The Incredible Story of the Righteous Convert of Vilna

The Vilna Gaon

Jul 14, 2019 | by Rabbi Menachem Levine

Who was Avraham ben Avraham, the righteous convert buried next to the Vilna Gaon?

Jewish history is replete with famous converts. Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses, the prophet Ovadia, Onkelos, the famous Biblical commentator and a nephew of Emperor Titus. Rabbi Akiva and his disciple, Rabbi Meir, were both descended from converts, as were the leading Talmudic Sages Shemaiah and Avtalyon. Even King David himself traced his lineage to Ruth, the convert whose story we read during the festival of Shavuot.

Perhaps the most important convert in recent history was Avraham ben Avraham, the righteous convert, ger tzeddek, of Vilna. Who was he and what is his story?

Avraham ben Avraham was born Valentin Potocki, a child of one the most prominent Polish families in the Kingdom of Poland. His parents were devout Jesuit Order Catholics and at the age of 16, Potocki enrolled in a Catholic seminary in Paris. There he met Zaremba, who would become his study partner and close friend. The two were quite scholarly and decided to explore the Hebrew Bible (“The Old Testament”) in greater depth.

One day, they saw an old Jew studying a large volume of Torah and asked if he could teach them. Tradition tells us his name was Rabbi Menachem Man ben Aryeh Löb of Visun, and his teachings and explanations of the Hebrew Bible impressed them. They prevailed upon him to instruct them in the Hebrew language so they could study further. In six months, they acquired proficiency in the Hebrew, as well as a strong belief in Judaism.