European Rabbis Throughout the Generations
Translated from Hebrew
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
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.
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.'
title 'Rabbi,' whose meaning is teacher, was first given to R.
Gamliel the Elder (d. 46 BCE).|
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
|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
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.
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.
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.
second split in Judaism came with the establishment of the
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 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:
- 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.
- Rabbis, their descendants, historians or researchers wrote
detailed genealogical material on rabbis and their families.
- Family trees of certain rabbinic families were prepared by
family members or by others at the request of the family.
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
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
is R. Menachem Mendel Schneursohn (1789 -1866); the S'mikhat Hahamim is R. Naftali Tzvi son of Isaac
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.