Last summer, Vilna’s Great Synagogue was once again in the news. Built in the 1600s, partially destroyed by the Nazis during World War II, and razed to the ground by the Soviets – who built a school on the site – the synagogue’s remains were identified by a team of Israeli, American and Lithuanian archeologists using ground-penetrating radar.
Yet Vilna itself has never fallen off the Jewish people’s radar map. Although the buildings of its famous Shulhoyf (synagogue courtyard) may have been destroyed, the Torah learning that made the city famous lives on in the famed Lithuanian-style yeshivos, the Vilna Shas, and the stories about the city’s most famous resident, the Vilna Gaon.
A Mother City in Israel
When Napoleon conquered Vilna in 1812, on his way to wage war with the Russian Empire, he is reputed to have visited the Great Synagogue and surrounding Shulhoyf. Deeply impressed by what he saw, he promptly dubbed Vilna “the Jerusalem of Lithuania.” But long before the nineteenth century, Vilna was known by another name: a “Mother City in Israel.”
The precise term, ir va’em be’yisrael (“a city and mother in Israel”), is first found in Shmuel Beit 20:19. Technically the term can be used for any metropolis (“mother city” in Greek) that serves as a focal point or administrative center for the surrounding area. In Jewish lore, the term is traditionally used for those cities that were great not only in size, but also in spiritual stature thanks to their Torah leaders and communal institutions – and Vilna was certainly such a city.
Read the rest of the article at The Jewish Press.