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The Messiah in Judaism has a number of interpretations, historical and eschatological, including any king chosen by God; a holy king who will lead the Israelitesand Proselytes; and someone who will usher in an idyllic age of peace and justice in the World to Come. Some messianic movements later split from Judaism, including the followers of Jesus whose religion became Christianity and some of the followers of Sabbatai Zevi, who became the Dönmeh.
List of Jewish messiah claimants
In Judaism, messiah (Heb. moshiach) originally meant a divinely appointed king or “anointed one” and included Jewish priests, prophets and kings such as David, Cyrus the Great or Alexander the Great.Later, especially after the failure of the Hasmonean Kingdom (37 BC) and the Jewish–Roman wars (AD 66-135), the figure of the Jewish Messiah was one who would deliver the Jews from oppression and usher in an Olam Haba (“world to come”) or Messianic Age.
Some people were looking forward to a military leader who would defeat the Seleucid or Roman enemies and establish an independent Jewish kingdom. Others, like the author of the Psalms of Solomon, stated that the Messiah was a charismatic teacher who would give the correct interpretation of Mosaic law, restore Israel, and judge mankind.
Before the Common Era
- Simon of Peraea (c. 4 BCE), a former slave of Herod the Great, who rebelled and was killed by the Romans.
- Athronges (c. 4-2? BCE), a shepherd turned rebel leader of a rebellion with his four brothers against Herod Archelaus and the Romans after proclaiming himself the Messiah. He and his brothers were eventually defeated.
- Jesus (ca. 4 BCE – 30 CE), in Galilee and the Roman province of Judea. Jews who believed him to be the Messiah were the first Christians, also known as Jewish Christians. It is estimated that there are 2.5 billion Christians in the world today, making Jesus of Nazareth the most widely followed Messiah claimant. In addition to Christians, Muslims also regard Jesus (‘Isa) as the Jewish messiah.
- Judas of Galilee (6 CE), Judas led a violent resistance to the census imposed for Roman tax purposes by Quirinius in Iudaea Province around 6 CE. The revolt was crushed brutally by the Romans.
- Menahem ben Judah (?), the son or grandson of Judas of Galilee, was a leader of the Sicarii. When the war broke, he armed his followers with the weapons captured at Masada and besieged Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem, overpowering the troops of Agrippa II in Judea and forcing the Roman garrison to retreat. Emboldened by his success, he behaved as an “insufferable tyrant”, thereby arousing the enmity of Eleazar, the Temple Captain and de facto a rival Zealot rebel leader, who had him tortured and killed. He may be identical with the Menahem ben Hezekiah mentioned in the Talmud (tractate Sanhedrin 98b) and called “the comforter that should relieve”.
- Theudas (?-46 CE), a Jewish rebel of the 1st century CE, at some point between 44 and 46 CE, Theudas led his followers in a short-lived revolt. Some writers are of the opinion that he may have said he was the Messiah.
- Vespasian, c.70, according to Flavius Josephus
- John of Gischala (? after 70), was a leader of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in the First Jewish-Roman War, and played a part in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE.
- Simon bar Kokhba (also: Bar Kosiba) (?- died c. 135), 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. The leader of the revolt Simon bar Kokhba 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. He founded a short-lived Jewish state before his Messianic movement ended in defeat in the Second Jewish-Roman War causing misery for the survivors.
- Lukuas (115 CE), was the leader of Jewish rebels during the Kitos War.
- 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. In about 440-470, his followers, convinced by him, left their possessions and waited for the promised day, when at his command many cast themselves into the sea to return to Israel, some finding death, others being rescued. The pseudo-Messiah himself disappeared. Socrates of Constantinople states that Moses of Crete fled, while the Chronicle of John of Nikiû claims that he perished in the sea. While he called himself Moses, the Chronicle gives his actual name as ‘Fiskis’.
The Khuzistan Chronicle records an otherwise-unknown Messianic claimant who arose alongside the Muslim conquest of Khuzistan. This Messiah led the Jews to destroying numerous Christian churches in Iraq and coastal Iran.
The pseudo-Messiahs that followed played their roles in the Orient, and were at the same time religious reformers whose work influenced Karaism. Appearing at the first part of the 8th century in Persia:
- Isḥaḳ ben Ya’ḳub Obadiah Abu ‘Isa al-Isfahani of Ispahan. He lived in the reign of Marwan II (744-750). Known as Abu Isa, he claimed to be the last of the five forerunners of the Messiah and that God had appointed him to free Israel. Having gathering a large number of followers, he rebelled against the caliph in Persia. But he 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, the ‘Isawiyya.
- Yudghan, called “Al-Ra’i” (“the shepherd of the flock of his people”), who lived and taught in Persia in the first half of the 8th century. He was disciple of Abu Isa who continued the faith after Isa was slain.. He 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.
- Serene (his name is given variously in the sources as Sherini, Sheria, Serenus, Zonoria, Saüra, Severus) the Syrian was born a Christian. He preached in the district of Mardin between 720 and 723. Those Christian sources dependent on Theophilus’s history report that “Severus” proclaimed himself Messiah; the Zuqnin Chronicle reports that he proclaimed himself Moses “sent again for the salvation of Israel”. Serene promised “to lead you into the desert in order to introduce you then to the inheritance of the Promised Land which you shall possess as before”; more as a “prophet like Moses” than as a Davidic “anointed one” as such. 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.Serene 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 Moses. These Jews paid instead a tithe to Serene. Like Abu ‘Isa and Yudghan, Serene also was a religious reformer. According to Natronai b. Nehemiah, gaon of Pumbedita (719-30), Serene was hostile to rabbinic Judaism laws. 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. 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. Natronai laid down the criteria by which Serene’s followers might rejoin the synagogue; most of said followers then presumably did so.
Under the influence of the Crusades the number of Messiahs increased, and the 12th 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).
- Moses al-Dar’i, a Moroccan teacher, gained a large following. He was convinced that the Messiah would free the Jews in the Almoravid countries at Passover 1127.
- David Alroy or Alrui, who was born in Kurdistan, appeared in Persia about 1160 declaring 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. Benjamin Disraeli wrote the novel Alroy based on this man’s life.
- The Yemenite Messiah, was an anonymous alleged forerunner of the Messiah from Yemen, who appeared in Fez. Just as 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, preaching repentance that those who gave their worldly possessions to the poor would gain a treasure in heaven. 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. Nothing is known beyond the mention of him inMaimonides‘ “Iggeret Teman” (The Yemen Epistle).
- Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia (b. 1240- 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 Ayllonin 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, active in Avila around 1295. 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 (?), active around 1413. 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. He claimed to be a sorcerer able to combine the names of God. One of his adherents and partisans was Hasdai Crescas. Their relation is referred to by Gerónimo de Santa Fe in his speech at the disputation in Tortosa 1413.
- Asher Lämmlein, Asher Kay (Käei) (?), a German proclaiming himself a forerunner of the Messiah, appeared in Istria, near Venice in 1502, 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.
- Isaac Luria (1534–1573) and Hayyim Vital (1543–1620), together they were apparently able to conjure up the spirits of deceased rabbis. One of the spirits they spoke to, convinced them that he was the Messiah and that he would come soon.
- Isaac Luria (1534–1572), was a foremost rabbi and Jewish mystic in the community of Safed in the Galilee region of Ottoman Palestine. He is considered the father of contemporary Kabbalah. Luria understood that he was the ‘suffering servant’, who was, in his own view, the forerunner of the ‘Messiah of David.’
- Hayyim Vital (1543–1620), started his career as an alchemist, looking for the philosopher’s stone that would convert lead into gold. After several failures, he decided to study the Kabbalah with Isaac Luria. After Luria’s death, Vital started to understand that he himself was the Messiah of David and went to Damascus. He claimed that God would redeem Israel when he had found ten righteous people (the number mentioned in Genesis 18.32), but never succeeded.
- David Reubeni (1490-1541?) and Solomon Molcho (1500–1532), adventurers who travelled in Portugal, Italy, and Turkey.
- David Reubeni (early 16th century), he 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 Reubenand 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).
- David Reuveni and Solomon Molcho (was a mostly unknown Czech Jew from around the 1650s) were arrested in Regensburg on the orders of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain. He was taken to Mantua, in Italy, where he was tried and eventually burned at the stake by the Pope 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 (alternative spellings: Shabbetai, Sabbetai, Shabbesai; Zvi, Tzvi) (b. at Smyrna 1626; d. at Dulcigno 1676), an Ottoman Jew who claimed to be the Messiah, but then converted to Islam; still has followers today in the Dönmeh. The most important messianic movement, and one whose influence was widespread throughout Jewry, lasting in some quarters over a century. After his death, Sabbatai was followed by a line of putative followers declared themselves Messiahs “Sabbethaian pseudo-messiahs”;
- Barukhia Russo (Osman Baba), successor of Sabbatai Zevi.
- Mordecai Mokia (1650–1729), (“the Rebuker”) of Eisenstadt, another follower of Shabbethai who remained faithful to him, Mordecai Mokiaḥ (“the Rebuker”) ofEisenstadt, 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 toPoland, 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.
- Jacob Querido (died 1690), 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 new incarnation of Shabbethai. He pretended to be Shabbethai’s son and adopted the name Jacob Tzvi. With 400 followers converted 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).
- 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).
- Löbele Prossnitz (Joseph ben Jacob) (?-1750), (early 18th century). 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. He was a proven fraud who nevertheless attained some following amongst former followers of Sabbatai, calling himself the “Messiah ben Joseph.”
- Jacob Joseph Frank (b. 1726 in Podolia; d. 1791), founder of the Frankist movement, also claimed to be the messiah. In his youth he made contact with the Dönmeh. He taught that he was a reincarnation of King David and the Patriarch Joseph. Having secured a following among 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 WarsawNovember 1759. Later his insincerity was exposed, and he was imprisoned as a heretic, remaining, however, even in prison the head of this sect.
- Eve Frank (1754–1816/1817), was the daughter of Jacob Frank. In 1770 Eve was declared to be the incarnation of the Shekinah, the female aspect of God, as well as the reincarnation of the Virgin Maryand thus became the object of a devotional subcult herself in Częstochowa, with some followers keeping small statues of her in their homes. According to historian Jerry Rabow, she was the only woman to have been declared a Jewish messiah.
- Shukr Kuhayl I, 19th-century Yemenite pseudo-messiah.
- Judah ben Shalom (Shukr Kuhayl II), 19th-century Yemenite pseudo-messiah
- Moses Guibbory (1899–1985)
- Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), within the 1990s Lubavich movement, was widely believed to be the Messiah. Although he never directly stated that he was the Messiah, he did not contradict those who said he was. Even after his death in 1994, some continue to await his return as the Messiah.