free while helping to build churches and support pastors in Uganda.
Click here to learn more!
The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
Persons who claim to be the deliverers of Israel divinely appointed to bring about the establishment of the promised Messianic kingdom. Some of the pseudo-Messiahs who have arisen at various epochs were impostors seeking to exploit the credulity of the masses for selfish purposes; others, victims of their own beliefs or delusions. All of them had as their goal the restoration of Israel to its native land. Some sought to accomplish this through penitence, fasting, and prayer, and looked forward to miracles to assist them; others appealed to arms. In connection with their Messianic rôle, some enacted the part of religious reformers, introducing innovations and even trying to subvert the existing Judaism. As there existed a belief in two Messiahs—an Ephraitic Messiah, who would be the forerunner of the Davidic Messiah—there appear among the pseudo-Messiahs both those who claim to be the Messiah of the house of David and those who pretend to be the Messiah, son of Joseph. Their influence was mostly local and temporary; some, however, succeeded in attracting large numbers of followers, and created movements that lasted for considerable periods. The effects of these Messianic movements were pernicious. Many of these Messiahs and their followers lost their lives in the course of their activities; and they deluded the people with false hopes, created dissensions, gave rise to sects, and even lost many to Judaism.
The pseudo-Messiahs begin to appear with the end of the Hasmonean dynasty, when Rome commenced its work of crushing the independence of Judea. For the maintenance of the endangered state the people looked forward to a Messiah.
In the First Century.
From Josephus it appears that in the first century before the destruction of the Temple a number of Messiahs arose promising relief from the Roman yoke, and finding ready followers. Josephus speaks of them thus: "Another body of wicked men also sprung up, cleaner in their hands, but more wicked in their intentions, who destroyedthe peace of the city no less than did these murderers [the Sicarii]. For they were deceivers and deluders of the people, and, under pretense of divine illumination, were for innovations and changes, and prevailed on the multitude to act like madmen, and went before them in the wilderness, pretending that God would there show them signs of liberty" (Josephus, "B. J." 2:13, §; 4; idem, "Ant." 20:8, §; 6). Matthew 24:24, warning against "false Christs and false prophets," gives testimony to the same effect. Thus about 44, Josephus reports, a certain impostor, Theudas, who claimed to be a prophet, appeared and urged the people to follow him with their belongings to the Jordan, which he would divide for them. According to Acts 5:36 (which seems to refer to a different date), he secured about 400 followers. Cuspius Fadus sent a troop of horsemen after him and his band, slew many of them, and took captive others, together with their leader, beheading the latter ("Ant." 20:5, § 1).
Another, an Egyptian, is said to have gathered together 30,000 adherents, whom he summoned to the Mount of Olives, opposite Jerusalem, promising that at his command the walls of Jerusalem would fall down, and that he and his followers would enter and possess themselves of the city. But Felix, the procurator (c. 55-60), met the throng with his soldiery. The prophet escaped, but those with him were killed or taken, and the multitude dispersed (ib. 20:8, § 6; "B. J." 2:13, § 5; see also Acts 21:38). Another, whom Josephus styles an impostor, promised the people "deliverance and freedom from their miseries" if they would follow him to the wilderness. Both leader and followers were killed by the troops of Festus, the procurator (60-62; "Ant." 20:8, § 10). Even when Jerusalem was already in process of destruction by the Romans, a prophet, according to Josephus suborned by the defenders to keep the people from deserting announced that God commanded them to come to the Temple, there to receive miraculous signs of their deliverance. Those who came met death in the flames ("B. J." 6:5, § 3).
Menahem ben Judah.
Unlike these Messiahs, who expected their people's deliverance to be achieved through divine intervention, Menahem, the son of Judas the Galilean 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 as a result of a conspiracy against him (ib. 2:17, § 9). He is probably identical with the Menahem b. Hezekiah mentioned in Sanh. 98b, and called, with reference to Lamentations 1:17, "the comforter ["menaḥem"] that should relieve" (comp. Hamburger, "R. B. T." Supplement, 3:80).
With the destruction of the Temple the appearance of Messiahs ceased for a time. Sixty years later a politico-Messianic movement of large proportions took place with Bar Kokba at its head. This leader of the revolt against Rome was hailed as Messiah-king by Akiba, who referred to him, Numbers 24:17: "There shall come forth a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite through the corners of Moab," etc. (Yer. Ta'an. 4:7; Lam. R. to Lamentations 2:2), and Haggai 2:21,22; "I will shake the heavens and the earth and I will overthrow the thrones of kingdoms. . . ." (Sanh. 97b). Although some, as Johanan b. Torta (Lam. R. to Lamentations 2:2), 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 (see see BAR KOKBA AND BAR KOKBA WAR).
Moses of Crete.
The unsuccessful issue of the Bar Kokba war put an end for centuries to Messianic movements; but Messianic hopes were none the less 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, dryshod 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," 7:38; Grätz, "Gesch." 3d ed., 4:354-355).
The pseudo-Messiahs that followed played their rôles 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." 16:768,770,771; Grätz, c. , notes 15 and 17). He lived in the reign of the Ommiad calif '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 gathered together a large number of followers, he rebelled against the calif, 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 (Isḥaḳ ben Ya'ḳub Obadiah Abu 'Isa al-Isfahani).
Isḥaḳ's 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 was thus, according to Grätz (c. 5:467), a Jewish Motazilite. 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 (comp. Grätz, c. note 17, § 4, 18, § 1; Hebr. ed., 3:503,511).
Between 720 and 723 a Syrian, Serene (his name is given variously in the sources as Sherini, Sheria, Serenus, Zonoria, Saüra; see Grätz, c. 5:401-402), appeared as the Messiah. The immediate occasion for his appearance may have been the restriction of the liberties of the Jews by the calif Omar II. (717-720) and his proselytizing efforts. On the political side this Messiah promised the expulsion of the Mohammedans 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 regard the Talmudic prohibition against the marriage of near relatives (see Grätz, c. note 14). Serene was arrested. Brought before Calif Yazid, 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.
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 Cordova (c. 1117), and one in Fez (c. 1127). Of these three nothing is known beyond the mention of them in Maimonides' "Iggeret Teman."
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 califate, 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 Mohammedan yoke and to lead them back to Jerusalem. For this purpose he summoned the warlike Jews of the neighboring district of Adherbaijan and also his coreligionists of Mosul and Bagdad 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. See ALROY, or see Alrui, David.
Soon after Alroy an alleged forerunner of the Messiah appeared in Yemen (in 1172) just when the Mohammedans 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 pseudo-Messiah was the subject of Maimonides' "Iggeret Teman." He continued his activity for a year, when he was arrested by the Mohammedan 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.
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. As a result 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. In Messina, on the island of Sicily, where he was well received and won disciples, he declared himself (in a work which he published Nov., 1284) to be 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 Messianic 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.
Another pretended prophet 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. But 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 prophet is unknown.
After the lapse of a century another false Messiah came forward with Messianic pretensions. According to Grätz (c. 8:404), this pretended Messiah is to be identified with Moses Botarel of Cisneros.One of his adherents and partizans was Ḥasdai Crescas. Their relation is referred to by Geronimo da Santa Fé in his speech at the disputation in Tortosa 1413 (comp. Grätz, c.).
Another century later, in 1502, Asher Lemmlein (Lämmlein), a German proclaiming himself a forerunner of the Messiah, appeared in Istria, near Venice, and announced that if the Jews would be penitent and practise 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." But the "Messiah" either died or disappeared (Lemmlein Asher).
Reubeni and Solomon Molko.
Among the pseudo-Messiahs are to be included David Reubeni and Solomon Molko. The former pretended to be the ambassador and brother of the King of see KHAIBAR—a town and former district of Arabia, in which the descendants of the tribes of Rueben and Gad were supposed to dwell—and sent to the pope and powers of Europe to secure cannon and firearms for war against the Mohammedans, who, he said, 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 Maranos—all gave the Portuguese and Spanish Maranos reason to believe that Reubeni 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 Reubeni) had filled the Spanish Maranos 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. Grätz, c. 9:532). A spirit of expectancy was aroused by Reubeni's stay in Portugal. A Marano woman in the region of Herara in Puebla de Alcocer declared herself a prophetess, had visions, and promised to lead her coreligionists to the Holy Land. She and many who believed in her were burned.
A more important result of Reubeni's coming than such a phenomenon is the return to Judaism of the Marano Diogo Pires (b. c. 1501; d. 1532), an event of which Reubeni was perhaps the cause (MOLKO, SOLOMON).
To some extent belong here also the cabalists Isaac Luria, the founder of the modern school of Cabala, and Ḥayyim Vital Calabrese, his chief disciple and successor. Both claimed to be Ephraitic Messiahs, forerunners of the Davidic Messiah. Isaac see LURIA (b. 1534 in Jerusalem; d. 1572 in Safed) taught in his mystic system the transmigration and superfetation of souls, and believed himself to possess the soul of the Messiah of the house of Joseph and to have it as his mission to hasten the coming of the Messiah of the house of David through the mystic improvement of souls. Having developed his cabalistic system in Egypt without finding many followers, he went to Safed about 1569. There he met Ḥayyim Vital Calabrese, to whom he revealed his secrets and through whom he secured many disciples. To these he taught secretly his Messiahship. He believed that the Messianic era would commence in the beginning of the second half of the second day (of the year 1000) after the destruction of the Temple, e., in 1568.
On Luria's death Ḥayyim Vital Calabrese (b. 1543; d. 1620 at Damascus) claimed to be the Ephraitic Messiah and preached of the speedy advent of the Messianic era. In 1574 Abraham Shalom, a pretender to the Davidic Messiahship, it seems, sent to Vital, saying that he (Shalom) was the Davidic Messiah, whereas Vital was the Messiah of the house of Joseph. He urged Vital to go to Jerusalem and stay there for at least two years, whereupon the divine spirit would come upon him. Shalom bade Vital, furthermore, not to fear death, the fate of the Ephraitic Messiah, as he would seek to save him from this doom (see Fuenn, c. p. 353).
Another Messiah is reported by Lent ("De Pseudo-Messiis," ch. , § 15) to have appeared in Coromandel in 1615 (see Jost, "Gesch. der Israeliten," 8:481).
The most important Messianic movement, and one whose influence was wide-spread throughout the Jewry, lasting in some quarters over a century, was that of Shabbethai Ẓebi (b. at Smyrna 1626; d. at Dulcigno 1676).
After his death Shabbethai was followed by a line of Messiahs. Jacob Querido, son of Joseph Filosof, and brother of the fourth wife of Shabbethai, 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 Ẓebi. 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 his son Berechiah or Berokia succeeded him (c. 1695-1740), and was similarly regarded as Messiah and successor of Shabbethai Ẓebi.
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 Isaiah 53 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 (CARDOSO, MIGUEL).
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 Messiah of the Shabbethaians was Löbele see PROSSNITZ (a partizan of Mordecai), whose theory was that God had resigned the dominion of the world to the "pious one," e., the one who had entered into the depths of the Cabala. Such a representative of God had been Shabbethai, whose soul had passed into other "pious" men, into Jonathan Eybeschütz and into himself. Another, Isaiah Ḥasid (a brother-in-law of the Shabbethaian Judah Ḥasid), who lived in Mannheim, secretly claimed to be the resurrected Messiah, although publicly he had abjured Shabbethaian beliefs. Jonathan Eybeschütz may have been regarded by some Shabbethaians as the Davidic Messiah (see Grätz, c. note 7, and p. 329).
The last of the Shabbethaian Messiahs was Jacob Frank (b. 1726 in Podolia; d. 1791), founder of the Frankists. In his youth he had been brought into relation with the Dönmeh. He taught that by metempsychosis the same Messiah soul had dwelt in David. Elijah, Jesus, Mohammed, Shabbethai Ẓebi and his followers to Berechiah, and finally in him (Frank). Having secured a following among 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. In accordance with the Shabbethaian trinitarian doctrine of the Deity, 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 Talmudic 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. He himself was converted in Warsaw Nov., 1759. Later his insincerity was exposed, and he was imprisoned as a heretic, remaining, however, even in prison the head of this sect (FRANK, JACOB, AND THE FRANKISTS).
Moses Ḥayyim Luzzatto (b. 1707 in Padua; d. 1747), the poet, also believed himself to be a Messiah. He had early been initiated into the Cabala. Self-deluded as a result of his occupation with the Zohar, and influenced by the cabalistic atmosphere in which he lived, he believed that a divine spirit had given to him an insight into its mysteries, and at last fancied himself to be destined by means of the "Second Zohar," which he wrote, to redeem Israel (see Grätz, c. 10:373, note 1; idem, Hebrew ed., 8:389, note 1). His Cabala was at first kept within a narrow circle of disciples. When the secret was revealed, an oath was exacted of Luzzatto that he would refrain from writing, publishing, and teaching his doctrines unless he went to Palestine. He returned to his cabalistic activity, and was several times excommunicated. About 1744 he went to Palestine, there to engage in his cabalistic studies undisturbed, or to fill his Messianic rôle; and there he died.
- Grätz, Gesch. passim;
- Hamburger, R. B. T. s. Messiasc;
- M. Gaster, in Jew. Chron. Feb. 11 and March 11, 1898;
- A. M. Hyamson, False Messiahs, in Gentleman's Magazine, Ixix. 79-89;
- Johannis à Lent, De Judœorum Pseudo-Messiis.
These files are public domain.
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Messiah, False'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/m/messiah-false.html. 1901.
the Third Sunday after Epiphany