Rabbinic literature deals very sparsely with genealogical research, a fact that is quite surprising, considering the importance that is ascribed to family yuchsin (lineage). In the Tanach (Bible) almost all of Chronicles I deals with yuchsin, and the seeming contradictions to the genealogical facts recorded in the Torah and the Prophets are explained away by the classic commentaries.
Toward the end of the Babylonian Exile, we find Ezra the Scribe clarifying the yuchsin of the returnees to Eretz Yisrael, so that the fourth chapter in Tractate Kiddushin of the Babylonian Talmud begins, “The people who came up from Babylon were of ten types of familial background.” It also states in the same chapter (70:2), “The Almighty's Presence dwells only among families of pure lineage in the Nation Israel.” True that in Ezra's time there were still prophets able to make the clarification through prophesy, but even lacking this, there were live eyewitnesses among the older people who remembered and could identify individuals in the relatively short historical span of 70 years.
Wherever they were forced to wander, Jews took with them their yuchsin documents. Unfortunately, most of these were lost in the travels and upheavals, as a result of harsh decrees of the oppressors, and even in fires that destroyed whole neighborhoods — occurrences which were sadly all too common throughout Jewish history.
Popularly, genealogy is considered a spare time hobby, sleuthing detective work, focused on finding as many missing links as possible, with the resultant satisfaction of finding clear evidence that removes all doubts. In truth, it is much more, impacting even in the area of Halacha (Jewish law). The pidyon haben (redemption of the firstborn son) must be performed with a kohen meyuchas (a kohen whose lineage is certain). Lacking such a kohen, one is allowed to rely on a kohen whose claim to priesthood is a chazaka, i.e., that he is known as a kohen. It is well known, for example, that the Gaon of Vilna had himself redeemed a number of times by different kohanim because of his reservations regarding certainty of kohanic lineage.
The BESHT (the Baal Shem Tov) testified to three families of pure lineage in the Jewish nation: Rappaport, who are Kohanim; Horowitz, who are Levites; and Shapiro, who are Israelites. Another reading states the family name Margaliot, in place of Shapiro. This version is described at the beginning of my new book, Elef Margaliot, on the genealogy of this important European family. In addition, there were always tzaddikim with Ruach Hakodesh (holy spirit) who could even state to which of the 12 tribes a person's source belongs. There was a tradition in Krakow that the family name Halberstam hints to its stemming from half the tribe of Menashe (according to Akiva Zimmerman, a Jewish scholar living in Tel Aviv).
The great majority of those who make it a point to record their yichus (lineage) rely on the ethical will of Rabbi Shabbetai Sheftel Horowitz in his book Vavei Haamudim, in which he emphasizes the importance of family lineage. On the other hand, his own father, Baal Hashlah, ascribed greater significance to yichus atzmo (ones personally created values). The difference in approach may hinge on the different periods in which they lived. The father speaks of normal times when a person should “work on himself and his personal growth,” but the son lived after the devastating pogroms of Chmelnitzki hordes. In his own words:
We have no knowledge of discussions about genealogy during the period of the Rishonim (Early Sages, 1000–1500). There are chronological lists, for example, in the epistle of Rav ShRira Gaon, in the Rambam and in the Meiri. Also, the custom to mark the names of parents and all their offspring on the inside cover of the siddur (prayerbook) or machzor (festival prayerbook) was already widespread. In fact, whatever survived of these served the researchers of that period in good stead. Mention should be made of the works of E. E. Urbach, Baalei Hatosafot (The Tosaphists); Avraham Grossman, Chachmei Ashkenaz Harishniom (The Early Sages of Ashkenaz); Israel Jacob Yuval, Chachamim Bedoram (Scholars in Their Time). Some researched only the book's contents, while others attributed great importance to the authors themselves, their family members, their friends, their Torah teachers, their personalities and other influencing factors. Professor Avigdor Aptowitzer, for example, wrote an introduction to the Halacha Sefer Harabiah in which he places more emphasis on details about the author and his life than on the laws themselves.
In regard to this period of the Rishonim, we have access to the detailed responsa of Rabbi Shlomo Luria in his responsa Maharshal, chapter 29. This information is based upon manuscripts that had survived, and also is reinforced by the genealogical scroll of the Maharshal's cousin, Rabbi Yochanan Luria of Elzas, in his book Meshivat Nefesh, issued recently by Machon Yerushalayim. There also was a fabricated megillat yuchsin (genealogical chart) which supposedly filled in the missing links. Fortunately, it was exposed by the genealogist Avraham Epstein. Still, most transmission of yichus information was by word of mouth and known by heart backwards and forwards by the great Torah personalities, like Rabbi Chaim Halberstam of Sanz. It is said of him that he had a computer-like brain, and he could rattle off 18 ways in which he was the direct descendant of the Megalleh Amukot.
Rav Meir Perls, grandson of the Maharal and dayan (religious judge) in Prague, was the first, it appears, to delve into genealogy. In 1718, he published in his home town the biography of his grandfather and of family branches. Later this information was recopied in many other books, sometimes with additional “facts” added by others whose veracity is by no means certain. Not long after, Rabbi Yaacov Katzenelenbogen (1720–1795) arranged important genealogical lists in his book Yesh Manchilin. Other books quote copiously from it, even though it was available only in manuscript in the Oxford University archives. It was finally published recently (1986) by Machon Chatham Sofer in Jerusalem.
Material on title pages and introductions to books can virtually always be relied upon for establishing yuchsin. For example, the book Heshiv Reb Eliezer and Siach Hasadeh Neweet (1755) is the source book for the history of the Lipshitz family. More than 100 years later, the yichus was again set down in Sefer Hamachria (1892) with notes by Reb Yosef Kohen Tzedek, and with comments by two experts, Rav Zvi Y. Michelson and Rav N. N. Dunner.
Another hundred years passed before there was renewed interest in the history of Jewish communities and their families. This occurred because of the blossoming in Western Europe of the Chochmat Yisrael movement. Everything regarding the Jewish past and Jewish spiritual creativity acquired importance. Scholars wrote family genealogies and copied gravestone inscriptions in cemeteries of old communities. Frankfurt am Main for example has good documentation; Posen has a list of kesherim (upright members of the community) (in Acta Electorum by Dov Avron); Warsaw was not yet a center of Jewish life. Document preservation was highly developed in Italy and Germany; consequently their pinkassim (community records) serve as valid, valuable sources for names of kehilla (Jewish community) members, as well as their familial and economic status concerning taxation. We know that there was concern about such information, because in Verona people complained about the loss of a register that had covered several years of information.
The first city for which reliable documentation exists is Prague. Kalman Lieben printed his book Gal-Ed in Prague in 1856. Sinai (Simon) Hock published Mishpechot Kehilat Kodesh Prague Al Pi Matzevoteihem (Families of the Holy Community of Prague, Based on Their Tombstones) (Pressburg, 1892). Hock assembled an enormous amount of material in this book. David Kaufman later attempted to correct whatever seemed to be in error. An excellent work on Prague tombstones was recently published in the book by Otto Muneles, Ketovot Mebeit Haalmim Haatik Beprag (Epitaphs From the Ancient Jewish Cemetery of Prague) (Jerusalem: Israel National Academy of Sciences, 1988).
The next-best documented community is Lvov, where great Torah scholars were involved in genealogical research. The first was Rabbi Naftali Hertz Suchostov, who copied many old gravestone inscriptions and established an organization that repaired and restored tombstones. His research is not considered reliable, however.
Rabbi Chaim Nathan Dembitzer, a Talmudic genius and Av Bet Din (head of the rabbinical court) in Krakow, also was a lover and researcher of Jewish history. It was he who came up with the novel idea that there were two Rabbi Yaacov Temerles and, thereby, clarified many seeming contradictions and puzzles. His writings are not about the families of Krakow, however, since those had already been covered by a relative of his, Yechiel Michel Zunz, in his 1874 published work Ir Hatzedek (City of Righteousness). The appearance of this work caused great tumult, as seen in the pamphlets called Mapelet Ir Hatzedek (Fall of the City of Righteousness) — and the pamphlet Maaneh as a response to it. Although Rabbi Dembitzer was the moving force behind these publications, he used pseudonyms and ghost writers to mask his connections. At the request of Shlomo Buber, Dembitzer composed the book Klilat Yoffi about the elders of Lvov and other cities. The two volumes were printed between 1888 and 1893.
One serious researcher and student of Dembitzer was Reb Feivel Hirsch Wettstein. He made use of ancient kehilla registers of the chevrot kadisha (burial societies) and of mohalim (ritual circumcisors) as well as archive records, which were still extant and intact in his days. Although there must have been many existing registers from the 1600s, they very likely were purposefully destroyed upon the disintegration of the Council of the Four Lands in Poland, or with the dissolution of the kahal community structure in Russia. This was a uniquely Jewish action taken prior to handing over the job of registration to the municipalities. It avoided exposing too much inside information of the kehilla to the Gentile authorities. In fact, even in Jerusalem during World War I, the registers of the kollelim (Jewish communities) were burned to avoid their falling into the hands of the Turkish authorities.
Wettstein never published the manuscript writings of his mentor—Klilat Yoffi, volume 3, and Kiryat Melech Rav (Rabbis of Krakow). As he gradually publicized his findings in various periodicals, he himself developed a reputation as an expert on Krakow, his home town. Meir Balaban, in defining the difference between teacher and student, said that the teacher, Dembitzer, had a broad and all-encompassing grasp of the subject, while the student, Wettstein, had a more careful approach to details revealing well-founded document after document for the future use of researchers.
Philanthropist and scholar Shlomo Buber, the leader of the Jewish community of Lvov, saved many books from the oblivion of manuscript form by making sure that they were published. Mainly, however, he concentrated on publishing ancient Midrashim. Among his important works are Anshei Shem (Men of Fame), 1895, about the leaders of his kehilla, Lvov, with approbations (haskamot) on new books, as well as the inscriptions on their tombstones. On the kehilla of Zolkev, he wrote Kirya Nisgava (Exalted City) in Krakau, 1903. With the almost total destruction of Jewish cemeteries in the Holocaust, the aforementioned books became even more valuable, since survivors who have wanted to restore family tombstones have had no access to the original inscriptions.
Moving on into the second half of the 19th century, we do have famous experts in rabbinic genealogy, but even so, their writings include guesses, assumptions, and mistakes. They were very knowledgeable, and in their period the genealogical data of families were preserved, but they had no sure means to check the veracity of their findings. Contact was through letters, which were slow; very few managed to make use of the libraries of Western Europe with their important manuscripts. Poverty was rampant, and one way to put bread on the table was to research and edit yuchsin scrolls for the wealthy who had money, but still lacked the prestige of great lineage. Thus, if the facts were shaky or uncertain, one might build castles in the air without a solid foundation. An example of this is relating the Maharsa, Rabbi Shmuel Eidls, back to Rabbi Yehuda Hechasid, which is totally false, because the Yiddish names Berish and Mendel, in the chain, were not known in the middle ages in Germany.
Inexact terminology also makes it difficult even to this day to clarify yuchsin. Terms such as neched (grandchild), or she'er besari (my relative), or mechutanim (in-laws) were used to describe much more distant relationships. Another example of lack of clarity occurs when someone writes: “Yitzchak the son of Avraham, the rabbi of such-and-such a community.” Who was the rabbi, the father or the son? Other proofs are needed to make that clear. The lack of punctuation, especially commas, causes confusion. If it says, “Yitzchak son of Avraham, son-in-law of Reuven,” then Yitzchak is the son-in-law. But, if the comma is omitted, then Avraham is the son-in-law. In cases where someone married twice, it may be unclear who was the mother of each child. This fact would affect the whole chain of yichus.
Dishonest people also were at work, connecting various family names with similar pronunciations, like Kara and Karo. The one is an Ashkenazi family from Prague; the other is the Sephardi family of the compiler of the Shulchan Aruch, which moved from Spain to Safed. Similarly, others attached the author of the Levush, a well-known rabbinical book, with the printer of Lublin, named Yafe, or the Bach, another well-known rabbinical book, with the Sephardi commentator on the Midrashim, Rabbi Shmuel Yafe.
Today we finally have access to manuscripts that dispel once and for all doubts of many generations. For example, is Rabbi Zecharia Mendel the first called the Navi (prophet) or the Nasi (president)? (see my recent book, Elef Margaliot, p. 464.) In a recently discovered genealogical chart from Russia, the answer was found to the mystery of who was the father-in-law of the author of Shaarei Teshuva. It turned out to be his own brother, Rav Elyakim Getzel Margaliot.
In Poland and Russia, yichus per se was not given much importance. It was more of an incentive to perfect oneself as befits a descendant of illustrious ancestors. In Hungary, on the other hand, people had a great desire to connect themselves to some famous chain of yichus. Some, in fact, fabricated a chain connecting them to personalities such as the authors of the Noda Biyehuda, Smichat Chachamim, the Beit Efraim, as well as others. It is said about a Polish Jew, that when asked, “Who are you?” he lists his ancestors before him and his children after him, but he himself has no intrinsic importance. Therefore, the second day of Sivan is called “the Pollak,” because it has no special importance, but comes after an important date, Rosh Chodesh, and before days of importance, the three days of preparation before receiving the Torah.
The Elbaum family and the story of how they attached themselves to Rabbi Shimon Mariles of Yaroslav is particularly interesting. In the new edition of my book Torat Shimon, I profiled a rabbi of this family, a survivor of the Holocaust who was helped because of his yichus to establish himself in Canada, although there was no validity to the yichus!
The year 1860 is reckoned as the start of a new era in genealogical research, and Yosef Kohen Tzedek is recognized as the greatest researcher of this period. He himself was a member of a family of kohanim whose lineage was unblemished and unquestioned. Also, he was a scholar who frequented the homes of the rabbis of Lvov. He was an editor and publisher of periodicals, as well as of dozens of books in which he publicized among other news, the results of his genealogical research. Whenever he stated that there was a family tradition regarding yichus (“such and such I was told in my father's house”), no one dared question him. His statements have been copied as valid all the way down to our day. Recently, however, it has been possible to check out his assertions, and it turns out that many were figments of his imagination. For information about the same time period, many people rely on the research of Reb Aharon Walden's book, Shem Hagedolim Hechadash, which is a continuation of the pioneering work of Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai, the CHIDA.
Present day researchers find it difficult to understand the enigma of Rabbi Yosef Levenstein, the rabbi of Srutsk, near Warsaw. In his time he was considered top-notch in regard to clarifications in genealogy, and his reputation preceded him in his books and research articles. He appeared to have vast knowledge and full control over the complicated periods, but today it is clear that his conclusions are so confused and mistaken that they are completely unreliable. For example, in his book Dor Vedor Vedorshav, dates of death are given that are clearly impossible, or else are several decades off from the actual date of death.
Then there was Rabbi Avraham Itinga, a descendant of Rabbi Shlomo Kluger. He was an outstanding scholar, as seen through his pamphlets on genealogy, which are scattered in a number of books. He served as rosh yeshiva (head of the yeshiva) in Dukla. We did not merit to have his books Anshei Mofet on the important personalities of his town, Brody, and Shem Hagedolim Hashlishi, which included more than 20,000 rabbis in the sixth millennium. Another sourcebook considered reliable, although some names are missing, is Daat Kedoshim. A fine work was produced also by Reb Shmuel Zanvil Kahana, Anaf Etz Avot (Krakow, 1903). It is well organized and exact. When facts were unknown to him, he simply left blanks or marked the link with a question mark.
In contrast, we must take note of the treasury of disorganized facts in the many books, primarily on the history of Chassidut (the Hassidim), of Rabbi Israel Berger of Bucharest. The facts are piled in long lists arranged by letters, and it is very difficult to find one's way through them. Even before Berger was Reb Eliezer Hakohen, shochet (ritual slaughterer) in Botosani. His book Kinat Sofrim (1892) is organized haphazardly and is totally unreliable. To the book of R. Schmuel Noah Gottlieb, Oholei Schem (1912), rabbis or their sons volunteered information, and in that respect, the facts are accurate, but sometimes they chose to decorate the details, thereby stretching the truth.
Chaim Dov Berish Freedberg was an expert researcher from Krakow, Antwerp and Tel Aviv. In addition to his many books on the history of printing of Hebrew books, he also printed in 1897 and 1904 two editions of Luchot Zikaron, about his home town, Krakow. His contributions to the field of genealogy are his three books on the illustrious families, Rappaport, Horowitz, and Shapiro, plus two other books on the families Schor and Steinberg. Freedberg was not as exacting as Wettstein with the result that many assumptions have very little basis. Some are mistakes in identification, due to similarity of names, and Freedberg fabricated names to close gaps between generations.
Dov Wachstein, on the other hand, who was the librarian of the Vienna community, is considered exact and reliable. Among his important works in German and Hebrew are Tombstones of the Old Cemetery of Vienna (1912 to 1917).
Rav Zvi Hirsch Halevi Horowitz, a true scholar, was the rabbi of Dresden, Germany. During World War II, he ended up in southern France where he lived in Nice until his death in 1945. As a talmid chacham (Talmud scholar), as well as being himself of illustrious descent, he was an expert in genealogical complexities. In his generation he was regarded as one of the outstanding researchers of yuchsin. Unfortunately, his massive work on the Horowitz family was lost; all that we have is an abridged version (Cracow, 1932). Only an accepted authority such as he was could have put forth the novel idea that there were two Rav Pinchases, only one of whom was the brother-in-law of the Rema, or to have inserted another generation of Rav Yaacov next to the grandfather of Rabbi Meir of Tiktin. Generally, any information he proffered was reliable, and one can trust his statements in his books Kitvei Hageonim and on the history Lekorot Hakehilot Bepolania. The latter book was published in New York from the only existing copy, which he had sent there for proofreading prior to the Holocaust. Extensive material on the remaining kehillot was salvaged by his children, who presented it all to Mosad Harav Kook, Jerusalem, which later published it under the title Letoldot Hakehilot Bepolin (For the History of the Polish Communities).
It was in the pre-Holocaust generation that some young researchers with a good sense of critical thinking arose, publishing some excellent works. Unfortunately, in the massive destruction that followed, everything was cut short and the fruits of their labor lost. The first was Rav Yisrael Moshe Biderman of encyclopedic knowledge. His critical work on the biography of the author of Kos Hayeshuot (Cup of Salvation) is printed on the back of that text (Warsaw, 1910). Mordechai Weitz wrote about the rabbis of his hometown, Kalish, Poland, in Toldot Chachmei Lublin (History of Wise Men of Lublin), and Mateh Horowitz (Horowitz Tribe). His book Ateret Paz on the Posen community was published in Kalish in 1938. His newspaper articles reflect a great talent, which unfortunately was cut off by his murder in the Holocaust. Then there is Reb Arye Yehuda Leib Lipshitz, quite solid in his works on Rabbi Shaul Wahl, King of Poland for a day. In 1925, Lipshitz revised Gedulat Shaul which had first been published in London in 1854. Afterwards he printed Avot Atara Lebanim (Fathers, a Crown for Their Children). David Yehuda Leib Zinz produced fine works on the Pnei Yehoshua by Yaacov Yeshua Falk and Rabbi Yehonathan Eibeshitz, with extensive details about their yichus and descendants.
Two giants of this period are Rabbi Zvi Yechezkel Michelson and Rabbi Chaim Yissachar Gross. Michelson, the Av Bet Din of Plonsk and later Rav in Warsaw (where he died in the ghetto), wrote biographies of famous rabbis and many books on Halacha. People turned to him from all corners of the globe to clarify or fill in information about the lives and yichus of well known personalities. Rabbi Gross, from the Carpathian town of Petrova and later dean of the yeshiva in Munkacs, was another who possessed an amazing memory, depth of understanding and knowledge. All of his facts are well-grounded; there is no beating around the bush or theories built on air. Gross did not publish books of his own, but rather, treatises on books of others. Sadly, his own great work on gedolei Yisrael (Jewish great personages) and their genealogies was lost.
Currently, with communication between countries so quick and easy, new avenues have opened up in the field of research. It is now possible to photocopy and disseminate material, even from Eastern Europe, engage the services of scholars to comb archives and then print a novellae in books or periodicals for experts to discuss.
In fact, there are new rabbinic and Hassidic journals that serve as vehicles for genealogical clarification. One example of the aforementioned is Nachalas Zvi, Bnei Brak, published by Reb Menachem Mendel Witznitzer, in which he prints heretofore unknown megilot yuchsin (family trees that were until now in manuscript). Interesting, intensive discussions on yichus are found in the popular letters to the editor section. Similarly productive were the journals Kerem Hachasidut and now the journal Siftei Zaddikim. Rabbi Naftali Halberstam of the Institute for Yuchsin in Borough Park, New York, initiated a featured column of genealogical problems in the newspaper, Der Yid, but there was little reader response.
The Hassidic movement was lucky enough to be researched and genealogically recorded. Yitzchak Alfasi did a comprehensive job on researching the chains of Chassidut, starting with his Tiferet Shebemalchut on the Hager dynasty and ending so far with the Album Hachasidut, considered a basic text despite many mistakes and an illogical index. Alfasi recently published an updated and improved edition, volume one, based on a wealth of material received from family members since 1974. Even earlier, Harav Levi Halevi Grossman in 1943 authored Shem Ushe'erit in one long night, relying on his phenomenal memory. Later he added She'erit Lisherit, additions to the original book. Reb Yitzchak Shlomo Yudelov produced an exact study of the Krechinef dynasty, as well as Yichus Belz (Jerusalem, 1984). Rav Yosef Lieberman, well known as a gaon in Halacha and unusually careful about details, did a commendable job with his book Shalshelet Hayuchsin (Chain of Genealogies) (1978).
Reb Yitzchak Yosef Cohen labored to perpetuate the memory of Hungarian and Romanian Jewry. His massive books on Transylvania and on Marmaros are a great contribution in the research of the kehilot and personalities of those areas, and of Hungary and Romania in general. His books are organized by kehillot and time periods, a different approach from my five-volume work on Galician Jewry, Meorei Galicia (Encyclopedia of Galician Jewry), which is organized alphabetically by family names. Budding interest exists to produce similar works on Czechoslovakia and Lithuania, but other countries still lack individuals with a burning desire to perpetuate their memories before it is too late.
Tzfunot, a periodical of significance, published in Bnei Brak, Israel, serves as a stage for the genealogical research of Rabbi Shlomo Englard. Not satisfied merely to record accepted theories, Rabbi Englard checks every item with a fine-toothed comb. Traditional lineages are demolished with strong proofs. Rabbi Englard typifies the younger generation's new-found interest in genealogy as contrasted with their parents' generation, which demonstrated little excitement in the search for roots.
A number of other important works also have been published, but not all of them are always reliable. Rabbi Moshe Yair Weinstock composed Tiferet Beit David on the Lelov dynasty; Yaacov Leib Shapiro of the Neshchiz dynasty composed Mishpachot Atikot Beyisrael. (In the case of Shapiro, involvement in genealogy led to a total change in life style. As he came to know of his blood relatives, the Admorim [chassidic rebbes], Shapiro returned to the traditions of his childhood home.) Rav Natan Zvi Friedman's book Otzar Harabbanim is a comprehensive work, although it has many mistakes in both content and arrangement.
Rabbi Meir Wunder is the author of the five-volume Meorei Galicia (Encyclopedia of Galician Sages) and Elef Margoliot. He lives in Jerusalem and is chairman of the Institute for the Commemoration of Galician Jewry. This article was originally published in Avotaynu: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy, Winter 1995, and is reproduced with kind permission of the publisher.