Mystical Zefat Women

by Yael Levine Katz

In addition to the numerous great scholars and mystics associated with Zefat, sources testify to some extraordinary female personalities who lived there.

The case of Francesa Sarah is unique in the annals of Jewish history. The revelation of maggidim—angelic spirits who speak to kabbalists—is known to have been granted only to a select few. For example, such powers were ascribed to Rabbi Yosef Caro, kabbalist and author of The Code of Jewish Law. Francesa Sarah, who also lived in Zefat in the 16th century, is the only woman known to have possessed a maggid to foretell the future.

She is mentioned in the Book of Visions by Rabbi Chaim Vital,1 the foremost disciple of the , as well as in a recently published Hebrew chronicle of the 17th century,2 which sheds further light on her personality and activities. In both books, she is depicted as an extremely wise and righteous woman.

In one instance, she sent for the sages, warning them that unless they declared a fast day, prayed and gave charity, they would perish in a plague. The rabbis heeded her, and immediately decreed a fast. When everyone was gathered on the fast day and one of the rabbis rose to speak, she received a revelation that he would die in eight days as an atonement for the sins of the congregation. Exactly eight days later, he passed away.

One Zefat scholar, although skeptical of her powers, consulted her as to whether he would succeed in a certain endeavor. Upon recognizing the veracity of her vision, “he bowed low in homage to G-d, who imparted of His wisdom to such a woman of valor.”

Rabbi Vital notes, however, that while most of her visions came true, her revelation that the Messiah would come did not materialize.


In the past, most of the elderly Jews who emigrated to the Land of Israel chose to settle in Jerusalem, but one woman who opted for Zefat was the Italian Fioretta of Modena, ancestress to an exemplary scholar. Her grandson, the scholar, kabbalist, and author Rabbi Aaron Berechiah of Modena (d.1639) , paid tribute to her in the introductions to two of his books.3 “May my good name be remembered before G-d,” he wrote, “together with the merit of my mother’s mother, the righteous woman Fioretta...widow of Rabbi Solomon of Modena.”

Fioretta absorbed herself in the study of Tanach (Bible), Oral Law and halachic works, in particular Maimonides, as well as the Zohar. She adhered to a weekly course of study on each of these subjects which she herself had charted.

Fioretta raised her grandson, and was responsible for his education, travelling from city to city in search of the best teachers. Rabbi Aaron stated that it was, therefore, incumbent upon him to give her the respect due a parent and rabbi.


Another fascinating woman with a Zefat connection is the legendary “Maiden of Ludomir.” Channah Rochel Werbemacher was born in Ludomir, Poland, in 1815 to parents who had been childless for over ten years. Her father was a follower of the Chassidic master, Reb Mottele of Chernobyl. At a young age, she displayed an unquenchable thirst for learning, and acquired an extensive knowledge of Tanach, Aggada and ethical literature.

When she was only nine years old, her mother died. Once, while visiting her mother’s grave, she was struck by a serious illness. When she finally recovered, she was a transformed person. She began fulfilling also the commandments that are obligatory only for men, such as tallit and tefillin, and passed her time in meditation, learning, and prayer. With the inheritance money she received upon her father’s death, she built a beautiful synagogue.

Crowds flocked to her, seeking out her counsel and blessings. Out of modesty, she spoke to them from behind a door or partition. Like a Chassidic master, she conducted a tisch (open table) on Shabbat afternoons, where she expounded on the Torah.

Later, she emigrated to the Land of Israel, settling in the Me’ah She’arim quarter of Jerusalem. She walked every morning to the Western Wall to pray, accompanied by the many who wished to receive her blessings. On the eve of Simchat Torah, many pilgrims from Hebron, Zefat, and Tiberias frequented her home. Channah Rochel took a constant interest in Jewish life in Zefat, and even left Jerusalem in its favor for a number of years. She passed away in 1892. A novel based on her life was recently published.4

1. Sefer HaChezyonot, Rabbi Chaim Vital, Jerusalem 1954, pp. 10-11.
2. Sefer Divrei Yosef, Yosef Sambari, edited by Shimon Shtober, Jerusalem 1994, pp. 364-366.
3. Seder Ashmoret HaBoker Mechavurat Me’eirei Shachar, Mantua 1624; Ma’avar Yabbok, Venice 1626.
4. They Called Her Rebbe, Gershon Winkler, New York; Judaica Press, 1991.

Yael Levine Katz of Jerusalem earned a Ph.D. in Judaic studies from Bar Ilan University (1993). She recently has published an extensive Hebrew article on learned women in Jerusalem.

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