Rabbi Elijah ben Sh'lomo Zalman is usually known by the epithet, the "Ga'on" (a term originally applied to the heads of the Babylonian academies during the post-Talmudic era), an indication of his intellectual brilliance. The acronym "GRA" is an abbreviation for the Hebrew version of "Ga'on "Rabbi "'Eliyahu." He is also designated the "Vilna Ga'on." In his own time people referred to him as the "Hasid," the pious one.
As a young child, the Ga'on was recognized as a prodigy, and by the age of twenty he was renowned as an authority on the Talmud and Jewish law. He had a photographic memory, a keen critical mind, and a determination that allowed him to study day and night. In addition to his mastery of rabbinic literature, he composed works on mathematics, geography and science. He was also a devotee of the Kabbalah, a fact that figured strong among his motivations. Some believe that his zeal in clarifying the correct mode of Jewish religious practice stemmed from eschatological motives.
He generally led a life withdrawn from public activities, and never accepted an official rabbinical post. His community gave him a special stipend so that he could spend his time in full-time study. He published very little in his lifetime, and most of the works that were printed in his name were based on the notes of his students. His commentary to the Shulhan 'Arukh was perhaps the only one of his works to be published from his original manuscript.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, the GR"A did not limit his rabbinic studies to the standard curriculum of the Babylonian Talmud and the accepted legal codes, but he carefully examined other works of the ancient rabbis, including the Palestinian Talmud and Tannaitic midrash, paying particular attention to the determining of an accurate text.
With the rise of the Polish Hasidic movement, which strove to replace the traditional Jewish emphasis on Talmudic scholarship with a more emotional band of populist mysticism, the GR"A became the foremost opponent of the new movement, and succeeded in having a declaration of excommunication issued against the new movement.
The Ga'on's method of intense analytical study became a model for a new type of Talmudic academy that flourished in Lithuania in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Rabbi Elijah wrote in a style that was estremely concise, full of abbreviations. He subjected every ruling in the Shulhan 'Arukh to comparisosn with sources from Talmudic literature. In doing so, he made use of the full range of ancient rabbinic texts, including many that were not standardly consulted by contemporary scholars. Contrary to the prevailing attitude in Polish Judaism, he had little respect for local custom; and it has been suggested that his ultimate quest was for a uniform system of religious law that would transcend all differences. In many cases he was able to find support for later practices in the early sources, but he often was led to reject popular observances.