Infofiles Index

Difficulties in Researching Rabbinical Families ¹

There are several reasons for the difficulties encountered in researching rabbinical families:

  1. Official records of births marriages and deaths were kept by a law instituted in the Russian Empire only in the early 19th century, except for Revision Lists (census) which were compiled several times during the 18th and 19th century. If a particular rabbi’s children and most of his grandchildren were born prior to this date, there were few official records which could confirm their identity. Recently discovered Revision Lists and vital statistic records are filling in many gaps.
  2. It is a characteristic of Lithuanian families to play down their Yikhus (pedigree). The Gaon of Vilna was a renowned proponent of the principle that one is obligated to spend as much time as possible in the study of the religious texts. The only time which justifiably can be used for other purposes is that needed to earn a minimal livelihood. Even time required to attend to family affairs is begrudged. In the light of this attitude it is understandable that orthodox Lithuanian families spent little time telling their children about their family history. Thus, much information was forgotten with the passage of time.
  3. Because many rabbis were prominent figures in Jewish scholarship, descent from them was considered to be particularly worthy of honour. Some people may have been embarrassed to publicize stories told by their parents about their descent lest they be thought to be boasting. Descent from rabbis also may be thought to carry with it a responsibility to live up to standards of behavior, particularly in religious matters. Perhaps people who no longer were religiously observant considered descent from a rabbi an onerous burden. Conversely and, ironically, many non-observant people take great pride in their descent from rabbis and preserve the oral traditions conveyed to them.
  4. The term 'Gaon' was quite sparingly used during the time of the Gaon of Vilna. Over the ensuing generations it has been rather liberally ascribed to rabbinical scholars as a term of honour. This may result in a person being told that he was descended from `the Gaon' yet the term may refer to another rabbi who was known by that title.
  5. Genealogies of rabbinical families often omitted sons or sons-in-law who were not scholars. Similarly, daughters were often not recorded in such families.
  6. Certain families, known to be descended from rabbis, simply refuse to publish their family tree, for a number of personal reasons.
  7. Siblings born to a mutual father often used different surnames from each other and from that borne by their parents. This practice was prevalent in the Tsarist Empire, and was a ploy used to confuse the military authorities. The notoriously anti-Semitic practices of the Tsarist army resulted in male Jews using this surname change as a means of evading conscription. Variation of surnames within the one family leads to confusion in genealogical research.
  8. Some historians and genealogists who are not fluent in Hebrew have used, as the basis of their research, sources translated from Hebrew to English. These second-hand sources are prone to errors. Similarly members of families which claim rabbinic descent have been assisted in their research by incompetent translators, who are not familiar with the genealogical nuances of sources.
  9. Certain families believed that they were descended from prominent rabbis. After investigation however, it becomes clear that they were descended either from the siblings of the rabbi, or from one of his students. Terminology used to refer to relationships is misleading. “Of the family of the Gaon of Vilna “ may mean actual descent, but more often the term refers to the descendants of the Gaon's siblings, or may even refer to more distant connections by marriage without an actual blood relationship.

In addition to all these considerations regarding rabbinical families, there are the considerations which apply to researching any Jewish family:

Wars and pogroms which plagued Europe over the last 200 years destroyed many records. Jewish cemeteries have been severely damaged or obliterated in many towns in which the Jewish population was decimated by the Holocaust. The loss of six million Jews during the Holocaust severed what might have been a continuation of the passage of oral traditions.

Mass emigration of Jews from the age old cradles of their family origins in Europe to the “New World” in North and South America, England, Australia, South Africa and Israel severed the natural contact between the generations. A new generation grew up, cut off from contact with its grandparents. Immigrant parents were all too anxious to forget about the Diaspora and its often sad and harsh history. It is no wonder that genealogical information was not passed on.

Information useful to genealogists is often found in old Hebrew prayer books, bibles or other religious texts. It was the custom in traditional families to record names of relatives and their dates of death in such books and pass them on to the ensuing generations. When young couples emigrated, these books usually remained with their parents, since they were still in use. Only if the parents or grandparents had already died at the time of their family's emigration might such books be taken with the emigrants, if they valued them.

Photographs are also useful in establishing genealogical details. But people often are negligent in not writing the names of the subject of the photograph on the back. When these photographs are passed on to the next generation, the identity of the relatives depicted is often unknown.

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)