Bezalel Naor

“What is a Kohen doing in the graveyard?” Rav Kook and Jacob Frank?

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk. Translated by Jennifer Croft. New York: Riverhead Books, 2022.

This past year, Polish author Olga Tocarczuk’s Nobel Prize-winning historical novel, The Books of Jacob, concerning the ignominious career of Jacob Frank, an eighteenth-century heresiarch, has taken the Jewish world by storm.[1] In imitation of the old style of title-pages which were much wordier and more informational, the subtitle advertises, “A fantastic journey across seven borders, five languages, and three major religions, not counting the minor sects.” Just short of a thousand pages, this ambitious saga traces Frank’s sordid life through his peregrinations, physical and spiritual.

Geographically, Frank and his followers relocated from the Ottoman Empire (Salonika) to Poland to Moravia (Bruenn, today Brno, Czech Republic), and finally to Germany (Offenbach near Frankfurt).

Spiritually, the man and his retinue, though born observant Jews, re-invented themselves, first as Muslims, and later as Polish Catholics (with a brief dalliance with Russian Orthodoxy along the way).

As for the linguistic shifts, they are reflected acutely in the metamorphoses undergone by “Nahman’s Prayer,” the theme song of this entire mammoth creation. (Besides purely linguistic shifts from Hebrew to Turkish to Polish to German to French, the prayer shapeshifts whereby, as in the game of “Telephone,” the content itself is subject to permutation.)[2]

Who is Nahman and what is so quintessential about his prayer?

Nahman ben Samuel Levi of Busk was one of Frank’s first and most devoted followers. After his conversion to Catholicism, he assumed the name “Piotr Jakubowski” (paying homage to his master Jakob Frank). Tocarczuk has cast Nahman as the chronicler of the Frankist movement.

Nahman’s Prayer may best be summed up as the song of the soul. In all of its versions and transformations, the prayer expresses the soul’s yearning for freedom; for release from all the restrictions imposed by society and the dictates of its conventions, etiquette and mores. By its lofty nature, the soul transcends far above these lowly, loathsome limitations.

One may be left wondering how is it that the prayer does not end on this note of spiritual anarchy, but in an abrupt volte face implores the divinity for the words to express “the truth of You.” First suffocated by the limitations of language, the soul doubles back, seeking precisely—words. What is one to make of this glaring non sequitur?

As Nahman tells it, in his youth he was entrusted by his mentor, Mordechai Margalit of Prague (supposedly a disciple of Rabbi Jonatan Eibeschuetz) with “a very old prayer, the author of which cannot now be known, and which soon became the expression of my own voice. It went like this:

My soul

will not let itself be locked in any prison,

iron cage or cage made out of air.

My soul wants to be like a ship in the sky,

and the body’s boundaries cannot hold it back.

And no walls will ever imprison it:

not those that have been built by human hands,

nor the walls of politeness,

nor the walls of civility

or good manners .…

My soul flies over all of that

with the greatest ease,

it is above what is contained in words,

and beyond what cannot even be contained in words.

It is beyond pleasure ….

It exceeds what is lovely and lofty ….

Help me, merciful God …

Give me the ability to speak, give me language and words,

so that I might speak the truth

of You.”[3]

The reader may be startled to discover that this “very old prayer, the author of which cannot now be known,” is actually a prayer by none other than—Rav Kook!

The first portion of “Nahman’s Prayer” delivers (with slight alterations) this poem of Rav Kook:

Expanses, expanses, divine expanses, my soul desires. Do not enclose me in any cage, neither physical nor spiritual. My soul sails the wide heavens; she cannot be contained by the walls of the heart, nor by the walls of action, ethics, logic and politesse. Above all these [my soul] sails and flies, above all that may be called by any name; higher than any joy, pleasantness and beauty; higher than all that is exalted. “I am lovesick.”[4]

The explanation for the inconsistency we discovered in “Nahman’s Prayer” is rather simple. The final stanza has been taken from a following poem of Rav Kook which begins with the words “I thirst, I thirst for my God” (“Tsameti, Tsameti le-Elohai”), dwells on the insufficiency of language to express “the great truth” (“ha-emet ha-gedolah”) that engulfs the poet, and concludes with this pathos-laden prayer:

Oh my God, be a help to me in my distress. Provide me with the craft of expression.[5] Give me language and lips. I shall tell the multitudes my truth—Your truth, my God.[6]

These two different poems were presented as one continuous unit when first published by A.M. Habermann in 1945.[7] Ben Zion Bokser followed suit in his 1978 English anthology.[8]

I found confirmation of familiarity with Rav Kook’s literary oeuvre in the final passage in Nahman’s chronicle:

Just look, I told them: all the books we have studied have been about light: the Sefer ha-Bahir is the Book of Brightness, Sha‘are Ora are the Gates of Light, Me’or Einayim the Light of the Eyes, the Orot ha-Kodesh is the Light [!] of Holiness, and finally, the Sefer haZohar is the Book of Splendor.[9]

Orot ha-Kodesh (Lights of Holiness) is the title of Rav Kook’s magnum opus.

Not wishing to rely on the English translation of Nahman’s Prayer, I turned to the earlier Hebrew translation of Tocarczuk’s work, Sifrei Ya‘akov (thinking that surely it would make transparent the relation to Rav Kook). Two surprises awaited me. First, the original version of Nahman’s Prayer (which closely resembles Rav Kook’s poem) has been supplanted by a later version so different as to make it well-nigh impossible to note any similarities to Rav Kook.[10] Second, the reference to Orot ha-Kodesh is missing altogether.[11]

It was time to obtain the original Polish Ksiegi Jakubowe, awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2018. Comparative analysis confirmed that the English rendition was an extremely faithful translation of Nahman’s Prayer, warranting my conclusion that it was founded on Rav Kook’s poem and prayer.[12] On the other hand, I was surprised that the later reference to Orot ha-Kodesh of Rav Kook was not present in the Polish (justifying its omission from the Hebrew translation).[13]

Admittedly, the book I received from Poland is a recent 2022 imprint and not the first printing of 2014. If revisions had been made by the author in the Polish original, that could conceivably account for a discrepancy between the English and Hebrew translations (assuming the respective translators worked from different versions of the Polish).


All of this brings us to the larger issue. What are the broad implications of finding that Rav Kook’s soulful meditations have, in a sense, served as the backbone of a chronicle of the Frankist movement? Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (1865-1935), the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Erets Israel (under the British), though somewhat controversial, was a renowned Halakhic authority. Jacob Frank (born Lejbowicz) (1726-1791) was one of the worst rascals in Jewish history. A real paskudnyak. To say that he was antinomian, does not do him justice. As the adage goes, “What is a kohen doing in the graveyard?”[14]


[1] For the record, it should be stated that this is not the first attempt at a fictionalized account of the life of Jacob Frank. See earlier W. Gunther Plaut, The Man Who Would Be Messiah: A Biographical Novel, with a Foreword by Elie Wiesel (Oakville, Ontario, Canada: Mosaic Press, 1990).

[2] The Books of Jacob, pp. 856 (Hebrew), 741-740 (Moliwda’s Polish), 577 (Turkish), 473-472 (Nahman’s Polish), 157-156 (German), 20-19 (French).

[3] The Books of Jacob, p. 856. (The original text or Urtext of Nahman’s Prayer occurs early on in the book. If the reader finds the page number confusing, it helps to remember that the pagination reads from right to left as in a Hebrew book.)

[4] Song of Songs 2:5; 5:8; Shemonah Kevatsim 3:279.

[5] Hebrew, ma‘arkhei lashon. Cf. Proverbs 16:1.

[6] Shemonah Kevatsim 3:280

[7] See A.M. Habermann, “Shirat Harav,” in Zikaron le-nishmat ha-ga’on ha-tsaddik Harav Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook zt”l li-mel’ot ‘eser shanim li-fetirato, ed. J.L. Hakohen Fishman (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1945), pp. 17-19. The poems were made available to Habermann by Rabbi Tsevi Yehudah Hakohen Kook, the poet’s son. Rabbi Tsevi Yehudah also provided the dates of the poems’ composition. See ibid. p. 11. The poems that concern us are dated “5672-5673?” (i.e. 1912-1913?) The entire unit has been entitled “Merhavim, Merhavim” (“Expanses, Expanses”).

[8] Abraham Isaac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, The Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems, translation and introduction by Ben Zion Bokser (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), pp. 379-380.

[9] The Books of Jacob, p. 33. Italics mine (BN).

[10] See Olga Tocarczuk, Sifrei Ya‘akov, transl. Miriam Bornstein (Jerusalem: Carmel, 2020), pp. 83-84. What presents as the original Hebrew of Nahman’s Prayer is actually identical with Moliwda’s Polish version on pages 170-171 of Sifrei Ya‘akov (in The Books of Jacob, pp. 741-740). It poses too as the final French Revolutionary version on pages 687-688 of Sifrei Ya‘akov. Recycling the same version over and over defeats Tocarczuk’s purpose of pointing out the subtle (or not so subtle) variations on the theme. To the credit of the Hebrew translation, it does preserve on page 84 the final stanza (the actual prayer wherein Nahman implores God for words to express the truth), so that Rav Kook’s “fingerprints” have not been totally removed.

[11] Sifrei Ya‘akov, p. 678.

Me’or Einayim is also missing from the list. Though occurring in the Polish original, Ksiegi Jakubowe (p. 45), it is clearly a faux pas. There are two works by that title. The earlier Me’or Einayim (Mantua 1574) by Azariah dei Rossi is a hyper-rationalist work having no truck with Kabbalah; the later Me’or Einayim (Slavuta 1798) by Rabbi Menahem Nahum Twersky of Chernobyl, is a Hasidic work. There is an early Kabbalistic work Me’irat Einayim by Rabbi Isaac of Acre (a super-commentary on Nahmanides’ commentary to the Pentateuch), but it remained in manuscript until well into the twentieth century.

The editio princeps of Bahir is Amsterdam 1651; of Sha‘arei Orah, Riva di Trento and Mantua 1561; of Zohar, Mantua and Cremona, 1558.

[12] Olga Tocarczuk, Ksiegi Jakubowe (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2022), p. 809.

[13] Ibid. p. 45.

[14] Cf. b. Bava Metsi‘a 114b.


About the Author
Bezalel Naor is an author, teacher, and public speaker. He is recognized as a scholar in the thought of Rav Kook, Kabbalah, Sabbatianism, and Hasidism, as well as many other areas of Jewish Thought. Recent publications include a bilingual edition of Rav Kook's seminal work, Orot (Maggid, 2015); When God Becomes History: Historical Essays of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (Kodesh, 2016); The Koren Rav Kook Siddur (2017); Navigating Worlds: Collected Essays (Kodesh, 2021); and The Souls of the World of Chaos (Kodesh, 2023).
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