Vilna Gaon

Vilna Gaon

Thursday, 24 February 2011


A selection of photos

Kremer – the Vilna Gaon had no Surname

Despite a common misconception, the Gaon had no surname and "Kremer" or “Kramer” was a nickname applied to his ancestor Rabbi Moshe "Kremer" of Vilna because he had a stall in the market.

The term "Kremer" means a shopkeeper.
None of the primary sources or documents contemporaneous with the Gaon and the generation after him include a surname, although several biographies in modern times have erroneously used it.

There are many, many Kremers/Kramers who have nothing to do with the Gaon.
However the name was adopted by the descendants of one of the Gaon’s brothers Rabbi Moshe of Podzelva. They lived mainly in Dokshitz, Belarus, and in Israel.

Another family descended is from a female connection to the Gaon, a daughter of his grandson Rabbi Tuviah Yurbarsky and wife of Rabbi Yitskhak Kremer of Volkovisk (there are descendants in the USA).

Unless a family has a specific tradition of descent from the Gaon, the surname Kremer alone is probably not sufficient evidence of a relationship with the Gaon.

Family of the Vilna Gaon


Chaim Freedman's family originated in the Raseiniai district of Lithuania. David Hoffman coordinated the Raseiniai researchers for the LitvakSIG and they developed a collegial relationship over several years. Hoffman accumulated documentation about his family’s oral tradition of a relationship to the Vilna Gaon. He discussed this with Chaim Freedman, who was studying the family of the Gaon. Freedman became very supportive of Hoffman’s efforts to obtain early 19th century Russian Empire revision lists and 1784 and 1765 censuses from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Together they traced some lines of their families back to the 18th century.

Rabbi Eliyahu The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797)

Research of the family of the Vilna Gaon was published in 1997 by Avotaynu as Chaim Freedman’s book Eliyahu’s Branches, The Descendants of the Vilna Gaon and His Family. There Freedman explained that the number and order of birth of the Gaon's children and their ages was not consistent in the sources. Aside from some biographies, it is necessary to study texts that, although their specific purpose was not to record the biography of the Gaon or his family, include passages from which familial information can be interpreted. These texts include in particular the introductions to books written by the Gaon.

The number of children recorded in these sources ranges from a minimum of two sons and one daughter to three sons and five daughters. It seems quite certain that only three sons survived to adulthood. Five daughters can also be established, but there may have been others.
The dates of birth of the Gaon's children are significant in order to establish or counter claims of families that they are descended from one or other of his children. The time period between the earliest known ancestor of claimant families and the birthdates of the Gaon's sons may preclude such a claim. On the other hand, since most of the Gaon's daughters were older than the sons, there is the possibility of a greater number of intervening generations between the daughters and hypothetical descendant families. Therefore, there may be a greater number of possibilities of descendant lines from the Gaon's daughters than from the sons. Given that the estimated age difference between the Gaon's eldest and youngest child is about twenty-five years, researching the line of descent must take into account the possibility of a variation of an entire generation in the ancestral line, depending whether descent is sought from the older or younger of the Gaon's children.

The Vilna Gaon was identified in Vilna (Vilnius) in the first Russian Empire revision list (census) in 1795 and in the two censuses from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania of 1784 and 1765.

1795 Revision List of Vilna showing the Vilna Gaon (Eliasz Zelmanowicz and his wife Gitla):

1784 census list of Vilna showing the Vilna Gaon (Eliasz Zelmanowicz and his wife Gitel, daughter Chana, Son Zelman and his wife Rochla, daughter Treyna:

1765 census list of Vilna showing the Vilna Gaon (Eliasz Zelmanowicz, wife Chana, son Zelman, daughter Basia, and servant Nechama):

Some of the daughters’ names were discovered for the first time by using these lists. But Freedman particularly wanted to find a son of the Gaon, Abraham, who was not listed in the Gaon’s household in 1765. Since he was aware of Abraham’s wife’s family, he was able to use this information to seek Abraham.

Abraham's wife was Sarah, daughter of Nowach and Minda. Minda’s father was known as Eliyahu Pesseles. So Freedman looked for this family on the 1765 Vilna census list, and found Nowach and Minda living in her father’s household:

At 59 Ulica Zydowska: Elias son of Hirsch and his wife Chaia, with four children: Joseph (not married); Berko (married to Dwera with three children Leib, Chana and Sora-Rocha); Bejla (married to Aizik son of Abraham); and Minda (married to Nowach with one child Mirka). Also, Elias' father Hirsch, a widower; and five servants.

This information is consistent with what is known of Elias (Eliyahu Pesseles) and his family. For his son-in-law Nowach it is clear that he must be recently married to Minda and that as of February 27, 1765 - the date of the census - they only had one daughter, Mirka. His daughter Sarah, who was later to marry Abraham son of the Gaon was not yet born, and this is consistent with Freedman’s postulated birth date of circa 1765 for her future husband.

Further information was consistent with what Freedman knew about the Pesseles family, and he was able to identify many members of the Gaon’s family. The widower Hirsch was a brother of the Vilna Gaon’s grandfather.

Freedman then turned to the 1784 census to find Nowach and Minda, hoping that Abraham, son of the Vilna Gaon, would be living with his father-in-law. In the 1784 census, Freedman located Abraham in the household of his father-in-law Nowach Abramowicz (Noah Lipshitz, Mindes), along with Nowach’s wife Minda, and Abraham’s wife Sora. In this entry no children appear with Abraham, further indicating the proximity of the marriage to the date of the census.

1784 census of Vilna in the Kamienicy (house of) Eliaszowicz (Eliash), ... Nowach son of Abram, his wife Minda, son-in-law Abraham, his wife Sora, and servants Nechama and Mowsza:

Finally, the 1795 Russian revision list records Abraham, son of the Gaon, with his age as 30. That means he was born in 1765, exactly the year stated in Freedman’s book and calculated by him from complex and often obscure references. This date is about 15 years later than the date "used" by other sources. Now the three lists 1765, 1784 and 1795 support Freedman’s scenario for the configuration of the Gaon's sons.

Name: Avraham
Relationship: Head of Household
Father: Eliasz
Age: 30
Year: 1795
Town: Vilnius
Wife: Sora aged 22
Daughter: Chana aged 11


Jewish Family History Foundation for 18th century Grand Duchy of Lithuania records, 1795 and 1816 Revision Lists. Provided by Dr. David Hoffman and Professor Eric Goldstein.
For additional information about the 18th century Grand Duchy Project and examples of other successful research, including Chaim Freedman's Komisaruk family of Raseiniai, Lithuania, follow the links at

Learn more about the thirty years of scholarly research that led to the publication in 1997 of Eliyahu's Branches: The Descendants of the Vilna Gaon (of blessed and saintly memory) and His Family, by Chaim Freedman at the Avotaynu Website

The book analyzed many source materials, from religious writings to the writings of the Gaon and his disciples.

Freedman's book about the Vilna Gaon contains a rare portrait of the illustrious 18th-century Eastern European sage, a discussion of his substantial influence on the Jewish world and a thoroughly-documented family tree listing more than 20,000 descendants of the rabbi and his siblings. A small portion of the tree--the first four generations--is available on the Web.

This current article, using the previously unavailable 1795 Russian revision list and 18th century GDL census lists, resolves inconsistencies and provides new documentary evidence for Freedman's theories.

Ancestry of the Gaon of Vilna – Descent from King David

Ancestry of the Gaon of Vilna – Descent from King David

Chaim Freedman, Petah Tikvah, Israel, September 2005
Published in "Avotaynu" Volume XXI, Number 3, Fall 2005
Hebrew translation by Rabbi Benyamin Yedidiah Panteliat is being posted progressively at

Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalmen, the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797)[1] is descended from several prominent rabbinical scholars of Vilna: Rabbi Moshe Rivkas (1596-1671) and Rabbi Moshe Kremer (died 1688). The ancestry of these rabbis was known by the Gaon’s biographers for only a few generations, no earlier than the mid sixteenth century. To date relationships with other prominent rabbinical families was unknown. This was a rare situation considering that most ancient [or other suitable word] rabbinical families were interrelated and could trace their ancestry for centuries.

Throughout the course of the Bible the narrative revolves around the sequence of the generations, from the patriarchs, the division of the Children Of Israel into the Twelve Tribes, the Exodus from Egypt, the pioneers in the establishment of the Jewish nation in Eretz Yisrael, the Prophets, the Royal House of David until the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile into the Diaspora

During the pre-Exilic period the Jews preserved records of their genealogical connection to the nation. This continuity was lost to a great extent due to the disruption of the Exile to Babylon and the Diaspora in Europe. Many families painstakingly preserved their traditions of descent even in the post-Exilic period. Some of these families settled in the Rhineland and France in the ninth and tenth centuries. A prominent family which claimed Davidic descent was that of great Biblical and Talmudic commentator Rashi (1040-1105). Traditions of descent from famous rabbis and in particular from Rashi have long intrigued genealogists. The subject was discussed at length in several issues of Avotaynu some years ago[2]. Rashi’s family and disciples established centers of learning and laid the foundations of the communities which became the hub of Jewish life in many towns in Western Europe. Later, in the fourteenth century, their descendants moved to Eastern Europe. Thus a vast interrelated dynasty of rabbinic families spread across Europe.

Since most of the prominent rabbinical families are inter-related due to Shidukhim (matchmaking), there was a core of medieval rabbinical families who were descended from Rashi. Some examples are Treves, Shapira, Luria, Katzenellenbogen, Jaffe, Heilprin, Landau, Lipshitz, Margolis, Rapaport, Heller, Weil, Isserles, Shorr, Klausner, Horowitz, Katz, Teomim, Epstein, Gunzburg, to name but a few. These families comprise the root from which most other rabbinical families stemmed. A specific family may descend from a number of marital ties between rabbinical families, which ultimately connect back to Katzenellenbogen, Luria etc, and through them to Rashi and King David.

Details of these families can be studied on the Davidic Dynasty site

A new study of the ancestry of the Vilna Gaon by this author revealed previously unknown sources which when correlated show that the Vilna Gaon is in fact descended from many of the above families and is descended from King David.

An extensive study of the ancestry of the Gaon of Vilna was written by the late Benyamin Rivlin and published in Sefer Hagra [3].

The Gaon's parents were Rabbi Shlomo-Zalmen (died 1758) and Treina. His mother came from the town of Seltz (today, Selets) near Grodno. His father came from a prominent Vilna family. The known male line of the Gaon's ancestry commences with Rabbi David Ashkenazi (died 1645), who was a Rosh Yeshiva in Lemberg, Poland. According to Professor Louis Ginzberg[4], David Ashkenazi may have been identical with Rabbi David, son of Mordekhai Ashkenazi, mentioned in Klilat Yofi[5]. David's son, Rabbi Moshe Kremer (died 1688), held the position of Av Beit Din (chief rabbi) of Vilna. Moshe Kremer's son, Rabbi Eliyahu (died 1710), was known as “Khassid” due to his piety.

Eliyahu Khassid had three sons: Rabbi Yissakhar Ber (or Yissakhar Dov), Rabbi Tzvi Hersh (died 1765) and Rabbi Moshe (died 1765). Tzvi Hersh was the ancestor of several prominent families, includ­ing Rivlin and Eliash, who held influential posi­tions in the Vilna community[6]. Yissakhar Ber was the father of Rabbi Shlomo Zalmen, who was the father of five sons and a daughter. The eldest son was Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna (1720–1797).

The Gaon's great-grandfather Eliyahu Khassid married into another prominent rabbinic family. His wife was a daughter of Rabbi Petakhiah, son of Rabbi Moshe Rivkas (died 1671). Rabbi Moshe Rivkas came to Vilna from Prague in the early seventeenth century. During the Cossack massacres in 1655, Rivkas fled to Amsterdam, where he completed his commentary on the Shulkhan Arukh called Be-er Hagolah[7].

The earliest known ancestor of Moshe Rivkas was Yosef Hakhaver of Ofen (later Budapest), one of the members of the Jewish communi­ty of Vienna who was exiled to Prague in 1559[8]. Yosef's son, Rabbi Petakhiah (died 1598), was sofer (scribe) of the Prague community, as was his son, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Hersh. Naftali Tzvi Hersh Sofer (died Prague 1601) was the father of Rabbi Moshe Rivkas.

Maternal Ancestors

Little is known about the Gaon's female ancestors. There are two versions as to the identity of Naf­tali Tzvi Hersh Sofer's wife. Shapira[9] refers to Naftali as Tzvi Hersh Fasi and records his wife's name as Rivka, a daughter of Natan Mandel, son of Meir of Krakow.

But Tzvi Hersh Fasi lived in Krakow, whereas the father of Moshe Rivkas, Naftali Tzvi Hersh lived in Prague where he held the position as Sofer (scribe) of the Kahal. Tzvi Hersh Fasi held a position as Parnes Umanhig (a community leader) in Krakow. Kahana[10] lists the children of Tzvi Hersh Fasi but the name of Moshe Rivkas is not included. Naftali Tzvi Hersh Sofer died in Prague in 1601, whereas Tzvi Hersh Fasi is recorded in the Pinkas Hakahal (a community register book) in 1632. Therefore it can be seen that Shapira has confused two individuals. A possible explanation for the confusion may be due to the fact that Fasi’s son Leib was the father-in-law (by his first marriage) of Rabbi Gershon Ashkenazi of Nikolsberg and Vienna (1615-1693, author of Avodat Hagershuni) who referred to Moshe Rivkas as his “Mekhutan” (meaning that their children were married) in Gershon’s approbation to Rivkas’ Be’er Hagolah[11]

Moshe Rivkas' Descent from King David

Details of the ancestry of Moshe Rivkas can be established from the correlation of several sources. Eliezer Rivlin in the introduction to Sefer Hayakhas6 conveys a tradition of the family’s descent from King David:

“Sefer Hayakhas” Eliezer Rivlin (Jerusalem 1935)

According to ancient family traditions these ancestors of the family were descended from the dynasty of the House of David and the elders of the family used to relate that they saw the ancient writings in which the names of the dynasty were detailed until the House of David. Various legends also spread between the various branches of the family about the origin of their ancestors from the Spanish Exile which was in Amsterdam, and so on and so on. But if we rely on certain scientific documents we are unable to give details of he names above the Holy Rabbi Yosef Khaver, the ancestor of Rivkas on the Rivkas side, and above Rabbi David Ashkenazi father of Kremer on the Kremer side.

Although Rivlin dismisses these oral traditions because they are not based on “certain scientific documents”, he was apparently unaware of sources which, when considered together, support the oral tradition of descent from King David.

One of these sources appears in a rare comment in Saarat Eliyahu[12] , a eulogy of the Vilna Gaon written by his youngest son Avraham. It was not the habit of the Gaon to mention in his many writings members of his family. Nor was it the custom of his sons. To date few such comments have been discovered:

“Saarat Eliyhau” Avraham son of the Gaon, Grodno 1876

…….Samalion (which is the name of an angel as explained by our ancestors the Arukh and the Baalei Hatosafot)……..Two lines of ancestry are noted, one from the author of the Arukh, Rabbi Natan of Rome (1035-1106). A gap of 700 years between the Gaon and Natan makes it difficult to establish the nature of the descent. A family which also claims descent from Natan is that of Rabbi Yomtov Lipman Heller (1574-1654), author of Tosfot Yomtov. Research of the Heller family might establish a connection with the Vilna Gaon’s ancestors[13].

Of greater importance is that part of the comment by Avraham (son of the Gaon) which refers to “our grandfathers the Baalei Hatosafot”. The term “grandfathers” is a figurative term meaning “ancestors”.

The Baalei Hatosafot were the Talmudic commentators who functioned after Rashi (1040-1105). Initially these were his sons-in-law, grandsons and their families. Then each of these relatives of Rashi had their students and the group as a whole were known as Baalei Hatosafot, meaning the authors of the additional commentaries to those of Rashi and his predecessors.

Avraham’s comment referring to his ancestors as Baalei Hatosafot may theoretically include any of the Talmudic scholars regarded as members of this group, and not necessarily the family of Rashi. But given Rivlin’s note about the tradition of descent from King David, and given that Rashi and his family were descended from King David, the intersection of the two factors indicates that it is likely that Avraham’s comment points to the Gaon’s descent from those of the Baalei Hatosafot, who were members of Rashi’s family. Further evidence will add weight to this contention.

It might be claimed that the term “zikneynu”, “our grandfathers/ancestors” could mean “our elders” and not necessarily ancestors. But that identical term “zikneynu” is used by he Gaon’s sons in their introduction to his commentary on Shulkhan Arukh Orakh Khaim[14] .

Introduction by the Gaon’s sons to his commentary on “Shulkhan Arukh Orakh Khaim” (Shklov 1803)
And our ancestor the Rabbi the Gaon our Teacher the Rabbi Reb M. who authored Be’er Hagolah.
There the term “zikneynu” is applied to Rabbi Moshe Rivkas, the Gaon’s great-great-great-grandfather. In those instances where scholars of previous generations are referred to, the term usually used is “khazal” meaning “our wise men of blessed memory”, or “razal” meaning “our rabbis of blessed memory”. In Saarat Eliyahu10 Avraham uses the term “razal” for other scholars and only in this one instance uses “zikneynu” to refer to his ancestors Natan of Rome and the Baalei Hatosafot.

It might be asked how Avraham knew of his ancestry. It seems unlikely that his father The Vilna Gaon would have taken time away from his studies to tell his sons stories about their ancestors. Such is the impression given by descriptions of the Gaon’s character with respect to his total dedication to study, begrudging any diversion for secular purposes, to the extent that he rarely enquired of his family’s welfare. Yet there is evidence that the Gaon did tell his sons about their ancestry as described by Avraham in Saarat Eliyahu:

“Saarat Eliyhau” Avraham son of the Gaon, Grodno 1876

……… How have we forgotten our holy ancestors. The rabbi the Gaon of our strength our Rabbi Moshe of blessed memory, Av Beit Din of community may it thrive, who saved us from several slanders and blood libels through his wonderful deeds. And from evil officials, as told us our lord our teacher and Rabbi my father the Gaon … who knew in his youth elders who told him, and the son of the above Gaon Reb M. of blessed memory, the rabbi the Khassid Rabbi Eliyahu of blessed memory after whose name our lord our father our teacher the rabbi of blessed memory was called. His great piety and separation, and the thunder of his brave righteousness ….

Here is clear evidence that the Gaon heard in his youth from the elders of Vilna information about his ancestors. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that the Gaon was the source for Avraham’s information about his descent from Natan of Rome and the Baalei Hatosafot.

A possible relationship between Moshe Rivkas and the Katzenellenbogen family was mentioned in Eliyahu’s Branches, the Descendants of the Vilna Gaon and His Family[15]. At the time of writing of that book, evidence to explain the claim was not available and so the author wrote “This claim is unsubstantiated”. New evidence makes that statement no longer appropriate.

Benyamin Rivlin, the son of Eliezer Rivlin, the author of Sefer Hayakhas6, wrote a small biography of his ancestor Rabbi Moshe Rivkas, Reb Moshe Rivkas[16]:

“R’ Moshe Rivkes – Benyamin Rivlin (Jerusalem 1971)

About Reb Naftali Hirsh Sofer of the Holy Community of Prague, son of Reb Petakhiah, related his son Reb Moshe Rivkas, in the above introduction [to his book Be’er Hagolah] that “he drew water and served before the rabbi the Gaon our teacher the Rabbi Reb Falk Katz of blessed memory in the Holy Community of Lvov, after his marriage, in the year 5356 and 5357 [1596 and 1597], and there edited the Shulkhan Arukh and wrote at the side some matters from the Shulkhan Arukh of the above rabbi the Gaon of blessed memory.
His wife was Mrs. Telza – of the root of the Gaon Reb Shaul Wahl, and apparently he was “His Honor Hirsh the son of the master the honorable Petakhiah Sofer, tender in years, Sofer son of Sofer, who passed away in Elul 5361 [1601] in Prague.
Although Benyamin Rivlin does not refer to his father’s comment about Davidic descent, if, as he states, Moshe Rivkas mother was “of the trunk of Shaul Wahl” then Moshe Rivkas was thereby descended from King David since Shaul Wahl’s family, Katzenellenbogen was descended through the Luria and Mintz families from Rashi, and thereby from King David.

This reference to Telza, Moshe Rivkas’ mother, appeared prior to Benyamin Rivlin’s comment in 1971, in 1900 in Bentzion Eizenstadt’s Dor Rabanav Vesofraf[17] where he quotes Tzvi Hersh Edelman as stating that Telza was “a granddaughter of Shaul Wahl”. Edelman wrote in 1845 Gedulat Shaul[18] a history of Shaul Wahl’s family based on a 1755 manuscript Yesh Mankhilin[19] held in the Bodlean library in Oxford. Yesh Mankhilin includes many details of the Katzenellenbogen family, yet does not refer to Telza. Nor does Edelman’s Gedulat Shaul refer to Telza. That book was planned to appear in four volumes, only one of which is extant. Possibly Eizenstadt took his source from an unpublished manuscript by Edelman. Benyamin Rivlin makes a similar statement without quoting his source, describing Telza as “of the trunk of Shaul Wahl” whereas Eizenstadt narrows down the relationship to “a granddaughter of Shaul Wahl”.
Prior to publishing his Reb Moshe Rivkas in 1971, in 1954 Benyamin Rivlin wrote a chapter in Sefer Hagra1 providing biographical details of the Gaon’s ancestors Rabbi Moshe Kremer and Rabbi Moshe Rivkas. He includes several sources in which Moshe Rivkas refers to his relatives:

Relatives of Rabbi Moshe Rivkas – Sefer Hagra, Benyamin Rivlin

a. The author of the book Or Yekarot and Leviat Khen (Zolkva, 5516 [1716] ) is descended from Reb Moshe Rivkas and writes that he is from the family Khefetz from the Holy Community of Vilna, and so writes the author of Maamar Efsharut Hativit (Amsterdam 5522 [1762] `from the family Khefetz’[20].
b. not relevant
c. According to Rabbi Moshe in Be’er Hagolah his relatives were the Rabbi Reb Yeshaya Horowitz, the author of Shnei Lukhot Habrit (43) and the Rabbi Mordekhai Krasnik of the holy community of Zeil (44.
d. The Rabbi the Gaon our teacher the Rabbi Reb Gershon Ashkenazi Av Beit Din of Nikolsberg and Vienna, who was among the approbants to the book of Reb Moshe, writes of him that he was his Mekhutan
(43). Be’er Hagolah, Orakh Khaim 645, 7, 30 and see there Khoshen Mishpat 67, 68.
(44). Ibid, Orakh Khaim 586. 1. 5.
The following are Rabbi Moshe Rivkas’ comments about his relatives in his book Be’er Hagolah:
Shulkhan Arukh, Be’er Hagolah Orakh Khaim Khoshen Mishpat

Yeshaya Horowitz “Shelah” Mordekhai Krasnik Yeshaya Horowitz “Shelah”

(Wrote my relative the Rabbi, Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz in his book Shnei Lukhot Habrit …
(Questioned my relative the rabbi Reb Mordekhai Krasnik P of the Holy Community K [an abbreviation which may mean Parnes of the Holy Community of Krakow] ….
……. and my relative the Rabbi author of Shnei Lukhot Habrit……
Mordekhai Krasnik of Zeil was a Dayan (rabbinical judge) in Krakow in 1643 and then rabbi in Luntshitz[22]. His relationship with Rivkas requires further research.

Rivkas’ reference to “my relative Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz”, taken independently of other relationships quoted above, might not establish the nature of the Rivkas/Horowitz relationship. But taking into account Rivkas’ Katzenellenbogen relationship, his link to Yeshaya Horowitz can be seen as follows:

Moshe Rivkas was born in 1596.

Shaul Wahl was born in 1545. His son Meir was born no earlier than 1565, since his namesake great-grandfather Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen the “Maharam Padua” died in 1565.

The period between the birth date of Shaul Wahl and Moshe Rivkas was fifty-one years which had to include two generations for Telza to have been a granddaughter of Shaul Wahl.
From a study of the various children and grandchildren of Shaul Wahl, it seems that Moshe Rivkas’ mother Telza was a daughter of Shaul Wahl’s son Meir Katzenellenbogen and was born about 1580 when her father was aged about fifteen.
Telza was about sixteen years of age when she gave birth to Moshe Rivkas in 1596.

No other scenario is feasible as the other children of Shaul Wahl were too young to have been the parent of Telza, given that her son Moshe Rivkas was born in 1596.

The Horowitz relationship stated by Moshe Rivkas confirms the above explanation of the Katzenellenbogen relationship since Meir Katzenellenbogen’s wife Hinda was a daughter of Pinkhas Horowitz, a second-cousin to Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz, thus explaining why Moshe Rivkas refers to Horowitz as shear besari, “my flesh relative”.

Rabbi Pinkhas Horowitz[23] of Prague was a son of Yisrael Horowitz, son of Aharon Meshulam Zalmen Horowitz, son of Yeshaya Halevy Horowitz of Prague. The latter Yeshaya had another son Shabtai Sheftel, father of Avraham, father of Yeshaya (1570-1626), author of Shnei Lukhot Habrit, and known by the abbreviation of that book as the Sheloh. The Sheloh possibly born in Prague, served as rabbi in several communities before taking up the position as rabbi of Prague in 1614. He left that position in 1621 to settle in Eretz Yisrael where he died in Tiberias in 1626.

From the logistics of the Sheloh’s biography it can be seen that his relative Moshe Rivkas, from the age of eighteen, could have been personally acquainted with the Sheloh when he lived in Prague. Hence Rivkas’ comment in Be’er Hagolah that he was related to the Sheloh.

The relations of Meir Katzenellenbogen appear in Yesh Mankhilin:

Yesh Mankhilin – editor’s introduction

The Gaon Reb Meir Katzenellenbogen was a son of the Sar [officer/lord] our Rabbi Shaul Wahl of blessed memory. He was a son-in-law of Reb Pinkhas Horowitz, because he took his daughter Hinda to be his wife………

Yesh Mankhilin – Pinkhas Katzenellenbogen

And my father’s father’s father the Rabbi Our Teacher the Rabbi Reb Meir Shaul’s of blessed memory [Av Beit Din of the Holy Community of Brisk], his wife the Rabbanit Mrs. Hinda may her soul be in Eden, daughter of the famous, Our Teacher the Rabbi Pinkhas Segal Horowitz from Krakow, brother-in-law of the Remo of blessed memory.
And his father was the famous [Shaul] Wahl] [the Sar] and his wife Mrs. Devorah, may her soul be in Eden, daughter of Reb David.

Rivkas’ comment about his Horowitz relative confirms that his mother Telza was a daughter of Meir Katzenellenbogen since Meir’s wife was a Horowitz.

Other relatives of Moshe Rivkas bore the surname (or appellation) Wahl or Wahls. Whether this indicated a relationship with Shaul Wahl requires further research.
An additional source for the ancestry of Moshe Rivkas through the Katzenellenbogen and Horowitz families appears in Shnot Eliyahu[24] the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on the Order Zeraim of the Mishnah, edited by his son-in-law Rabbi Moshe of Pinsk. A reference to Moshe’s ancestor Rabbi Shmuel of Antipol, Karlin and Pinsk, as being a blood relative of the Gaon appears there.

The author of Sefer Yukhsin[25] mentions that the nature of the relationship was not known to him:

Sefer Yukhsin, Rozenkrantz

The Gaon Reb Eliyahu of Vilna, of blessed and righteous memory, was descended from one family with my grandfather [ancestor] the Gaon Reb Shmuel of blessed memory Av Beit Din of the Holy Community of Karlin and his brothers, which is found in Shnot Eliyahu on Zeraim where it is mentioned there about my grandfather the Gaon R”Sh who was his relative. But I have not found out at the moment in a clear tradition, the head of which paternal house in the dynasty of our family.

Our Rabbi Maharsha of blessed memory was the father-in-law of the Gaon, the sharp, the saint Reb Moshe son of the Gaon Reb Yitskhak of blessed memory, and the above Reb Yitskhak was a son-in-law of Reb Simkha Bunem Av Beit Din of the Holy Community of Krakow, son-in-law of the Gaon Head of all the Diaspora, the saint Reb Moshe author of the Mapah, and the above Reb Moshe son of Yitskhak was Av Beit Din of the Holy Community of Lublin and he was the author of the book Mahadura Batra of the Maharsha, and his son-in-law was the Gaon Reb Avraham Feigas of blessed memory. The son of Reb Avraham was the Gaon Rabbi Reb Yosef Khassid Koidanover, the son of Reb Yosef was the Rabbi the Gaon the saint Reb Kalman, Av Beit Din of the Holy Community of Pinsk. The son of Reb Kalman was the Rabbi the Gaon the saint Reb Leib of blessed memory, …………The Rabbi the Gaon the saint Reb Leib had three sons, 1. the Rabbi the Gaon the saint Reb Shmuel of blessed memory Av Beit Din of Antipole, Karlin and Pinsk.

The Horowitz descent of the Gaon, established from Moshe Rivkas’ comment in Be’er Hagolah solves Rozenkranz’s problem. He shows that Shmuel of Pinsk was descended from Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the Remo. Isserles’ sister Beila was the wife of Pinkhas Horowitz. Thus the Gaon and Shmuel of Karlin shared ancestry from the Isserles family.

The Vilna Gaon and Shmuel of Karlin relationship, the manner of which was hitherto unknown, correlates and confirms the other seemingly isolated sources, which taken together, establish the Davidic descent of the Vilna Gaon.

The comment of Avraham, (son of the Vilna Gaon) in Saarat Eliyahu, about descent from the author of the Arukh, Rabbi Natan of Rome, requires further research. But it should be noted that one family which also claimed descent from Natan was that of Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller (1579-1654), author of Tosefot Yom Tov. Heller’s wife Rekhel was a granddaughter of Pinkhas Horowitz’s sister and thus related to Moshe Rivkas. Heller also functioned as rabbi in Prague during a period when Rivkas could have been acquainted with him. Natan of Rome was a member of the Anav family. Members of the Anav family also lived in Prague. One of Moshe Rivkas’ female ancestors may have been an Anav, thus accounting for Avraham’s comment about his descent from Natan of Rome.

Most sources[26] claim that Natan Heller was descended from Natan of Rome through his father. One source[27] states that it was though his mother.

[1] Freedman, Chaim. Eliyahu’s Branches, the Descendants of the Vilna Gaon and His Family. Avotaynu, Teaneck, New Jersey U.S.A. 1997.
[2] Avotaynu, Spring 1989, Spring 1990, Winter 1994, articles by Neil Rosenstein and Paul Jacobi.
[3] Fishman-Maimon, Yehuda Leib. Sefer Hagra. Jerusalem, 1954.
[4] Ginzberg, Louis. Students Scholars and Saints. New York, 1958.
[5] Dembitzer. Klilat Yofi. Krakow, 1888.
[6] Klausner, Yisrael. Toldot Hakehilah Haivrit Bevilna. Vilna, 1935.
[7] Rivkas, Moshe. Beer Hagolah . Amsterdam 1661-1664.
[8] Rivlin, Eliezer. Sefer Hayakhas Lemishpakhat Rivlin Vehagaon Mivilna. Jerusalem 1935.
[9] Shapira, Yaakov Leib. Mishpakhot Atikot Beyisrael. Tel Aviv 1981.
[10] Kahana, S.Z. Anaf Etz Avot. Krakow 1903.
[11] See reference below.
[12] Avraham son of Eliyahu (the Gaon). Saarat Eliyahu. Grodno 1876.
[13] Heller’s wife was a great grand-daughter of Yisrael Horowitz, who it will be seen later, was an ancestor of Moshe Rivkas.
[14] Eliyahu the Gaon of Vilna. Commentary on Shulkhan Arukh Orakh Khaim. Shklov 1803. Introduction by the Gaon’s sons Yehudah Leib and Avraham.
[15] Freedman, Chaim. Eliyahu’s Branches, the Descendants of the Vilna Gaon and His Family. Avotaynu, Teaneck, New Jersey 1997.
[16] Rivlin, Benyamin. Reb Moshe Rivkas. Jerusalem 1971.
[17] Eizenstadt, Bentzion. Dor rabanav Vesofrav. Vilna 1900.
[18] Edelman, Tzvi Hersh. Gedulat Shaul . London 1845.
[19] Katzenellenbogen, Pinkhas. Yesh Mankhilin. Boskowitz, Moravia 1755; edited by Feld, Yaakov Dov, Jerusalem 1986.
[20] Khefetz family in Prague: Hock, Mishpekhot K”K Prague. Prague 1892.
Koppelman, Lieben. Gal Ed. Prague 1856. Khefetz family in Vilna, see Rivlin.
[21] The exact relationship requires research.
[22] Friedman, Natan Tzvi. Otsar Harabanim. Bnei Brak, Israel 1975.
[23] Muneles, Otto. Ketovot Beveit Ha’almin Hayehudi Ha’atik Beprag. Jerusalem 1988.
Friedberg. B. Toldot Mishpakhat Horowitz. Frankfurt-am-Main, 1911.
[24] Moshe of Pinsk. Shnot Eliyahu. Lemberg 1799, Warsaw 1860.
[25] Rozenkranz, A. Sefer Yukhsin. Warsaw 1885.
[26] Wunder, Meir. Elef Margaliot . Jerusalem 1993
[27] Horowitz-Heller, Yekhiel. Megilat Yukhsin. Tel Aviv 1978.


Based on "Eliyahu's Branches - The Descendants of the Vilna Gaon and His Family",
Chaim Freedman "Avotaynu 1997.
Published as an article in Avotaynu, Volume XIII, #3, Autumn, 1997
Chaim Freedman – lecture to the Israel Genealogy Society, Jerusalem, February 2000.
The Legend
Tracing the family tree of the Gaon of Vilna, has long posed a challenge to genealogists due to the many difficulties encountered in validating the claims of families which hold an oral tradition of descent from the Gaon. Many families of Lithuanian origin preserve a tradition of descent from the Gaon, but the exact nature of many of their claims defies clear definition. Indeed, the apparent uncertainty of such claims has engendered amongst scholars and the general public an attitude of scepticism as to their authenticity, and an aura of legend has surrounded this perplexing puzzle.

A number of attempts have been made in the past to research the family of the Gaon of Vilna. The most comprehensive published genealogy is "Sefer Hayakhas Lemishpakhat Rivlin Umishpakhat HaGaon miVilna " (the Genealogy of the Rivlin Family and the Family of the Gaon of Vilna) written by the late Eliezer Rivlin in Jerusalem in 1935. He recorded many branches of the Gaon's family that were known at the time. But Rivlin's work encompasses only 300 descendants of the Gaon . It should be noted that at the time when Rivlin conducted his research (prior to the Second World War) communication technology was limited, and the difficulty of exchange of information over closed borders limited the scope of the material Rivlin was able to collect.

Number of descendants
A mathematical extrapolation over the eight to ten generations that are descended from the Gaon can be shown to yield about 140,000 - 150,000 theoretical descendants. Even allowing for factors such as cousin marriages and considerable decimation during the Holocaust, the Gaon's family tree should potentially encompass a considerable number of families of Lithuanian origin.

Personal involvement

This author has been interested in the genealogy of the Gaon since his childhood when he heard his grandparents telling stories about their ancestors, including the Gaon of Vilna. The subject of the Gaon gained new momentum during a discussion which took place in Jerusalem between genealogist the late Rabbi Shmuel Gorr and Benyamin Rivlin, son of Eliezer Rivlin, the author of the above-mentioned original genealogy of the Gaon. Rivlin suggested to Gorr that he propose to Chaim Freedman that Freedman take upon himself the project of updating the Gaon's genealogy. This major research project was instigated in mid-1987. Its objective was to collate all available material about the Gaon's family and to publish an updated genealogy. The importance of pursuing this project was that it would provide the last opportunity to preserve oral traditions and link them to related archival material before the passage of time further eroded the genealogical memory base of oral traditions which were the key to research.

Comparison of parallel traditions
Cross-reference by the author of seemingly independent family histories resulted in the discovery of long-standing missing links. Families which held traditions that, when considered individually failed to provide a basis for establishing their descent from the Gaon, yet when collated by the author, displayed a common denominator which led to the establishment of their relationship.

Collection of material

Freedman's research involved the recording, analyzing and assessing of material provided by families claiming a relationship with the Gaon, as well as a comprehensive survey of library resources in Israel including community histories, newspapers, journals, rabbinic texts, biographies, manuscripts and published family histories.

Additional material was provided from resource centres outside Israel by Freedman's genealogical colleagues. Notable New York genealogist, Alex Friedlander was of particular and constant help. He researched vital statistic records obtained from Polish and Lithuanian archives.

The material collected by Freedman constitutes a valuable database for those interested in the Gaon's family.

The nature of the material researched by this author in preparing a book on the family of the Gaon of Vilna necessitated the establishment by the author of three categories of families:

1) Families which claim a relationship with the Gaon of Vilna that is definitely established by reliable sources and records.

2) Families which hold an oral tradition of a relationship with the Gaon that, when critically analysed in the light of sources and records, is, in the opinion of the author, highly likely to be valid, beyond any reasonable doubt.

3) Families which hold an oral tradition of a relationship with the Gaon, but are unable to provide sufficient evidence for the author to verify their claims from the sources available to him. Such families have been further divided into two groups:

a) Families for which sufficient evidence exists for the author to decide to record the available information, for the purpose of preserving it in case further evidence is discovered in the future. Should such evidence be discovered, the inclusion of these families will facilitate a renewal of research, which may lead to the authentification of the families' relationship with the Gaon.

b)Families which have provided information that, after analysis and research by the author, enabled him to come to the conclusion that, in his opinion, these families are most probably not related to the Gaon.


Modern aids

The place of oral tradition in genealogical research is the subject of academic dispute. Modern genealogist have at their disposal many sources which were unavailable to their predecesors several decades ago. Modern computer and communication technology facilitate access to a wide range of depositories of sources. Documents preserved by archives throughout the world are becoming more readily accessible, particularly those documents which are held in libraries and archives in the former Soviet Union and neighbouring countries.

Past reliance on oral family history
Genealogists in the past have relied mainly on records kept by family members. These were supplemented by research in libraries and archives where communal and personal documentation may have been found. In the case of families of rabbinic descent, the religious literature provided considerable information about the familial relationships of the authors.

Vital Statistic records versus oral tradition

Given the rapid advances in modern Jewish genealogical research, much of it based on newly uncovered vital statistic records (birth, marriage and death registrations), there is a tendency amongst researchers to play down the importance and validity of oral tradition.This author contends that oral tradition still has, and always will have a valuable place in Jewish genealogical research. A person usually is told by his parents, grandparents or other relatives about his family history.This is the first indication that a person receives about his family history and is derived from oral tradition. Documents may or may not be available to support this information, but in their absence it is the natural tendency of a person to initially accept what he has been told. If he is sufficiently interested, he may engage in research in order to validate the oral traditions and to expand the information which he may desire to preserve for the benefit of future generations.

Limitations of Oral History
It cannot be denied that the indiscriminate use of oral tradition by genealogists has its pitfalls. It may be embellished in order to aggrandise past generations. Distasteful information may be suppressed. When oral information is repeated it may not be recalled accurately, or it may be distorted due to insufficient attention paid when the information was conveyed. These distortions and inaccuracies may be perpetuated when the information is passed on to subsequent generations. In extreme cases information may even have been fabricated.

In assessing the validity of oral tradition it is important to analyse the terms in which it was conveyed. In particular it is important to know whether the information was conveyed spontaneously without any leading questions which may have put into the mind of the person being questioned ideas which were not part of the original information. However, with respect to certain factors, it is valid to ask leading questions. For instance, a parent or grandparent may not recall the name of an ancestor when asked for the name directly. Yet, if the question is rephrased in terms of after whom the parent was named, he may then recall that he was told that he was named after a certain greatgrandparent. Such oral information may then lead to a new line of research.

Preservation of traditions for future research
The greater the number of generations removed from a particular ancestor being sought, the more likelihood there is of discrepancy in oral tradition. If one is told that one's grandfather claimed that his grandfather was a fourth generation descendant of the Gaon then there are thirty-two possible lines of descent from the Gaon. There may be additional information, such as place of residence or dates of birth which may reduce the possibilities. But the number of ancestral lines which need to be researched is still very large. If the link is not discovered in the current generation and the story is passed on to yet another generation, members of that generation have to cope with a bigger puzzle in which the number of possibilities soars to sixty-four. This simple calculation further justifies the author's decision to record all reasonable oral traditions in his book on the family of the Gaon of Vilna, in order to assist the coming generations should they try to uncover the `missing link'.

Oral tradition and documented sources complement each other in pursuing lines of research.A competent genealogist takes into account all the above factors in considering the validity of oral tradition, uses the available documented sources, and comes to a conclusion which is valid beyond a reasonable doubt.

Attitude to oral tradition in Judaism
Since this book deals with one of the most prominent personalities of Jewish scholarship, it is fitting that a principle established in traditional Jewish law be used to support the case for the use of oral tradition. Jewish law defines the forms of evidence required in solving a dispute brought before a Beth Din. Considerable material exists in the Talmud and in its commentaries about the need for conclusive evidence being presented to prove cases brought to litigation.

The late Rabbi Shmuel Gorr of Jerusalem, a prominent genealogist, used to expound the Talmudic principle ( (זבחים פרק י"ד, משנה ד'that the assertion: "I have not seen it", that is no evidence (to the contrary). He explained that simply because documented evidence may not have been discovered does not mean that the evidence does not exist, or that the point claimed to be valid must be disregarded. This was one of Rabbi Gorr's favourite quotations whenever the value of oral tradition was denigrated.

In his book on the family of the Gaon of Vilna the author exhaustively sought documented evidence to establish the genealogy of the families included. Oral tradition has been objectively considered. In many cases the author has consulted genealogical colleagues and taken into consideration their opinions.The conclusions presented are those of the author based on his expertise and experience in Jewish genealogical research.


The paradox - only 200 years
The difficulties that have been encountered over the years in tracing the descendants of the Gaon are surprising, considering that only 200 years have elapsed since his death in 1797. Only about eight generations have been born since that time . At the time Freedman started his research in the early 1960's, there were people alive who had heard stories about their descent from the Gaon from their grandparents (born in the 1830's) who were grandchildren of the Gaon's grandchildren (born in the 1780's). Such a chain of oral tradition was not so extended as to preclude the preservation of far more oral traditions than were in fact discovered.

There are several reasons for the difficulties encountered in researching the Gaon's family.

1) Lack of official records

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 communal lists which were compiled several times during the 18th century. Since all of the Gaon's children and most of his grandchildren were born prior to this date, there were few official records which could confirm their identity. It was not until the commemorative activities which took place in Vilna in 1997 to mark the 200th anniversary of the Gaon’s death that the census of 1765 was revealed. Study of the family unit of the Gaon made it possible to confirm the relative age of the Gaon’s sons as proposed in my book. Later the census lists for 1784 and 1795 added to the overall picture.

2) בטול תורה

It is a characteristic of Lithuanian families to play down their Yichus (pedigree). One example of this phenomenon was encountered when Freedman contacted an elderly rabbi living in Jerusalem. He was reluctant to discuss the issue, but grudgingly related what his mother had heard from her mother about their descent from the Gaon. But he soon cut the conversation short retorting: "What does it matter. Such research is Bitul Torah". He was expressing the sentiment of which the Gaon himself was a renowned proponent. One is obligated to spend as much time as possible in the study of the religious texts. The only time which can be justifiably used for other purposes is that needed to earn a mimimal livelhood. Even time required to attend to family affairs is begrudged. There are several stories related about the Gaon's disinterest in his children's everyday activities, despite his love for them. In the light of this attitude it is no wonder that orthodox Lithuanian families spent little time telling their children about their family history. Thus, much information was forgotten with the passage of time.

One oral tradition conveyed to this author related that an elderly relative in Vilna had possessed a book in which the Gaon himself had recorded his genealogy. Bearing in mind the Gaon's personality and relationship with his family, this story was obviously fictitious, or at best, an embellishment of some other book in the family's possession.

3) Wars

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.

4) Migration

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.

Sometimes, such photographs can lead to completely erroneous conclusions. This author was presented with an album of photographs collected by an elderly relative. Some were inscribed on the back, and others were identified by elderly relatives still alive. One photograph was the subject of much conjecture until the author examined the Russian inscription. It was a photograph of the famous Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, obviously not a relative at all !

5) Modesty

Because the Gaon of Vilna was such a prominent figure in Jewish scholarship, descent from him was considered to be particularly worthy of honour. Some people may have been embarrassed to publicise stories told by their parents about their descent lest they be thought to be boasting. Descent from the Gaon also carried with it a responsibility to live up to his standards of behaviour, particularly in religious matters. Perhaps people who no longer were religiously observant considered descent from the Gaon an onerous burden.Yet, ironically, many non-observant people take great pride in their descent from the Gaon and preserve the oral traditions conveyed to them.

6) The title “Gaon"

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 rabbinic 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.

The families Elion and Jodaikin held a tradition of descent from the "Gaon Eliyahu" and believed therefore that their ancestor was the Gaon of Vilna. Two factors led to the confusion. The families were in fact descended from a famous rabbi who was often referred to as a "Gaon". He was Rabbi Eliyahu Luntz (or Rabbinowitz) of Krozhe. Furthermore, this Eliyahu was a brother-in-law of the Gaon of Vilna whose second wife was Luntz's sister. The coicidence of these two factors led the above families to believe that they were descended from Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna.

An extreme example of confusion between rabbinic personalities arose when the author was informed by a certain family of it's descent from the Gaon of Vilna. Unable to discover the link, the author's problem was solved when his contact apologised profusely. The ancestor was actually Rabbi Shneour Zalmen of Liadi, ironically the Gaon's rival !

7) Forgotten daughters

Genealogies of rabbinic families often omitted sons or sons-in-law who were not scholars. Similarly, daughters were often not recorded in such families. The Gaon's son Rabbi Yehudah Leib of Serhei, Lithuania is recorded in Rivlin's work as the father of only two daughters. This author has discovered that Yehudah Leib had at least six daughters.

8) עין הרע

Certain families, known to be descended from the Gaon, simply refuse to publish their family tree, for a number of personal reasons. This is regrettable, since their non-inclusion in this present book may lead to the impression, in the future, that such people are really not descended from the Gaon. A prominent rabbinic family in Israel is known to have about 500 living descendants, yet the family refuses to record their names.

9) Surname changes

Siblings born to a mutual father often used different surnames to each other and to 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. Such variation of surnames within the one family leads to confusion in genealogical research.

For example, one of the Gaon's daughters, Khiena, the wife of Rabbi Moshe of Pinsk, bore eight sons who used the surname Chinitz, one whose surname is unclear, but whose descendants used the name Lipshitz and Neches. Certain families claim that one of Khiena's sons used the surname Penchuk and yet another, Landau.
Each of these claims had to be carefully analysed by the author, and some remain unverified.

10) Inaccurate translations

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 descent from the Gaon of Vilna, have been assisted in their research by incompetent translators, who are not familiar with the genealogical nuances of sources.

One researcher went to the trouble of having Rivlin's work translated into English. This led to confusion between a descendant of the Gaon's brother who lived in the town of Eiragola, Lithuania, or Ragoler to the Jews, with a certain person who live in a place called Raguva. The researcher conveniently merged the two personalities and added to his family tree hundreds of people who had no place on it.


The Gaon was married twice. The first wife was Khana, daughter of Yehudah Leib of Keidan. After Khana's death in 1782, the Gaon remarried a widow Gittel, daughter of Rabbi Meir Luntz (born 1709) of Krozhe, Lithuania. The fact that the Gaon was married twice has caused considerable confusion. There are families that held a tradition of descent from the Gaon's second wife, Gittel. Since the sources on her family clearly establish that Gittel bore no children to the Gaon, then families descended from Gittel are descended from her first husband, and not from the Gaon.

A major error made by a certain researcher arose from the Gaon's second marriage. Knowing that the Gaon was a brother-in-law to Rabbi Yekhezkel Luntz of Shavli, the researcher assumed that the connection was through Luntz's wife Malka. The researcher drew up a family tree of the Gaon's family and included all of the descendants of Yekhezkel Luntz as descendants of the Gaon's hypothetical sister, Malka. If the researcher had been conversant with Hebrew sources, he would have been able to read a book written by a grandson of Luntz, the contents of which make it clear that there was no such descent. The Gaon was a brother-in-law of Luntz, not through a hypothetical sister, but due to the fact that Luntz's sister Gittel was the Gaon's second wife.

Brothers and relatives

Certain families have believed that they were descended from the Gaon. After investigation however, it becomes clear that they were descended either from the brothers of the Gaon, 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 even may refer to more further removed connections by marriage without an actual blood relationship.

A prominent family that settled in Jerusalem 140 years ago maintained steadfastly it was descended from a daughter of the Gaon. This author failed to identify the relevant daughter, despite considerable research by members of the family. Recently new material came to light. A letter written about 1855 by a Lithuanian rabbi records a match arranged between his son and a daughter of the above family in Jerusalem. Of immense genealogical value was a statement by the writer of the letter giving details of the descent of the bridegroom from a sister of the Gaon. At last the puzzle had been solved.

Erroneous families

One of the Gaon's ancestors, Rabbi Moshe Kremer, who was chief rabbi of Vilna in the seventeenth century, was known as "Kremer", meaning shopkeeper, since his wife operated a stall in the market. The appelation "Kremer" was not a surname. Indeed most Jews in the Russian Empire only acquired surnames at the beginning of the nineteeth century. Yet many families bearing the name Kramer or Kremer erroneously believe that they are descended from the Gaon of Vilna. (Some are descended from a brother of the Gaon whose descendants did adopt the name Kremer).

Likewise a widely ramified Galician family believe that they are descended from the Gaon, simply because they bear the surname Wilner.


An important means of disproving certain oral traditions is often a simple arithmetic calculation.

Members of a certain Kossowsky family, whilst probably genuinely descended from the Gaon, instilled doubt in the mind of the author when they claimed that an ancestor recalled sitting on the knee of the Gaon, who, it was claimed, was her grandfather. Since the Gaon died in 1797, and since the ancestor was born in 1826, this incident could not possibly have occurred. On rechecking the source of the story, it was found that the incident occurred a generation earlier, which brought the event within a feasible time frame.

The Kantorovitch family of Jerusalem, whose claims to descent from the Gaon are most likely valid for other reasons, recorded certain events which cannot have occured in the way they were stated. It was claimed that the Gaon's youngest son Avraham wrote a letter to a grandson, Yaakov Koppel Kantorovitch, congratulating Kantorovitch on the completion of his studies and on obtaining Semikha (rabbinic ordination). Since Avraham died in 1808 at the age of 44, it is not likely that he had grandson of a suitable age to have obtained Semikha during his lifetime.

It is claimed that the Gaon's daughter Khiena had a son "Haskell Landau" whose daughter married a Remigolsky. This author's research identified the relevant Remigolsky. Yet details of Remigolsky's son in a rabbinic encyclopedia, whilst recording his emminent rabbinic ancestors, fail to record descent from the Gaon of Vilna. This omission renders the family tradition highly suspect.

A common source of confusion in oral traditions is the assumption that if one's cousin is descended from the Gaon of Vilna, so must one also be. This author attended a family reunion at which various sides of his family were represented. He had to repeatedly correct the impression held by one side of his family that they were descendants of the Gaon, like the majority of their cousins attending the reunion.

It has been this author's fortunate experience that he was able to verify many valid oral traditions of descent from the Gaon of Vilna. One example was discovered in Australia where a family which had settled there in 1854, still maintained an oral tradition of decent from the Gaon. Much effort was expended in researching this family which resulted in the discovery of a photograph of the tombstone of the original member of the family who settled in Australia. Although the tombstone was no longer standing, a photograph preserved by the Australian Jewish Historical Society revealed that the person in question was actually a grandson of the Gaon. Details of the inscription correlated with oral traditions held by another family living in England. Thus, this author was able to solve the links of several families, hitherto unknown to each other, yet each holding the same tradition.

Many were such success stories and the author continues to hope that other missing links, recorded in his forthcoming book, will one day be resolved.