Kenneth Cohen

Broken Stairs

There is a famous story demonstrating the genius of the Vilna Gaon. The Gemara tells the story of רב פפא, who avoided serious injury when the stairs he was using fell apart as he ascended.

His colleague, רב חייא בר רב, made a strange observation. He suggested to רב פפא that his near injury came about because he was not adequately helping the poor. There was no explanation for this connection between broken stairs and giving charity, until the Vilna Gaon came along.

He noticed that the טעמי המקרא, the Torah notes for the two words, פתוח תפתח, “You shall surely open” (your hand to the poor,) had a דרגא תביר. Those familiar with Laining, know how to sing the דרגא תביר. The Vilna Gaon thought to translate those two notes. The דרגא symbolized מדרגות, stairs. And in Aramaic, the ״ת״ is interchangeable with the ״ש״ so that the תביר can mean ״שביר״ or broken. Hence, broken steps.

And because the “broken steps” were under פתוח תפתח, the Vilna Gaon understood why רב חייא בר רב told רב פפא the reason what the message why the steps broke under רב פפא.

It’s not easy to get the title, “Gaon,” or genius. It was certainly deserved in the Vilna Gaon’s case.

About the Author
Rabbi Cohen has been a Torah instructor at Machon Meir, Jerusalem, for over twenty years while also teaching a Talmud class in the Shtieblach of Old Katamon. Before coming to Israel, he was the founding rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, Los Angeles. He recently published a series of Hebrew language-learning apps, which are available at