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Shimshon ben Pesaḥ of Ostropolye

(d. 1648), kabbalist. Shimshon of Ostropolye’s name suggests that he may have been born, or else lived for a time, in the Volhynian town of Ostropolye (Ostropol). Little is known about his life beyond the fact that he died a martyr’s death in July 1648, during the Khmel’nyts’kyi massacre in the town of Polnoye (Pol., Połonne), where he served as resident preacher. According to Natan Hannover’s contemporary account of the event, Yeven metsulah (1653), a heavenly teacher (magid), who used to appear to Shimshon regularly and instruct him in the secrets of the Kabbalah, had warned him in advance of the impending catastrophe and advised him to call on the community to repent in order to avert it—which they did, but to no avail.

Shimshon was one of several kabbalists active in Poland in the first half of the seventeenth century; others included Natan Spira of Kraków (1585–1633) and Aryeh Leib Priluk, with whom he shared a preoccupation with demonology and extensive use of the hermeneutical technique of numerology. By this technique, Shimshon generated a range of previously unheard-of names for the kelipot (husks), the forces of evil according to the Kabbalah—some of them derived from the vocabulary of the church or from the Jewish stock of anti-Christian expressions. He personified each one as a vivid demonic figure and identified the corresponding holy name by which it might be magically countered.

Shimshon’s concern with the kelipot appears to have been driven by his urge to advance the advent of the messiah, in which he may have believed himself destined to play an active role. There are some indications that he identified with the figure of the messiah of the House of Joseph, who would counter and thus eliminate his demonic counterpart—the Christian messiah, Jesus.

Shimshon’s writings were not published until after his death, and then mainly by members of his family. Quotations from them appeared in his name and were incorporated in other kabbalists’ works, such as Tsevi ha-Levi Horowitz’s commentary on the Zohar, Aspaklaryah ha-me’irah (1776). Shimshon’s mystical doctrine purported to reflect the sixteenth-century Kabbalah of Yitsḥak Luria but was in fact unsystematic and eclectic, indiscriminately combining several strands of the sixteenth-century Kabbalah with earlier mystical traditions. Many of his references to Luria’s works cannot be found anywhere in the Lurianic corpus, and appear to be pseudepigraphic disguises for his own ideas.

This tendency to conceal his authorial identity marks Shimshon’s major extant work, Sefer karnayim (1709), which he ascribed to an unknown, probably fictitious Aharon of Kardina, and to which he appended his own commentary, Dan yadin. The book contains references to various unknown works, some of them attributed to Shimshon himself, of which no trace has ever been found, and which appear to represent spurious authorial claims to fictitious writings. All these apparent disguises and false attributions, for which there is precedence in kabbalistic tradition, may have arisen from the lack of clear boundaries between the author’s concrete literary activity and the mystical revelations he believed he received by way of visionary experience.

Suggested Reading

Yehuda Liebes, “Yonah ben Amitai ke-mashiaḥ ben Yosef,” in Meḥkarim be-Kabalah, be-filosofyah yehudit uve-sifrut ha-musar veha-hagut: Mugashim li-Yesh‘ayah Tishbi bi-mel’ot lo shiv‘im ve-ḥamesh shanim, ed. Joseph Dan and Joseph Hacker, pp. 269–311 (Jerusalem, 1986), summary in English pp. xv–xvii; Yehuda Liebes, “Mysticism and Reality: Towards a Portrait of the Martyr and Kabbalist, R. Samson Ostropoler,” in Jewish Thought in the Seventeenth Century, ed. Isadore Twersky and Bernard Septimus, pp. 221–255 (Cambridge, Mass., 1987); Gershom Scholem, “Ha-Tenu‘ah ha-shabta’it be-Polin,” in Bet Yisra’el be-Polin, ed. Israel Halpern, vol. 2, pp. 36–40 (Jerusalem, 1953).