Sunday 5 July 2020


The Alhambra Decree expelling the Jews from Spain in 1492.



The Expulsion of the practising Jews from Spain was initiated by the Alhambra Decree which was issued on 31 March 1492 by the joint Catholic Monarchs of Castile and Aragon. The Jews were to have left Spanish soil by 31 July of that year.

The Expulsion from Spain had a tremendous bearing on a number of aspects of Jewish history. In this article, we will explore how it triggered an emphasis on redemptive and messianic fervour which was to become a theological mainstay of future Judaism. Of course, earlier Jewish literature had dealt with such matters, but after the Expulsion, it took on a new and elevated urgency.

I have drawn extensively from the research[1] of Professor Elisheva Carlebach of Columbia University who specializes in the cultural, intellectual, and religious history of the Jews in Early Modern Europe.


As an immediate spiritual reaction to the Expulsion, many intensely mystical and messianic schools, or yeshivot, were established in attempts at theurgically (through magical or supernatural means) bringing about a state of immediate redemption.

Professor Carlebach writes:

“Some of the most intense messianic spirituality was centered in the many yeshivot and study circles established in the period after the Expulsion for the express purpose of hastening the redemption.”

Besides both general Torah learning and the redemptive study circles in particular taking on an urgent and overt messianic accentuation, other aspects of Jewish life - including even the mundane politics within the expelled community - became spiritualized.[2] Everything was imbued with omnisignificance and messianic overtones.


It is important to remember that these redemptive study circles were not just unique to the Spanish Jews of the post-Expulsion era, but they continued in one form or another to dominate the religious study landscape well into the future and their influence was later felt deep within Ashkenazic circles as well.

Carlebach shows how the influence of these Sephardic redemptive study circles spread to the Ashkenazic world and transformed their study ethos to also include a redemptive component. Torah study was no longer just about acquiring knowledge but it took on a pressing theurgic dimension as well. Fascinatingly, for some reason, this important development has been largely ignored by students of history.

According to Carlebach:

 “Of all the messianic pathways taken by Iberian [Spanish and Portuguese][3] Jews as a consequence of the persecutions and expulsions of the fifteenth century, this one has been least explored, although it lasted for centuries and spread beyond the Sephardic community...”

 “[T]he significance of messianism as a central and fundamental response to the Expulsion [from Spain][4] remains unremarked.”


The Sephardic yeshiva was often called a hesger which was a closed circle of not more than ten elite scholars. In a large community there would be many such study circles. While Ashkenazic rabbis usually sought positions of rabbinic leadership and authority, the Sephardic rabbis were more interested in the prestige that came with heading a redemptive study circle.

It is possible that this difference in the way each group asserted its authority was evidenced by the Ashkenazic rabbis sometimes being Halachically stricter than their Sephardic counterparts.


Interestingly, Carlebach writes:

“Similar schools, circles, and voluntary societies, whose structure and function parallel those we have described, flourished in medieval Islam and may have contributed to the genesis or continuity of this form among the Sephardim.”[5]


The funding for these study circles was from the wealthy within the communities who were happy to be able to contribute and thereby, they believed, vicariously gain a share in bringing about the anticipated messianic state of redemption.


These messianic study circles did not just study Torah but they developed specialized mystical curricula which would bring the redemption closer.

As mentioned, these circles were elitist and in the words of R. Raphael Treves:

“Our redemption...cannot be attained by the masses, only by the elite.”

The spread of Lurianic Kabbala (from the Ari Zal) also contributed to the messianic urgency as it imbued the study and practice of Torah with theurgical significance. And many practitioners within the study circles maintained that Kabbalah study should be elevated over traditional Talmudic study.[6]

Bear in mind that the Zohar, a foundation work of Jewish mysticism, had been published in Spain in around 1290, which in relative terms was not that long before the Expulsion, and by its nature would certainly have lent itself to messianic enterprises.


While many believed that the Holy land was the ultimate geographical location to host messianic study circles, some maintained that centres within the Diaspora were crucial to prepare the world for the imminent messianic manifestation.[7] 

There was much debate over which particular region of the Holy Land was best suited for these messianic circles. Besides the obvious choice of Jerusalem, some preferred Safed (particularly during the 16th –century), Tiberius, Chevron and even Gaza. Actually, Safed was dominant as long as it held its strong economic position but, as soon as it lost that dominance, Jerusalem took over.


In the 18th-century, the great mystic R. Chaim ben Moshe Abulafia (1660-1744) founded a yeshiva in Tiberius called Mashmia Yeshua (Harbinger of Redemption). He told the Jews of Tiberius that:

“[T]he messiah would soon arrive and come from the Sea of Galilee.”  


R. Chaim Benattar (1696-1743), known as the Ohr haChaim, was attracted to Abulafia in Tiberius. He specifically wanted to establish a redemptive yeshiva to hasten the arrival of Messiah and he moved his Kabbalistic circle to Jerusalem. Some believe he was the inspirational model for the up-and-coming Chassidic movement.[8]


The Diaspora communities often supported the messianic yeshivot of the Holy Land. Only selected candidates qualified to be sent to the Holy Land. It was also very expensive to travel during the 18th-century, as the fare was twice the annual income needed to live in the Land of Israel.


Carlebach writes:

“The attempts to establish redemptive centres of rabbinic scholarship [in the Holy Land] began with the first exiles [from Spain][9], and continued for centuries. They tended to cluster around certain redemptive dates, such as 1575, 1700-1706, and 1740...
Rabbinic circles were similarly established all over the Sephardic Diaspora, in Italy, North Africa, and the Ottoman Empire. While some were simply traditional centers of study, many had esoteric agendas which transformed their activities into intense theurgic dramas.“


The post-Expulsion messianic study circles continued to flourish for centuries into the future. Initially, they maintained their elitist nature but gradually, after being adopted to some degree by the Sabbateans - the followers of the false messiah Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676) - and later by the Chassidic movement, they opened up to the masses who were encouraged to participate in the enterprise of study for redemptive purposes. Thereafter, this messianic ethos slowly wound its way into the general mainstream.


Bear in mind that the Sabbateans were not just a fringe movement. Their numbers included up to half - if not more - of the Jewish population at that time. Many of their leaders were prominent rabbis and, after Shabbatai Tzvi was shown to be a false messiah and the movement went underground, it was very difficult to distinguish a secret Sabbatean from a mainstream religious Jew. The secret Sabbateans were known to have established secret cells. 

Carlebach writes:

“Many prominent Sabbateans, some with messianic pretensions of their own, planned to build redemptive yeshivot.” 


During the time of the secret Sabbateans similar redemptive study circles were established in Jerusalem by R. Avraham Rovigo in 1702[10], and by R. Isaiah Hasid who established a ten-scholar Sabbatean yeshiva in Mannheim, Germany.[11]


Another example of this is the secret or crypto-Sabbatean, R. Raphael Mordechai Malkhi. Malkhi intended to make Jerusalem the centre of Sabbatean ideology and his primary tool for so doing was to establish a redemptive yeshiva.

Raphael Mordechai Malkhi wrote:

“At the end of days...they [the Jews of the Diaspora][12]  will establish a midrash [yeshiva] in Jerusalem of seventy scholars over them. The Lord will bring many settlers out of oppression who will cultivate the land...The era of this the time of the approach of the redemption...The King Messiah will emerge from them.”[13]


In 1703, another Sabbatean - R. Avraham Cardosa - who competed for authority with Malkhi, arrived in the Holy Land and also wanted to establish a redemptive yeshiva in Jerusalem. He was an interesting personality because he had lived as a Marrano in Spain until his twentieth year and then became a crypto-Sabbatean. He hired copyists to disseminate his writings in Jerusalem in order to counter the other Sabbatean literature which was popular there.

Cardosa wrote in no uncertain terms:

“In the Academy on High there are two yeshivot, one for Elijah and one for R. Simon bar Yohai. And I will establish a third one...for I possess a veritable treasury of esoteric lore.”[14]

The anti-Sabbatean Rabbinate of Jerusalem, however, blocked him from opening up his yeshiva in Jerusalem. In 1708, his student, Nechemya Hayon collected funds from Smyrna to establish a redemptive yeshiva in Israel but it was also blocked by the Rabbinate.


During the 18th-century, another crypto-Sabbatean, R. Mordechai Ashkenazi wrote a work entitled Eshel Avraham (Terebinth of Abraham). He named the work after his teacher, R. Avraham Rovigo and writes that most of the ideas in the book were from Rovigo.

What is significant about Eshel Avraham is that it offers a window into the nature of these redemptive study circles. It quotes Rovigo as saying:

“The signs have now been revealed that this is the generation of King Messiah.”[15]

Carlebach writes:

“The curriculum proposed by the Sabbatians did not differ from that of many of their predecessors – they championed an almost exclusive reliance on kabbalistic texts, beginning with the Zohar, and particularly the study of Lurianic Kabbalah.”

However, what set them apart from the other redemptive yeshivot was their insistence that the study of Talmudic literature actually impeded the redemption.

Eshel Avraham explains that Moshe’s Torah from Sinai was not powerful enough to affect a full and permanent redemption, and it was only the Torah of R. Shimon bar Yochai - the alleged author of the Zohar - that could lead to a complete messianic redemption.[16]

Eshel Avraham continues to explain that there are three types of individuals who study Torah: 1) Those who just read it as a story. They are regarded as “the fools of the world.” 2) Then there are those on a slightly higher level who study “the principles of Torah.” 3) And then there are those on the highest level, who:

“penetrate the soul...Because Israel did not engage itself in Kabbalistic lore, but only in peshat [the simple or literal meaning of the words of the Torah][17], there can be no redemption unless the matter is rectified.”[18]

The Talmudic or Halachic study of Torah is compared to the bark of as tree, while the Kabbalah is the sap. Eshel Avraham issues a warning:

“Woe to those rabbis who eat of the husk of the Torah but don’t know its secrets.”[19]


As Carlebach has pointed out, history has overlooked the fundamental and powerful influence of the messianic study circles that sprung up in the aftermath of the Expulsion.

These redemptive attempts at turning mystical study into theurgical catalysts for the dawning of the Messianic Era were the springboard from which many of the more modern messianic movements sprung.

What the redemptive study circles did after the Expulsion from Spain in the 15th-century, was to transform the traditional view of Torah study into an urgent and powerful tool to bring about the ‘immediate redemption’. It was a mystical attempt to ‘rectify’ the evils of the Expulsion.

This messianic ethos, almost like a manifesto, was then capitalized upon by the mystics of the 16th-century. They too had study circles and signed pledges of allegiance. [See Appendix to Sefer haTzoref link below.]

A similar mystical character and tenor was then adopted and reworked by the followers of Shabbatai Tzvi in the 17th-century.

The same thread found its way into the Chassidic Movement of the 18th-century which also had closed messianic study circles such as the Chevraya Kadisha of the Baal Shem Tov.

All of this was later appropriated to a large degree by the mainstream Jewish world during the 19th- century which similarly ascribed redemptive and messianic value to Torah Study.

This accounts, in no insignificant manner, for the popular messianism which dominated much of 20th century Judaism and continues to this day where - not just Torah study - but every event is somehow linked to the immediate redemption.

In a remarkable article published, surprisingly, in the Chareidi Mishpacha Magazine, Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky[20] wrote:

“We need to teach our children history. And that history needs to include much more than dry names and dates and stories of gedolim...

My first concern is our deep ignorance of Jewish history — or any history for that matter. It is simply mind-boggling to hear people state that ‘Never has anything like this happened before. This [Corona][21] virus must be heralding the coming of Mashiach!’...

The second source of distress is the current Mashiach fervor. Klal Yisrael has had many “Mashiach is here” moments. Read the excellent ‘Mashichei Hasheker U’misnagdeihem’ (all 700 pages) of Rabbi Binyomin Hamburger, and you will get a feel for how numerous and how destructive these movements were...”


[Sefer haTzoref – Were these the ‘Secret Writings’ Which Had to be Hidden?] See Appendix for a ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ to ‘form a single company’, as found in the Stolin Geniza.

[1] Elisheva Carlebach, Rabbinic Circles as Messianic Pathways in the Post-Expulsion Era.
[2] Rachel Elior, Messianic Expectations and Spiritualization of Religious Life in the Sixteenth Century, 145:35-49. And; H.H. Ben-Sasson, Exile and Redemption in the Eyes of Spanish Exiles, pp. 216-227.
[3] Parenthesis mine.
[4] Parenthesis mine.
[5] See Joel L. Kraemer, Humanism in the Renaissance of Islam (Leiden 1986), p. 103.
[6] See Moshe Idel, Infinities of Torah in Kabbalah (New Haven 1986), pp. 141-157.
[7] See Elisheva Carlebach, Pursuit pp. 62-63. And: Elisheva Carlebach, “Redemption and Persecution”, pp. 19-20.
[8] Marc D. Angel, Voices in Exile: A Study of Sephardic Intellectual History (Hoboken 1991), pp. 89-94.
[9] Parentheses mine.
[10] Some accounts have it in 1701.
[11] Jacob Mann, The Settlement of the Kabbalist Abraham Rovigo and his Circle in Jerusalem in 1702, 6:10.
[12] Parenthesis mine.
[13] Y. Rivlin, The Proposal of Rabbi Raphael Mordekhai Malkhi to Establish a Yeshiva in Jerusalem as a Center for Jewry [Heb.], p. 46.
[14] Elijah Kohen, Sefer Meribat Kadesh, in Inyanei Shabtai Zevi (Berlin 1912). Pp. 18-19.
[15] Eshel Avraham 5b.
[16] Eshel Avraham 3a.
[17] Parenthesis mine.
[18] Eshel Avraham 3a-3b.
[19] Eshel Avraham 5a.
[20] Rabbi Lopiansky is the Rosh HaYeshiva of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington.
[21] Parenthesis mine.

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