Creating a resource for collaborative research
on the history of the Jewish community
in what is today Lyakhovichi, Belarus    


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This site is created as a way to further research and publication of materials on the history of Lyakhovichi.If you have been aided in your research and wish to contribute materials and resources to further our knowledge, contact Gary Palgon and ask how you can help.

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Jewish Records of Lyakhovichi:
Births, Marriages, Deaths, Divorces, and Communal Records

A Survey's Preview
Deborah G. Glassman, copyright 2007

This is a page in our Special Record Collections and Jurisdictions section. To see all of the resources of this area, click the "Collections" button in the left-hand column

This is a too abridged to be even a preliminary survey, much less, a comprehensive report. I hope to attract some knowledgeable historians to different aspects of the work. I have based the assumptions that I bring to the search for these records, on material published in periodicals, books, and online media, but to the extent they limit the research, they are solely my responsibility.

Minsk Guberniya's Jewish Marriages and Divorces
YearMarriagesDivorcesJews in Guberniya

This table is constructed from five separate tables provided in Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia, by ChaeRan Y. Freeze, published by Brandeis University Press, 2002.

If you went by the reports of our family members, all of Russian Jewish history blends together. The conduct of officials in 1905 is remembered in “folk report” as the same as that in 1855 which was the same as in 1805: corrupt, inexplicable, and hostile to Jews. The reports are not wrong, but they hide important facts from their listeners all the same. The Russian government that instituted a 25-year conscription act in 1828, forcing Jews to falsify death reports, move randomly from town to town, and marry off their sons the year they turned thirteen, was still dangerous and arbitrary years later, but the “universal military reform” of the 1870s meant Jews could serve their short terms of service and be back in their own hometowns just a couple of years later. The rapacious collection of personal information to be put to the service of tax and conscription ordinances, was just as invasive in the 1860s as in the 1840s, but now the Russians had put teeth into their laws and you could no longer legally register your sons for school, nor register your own marriage (which would provide legitimacy to your children, and the pension that your wife might someday need to collect) without proof that your own birth had been properly recorded. Previously, a kindly disposed and sufficiently-bribed official might provide you with documents, back dated or found in a separate volume. Now, each page in the book was marked to prevent late-arriving data from being added. Formerly, there was no monopoly on who could perform a Jewish marriage unless it was written into the hiring contract of a community rabbi. Now, the government put its state-appointed rabbis in a head-to-head battle with the real rabbis chosen by each community for their merits and the government forbade anyone but a state rabbi from performing marriages. In the early part of the nineteenth century, Jews recorded as few marriages and births as possible, and deaths were largely only noted by burial societies. Divorces were private matters of Jewish law that were never reported to the state. In the mid-part of the century that changed entirely. A death that went unreported, left a community open to an increased conscription quota and to penalties on the family as the deceased missed payment of taxes and draft call-ups. A marriage that was not recorded properly meant that children of that marriage could be designated bastards. A divorce that did not meet the criteria of the Imperial Ministries regulating it, meant that residence permits, passports, and child custody, could be denied by the government.

The Russians moved towards this increased stringency of reporting observed in the mid nineteenth century, in 1857. From 1826-1857, the Jewish communal governments had been responsible for the recording of this data in their communities. With many people responsible, few were likely to be held individually accountable. In 1857, the office of "crown rabbi" was created, in a way that made them more than another part of the Russian bureaucracy to be avoided.

What records were created and where are they located? So far, we have located none of the separate register books that Lyakhovichi’s Jewish community created for the recording of births, marriages and divorces (usually same book), and deaths. We have found individual records submitted by crown rabbis, we have found petitions from the Jewish community, but original ledgers stored in the town seem not to have survived the battles of World War I and World War II being fought on Lyakhovichi’s doorstep. In other parts of the world, that would be the end of the search. Many an American genealogy search has ended with the report that “the courthouse burned” as such an event inevietably meant, all records were destroyed. But that is not the case in Russia. Each of the ledgers just described, were created in duplicate and an annual copy was sent to St Petersburg. The purpose was to make it less possible for records to be falsified, and easier for third parties to check on the activities of the Jewish communities of Russia. More, there were a number of government departments interested in different aspects of this documentation, which encouraged the extraction, examination, and duplication, of original records. For example, if you go to the Belarus SIG site Sample Belarus Documents, you will see images of birth certifications, which were statements by the official crown rabbi that he had examined the official register and found the birth record of the applicant. Such statements were required to enter Russian high schools (gymnasia), Russian Universities, to apply for internal passports, and to marry.

Liberalization of access to Russian judicial courts in 1864 had a number of consequences in Jewish life, not the least of which was that: divorce settlements; alimony agreements; visitation rights; and the rights of the children of earlier marriages; became litigation issues often taken to those courts. The judgements of Jewish courts, including a general Bet Din, and those convened for divorce proceedings, were given the status of a binding court of arbitration under Russian law, but both parties had to sign a document renouncing their right of appeal. Such renunciations were only binding if the amount and circumstance of the case was appropriate for that level of arbitration - a woman seeking a return of a dowry greater than this "small claims court's" jurisdiction, was not bound by its decision. Women across Russia, from the classes distinguished as "peasants, Jews, nobility," all found greater access in the new Russian legal system and historians of this period are just starting to examine and describe the records created. But we know that the records included: all of the issues of the divorce settlement; the rights of a son exempt from military service based on being the only legitimate son , the rights of widows to the estate of their husbands in the face of claims by his siblings, et al. The legal documentation invariably included copies of the marriage registration and divorce agreements in cases of divorce, custody, and the wife's right of residence. Estate disagreements were wide-spread and well represented in the legal documentation, and a certified statement of the widow's right based on her marriage certificate, or a child's claim based on the registration of birth, were almost always part of the paperwork on file. So though the Jewish records of Lyakhovichi may not currently exist, the records of the Russian courts may preserve copies of records drawn from them to support a number of cases in law.

Marriage permissions are another largely unexplored area. The Crown Rabbi's sole responsibility for legally registering the marriages of his district, meant that he had to record the age of each man and woman who married, and the occupation or registered ranking of each man. Men and women under the age of 21 were required to have a parent's permission to wed. But men who were designated as active military service, or who were employed by the government, were required to get the signed permission of their superior. The Crown Rabbi's job description required him to ask for those permissions and to refuse the marriage to those who could not provide them. Documentation could have been created in multiple jurisdictions as a military commander or a superior in one of the few ranks of Russian governmental life in which Jews could participate, signed off.

Collaborative research, bringing forth records in private hands for public viewing on a site like this one, will also show that even that most Jewish of documents, the ketubot, changed in Minsk guberniya in the nineteenth century. In 1893, the Rabbinic Commission, a Russian governmental advisory board, was informed by a Rabbi Jelin of Novogrodek, of a terrible new difficulty. Russian law found that a written contract needed the signatures of the parties bound by it. Witness signatures were only valuable if they sufficiently identified the signer so that they could be, with minimum confusion with other parties of that name, called to court to testify. More, the actual principle was that witness testimony was not to be used when a written document was created as part of the action, so traditional ketubot, which were written contracts signed only by witnesses, were not being accepted as legally binding in Russian courts. The Rabbinic Commission made recommendations to the government on how to proceed, but seeing little chance for quick, successful, change in Russian policy, they advised the Russian Jewish communities, to change their process. They suggested that witnesses to the ketubot include their names, patronymics, family names, and places of residence, so that they could easily verify their signatures in court. Additionally, grooms were to sign below the witness or on the back of the document, or if he was illiterate, he could have someone with his power of attorney sign. (p.208 Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia, ChaeRan Freeze, Brandeis University Press, 2002). So this religious document, a contract between private parties, separate from the registration requirements of the Russian government, was nevertheless impacted by Russian law and changed accordingly. There may be others so affected. Do you have documents of Lyakhovichi life in your possession? May we post their images? Help us gather enough data More Information will appear in this article in a future update, and we hope to publish new articles here also!

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Russian Jewish Wedding, an oil painting by Wincenty Smokowski 1797-1876
Russian Jewish Wedding
painting by Wincenty Smokowski 1797-1876



Russian Jewish divorce proceedings, by Yehuda Pen, a 1907  oil painting owned by the Belarussian Museum of Art, called "The Get" by Yehuda Pen
This 1907 painting demonstrated both the artist's skill and his intimate knowledge of Jewish life in Belarus.
Yehuda Pen (aka Yuri Moyshevich Pen)
(1854- 1937) of Vitebsk, is the subject of many biographical pieces, based on his personal artistic contributions, the school he founded, and his role as teacher of Marc Chagall. The original is owned by the Belarussian Museum of Art, Minsk



1872 silver ruble, front
1872 silver ruble
The amount of dowry which a wife brought to a marriage varied, but the amount of her ketuba settlement was set. If she was divorced, her husband was required to pay back not less than seventy-six silver rubles - the minimum ketuba for a maiden-bride in Minsk guberniya and the rest of the Northwestern guberniyas. If she had been married previously, the ketuba was set at 38 silver rubles. This was not an inconsiderable sum and the ketuba as well as the dowry was often divided into ongoing payments, or alimony. The ketuba was also owed to the widow by her husband's estate and featured in many court resolutions of property division.