Sunday 16 December 2018


Sefer haMefoar by R. Shlomo Molcho.
Pursuant to the long list of 'meshichei sheker' or Jewish false messiahs, we can now add another two:
In the early 1500s, two rabbis who were friends and colleagues both simultaneously and independently claimed to be the long-awaited Messiah.
These were the fascinating personalities of Rabbi David Reuveni[1] (1490-1535[2]) and Rabbi Shlomo Molcho (1501-1532).
We will begin with R. David Reuveni:
No one is quite sure where the mystic/adventurer, traveller and Kabbalist R. David Reuveni was born.
According to Shalshelet haKaballah[3], David Reuveni was “a man of dark complexion, like an African...” and only spoke Hebrew and Arabic. When he visited Portugal, he needed an interpreter because he did not speak Portuguese. This would eliminate the possibility that he was born in Portugal.
Some accounts place R. David Reuveni’s birth at the harbour city of Cranganore on the Malabar Coast of India.
[See here for the story of an Indian Kabbalist and the Jews of Malabar with a possible 2000-year-old history!]
Other accounts suggest that R. David Reuveni was born in Afghanistan, where the local people still refer to a folk hero called Daoud Roubani. Jews have also had a long history in Afghanistan.
Perhaps the most compelling account is by Reuveni himself who claimed that he was born in a place called Khaybar - which may be identical to the Khaybar in central Arabia, which was inhabited and ruled by Jews.
R. David Reuveni - whose diary can be found in the Bodleian Library in Oxford - claimed that he was the representative of his brother Joseph, who was the King of Khaybar (also known as Habor[4]) and that this independent Jewish kingdom, in the middle of the Arabian desert, had 300 000 Jewish subjects.
David Reuveni had a grand scheme to convince three Christian kings to create an alliance with his brother the King of Khaybar, in order to conquer the Moslems.
Marranos (secret Spanish and Portuguese Jews), particularly, would be encouraged to serve in this army when it came to freeing Eretz Yisrael from Moslem rule.
R. David Reuveni, the Kabbalist and mystic, believed that the nation of Israel was soon to be redeemed and that the Ottoman Turks had to be expelled from the Land of Israel. However, in order for this messianic redemption to take place, Pope Clement had to come on board and assist.
So David Reuveni set off for Rome where he arrived riding upon a white horse and was surprisingly well-received by the Pope.
He managed to raise much funding for his travels from a Jewish painter and a wealthy Jewish merchant.
He was also supported by Benvenida, the wife of Shmuel of the famous Abravanel family.
He told the Pope of the Jewish kingdom in Arabia and claimed that they lived near the legendary Sambation River. He brought letters of reference from influential people who claimed to verify his statements. 

Although he had the ear of the Pope, the latter declined to get involved in the messianic mission and instead referred him to the King of Portugal, who also happened to be related to the influential King Charles (having married the Portuguese king’s sister). This connection promised to be a potentially powerful and widespread alliance.
Initially, King Joao (John) of Portugal agreed to Reuveni’s plan and even offered him eight ships and 4000 cannons. He thought the Jewish kingdom would be a strategic ally against Selim I, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire who had conquered Egypt and disrupted the spice trade.
However, the Portuguese King was reluctant to openly engage with Jews as officially his policy was one of persecuting Marranos. As it happened, during the period of negotiations, the Portuguese King did not prosecute any Marranos – this as a result of pressure and influence from David Reuveni.
The problem was that Reuveni, who now declared himself the Messiah, was garnering massive support from the Portuguese Marrano community and the King feared a popular uprising, so the Jewish traveller
 was eventually asked to leave Portugal.
During this short period of respite while the Portuguese King was negotiating with David Reuveni, a certain Converso, named Diego Pires, suddenly also surfaced on the messianic scene.
[NoteConverso is a term which applies to a Jew who converted to Roman Catholicism under threat of persecution – Marrano is a pejorative for a Converso who continued to secretly practised Judaism, meaning ‘swine’.]
Diego Pires had been greatly influenced by David Reuveni’s presence in Portugal, and he decided to openly return to his original Jewish roots.  Not only did he do that but he was later to declare himself the Messiah.

According to Shalshelet haKabbalah, Diego Pires then changed his name to Shlomo Molcho. This name was no accident as Shlomo was Solomon who built the Temple and melech being king both indicated his universal messianic aspirations.
David Reuveni and Shlomo Molcho became friends and together they engaged in the study of Kabbalah and were filled with a spirit of messianism.
Later, however, while in Italy, they quarrelled and each was to independently claim they were the Messiah.
R. Shlomo Molcho was born in Portugal in 1501 to a noble family of Conversos. At twenty-two, he became the official scribe to the king.
After being inspired by David Reuveni, he then travelled to Salonica where he joined the Yeshivah of R. Yosef Taitazak, known as the Maharitats, who taught him Kabbalah. According to R. Aryeh Kaplan, the Maharitats was influenced by Abulafia and became one of the most mystical of all the Kabbalists of the generation. He made generous use of amulets and magic squares.
Additionally, the Maharitats was also regarded as an authoritative Talmudist of his age - with R. Yosef Karo acknowledging his authority[5]. Besides R. Shlomo Molcho, another student of the Maharitats was R. Shlomo Alkabetz who composed Lecha Dodi.
Later Shlomo Molcho journeyed to Turkey where he met R. Shlomo Alkabetz as well as R. Yosef Karo.
He then moved on to Eretz Yisrael and became engaged to a woman in Safed although it is not known if he married her.
R. Shlomo Molcho started giving fiery speeches encouraging his listeners to do actions which would hasten the coming of Mashiach. Interestingly, both Jews and Christians - including members of the Christian clergy - would attend his talks. As a result of his stirring teachings, many Marranos were inspired to return to Judaism.
He predicted that Mashiach would come in the year 1540.
Shlomo Molcho, like David Reuveni, also met with Pope Clement who gave him permission to give public talks in Rome on the proviso that they were not anti-Christian.
Some Jews, who were not happy with his message of messianism, informed on him to the Inquisition. However, he was protected by the Pope who hid him and sadly the wrong man was burned at the stake instead of him.
R. Shlomo Molcho wrote a book called Sefer haMefoar which was a collection of his lectures, mainly from his time in Italy. It had many Kabbalistic and messianic references. There were twenty-two essays on the topic of redemption according to the secrets of Kabbalah - and it also mentioned that he was reluctant to publish the work because he was aware of its controversial nature.
Nevertheless, Sefer haMefoar was indeed first published in Salonica in 1527 during the lifetime of the author.
In the book, he mentions another work which dealt with the mysteries contained within the words of the Sages but it is not extant and may never have been published.
The Jewish Museum of Prague has some items on display which belonged to R. Shlomo Molcho.
His unique Tzitzit - with dyed green strings - has disappeared over time.
R. Shlomo Molcho is quoted by the Magen Avraham regarding his view on the number of windings on the tzitzit (10, 5, 6, and 5, י, ה, ו, ה) - a custom followed by some Sefaradim to this day.
The Tosafos Yom Tov[6], in his commentary on the Rosh, also mentions this and says he saw the actual Tzitzit belonging to R. Shlomo Molcho in the Pinchas Shul of Prague.
R. Shlomo Molcho had a flag which he carried around with him: 
R. Shlomo Molcho's Flag.
It was a flag similar to that of the Maccabees, which contained the acronym for 'Maccabee': Mi Kamoch BaEilim Hashem.
This flag was also incorporated into his signature:

Eventually, David Reuveni was arrested and taken to Spain where he died in prison, probably after being poisoned.
Shlomo Molcho apparently had suggested to King Charles that he convert to Judaism in order to fit in with his messianic scheme, but the King was not impressed and had him arrested. The Pope, who had a good relationship with Shlomo Molcho, was unable to intervene this time because of a personal feud he had with King Charles.
R. Shlomo Molcho was then burned at the stake at the age of 31, in Mantua Italy on 5 Tevet. His last words were:
"Regarding this that I lived with this religion (Christianity), my heart is bitter and troubled. Now do as is good in your eyes and let my soul return to its father’s house like in its youth...”
Shlomo Molcho died with the knowledge that his name was known to almost every Jew, king, rabbi and pope in his generation. Many of his teachings went on to influence future generations of Kabbalists as well.
R. Shlomo Molcho is regarded by many as a Kadosh, or martyr.
R. Yosef Karo said of him that he envied his death! [See A Mystical Side to R. Yosef Karo.]
On the other hand, R. Chaim Vital points to R. Shlomo Molcho - who also claimed he had a Maggid (‘angelic being’) teach him Kabbalah - as an example of how Kabbalah can be abused if misused.[7]
In an age where messianism is rife on so many levels, it is perhaps sobering to realize that as popular as the messianic movement is, this is not the first time the world has been caught up in the fervour of Ikvesa deMeshicha, or messianic birth pangs.
Of course, this does not take away from the very genuine principle of Mashiach within Judaism – but history teaches us again and again that mass fervour is not an indication of immediate messianic redemption.
A study of the surprisingly large numbers of false messiahs within Judaism quickly shows that we have been through this countless time before.

For examples of other Messiah claimants see AbulafiaR. Yehudah Leib Prossnitz, Sefer haTzoref, Shabbatai Tzvi


Jewish Encyclopaedia.
Graetz, History of the Jews.

Shlomo Molcho - The Life and Death of Messiah Ben Joseph (Hebrew) by Moti Benmelech.

[1] Also known as David haReuveni.
[2] Some accounts say 1541.
[3] By Gedalya Ibn Yachya (1515-1587). The Charlap family claim to be descendants of Ibn Yachya and by extension also from the Exilarchs of Babylonia and ultimately from King David. R. Yaakov Moshe Charlap was a student of Rav Kook and also served as Rosh Yeshiva of Merkaz haRav.
[4] Possibly as in I Chronicles 5:26.
[5] Abkat Rokel 56.
[6] R. Yom Tov Lipman Heller (1579-1654).
[7] Introduction to Sha’arei Kedusha.

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