearly two centuries. They were able to discern that even the hairs on his beard remained unchanged from the day of his petirah.4 [death]

Here, we pause briefly to describe the Jewish cemeteries of Vilna. The "old" Jewish cemetery (called "Shnipishok" as above, or Piramont) was north of the Jewish ghetto of Vilna and just north of the Vilia (or Neris) River. Generally thought to have been in use from 1487, it served as the main Jewish cemetery of Vilna until 1830. It had long since run out of burial space, and -- as practiced elsewhere in Europe -- parts of the cemetery were overlaid with extra layers of earth in order to accommodate the dead. From 1831 until 1943, the Zaretcha cemetery, east of the Jewish ghetto and near present-day Kalnu Park, served as Vilna’s main Jewish cemetery. With over 70,000 graves in place just prior to the Second World War, it too ran out of space, and the Jewish community acquired a new cemetery, then called the "Dembovka," but now known as the Saltonishkiu cemetery. Inaugurated as a Jewish cemetery in the early 1940s, it lies north-west of the Jewish ghetto, between the Virshulishkes and Sheshkines regions -- and it is where the remains of the Vilna Gaon rest today.

A simple reading of the ArtScroll account would lead one to believe that the Vilna Gaon, who had been buried in the ancient Jewish cemetery at Shnipishok, was moved to the Jewish cemetery on Zaretcha Street (also called "the new cemetery") when the Soviets announced their intention to level the Shnipishok cemetery. In fact, as any visitor to Vilna today can testify, the Gaon is not buried in the Zaretcha Street cemetery -- remnants of which are still standing -- but rather in the Saltonishkiu cemetery, several miles away in a different section of Vilna!

Fortunately, a book published earlier in the same ArtScroll History Series in 1978 treats, in passing, the final resting place of the Vilna Gaon. The relevant passage reads:5

During World War II, the Nazis destroyed Vilna’s old Jewish cemetery, in which no burials had taken place for more than a century. In 1949, the Russian government granted permission for the remains of certain graves to be reinterred in the "new" Jewish cemetery. The remains of the Vilna Gaon, the Ger Tzeddek [righteous convert] Count Potocki and six whose graves had lain within the confines of an ohel [chamber] that covered the Gaon’s grave were reinterred. (Among the six were the Gaon’s mother and Rabbi Moshe Rivkes, the Be’er HaGolah.).

In 1962, Rabbi Pinchas M. Teitz, the distinguished rav of Elizabeth, N.J., visited the new cemetery. He had no trouble finding the new grave site of the Gaon and those who had lain near him; an ohel marked the new site... Not far from the Gaon’s ohel, Rabbi Teitz spotted four black spots in fairly close proximity. These, he was told, denoted the grave sites of Rav Chaim Ozer [Grodzenski], his rebbetzin, daughter and brother.6

In this earlier account, the narrator goes on to describe how Rabbi Teitz raised the funds for and, more importantly, persuaded the Russian authorities to permit the erection of an appropriate monument at the new gravesite of Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenski. For our purposes, it is crucial to note that this account places the Vilna Gaon and Rav Chaim Ozer in the same cemetery, namely the "new" Jewish cemetery. Apparently, the Gaon was not moved to the Zaretcha, but rather to the Saltonishkiu cemetery, where he and Rav Chaim Ozer rest to this very day. Thus, the discrepancy between the 1994 ArtScroll account (Zaretcha) and the present burial place of the Vilna Gaon (Saltonishkiu) is resolved in favor of the Saltonishkiu cemetery. It is likely that the 1994 ArtScroll account mistakenly identified the Saltonishkiu cemetery as the Zaretcha cemetery, probably because both were called the "new" cemetery -- in contrast to the Shnipishok cemetery, which was often referred to as the "alter feld." Alternatively, it is possible that the Vilna Gaon was moved and reburied twice, first from the Shnipishok to the Zaretcha cemetery and then from the Zaretcha to the Saltonishkiu cemetery. If so, each ArtScroll account describes a different reburial; neither provides a full account of both reburials of the Vilna Gaon.

Even aside from the apparent discrepancy between the two ArtScroll accounts as to where the Vilna Gaon had been reburied, what is striking is the discrepancy regarding who was reinterred together with the Vilna Gaon. This is best seen by simply placing the names listed by the two accounts side by side:

1987 1994

1. Vilna Gaon 1. Vilna Gaon

2. Gaon’s mother (Traina) 2. Gaon’s father (Rav Shlomo Zalman)

3. Rav Moshe Rivkes 3. Gaon’s son (Rav Avraham)

4. Avraham ben Avraham Potocki 4. Avraham ben Avraham Potocki

5. not named 5. Rav Yehoshua Heschel

6. not named 6. Rav Yehudah Safra v’Dayyna

7. not named 7. Rav Avraham Danzig

8. not named 8. Rav Shmuel ben Avigdor

Such discrepancies hardly inspire confidence in the sources, as the reader tries to determine the truth about who was moved and buried next to the Vilna Gaon. Worse yet, the more one investigates reports on this matter in Jewish periodical literature, the more confused one becomes! Some sample accounts follow:

1. Dos Yiddische Licht. According to an eyewitness account published (several years after the event) in 1958, five graves were moved from the old to the new cemetery. These included the Vilna Gaon, the Vilna Gaon’s wife,7 the Vilna Gaon’s brother,8 and Rav Avraham Danzig. The fifth grave was not identified.9

2. Ha-Zofeh. According to a report published in 1962, four or five graves aside from that of the Vilna Gaon were moved from the old cemetery to the Zaretcha cemetery and then again to the new cemetery. These included Avraham ben Avraham and Rav Shmuel Strashun.10

3. Kol Yaakov. This report, published in 1981, provides details about the Chief Rabbi of Vilna -- Rabbi Chaim Zvi Shifrin (d.1952) -- who presided over the reburial of the Vilna Gaon and the others. It mentions the names of only two rabbis who were reinterred, the Vilna Gaon and Rav Avraham Danzig. The report claims that four persons participated in the reburial, all of whom died within a year of the reburial.11

4. Yated Ne’eman. According to an account published in 1997, the Gaon was moved from the Shnipishok cemetery to the Zaretcha cemetery, where the ohel together with its seven graves (and an urn containing the remains of Avraham ben Avraham) was visited by an eyewitness in 1983. An actual photograph of the eyewitness reading the tombstone inscriptions in the ohel is appended to the account. The graves are identified. They are precisely those listed in the 1994 ArtScroll account.12

5. Ha-Zofeh. This report, published in 1997, identifies the seven graves as the Vilna Gaon, his wife, his son, his daughter,13 Rav Avraham Danzig and Avraham ben Avraham.14

In sum, some 14 different candidates have been proposed for not more than 8 graves!15 At the very least, this proves that under Soviet domination it was virtually impossible for the Western world to gain accurate information about events that took place behind the Iron Curtain. Indeed, there is reason to suspect that the participants themselves, for the most part, did not know the true identity of the dead being interred. Eyewitnesses who were present at the reburial of the Vilna Gaon (and the others) offer conflicting accounts regarding the identity of those reinterred, as well as regarding the details of the reburial itself. It is sad that contemporary Jewish publications tend to select a particular account, embellish it and publish it as fact -- without alerting the reader to the profound uncertainties that abound.

Upon perusing the various accounts of the reinterments in Vilna, it became apparent that more than bodies had been moved. Wherever possible, the original tombstones were moved together with the dead and then reset at the heads of the graves. Here was the key to identifying the graves! All one had to do was to read the tombstone inscriptions! I could not fathom why no one had done this -- perhaps no one was aware of the problem -- until I visited Vilna for the first time in 1996. The present ohel, erected in late 1956, contains seven graves, six of which have the original tombstone inscription at the head of the grave. The seventh grave is unmarked. We shall assume that the unmarked grave is that of Avraham ben Avraham, whose original grave was not accompanied by a tombstone inscription. The other six tombstone inscriptions are clearly originals, though they have been re-inked erroneously and poorly, making them difficult to decipher. Add the flowery rabbinic Hebrew of 18th century tombstone inscriptions, poor lighting and a crowd of tourists waiting to enter the ohel, and it is no wonder that most visitors never get to read the inscriptions properly. I took my time, made preliminary hand copies and took quality photographs of all the tombstone inscriptions. The result was a preliminary identification of who is buried in the Vilna Gaon’s tomb. As one enters the tomb, the following persons are buried from left to right:

1. Rav Zvi Hirsch Pesseles ben Rav Dov Baer ben Rav Eliyahu. He died 23 Iyar, 1817. Rav Zvi Hirsch was a relative of the Vilna Gaon. His grandfather, Rav Eliyahu Pesseles (d. 1771), was a first cousin of the Gaon’s father. Rav Eliyahu Pesseles, who was at once learned and wealthy, helped finance the Gaon’s study activity.

2. Rav Yissachar Baer ben Rav Shlomo Zalman, a younger brother of the Vilna Gaon. He died 9 Elul, 1807. A master of rabbinic literature who was also adept in the exact sciences, he left manuscripts with extensive commentary on the Torah, Talmud and Shulchan Aruch (all unpublished).

3. Rav Noah Mindes Lipshutz, author of Parpera’ot la-Hokhmah (Shklov, 1775) and Nifla’ot Chadashot (Grodno, 1797). He died 3 Tevet, 1797, shortly after the death of the Vilna Gaon. He married Minda (hence: Mindes), the daughter of Rav Eliyahu Pesseles (see above, grave 1). Their daughter married the Gaon’s son, Rav Avraham. A close associate of the Gaon in his lifetime, they share a tombstone in death.

4. The Vilna Gaon. He died 19 Tishrei, 1797.

5. Minda Lipshutz, the daughter of Rav Eliyahu Pesseles and wife of Rav Noah Mindes Lipshutz. Righteous and learned, she was related to the Gaon in a variety of ways (see above, graves 1 and 3). Date of death uncertain.

6. Devorah Pesseles, wife of Rav Dov Baer Pesseles (d. 1779) and daughter of Rav Aryeh Leib Bloch (d. 1755). According to a Vilna tradition, it was Rabbi Bloch who "examined" the Vilna Gaon’s learning ability upon his return to Vilna and approved his application for permanent residency.

7. Avraham ben Avraham (the "righteous convert") was martyred on the second day of Shavuot, 1749.

A pattern emerges. Clearly, the original plot in Shnipishok belonged to the Pesseles family, one of the wealthiest and most distinguished in Vilna. The Gaon found his resting place here due to the generosity of his relatives and friends in the Pesseles family. More importantly, when a hard decision had to be made in 1951 regarding who should be moved from the old cemetery in Shnipishok, it was not the greatest rabbis who were moved and reinterred. It was neither Rav Moshe Rivkes, nor Rav Yehoshua Heschel, nor Rav Yehudah Safra v’Dayyna, nor Rav Avraham Danzig, nor Rav Shmuel ben Avigdor, nor Rav Shmuel Strashun. Nor was it the Gaon’s father, mother, wife, son or daughter. It was the Vilna Gaon and the persons to his immediate left and right; the Gaon saved not only himself, but also those in proximity to him. Only Avraham ben Avraham, the Ger Tzeddek resting in a distant corner of the same Shnipishok cemetery, carried sufficient weight in the eyes of the remnants of Vilna Jewry to merit reburial together with the Gaon in the new cemetery at Saltonishkiu.

Given the evidence at hand, this appears to be the likeliest account of who is buried in the Vilna Gaon’s tomb. In such matters, however, one can never be certain. Nothing will delight me more than new evidence that will prove otherwise and provide an even more accurate account of who is buried in the Vilna Gaon’s tomb.

Shnayer Z. Leiman teaches Jewish History and Literature at Brooklyn College and at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University. He is an Associate Editor of Tradition magazine, where he contributes the column "From the Pages of Tradition," and served as Editor of the Yale Judaica Series of Yale University Press from 1988 to 1996.


See Lawrence Schiffman, "The Selling of the Gaon: Lithuanians Retell History to Approach Jews," Jewish Sentinel, October 10-16, 1997, p.16.

Bezalel Landau, The Vilna Gaon: The Life and Teachings of Rabbi Eliyahu the Gaon of Vilna, New York, 1994, p.242.

Avraham ben Avraham, the Ger Tzeddek, was born as Valentin Potocki, and died a martyr’s death in 1749. For the legends relating to his conversion and martyrdom, see A. Litvin, "Graf Potoki the Ger Zedek" (Yiddish), in Y. Yeshurin, ed., Vilna: A Sammelbuch, New York, 1935, pp. 840-847; Encyclopedia Judaica, Jerusalem, 1971, 13:934-935; and cf. Abraham Karpinowitz, The Story of the Vilnian Righteous Proselyte Count Valentin Potocki (Yiddish), Tel Aviv, 1990.

The earliest accounts of the reburial of the Vilna Gaon record that his skeleton was found intact (in contrast to the others reinterred), not his body.

Shimon Finkelman, Rav Chaim Ozer: The Life and Ideals of Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenski of Vilna, New York, 1987, pp. 266-267.

Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski died in 1940 and was buried originally in the Zaretcha cemetery. See Aharon Suraski, Rabban shel Yisrael (Hebrew), Bnei Brak, 1980, p. 165. Sometime after 1946, but prior to Rabbi Teitz’ visit to Vilna in 1962, he was moved to the Saltonishkiu cemetery.

The Vilna Gaon was married twice, first to Chana (who died in 1782), then to Gitel. Both wives were buried in the Shnipishok cemetery, but not in the Gaon’s ohel.

For his identity, see below.

Anonymous, "The City of Vilna in our Time" (Yiddish), Dos Yiddische Licht, (1958), no. 22, 22 Adar 5718, no pagination.

Zvi Harkavy, "The Ohel of the Vilna Gaon Today" (Hebrew), Ha-Zofeh, November 28, 1962, p. 4. Rav Shmuel Srashun (died 1872), who was never buried in the Shnipishok cemetery, could not have been moved from it to the Zaretcha cemetary.

Rav Yaakov Shifrin, Kol Yaakov (Hebrew), Jerusalem, 1981, pp. 27-28. While Rabbi Chaim Zvi Shifrin died (on 7 Nissan, 1952) within a year of the reburial, some of the other participants lived on until 1960, and some (according to oral testimony) even beyond that. See, e.g., Chaim Shoskes, From Moscow to Transjordan (Yiddish), Tel Aviv, 1961, p. 35.

Yisrael Spiegel, "The First to Reach the Ohel of the Vilna Gaon Fifteen Years Ago" (Hebrew), Yated Ne’eman, supplement Musaf Shabbat for Erev Sukkot, 1997, pp. 56-57. The mistaken claim that the Gaon’s ohel today is in the Zaretcha cemetery is perpetuated in Chaim Freedman, Eliyahu’s Branches: The Descendants of the Vilna Gaon and his Family, Teaneck, 1997, pp. xii, 33 and 441.

The Vilna Gaon had three sons and four daughters. Cf. Bezalel Landau, HaGaon heChasid miVilna, Jerusalem, 1978, pp. 267-268 and notes. Even prior to World War II, there was no official record of a daughter of the Vilna Gaon having been buried in the Shnipishok cemetery.

S. Mandelbaum, "The Nation Israel and the Year of the Gaon" (Hebrew), Ha-Zofeh, September 12, 1997, p. 4.

Actually, only seven graves are visible today in the Vilna Gaon’s ohel. It is possible (as reported in the Yated Ne’eman account summarized above) that the remains of Avraham ben Avraham, who was burned at the stake, were not accorded a separate coffin and grave, but were simply gathered in an urn or small box and buried in the Gaon’s ohel without a marker. Thus, the seven graves could represent seven persons other than Avraham ben Avraham.

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