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,, 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.

Unveiling the Connection: Why We Read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot

Each Shavuot Jews gather to read the Book of Ruth… but why? The Book of Ruth doesn’t seem to have any connection to this joyous festival! Dig a little deeper however, and we can find many intricate hidden harmonies and surprising ties between the timeless tale of Ruth and the cherished holiday of Shavuot

Book of Ruth, work photographed by Ze'ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

The Book of Ruth, read on the festival of Shavuot, documents the story of a young Moabite woman named Ruth and her journey of faith and devotion. The book is set during the time of the Shoftim (judges), a period of instability and moral decline in ancient Israel. The story begins with Naomi, an Israelite woman, and her husband Elimelech leaving their home in Bethlehem due to famine, and settling in the land of Moab. There, their two sons, Machlon and Chilion, marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. However, tragedy strikes when Elimelech and both of his sons die, leaving Naomi and her daughters-in-law alone. Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem and urges her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab and find new husbands. Orpah agrees, but Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi, asserting her loyalty by famously declaring, “Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your G-d, my G-d.”

Ruth und Boaz, Henri-Frédéric Schopin, 1804-1880, the Postcard Collection, the National Library of Israel

Upon their arrival in Bethlehem, Ruth goes to work in a field to provide for Naomi and herself. There, she catches the eye of Boaz, the wealthy landowner and Israelite, and Boaz shows kindness to Ruth, providing her with extra food and protection. Naomi recognizes the spark between Ruth and Boaz, and encourages Ruth to make her intentions known to him. Following Naomi’s advice, Ruth approaches Boaz and sets a feminist precedent by proposing marriage to him! Boaz agrees to marry her and look after both Ruth and Naomi, and a little while later the couple gives birth to a son named Oved, who unbeknownst to them will become the grandfather of King David.

Noémie et Ruth, Hector le Roux, 1908, the Postcard Collection, the National Library of Israel

The Book of Ruth is a beautiful and inspiring story of loyalty, faith, and the strength of women. It teaches us about the power of redemption and kindness, and how even in the darkest of times, G-d’s plan can unfold in ways we could never have imagined. That being said, it is incredibly unclear why this story is read on the holiday of Shavuot.

Shavuot is a festive Jewish holiday that occurs 50 days after Pesach (Passover). It is a dual celebration to commemorate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and also the spring harvest season in Israel. This gives way to a number of traditions: participating in all-night Torah study sessions to mark the giving of the Torah, eating dairy foods like the ancient Israelites did in the desert in the days leading up to the giving of the Torah, feasting on seasonal and exotic fruits to mark the annual yield, and decorating synagogues with flowers to symbolize the harvest. In synagogue, processions take place as community members dance and sing while parading with their Torah scrolls, while children brandish fruits on sticks and eat sweets. As Jews mark the giving of the Torah and the end of the harvest season, these traditions make sense and fit in perfectly with the symbolism of the day.

Meggilat Rut, a gift for Shavuot, the Likkud party religious division, the National Library of Israel

What doesn’t make sense is how the Book of Ruth relates to this festival at all! But as it happens, the answer lies just beneath the surface.

A kibbutz member carries a milk can, 1941, Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection, the National Library of Israel
Shavuot celebrations, 1970, IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the National Library of Israel

One simple link between the festival of Shavuot and the Book of Ruth is that the story actually takes place around the time of Shavuot. We learn that – out of desperation – Naomi traveled to Bethlehem on Pesach despite the prohibition of traveling during the festival, and from this we can calculate that her reunion with Boaz took place on or around the time of Shavuot. This is further backed up by the fact that when Naomi and Ruth reach Bethlehem, they work in the field harvesting grain. This points us to the fact that the Book of Ruth takes place during harvest season. Shavuot celebrates the end of the wheat and barley harvest (the bikkurim), so this holiday is an appropriate time to read from a story that took place on Shavuot, centuries ago.

Book of Ruth, work photographed by Ze’ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

In the Torah portion of Vayikra (23:16-21) the verses deal with the laws of harvest, and explain that one corner of every field should not be gathered, so that the needy may take from those crops. Because the Book of Ruth takes place during harvest season, Boaz was actively practicing this Jewish law, and the Book of Ruth actually recalls his performance of the mitzvah as he leaves a corner of his field for the needy women, Naomi and Ruth, as well as instructing the other workers to treat these poor women kindly. Thus, during the harvest season of Shavuot, we read this story to be reminded of this charitable act that must be completed while gathering crops.

Ruth and Naomi, work photographed by Ze’ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Another possible connection between the Book of Ruth and Shavuot is that both have central themes of kindness. The purpose of the Torah is to guide Jews to become better people and through the Book of Ruth we are introduced to two role models: Naomi, who is compassionate, charitable and brave, and Ruth, who is loyal and a woman of faith. Therefore, reading a story which helps Jews hone these skills on the very day that the Torah was given is suitably apt. The people of Moab were actually ostracized from Israel due to their bad character traits according to the biblical narrative, but Ruth is a perfect example of how there is always room for growth and that no matter one’s background, there is always an opportunity to become an exemplary person, which is also a central message in the Torah.

The Book of Ruth, photographed by Ze’ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

There is possibly no other Jewish story which so adeptly demonstrates the power of compassion and generosity as Ruth, in which we see characters breaking all expectations and going above and beyond the expected norm with their kindness: Ruth herself is so virtuous that she not only has an entire book in the Bible named after her, but also brings redemption to her nation of Moab and is merited with being the great-grandmother of King David. Naomi is also one such praise-worthy woman, who suffered immense shame and disgrace, yet picked herself back up, stood with pride even when she knew that she would be shunned by her community, and took control of a difficult situation in order to look after her family. She is the ultimate example of self-sacrifice and a strong female character. And finally Boaz, who is described (Ruth, 3:9) as a “redeeming kinsman” – a charitable and honorable man who protects even those who are below his own stature.

Boaz and the notables of the town, work photographed by Ze’ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

As the Jewish belief goes, their collective kindnesses brought together a broken family to create a child whose lineage is prophesied to bring forth the Messiah and end all hatred and evil in the world. Both the Torah and the story of Ruth are based on the Jewish value of chesed (loving-kindness) and thus it is appropriate to read this book on the day on which the Torah was given.

We’ve mentioned King David a few times now, and he really can’t be forgotten in connecting the Book of Ruth with the festival of Shavuot. The Book of Ruth actually ends with a list of King David’s genealogy, with Ruth of course being his great-grandmother. Moreover, King David was both born and died on Shavuot (Talmud Yerushalmi, Chagigah, 2:3) as the Gemara says that the holiest people die on the same day that they were born (Rosh Hashanah 11a.) Therefore, we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot to recall King David and read the story of his ancestry in his honor. Just as we often use the anniversary of one’s death to recount their life story, so to do we do this on Shavuot with King David.

A Shavuot celebration, Kibbutz Kinneret, 1970-80, this item is part of Archive Network Israel and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Kvutzat Kinneret Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.
Shavuot celebrations at Pika school – “The land has given a harvest”, this item is part of Archive Network Israel and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Oded Yarkoni Historical Archives of Petach Tikva, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

Interestingly, conversion also plays a role in the joining together of Shavuot and the Book of Ruth. Of course, conversion is a strong theme in the Book of Ruth, as Ruth tells Naomi that she wants to become part of the Israelite nation and abandon her own Moabite roots. The Sefat Emet says that Shavuot is an appropriate time to recall Ruth’s conversion to Judaism for a few reasons: Firstly, because it was only upon the Jews receiving the Torah that they became ready to teach it to all those who wanted to be part of the faith, like Ruth; and seeing Naomi accept Ruth should teach us to accept all people who wish to take on the mitzvot for themselves. Secondly, in receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, the People of Israel were essentially converting to Judaism, as they were deciding to take on the Jewish laws for the first time. Because Ruth chose to convert to Judaism, she merited to become the ancestor of the Messiah, and similarly upon accepting the Torah, the Jewish people merited to become the Children of G-d. Ruth was already 40 years old when she became Jewish (Midrash Rabbah, Ruth 4:4) and this shows us that Judaism is not limited to those of a specific background, and in fact any person of faith can take the Torah laws upon themselves with due dedication.

Ruth and Boaz, work photographed by Ze’ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

We are taught that when the Jewish people went to Mount Sinai and accepted the Torah, they immersed in the mikve and the males were circumcised, just as any convert to Judaism must do, so of course on the anniversary of this event, we should read about the first ever convert to Judaism!

We actually learn from the Book of Ruth how to conduct a Jewish conversion: The Rambam says that we follow Naomi’s instruction: we tell a potential convert about the basics of the religion, we make sure that they have no undesirable motives for converting, and then warn the convert that Judaism can often be difficult. If they still want to join the religion, we must allow them to do so and then teach them the more intimate laws. This is how Naomi addresses Ruth, and Ruth tells Naomi that she will not be deterred – whatever she is signing up for, she is in! Just as during the original festival of Shavuot on Mount Sinai the Jewish people said – “We will do and then we will listen” – so too did Ruth.

Ruth, Henry Ryland, 1910-1914, the Postcard Collection, the National Library of Israel

We mentioned previously that the Jewish people took on all the mitzvot at Mount Sinai, but actually they only accepted 606 commandments at that time. Maybe this seems strange considering the fact that there are 613 commandments in the Torah. However, gentiles are also required to observe 7 of the 613 laws (the 7 Noachide Laws,) which the People of Israel were keeping even before receiving the Torah. Thus, only 606 new laws were introduced on the festival of Shavuot. This was comparable to Ruth. Her acceptance of the additional 606 laws of Judaism was analogous to the Jewish people’s acceptance of these laws, emphasized in the story by the fact that her name רות has the numerical value of 606!

Many of the main tenets of the Torah are also taught in the Book of Ruth. Through her story (Talmud Bavli, Masechet Yevamot 47B) we learn the laws of the Sabbath, preparation for the Sabbath, laws of family purity, and idol worship, rules of punishment, how to greet one another, and the laws of Jewish burial! As Ruth decides to take on these important tenets of the Jewish faith, so too do Jews reaffirm their commitment to these mitzvot on Shavuot. Moreover, reading a story which includes so many of the fundamental elements of the Torah seems more than appropriate on the festival of receiving the Torah!

Ruth, Tanach, 1971, Ephemera Collection, the National Library of Israel

Perhapse even more significantly, we are taught the importance of mitzvot in general in the story of Ruth, which, as the essence of Torah, makes it the optimal story to read in order to mark the giving of the Torah. In the Book of Ruth, Boaz was a man of stature within his community. He was 300 years old and had amassed a big family and great wealth in those years (I Chronicles 2:11Rashi, Bava Batra 91a) so he really had no reason to take in the needy Ruth and Naomi. That being said, he was also a man of faith who believed in doing good deeds. His moral actions were rewarded with the prophecy that his offspring would include the Messiah. The Sefat Emet teaches that a holy life is made up not only by observance of religious laws, but also of good deeds, and Boaz was the perfect example of that.

Ruth, Alexandre Cabanel, 1823-1889, the Postcard Collection, the National Library of Israel

Ruth experienced many hardships in her simple pursuit of observing the Torah. Jews believe that this can inspire them to be more appreciative of the Torah that they were given on the festival of Shavuot, and thus the reading of the Book of Ruth during the morning prayer service on Shavuot is a custom which dates back to the Talmudic era (Soferim 14:16). The connection between the Book of Ruth and Shavuot hasn’t always seemed clear perhaps, but upon deeper inspection, it is unquestionably no coincidence. This brilliantly crafted story that can’t help but inspire loyalty, faith, and above all, kindness.

Boldness of Invention and Falsification: Gershom Scholem on Elias Gewurz

Gershom Scholem's acerbic wit was on full display in the notes he scribbled on works written by a particular Theosophist author…

Gershom Scholem (left), the founder of modern academic study of the Kabbalah, and Theosophist author Elias Gewurz (right)

Elias Gewurz (1875-1947), a Jewish Theosophist author, who wrote about Kabbalah, has until this point, not merited an entry in Wikipedia. Rather his biography is recorded here, on the “Theosophy Wiki” website. According to the site, Gewurz was born in Krakow and educated in Vienna. He later moved to the Canary Islands and during World War I immigrated to the United States, where he settled in Los Angeles. Gewurz lived at first in the “Krotona Colony” of the American Theosophical Society, which was located in Hollywood. He moved around a bit in California, and eventually settled in Ventura, where he died, apparently a bachelor.

Gewurz was quite active in the “Theosophical Society” and a number of his published works made their way to Gershom Scholem’s personal library, which can be found today in the Gershom Scholem Reading Room the National Library of Israel.

These works include The Diary of a Child of Sorrow (composed in Las Palmas, Grand Canary) and The Cosmic Wisdom – As Embodied in the Qabalah and in the Symbolical Hebrew Alphabet (both London 1914, the latter co-authored by L. A. Bosman and published as part of the “Esoteric Studies” series of The Dharma Press), as well as The Hidden Treasures of the Ancient Qabalah: Volume 1: The Transmutation of Passion into Power (Chicago 1918).

The follow-up volume to The Hidden Treasures, The Mysteries of the Qabalah, was “written down by seven pupils of E. G.” (“Yogi Publication Society – Masonic Temple”, Chicago 1922).

The first volume, based upon lectures given at the “Krotona Lodge” and the “Krotona Institute” of the Theosophical Society in 1915, includes a brief introduction into the nature of the Kabbalah.

Needless to say, Scholem was unconvinced by the dating of Rabbi Moses de Leon to the 12th (as opposed to the 13th) century and noted that with a “?” in the margin.

The Mysteries volume, which was composed not by Guwerz himself, but by his devotees, includes an interesting dedication as well:

In it we learn that the tract was composed by “one of the seven”, to whom Gewurz had pointed out the path, that he himself had trodden with “bleeding feet”. We also learn that this was to have been part of a much larger work on the Hebrew language that apparently was never completed.

But it was his 1924 volume Beautiful Thoughts of the Ancient Hebrews, published in New York by the mainstream Bloch Publishing Company: The Jewish Book Concern, that was to draw the ire of Gershom Scholem.

The work was published with an introduction by California Reform Rabbi Martin A. Meyer, a colorful figure, whose mysterious demise aroused much speculation at the time. Some of his remarks regarding Kabbalah are worth noting:

The truth is that Scholem had previously commented on the 1914 Diary of a Child of Sorrow volume, referring to Gewurz’s early work as one of “Pseudo-Kabbalah”.

He also noted that Gewurz’s family hailed from the Polish town of Dembitz and that he was a “theosophist”. The Dembitz connection was also noted in Scholem’s copy of Sefer Dembitz (a memorial volume, Tel-Aviv 1960), where information of Gewurz’s somewhat illustrious ancestors was preserved.

In his copy of Beautiful Thoughts, Scholem shared some of his own not-so-beautiful thoughts regarding our author and his work.

Scholem’s comments in English and in Hebrew are quite different. In the English, perhaps addressed more to the Bloch Publication Company than to the author himself, Scholem informs us that; “[Gewurz is] remarkable by boldness of invention and falsification of nearly all the quotations contained herein! And nobody has taken pains to examine his ‘sources’ and the swindle is going on!” As we shall see, some of Scholem’s terms here (“swindle” and “invention”) made their way into his marginalia as well.

Scholem’s Hebrew notes are of a biographical nature and inform us that;

“The author’s name was Eliyahu ben Alter ben Daniel ben Henich, a son of a prominent family in Dembitz. And I heard from Mr. Daniel Leibel [the author of Sefer Dembitz] the author who knew him as a youth, that around 1899 he travelled to England and it was rumored that he converted, and this is apparently an error. Rather he become a Theosophist, and see now in Sefer Dembitz…”

Leaving aside the question of whether or not Gewurz was actually from Dembitz, as claimed here, or from Krakow, as purported on the “Theosophy Wiki”, we learn from Sefer Dembitz that Gewurz’s ancestors included Chief Rabbis and rabbinic judges, as well as wealthy community leaders, until “the Rabbinate was conquered by the Hasidim of Ropshitz”.

Returning to Scholem’s critical comments on Beautiful Thoughts, they are interspersed throughout the volume, and continue the theme of Guwerz’s falsification and/or invention of sources. A few examples will suffice to demonstrate this point:



“a book which has never existed”



Scholem was, however, significantly more charitable (or more sarcastic?) towards the book in his brief review in Kiryat Sefer (1:4, 1925), describing it as “a slim anthology of Kabbalah. The sources are a bit strange and much…is not that of ancient Jewish thought, but rather of the author himself, and that is also good. Perhaps the author could inform us, which ancient Jewish book he was referring to under the title of ‘The Golden Gate’, for we have not heard of this book and blessed is the one who knows.” This is the book that Scholem had described in the margins as having “never existed”.

Gershom Scholem in his study, 1974, the Aliza Auerbach Archive, the National Library of Israel

Lastly, returning to the rumors alleging that Gewurz had converted to Christianity in England that Scholem had discounted since “he became a Theosophist”, one could ask if the two categories are in fact mutually exclusive or if he could have either progressed from Christianity to Theosophy, or if he had in fact become a Christian Theosophist who retained an interest in his native Judaism, including Kabbalah, as well.

In his work The Hidden Treasures of the Ancient Qabalah, in a fascinating chapter intitled “The Feminine Elements in Man and Their Redeeming Power”, Gewurz, seemingly ahead of his time, argues for the need for men to take on more feminine qualities and to balance their “masculine strength” with “feminine beauty”, even though they are “in reality one and the same thing”. He ends the chapter waxing eloquently about the figure of Jesus, whom he claims “was of a feminine nature. He only wore the body of a man, but His soul was womanly”. Leaving the gender issue aside, it is hard to imagine anyone other than a committed Christian lavishing such praise upon Jesus. Nonetheless, his call to the reader, that “we may grow juster and fairer and purer, more kind and more true, more silent and more humble”, is still relevant, more than one hundred years after his words were written.


Why Did Moroccan Jews Bring Moses Into the Passover Haggadah?

Moroccan Jews (and the Jews of Western Algeria in the areas adjacent to Morocco) to this day begin the Passover Seder with a short text in Judeo-Arabic at the center of which is the figure of Moses…

MS Bill Gross 168. Long version of the text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors,” Tafilalt, 20th century

As we all know, the Passover Haggadah deals entirely with story of the Exodus from Egypt, followed by the crossing of the Red Sea, all the while praising the Creator and expressing gratitude for the many miracles and wonders He performed to liberate and bring the Israelites from slavery to freedom.

According to the story told in detail in the first chapters of the Book of Exodus, Moses was a major player in all the events of the Exodus from Egypt, from the moment God spoke to him before the Burning Bush and entrusted him with the mission to go and speak with the Egyptian Pharaoh. He led the Israelites through the Red Sea as though crossing dry land, and then across the desert for forty years until his death before entering the land of Canaan. And yet, throughout all the pages of the Haggadah, the dominant biblical figure of Moses is not mentioned even once. Furthermore, in the Haggadah we read: “And God brought us out of Egypt not by the hand of an angel, nor by the hand of a fiery being, nor by a messenger, but the Holy One, blessed be He, and He Himself in His glory.”

Why was the figure of Moses erased so completely from the Passover Haggadah? The Haggadah text we know today was formulated in the fourth century CE. It was around this time that the figure of Jesus was enshrined as a central divine figure of the Christian faith which was rapidly spreading across the known world. Some believe that the Jewish sages, fearing the rise of a similar popular movement among the Jewish people that would counter Jesus with the figure of Moses as the true divine figure, attempted to expunge the figure of Moses even from the memory of the constitutive events associated with him. These events are of course recounted in detail in the Haggadah, the central text of the Passover Seder, which shaped Jewish consciousness for generations.

Yet, to this very day, the Jews of Morocco (and the Jews of Western Algeria in the areas adjacent to Morocco) begin the Seder with a short text in Judeo-Arabic, in which the central figure is none other than Moses. The text is recited at the beginning of the fourth stage of the Seder – yahatz – before the reading of the Haggadah, when the person conducting the Seder picks up the three matzot, takes out the middle matza and breaks it in half (reserving one half to be eaten later during the Tsafun ritual).

The Judeo-Arabic text is recited while the broken piece of matza is held up for all to see. According to this short text, God parted the Red Sea for our Ancestors into twelve paths through Moses, our rabbi and prophet. This is followed by a prayer that asks God to save the members of the communities from exile and bring them to the Holy Land just as He delivered our ancestors out of Egypt from slavery to freedom. The Judeo-Arabic text eventually crystallized into two different but closely related main versions, one used in the Tafilalt and adjacent communities in the southeast and northeast of Morocco, and another, shorter version, customary in other communities. The wording of the text varied slightly from one community to another, as often occurs with a text that is primarily transmitted orally.

MS Paul Dahan, Brussels, 4464, from Tafilalt, early 19th century. First part of the long version of the text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors,” courtesy of the manuscript’s owners


Why did Moroccan Jews see a need to bring Moses to the Seder and return him to the story of the Exodus? And when did it happen? As can be discerned from the Arabic language of the two versions discussed here, the text about Moses was formulated at the end of the thirteenth or the beginning of the fourteenth century. During this period, the last incarnations of medieval literary Judeo-Arabic, called Middle Judeo-Arabic, were still in use. Despite losses to the text over the generations because of its oral transmission, many traces of this ancient language can still be found in it.

What is the connection between the language and the consolidation of this special text? It seems that the return of the figure of Moses and his role in the Exodus story came at a time when the Jewish communities in Morocco and other lands of North Africa and Andalusia, that is, Muslim Spain, were allowed to return to open practice of their Judaism at the end of the thirteenth century under the rulers of the first Marinid Sultanate. The connection is a dramatic and even tragic event of long duration that nearly destroyed all the North African and Andalusian communities at the beginning of the reign of the fundamentalist Muslim Almohad Caliphate.

The first rulers of this dynasty coerced all the Jews under its rule to convert, to become anusim by forcing them to hide their Jewish observance for more than one hundred and twenty years; those who refused to convert to Islam were immediately sentenced to death. The period of the forced conversion began in approximately 1140, at the beginning of the Almohad sect’s takeover of Morocco and North Africa, including Libya and Andalusia, and ended after the empire’s disintegration in 1269, when Marrakesh was conquered by the Marinid tribes, who gradually regained most of Morocco’s regions.

At the beginning of the period of forced conversions, when Maimonides and his family lived in Fez (1160–1165), conditions had at least permitted Jews to live as Jews inside their homes if they wished, while behaving as Muslims in public. Praying in synagogues and the performing of Jewish ceremonies in public were strictly forbidden. In 1167 or 1168, during the period that has been termed the “gentle apostasy” ((השמד הרך, Maimonides wrote what has become known as the “Letter of Apostasy” (איגרת השמד) – a letter of encouragement to the Jews of Fez who were secretly holding onto their Judaism: “And the works of His hands will be done in secret because never has there been anything heard like this marvelous apostasy [author’s emphasis, JC] in which there is no objection except for speech alone.”

However, conditions worsened immeasurably afterwards under the rule of Sultan Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur (ruled from 1184 to 1199) and his son Muhammad Al-Nasser (ruled from 1199 to 1214). The two rulers imposed even harsher regulations on the Jews of North Africa and Andalusia, in their communal and religious life and economically, but the memory of the persecutions is recorded only among the Jews of Morocco. The religious commentator and physician Rabbi Joseph ben Judah ibn Aknin (1150?-1220?), who lived through the difficult events in Fez before he was able to leave Morocco, wrote a personal account of the persecutions and humiliations imposed on the Jews of Morocco. His testimony also included a harsh rebuke of those Moroccan Jews who did not leave Morocco to save themselves from the ruin. His story appears in the sixth chapter of his treatise Tibb al-Nufūs (“The Hygiene of the Souls”). In it he describes first-hand the persecutions that were the lot of the Jews of Morocco: the contempt and daily humiliations suffered at the hands of the Muslims; the constant fear of being reported to the authorities for not keeping the laws of Islam, which would lead to loss of their property, wives and even their lives as punishment; the prohibition against any sign of Jewish life even inside the homes, and the prohibition against educating children in the Jewish religion and the Torah; the forgetting of the Torah and the Hebrew language that resulted; the humiliating clothing they were forced to wear; the removal of children from Jewish homes to educate them in the religion of Islam; and finally, the prohibition against practicing commerce, the trade which put food on their tables.

MS Bar Ilan 122, from Tafilalt, 19th century, long version of the text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors”


This second period of the great apostasy dealt a fatal blow to the remnants of the “gentle apostasy.” Accounts of this period are almost entirely absent from historical research due to the lack of documentation. Only Maimonides’ temperate description of the “marvelous apostasy” remains in the historical consciousness, though it barely captured the severity of the decrees subsequently imposed on the Jews of Morocco in particular, as the seat of the rulers Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansour and his son Muhammad Al-Nasser was in Fez. For about eighty years, the anusim were forced to live as Muslims in every sense, to participate in prayers in mosques and to abolish all Jewish symbols. It is true that in these strict conditions came some relief with the disintegration of the Almohad Empire, but even then, the prohibition against practicing Judaism continued. With the Marinid tribes’ eventual takeover of Morocco and other large parts of the Almohad Empire, Jews were allowed to return to their Judaism, but they did not do so demonstratively for fear of antagonizing the Muslim populations whose hatred of the Jews had grown under the Almohad caliphate. The hidden Jews saw their return to Judaism as a second exodus from Egypt.

Moreover, because of the forced Muslim education they received, and the Muslim sermons they were forced to hear in the mosques, the central figure etched in the minds of the converted Jews was the figure of the Prophet Muhammad, who has always been at the center of Islamic worship and belief. The community leaders who sought to restore Jewish life and Jewish consciousness among the survivors of the apostasy needed to obliviate the image of the Prophet of Islam and counter it with a central Jewish figure that would overshadow it. Hence their need for the image of Moses, which Maimonides had already established as one of the thirteen principles of the Jewish faith, as described later in the piyut – Yigdal Elohim Hai [Acclaim and Praise the Living God] composed at the beginning of the fourteenth century by Rabbi Daniel ben Yehuda Hadayan: “In Israel there never arose another prophet like Moses, able to see God’s likeness.”

MS Paul Dahan, Brussels, 3363, from Tafilalt, 20th century. This manuscript contains the long version of the text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors”]

From the end of the thirteenth century and through the fourteenth century, the image of Moses appeared in other Judeo-Arabic poems and texts that were at the core of the Judeo-Arabic culture and poetry that developed from that time among Moroccan Jewry and until the community’s dispersal in the third quarter of the twentieth century. These poems, most of which were written in late Medieval Judeo-Arabic, include poems recited in the home of a new mother on the eve of the circumcision of her newborn; poems about the Exodus from Egypt and its wonders according to the Midrash; poems in praise of Moses; the repertoire of Passover texts known as Dhir, which are unique to the Jews of Morocco; and the long text of the Ten Commandments read on Shavuot. In the fourteenth century, the biblical texts and other para-liturgical texts were also translated into late Medieval Judeo-Arabic – the translations of the Shar – i.e. the traditional calque translations familiar today. In these Judeo-Arabic texts, Muslim terms used to describe the supreme qualities of Muhammad were used to describe Moses, to emphasize him as the true messenger of God (Rasul Allah) and chief of the prophets, who spoke directly with God (Kalim Allah).

MS National Library 38=2618, from Taflilat, 19th century, with the long and full version of the text, “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors”

In the manuscript seen above, the long text of “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors” appears twice, on the right in square script and on the left in cursive:

“Thus did God part the sea for our ancestors into twelve paths when the Israelites were brought out of Egypt by our rabbi and prophet Moses son of Amram, peace be upon him; He rescued them and delivered them from hard work to rest and from slavery to freedom. He sent him, may His name be exalted, so that He may lead us today also in the same way; May He gather our communities to His destroyed holy house, and save our captives from this exile for the sake of His great and holy name.”  The forcibly converted Jews referred to themselves in these various poems as “captives.”

You can listen to a reading of the original Judeo-Arabic text in the recording below:


MS Bill Gross MO.11.009_005. From one of the communities in southeast Morocco, 20th century. Courtesy of the manuscript’s owners

The manuscript above contains a shortened version of the long text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors”: “Thus did God part the sea into twelve separate paths when the Israelites were brought out of Egypt by our rabbi and prophet Moses son of Amram, peace and love be upon him.  He rescued them and delivered them from hard labor to rest and from slavery to freedom. God, may His name be exalted, sent him. Thus shall He do to us now and save us for the sake of His great and holy name; Amen.”

Listen to a reading of the original Judeo-Arabic text in the recording below:

MS Michael Krupp 3288, 20th century, from one of the communities in southeast Morocco

The manuscript above contains a shortened version of the text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors”: “Thus did God part the sea when our ancestors were brought out from the land of Egypt by our rabbi and prophet Moses son of Amram, peace and love be upon him. Just as He saved them and delivered them from hard labor to freedom, so God will save us from this exile. May it be His will and let us say Amen.”

Listen to a reading of the original Judeo-Arabic text below:


This article is a preview of a forthcoming comprehensive essay I am preparing on the beginning of the development of Judeo-Arabic poetry and culture in Morocco in which I will expand on much of the material that has been described here in brief. This large essay is now in advanced preparation for publication under the title: Destruction and Restoration: The Destruction of Jewish Life in Morocco under Forced Conversions of the Almohads and its Restoration, Joseph Chitrit, Haifa: Pardes Publishing House, 2023 (three volumes, in Hebrew).