(16th - 17th Centuries A.D.)
ABERLIN, RACHEL (2nd quarter of 16th century, Salonika (?)–1st quarter of 17th century, Damascus (?)). Aberlin is described as a mystic in Sefer ha-Ḥezyonot ("The Book of Visions"), the memoir of her contemporary R.
, the most prominent disciple of the greatest 16th century kabbalist, R.
. Vital refers to "Rachel Aberlin" and "Rachel ha-Ashkenaziah" frequently in entries that provide rare insight into the mystical religiosity of early modern Jewish women in the period preceding Sabbateanism. He also refers to a "Rachel, sister of R. Judah Mishan," the kabbalist who ratified Vital's authority following Luria's death. Although the connection between Rachel Aberlin and R. Judah Mishan's sister cannot be established with certainty, Vital's references suggest such an identity.
Aberlin settled in Safed in 1564 with her husband, Judah, a wealthy man who led the Ashkenazi community there until his death in 1582. As a wealthy widow, Aberlin became the patron of some of the leading rabbinic figures in her community. We are told by Vital that she established a complex in Safed, where he lived with his family. Vital's references to Aberlin's presence in Jerusalem and Damascus during his years in those cities imply that the two had a close relationship for decades.
Aberlin is portrayed in Sefer ha-Ḥezyonot as a woman who regularly experienced mystical visions, from pillars of fire to Elijah the Prophet. She is said to have been "accustomed to seeing visions, demons, souls, and angels," as well as to have had clairvoyant abilities that were acknowledged by Vital, who affirmed that "most everything she says is correct." Aberlin seems to have been an important figure for other women in her community, who regarded her as a spiritual leader. Aberlin's position as the leader of a mystical sisterhood is also suggested by Vital's description of her intervention in a dramatic case of spirit possession involving a young woman in Damascus in 1609. Vital's numerous recollections of Aberlin evince his profound respect for her and her spiritual gifts. In a particularly striking example, Vital relates a dream that Aberlin shared with him in which she saw Vital sitting behind a desk covered with books, while behind him a large heap of straw burned with a radiant fire but was not consumed. Vital explained to Rachel that this vision was a manifestation of Obadiah 1:18, "And the house of Jacob shall be a fire … and the house of Esau for straw." Aberlin, still in her dream, responded, "You tell me the words of the verse as it is written, but I see that the matter is actual, in practice, and completely manifest." This dream demonstrates the distinction between the learned mysticism of the kabbalists and the visionary, ecstatic mysticism of their much less known female counterparts.
J.H. Chajes, Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism (2003); M.M. Faierstein, Jewish Mystical Autobiographies: Book of Visions and Book of Secrets (1999).
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