Ancestry of the Gaon of Vilna – Descent from King David
By: Chaim Freedman, Petah Tikvah, Israel, September 2005
An extensive study of the ancestry of the Gaon of Vilna was written by the late Benyamin Rivlin and published in
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 2, David Ashkenazi may have been identical with Rabbi David, son of Mordekhai Ashkenazi, mentioned in Klilat Yofi 3. 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 4. Yissakhar Ber was the father of Rabbi Shlomo Zalmen, who was the father of five sons and a daughter. The eldest son was R abbi 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 5.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 6 . 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.
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 7 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 8 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 9
Details of the ancestry of Moshe Rivkas can be established from the correlation of several sources. Eliezer Rivlin in the introduction to Sefer Hayakhas 6 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 10 , 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 11.
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 12 .
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 Eliyahu 10 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 10 :
“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 13. 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 Hayakhas 6 , wrote a small biography of his ancestor Rabbi
Moshe Rivkas, Reb Moshe Rivkas 14 :
“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 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 15 where he quotes Tzvi Hersh Edelman as stating that Telza was “a granddaughter of Shaul Wahl”. Edelman wrote in 1845 Gedulat Shaul 16 a history of Shaul Wahl’s family based on a 1755 manuscript Yesh Mankhilin 17 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 Hagra 1 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  ) 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  `from the family Khefetz’ 18.
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 19.
(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 20. 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 21 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 Wahl appear in Yesh Mankhilin 17
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 14. 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 22 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 23 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.