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European Rabbis Throughout the Generations

by Yehuda Klausner

Translated from Hebrew


The ReMa, Rabbi Moses ben Israel Isserles (1525-1572), Polish rabbi, code annotator, and philosopher.

In our genealogical searches, all of us, including those who consider themselves secular, soon discover that in most cases our ancestors are rabbinic families. This study will focus on these families and in particular the Ashkenazic rabbinic families in Europe. While a portion of Ashkenazic Jewry traces its origins to those Jews who came from Spain and Portugal following the Expulsion in 1492, with some arriving both before and after the Expulsion, a number of Jews came in the 11th and 12th centuries from the Near East in the footsteps of the Radanites, merchants who brought goods from China to Europe, and some were Khazars who appeared after their defeat by the Russian army. These Jews settled in Western, Northern, and Eastern Europe and established communities. Most families who trace their origin to Europe are descended from these Jews and from the rabbis who served them.

The Ashkenazic rabbinate that evolved over time in these communities had its origins in the rabbinic tradition dating from some 300 years BCE. The historic background of the rabbinic establishment and a description of the Jewish home and way of life will be portrayed before discussing the genealogical aspect of the topic.

Historic Background - The Title Rabbi

The title 'Rabbi,' whose meaning is teacher, was first given to R. Gamliel the Elder (d. 46 BCE).
Over the years, from the time of the revelation at Sinai shortly after our departure from Egypt, our sages, teachers, and religious leaders guided the spiritual and physical development of our people. The Mishnah states: "Moses received the Torah at Sinai, he transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly - Knesset HaGdola" (Ethics of the Fathers/Pirkei Avot 1:1). The title 'Rabbi,' whose meaning is teacher, was first given to R. Gamliel the Elder (d. 46 BCE). Neither his father Simon, nor his grandfather Hillel the Elder, were known by this title. R. Judah the Prince (d. 209 CE) was known simply as 'Rabbi.' In Babylonia, the term 'Mar' was added to the title and in the time of the Geonim the title was 'Mar Rabbi.' Among Sephardic Jews the title 'Haham' came into use instead of 'Rabbi,' and in the areas ruled by the Ottoman Empire, the rabbi of the community was called 'Haham Bashi.'

In the time of the Talmud, the title 'Rabbi' implied community leadership. "R. Yohanan states; ' Who is wise? One who answers any question of Jewish law asked of him.' " (BT Shabbat 114a). The Talmud frequently mentions the word 'Rabbanan' as being equivalent to scholars.

Many of the Talmudic sages were farmers, some were craftsmen and artisans while some were merchants. One-third of the day, they worked at their occupations and two-thirds of the day they devoted to study. The farmers worked throughout the summer and spent the winter in study.

Throughout the ages, rabbinic ordination required years of study at Yeshivot and guidance from ordained rabbis. At the conclusion of the required studies, the candidate was examined and granted rabbinic ordination - S'mikha. This ordination permitted one to arbitrate disputes between people and resolve matters of Jewish law and religious practices. There were instances, as in many other areas of life, where economic, political, or social pressures, and even family connections, paved the way to rabbinic ordination.

Although the rabbinic status is not formally passed down by inheritance, rabbis preferred that their sons receive proper education and be ordained as rabbis. The atmosphere in which rabbinic sons were raised made it easier for them and gave them certain advantages. In spite of the advantages enjoyed by rabbis' sons, and the pressures applied to them at times, they did not always choose to follow in their father's footsteps. Some preferred other trades while others even abandoned the way of life in which they were raised.

Scholars and rabbis enjoyed honor and esteem and their students would rise in their presence. For the most part, they were exempt from the taxes imposed by the government on their communities. The rabbis headed Yeshivot, served as judges, and preached to their communities at least twice a year, Shabbat Hagadol - the Sabbath before Pesah, and Shabbat Shuvah - the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The rabbi was also expected to appear in clean and neat clothing.

Maimonides (Rambam), in the 12th century, opposed rabbis receiving payment for performing rabbinic functions and so many engaged in other work or commerce, or were supported by their wives who ran stores, or received an allowance granted to them by the community. This was not adequate to live on, so they had to find other sources of income. Money changing and loans at interest to gentiles were among the occupations of the rabbis and their families. Some rabbis even amassed wealth and possessions.

In a lecture delivered by the late Dr. Paul Jacobi in celebration of his 85th birthday, he noted that the Jews of Europe were witnesses to a "Holocaust," in his words, that took place over time between the 13th and 17th centuries when pogroms, massacres, murder, and expulsions were the fate of most of the Jewish communities in Western and Central Europe. Entire communities were uprooted as expulsion followed expulsion whether in the Rhine valley, Spain, Portugal, Sicily, Lithuania, Provence, and other places. Those who survived the evictions settled, if possible, in new localities close to their original homes, or moved in the direction of Eastern Europe or the Mediterranean Basin. As a result, laws and customs were forgotten or changed and Jews of the time were not as scrupulous in the observance of the commandments. This trend also changed the function of the rabbis who were needed to support these newly founded communities, to strengthen their faith, and guide them in their careful adherence to commandments and customs. This period, between the 13th and 15th centuries, was when books on customs and laws were written to guide the people (see Appendix I). The words of R. Isaac Tirna (b. 1380), in the introduction to his book Sefer HaMinhagim, are instructive: 

"Since, as a result of our great sins, the numbers of those engaged in study and the number of scholars has decreased; and because of the drastic reduction of knowledgeable God fearing men and men of good deeds in Austria, to the point that I have seen communities where one cannot even find two or three people who are familiar with the religious practices of their own communities, let alone with the practices of other locations, I take it upon myself..."

These guides led directly to the great undertakings of the Rema (R. Moses Isserles), Darkhei Moshe and HaMapah on the Shulhan Arukh, that set the basis for the rules, laws, and customs of Ashkenazic Jewry.

Rabbinic Families

Today most of the Jews of European origin, religious and secular alike, are descended from rabbinic families active between the 12th and 18th centuries.

In an earlier article (Klausner, Sharsheret Hadorot 15-1), it was pointed out how the Torah, that is the mass of Jewish literature, attached importance to Jewish genealogy. The Torah and subsequently the Talmud (including the Mishnah, Gemara and Tosefta), and the Responsa were all transmitted by the rabbis. The rabbis are generally divided into two groups: the Rishonim, that is the early rabbis, those who flourished before the Expulsion from Spain in 1492, and the Aharonim, that is the latter rabbis, those who functioned from 1492 to the present. They all fostered genealogy in that they were careful to record their names and their lineage. The article also mentions that the rabbis valued the importance of family pedigree, as it is written, "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God Am holy" (Leviticus 19:2), and they prepared family trees for themselves. Today, we have a vast rabbinic literature that contains a great deal of genealogical information. As was mentioned, today most of the Jews of European origin, religious and secular alike, are descended from rabbinic families active between the 12th and 18th centuries. Because of the burdens of life and the demands made on living according to Jewish law the tendency in the past was to move from a religious to a secular lifestyle, and from there, with all of the pain it involved, even beyond the boundaries of the Jewish people. The opening of the New World to immigration, the development of the emancipation movements in the 18th and 19th centuries, along with the various declarations on human rights, also led to the crumbling of various Jewish structures. This process accelerated increasing assimilation. From this time forward the careful listing of rabbinic genealogies also declined. There is no scientific proof for the theory that most if not all of us are descended from rabbis or rabbinic families. The only proof would be through the rediscovery of the names of our ancestors dating back a few centuries.

A good case in point of what took place can be seen with the Eskeles family that was also mentioned in the lecture by Rabbi Meir Wunder at the Israel Genealogical Society, Jerusalem Branch meeting, in January 2001. The family's founder was R. Gabriel Liva-Eskeles (1655-1718) of Krakow, the great-grandson of R. Sinai Liva, the brother of the Maharal of Prague. One of his sons was Issachar Dov Eskeles (1691-1753), head of the rabbinic court of Vienna and Nikolsburg, whose wife was the granddaughter of R. Samson Wertheimer, the rabbi of Eisenstadt and the Chief Rabbi of Austria. His son Bernard, who was born after his father's death, was a banker of great wealth who received the title of Baron von Eskeles. While he and his wife remained Jews, their children were baptized and married into the Christian high society of Vienna. His son Dennis Daniel Baron von Eskeles (1803-1876) married the Italian baroness Emilia Bretanno-Cimerli and their six daughters married generals, barons, nobles, and titled aristocrats, all of them Christians. Thus, an entire rabbinic family was lost to Judaism in the span of three generations. Comparable events transpired in other Jewish families. It must be pointed out that in the last generations, a number of descendants of this branch of the Eskeles family returned to Judaism and married Jews.

Dr. Jacobi often spoke of between 60 and 80 old rabbinic families, who are the ancestors of all of the Ashkenazic Jewish families of today. In this article, an attempt has been made to create a list of these 80 families (see Appendix II). This list will naturally reflect personal inclinations, but I believe that it is not far from being accurate or from the list that Dr. Jacobi would formulate.

Among these families, there are 'weak' and there are 'strong' families. Strong families I call those families who had numerous children, married into many other families, produced many scholars and rabbis, were rooted in the community, and preserved their names, in other words, they left their mark and thereby enhanced, genealogical study. A short list of these 'strong' families would include Katzenellenbogen, Margolis / Margaliot, Horowitz-Segal, Shapiro, Rappaport, Frankel, Ashkenazi, Katz-Cohen, Ginzberg, Jaffe, Halperin, Halevi, Landau, Lipshitz, Zack-Zackheim, and Brode. The genealogical ancestry of these families dates between the 10th and 15th centuries, and even before.

An example of a 'weak' family is Klausner, whose name dates from the 13th century. It produced noted scholars and rabbis, but they did not carry on their name and over the years some changed it to Bushke, Lieberman, Witkind, Ellenberg, Finkelstein, Weissbrot, Zeinvirt, Oz, and others. They were independently minded. Some of their rabbis corresponded with the false messiahs that developed in Judaism while others joined the Hasidic movement. Still others became scientists and authors. I cannot recall any genealogical literature dating from the 13th to 16th centuries that does not mention members of this family either with the name Klausner or the other family names. Additional 'weak' families include Buchner, Getz, Yallish, and others.

As already mentioned, rabbis' sons were expected to follow in their fathers' footsteps, continue their studies in Yeshivot and opt for the rabbinate. With all the honor and respect that the rabbinate enjoyed, and, on occasion, the economic security that it brought, the sons of rabbis did not always demonstrate the qualifications required or the desire to enter the rabbinate. In the best of circumstances, they chose to enter a profession or go into business, in the worst of circumstances, they distanced themselves to a greater or lesser extent from their fathers' lifestyle. Occasionally, we find conflicting accounts in rabbinic sources where in one of them some of the sons are not mentioned. The reason was not a lack of correct information in the writer's hands, but the desire not to reveal facts about the children that were not pleasant or desirable to the author.

The Great Rifts

After the great disillusionment from the movements of the false messiahs, Shabbtai Zvi (1626-1676) and Jacob Frank (1726-1791), there were two major rifts, which mostly resulted from the liberation movements, which were nourished by the rabbinic establishment and remain with us today.

The Hasidic Movement

R. Israel the son of Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), from Okup in the Ukraine, founded the Hasidic Movement.

R. Israel the son of Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), from Okup in the Ukraine, founded the Hasidic Movement. At an early age, he was orphaned from his father and spent most of his time in seclusion, in prayer in the bosom of nature, in the study of Kabbalah, and the teaching of small children. He settled in Miedzhibozh at the age of 36 after the death of his first wife and his second marriage to Hannah, the daughter of R. Ephraim Ashkenazi of Kuty and the sister of R. Abraham Gershon Ashkenazi of Kuty. Many gathered around him to hear the words of the Torah, flavored with the Fear of God, all with a lucidity that they could understand. Initially, his followers were made up of simple people, but over time they were joined by educated individuals knowledgeable in Torah as well as scholars. After he succeeded in attracting the support of R. Dov Ber the son of Abraham (the family used the surname Friedman in later generations), also known as the Magid of Miedzyrzec (1704-1773), Miedzhibozh became the Hasidic center whose influence reached distant communities including Eretz Yisrael.

The basic principle of Hasidism is that the Divine is found everywhere and in everything, even in matters that seem to be of no importance, and therefore one is able to serve God in many ways. This can fill the individual with hope, optimism, and joy in his worldly existence. There is no reason to refrain from joyousness and the enjoyment of the senses; one was to purify and distill them through the service of God with body and soul. Sinners have no reason to despair because everyone is eligible for 'Tikun' - correction. Prayer with enthusiasm is of utmost importance and joyousness is an indispensable component of prayer.

Among the disciples and colleagues of the Baal Shem Tov were the following: his son, Zvi of Miedzhibozh (d. 1780); his son-in-law, Yechiel son of Barukh Ashkenazi of Miedzybozh (d. 1783); R. Dov Ber, the Magid of Miedzyrzec, who became his successor; R. Jacob Joseph son of Samson of Polonnoye (d. 1784); R. Pinhas son of Abraham Abba Shapira of Korets, (1728-1790); R. Shabbtai of Rashkov (1655-1745); R. Meir son of Jacob of Przemyslan (1711-1773); R. Tzvi Hirsh son of David of Kamionka (d. 1780); R. Yechiel Michel son of Isaac of Zloczow (1721-1781); Nahum son of Tzvi Twersky of Chernobyl (1730-1797), R. Schneur Zalman of Lyady (1747-1813) and others. The Hasidic Movement aroused great ferment in contemporary rabbinic circles. Opponents to Hasidism, led by R. Eliyahu the son of Solomon Hasid, the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797), were supported by almost the entire rabbinic establishment and became known as Mitnagdim (Opponents). The clash between them became so bitter that in 1772 the Vilna Rabbinate issued a general excommunication edict against Hasidim, which was supported by the Gaon of Vilna. At that time, the Hasidim were subjected to being shunned and driven from communities. Nevertheless, the Hasidic Movement spread rapidly in Romania, the Ukraine, Ruthenia, Hungary, Galicia, and other locations, becoming an integral and important part of contemporary Judaism. A separate article on the Hasidic Movement and its various divisions will follow.

The Reform Movement

The second split in Judaism came with the establishment of the Reform Movement.

The second split in Judaism came with the establishment of the Reform Movement. Its path differed from that of traditional and conservative Rabbinic Judaism, known from then on as Orthodox Judaism. Neither of these groups was homogeneous as both had factions with different goals and changing emphases.

Reform Judaism has both historic and sociological importance, but in the area of genealogical study, its importance is far less than that of the Orthodox rabbinate. The Reform rabbinate did not associate any importance to the recording of their family lineage.

Until the end of the 18th century, it was clear that the study of Torah was the ultimate value. The 'Enlightenment' and the Emancipation shattered this consensus, and the Reform Movement benefited from this new development. At other times as well, there were sects that were on the periphery of mainstream Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism. The Saducees in the time of the Second Temple (in contrast to the Pharisees), the Karaites in the Middle Ages, and other groups denied the validity of certain aspects of Judaism, for example the authority of the Oral Law. Reform Judaism abandoned large portions even of the Written Tradition and introduced radical changes in the pattern of ritual.

The rabbinic establishment was unable to cope in an effective way with the Reform Movement, but there were some rabbis who rallied to the challenge. Among them was R. Isaac Bernays of Hamburg who opposed their liturgical changes and protested their using the word 'Temple' for their synagogues. Together with R. Zecharias Frankel he established the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau to prepare its students to challenge Reform. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch of Frankfurt was another of the opponents of Reform.

Rabbinic Genealogical Literature

Rabbinic literature attests to the importance of this genre. It has many facets and expressions such as commentaries on the Torah and Talmud, discussions on Jewish Law and Responsa, Kabbalah, Legends, Musar (Ethical Movement) and more. Rabbinic literature includes genealogical information of all kinds:

  1. Some rabbis included in the introduction of their works a detailed genealogical description of their families, including their children, those whom they married, and important dates in the life of the family. Some of this information was included in their commentaries and Responsa, as was mentioned previously.
  2. Rabbis, their descendants, historians or researchers wrote detailed genealogical material on rabbis and their families.
  3. Family trees of certain rabbinic families were prepared by family members or by others at the request of the family.
Many examples of this type of rabbinic literature can be found over the past 400 years up to our own day.

Many examples of this type of rabbinic literature can be found over the past 400 years up to our own day. Most of it is in Hebrew and only in the past decades has it appeared in other languages. For a selection of this genre of literature, see Appendix III.

It was very common for rabbis to be known by the titles of their books: the Noda B'Yehudah is R. Ezekiel Landau (1713-1793); the Tzemah Tzedek is R. Menachem Mendel Schneursohn (1789 -1866); the S'mikhat Hahamim is R. Naftali Tzvi son of Isaac Katz (1649-1719); the M'galeh Amukot is R. Nathan Neta Shapira (1585-1633), etc. Some titles give us hints of the author's names, for example, P'nai Yehoshua was written by Joshua son of Joseph (1593-1648), Shaagat Arieh was written by R. Arieh Leib son of Asher Ginsburg (1695-1785), Aderet Eliyahu was written by R. Eliyahu Hasid, the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797), and Shearit Yosef of R. Yosef son of Gershon Katz (1511-1591), etc.

Closing Remarks

A historical survey has been presented here of the development of the Jewish communities in Europe, the role of the rabbis in these communities and the connecting thread that leads from the sages of the Talmud to the generations of the rabbis of Europe, who were faithful to the study of the Torah and the preservation of its laws by their legal decisions whenever a question arose.

Covered were the changing circumstances, both for better and for worse, as well as the problems confronting Judaism whose origins were in threats that originated among the people with whom the Jews lived as well as internal challenges and divisions. The rabbinic establishment had to cope with all these dangers and the rabbis had to rise to the challenges.

As rabbinic families married among themselves, even though they did marry other Jews as well, and as rabbinic literature transmitted family pedigrees, most of us can find our ancestral origins among these rabbinic families.

Dr. Yehuda Klausner is a Civil Engineer with BSc, CE, MA from the Technion IIT Haifa and PhD from Princeton University. He served as Professor of Civil Engineering at Wayne State University Detroit and The Negev Institute of Arid Zone Research, Beer-Sheva, and since 1970 is a practicing Civil Engineer specializing in industrial structures and foundation engineering. He published many professional papers and a book on Continuum Mechanics of Soils. In 1982 he became interested in genealogical studies and now his database comprises several families that he is researching. E-mail:

This article was originally published in Sharsheret Hadorot (Journal of Jewish Genealogy of the Israel Genealogical Society), June 2001, Vol. 15, No. 3, and is reproduced with kind permission of the editor, Yocheved Klausner.