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25 Teves 5766 - January 25, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Of Royal Descent: Identifying the Vilna Gaon's Forbears and Descendants

by Chaim Arbeli

Introduction: A Tradition of Reticence

For a long time, mapping the Vilna Gaon's family tree posed a formidable challenge. Part of the problem lay in the fact that there are many families of Lithuanian descent with oral traditions of descent from the Gaon. The vagueness of these traditions led to doubts about their accuracy and an air of mystery consequently surrounded the whole topic.

YN: Why has there always been such difficulty in assembling family trees of the Gaon's descendants?

C.F.: Lithuanian families typically refrain from giving prominence to their ancestry. Lithuanians are self- effacing by nature and discussing one's forbears was not a favored pastime. It was also viewed as a form of bitul Torah. Around ten years ago, I called an elderly, Lithuanian-born rov who lived in Yerushalayim to check some sources with him. His rebbetzin answered the telephone and the rov wouldn't even agree to take the call. "It's bitul Torah," he protested. In the end he consented, albeit unwillingly, to tell me what his mother had heard from her mother about their connection to the Gaon's family but he immediately cut the conversation short saying, "This kind of research is bitul Torah."

YN: But there's a tradition that an elderly relative in Vilna possessed a book in which the Gaon himself transmitted his family's ancestry.

C.F.: Considering the Gaon's personality, that can be dismissed as a fiction. At best, it's an embellished claim for some other book that the family possessed.

YN: How accurate then, are traditions that have been conveyed orally?

C.F.: With modern advances, the new Jewish genealogical research is mainly based on records of births, marriages and deaths and there is a tendency to play down the importance of oral traditions. But they do — and always will — play a substantial role in Jewish genealogy.

Searching for Proofs

In order to verify a tradition, the conditions under which it was conveyed have to be investigated — particularly, whether it was offered spontaneously or in response to leading questions that might have put ideas into the speaker's mind that are not based on solid fact.

Sometimes it's justified to ask a loaded question. For example, if the person being interviewed doesn't remember the name of a forbear one can ask him who he is named after and he might remember that he's called after a certain great- grandfather. This is one way in which an oral tradition can point research in a new direction.

The more generations that have elapsed since the lifetime of the ancestor in question, the greater the uncertainty around an oral tradition concerning him. If someone's grandfather claimed that his grandfather was a fourth generation descendant of the Vilna Gaon, this opens thirty-two possibilities for the family link to the Gaon. Additional information about where the grandfather's grandfather lived, or his date of birth can limit the field, but many possible relationships will still remain.

If the relationship isn't identified by one of the present day members of the family, the tradition gets passed on to the next generation, by which stage it encompasses sixty- four possibilities. This calculation alone justifies the decision to gather all the reasonable traditions into one volume about the Gaon's family, which could help future generations in determining missing links to the Gaon.

Chaim Freidman has done just this, publishing his book Anfei Eliyohu to mark the Gaon's two hundredth yahrtzeit. The book, which took many years to research, contains the names of twenty thousand of the Gaon's descendants. Although its main purpose is to present the family tree, Reb Chaim also included biographical notes on various personalities because, as he puts it, he "didn't want to produce a mere `stamp collection' of names."

Several attempts were made in the past at solving the riddle of the Gaon's family tree. The most comprehensive listing previously made was Sefer Hayachas Lemishpachas Rivlin Umishpachas HaGaon MiVilna, by Eliezer Rivlin z'l, published in Yerushalayim in 1935. The book lists those branches of the Gaon's family that were known then and includes only three hundred names. In those days, information was much harder to gather and the list probably relied heavily, if not exclusively, on family traditions.

Research was renewed some twenty years ago in a conversation between Rabbi Shmuel Gorr z'l and the son of Eliezer Rivlin. Rabbi Gorr was asked to persuade Reb Chaim Freidman to undertake the project. The work of gathering all available information about the Gaon's family began eighteen years ago. This is the last chance to preserve all the oral traditions and analyze them in the light of relevant archival material, for their memory will soon be lost and they are the key to the research.

Families that trace themselves to the Gaon can be divided into three groups: those whose relationship has been conclusively proven, those whose traditions have been investigated and found reliable beyond reasonable doubt and those whose traditions cannot be verified from existing sources. Rabbi Gorr would often quote Chazal's statement (Zevochim 103), "Never to have seen it is no proof" (i.e. lack of evidence does not prove that something does not exist), when people disparaged certain families' oral traditions about their ancestry. Even if as of yet there is no known corroborating evidence supporting a family tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation, it's no reason to lose hope and assume that the ancestral claim is false.

You Might Be A Descendant Yourself!

The very fact that substantiating claims to descent from the Gaon is so difficult is in itself strange because his petiroh was only two hundred and eight years ago, which is recent in genealogical terms. One explanation for this is that in the Russian Empire, a law requiring births, marriages and deaths to be recorded only applied from 1804 onwards. Since all of the Gaon's children and most of his grandchildren were born before that year, there are no official records to confirm their identities. Another factor is the aforementioned tendency among Lithuanian families to keep quiet about their ancestry.

"In Lita," says Chaim Freidman, "traditions about ancestry were transmitted by the women. I am an eighth- generation descendant of the Gaon but I only heard about it from my grandmother, not my grandfather. To this day there are families who are known to be descended from the Gaon that refuse to reveal their family trees, for personal reasons. One well-known rabbinical family in Eretz Yisroel has approximately five hundred descendants but they refuse to record their names.

"One of the granddaughters of one such family published a pamphlet in which she mentions an incident that took place at a granddaughter's wedding. The women of the family were sitting at the table together discussing the family ancestry. Suddenly the grandmother banged her hand on the table and said, "Yichus alein iz nisht genug! Yichus iz mechayev! (Good lineage by itself is not enough to confer distinction! It confers obligations!)"

YN: Would anyone standing up today and claiming descent from the Gaon be taken seriously?

C.F.: "I calculated how many descendants the Gaon ought to have today. After taking the Holocaust and other factors into account there still ought to be approximately one hundred and fifty thousand of them. The book that I published eight years ago lists twenty thousand names. Since then, another ten thousand need to be added to the list."


Maybe you are one of the hundred and twenty thousand descendants that have not yet been identified! But before you start searching for proofs, it's worth your while to be aware of some of the obstacles that you might encounter.

One rather prosaic source of confusion is the title `Gaon.' Some families had a tradition that they were descended from "the Gaon Eliyohu" and wrongly assumed that this was the Vilna Gaon. They might be descended from some other famous rov who was known as Gaon, or even from a different `Gaon Eliyohu' such as the gaon HaRav Eliyohu Lunz zt'l of Kruz (or the gaon HaRav Eliyohu Rabinowitz zt'l). Moreover, Rav Eliyohu Lunz actually was connected to the Gaon's family: he was his brother- in-law (the Gaon's second wife was his sister).

C.F.: "A certain family conveyed information to me that they were descended from the Vilna Gaon. I was unable to make the connection but the problem was solved when the go- between apologized profusely. The family's ancestor was the Baal HaTanya zt'l."

Another misunderstanding arose when a researcher used the English translation of Eliezer Rivlin's book. The similar sounding names of two towns were confused, with the result that two people were rolled into one and three hundred new names were mistakenly added to the list of the Gaon's descendants. Historians who are not fluent in Hebrew have misled several families into claiming descent from the Gaon. These families were unaware that the researchers they engaged based their conclusions on the work of translators who were not used to slight differences in pronunciation that really indicated different places entirely.

Exploding Some Myths

Even if you possess a definite tradition of descent from the Gaon it is wise to think twice before embarking on a search. The results might be disappointing and you might have preferred to remain in blissful ignorance with your unsubstantiated tradition.

The Gaon's first wife was Moras Channah bas Yehuda Leib a'h, of Kaidan. After she passed away he married Moras Gittel bas Rabbi Meir Lunz a'h, of Kruz, Lithuania. The fact that the Gaon was married twice is the source of a great deal of confusion. There are families with traditions of descent from Rebbetzin Gittel, his second wife. Since sources in her family show conclusively that she did not bear the Gaon any children, these families must be descended from her first husband.

One researcher made a monumental blunder with regard to the Gaon's second wife. He knew that the Gaon was the brother-in- law of Rav Yechezkel Lunz of Shavli but he assumed that the connection was through Rebbetzin Malkah, Rav Yechezkel's wife. He drew up a hypothetical family tree of the Gaon's family, including all the descendants of Rav Yechezkel Lunz as being descended from the Gaon's "sister" Rebbetzin Malkah Lunz.

Other families who believed themselves to be descended from the Gaon discovered that they are descended from one of his brothers or from one of his talmidim. The source of this mistake is the term, "from the family of the Vilna Gaon" which they found associated with their family records. "Family" might have been interpreted broadly to include an indirect relationship such as descent from a brother of the Gaon or even from a relative by marriage and thus not a blood relative.

There was a family that persisted in claiming descent from the Gaon's daughter. Eventually, a letter came to light from a certain rov whose son married into this family. In the letter he lists the descent of his mechuton's family back to the Gaon's sister — not his daughter.

One of the Gaon's ancestors was the rov of Vilna, HaRav Moshe Kramer zt'l. Kramer was not a family name — it means "shopkeeper" and was a nickname owing to the fact that his wife ran a shop in the market. Several families named Kramer nevertheless believe themselves to be descended from the Gaon. While a number of them can trace their ancestry back to a brother of the Gaon's whose descendants adopted the family name of Kramer, this was never the family name of the Gaon himself. Similarly, there are family names that sound similar to Vilna, which led their members to believe they were descended from the Gaon solely on the basis of their surname.

YN: Surely you've also had the merit of verifying traditions, not just of dismissing them

C.F.: Fortunately, I have verified many traditions. One case was in Australia, where a certain family settled in 1854 and to this day kept a tradition that they are descended from the Gaon. A great deal of effort was invested in researching the family's roots and in the end a photograph turned up of the headstone at the grave of the forefather who had first settled in Australia. The headstone no longer existed but its picture was kept by the Jewish Historical Society of Australia and it showed that the gentleman in question was indeed a grandson of the Gaon. Details of an address fit with a tradition in the possession of another family, in England. It was thus possible to work out the connections between several families that had hitherto been unaware of each other's existence but that shared the same traditions.

The Gaon's Ancestry

Chaim Freidman recently discovered a significant piece of information about the ancestry of the Gaon himself. It was always known that the Gaon was descended from some of Vilna's distinguished families — among his forbears were HaRav Moshe Ravkesh zt'l, author of Be'er Hagolah and Rav Moshe Kramer zt'l — but the family line could not be traced very far back. This is unusual, because rabbinical families have always tended to intermarry, usually making it simple to follow the line back for many hundreds of years.

Several weeks ago, Chaim Freidman managed to identify a new link in the family tree of the Gaon himself, according to which he is descended from Rashi and from Dovid Hamelech. Reference had been made for years of the Gaon's descent from Dovid Hamelech but in the absence of any lead as to how, it was impossible to deal with. The present discovery is the result of intensive research and integrating various sources.

A gathering of all those whose ancestry leads back to Dovid Hamelech is to be held in Yerushalayim in a year-and-a-half. Reb Chaim has been following the preparatory research and he revealed the details of his discovery to the descendants.

Other discoveries he has made include the ages of the Gaon's sons. This piece of research showed that the year of birth of Rabbi Avrohom ben HaGra that previous researchers had been using was wrong by fifteen years. After the Iron Curtain fell, records of a population census that came to light verified the precise year that Reb Chaim had arrived at.

That discovery also sheds light on several hitherto obscure references in seforim. The Be'er Hagolah mentions relatives in a number of places, among them the Sheloh. How were they related? Rabbi Avrohom ben HaGra refers to the Oruch and the Baalei Hatosfos as "our ancestors." How?

Apparently, a distant ancestor of the Be'er Hagolah belonged to a family that was descended from Rashi, thus making the Sheloh a relative, as well as the Oruch and the Baalei Hatosfos.

So, anyone who manages to trace his ancestry to the Gaon will have the added satisfaction of knowing that he is descended from Rashi and from Dovid Hamelech!

Genealogy — No Longer for Scientists

Until a few years ago, genealogy was regarded as a rather dry scientific discipline; today it has become a popular pastime with many families trying to trace their roots. The collapse of Communism has made huge and hitherto inaccessible stores of information available. Many countries have records of old population registers that are increasingly being pulled off the shelves to satisfy both the committed and the merely curious researcher. A family tradition of descent from a distinguished Torah personality is a powerful spur to try to uncover forgotten or lost information.

One elderly lady who investigated her family's roots discovered that she had a brother living ten minutes away from her! She had assumed that he was no longer living.

There have been many cases where lawyers have discovered previously unknown heirs after searching in genealogical information banks. One amateur genealogist related that his family was once visited by a lawyer who told them that a distant relative had left them a large inheritance. They all provided documentation showing their relationship to the deceased and after the lawyer made them sign on documents that were in a foreign language he disappeared, never to be heard from again. Apparently they put their signatures to statements that they had received the money.

There are gentiles, particularly in South America, who claim descent from the Jewish exiles from Spain and try to substantiate this claim. A Portuguese monk recently produced genealogical records that showed that he had Jewish roots among his distant ancestors.

The First Australian Yeshiva Bochur

Shmuel Gorr z'l, who passed away eighteen years ago, is mentioned in the article as having been the first to try to have the Gaon's family tree investigated. The following paragraphs offer a thumbnail sketch of his fascinating and relatively unknown personality.

He was born in Melbourne, Australia and as a bochur was sent to learn in Yeshivas Telz thus becoming, as he put it, "the first yeshiva bochur in the history of Australian Jewry." Later he learned in Gateshead.

After returning to Australia he joined in studying horo'oh from the son-in-law of the Pappa Rov zt'l. When his father, who was a well-known artist, passed away, the burden of supporting the family fell upon him. He had picked up a great deal of knowledge about art from his acquaintance with his father's work and as an outgrowth of his activities in drawing his fellow Jews closer to their heritage, he opened a Jewish museum that became a regular meeting place for Jewish youth. No few Australian Jewish families were saved from the catastrophe of intermarriage by Reb Shmuel's kiruv work.

One day, Reb Shmuel was surprised to receive a letter from a lawyer inviting him to pay him a visit. It turned out that one of Australia's greatest poets, whom he had gotten to know through his work in the Jewish museum, had died and bequeathed him an antique typewriter that dated back almost two hundred years to 1730. The typewriter arrived at his home on erev Purim and he obtained Hebrew typing heads which he fitted onto the keys. "The first thing that I typed was a greeting card for mishlo'ach monos," he related. Reb Shmuel went on to type his seforim on the typewriter.

He started engaging in genealogical research while he lived in Australia and later, after settling in Eretz Yisroel, he became seriously involved in it. He became a world expert in Jewish genealogy and would compile ancestral records for his talmidim in Yeshivas Or Somayach in Yerushalayim. He discovered that one of his talmidim was a tenth generation descendant of the Baal Shem Tov zy'a. Another was descended from the Maharam Shick zt'l. That talmid bought all the Maharam Shick's seforim and would say, "I won't stop learning until I know all of the Maharam Shick's seforim." Reb Shmuel also compiled the family tree of the Soloveitchik family at the request of HaRav Refoel Soloveitchik zt'l.

How Many Ancestors Did We Have Seven Centuries Ago?

Everyone is descended from two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and sixteen great-great- grandparents. To put it another way, everyone alive today had sixteen ancestors alive one hundred years ago, each of whom had sixteen ancestors of their own alive one hundred years earlier. Simple arithmetic tells us that each of us therefore had two hundred and fifty six (16 times 16) ancestors approximately two hundred years ago.

To continue extrapolating backwards, three hundred years ago there were 4,096 ancestors; four hundred years ago, 1,048,576; five hundred years ago, 16,777,216; six hundred years ago, approximately 28 million and seven hundred years ago, approximately four billion ancestors. While mathematically correct, this is clearly impossible — seven hundred years ago, the number of people in the whole world was only a tiny fraction of four billion.

To put things into perspective: if a person married his cousin, their children will only have six — that is three sets of — great-grandparents since two of the grandparents are siblings. If two brothers married two sisters (which was not uncommon, though descendants of Rabbi Yehuda Hechosid refrain from doing so) and two of their offspring marry, the number of great-grandparents is reduced not by a quarter but by half. In other words, the number of ancestors will be halved again in each generation back. The ratio between their number and the ordinary number of ancestors will remain constant, unless it is reduced again in an earlier generation as a result of marriage between relatives. The reduction in the number of ancestors thus becomes greater moving back through the generations until the astronomical number given by the unmodified calculation shrinks to a number that fits the facts.

The Purpose of Knowing One's Lineage

The inclusion of the Sheloh in the Gaon's family tree provides a cross linkage with Rav Naftoli Ropshitzer zt'l. Reb Naftoli was once pondering his illustrious line of descent that reached to the Sheloh and back to earlier distinguished forbears.

He commented to another tzaddik, "Why need one be aware of one's lineage? How does it influence a person? See now, you rise at midnight and serve your Creator in holiness until morning. Afterwards you pray in the proper way and then you go to have a bite to eat. You enjoy the food after all your exertions. When a person of noble lineage tastes something after his prayers he finds it bitter. The little food that he takes turns to gall inside him when he thinks, `Is this how my holy ancestors served Hakodosh Boruch Hu? Did they make do with serving Hashem so simply?'

"That," said Reb Naftali, "is why awareness of one's descent is important — to heave a sigh after serving Hashem and to find no pleasure in food or drink."

On another occasion Reb Naftoli illustrated his point with the parable of a king who built a beautiful palace and commissioned four artists to decorate the four walls of one of its rooms. Three of the artists did their work and painted the walls, while the fourth applied reflective paint to his wall, so that the work of the other three walls would be reflected from his.

The fourth wall will only reflect the fineness of the other three if it is clean and free of any impurity; if it is flecked and spotted it won't show their beauty. If someone with noble lineage wants to reflect the luster of his ancestors' deeds, there is a crucial condition. He must cleanse and purify himself from every kind of impurity. Only then can the light of his righteous ancestors' spiritual properties shine out from him.

The Belzer Rebbe notes the comments of the Baal Haturim on the posuk's words, "Im bechukosai teileichu" (Vayikra 26:3), the first letters of which are alef- beis-tov. This spells ovos, forefathers, according to which the posuk means, `If you follow the path of your ancestors,' you will merit the blessings that the Torah lists. The Rebbe added that contemplating the ways of our forefathers brings one to the level of teileichu, whose letters, when arranged in reverse order, vav-caf- tov- lamed, are the initials of the words, venafshi ce'ofor lakol tihiyeh, may my soul be as dust to all — i.e. true modesty and self effacement.


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