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Introduction
 

This webpage reproduces a section of

Abyss of Despair

by
Rabbi Nathan Hanover


Bloch Publishing Company
New York, 5710‑1950

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Author's
Introduction

 p13  The Life and Work of Nathan Hanover

Nathan Hanover, the author of the chronicle Yeven Metzulah, was born in Ostrog, Volhynia in the early twenties of the seventeenth century. His parents emigrated from Germany to the Ukraine. They probably lived in Hanover because it was a common practice for Jews to adopt the name of the community from which they hailed. It is presumed that they left Hanover at the end of the sixteenth century when all Jews were expelled from that city.

Many Jews emigrated from Germany during the sixteenth century, where they suffered unprecedented persecution and oppression. The Ukraine was especially inviting because the Jews there enjoyed some measure of peace and economic freedom. They were free to travel through the land and pursued their business unmolested. Hanover's farm, it can be surmised, left Germany at this time and settled in the Ukraine. We have no information about Hanover's early years. It can be presumed that he received a Jewish education typical of that which he describes in the concluding chapter of his chronicle "Yeven Metzulah." He grew up amidst the scholars and Talmudists of his city and imbibed the teachings of his masters. Ostrog was the great metropolis of Volhynia and had a large Jewish population. It was famous not only as a great business  p14 center but even more as a seat of learning and culture. The most prominent Rabbis and teachers of the age resided there, among them were such great notables as Rabbi Solomon Luria, better known as the Maharshal, Rabbi Samuel Edels, the Maharsha, Rabbi David Halevi, popularly known as the Taz (Ture Zahav), and others.

[image ALT: An engraving of an old man sitting at a plain wooden desk abutting a bookcase which he faces; The desk has several books on it, including an open one propped up against the bookcase, from which he appears to be copying with a quill pen. In the background, another even taller bookcase by an open window. The man is the Maharshal, the 17c Rabbi Samuel Edels.]

Traditional Drawing of the Maharsha
(Rabbi Samuel Edels)
Head of the Yeshivah of Ostrog

[A larger version, in which the caption text is fully readable,
opens here (1.9 MB).]

Nathan's father was evidently a learned man and it is quite possible that he served in the capacity of Rabbi. Nathan frequently refers to him by the title Rabbi. In all likelihood he received his early training from his father and later in the Ostrog Yeshivah which was under the guidance of Maharsha. The study of the Talmud and its commentaries, apparently, was not sufficient to gratify his restless and searching spirit. He, therefore, turned to the Kabbalah and probed into its mystic teachings. He became particularly fascinated by the Lurianic Kabbalah, which had already established itself in Poland and was gradually finding adherents in the Ukraine. The followers of the famous Kabbalist, Isaac Luria Ashkenazi, better known as the Ari, were carrying on a vigorous campaign to spread their master's teachings everywhere. Israel Sarug, and his son-in‑law, Solomon Schloemel Dresnitz visited many Jewish communities and sought to indoctrinate the Jews with the Ari's mystic philosophy. Luria's Kabbalah found ready adherents first in Italy and later also in Germany and in Holland whence it penetrated into Poland and where it cultivated enthusiastic supporters. When the Kabbalah spread to the Ukraine, Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, author of the Kabbalistic and  p15 ethical work Shene Luchoth Haberith, or "Shela," who for a short time served as Rabbi in Ostrog, became one of its chief devotees. Rabbi Samson of Ostropolie, who was martyred in Polannoe during the Chmielnicki revolt, was another of its followers. Nathan Hanover too, became enamoured of this mystic lore, and applied himself diligently to master it. His sermons and Pentateuchal discourses were often based upon Kabbalistic texts and interpretations.

He married the daughter of Abraham of Zaslaw and later removed to reside with his father-in‑law. There he occupied himself with preaching. Occasionally he visited other communities and preached to them. Two daughters were born to him in Zaslaw. It is not known whether he had other children. His life during these early years, it can be surmised, was untroubled and peaceful.

The Cossack uprising of 1648 which destroyed so many communities and which almost completely wiped out Ukrainian Jewry brought to an end Nathan's tranquility and caused him to become a wanderer. 1648 was a year of unusual events. It brought peace to central Europe and freedom to England.​a It was the year in which, according to English millenarians, such as Pierre de la Fons, Jesus was to appear. It was also the year in which, according to the Zohar, the Messiah was to come. But above all the year 1648 is better known for the rebellion initiated by the Cossack chieftain, Bogdan Chmielnicki was caused untold suffering to the Jewish people.

The city of Zaslaw where Nathan Hanover resided  p16 was devastated by the Cossacks and most of its Jews were murdered. Among the martyred Jews was the father of Nathan, Rabbi Moses Hanover of Ostrog. Nathan fled from the city before it was attacked. After leaving the city of Zaslaw, together with his large family, he started wandering to elude the infuriated Ukrainian mobs. We do not know the circumstances under which he succeeded in his escape from the Cossacks. Hanover, generally, omits personal references in his chronicle which describes these events. He focuses his attention on the whole picture. After making good his escape we find him in Germany where he subsisted on meager earnings from itinerant preaching. Thanks to his oratorical ability and wide range of knowledge he acquired many followers. The sermons preached in Germany during this period he collected into a book called "N'ta Sha‑ashuim." This book, however, was never published.

From Germany he proceeded to Holland where he published his sermon "Ta‑Ame Succah" which he had preached in Cracow in 1646. He did not remain in Holland very long and proceeded to Italy which had become an important Kabbalah center at that time. Here he hoped to find solace for his troubled soul. The study of Kabbalah was to help him forget the nightmare of the past. Hanover had always been inclined toward asceticism and the impact of the tragic events in Poland drove him closer into the lap of Kabbalistic speculation. Having visited many ravished communities and having talked to the refugees who escaped the carnage, he had accumulated valuable information on  p17 the Ukrainian massacres. He now had an opportunity to organize his material for publication.

In 1652 we find Hanover in the city of Venice where he published his chronicle "Yeven Metzulah." In 1653 he became the rabbi of Leghorn and spent one year in the Beth Hamidrash of the physician David Valensin, who supported him generously. There he met Hayim Hacohen of Aleppo, a disciple of Rabbi Hayim Vital, the pupil and later successor to Isaac Luria. The two spent much time together studying the Lurianic Kabbalah. Rabbi Hayim Hacohen revealed to him many new and hitherto unpublished teachings of Vital. There he also became acquainted with Nathan Shapira of Jerusalem who was visiting the city and together with him proceeded to Venice where he spent two years in the Yeshivah of the brothers, Abraham and Daniel Mugnon. They befriended and sustained him. In the company of such Kabbalistic exponents as Samuel Abohab, Moses Zacuto and Benjamin Halevi of Safed, he found peace and solitude and devoted himself to diligent studies in mysticism. He received additional material aid from the fellow­ship "Talmud Torah" of Venice.

After two years in Venice, he proceeded to Wallachia and became Rabbi, first in the city of Jassy and later also in Focsani. The reasons why he left Venice are not known. It is possible that he could not get accustomed to living on charity. The burden of providing for a large family might have impelled him to seek a more profitable occupation elsewhere. He spent a long time in Wallachia and devoted himself to literary  p18 endeavors. He succeeded in issuing two works of practical use. One was a dictionary in four languages called "Safr Berurah" (Clear Speech) and the other "Sha‑are Zion" (Gates of Zion), an anthology of prayers.

In the '70s of the 17th century, we find him in Ungarisch-Brod, a city in Moravia where he occupied the position of Dayan (Judge) and preacher. His reputation as a Dayan and his excellent sermons gained for him much honor from the members of his community. In this city, too, both of his daughters were married. The fact that he was able to write two books on the Kabbalah during this period shows that he, at last, had attained peace of mind.

Evidently Hanover was not destined to complete his years in tranquility. He who had suffered so much and barely escaped death in the Ukraine had to experience the misery of new massacres. The war between Turkey and Austria had broken out. The Turkish army invaded Hungary and proceeded on the way to Vienna. The Hungarian Count, Emeric Tekelli, an avowed enemy of Austria, joined the Turks. Tekelli's army broke into Moravia and the first victim was the city of Brod which was completely without defense. Tekelli's bands attacked the Jews of the city most of whom were at that time gathered in the synagogue for morning prayers. Nathan Hanover was a victim of this attack. His last wish was that he be buried in the Jewish cemetery. His wish was fulfilled. A tombstone bearing his name with appropriate laudatory inscription stands upon his grave.

According to various legends Hanover's burial place  p19 is supposed to be in Focsani, Wallachia. Photographs of a tombstone in Focsani, purported to bear his name, are frequently reprinted and claimed to be that of Hanover. However, there is no evidence that the photograph of the tombstone is that of Hanover. The inscription is so worn that the letters can not be deciphered. There is no doubt that Nathan Hanover, having lived the last years of his life in Ungarisch-Brod, was murdered there during the massacre in 1683. The following is the inscription of the tombstone on the cemetery in that city:

"Our holy rabbi, Israel's desire

The sacred vessel, the luminary pure,

The spokesman for Torah was taken by ruthless death

Blessed is he whose soul departed from his chaste body,

Who completed his life by proclaiming the unity of the Creator's Name.

There is none greater than our master, the rabbi Nathan Natta, the son of Moses of Ostrog

His soul ascended on high adorned with the crown of Torah

Twenty days in Tamuz, the month that was turned into mourning and distress

May his soul be bound up in the bond of life."

Thus ended the career of Nathan Hanover. His was a life filled with misery, pain and suffering but also rich and meaning­ful. His fame was far reaching and his literary achievements are a fitting monument to his memory.

 p20  Nathan Hanover wrote many valuable books. Although not a professional historian, he had a realistic approach to history. In his chronicle, "Yeven Metzulah" he appears as an able and competent historian. He was also a linguist and mastered a number of languages, among them Polish, German, Latin and Italian. His linguistic skill is admirably shown by his four-language dictionary.

Among the books Hanover wrote, the following may be noted: (1) "Ta‑ame Succah," a sermon on the significance of the Feast of Tabernacles and interpretations of the prayers peculiar to the festival. The sermon was delivered in Crakow in 1646 and was published later in Amsterdam in 1652. It contains all Talmudic references pertaining to the festival of Succoth. These Hanover interpreted allegorically. Many of his interpretations are based on the teachings of the Zohar, and show the remarkable influence the Kabbalah had on him in his early years. (2) "Yeven Metzulah," an historic chronicle in which the massacres of 1648‑1652 are described. This book was first published in Venice in 1653. It has been translated into French, German, Polish, Russian and Yiddish. (3) "Safa Berurah," a lexicon in four languages, Hebrew, Yiddish, Latin and Italian. The book contains twenty chapters and is divided according to category concepts. The book was of practical benefit to the uprooted Jews of the Ukraine who wandered in countries whose languages were strange to them. It was first published in 1660 in Prague. Another edition appeared in Amsterdam in  p21 1771 with additions of a column in French. (4) "Sha‑are Zion" an anthology of prayers for fasts and feasts, Tikkun Chatzoth, etc. This book is composed of seven chapters. The prayers are of a Kabbalistic nature. They were mostly composed by the disciples of Luria. It became a popular prayer book for the Jews of his time. Many of the prayers have also been included in the prayer books still in use today. The prayer, Ribbono Shel Olam, recited prior to the removal of the Torah from the Ark and the Yehi Ratzon, following the priestly benediction are taken from Hanover's anthology.

Sha-are-Zion was first published in Prague in 1662.

Nathan Hanover had also written a number of works which were not published. His collection of sermons on the Pentateuch and festivals known as "Neta Shaa-shuim" which is mentioned in his introduction to the "Yeven Metzulah" was never published. Neta Ne‑eman, a commentary on the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria, remained in manuscript. Another book which never saw the light of publication was Tokef Yayin, a Kabbalistic interpretation of the festival of Purim. Also "Yefe Nof," a commentary on the book of psalms based on the Kabbalah was not published.

It is indeed amazing that despite his being exposed to continuous misfortune, aimless wandering and insecurity, Nathan Hanover managed to accumulate such an imposing literary output. One is impressed by his strength of character and profound faith which  p22 kept him from disintegrating in the face of all his misery. He, no doubt, found consolation in dedicating himself to these spiritual tasks. Despite his rich literary legacy, however, he is known best for his chronicle, "Yeven Metzulah."


Thayer's Note:

a The signing of the Treaty of Westphalia is quite generally considered far the most important European history event of 1648, its consequences stretching three hundred years into our own time; but of course we all have a right to our minority opinions. On the other hand, that 1648 brought freedom to England is a bizarre and counter­factual view of a year which saw the Second Civil War break out, to conclude (sort of) the following year by the execution of King Charles I. At most, if pretty tendentiously, it is in that year 1649 that "freedom" might be said to have been brought to England by the establishment of Cromwell's dictator­ship.


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