“And Charity Will Save From Death”: How Rabbi Akiva’s Daughter Saved Her Own Life

The stargazers predicted that Rabbi Akiva's daughter would be bitten by a poisonous snake on her wedding day. The great sage now faced a cruel question: How to contend with such a prophecy? The Talmud tells of his choice, and how his daughter ultimately saved herself, unlike a certain Sleeping Beauty…

Rabbi Akiva’s daughter and the snake. Illustration: Aviel Basil, from the book Havura Lo Sodit (“A Not-So Secret Society”, Hebrew), by Ayala Deckel and Shirley Zfat Daviday, Yediot Books

The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known as the Ten Days of Repentance, are days when we can change our fate, according to Jewish tradition. Every night, thousands set out to say the selichot prayers of forgiveness and request that this year, we will be recorded in the Book of Life. That we should merit a livelihood and redemption. That our fate should be decreed to be positive.

It is precisely in times like this that we should recall the story of the daughter of Rabbi Akiva, a Talmudic story which shows how a person can change a seemingly unchangeable fate.

The fate of Rabbi Akiva’s daughter was foretold, determined from on high, and was set to be grim and bitter. But she was able to change her destiny on her own, along with the reality in which she lived. True, we don’t even know her name; like many Talmudic women, she appears in the story only as the daughter of a great sage. Despite this, she succeeds in becoming a significant figure whose story touches every heart and captures the imagination of the readers.

Rabbi Akiva was one of the greatest Talmudic sages, whose sayings fill the pages of the Talmud and whose thought had a great impact on Jewish history and culture up to our own time.

We will tell the story, which may seem reminiscent of a certain fairy tale, here below:

The prince finds Sleeping Beauty. From: Childhood’s Favorites and Fairy Stories. Source: Wikipedia

In the Babylonian Talmudic Tractate Shabbat, on the second side of page 156, we are told of how stargazers predicted to Rabbi Akiva that his daughter would suffer a terrible fate on her wedding day: She would be bitten by a snake and die. Rabbi Akiva now had to decide what to do: tell his daughter, protect her and not let her marry, or perhaps just eradicate all snakes in the area. But Rabbi Akiva decided not to do a thing. He did not tell his daughter of this prophecy, which might have scared or upset her. Instead, life continued as usual.

From the outset, this story is similar to that of Sleeping Beauty. Both involve a young woman with no name. Both mention a great danger facing her (Sleeping Beauty is to be pricked by a spindle’s needle and die or sleep until receiving a kiss from the prince). Both have a father who is forced to deal with this news. Both fathers decide to remain silent and not warn their daughter. But while Sleeping Beauty’s kingly father decides to order the destruction of all spindles in the kingdom, Rabbi Akiva has a different answer – he simply moves on with his life.

He doesn’t change his daily routine, and doesn’t take any decisive action. Instead, he chooses to trust his daughter, believing that she has the power to overcome the snake and save her own life. He gives her the independence to deal with this challenge on her own, granting her the ability to be tested, to cope with adversity.

Then the day comes for Rabbi Akiva’s daughter to marry. I imagine all of them excited at the meal, I imagine the dress she wore and all of the guests and relatives overcome with happiness. Only Rabbi Akiva sits in silence, worried. He doesn’t know if she will survive the night, if she will show up the next morning.

Rabbi Akiva’s daughter and the snake. Illustration: Aviel Basil, from the book Havura Lo Sodit (“A Not-So Secret Society”, Hebrew), by Ayala Deckel and Shirley Zfat Daviday, Yediot Books

In the dark of night, Rabbi Akiva’s daughter takes out the pin holding her hair in place, and sticks it into the wall. Unbeknownst to her, the pin also punctures the eye of the snake set to kill her, killing it instead. With this unintentional act, she succeeds in saving herself and changing her fate.

In the morning, she removes the pin from the wall, discovering the dead snake attached to it.

Interestingly, despite this being a wedding celebration marking the union of a new couple, the Talmud doesn’t spend even a single word on the groom, choosing instead to focus on the bride. This tale thus contains a Talmudic twist on a story familiar to us from the legend of Sleeping Beauty – but in this case, instead of the prince saving his beloved with a kiss, she manages to save herself.

Well over a thousand years ago, long before Disney concluded that female heroines can save themselves, the Talmud placed this brave woman at the center of the story and even sent us to follow in her footsteps and change our own fate.

Approaching her father Rabbi Akiva with the dead snake, he immediately understands that she has successfully changed her destiny and asks her – “What did you do?” The sages comment that by this he did not mean – “How did you kill the snake?” but rather “What good deed did you do which enabled you to change your fate?”

A charity box featuring the quote “And charity will save from death”. Photo: Zev Radovan. From: the Jewish Art Collection, the National Library of Israel

She responds – “In the evening, a poor man came and called on [us at] the opening [to our home], and all were busy with the [wedding] meal and none heard him. I stood and took a meal you gave me and I gave it to him” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, page 156, side 2 – translation from Sefer Ha-Agaddah)

Rabbi Akiva’s daughter tells her father how, on the night of the wedding, while all the guests were busy at the wedding feast, she heard a knock at the door. A light rap, perhaps, maybe even a faint one, but she heard it. At the door was a poor man asking for food. She took her meal, given to her in honor of her wedding, and gave it to him.

Rabbi Akiva listens to her story, and immediately issues a statement which is famous for appearing on Jewish charity boxes – “And charity will save from death” (originally from Proverbs 10:2). The action she took helped her change her own fate, due to her changing the fate of that poor, hungry man. Her actions had an impact on the world.

Rabbi Akiva and his daughter teach us that our actions have real world effects, and that we need not wait for others to change our own life. We need to act on our own to change reality.

Banning all the spindles or the snakes from the kingdom won’t help. Nor will trying to hide from life as a whole. Danger is everywhere, whatever we do. The only way to make it through life is to be a good influence on one another, and to listen to the knocking at the door and the voices around us, doing our best to hear them.

Only through this, can we save ourselves, just like Rabbi Akiva’s daughter.

Cover of the book Havura Lo Sodit (“A Not-So Secret Society”, Hebrew), by Ayala Deckel and Shirley Zfat Daviday, Yediot Books, illustration by Aviel Basil


This wonderful story about Rabbi Akiva’s daughter is not particularly well-known. In fact, it’s rarely mentioned. Like many stories in the Talmudic literary genre known as Aggadah, it is hidden among the pages of the Talmud and its Aramaic language means few children can even read it.

This and other aggadic stories have recently been published in a book I wrote with Shirley Zfat Daviday, Havura Lo Sodit (“A Not-So Secret Society”, Hebrew), which is all about Talmudic stories for children, with the ancient tales told in connection with modern life, in our own time. There is a wonderful treasure trove of amazing characters hidden among the Aramaic words of the Talmud. The book frees them from anonymity and brings them back to life in a fascinating manner.

The Talmud doesn’t just tell nice stories. It contains painful stories as well, tales of the wounded and tales that have the potential to wound. It includes stories of people who tried to change the world and failed and also tales of those who succeeded without trying. These are stories of human beings. The Talmud does not paint a picture of utopia, it is authentic, touching, real. This is why its stories touch us so deeply, and why its characters remain relevant to this very day.

The Kabbalistic Tree: The Map of God

The second commandment states that “You shall not make for yourself a statue or any image”. The Jewish Kabbalists found a rather unique and complicated way to circumvent this prohibition…

From the 12th century, clandestine groups of Jewish scholars began to speak of the “Kabbalah” – a new code name for secret teachings, which, despite being new – emphasized that these were actually a transmission or reception of esoteric ancient knowledge, and not a groundbreaking innovation (the word kabbalah literally means “reception”). As part of this new-old interpretation of Jewish tradition, Kabbalists began proposing a new, unprecedented system to refer to aspects of the Divine: the Kabbalistic Sefirot.

The Kabbalists found the word sefirot in an ancient esoteric book known as the Sefer Yetzirah, the “Book of Creation,” which dates back to the first centuries of the Common Era. In the book, there is no mention of prayer, life after death, the End of Days or messianic redemption, or even of the Jewish people.

But, what it does contain, and in abundance, is reference to creation. Just not the creation we know from Genesis. It propounds a completely different kind of creation.  How, then, according to the Book of Creation was the world created? By the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the ten Sefirot (probably a reference to the first ten numbers). These are seen as the building blocks of the world. Hence Creation, according to the Book of Creation, is based on the laws of language.

Taking the unique word sefirah (plural: sefirot) from that mysterious work, the Kabbalists changed its meaning. For them, God had two distinct aspects: one is the Ein Sof – The Infinite – about whom nothing can be known, this is the hidden God; the other is the Divine Presence in the world, which emanates from the Ein Sof through the ten Sefirot – divine categories that represent the powers, qualities, attributes (and so much more) of the revealed God.

The Ein Sof in “The Magnificent Parchment”, the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

From the fourteenth century, the Kabbalists began to formulate a visual representation to encode their ideas about the formation of this divine system, the names of the Sefirot and their attributes and qualities. They viewed it is a graphic representation of God and of the world, a visual and conceptual image of the manifestation of the Godhead. This was a glimpse of the order that governs the universe.

The Kabbalists often referred to the structure of the Sefirot as a system of pipes through which the divine emanation – the concealed Ein Sof – flows down to us humans here on earth. Of course, as anyone familiar with the Kabbalah will tell you, people also have a role in this system. Every person has the ability to influence, repair and preserve the entire divine system. Because what happens in the lower spheres affects the upper ones and vice versa. The Kabbalists called this tikkun. The repair happens through intention – through prayer directed at the qualities and powers of a particular aspect of the Divine (one of the Sefirot)– in order to achieve that repair in the world.


Click here for the University of Haifa’s Ilanot project


One must understand, as Prof. J.H. Chajes explains in his new (and highly recommended) monumental book, The Kabbalistic Tree, that the graphic representation of the Sefirot is not a mnemonic tool, but a religious device, one that is comparable to a tree of many branches. The Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, for example, recommended using one’s imagination to envision the tree of Sefirot during prayer in order to better concentrate on a particular Sefirah in each and every prayer. Hence the tree is a body on which the Kabbalists drape the spiritual reality.

Eventually, the Kabbalah spread throughout the entire the Jewish world, and this technique spread along with it. We find representations of the tree of Sefirot in Jewish communities all over the world. The earliest “tree” to come down to us was created in Spain, the birthplace of Kabbalah, in 1284, in the shape of a wheel.

Earliest known Sefirot tree, Spain, 1284


But as noted, the tree of Sefirot is common throughout the Jewish world – in Europe, North Africa, Israel and the Middle East. A unique tree discovered in Kurdistan helped researchers to uncover a Kabbalist community about which they knew nothing before.

Researchers distinguish between two types of Kabbalistic trees (Ilanot in Hebrew): the tree of the early Kabbalistic period and the tree that developed in light of the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534–1572), known as the “Ari”. The “classic” tree presents the Divine according to the Sefirot diagram. The Lurianic tree preserves the Sefirot format but offers an enriched and more intricate  structure and visualization of the divine system. At the end of this article, we include a complete Lurianic tree from Morocco to give you an idea of its complexity.

This does not mean that the older trees did not include additional details, and even illustrations supplementing the text. In fact, every tree – whether of the classic or Lurianic model– “required” the student to read a non-continuous text, and to jump from detail to detail in order to try to grasp the whole picture.

A classic Sefirot tree – from the Kabbalistic manuscript Sha’arei Ora shel R. Yosef Gikatilla


Ahead of the move to its new home, the National Library of Israel has acquired a rare and important collection of Kabbalistic trees, which join the existing material in the field of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism in the Library’s Gershom Scholem Collection, the largest collection of its kind in the world.

The new collection, which includes 36 parchment and paper scrolls – some of them the longest of their kind in the world (up to 36 feet long!) – joins the 25 scrolls already in the Library’s collection. With the addition of the new manuscripts, the National Library of Israel is now the world’s largest repository of Ilanot, with over sixty scrolls dating from 1660 to 1920, originating from Jewish communities around the world: from Western and Eastern Europe, Yemen, Kurdistan, Morocco, Iraq and more.

And finally, as promised, we present here a Lurianic Kabbalistic tree created in Morocco in 1800. Click on this link to see them item in our online catalog.

Photos: Ardon Bar-Hama.


Further Reading

J. H. Chajes, The Kabbalistic Tree (Pennsylvania University Press, 2022)

The Ilanot project at Haifa University

The First, Last, and Only Female Hasidic Rebbe

Would you break all the traditions of your society, turn against the will of your family, and shatter all the boundaries that you have known to be true in order to follow your destiny? Chana Rochel Verbermacher did just that – breaking out of all the known gender stereotypes to make her own way in a world dominated by men, Chana decided to become the first, and only, Hasidic female Rebbe.

Hasidic Art and the Kabbalah, Batsheva Goldman Ida, Boston: BRILL, 2017, Brill's Series in Jewish Studies, the National Library of Israel. Front cover image: Jan Piotr Norblin (1745-1830) - A Jew studying (1781-1784), Ablakok, Wikimedia Commons and Eulogy of Chana Rochel, the Indiana Jewish Post and Opinion, October 5, 1988, the Historical Jewish Press Collection, at the National Library of Israel

Would you break all the traditions of your society, turn against the will of your family, and shatter all the boundaries that you have known to be true in order to follow your destiny? Chana Rochel Verbermacher did just that – breaking out of all the known gender stereotypes to make her own way in a world dominated by men, Chana decided to become the first, and only, Hasidic female Rebbe.

Hasidic Art and the Kabbalah, Batsheva Goldman Ida, Boston: BRILL, 2017, Brill’s Series in Jewish Studies, the National Library of Israel. Front cover image: Jan Piotr Norblin (1745-1830) – A Jew studying (1781-1784), Ablakok, Wikimedia Commons

Traditionally speaking, a Hasidic Rebbe was a spiritual leader of a sect or area of Jews in pre-war Ashkenazi Europe. The Rebbe served as a teacher, mentor, and guide to their followers. Often seen as a conduit between his followers and G-d, the Rebbe’s teachings were considered authoritative and binding. Hasidic Rebbes were highly revered in their communities, and their guidance and support were sought for nearly every important decision, including halakhic rulings, what to name one’s baby, who to marry and what moral decision to take in a particular situation. One thing was as certain as the beards on their face and the hats on their heads: they were all men.

This was the world that Chana Rochel Verbermacher was born into in 1805. In the religious shtetl village of Ludmir (then in Russia, now in Ukraine,) Chana was the daughter of deeply religious Hasidic parents. Her mother was the image of modesty in the way she dressed, spoke (or more likely didn’t speak) and dutifully ran her household. Her father, Monesh Verbermacher was a scholar and businessman. He was wealthy and well-liked, and privileged to study under the famous Rabbi Mordechai Twersky, also known as the Maggid of Chernobyl. Chana Rochel had all the ingredients to grow up into a perfect Hasidic young lady – pious parents, a good dowry, and an honorable family name – what more could she have wanted, right?

Rabbi Mordekhai Twersky, Avraham Shabadron Portrait Collection, 1839-1903, the National Library of Israel

Perhapse it was due to this financial and social security that her father felt empowered to make a very odd decision for his daughter – to give her an education! Any education would have been bizarre for a girl in those days, but even more strange was that he decided to teach her Torah as well! She was his only daughter and he was adamant that she should be knowledgeable in both Jewish and worldly matters. Chana Rochel studied Talmud, Tanach, Halakhah and Midrash and could also read and write in Hebrew – which all made for a very impressive shidduch resume indeed! She was also beautiful, a not unsignificant fact in those days, and she was soon engaged to a young scholar from her village – a good match for a good girl.

Map of the shtetl of Ludmir, Center for Jewish Art Collection, CJA Jewish Architecture, Ukraine, Volynska obl., Volodymyr Volynskyi Włodzimierz Wołyński, Ludmir, Photographer: Vitalii Rogozov, the National Library of Israel
Map of the shtetl of Ludmir, Center for Jewish Art Collection, CJA Jewish Architecture, Ukraine, Volynska obl., Volodymyr Volynskyi Włodzimierz Wołyński, Ludmir, Photographer: Vitalii Rogozov, , the National Library of Israel
Descriptions of the shtetl of Ludmir, Photographer: Yulii Lifshitz, CJA Jewish Architecture, Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

This could have been the end of our story – Chana could have married, popped out a bunch of children and died unknown from smallpox or shock, or some other such medieval ailment. But no, for that was certainly not in her nature. Instead, her engagement left her distraught and withdrawn. She didn’t want to go through with the marriage but couldn’t find a way out of the betrothal without disgracing her family name. In the midst of her turmoil, her beloved mother passed away. Shaken and in grief, the groom’s family agreed to delay the wedding while Chana mourned.

Ludmir Shtetl, Photographer: Yulii Lifshitz, Center for Jewish Art Collection CJA Jewish Architecture, the National Library of Israel
Ludmir Shtetl, Photographer: Yulii Lifshitz, Center for Jewish Art Collection CJA Jewish Architecture, the National Library of Israel

Chana’s complexion clouded with sorrow and eventually she stopped leaving her bedroom, except to visit her mother’s grave. One day on an excursion to the cemetery, she tripped and knocked her head, leaving her unconscious. She was taken home to recover in the care of her father but when she regained her strength, she made a statement that no one would forget, claiming to have been given a new soul which had been promoted to a higher spiritual level by G-d Himself. Promising that she would never again belong to another man, she broke off her engagement and claimed that she no longer belonged to the material world and had instead entered a spiritual plain.

Chana Rochel Verbermacher subsequently made a decision to accept the full range of mitzvot and Jewish laws upon herself, which were usually only performed by males, especially in the 19th century. She would wear male religious garb, read from the Torah, and obligate herself in the positive timebound mitzvot reserved for men. She also continued with her Jewish education, immersing herself in religious study and devotedly praying three times a day.

She soon gained fame, both from those who revered her and those who decidedly disapproved of her lifestyle. But as the shtetl watched on with open mouths, the wonder she garnered was mainly favorable! She took on a new title, as friends and family started referring to her either as the Maiden of Ludmir, or the Holy Virgin. Being that the latter is usually associated with Mary mother of Jesus, the Maiden of Ludmir was the title that stuck!

Chana Rochel Verbermacher built up a following. People of all genders started attending her Jewish study hall, funded by her family inheritance, to learn from her. She would lead prayer services, give religious classes and teach on important matters of Torah. Just as men would flock to the study halls of other Hasidic Rebbes, they would also queue up outsider her beit midrash to hear her teach and grant answers to halakhic questions, as well as give rulings over Jewish and moral dilemmas. Scholars and Rabbis would also come to hear her, giving Chana an additional layer of legitimacy. According to Nathaniel Deutsch’s book, The Maiden of Ludmir, most of her followers were impoverished but pious men and women. While more grand religious courts were the trend for the rich and honored men of the community, these courts were sometimes exclusionary or simply intimidating, so when Chana Rochel set up her own religious court within her study hall, it became popular with the poor and marginalized religious folk of the shtetl.

Synagogue of Lublin with a woman (possibly Chana Rochel) sitting at its entrance, the Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection,  the Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Whether from shock over his daughter’s new-found fame, or simply from old age, Monesh Verbermacher passed away, giving his daughter even more leeway to practice her role as a Hasidic leader. She holed herself up in her study hall, making religious rulings in her court, teaching the community and greeting those who came to pray and learn. During this time, she gained a further reputation for possessing supernatural powers. Sick individuals would approach her to be healed, single youngsters would come to her for blessings of marriage, and those in distress would bequest her to ease their suffering. Whether or not she was actually able to help these people, her reputation spread and her steady stream of visitors never ceased, so it’s clear that at the very least, she was recognized by many as a person truly capable of working miracles.

What is even more surprising (yes, even more surprising than being a miracle-worker) was that many in the old, traditional shtetl seemed to accept her as a Hasidic Rebbe! She took on the roles of the Rebbe wholeheartedly: Giving blessings and permits to her community members; receiving audiences; presiding over the weekly shabbat tisch (the third meal of the shabbat, led by the Rebbe in accompaniment of his scholars and fellow Hasidic followers); and delivering teachings and lectures both at the tisch meal and in synagogue on the Sabbath (even though many sources suggest that she did this from behind a veil or screen in order to sustain her modesty).

She even took on the more kabbalistic practices of Hasidic Rebbes, including receiving kvitlach (prayer request notes from members of the community), and giving out shirayim from her plate (leftovers from her meal, eaten by followers in great reverence of her every act).

Years passed in this manner, but they say that good things can never last, and that’s a great shame. As Chana Rochel gained more influence and prestige, the more powerful men of the town started to revolt. Maybe they were afraid of a woman stealing their limelight, or maybe they simply couldn’t handle the crush to their ego when they saw that a mere woman could do their job better than them, but either way they started to rebel, almost inevitably. Chana gained a strong opposition group who claimed that her seeming piety was actually a manifestation of Satan and the evil eye, and rendered her impure.

The Maiden of Ludmir: A Jewish Holy Woman and Her World, Nathaniel Deutsch, London: University of California Press, 2003, the S. Mark Taper Foundation Imprint in Jewish studies, the National Library of Israel

As Chana continued to shatter the boundaries of femininity, her very being put the shtetl system itself at risk. Women were meant to wed and have children, not teach! Women could not remain unmarried virgins, and there was a deep fear that other women would follow her lead and the whole community structure would come crashing down – of course this was a system dominated by men, so their fear of the establishment’s downfall was understandable. Chana Rochel found herself under immense pressure to abandon her controversial practices and change her lifestyle. As she continuously batted off these attacks, many of the townsmen were determined to do whatever they could to get rid of this female leader, an unmarried female leader no less! And one who practiced mysticism! It was beyond belief! In their efforts to ruin her reputation, anything and everything was used against her: it was even claimed that a malevolent spirit possessed Chana. But mere hate speech wasn’t going to ruin Chana Rochel’s career – no – for that they needed something more powerful, like marriage.

One of her father’s dying wishes was for Chana to sit down and talk to his Rebbe, the prominent Maggid of Chernobyl, to discuss her illicit actions. She declined his pleas at that time, but as the pressure from her community grew, she finally agreed to at least meet with him, for he was, after all, the most eminent and highly respected Rabbi in the entire area. The Maggid of Chernobyl wasn’t accustomed to many private intercessions into the lives of his followers, and certainly not for a woman, but for 40-year-old Chana he made an exception. We will never know what he said during this private meeting, but by the end of the consultation the Maiden of Ludmir had agreed to marry and thus assume her ‘rightful’ role as a woman. He convinced her to stop teaching and settle down as a traditional Hasidic house wife, and to the public he issued a statement that her body had been temporarily possessed by the soul of a Tzaddik who he had exorcised and would thus no longer bother the town with his tomfoolery.

Rabbi Mordekhai Twersky’s religious teachings from his private notebook, Avraham Shabadron Portrait Collection, 1839-1903, the National Library of Israel

Ada Rapoport-Albert explains in her article On Women in Hasidism: S.A. Horodecky and the Maid of Ludmir Tradition, that by agreeing to the Maggid’s mandate for her marriage, she was essentially invalidated as a religious leader and pushed into a traditional female role that undermined her as a teacher and Rebbe. Perhapse it was because of this that the marriage was not consummated, and ended very soon after it began. After the annulment of her second marriage, Chana was seen as a total outcast and suffered greatly. She was no longer serving as a Rebbe and her followers abandoned her, believing that Chana was no longer spiritually pure and that the spirit which had possessed her to become a Tzaddik was no longer with her. To make matters worse, no one in this community would marry a woman who was essentially divorced not once but twice, and she was labelled as an outcast and a maiden until her final days. The townsmen had ruined her life.

No longer being able to live in her small shtetl, Chana Rochel Verbermacher left Europe and traveled to the Land of Israel to settle in Jerusalem in 1859. Hasidism was not as strong in the Holy Land as it was in Eastern Europe, but her name proceeded her wherever she went, and a small group of loyal followers awaited her arrival eagerly. She started teaching Torah again, this time to smaller groups, and became a sort-of undercover community leader. Aware of how her previous fame had nearly destroyed her, she kept her classes small and her religious rulings quiet, but she once again began to lead those around her in moral, halakhic and scholarly matters. In the 1860s and 1870s there is documentation suggesting that Chana Rochel belonged to the Volhynian Kolel, a Hasidic learning institute of Ashkenazi Jews who received funds from their home countries, while dedicating their lives to the study of Torah. This was an institution designed for male scholars, but archives have been found confirming that Chana Rochel did in fact both learn and teach at the kolel.

Chana also resumed her Sabbath classes, and groups of students would come on Saturday afternoons to hear her recite words of Torah. Every Rosh Chodesh, the Jewish new month, she would lead students and scholars to the Tomb of Rachel to pray, and she would also perform Kabbalistic rituals intended to hasten the arrival of the Messiah, but these were done with small private audiences and groups of holy men and women, so unfortunately the exact details of these rituals are not something we have record of today.

Tomb of Hannah Rachel Verbermacher, findagrave.com, memorial, Jared 47964612, Mount of Olives Cemetery, Jerusalem

An unmarried, childless woman, Chana Rochel Verbermacher spent her final year in Jerusalem, before passing away on the 22nd of Tammuz, when she was buried on the Mount of Olives (there is some disagreement on the year of her death, some sources note 1888, others 1892). Chana Rochel Verbermacher – the Maiden of Ludmir, did something never done before, and never done since – she was and remains the only female Hasidic Rebbe to ever have lived. Driven underground, this did not change the fact that she was a true Tzaddik, teacher and leader, trailblazing the way in a world that tried to repress her every move.

Eulogy of Chana Rochel, the Indiana Jewish Post and Opinion, October 5, 1988, the Historical Jewish Press Collection, at the National Library of Israel

The Maggid of Chernobyl was correct in saying that she possessed the soul of a righteous person, but where he was mistaken was that her achievements should be credited to a man. She never drew on men for her authority, or relied on a husband or father to speak on her behalf – she was a woman through and through and it was in spite of all the barriers that this created for her that she excelled. She was considered a failure by her community – unmarried and expelled from the shtetl, but she was far from a failure. She broke all the glass ceilings, as well as the ceilings which were far more opaque too.

Chana Rochel’s legacy – article about the Maiden of Lublin, The Australian Jewish Herald, September 5, 1947, the Historical Jewish Press Collection, at the National Library of Israel
Chana Rochel’s legacy – article about the Maiden of Lublin, The Sentinel, May 12, 1966, the Historical Jewish Press Collection, at the National Library of Israel
Chana Rochel’s legacy – article about the Maiden of Lublin, J. The Jewish News of Northern California, January 26, 1951, the Historical Jewish Press Collection, at the National Library of Israel

Chana Rochel was an anomaly within her community, and even today would be considered on the margins of religious society, but it is because of this unique and brilliant life that we can look up to her courage and see how she managed to walk alone with her head held high to fulfil what she knew was her purpose in life. Filled with awe and reverence, we can say with certainty that her life was exceptional: the only female Hasidic Rebbe to ever have lived.

The Three Jewish Monsters Charged With Saving the World

How is the balance in nature maintained? Well, with the help of three monsters from Jewish mythology, of course! One that lives in the sea, one that moves through the air and another that roams the earth. Naturally, no other creature dares to mess with these guys…

Leviathan, Ziz and Behemoth. Ambrosiana Bible, 1238, Ulm, Germany. Ambrosiana Library, Milan

There is an entire subgenre of disaster movies devoted to terrifying monsters like King Kong or Godzilla, who are hell-bent on destroying everything around them. The monster is typically either created or set free by human intervention, wreaking havoc and chaos on the citizens of the world, or at the very least, New Yorkers.

Medieval Jews saw these matters differently, however. Long before anyone noticed the catastrophic damage human civilization was causing to the environment, the people of the Middle Ages (Jews, Christians and Muslims), whose worldview was dominated by a religious viewpoint, perceived nature as a harmonious system in which no single factor could overtake the others and thereby disrupt the world balance and tilt the scales towards disaster.

This thinking is reflected in the traditions surrounding the three great beasts mentioned in the Bible and Jewish mythology. Each represents a different category of animals: a beast of the sea, a beast of the land and a beast of the air. And each one, in its own terrifying way, maintains nature’s delicate balance.

The Destruction of Leviathan, Gustav Dore, 1865. This work depicts God destroying the legendary Leviathan as described in Isaiah

“In that day the Lord with His sore and great and strong sword shall punish Leviathan the piercing serpent, even Leviathan that crooked serpent; and He shall slay the dragon that is in the sea”

(Isaiah 27:1)

The first great monster-beast is the Leviathan, who rules the creatures of the sea and is mentioned in the Book of Job and elsewhere in the Bible. Leviathan is sometimes referred to as a being that challenged the rule of God, much like the taninim (mentioned in Genesis 1:21 and translated alternatively as “great sea creatures”, “great sea monsters” or “great whales”). Bible scholars see this as proof that the biblical Leviathan is a remnant of even more ancient mythologies, for example that of the Ugaritic culture, whose lore influenced and penetrated the Bible. Christianity adopted the image of the Leviathan as a symbol of satanic power and of evil. The gradual evolution of this theme has had a lasting cultural effect – think Moby Dick, the great white whale of Herman Melville’s classic novel.

Jews in the Middle Ages, however, were able to reconcile with the Leviathan and made the beast one of the three guardian monsters presiding over the world order. And so it was transformed from a kind of mighty sea serpent or giant crocodile (some even described it as a terrible dragon) into a fish of gigantic proportion that ensures that none of the other fish in the sea overtakes and destroys their brethren. In modern Hebrew, the word leviathan means “whale”.

The second monster-beast rules over the creatures of the air, in simple terms – birds. But to complicate things slightly, we’ll just let you know it has two names: Ziz and Bar Yochnei. Unusual names for sure, but both appear in the Bible. Ziz is mentioned in Psalms 80:14 in the original Hebrew (the word is generally lost in translation to English).

Although it is not clear who or what is the ziz mentioned in the Hebrew biblical text, the Jewish sages understood this mysterious name as belonging to a miraculous bird that was so big, its wingspan could block out the sun. As in this midrash in Genesis Rabbah 19:4:

“Rabbi Yehudah bar Simon said the bird Ziz is pure and when it spreads its wings it covers the sun … and Adam was created after all to rule over all.”

In Jewish mythology, Ziz is identified with the legendary bird Bar Yochnei mentioned in the Talmud: “Once an egg of the bird called Bar Yochnei fell, and the contents of the egg drowned sixty cities and broke three hundred cedar trees” (Bekhorot 57b). If you missed the hint, what the sages are saying is that if one egg of this bird could do all that damage, just imagine how big the bird must have been!

The third monster rules over the creatures of the land. In Hebrew writings is it called Behemoth and is described as a gigantic bull.

“Behold now Behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox.

Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly.

He moveth his tail like a cedar; the sinews of his stones are wrapped together.

His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron.

He is the chief of the ways of God; He that made him can make His sword to approach unto him.

Surely the mountains bring him forth food, where all the beasts of the field play.

He lieth under the shady trees, in the covert of the reed and fens.

The shady trees cover him with their shadow; the willows of the brook compass him about.

Behold, he drinketh up a river and hasteneth not; he trusteth that he can draw up the Jordan into his mouth.

Will any take him with his sight, or bore his nose with a snare?”

(Job 40:14–24)

Since the 17th century, biblical scholars have identified the Behemoth with the hippopotamus. Etching by William Blake of the Behemoth and Leviathan

However, with all due respect to the supremacy of the three monsters over other beasts, it was important to subordinate them to God because none were mightier or stronger than Him or could threaten His unwavering rule. Therefore, Jewish lore tells us that the first two beasts (Leviathan and Ziz) were created on the fourth day, and the Behemoth on the fifth day.

Needless to say, the three monsters are busy all year round. At the beginning of the summer, autumn and winter seasons they take part in a special ceremony. Each sounds a special warning to all the other animals –  the Behemoth roars, the Ziz screams and the Leviathan stirs the sea – in case any creature feels tempted to multiply or grow excessively and thus bring life in the world to an end.

These three mighty beasts were also given a messianic role. A fierce battle between the Leviathan and Behemoth is described as taking place in the End of Days. At its climax, both will be killed, and their meat will be served to the righteous at a spectacular banquet in heaven.

No doubt, the significance of the three monsters sounds strange to our modern ears. But perhaps there is still something to learn from them regarding the balance of nature. After all, experts have been warning us now for decades of the excessive dominance of one animal in particular – the human – who has been wreaking havoc on the entire ecosystem for a quite a while now: on land, in the air and in sea.