Sunday 27 March 2022

377) Early Jewish Messiahs and their movements

Rambam's Letter to Yemen

In this article, we look at some of the early Jewish messianic claimants and their movements, of which there have been many throughout history.

Judaism is well-known for its rejection of the Christian Messiah, yet it embraced numerous other messianic claimants and developed an intricate and complicated relationship with messianism. With the current resurge in messianism in the Jewish world in general and in movements like Chabad in particular, it may come as a surprise that this rejuvenation is nothing new. We see that throughout Jewish history there has always been the belief held by significant numbers of the population, that we were on the cusp of the great eschatological event heralding the imminent arrival of an identifiable and righteous Messiah.

Early messianism from around 500 BCE

Although the concept of a Messiah is so ingrained in Judaism today, the fact is that its origins are extremely obscure. Whether accurate or not, some theories even question whether the messianic origins are to be found in Jewish sources. Leo landsman rejects such theories because, he argues, Isaiah speaks of a human redeemer and hence a Jewish origin to the messianic idea (Landman 1979:xi). Nevertheless, the details surrounding this Messiah and the messianic age he will usher in, were the subject of extreme debate.

The preexilic prophets prior to Isaiah believed that the order of the future world would not be all that different from the way it had always been[1] (Sharot 1982:47). With Isaiah, however, a new era began where the belief was that the future world would be transformed on a cosmic scale vastly different from anything seen before. This dramatic understanding of the future was followed by most of the later prophets. And particularly between 200 BCE and 200 CE, when the classical apocalyptic works were produced, the vision of the future world involved cosmic shifts both on earth and in heaven. 

From the third century CE, with the transmission of Jewish leadership from Palestine to Babylonia, as if hopes for a political return to the Land of Israel seemed further out of reach, messianic imaginations took on a more fanciful and mystical character at the expense of political redemption.[2] This view veered dramatically from the earlier militaristic messianism of Bar Kochva, and now in Babylon a sword was no longer a physical sword but rather a sharp debate on Talmudic matters. There were some exceptions but as a rule, from the Babylonian period onwards, displays of militaristic messianism were rare. This predominantly Babylonian mystical messianic worldview went on to inform the mindset of medieval Jewry[3] (Sharot 1982:47).  

It was also around the medieval period that the role of redemption through a human Messiah had gained normative status:


This was a gradual development. For a long period the concept of a messiah was either absent or of little importance beside that of eschatological salvation. Many prophetic books spoke of no messiah: God alone was the redeemer (Sharot 1982:51). 

Other prophetic books spoke of the “House of David” alluding to the idea that the Messiah was not a redeemer but, instead, the collective of future kings who would rule over the envisaged future kingdom.  

Bar Kochva (d. 135 CE)

An early messianic claimant was Bar Kochva. His name was changed from the original Bar Koziva to Bar Kochva (son a star) during the revolt he led against the Romans between 132-135 CE. The reason for the name change was to allude to his messianic expectations based on the biblical verse:


There shall step forth a star out of Jacob, a scepter comes forth from Israel; It smashes the brow of Moab (Num. 24:17). 

The Aramaic translation known as Onkelos, translates “star” as “malka” (king) and “scepter” as “meshicha” (Messiah). “Bar Kochva” was sometimes the general midrashic term used to describe the Messiah.[4] According to the Talmud Yerushalmi:


רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא כַּד הֲוָה חָמֵי לֵיהּ לְהָדֵין בַּר כּוֹזִיבָא הֲוָה אָמַר הַיְינוּ מַלְכָּא מְשִׁיחָא, אָמַר לֵיהּ רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן בֶּן תּוֹרָתָא עֲקִיבָא יַעֲלוּ עֲשָׂבִים בִּלְחָיֶיךָ וַעֲדַיִן אֵינוֹ בָּא


When R. Akiva beheld Bar Koziva, he would say: “This is the Messianic King”. [Not everyone agreed with R. Akiva, and] R. Yochanan ben Torata challenged him by responding: “Akiva, grass will grow on your cheeks, and the son of David will still not have come”.[5]


It must be noted that the Bar Kochva story is usually recounted in a way that it is only R. Akiva who considers him to be the Messiah but that he himself was not actually a messianic claimant. Yet there is a Talmudic text that clearly defines him as a messianic claimant:


בר כוזיבא מלך תרתין שנין ופלגא אמר להו לרבנן אנא משיח


Bar Koziva ruled for two and a half years. He said to the Sages: I am [the] Messiah.[6]

From the nineteenth century onwards, the name Bar Koziva which was used most often in classical sources, was excluded from academic and popular discourse in favour of Bar Kochva. Then in 1960-1 archaeological discoveries of ancient letters revealed his real name to be בר־כוסבא, בר־כוסבה, or בר־כשבה which is much closer to Bar Koziva than to Bar Kochva - yet Bar Kochva still dominated the academic discourse. According to Haim Weiss this was often due to the Zionist historiographers who wanted to project the warrior image of the man:


In fact, a fascinating process has occurred in which the scholarly world actively suppressed one of its own most important discoveries [of the real name being Bar Kosibah][7], in order to privilege - sometimes intentionally and sometimes not – the mythical image of Bar Kokhva over the historical one of Bar Kosibah (Weiss 2015:102).

Koziva may have been a place name like Chezib (Schürer 1891:293, note 84) or even a family name. In rabbinic literature, Bar Koziva is used in its literal sense to designate the “son of a lie” (Seder Olam Rabbah 20).

Either way, after the failure of the Bar Kochva revolt, the subsequent humiliation and persecution lead to the abandonment of militaristic ambition and to a general passivity within Babylonian Jewry. The Babylonian rabbis now suggested that redemption lay in the hands of God and not man. The idea of an imminent Messiah appears to have waned. Also, it was at that time that the warrior Mashiach ben Yosef was substituted by the more spiritual Mashiach ben David (Sharot 1982:50-53).

[See ‘When a sword is not a sword’ in Kotzk Blog: 210) HOW REALITY ON THE GROUND INFORMS PERCEPTIONS OF HEAVEN:]

Moshe of Crete (5th century)

After the Bar Kochva/Koziva defeat, active messianism seemed to have waned for about three hundred years until the incident involving Moshe of Crete which occurred around the fifth century. At that time, Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, had a significant Jewish population. When Moshe of Crete pronounced himself as the Messiah, he attracted a large following. Many Jews left their homes and businesses (this was to be a common feature of many future messianic supporters) and like the biblical Moses, they followed Moshe of Crete to the sea where they awaited a “keriat Yam Suf” (a splitting of the Red Sea) event, to herald the new messianic era. Some of the faithful threw themselves into the water and drowned. Others were saved by local fisherman and sailors (Sharot 1982:53). According to the account by Al-Makīn ibn al-ʿAmīd:


Then he said to them: Verily, I will cross the sea with you (like Moses crossed over with the children of Israel), and many of them rushed into the sea and drowned. When the others saw this, and the fact that he did not save them from drowning, they wanted to seize him. He fled, but they seized him and killed him. And then many of the people became Christians (cited in Seleznyov 2019:n.p.).

This reaction of converting out of Judaism was also to become a common theme in the future stories of failed messianic claimants. According to an account by the fifth century Socrates of Constantinople:


On the appointed day the false Messiah, followed by the whole Jewish population of Crete, marched toward the sea. When they had arrived at a certain promontory Moses commanded them to throw themselves down, as the water would be divided before them. The Jews obeyed, and many of them lost their lives in the sea while others were rescued by mariners. Moses is said never to have been seen again (Socrates, "Historia Ecclesiastica," vii. 36).

This event was most likely precipitated by the popular predictions surfacing that the Messiah would arrive four hundred years after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. That corresponded to the amount of time spent in the biblical Egyptian exile. (Sharot 1982:53).

The Messiah of Pallughtha (645)

In 645 there was an uprising headed by a Jew from Pallughtha, which has been identified as Pumbedita (modern day Fallujah, Iraq):


That year there appeared a certain Jewish man from the village which is called Pallughtha…who claimed that the Messiah had come. He gathered around himself a vile crowd of weavers, barbers and fullers, about four hundred strong, who burned down three sacred edifices and killed the local governor. But there came soldiers from the city of Akula and slew them, their wives and their children, while their leader was crucified in his own village (Chronica Minora [8]).

Severus (720)

Around 720, Severus (also known as Serenus), a Christian Syrian convert to Judaism active in Mardin, led a rising in Syria and promised to restore Palestine to the Jews. There is some debate as to whether he claimed to be the Messiah or just the harbinger of the Messiah. Severus began to change some of the laws of the Talmud (but he did not try to change biblical law)[9]. He changed the Yom Tov Sheini shel Galuyot, where in the Diaspora Jews observe two days of a festival - due to the vagaries of the date of the new moon - to just one day as they observed it in the Land of Israel. He instituted new prayers and changed some of the dietary laws as well as marriage and divorce laws. His innovation with the prayers indicates that his: 

militant messianism also needed rabbinic sanction for acceptance by the synagogue (Sharf 1971:66).

Severus also attracted a Christian and Muslim following and he managed to inspire Jews as far away as Spain (Sharf 1971:63). He persuaded the community to give him their belongings and eventually he was arrested and executed (Sharot 1982:53).

It is possible that the cataclysmic series of Muslim victories in the seventh century, culminating in the great Arab siege of Constantinople (717–8), served as inspiration for similar Jewish conquests involving “militant messianism” spreading possibly all the way to Spain (Sharf 1971:64).

Severus left a powerful legacy, as his movement persisted for at least a hundred years after his death. There were some issues regarding those followers who may have converted out of Judaism, because the Gaon, Natronai bar Hilai, a century later, had to rule on proper procedures for accepting them back into the fold of Judaism (Sharf 1971:64).

Abu-Isa and the Isawites (8th century)

In the eighth century, the Persian Jew, Abu-Isa announced himself as the Messiah and he led a revolt. The revolt was quickly suppressed but his influence began to spread and his movement eventually turned into a sect spanning as far as Syria and Palestine. This irritated both the Muslim authorities as well the rabbis. It adopted a ‘universalist messianic approach’ and while essentially preaching a Palestinian nationalism, it acknowledged both Christianity and Islam. Two hundred years later, the followers were still active in Damascus (Sharf 1971: 63).

Abu-Isa led an armed attack against Calif Merwan II but he was defeated and killed in 755. Many of his followers refused to believe he was dead (another common messianic characteristic), claiming he was hiding in the mountains and that he would return to complete his messianic mission. The followers became the sect known as the Isawites. Some of the followers proclaimed his student, Yugdan, as the new Messiah and they formed another sect known as the Yudganites. When Yugdan died, the followers in turn appointed his student, Mushka, as the next Messiah but he was killed in battle (Sharot 1982:54).

Abu-Isa also changed some of the laws and introduced some ascetic innovations to Judaism, such as frequent fasting, seven daily prayer services instead of the usual three, and he prohibited divorce, eating meat and drinking wine. This very regulated ascetism was believed to hasten the coming of the messianic age. Their essential ideology was redemption through nationalism and violence. It is interesting to note that the later Sabbatians adopted a very different approach by permitting the prohibited and encouraging promiscuity, essentially redemption through sin. This was based upon the kabbalistic notion of yeridah tzorech aliya, or descent for the sake of ascent. This was interpreted to mean that one had to venture deep within the sin in order to elevate and transform (birrur) it.

Moshe Al-Dari (1120-27)

In his Iggeret Taiman Maimonides records the incident of Moshe Al-Dari preaching in Fez, Morocco, that the Messiah was to arrive of the eve of Passover. Al-Dari was a pious scholar, a student of Yosef ibn Migash, known as the Ri Migash, from Spain. The Ri Migash was also the teacher of Maimonides’ father, R. Maimon. Maimonides writes:

He informed them that the Messiah had come, as was divinely revealed to him in a dream… Many people became his adherents and reposed faith in him. My father and master, of blessed memory, endeavored to dissuade and discourage people from following him. However only a few were influenced by my father, while most, nay nearly all clung to R. Moses, of blessed memory.[10]

Maimonides continues to emphasise that “the majority of the people put their trust in him”, another indication of the mass responses that always accompany these messianic movements. Al-Dari encouraged his followers to sell their property and contract debts to the Muslims agreeing to pay back ten dinars for each dinar they borrowed: 


in order to observe the precepts of the Torah in connection with the Passover festival, for they will never see them again, and so they did (Maimonides, Iggeret Teiman). 

After Passover, the “majority of the people” were overcome with tremendous debt as they endured the fallout resulting from the excitement of messianic throes.

Strangely, one notices an air of respect within Maimonides’ recoding of the Al-Dari incident. This is evident, amongst other indications, by Maimonides referring to Al-Dari by the honorific “may his memory be for a blessing”. Robert Kraynak (1992:127) picks up on this and suggests that the: 

scholar named Moses Al-Dari from Morocco [who][11] made false predictions about the coming of the Messiah but reportedly was admired by Maimonides, apparently because he preached return to the land of Israel and died in Eretz Israel. 

Kraynak highlights this against another messianic leader, this time “a certain man in one of the cities of Yemen pretends that he is the Messiah”, who Maimonides also references, but not in such glowing terms:


[I]n 1172, a Messiah pretender appeared in Yemen, who was severely condemned by Maimonides apparently because he was a kind of socialist revolutionary rather than a "Zionist."[12]  

Kraynak is probably correct in his assumption because we know that Maimonides had an extremely non-mystical approach to the messianic era and its fulfilment, particularly regarding the return to the Holy land, was predicated upon natural means and human effort. [See: Kotzk Blog: 226) MASHIACH - A NATURAL OR SUPERNATURAL EVENT?].

False messiahs and potential messiahs 

Many believe that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with ‘good’ false messiahs because like scientific experiments, one has to fail many times before getting it right. The messianic claimant is therefore not held accountable, as his intentions were good - and perhaps under different circumstances, things could have turned out better.

There is even a Chassidic analogy that compares meshichei hasheker or false messiahs to someone who has to wake up a sick person from time to time to prevent him from falling into a coma. So too the Jewish people have to be awakened from time to time to keep the messianic dream alive (Steinsaltz 2012).

Ironically a support for this may be found in Maimonides’ Iggeret Teiman (Letter to Yemen, which also referenced another messianic claimant) where he decries those who try to predict or calculate the time of the arrival of the Messiah. Yet he surprisingly supports such a very enterprise by Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942) who did just that. Maimonides writes:


As for R. Saadia's Messianic calculations, there are extenuating circumstances for them though he knew they were disallowed. For the Jews of his time were perplexed and misguided…He believed, in all earnestness, that by means of the Messianic calculations, he would inspire the masses with hope for the truth. Verily all his deeds were for the sake of heaven (Maimonides, Iggeret Teiman).[13]

Another common explanation is that there has to be a potential messiah in every generation so that a candidate, so to speak, is always waiting in the wings. The Sabbatians, for example, believed that each age had its potential Messiah (Goldish 2004:147) and that each failed Messiah had his specific role and function in the unfolding of the larger messianic schema. In this sense, not every messiah is a false messiah but rather a necessary and potential messiah.

On the other hand, one could argue that a false messiah is just that – a false messiah. One can very easily be inclined to go along with the latter argument, especially when considering the glaringly apparent and unimaginable physical and theological chaos that always followed in the wake of such messianic claimants. One simply needs to study the turmoil within the community that followed after the more recent false Messiah, Shabbatai Tzvi.

In fairness, if these false messiahs, themselves, had rather claimed to be potential messiahs then one could accept all the oft-repeated explanations offered for their failure. The problem is that they didn’t. They all claimed to be the Messiah.


Judaism certainly has a legitimate belief in the notion of a Messiah and a messianic age. But this does not mean that it is meritorious or even a mitzva to believe in something that is not true, no matter how many people seem convinced that it is. A study of the sheer numbers of false Messiahs throughout Jewish history would show that conviction, hype and large followings have never been accurate indicators of the generation being at the cusp of a uniquely new messianic era.


Further reading on later false Messiahs

Kotzk Blog: 350) Messianic Parallelisms






Goldish, M., 2004, The Sabbatean Prophets, Harvard University Press, Cambridge,             Massachusetts, and London.

Kraynak, R.P., 1992, ‘The Idea of the Messiah in the Theology of Thomas Hobbes’,            Jewish Political Studies Review 4:2, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Jerusalem, 115-137.

Landman, L., 1979, Messianism in the Talmudic Era, Ktav Publishing House, New York.

Seleznyov, N. N., 2019, ‘Al-Makīn ibn al-ʿAmīd on Moses of Crete’, Scrinium15(1),             321-327. doi:

Sharf, A., 1971, Byzantine Jewry from Justinian to the Fourth Crusade, Edited by David Goldstein & Louis Jacob, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Sharot, S., 1982, Messianism, Mysticism, and Magic: A Sociological Analysis of Jewish Religious Movements, The University of North Carolina Press.

Steinsaltz, A., 2012, David Alroy; Post-Talmudic Images. Online source: David Alroy - YouTube. Retrieved on 25 March 2022.

Weiss, H., 2014, ‘There Was a Man in Israel – Bar-Kosibah Was His Name!’, Jewish           Studies Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 2, 99-115, Mohr Siebeck GmbH & Co. KG.

[1] The preexilic prophets may have had supernatural premises, but their vision of the future order was not that it be essentially different from the earlier order.

[2] The roots of this change would have already begun a little earlier, from the failure of the Bar Kochva revolt (132-135 CE). (See: Bar Kochva).

[3] Sharot (1982:45) explains that in Christianity, the early Christians nurtured the idea that the second coming was imminent. However, from the fifth century, the new orthodoxy of the church taught that salvation was not a collective event destined for some point in the future. Rather it was a personal experience to be achieved by a righteous individual after death. The belief in the coming of a millennium was declared a superstitious error by the Council of Ephesus in 431. This means that the later medieval Christian millennial movements were technically considered heretical.

[4] Online source: Bar Kokhba | Retrieved on 22 March 2022.

[5] Eicha Rabba 2:4. See also y. Taanit 24 ch. 4.

[6] b. Sanhedrin 93b. Translation Sefaria.

[7] Parenthesis is mine.

[8] Chronica Minora, translated by I. Guidi, Scriptores Syrii series 3, vol. 4, fasc. 1 (Paris 1903), 27-8.

[9] Online source: Severus° | Retrieved 23 March 2022.

[11] Parenthesis is mine.

[12] Sharot (1982:59) makes the technical distinction between millenarianism and messianism. The former is more politically motivated and militaristic, while the latter is more eschatological. The Al-Dari event in Fez would be considered a millenarian incident while the “certain man” in Yemen would be a messianic event.

[13] Online source: Iggerot HaRambam, Iggeret Teiman 12 with About ( Retrieved 24 March 2022. Translation Sefaria.

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