Researchers Discover the Census Records of One of the 18th Century’s Greatest Rabbis

February 6, 2020 | Yochai Ben-Ghedalia
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After his ascension to the throne of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1764, Stanislaw Poniatowski—Poland’s last king and a former lover of Catherine the Great—enacted a series of reforms intended to modernize his country in the face of external threats and internal disorders. As part of these reforms, he organized the first national census that would include the Jewish population. Lithuanian archivists, combing through the census records, have recently found information about one of the foremost rabbis of the day. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia writes:

The census documents are scattered over the archives of all the various states whose territory was then part of the kingdom of Poland. . . . The Lithuanian State Historical Archives in Vilnius houses numerous censuses, including examples from the early 1760s, as well as later censuses, [including that] taken in Vilnius (then: Wilno) in 1765.

The census was arranged according to streets. A few pages are dedicated to one of the main streets of old Vilnius—Niemieckiej, now known as Vokiečių Street (both names mean “German Street”), an area highly populated by Jews at the time. On one of the pages dedicated to the right side of the street, we find one Eliasz Zelmanowiz, his wife Chana, his son Zelman, [and] his daughter Basia, as well as the servant Nachama. The name of the paternal head of the family, combined with the names of the other family members, reveals that we are dealing with Rabbi Elijah, son of Shlomo Zalman, better known as the Vilna Gaon.

The rabbi was forty-five years old at the time. He lived in Wilno and dedicated his life to the study of Torah, but did not serve in any official position in the community. Of his eight known children, only two are mentioned here. Some of them passed away as infants, others were not born yet, and two of the older girls may have been married at the time.

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