Tuesday 10 January 2017



Belief in the broad concept of Mashiach is not necessarily the same as belief in a narrow and popular messianism which claims knowledge of specific, intricate and detailed events of the future. Eschatology, in general, is treacherous territory because it is so filled with false historical predictions, mythology and the dubious agendas of various spiritual lobby groups.

Frankly, as we shall see, the Armilus idea is a seemingly non-Jewish sounding concept. 

In this article we are not going to look at Messianic Eschatology, but rather at a surprisingly wide range of rabbinic texts which do make reference to a concept of Armilus.



Not too many people have even heard of the name Armilus, and certainly are unaware of what his role and fate are said to be.
I will intentionally include many visual source references in this article, to show the strong literary and textual basis for Armilus within our tradition.


Instead of there being just one Messiah, an often complicated and sometimes knotty tapestry is woven out of two messianic figures, known in Jewish tradition as Mashiach ben Yosef and Mashiach ben David.
Then to add to the complexity, there is additionally a third messianic character - a ‘middle man’ - known as Armilus.

Keeping myth and eschatology to a minimum[1], Armilus is the figure that allegedly arises at the end of days and kills Mashiach ben Yosef. Armilus then, in turn, is killed by Mashiach ben David.


Probably the earliest source to speak about Armilus is the Targum Yonatan, an Aramaic translation of the Torah, from (apparently) around 30 BCE.

Avnei Sheish explains this Targum Yonatan as follows:
Isaiah 11:4 reads: “...and with the spirit of his lips will he smite the wicked.”
Targum Yonatan translates the phrase ‘smite the wicked’ as “...kill Armilus the wicked.”

This is more than a mere translation. It's a clear insertion of a new word - 'Armilus'.
The Avnei Sheish records: “The Targum (translation) of 'rasha' (wicked) is 'Armilus rashia' (Armilus the wicked) - this is probably the first time that this name is mentioned in the Targum and Midrashim.”


After the Targum Yonatan, a reference to Armilus is recorded again in a messianic Midrash known as Sefer Zerubavel, which was written around the 600’s CE.[2]

RAV SAADIA GAON (882-942):

Rav Saadiah Gaon quoted from Sefer Zerubavel and wrote about Armilus in his haEmunot v’haDeot:

 “...a king will arise against them (the Jews) and his name is Armilus, and he will wage war against them and destroy them...and kill the man from the tribe of Yosef.”

RAV HAI GAON (969-1038):

In a Teshuva or responsum of Rav Hai Gaon it states:

It will happen that when the Messiah of the lineage of Joseph and all the people who are with him have made their dwelling in Jerusalem, Armilus will hear the news about them. He will come and prepare charms and enticements so as to lead many astray by them. He will come up and do battle against Jerusalem, and he will defeat the Messiah of the lineage of Joseph and his people...”[3]

The Batei Medrashot Alef[4] mentions the Teshuva of Rav Hai Gaon:


The name Armilus also occurred in Midrash Vayosha which is dated at around the 10 00’s and first published in 1519. 

“...then an arrogant king will arise and his name is Armilus, and he will wage war against Israel for three months...”


In Midrash Talpiyot[5] it states “...regarding the matter of Armilus which is mentioned in the Midrash...

OTZAR MIDRASHIM (1854-1956):

Otzar haMidrashim[6], also contains a reference to Armilus as: “...being of very tall stature...


Zichron Mashiach[7] quotes the Ari Zal who said that in the Amidah; “...when we say ‘throne of (Kisei) David’, we need to concentrate and intend it to mean Mashiach ben Yosef – that he not be killed by Armilus...” (Mashiach ben Yosef is the precursor to Mashiach ben David, hence he is called the ‘throne’ upon which the latter will sit.)


In the siddur of Sar Shalom Sharabi (1720-1777), the Yemenite kabbalist, there is similarly a special note in the paragraph ‘ve LiRushalayim Irecha’, which instructs the reader to concentrate, while saying the words ‘ve Kise David’:  “Concentrate and pray to G-d that Mashiach ben Yosef will not be killed by Armilus the wicked.”

Reference to Armilus haRasha in contemporary Sefardic Siddur


In the Pri Eitz Chaim of the R. Chaim Vital (1542-1620), the foremost student of the Ari Zal,  it states: “In the merit of those who study the true wisdom (Kabbalah), they have the strength to protect Mashiach ben Yosef from being killed by the wicked Armilus...

In the kabbalistic work, Eitz haDaat Tov also by R. Chaim Vital, it records: “For Armilus will kill Mashiach ben Yosef, as per the Pesikta and Midrash Zerubavel... and his body will remain for forty days until Mashiach ben David will bring him back to life...”


The Shemen LaMaor commentary to Psalms, mentions that Mashiach ben Yosef can be saved from death by Armilus through our prayers:


The Arugat haBosem, by R. Efrayim Auerbach, asks: 

Why is Armilus given permission to kill Mashiach ben Yosef? –To break (test) the will of the dissenters of Israel who have no faith, who will say; ‘this is the man we trusted in and now he is dead!’. They will have no hope left and will turn from the covenant of Israel and join the nations...


The Midrash Shlomo refers to “Armilus the Satan...”


According to Ohalei Shem, a book explaining the various rabbinic views about Mashiach, the view of Rav Saadia Gaon is recorded; 

A king will arise whose name is Armilus and he will wage war against them and destroy the city (of Jerusalem) and plunder it, and this man from the Tribe of Yosef will be amongst those killed...

It’s interesting to note that this book contains approbations from R. Shmuel Wosner and R. Moshe Feinstein.


The Gaon haGaonim writes an intriguing account of Armilus: 

At the end of days there will arise a king in Edom whose name is Armilus...who will rule the world...and Jerusalem...then Mashiach ben Yosef will gather Jews to fight Armilus, but they will not prevail and Armilus will kill him. Afterwards, Mashiach ben David will stand up, whose name in Menachem ben Amiel, but the Jews will not believe in him until Mashiach be Yosef is brought back to life in the presence of Eliyahu...”



One must be aware that the Armilus figure has, in the past, been used by Christianity to support many of their beliefs. Here is an example of one such attempt by a scholarly Presbyterian minister, Rev C. W. H. Pauli, who in 1871 translated Targum Yonatan into English with the express desire to “promote Christianity amongst the Jews”:

Rev. Pauli wrote:  

The unprejudiced Jew by reading this paraphrase will see, that we Christians believe in no other salvation than that which their fathers expected the Messiah should bring....”

Then on page 40, after accurately quoting Targum Yonatan, he adds: 

“ all the later Jewish editions, we have another interpolation, they add...Armillus...who...shall slay their expected suffering Messiah...”

According to Pauli, Targum Yonatan - just a few years prior to the birth of Christianity - predicted that the Messiah will be slain by someone called Armillus.

Pauli therefore wrote: 

We beg every Israelite to emancipate himself from all imbibed prejudices, and to search the Scriptures with the paraphrases of Jonathan Ben Uziel in his hands, so that he may see whether our Christian faith is not the faith of their fathers, before it degenerated through the traditions of their fathers.

We certainly do not promote this view. It is only cited here, to show how the Armilus idea resonated very well the Christian concept of Messiah.



The Presbyterian minister, Rev Pauli, who translated Targum Yonatan into English, mentions that R. Yonatan ben Uziel was born in 30 BCE, making him a very early and therefore reliable source. Since Targum Yonatan was the first source to mention Armilus, it has a strong and authentic basis in Jewish literature, and therefore according to him, presents a rabbinic basis for Christianity.

But, the truth is that is not at all clear when (what we refer to today as the) Targum Yonatan was written. There is much controversy surrounding the dating of Targum Yonatan, for a number of reasons:

1) Originally it was known as Targum Yerushalmi, abbreviated as ‘TY’, but a later printing mistake interpreted ‘TY’ to stand for Targum Yonatan. For this reason, many scholars refer to work as Targum Pseudo-Yonatan.[8] This underscores the difficulty is accurately ascribing all the text in Pseudo-Yonatan to Yonatan ben Uziel of 30 BCE.

2) R. Azariah de Rossi (1511-1578) recorded in his Meor Enayim, how he saw two similar manuscripts of Targum - one was entitled Targum Yerushalmi, and the other Targum Yonatan. This supports the notion that the Targum Yonatan was easily confused with the original Targum Yerushalmi.[9]

3) With reference to the Talmud Yerushalmi, Rav Hai Gaon wrote in a responsum: 
"We do not know who composed it, nor do we even know this Targum, of which we have heard only a few passages. If there is a tradition...that it has been...since the days of the ancient must be held in...esteem...But if it is less ancient, it is not authoritative...”[10] 
According to this, some sparse and disjointed sections of text were available at around the 10 00’s. This would make the task of identifying which sections of text were older and therefore more original than the entire expanded text as we have it today.

4) The Talmud[11] records that a student of Hillel, Yonatan ben Uziel translated the books of the Prophets into Aramaic. Today Targum Yonatan includes an Aramaic translation of the Five Books of Moses as well. If the text expanded so much as to include five extra books, it would be extremely difficult to know which singular words may have similarly been expanded upon in later times as well.

In the editions of Targum Yonatan as we have it today, there is another reference to Armilus (besides that found in Isaiah), this time in the actual Five Books of Moses.[12] In the footnote, it explains that Armilus is also known as the ‘antichristo’!

In Avakat Rochel there is also a reference to Armilus as an ‘antichristo’.[13]

It says: “His name is Armilus the Satan, which non-Jews call the ‘antichristo’ ...”

5) Another difficulty is that Targum Yonatan refers to Ishmael’s wife as ‘Fatima’. Historically, Fatima the youngest daughter of Muhammad was born as late as 605 CE. Some, therefore, date this work at around 800 CE.

6) It is also significant that the Gaonim (589-1038) did not mention the Targum Yonatan (except for R. Hai Gaon who only heard of a ‘few passages’)[14], nor did Rashi (1040-1105) make any reference to it. Had the complete text existed at that time, one would have expected much mention of it by the earlier Gaonim and especially by the master text analyst, Rashi.

7) The first time Targum Yonatan is referred to in its complete form, is by R. Menachem Recanati (1250-1310), in his Perush al haTorah. This leads many to put its composition in its present format, at sometime as late as around the 1200’s.


Taking all this into consideration, there is a strong possibility that the Armilus idea is not as old as 30 BCE. It may, therefore, have been an expansion or insertion –or even a forgery – by a later writer, perhaps with a bias towards the Christian understanding of the Messiah concept.

 This would, of course, leave the question as to why so many of the rabbinic sources we have brought, refer to Armilus as though it were indeed an original Jewish concept. And there are scores (probably reaching into the hundreds) of other rabbinic references to Armilus as well.

Not all rabbis, however, were comfortable with the Armilus idea. Some were not even comfortable with the Mashiach ben Yosef concept either:

R. Chasdai Crescas (1340-1411), for example, was extremely suspicious of it.

He wrote:

No certain knowledge can be derived from the interpretations of the prophecies about Mashiach ben Yosef, nor from the statements about him by some of the Geonim.”
He questions the very veracity, never mind of Armilus, but of Mashiach ben Yosef himself!

It is important to note too, that Rambam (1135-1204) did not make any mention of Mashiach ben Yosef, and certainly not of Armilus either. These omissions would not have been made unintentionally by the great codifier.
Taking all the above into consideration, the questions remain:
Is the notion of the Armilus persona;
- a folk idea that somehow gained rabbinic acceptance and embellishment over time,
- a Christian forgery,
- or is it a genuine and original Torah concept?

A few weeks ago I had never even heard of the word Armilus.
Someone mentioned it to me in passing and my first reaction was that it could not be a Jewish idea.
Since then I have discovered an astounding array of texts which I found while searching through some of the many thousands of seforim which have been collected on Hebrew Books. And to my surprise, I found that there are hundreds of references to Armilus in our texts.
These texts served as the basis for this article.
[The hypothesis that Armilus may have been a Christian insertion or even forgery is my own, as I have not seen the idea suggested by anyone else.]

[8]In 1979, Avigdor Shinan...identified 122 expansions in Genesis that appeared in....the Palestinian (Yerushalmi) Targums and the Pseudo-Jonathan. He argued that these expansions represented the interpretations...of the translator, and could not be used to investigate the Targums’ theology.” See The Targums: A Critical Introduction By Paul V.M. Flesher, Bruce D. Chilton, p. 96  (Parenthesis mine).

[1] As Armilus is, according to some versions, said to be ‘born from a marble statue’.
[2] It is possible that the ‘devil figure’ of Armilus was then applied to the Byzantine emperor, Heraclius during the Jewish revolt against him which occurred in the early 600’s.  The failed revolt was the last Jewish attempt at sovereignty in the land of Israel in pre modern times. Heraclius then instituted an imperial conversion campaign against the Jews. Following a similar pattern of referring to our enemies as Armilus, it has also been applied, by some, to political leaders such as Perez and Obama in recent times.
[3] See Responsum of Hai Gaon on Redemption, John C. Reeves
[4]by R Shlomo Aharon ben Yaakov (1966-1935)  
[5] by R. Eliyahu ben Avraham Shlomo HaCohen.
[6] by R. Yehuda David Eisenstein.
[7] by R. Avraham Avush ben Chanoch Henich.
[9] The first manuscript, the Targum Yerushalmi is in the British Museum, and was published in 1903 by Ginsburger. The second manuscript was printed in 1591 under the (mistaken) title Targum Yonatan, which formed the basis of the Targum Yonathan we use today.
[10] He does add: “It is very improbable, however, in our opinion, that it is of later origin".
[11] Megila 3a
[12] Devarim 34:3
[13] Hebrew Books actually has 19 seforim that contain numerous references to an ‘antichrist’.
[14] Rav Hai Gaon (the second last Gaon of Pumpedita) who passed away in 1038 (which is the date of the end of the period of Gaonim). He said that he just heard of a few passages of Targum Yonatan, and was unsure of the period of its origin.


  1. I heard a suggestion that "Armilus" may be a corruption of "Romulus", a reference to the myth of the founding of Rome.

    Also, I'm quite surprised that, while you list a whole array of sources dealing with Armilus and Mashiach ben Yosef, you omit the classic sefer Kol HaTor (a very interesting sefer that you might be interested in writing an article on).

    1. I have seen this mentioned in the Jewish Encyclopedia article on the subject

  2. It seems that the section of Rav Saadya Gaon you quote is a forgery, like the commentary of Sefer haYetzira attributed to him is...