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66th IFLA Council and General

Jerusalem, Israel, 13-18 August


Code Number: 138-174(WS)-E
Division Number: VII
Professional Group: Library History in association with the Association of Jewish Libraries, Judaica Librarians Group, and Hebraica Libraries Group: Workshop - Session 3
Joint Meeting with:
Meeting Number: 174
Simultaneous Interpretation: No

A look at Rabbinic biographical dictionaries published since 1950

Avraham Greenbaum
Hebrew University of Jerusalem,
Jerusalem, Israel


There were some early attempts to compile rabbinic biographical dictionaries, the most serious of which was a dictionary of living rabbis with addresses and brief biographies (19212). After the Holocaust, and continuing until today, a number of such works were published. Our list is representative and tries to cover different types.

Some of these works reach back into the Middle Ages, and in one multivolume project even to the "Creation of the World". But the most useful are the ones dealing with the rabbis of a defined geographic area.

While most writers are rabbis themselves, those with bibliographic training tone down the hagiographic element and concentrate on factual bio-bibliographic information.


Biographical dictionaries of rabbis as a distinct category are essentially a 20th-century phenomenon, and with few exceptions belong to the latter half of the century. It does not seem, however, that Holocaust consciousness played much of a part in the growth of this genre. I rather see here a growing feeling that rabbis are neglected in Jewish cultural history; and on the positive side, we take note of possibilities that the existence of the State of Israel has opened up for expanded research.

Reasons for the various biographers to take upon themselves this exacting task are often seen in the prefaces. The outstanding pioneer, R. Samuel N. Gotlib in his Tents of Shem (1912) 1 wanted to help restore the lost glory of the rabbinate. Gotlib solicited information from places large and small all over the world, including the U. S., but in the nature of the case has mostly rabbis from the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. Gotlib is the only writer on our list who worked almost exclusively from questionnaires, and is thus limited to living rabbis. His dates of birth are not always correct, possibly because there was frequent recourse to false dates by Jews in the Russian Empire in order to avoid military service. Also, death dates were important for memorial services but dates of birth were of no great importance in the Jewish society of Eastern Europe.

In our own time a Jerusalem scholar, Meir Wunder, recently retired as a senior librarian at the Hebrew University Library, has completed in five volumes the alphabet for his Lights of Galicia, subtitled "Encyclopedia of Galician Rabbis and Scholars", begun over twenty years ago. Wunder's very extensive bio-bibliographic work meant to prove that - contrary to the prejudiced opinion of Jews from some other regions - Galician Jewry is inferior to no one in Tora scholarship. 2 A sixth supplemental volume is still to come. Wunder's entries are often very long, containing both the biographee's ancestry and where possible his descendants, plus extensive bibliographic information. He has been criticized for including rabbis who had no real connection with Galicia. But his achievement is in a class by itself. Another regionally oriented volume is Yitzchok Yosef Cohen's succinct Sages of Transylvania. 3 Cohen, who has since passed away, also worked at the Hebrew University Library. The smallest yet thoroughly documented work of this type, my own Rabbis of the Soviet Union During the Inter-war Period 4 was meant to add new material to the burgeoning study of Soviet Jewry and to show how rabbis functioned under persecution. Another small book, the only one on our list published in English, is a haphazardly compiled but nevertheless useful book, by Mayer S. Abramowitz, on a number of New England rabbis. 5

There are others whose ambitions have no territorial limitation. One such is Raphael Halperin's Atlas of the Tree of Life, begun 20 years ago and planned in 20 volumes of which 14 have been published to date. 6 Halperin's work, planned to include all periods "from the Creation to our days", has received some media attention because its author is a former prizefighter turned rabbinic scholar, but it is very difficult to use. In fact, since one would have to learn his system to use his book, and few potential users would have the patience or the time, Halperin's work is in practice usable only with the aid of a librarian.

On the other end of the scale is the index - it is little more than that - of Nathan Zvi Friedman, which he calls in English Rabbis' Encyclopedia. He includes what he calls the "Rabbinic period" (970-1970), with extremely brief entries for over 20,000 rabbis, religious leaders, and others active in teaching and propagating Judaism. 7 The work is flawed not only by many errors of all types but mainly because, once the author came upon a likely candidate for inclusion, he would enter him without any systematic follow-up of what that person did. In my opinion Friedman is only a remedy of last resort.

More serious is a book, Jewish Sages, first published in 1958 and since then reprinted twice. It includes rabbis and "rebbes" (Hasidic leaders) for the sixth Jewish millennium, i. e. from 1240 on, in chronological order by death dates. 8 The author, David Halahmi, includes some 1,500 persons who fit his criteria, with short but useful biographical sketches and, where possible, dates of birth and death. His purpose is to show continuity and to rescue these teachers from oblivion after the destruction of their communities. Unfortunately the bibliographies give no dates of publication and there is no attempt at documentation.

Hasidic biography is a sub-genre of its own. The insufficiently indexed and sketchy but indispensable work is Hasidism by Yitzhak Alfasi. 9 Alfasi is a professor at Bar-Ilan University and a prolific writer on Hasidism. A more systematic bio-bibliographic series on Hassidic "'rebbes" unfortunately seems to have been discontinued after reaching the Hebrew letter "tet" in the alphabetic order, which is by first names. 10

It should be noted that for the purpose of these works a rabbi is usually defined as a person employed in this capacity by an orthodox congregation. Rabbis affiliated with non-orthodox movements are normally excluded, but heads of Talmudic academies, rabbinic court judges, and other persons - including women - with considerable rabbinic learning will sometimes be written up.

  1. S. N. Gotlib, Ohole Shem. Pinsk: M. M. Glouberman, Printer, 1912. Reprinted Jerusalem: Tefutsah, 1983?

  2. Meir Wunder, Meore Galitsyah; entsiklopediyah le-hakhme Galitsyah. Vol. 1-5. Jerusalem; Machon Yerushalayim, Hungarian Sages Memorial Project, 1989.

  3. Avraham Greenbaum, Rabane Berit ha-Mo'atsot ben milhamot ha-'olam, 1917-1939. Jerusalem: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Centre for Research and Documentation of East European Jewry, 1994.

  4. Mayer S. Abramowitz, Chachmei Yisroel [Jewish Sages] of New England. Worcester, MA, Nathan Stolnitz Archives, 1991.

  5. Refael Halperin, Atlas 'ets hayim. Vol. 1-14. Tel-Aviv? Hekdesh Ruah Ya'akov, 1980-1985.

  6. N. Z. Friedman, Otsar ha-rabanim. Tel Aviv : Agudat otsar ha-rabanim [1975].

  7. David Halahmi, Hakhme Yisrael; toldot hayehem shel gedole Yisrael ba-elef hashishi. 3d ed. Bene Berak: Mishor, 1990.

  8. Yitzhak Alfasi, ha-Hasidut. Tel-Aviv: Sifiriyat Ma'ariv, 1977. In 1995 the first volume of a new edition appeard under title ha-Hasidut mi-dor le-dor (Hasidism from generation to Generation). Jerusalem: Makhon Da'at Yosef, 1995.

  9. Entsoklopediyah la-Hasidut. [Vol. 1-2] Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1980-1986. Vol. 1 is a bibliography of books by Hasidic authors, while vol. 2 consists of brief but documented sketches of "rebbes".


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