Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.
A semi-legendary figure, reputed to have been one of the few women in Hasidism who functioned as a fully-fledged spiritual master (Tzaddik or Rebbe). Most of the information about her originates in oral traditions of “old women in Volhynia,” first collected and published in 1909 by the historian Samuel Abba Horodezky (1871-1987). These were subsequently subjected to his own as well as others’ elaborations and expansions, which appeared in a variety of popular-historical, belletristic, journalistic and memoiristic works.
Significantly, the hagiographical literature of nineteenth-century Hasidism makes no mention whatsoever of her, nor is any mystical or ethical teaching attributed to her in other genres of Hasidic writing. She is, however, mentioned briefly in an 1883 satirical work by a maskil and, following the publication of Horodezky’s reports, in a handful of twentieth-century hagiographical anthologies.
Hannah Rachel, the Maid, was the only daughter of Monesh Verbermacher, an educated and well-to-do Jew in the Volhynian town of Ludomir (Vladimir-Volynskiy). From an early age she was distinguished not only because of her beauty but also–unusually for a girl–by dint of her ardor in prayer and remarkable aptitude for scholarship.
Her betrothal to a beloved childhood playmate, which entailed the customary separation of bride and groom until the wedding, distressed the Maid and led her to withdraw from society. Her distress was exacerbated by the sudden death of her mother, following which she became a recluse, never leaving her room except to visit her mother’s grave.
On one of her visits to the cemetery she fell into unconsciousness, which was followed by a prolonged and mysterious illness. When she recovered she claimed to have been given “a new and elevated soul.” She broke off her engagement and declared that she would never marry, having “transcended the world of the flesh.”