Messianism, Jewish

views updated


MESSIANISM, JEWISH. The hope for national redemption from exile and the ultimate reinstatement of Jewish self-government under a messianic (from the Hebrew for 'anointed') king descended from the House of David was an integral and unquestioned element of early modern Judaism. The Messiah was read into biblical texts like Jeremiah 36, referred to often in the Talmud, and rehearsed daily in the liturgy.


Events encouraged speculation about an imminent end of days and moved dreams of redemption to the forefront of Jewish thought. Great wars in Europe, the breakdown of Christian unity with the Reformation, and even the discovery of the New World were all seen as part of a final apocalypse. The relentless Ottoman expansion against Christendom, and especially the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, were understood as the realization of the biblically predicted wars of Gog and Magog (Ezekiel 38, 39). When the Turks conquered the land of Israel in 1516, and Jews found it possible to travel to, and settle in, their ancient homeland once again, God's imminent redemption seemed clear.

Messianic predictions also provided a form of theodicy: contemporary tragedies like the massive expulsion from Spain in 1492 were the necessary preparation for imminent redemption. Even mainstream figures engaged in these predictions. Despite strong Talmudic condemnation of those who calculated the time of the redemption, the Spanish-Portuguese financier, diplomat, and scholar, Don Isaac Abravanel, wrote no fewer than three tracts devoted to this subject (14961498). He rejected the warning that his predictions, if they proved wrong, could lead to even greater despair. At a time of great suffering he was offering solace. "God will not abandon His people," he declared in the introduction to his Wellsprings of Salvation. "The day of the Lord who chooses Jerusalem is close at hand."


Indicative of the spirit of the time was the popularity of the seventh-century Book of Zerubavel with its apocalyptic visions of great wars over Jerusalem, a preliminary Messiah from the tribe of Ephraim son of Joseph, and another, ultimately victorious Messiah from the House of David. Often recopied in manuscript, the book was among the earliest Hebrew works to be printed (Constantinople, 1519).

Messianic preachers also struck a powerful chord. From 1500 to 1502, for example, Asher Lemlein raised great enthusiasm throughout northeastern Italy and Germany when he predicted the Messiah's imminent arrival and called for repentance and acts of self-flagellation.

Several decades earlier, kabbalistically (mystically) oriented messianic enthusiasts in Spain responded to mounting religious pressures by seeking to use magic to tame the forces of evil (including oppressive Christianity) and turn them to good. This kabbalistic circle is known for its major literary expression, Sefer ha-Meshiv (a book of divine "responses" and eschatological revelations). Its vision of an ultimate struggle against evil was popularized in tales about Rabbi Joseph della Reina, who was said to have brought down Satan but tragically failed to control the monster and thus delayed redemption.

The Spanish cabalist Abraham ben Eliezer ha-Levi may have been part of this circle. After the 1492 expulsion and especially after the Ottoman conquest of the land of Israel, he was a leading figure in a group of messianists in Jerusalem. Because they believed that the Messiah's coming was imminent, they began instituting special prayers and vigils to alleviate the "birth pangs" of the Messiah.


Travelers' reports of isolated Jewish tribes also served to raise messianic expectations. These were assumed to be members of the ten Israelite tribes exiled in 722 b.c.e. and preserved ever since beyond a raging river, the Sambatyon. Possibly influenced by Christian tales about the secret kingdom of Prester John, Jews imagined these brave and fierce warriors now about to come to the rescue of their oppressed brethren.

Possibly himself an Ethiopian Falasha, David Reuveni (died c. 1538) gradually made his way from Egypt and the land of Israel to western Europe, where he met with Pope Clement VII in Rome (1524) and with King John III of Portugal (15251527). Claiming to be the brother and messenger of the king of the tribe of Reuben (hence his name), Reuveni pressed for treaties with European rulers and supplies of arms for a common war against the Turk. Reuveni's reception among Jews was mixed: some accepted his self-presentation at face value and tried to aid him; others considered him a dangerous charlatan and strove to discredit him.


Reuveni had an especially powerful effect on the Portuguese conversos (Christians of Jewish descent, many of whom secretly practiced Jewish rites even after their forced conversion to Christianity in 1497). The young Diogo Pires, secretary to the Portuguese royal council, was inspired by his tales, circumcised himself, and openly reverted to the Judaism of his ancestors, adopting the name Solomon Molcho. Forced to flee Portugal, Molcho traveled through Italy and the Ottoman Empire, studying cabala, preaching about the redemption, and eventually declaring himself the Messiah. After gaining considerable support from leading rabbinic thinkers of the time, Molcho was eventually reunited with Reuveni in Italy. Arrested by Emperor Charles V, Molcho was burned at the stake as a heretic in Mantua (1532); Reuveni probably suffered a similar fate in Spain a few years later.

Messianic hopes remained powerful among conversos, who understood their suffering at the hands of the Inquisition as part of a redemptive plan and incorporated certain Christian notions of the Messiah into their own, increasingly syncretistic, religious beliefs. This would be especially important in the later seventeenth century when former conversos would provide much of the theological background for the Sabbatean movement that began in 1665, the most important messianic movement since classical times.


Historians see Jewish messianism in the early modern period as more than a response to national suffering. It was a central motif in Jewish religious thought, open to substantially different interpretations by each writer. Scholars now focus on the religious, and especially mystical, dimensions of messianism.

Gershom Scholem accepted the link between the Sephardic (Iberian Jewish) experience and early modern messianism, though he argued that the sense of overwhelming catastrophe engendered by the expulsions was transmuted into a new form of cabalistic thinking linked especially to Isaac Luria (15341572) and the brilliant constellation of thinkers who gathered in Safed. According to Scholem, Lurianic Cabala, which assigned to the Messiah the task of redeeming not just exiled Israel but the world itself, became the basis of a new, mystical theology that influenced Jewish thinkers everywhere and eventually led to Sabbateanism.

More recent scholars have emended Scholem's once-dominant thesis, pointing to possible influence from contemporary Christian eschatological rhetoric (Ruderman), questioning the necessary link between historical crisis and theology, and suggesting that Lurianic thought was far less pervasive than had been claimed (Idel). The distinction made by Gerson Cohen between activist and quietistic forms of messianism (the former associated with Sephardic, and the latter with Ashkenazic, or central European, Jews) has been replaced by more nuanced categories that can no longer be associated with specific ethnic subgroups.

See also Conversos ; Jews and Judaism .


Cohen, Gerson D. "Messianic Postures of Ashkenazim and Sephardim (Prior to Sabbethai Zevi)." In Studies in the Variety of Rabbinic Cultures, pp. 271297. Philadelphia, 1991.

Idel, Moshe. Messianic Mystics. New Haven, 1998.

Lenowitz, Harris. The Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights. New York, 1998.

Ruderman, David B. "Hope Against Hope. Jewish and Christian Messianic Expectations in the Late Middle Ages." In Essential Papers on Jewish Culture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, pp. 299323. New York, 1992.

Scholem, Gershom. The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality. New York, 1971.

Bernard Dov Cooperman