Joseph della Reina

views updated


JOSEPH DELLA REINA , hero of a kabbalistic legend who attempted to bring an end to Satan's power and thus lead to the redemption. The earliest version of the story, which evolved between the 15th and 17th centuries, is recorded by *Abraham b. Eliezer ha-Levi in his treatise Iggeret Sod ha-Ge'ullah, written in Jerusalem in 1519. The author used terms current only in kabbalistic literature of the period of the expulsion from Spain (1492). The story is very short and dwells more on a detailed description of Satan and his hosts than on the hero and his deeds. However, its salient feature is Joseph's burning of incense before Satan; this, being tantamount to idolatry, caused Joseph's failure and undoing. Nothing about the subsequent fate of the hero is reported. Abraham used this story to explain that Joseph's crime caused the redemption, which should have occurred in 1490, to be postponed for 40 years (one generation later) to 1530, according to the author's calculations the proven year of the beginning of the redemption and the coming of the Messiah. Abraham states that Joseph undertook his task in about 1470, a conclusion attested to by various sources which show that Joseph was actually a known kabbalist in the mid-15th century, probably from the Ibn *Gabbai family. Some factual basis for the story exists, though it serves the purposes and reflects the beliefs of later generations.

The story of Joseph was known in 16th-century Safed. Moses *Cordovero and Ḥayyim *Vital mention his name in descriptions of the dangers of messianic and magical activity. Ḥayyim Vital also recalls that his teacher Isaac *Luria once recognized Joseph's soul in the body of a black dog, Joseph's punishment for his crime. However, until the mid-17th century, a full and detailed written description of Joseph's deeds and fate does not exist, although apparently such a story was repeated orally in Ereẓ Israel. Solomon Navarro (b. 1606), the author of the most complete, detailed, and artistic version, lived for a long time in Jerusalem. Sent as emissary to Italy, he married a Christian, was converted to Christianity in 1664, and was involved in the Shabbatean movement. He wrote a book predicting that the redemption would occur in 1676. Navarro claimed that in Safed he had discovered an ancient manuscript of the story, written by a surviving disciple of Joseph. It is clear, however, that he himself had written the story, using the literary and oral traditions which had developed in the 200 years following Joseph's deed. Navarro's version is the first which contains a description of Joseph's fate after his failure to bring about the redemption. He became an ally of Satan and a lover of *Lilith, and later fell in love with the wife of the king of Greece, whom Lilith had brought to his bed every night. After some time this was revealed to the king and Joseph had to commit suicide. Both Eastern and Western folkloristic motifs appear in this last part. In contrast to earlier versions, Navarro describes Joseph's mistake as accidental. The earlier moral of the story, that a man should not try to use magic to bring forth the redemption, does not emerge clearly.

In Navarro's version, the tale may be interpreted as encouragement to follow Joseph's example and as a demonstration of the dangers of such practice, an aspect which interested the Shabbatean writers. Solomon *Ayllon, a leading Shabbatean thinker after *Shabbetai Ẓevi's conversion to Islam, composed a version of the story which has been preserved in Yiddish. It reveals a more sympathetic attitude toward Joseph. The Shabbateans, naturally, noticed the similarity between Joseph, who became a servant of Satan, and their converted messiah. In the late 17th century a Shabbatean Jew who belonged to the *Doenmeh wrote a mythical biography of Shabbetai Ẓevi, using a motif found in this story to describe his messiah's struggle against the cosmic forces of evil.

Navarro's version became very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, was translated into many languages, and is included in almost every anthology of Jewish stories. Joseph della Reina has served as the subject of many poems, short epics, ballads, and plays.


Sippur Devarim (Constantinople, 1728), vols. 28–36; G. Scholem, in: Zion (Me'assef), 5 (1933), 124–30; idem, in: Sefunot, 9 (1965), 201; J. Dan, ibid., 6 (1962), 313–26; Z. Rubashov (Shazar), Eder ha-Yekar (1947), 97–118.

[Joseph Dan]