Infofiles Index

Communal HistoriesĻ

Khevra Kaddishah (Burial Society) Records

Khevrah Kaddishah (F2) records and tombstone inscriptions are traditionally a valuable source of genealogical information. For the Jewish genealogist in particular these sources has both advantages and disadvantages. Jewish death records traditionally provide not only the name and date of death, but also the father's name as part of the deceased's Hebrew name. The journal in which Khevrah Kaddishah records are kept is called a Pinkas. In countries and at periods of time where the Jewish community was largely composed of immigrants, the Pinkas may record the town of origin of the deceased. On the other hand, genealogists seeking material from European communities are often frustrated either by the ravaging effects of war, particularly after the Holocaust, or by access restrictions to certain countries, in much of eastern Europe, prior to the dismantling of the Soviet Union.

For these reasons, of particular value are those records which have found their way into libraries and archives. Such material includes original manuscripts of Khevra Kaddishah Pinkassim (F3) (or printed versions of them) and published books which record a survey of tombstone inscriptions. Often this recording was carried out before either the cemetery or the records were destroyed.

In addition community histories written in the nineteenth century often include lists of tombstones and genealogies of prominent personalities.

However readers should not think that such manuscripts abound. The main repository in Israel for several Pinkassim is the Manuscripts Department of the National Library at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.(F4) A study of the catalogue reveals a number of Pinkassim, including an immense volume from Slutsk covering about 300 years.(F5) Additional Pinkassim are held in The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem and access can be obtained to overseas holdings through microfilms held at both of the above libraries.

Use of Khevra Kaddishah material requires experience in deciphering Hebrew handwriting and a familiarity with relevant terminology and abbreviations. Usually the material is arranged chronologically and has no alphabetical index. Research must be carried out by a painstaking survey of all the material (unless approximate dates are known). This can often be rewarding since additional information about the deceasedís occupation and family may be included, depending on the custom of each individual Khevra Kaddishah. Often people may be discovered whose identity as relatives was previously unknown. Through marital ties, indicated by the discovery of parentís-in-law, entirely new family lines may be uncovered. During the perusal of Khevra Kaddishah records one may discover unknown siblings who died young, as well as solving the eternal problem of tracing female lines. Researchers of Jewish genealogy are often plagued by the dearth of information about their female ancestry. Often the only sources of their names and those of their fathers are in Khevra Kaddishah and cemetery records. In these documents, the name of the husband may be recorded with that of the wife. Use of the Khevra Kaddishah records requires a recognition of the arrangement of the entries, as in certain cases, there are separate lists for males, females, children, and prominent members of the community.

Khelkat Mekhokek by Asher Leib Brisk is a published work which contains about 3000 inscriptions of tombstones of those who are classified Ashenazim-Perushim, and who were buried in the "Old Section" on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem until about 1914. One large Sefardi Block is recorded. For those families who have Israeli connections, current sources include the functioning Khevrah Kaddishah of each city. Whilst their material follows the unindexed chronological system, efforts are being made in several cities to computerize the information.

For other cemeteries in Israel a series of pamphlets was compiled in the mid-1930s by Pinkhas Grayevsky, giving tombstone lists for Jaffa, Rishon-Letzion, Nes Tziona, Petah Tikvah, Zikhron Yaakov, Ekron, and the Chabad section of the Mount of Olives. The old cemetery of Tel Aviv is listed in a published book Lekorot Beit Ha'almin Hayashan BeTel Aviv, covering the period until the mid-1930s.

Most of the classic sources for Eastern European rabbinical families, as distinct from the more modern Yizkor books, were community histories published towards the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. They include many cemetery records and genealogies. The books have been described above.

Most of these books were written at a time when genealogical information was considered worth recording, in contrast to the modern Yizkor books, where precise personal details are rarely available. The above classic books record the prominent and not so prominent members of the community, often deriving the material from gravestones, most recording selected inscriptions.

Cemetery Listings

A number of books are devoted specifically to recording tombstone inscriptions:

Nakhalat Olamin (Warsaw), Avnei Zikaron (Poland, Eastern Europe), Mishpakhot K"K Prague (Prague/Praha), Ketovot Mibeit Ha'almin Hayehudi Ha'atic Beprag (Prague/Praha), Mishpakhot K"K Shklov (Shklov), Lekorot Beit Ha'almin Hayashan BeVilna (Vilna/Vilnius) 1935), Stary Cmentarz Zydowski w Lodzi (Lodz).

Many people have grandparents who settled in the "New World" and since their deaths, no sources have been apparently available. A visit to a long forgotten grave may yield surprising information as to ancestor's names and places of origin, often the only source for such information. This sphere of research can be complimented by photography should the services of a competent researcher be required to assist in translating or interpreting the inscriptions.

Yizkor (Memorial) Books or Sifrei Zikaron

A full description of over 1,000 Yizkor books is outside the scope of this article. Suffice it to state that most Yizkor books devote a chapter to the rabbis and scholars of the community. The amount of genealogical information varies from a simple list of rabbis to those books which include detailed biographies and dynastic relationships. The Yizkor books are a guide to rabbinical genealogy but are a secondary source to the more detailed sources described in this guide.(F6)

Reference Books (Encyclopedias)

Pinkas Hakehillot. Multi-volume project published progressively by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel. (F7)

Whilst particular stress is given to the Holocaust period, the historical background and development of the communities is summarized. For many towns, this material constitutes the only extant source due to the dearth of information about a particular town.

Volumes published to date include Poland, Germany, Rumania, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, Holland, Greece, Libya. Some of these countries encompass several volumes.

Pinkas Hakehillot presents initially a general regional introduction covering the historical, economic and cultural background over various periods, including statistical data.

Each town article opens with a statistical chart showing the Jewish and general population of the town at various periods. Then follow details of the general history of the town, the earliest Jewish settlement and personalities who were prominent in the economic development and in the leadership of the community. Included are lists of the rabbinic leadership. Each article is divided into periods: up till the First World War; between the two wars; the Second World War and the Nazi occupation; the modern period where relevant. A number of interesting and rare photographs are included.

Although Pinkas Hakehillot does not present rabbinical genealogies in a formal genealogical structure, this important work of Yad Vashem has considerable value for rabbinical genealogical research. Each town entry includes a list of the rabbis who occupied the rabbinical seat over the period of Jewish settlement in the town. If there was an element of familial succession to this post, then the familial detail supplied, even if incomplete, is one of the sources for research. Where Chassidic dynasties held court in a town then the familial succession to the title of "Admor" or "Rebbe" is given considerable coverage. Individual scholars appear even if they held no official position.

So the genealogist should refer to Pinkas Hakehillot, realizing that the information, while valuable is incomplete.

Chaim Freedman
Petah Tikva, Israel


1. Excerpted from: Freedman, Chaim. Beit Rabbanan: Sources of Rabbinic Genealogy. Petah Tikva, Israel: self-published, 2001. Used with permission. (return)
2. Khevra Kaddishah = burial society. (return)
3. Pinkassim = plural of Pinkas. (return)
4. Cemetery records held in Israeli libraries are described in Printed Books on Jewish Cemeteries in the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, Mathilde A. Tagger, published by The Israel Genealogical Society, Jerusalem, 1997. (return)
5. Pinkas of the Slutsk Khevra Kaddishah - translation project, Harry Boonin, Yosef Dov Luban. (return)
6. Editor's note: For further information, see the JewishGen Yizkor Book Project (including online translations of Yizkor books and chapters from Pinkas Hakehillot) and a list of towns with published Yizkor books. (return)
7. Editor's note: For more encyclopedias, see the Rav-SIG Bibliography. (return)