Synagogue Place Marker for the Seat of the Vilna Gaon

This wooden chest was created to commemorate a revered scholar.

Unknown Artist

Elijah ben Solomon, also known as the Gaon of Vilna, and by the acronym G”RA, was a Lithuanian Talmudist, Kabbalist, grammarian and mathematician. He developed proficiency in the Torah, Talmud and Kabbalistic literature at an extraordinarily young age and went on to become a voluminous author and great rabbinic luminary whose positions on legal questions were highly regarded throughout the Jewish world. Over the course of his lifetime, he was offered numerous community pulpits but refused them all, preferring to lead a retiring and ascetic life. The only exception to his reserve was his vociferous polemic against the emerging Hassidic movement.
The Gaon’s home was located in the Schulhof (synagogue courtyard), the heart of the Jewish quarter of Vilna from the time when the community first began to assume organic form in the fifteenth century until its destruction during WWII. At the center of the Schulhof was the Great Synagogue, and clustered thickly around it were numerous klausen (combination prayer-houses and study-houses) and hedarim (Hebrew schools). Three years after the Gaon’s death a klaus was built on the site of his home and it became the most revered of them all. A photo probably dating to the end of World War II shows the synagogue in a state of advanced deterioration. A partially obliterated Hebrew inscription on what was once the attic wall states that the building was founded during the GR”A’s lifetime (a cherished legend) and built anew in the year 1868.  
Israel Cohen, author of a book on the history of Vilna, visited the Gaon’s klaus on the eve of WWII and witnessed a wooden tablet affixed to the southern wall with an inscription in memory of the Gaon, extolling his wisdom and, his rabbinical erudition, his worldly knowledge and his spiritual grandeur. Below the tablet, according to Cohen, was a large chest to prevent any person from sitting on the holy place. The chest also appears in a drawing of the synagogue done at an unspecified time. The chest apparently remained in situ until 1944, the year of the Soviet liberation of Lithuania, when according to a notarized affidavit, Abraham Koton of Bnei Brak removed the wooden placemarker. The Goan’s placemarker likely dates to 1868, the year of the synagogue’s rebuilding.

Name: Synagogue Place Marker for the Seat of the Vilna Gaon
Artist: Unknown Artist
Origin: Vilna, Lithuania, ca. 1868
Medium: Wood
Dimensions: 45 1/4 in. x 27 9/16 in.
Credit: Gift of Dr. Milton D. Ratner
Catalog Number: 68.10.1