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Jewish Messiah claimants

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This article presents an overview of various historically significant Jewish Messiah claimants. For general information see Jewish Messiah and also see the various main articles referenced below.

List of Jewish messiah claimants

Menahem ben Judah

Menahem ben Judah, the son of Judas of Galilee and grandson of Hezekiah, the leader of the Zealots, who had troubled Herod, was a warrior. When the war broke out he attacked Masada with his band, armed his followers with the weapons stored there, and proceeded to Jerusalem where he captured the fortress Antonia, overpowering the troops of Agrippa II. Emboldened by his success, he behaved as a king, and claimed the leadership of all the troops. Thereby he aroused the enmity of Eleazar, another Zealot leader, and met death because of a conspiracy against him. He is probably identical with the Menahem ben Hezekiah mentioned in the Talmud (tractate Sanhedrin 98b) and called "the comforter that should relieve".

Bar Kokhba

With the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem the appearance of messiahs ceased for a time. Sixty years later a politico-Messianic movement of large proportions took place with Shimeon Bar Kokhba (also: Bar Kosiba) at its head. This leader of the revolt against Rome was hailed as Messiah-king by Rabbi Akiva, who referred to him, Numbers xxiv. 17: "There shall come forth a star out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite through the corners of Moab,", and Hag. ii. 21, 22; "I will shake the heavens and the earth and I will overthrow the thrones of kingdoms. . . ." (Talmud tractate Sanhedrin97b). Although some doubted his messiahship, he seems to have carried the nation with him for his undertaking. After stirring up a war (133-135) that taxed the power of Rome, he at last met his death on the walls of Bethar. His Messianic movement ended in defeat and misery for the survivors.

Moses of Crete

The unsuccessful issue of the Bar Kokba war put an end for centuries to Messianic movements, but Messianic hopes were nonetheless cherished. In accordance with a computation found in the Talmud, the Messiah was expected in 440 (Sanh. 97b) or 471 ('Ab. Zarah 9b). This expectation in connection with the disturbances in the Roman empire attendant upon invasions may have raised up the Messiah who appeared about this time in Crete, and who won over the Jewish population to his movement. He called himself Moses, and promised to lead the people, like the ancient Moses, dry-shod through the sea back to Palestine. His followers, convinced by him, left their possessions and waited for the promised day, when at his command many cast themselves into the sea, some finding death, others being rescued. The pseudo-Messiah himself disappeared (Socrates, "Historia Ecclesiastica," vii. 38; Grätz, "Gesch." 3d ed., iv. 354-355). Socrates states that Moses of Crete fled, while the Chronicle of John of Nikiu claims that he perished in the sea. While he called himself Moses, the Chronicle gives his actual name as 'Fiskis' (John of Nikiu, "Chronicle," LXXXVI.1-11).

In 7th century Persia

The pseudo-Messiahs that followed played their roles in the Orient, and were at the same time religious reformers whose work influenced Karaism. At the end of the seventh century appeared in Persia Isḥaḳ ben Ya'ḳub Obadiah Abu 'Isa al-Isfahani of Ispahan (for other forms of his name and for his sect see "J. Q. R." xvi. 768, 770, 771; Grätz, l.c. v., notes 15 and 17). He lived in the reign of the Umayyad Caliph 'Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (684-705). He claimed to be the last of the five forerunners of the Messiah and to have been appointed by God to free Israel. According to some he was himself the Messiah. Having gathering a large number of followers, he rebelled against the caliph, but was defeated and slain at Rai. His followers claimed that he was inspired and urged as proof the fact that he wrote books, although he was ignorant of reading and writing. He founded the first sect that arose in Judaism after the destruction of the Temple.

His disciple Yudghan, called "Al-Ra'i" (= "the shepherd of the flock of his people"), who lived in the first half of the eighth century, declared himself to be a prophet, and was by his disciples regarded as a Messiah. He came from Hamadan, and taught doctrines which he claimed to have received through prophecy. According to Shahristani, he opposed the belief in anthropomorphism, taught the doctrine of free will, and held that the Torah had an allegorical meaning in addition to its literal one. He admonished his followers to lead an ascetic life, to abstain from meat and wine, and to pray and fast often, following in this his master Abu 'Isa. He held that the observance of the Sabbath and festivals was merely a matter of memorial. After his death his followers formed a sect, the Yudghanites, who believed that their Messiah had not died, but would return.

The Syrian Serene

Between 720 and 723 a Syrian, Serene (his name is given variously in the sources as Sherini, Sheria, Serenus, Zonoria, Saüra) appeared as the messiah. The immediate occasion for his appearance may have been the restriction of the liberties of the Jews by the caliph Omar II (717-720) and his proselytizing efforts. On the political side, this Messiah promised the expulsion of the Muslims and the restoration of the Jews to the Holy Land. He had followers even in Spain, where the Jews were suffering under the oppressive taxation of their new Arab rulers, and many left their homes for the new Messiah. Like Abu 'Isa and Yudghan, Serene also was a religious reformer. He was hostile to rabbinic Judaism. His followers disregarded the dietary laws, the rabbinically instituted prayers, and the prohibition against the "wine of libation"; they worked on the second day of the festivals; they did not write marriage and divorce documents according to Talmudic prescriptions, and did not accept the Talmudic prohibition against the marriage of near relatives (see Grätz, l.c. note 14). Serene was arrested. Brought before Caliph Yazid II, he declared that he had acted only in jest, whereupon he was handed over to the Jews for punishment. His followers were received back into the fold upon giving up their heresy.

Messiahs during the crusades

Under the influence of the Crusades the number of Messiahs increased, and the twelfth century records many of them. One appeared in France (c. 1087) and was slain by the French; another appeared in the province of Córdoba (c. 1117), and one in Fez (c. 1127). Of these three nothing is known beyond the mention of them in Maimonides' "Iggeret Teman" (The Yemen Epistle).

David Alroy

The next important Messianic movement appears again in Persia. David Alroy or Alrui, who was born in Kurdistan, about 1160 declared himself a Messiah. Taking advantage of his personal popularity, the disturbed and weakened condition of the caliphate, and the discontent of the Jews, who were burdened with a heavy poll tax, he set out upon his political schemes, asserting that he had been sent by God to free the Jews from the Moslem yoke and to lead them back to Jerusalem. For this purpose he summoned the warlike Jews of the neighbouring district of Azerbaijan and his coreligionists of Mosul and Baghdad to come armed to his aid and to assist in the capture of Amadia. From this point his career is enveloped in legend. His movement failed, and he is said to have been assassinated, while asleep, by his own father-in-law. A heavy fine was exacted from the Jews for this uprising. After his death Alroy had many followers in Khof, Salmas, Tauris, and Maragha, and these formed a sect called the Menahemists, from the Messianic name "Menahem," assumed by their founder.

In Yemen

Soon after, David Alroy, an alleged forerunner of the Messiah, appeared in Yemen (in 1172) just when the Muslims were making determined efforts to convert the Jews living there. He declared the misfortunes of the time to be prognostications of the coming Messianic kingdom, and called upon the Jews to divide their property with the poor. This anonymous pseudo-Messiah was the subject of Maimonides' Iggeret Teman. He continued his activity for a year, when he was arrested by the Muslim authorities and beheaded at his own suggestion, it is said, in order that he might prove the truth of his mission by returning to life.

Abraham Abulafia

With Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia (b. 1240; d. after 1291), the cabalist, begin the pseudo-Messiahs whose activity is deeply influenced by their cabalistic speculations. Because of his mystic studies, Abulafia came to believe first that he was a prophet; and in a prophetic book, which he published in Urbino (1279), he declared that God had spoken to him. It is thought, though not proven, that in Messina, on the island of Sicily, where he was well received, and won disciples, he declared himself the Messiah and announced 1290 as the year for the Messianic era to begin. Solomon ben Adret, who was appealed to with regard to Abulafia's claims, condemned him, and some congregations declared against him. Persecuted in Sicily, he went to the island of Comino, near Malta (c. 1288), still asserting in his writings his mission. His end is unknown. Two of his disciples, Joseph Gikatilla and Samuel, both from Medinaceli, later claimed to be prophets and miracle-workers. The latter foretold in mystic language at Ayllon in Segovia the advent of the Messiah.

Abulafia gained much modern notoriety as a the name for the computer of a character in Umberto Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum

Nissim ben Abraham

Another individual making claims of prophethood was Nissim ben Abraham, active in Avila. His followers told of him that, although ignorant, he had been suddenly endowed, by an angel, with the power to write a mystic work, The Wonder of Wisdom, with a commentary thereon. Again an appeal was made to Solomon ben Adret, who doubted Nissim's prophetic pretension and urged careful investigation. The prophet continued his activity, nevertheless, and even fixed the last day of the fourth month, Tammuz, 1295, as the date for the Messiah's coming. The credulous prepared for the event by fasting and almsgiving, and came together on the appointed day. Instead of finding the Messiah, some saw on their garments little crosses, perhaps pinned on by unbelievers to ridicule the movement. In their disappointment some of Nissim's followers are said to have gone over to Christianity. What became of the person is unknown.

Moses Botarel of Cisneros

After the lapse of a century another false Messiah came forward with Messianic pretensions. According to H. Grätz (l.c. viii. 404), this pretended Messiah is to be identified with Moses Botarel of Cisneros. One of his adherents and partisans was Hasdai Crescas. Their relation is referred to by Geronimo da Santa Fé in his speech at the disputation in Tortosa 1413.

Asher Kay

In 1502, Asher Kay (Käei), a German proclaiming himself a forerunner of the Messiah, appeared in Istria, near Venice, and announced that if the Jews would be penitent and practice charity the Messiah would come within half a year, and a pillar of cloud and of smoke would precede the Jews on their return to Jerusalem. He found believers in Italy and Germany, even among the Christians. In obedience to his preaching, people fasted and prayed and gave alms to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, so that the year came to be known as the "year of penitence." However, the "Messiah" either died or disappeared.

David Reuveni and Solomon Molko

David Reuveni pretended to be the ambassador and brother of the King of Khaibar, a town and former district of Arabia, in which the descendants of the "lost tribes" of Reuben and Gad were supposed to dwell. He claimed he was sent to the Pope and the powers of Europe to secure cannon and firearms for war against the Muslims, who prevented the union of the Jews living on the two sides of the Red Sea. He denied expressly that he was a Messiah or a prophet (comp. Fuenn, Keneset Yisrael, p. 256), claiming that he was merely a warrior. The credence which he found at the papal court in 1524, the reception accorded to him in 1525 at the Portuguese court (whither he came at the invitation of John III, and where he at first received the promise of help), the temporary cessation of persecution of the Marranos—all gave the Portuguese and Spanish Marranos reason to believe that Reuveni was a forerunner of the Messiah.

Selaya, inquisitor of Badajoz, complained to the King of Portugal that a Jew who had come from the Orient (referring to Reuveni) had filled the Spanish Marranos with the hope that the Messiah would come and lead Israel from all lands back to Palestine, and that he had even emboldened them to overt acts (comp. H. Grätz, l.c. ix. 532). Reuveni and Molko were arrested in Regensburg on the orders of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain. Molko was taken to Mantua, in Italy, where he was tried and burned at the stake in November, 1532.

A spirit of expectancy was aroused by Reuveni's stay in Portugal. In Herrera del Duque, close to Puebla de Alcocer (Badajoz, Extremadura), a girl of 15 described ecstatic visions in which she talked to the Messiah, who took her to heaven where she saw all those who were burned seated in thrones of gold, and assured her of his near coming. She (only known for us as the Maiden of Herrera) was enthusiastically proclaimed a prophetess, and such was the commotion caused by her visions that the Toledo Inquisition had her promptly arrested and burned together with many of her followers.

Sabbatai Zevi

The most important messianic movement, and one whose influence was widespread throughout Jewry, lasting in some quarters over a century, was that of Sabbatai Zevi (also Shabbethai Zevi) (b. at Smyrna 1626; d. at Dulcigno 1676). See the articles on Sabbatai Zevi and Sabbateans for more details.

Sabbethaian pseudo-messiahs

After his death, Sabbatai was followed by a line of putative messiahs. Jacob Querido, son of Joseph Filosof, and brother of the fourth wife of Sabbatai, became the head of the Shabbethaians in Salonica, being regarded by them as the incarnation of Shabbethai. He pretended to be Shabbethai's son and adopted the name Jacob Tzvi. With 400 followers he went over to Islam about 1687, forming a sect called the Dönmeh. He himself even made a pilgrimage to Mecca (c. 1690). After his death during the pilgrimage his son Berechiah or Berokia succeeded him (c. 1695-1740).

A number of Shabbethai's followers declared themselves Messiahs. Miguel (Abraham) Cardoso (1630-1706), born of Marano parents, may have been initiated into the Shabbethaian movement by Moses Pinheiro in Leghorn. He became a prophet of the Messiah, and when the latter embraced Islam he justified this treason, saying that it was necessary for the Messiah to be reckoned among the sinners in order to atone for Israel's idolatry. He applied Isa. liii. to Shabbethai, and sent out epistles to prove that Shabbethai was the true Messiah, and he even suffered persecution for advocating his cause. Later he considered himself as the Ephraitic Messiah, asserting that he had marks on his body, which were proof of this. He preached and wrote of the speedy coming of the Messiah, fixing different dates until his death (see Cardoso, Miguel).

Mordecai Mokia

Another follower of Shabbethai who remained faithful to him, Mordecai Mokiaḥ ("the Rebuker") of Eisenstadt, also pretended to be a Messiah. His period of activity was from 1678 to 1682 or 1683. He preached at first that Shabbethai was the true Messiah, that his conversion was for mystic reasons necessary, that he did not die but would reveal himself within three years after his supposed death, and pointed to the persecution of the Jews in Oran (by Spain), in Austria, and in France, and to the pestilence in Germany as prognostications of his coming. He found a following among Hungarian, Moravian, and Bohemian Jews. Going a step further, he declared that he was the Davidic Messiah. Shabbethai, according to him, was only the Ephraitic Messiah and was furthermore rich, and therefore could not accomplish the redemption of Israel. He (Mordecai), being poor, was the real Messiah and at the same time the incarnation of the soul of the Ephraitic Messiah. Italian Jews heard of him and invited him to Italy. He went there about 1680, and received a warm welcome in Reggio and Modena. He spoke of Messianic preparations, which he had to make in Rome, and hinted at having perhaps to adopt Christianity outwardly. Denounced to the Inquisition, or advised to leave Italy, he returned to Bohemia, and then went to Poland, where he is said to have become insane. From his time a sect began to form there, which still existed at the beginning of the Mendelssohnian era.

Another Shabbethaians messahish claimant was Löbele Prossnitz. He taught that God had given dominion of the world to the "pious one," i.e., the one who had entered into the depths of Kabbalah. Such a representative of God had been Shabbethai, whose soul had passed into other "pious" men, into Jonathan Eybeschütz and into himself. Another, Isaiah Hasid (a brother-in-law of the Shabbethaian Judah Hasid), who lived in Mannheim, secretly claimed to be the resurrected Messiah, although publicly he had abjured Shabbethaian beliefs.

Jacob Frank

Jacob Frank (b. 1726 in Podolia; d. 1791), founder of the Frankists, also claimed to be the messiah. In his youth he had been brought into relation with the Dönmeh. He taught that he was a reincarnation of King David. Having secured a following between some Turkish and Wallachian Jews, he came in 1755 to Podolia, where the Shabbethaians were in need of a leader, and revealed himself to them as the reincarnation of the soul of Berechiah.

He laid stress on the idea of the "holy king" who was at the same time Messiah, and he accordingly called himself "santo señor" ("holy lord"). His followers claimed he performed miracles; and they even prayed to him. His purpose, as well as that of his sect, was to uproot rabbinic Judaism. He was forced to leave Podolia; and his followers were persecuted. Returning in 1759, he advised his followers to embrace Christianity, and about 1,000 were converted and became privileged Polish gentry of Jewish origins. He himself was converted in Warsaw November 1759. Later his insincerity was exposed, and he was imprisoned as a heretic, remaining, however, even in prison the head of this sect. See the article on Jacob Frank for more details.

Menachem Mendel Schneerson

Among the Chabad Lubavitch movement of Hasidic Judaism, there was a growing messianic fervour in the late 1980s and early 1990s due to the belief that their Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson was about to reveal himself to be the messiah. Schneerson died in 1994 and some of his followers still believe he will be the messiah and will reveal himself when the time is right. A few years before he died, Rabbi Schneerson accepted a delegation of non Hassidic Rabbis who came to ask him general and specific questions. One of the questions was if he was the Messiah. Rabbi Schneerson vehemently denied the assumption.

See also



  • Note: For individual figures, please check the relevant entries where specified. This bibliography deals with the general concept and historical research related to Jewish messianism.
  • Julius Greenstone: The Messianic Idea in Jewish History: Westport: Greenwood: 1972: ISBN 0-8371-2606-1
  • Harris Lenowitz: Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights: New York: Oxford University Press: 1998: ISBN 0-19-511492-2
  • Yehuda Liebes: Studies in Jewish Myth and Messianism: Albany: State University of New York Press: 1993: ISBN 0-7914-1194-X
  • Jacob Neusner, William Scott Green and Ernest Francks (ed) Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era: New York: Cambridge University Press: 1987: ISBN 0-521-34146-9
  • Raphael Patai: Messiah Texts: Detroit: Wayne State University Press: 1979: ISBN 0-8143-1652-2 Also: New York: Avon: 1979:ISBN 0-380-46482-9
  • Jacob Schochet: Mashiach: The Principle of Mashiach in the Messianic Era in Jewish Law and Tradition: New York: SIE: 1992: ISBN 188140000X
  • Gershom Scholem: The Messianic Idea in Judaism: New York: Schocken Books: 1995: 0805210431
  • Robert Wolfe: Origins of the Messianic Idea: New York: JREP Print Center: 2003: ISBN 0-9642465-3-8

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