Lissitzky was born on November 23, 1890 in
Pochinok, a small
Jewish community 50 kilometres (31 mi) southeast of
Smolensk, former Russian Empire. During his childhood, he lived and studied in the city of
Vitebsk, now part of
Belarus, and later spent 10 years in Smolensk living with his grandparents and attending the Smolensk Grammar School, spending summer vacations in Vitebsk.
 Always expressing an interest and talent in
drawing, he started to receive instruction at 13 from
Yehuda Pen, a local Jewish artist, and by the time he was 15 was teaching students himself. In 1909, he applied to an art academy in
Saint Petersburg, but was rejected. While he passed the entrance exam and was qualified, the law under the
Tsarist regime only allowed a limited number of Jewish students to attend Russian schools and universities.
Like many other Jews then living in the Russian Empire, Lissitzky went to study in
Germany. He left in 1909 to study
architectural engineering at a
Technische Hochschule in Darmstadt, Germany.
 During the summer of 1912, Lissitzky, in his own words, "wandered through
Europe", spending time in
Paris and covering 1,200 kilometres (750 mi) on foot in
Italy, teaching himself about
fine art and sketching architecture and landscapes that interested him.
 His interest in ancient Jewish culture had originated during the contacts with a
Paris-based group of Russian Jews led by sculptor
Ossip Zadkine, a lifetime friend of Lissitzky since early childhood, who exposed Lissitzky to conflicts between different groups within the diaspora.
 Also in 1912 some of his pieces were included for the first time in an exhibit by the St. Petersburg Artists Union; a notable first step. He remained in Germany until the outbreak of
World War I, when he was forced to return home through
Switzerland and the
 along with many of his countrymen, including other
expatriate artists born in the former Russian Empire, such as
Wassily Kandinsky and
Upon his return to
Moscow, Lissitzky attended the
Polytechnic Institute of Riga, which had been evacuated to Moscow because of the war,
 and worked for the architectural firms of
Boris Velikovsky and
 During this work, he took an active and passionate interest in Jewish culture which, after the downfall of the openly
antisemitic Tsarist regime, was experiencing a renaissance. The new
Provisional Government repealed a decree that prohibited the printing of
Hebrew letters and that barred Jews from citizenship. Thus Lissitzky soon devoted himself to Jewish art, exhibiting works by local Jewish artists, traveling to
Mahilyow to study the traditional architecture and ornaments of old
synagogues, and illustrating many
children's books. These books were Lissitzky's first major foray in book design, a field that he would greatly innovate during his career.
Lissitzky's The Constructor
, 1924, London, Victoria & Albert Museum
His first designs appeared in the 1917 book, Sihas hulin: Eyne fun di geshikhten (An Everyday Conversation), where he incorporated Hebrew letters with a distinctly
art nouveau flair. His next book was a visual retelling of the traditional Jewish
Passover song Had gadya (One Goat), in which Lissitzky showcased a
typographic device that he would often return to in later designs. In the book, he integrated letters with images through a system that matched the color of the characters in the story with the word referring to them. In the designs for the final page, Lissitzky depicts the mighty "hand of
God" slaying the angel of death, who wears the tsar's crown. This representation links the redemption of the Jews with the victory of the
Bolsheviks in the
 An alternative view asserts that the artist was wary of Bolshevik internationalization, leading to destruction of traditional Jewish culture.
 Visual representations of the hand of God would recur in numerous pieces throughout his entire career, most notably with his 1924
photomontage self-portrait The Constructor, which prominently featured the hand.