Wednesday 27 September 2023

446) Mashiach is just two Amens away


Shirei Yehuda by Yehuda Leib Zelechow, Amsterdam, 1697


This article – based extensively on the research by Professor Elisheva Carlebach[1] − explores how (just after the failed messianic awakening of Shabbatai Tzvi, and just before the emergence of the Chassidic movement) a new trend in messianism began to develop. This new messianism was advanced by the likes of Yehuda Leib of Zelechow, and it promoted the notion that the ‘imminent redemption’ was dependent upon urgent attention to the prayers. His theological hypothesis was that two specific “Amens” in the prayer service have generally been ignored by the congregations − and this is holding up the messianic redemption. 


Many writings from around the end of the seventeenth century, by authors like Yehuda Leib Zelechow and his Shirei Yehuda,[2] provide examples of this unexplored genre of ‘prayer’ messianism. Yehuda Leib lived through the spiritually traumatic period of 1666 when Shabbatai Tzvi was declared a false Jewish Messiah after he converted to Islam. Yehuda Leib believed that he had witnessed a genuine and unprecedented spirit of repentance by the masses of Jewish people who had believed that Shabbatai Tzvi was the Messiah. 

He begins his reasoning as follows: 

“If...the matter of the length of the exile depended upon repentance ... have you not heard, have you not seen, the great repentance which was effected in all of Israel in [5]426 (1666), the likes of which have never been heard before? If so, why were the footsteps of our messiah delayed at that time?” (Shirei Yehuda, p. 4r, Hebrew). 

Because of that great movement of repentance, the Jewish people were still on the cusp of messianic redemption, although no longer through the personage of Shabbatai Tzvi. There was still time to prepare for the imminent, true and final redemption – so imminent that he completed his book in less than a month. To fail to make use of the energy and spiritual collateral that had accrued – combined with an emphasis on prayer and two neglected Amens − would be to miss the last chance of redemption, which would otherwise be transposed once again to a murky distant future. 

He essentially argued that now, all that was needed was a return to fervent prayer and two Amens. Everything else had been put in place except for the proper concentration and focus on prayer, which had been neglected. Just prayer and two Amens became the abandoned means of fixing a broken messianism. 

An emerging strata of secondary religious leadership

Yehuda Leib Zelechow was not a rabbi. He was a cantor or Shaliach Tzibbur (Prayer Leader). Carlebach describes this position as a “second rank religious functionary.” This description is not necessarily derogatory but indicative of the seventeenth-century social shift to a democratisation of Jewish leadership. The Magidim (moralistic preachers) that already emerged during Sabbatian times, later rose to leadership positions in the Chassidic movement, and have similarly been described as a “secondary intelligentsia” (Etkes1996:448) of rabbinic leadership. So too the baalei shem (wonder workers) who proliferated in the early period of the Chassidic movement are also described as being “below [the] contract rabbis.”[3] This hitherto ‘lower strata’ of clerical leadership, which generally related more to prayer, healing and pastoral work than to rabbinic scholarship, was to rise in prominence from the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century as the Chassidic movement was birthed: 

“The many proto-hasidic features in [Yehuda Leib’s book][4] Shire Yehudah, such as the belief in the power of prayer to effect messianic redemption and the elevation of the second rank religious functionary to the central redemptive position of communal advocate before God, provide a better explanation of the spiritual matrix from which Hasidism arose” (Carlebach 1992:241). 

Yehuda Leib believed that cantors with their prayers, and not rabbis with their learning, were to inaugurate the messianic era. Cantors, he maintained, should be honoured more than rabbis because they represented the role of the Temple priests (כי עכשיב הם במקום כהנים). Yehuda Leib finds support for this in the Zohar: 

"[T]he cantor…is the anointed priest sent to atone for Israel, as is stated in the name of the Zohar: 'If the anointed priest sins' etc., [Lev 4:3] this is the cantor, who is the anointed priest sent to atone for Israel" (Shirei Yehuda, p. 3r; 13v).   

Yehuda Leib notes that although words of Torah are very valuable, the world has more need for song than learning: 

“…I see that whenever someone rises to speak at a party, he is cut off, whereas they like to sing my songs” (Shirei Yehuda, p. 2v).   

Yehuda Leib, however, has strong words for some of his cantor colleagues. He points out that they use overly joyous and lively tunes at inappropriate times during the prayers.[5] Sometimes they rush through the prayers so fast just to receive praise from worshipers who have no patience for long prayer services. 

Two target markets

Yehuda Lieb wrote his Shirei Yehuda to inspire Jews to sing Jewish songs and to use Jewish tunes during their prayers: 

“[W]hen Jews get together on festive occasions, they sing gentile songs and rarely take note of the length of the exile and the destruction of the Temple. By doing this, they prolong the exile and strengthen the forces of evil" (Shirei Yehuda, Approbation, p. 2r). 

The essence of Yehuda Leib’s book is a Zemer (song) for the festive meals, with a commentary in both Hebrew and Yiddish. By clever use of this bilingual commentary, Yehuda Leib was able to address two distinct target markets in very different ways to promote his messianic theory. The more scholarly readers would find concepts in the Hebrew text that the less studious Yiddish readers would not be able to relate to. Nevertheless, both audiences were presented with a relatively easy messianic fix for the future eighteenth century which would combat the failed messianism of the seventeenth century: 

“[Yehuda Leib][6] believed that he had uncovered the causes of the messianic failure and that his nostrums [i.e., remedy] would easily rectify them, but the message was urgent because time was running out” (Carlebach 1992:242). 

His message to women

In the Yiddish commentary, he specifically addresses women. He seems to hold women responsible for delaying the arrival of the Messiah: 

“My dear women, there is a sin which is much greater and graver than murder, adultery, or heresy, and it is causing us much pain in this exile. [This sin] is idle talk during the synagogue service. So be quiet! How can we bring redemption if we have destroyed all intention [during prayer]? If only women would banish all idle chatter from the synagogue, they would bring redemption” (Shirei Yehuda, pp. 17v-18r, Yiddish). 

On the next page (19r) he writes that G-d would be much happier if women, especially nursing women, would stay at home, rather than attend the synagogue. Being a Cantor, he took synagogue decorum very seriously: 

“He [Satan] induces our people to engage in idle chatter. As soon as they enter, the youngsters follow the example of their elders ... prancing about like goats. If one comes to rebuke them, they mock him... They bring young children under the age of three! Children under age five should not participate…Girls should not be brought to the synagogue on pain of a fine, as there is no need for them at all” (Shirei Yehuda, p. 16v). 

Noise from charity boxes

Yehuda Leib also complains that the money collectors go around the synagogue during the repetition of the Amidah and make excessive noise with their charity boxes. But he has a solution which he seriously suggests to the rabbis who should appoint committees of ten men to act as: 

“police and judges with rods and whips in hand to restrain rebellious youths who behave with lightheadedness in our sacred House of Splendor .., and to excommunicate them with every possible ban” (Shirei Yehuda, p. 16v, Hebrew). 

Comparison with other messianic works from the same time

Although Yehuda Leib was a cantor and his book was a commentary on a prayer song, it should not be underestimated because his views reflected a prevailing theological mood of the time. 

Other works by different authors but of a similar nature from that same period also refer to the imminent arrival of the Messiah. 

1) A Yiddish book produced in 1696 refers to בשנת אני מאמין בביאת המשיח (The year of ‘I believe in the coming of the Messiah’).[7] 

2) Another 1698 Yiddish work entitled Sod haNeshama (Secret of the Soul), for example, refers to 1698 as בשנת משיח יגאלנו (The year the Messiah will redeem us). 

3) Sometimes the messianic dates got mixed up. R. Shmuel Feivush Kahane − who was such a fervent believer in messianism that he produced his book, Leket Shmuel on the way to the Holy Land in anticipation of messianic revelation − writes: 

“In my humble opinion, it is possible that the beginning of the redemption has already passed, as the world has heard. But there is a source, Yalqut Hoshe'a, where it is said, ‘Just as the first redeemer Moses was revealed, and was then concealed (for forty years), so it will be with the last redeemer.’ Indeed, from the year 5434 [1674], when he was concealed, until 5474 [1714], there are forty years − may he come” (Leket Shmuel, p. 30v). [8] 

Interestingly, R. Kahane seems to have gotten the dates mixed up because Shabbetai Tzvi died in 1676, not 1674. So Shabbatai Tzvi’s "concealment"  (as it was believed that he didn't really die) was actually two years later! 

The theology of Yehuda Leib Zelechow

Yehuda Leib believed his song would be sung in the time of the righteous Messiah. He believed his song was referenced in a verse in Isaiah (26:1): “On that day this song shall be sung in the land of Judah” (Judah, of course, alluding to Yehuda Leib). Referring to the messianic frenzy he had previously experienced with Shabbatai Tzvi, Yehuda Leib writes: 

“For the entire world stood as one, occupied with such a profound repentance the likes of which had never occurred from the day of the creation of the earth until this day, in order to merit the divine redemption, as is known to those people who were there at the time and are still living now. All the people of that generation were certain that God would deliver them from servitude to freedom in that year [1666][9]" (Shirei Yehuda, p. 5v, Hebrew). 

This unprecedented unity, although perhaps misplaced in his view, would stand them in good stead. 

Persuasive theology and effective marketing techniques

Yehuda Leib Leib promised his readers that if they: 

“accept rebuke from… [his book]; then the redemption shall not be absent, and …[they] will merit seeing the consolation of Zion" (Shirei Yehuda, Title Page). 

In the Yiddish, he promises a little more: 

“For you will read in it why this exile endures so long." 

The Yiddish version also adds that the sooner people will buy this book and act on its recommendations,  the sooner they will be redeemed. 

The imminent arrival of the Messiah

Yehudah Lieb, as mentioned, writes that the repentance of 1666 (just before Shabbatai Tzvi converted to Islam) was greater and far more effective than at any other time in Jewish history. He continues to drive this point home: 

“As we have seen with our own eyes at that time, the entire Diaspora of Israel had [repentance] implanted so deeply in their hearts that even the sinners of our people returned at that time with all their heart and soul. Each day the joy waxed greater." 

This means that the messianic repentance has essentially already been accomplished. The Jewish world had been but a hairsbreadth away from the redemption. So, logically, to complete the mission, the world no longer needs major repair, only a very simple and subtle one. 

The Remedy

Yehuda Leib’s remedy was even more ingenious because he managed to strip it of any previous connection to Shabbatai Tzvi. He learned of this remedy from another important rabbi, his teacher and master, R. Wolf Segal, who had once resided in his house. This is how Yehuda Leib describes what he had learned from his teacher: 

“At that time, I looked upon the countenance of my ... master, and it was angry...... When I inquired as to the reason he replied, ‘I am greatly distressed over two Amens that have been dropped from our congregations: one after the blessing ha-mahzir shekhinato le-Zion [המחזיר שכינתו לציון] ('who restores his presence to Zion'); and the second in the Sabbath eve services after ha-pores sukkat shalom aleynu [הפורש סכת שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל ועל ירושלים] ('who spreads his Tabernacle of peace over us'). We do not hear the audience responding 'Amen' to these blessings. [I.e., Immediately after… המחזיר they begin modim מודים; and immediately after… הפורש they begin ve-shomruושמרו][10]...’ ” (Shirei Yehuda, p. 5r, Hebrew). 

Yehuda Leib notes that “at the time I did not pay attention and I did not set my heart to beseech him to clarify the matter ” (p. 3v). Then one night in 1696, when Yehuda Leib got up to recite the Tikun Chatzot (Midnight Lamentation), he realised that these two neglected Amens are obviously what was holding back the full and final redemption. His teacher had been right. 

To confirm his theory, he asked a great sage who conducted a She’elat Chalom (Dream Question) and the answer from heaven was in the affirmative. Indeed, the problem was these two neglected Amens. 

Yehuda Leib goes on to explain that although he did not believe (anymore) in Shabbatai Tzvi, the year 1666 despite the Shabbatai’s conversion to Islam that year  was still an auspicious time for the Messiah. However, because of the sin of the neglected Amens, the opportunity passed into oblivion. Yehuda Leib explains: 

“Listen my brothers, and I will tell you what I heard from the mouth of the pious sage, my teacher and master…R. Wolf Segal… Day and night his mouth did not cease from Torah study and matters of repentance to all those who sought him. He taught us the laws of God and the path that we must tread in order to merit the redemption for which we yearned so much in that year [1666], a year of divine favor…[But b]ecause of the above mentioned accusation [i.e., the two missing Amens], the grace period for redemption was abolished” (Shirei Yehuda, pp. 4v-5v, Hebrew). 

Yehuda Leib kept this a secret at that time “so as not to distract the hearts of Israel from repentance.” However, now, years later, he sensed that a new period of messianic grace was about to begin. The Messiah was going to come in 1696 or 1714. 

The real Messiah is to come in 1696 or 1714

Yehuda Leib continues to explain that there are two imminent periods of messianic grace, 1696 and 1714: 

“The new time of grace that I am revealing here will come, with God's help, in the two periods that are approaching, today [1696] and eighteen years hence [1714]...Each one of them will be a period of grace in which the Creator will redeem his sons from among the nations and restore the crown to its former glory. This will come about only on condition that we rectify the wrong stated above [i.e., the two neglected Amens]…” (Shirei Yehuda, p. 14v). 

He then goes on to bring proof for these two dates 1696 and 1714 which are eighteen years apart   by two earlier holy men, Shlomo Molcho (1500-1532) (another messianic claimant!),[11] and the liturgical poet R. Eliezer haKallir (c. 570 – c. 640),[12] who had predicted these dates as the year the Messiah will come. 


As has happened countless times before in Jewish history, great messianic expectations faded when the predicted periods came and went only to be rekindled once more with further messianic promises, forecasts and remedies.[13] Perhaps the desperate need for omnisignificance, where everything is imbued with a sense of hyper-significance lies at the root of this phenomenon. This mindset may be actively inculcated by teachers and leaders who promote the ideology that it is possible to find meaning and transcendence in everything. Of course, people need to find meaning, but they also need to learn how to cope with reality when they are unable to do so.

Maimonides, who spoke of a natural progression toward a non-supernatural messianic era with the general betterment of humankind over time,[14] also taught that not every leaf that falls from a tree is omnisignificant.[15]

[1] Carlebach, E., 1992, ‘Two Amens That Delayed the Redemption: Jewish Messianism and Popular Spirituality in the Post-Sabbatian Century’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 82, no. 3/4, University of Pennsylvania Press, 241-261.

[2] Yehuda Leib Zelechow, Shire Yehuda, Amsterdam, 1697.

[3] Online source: Retrieved on 01 November 2022.

[4] Square brackets are mine.

[5] Perhaps, in keeping with the possible proto-Chassidic nature of Yehuda Leib’s approach to prayer, is the notion of the more serious and contemplative Chassidic niggun, which was to become the hallmark of Chassidic prayer.

[6] Square brackets are mine.

[7] Bukh der Farzeykhnung, in L. Fuks and R. G. Fuks-Mansfeld, 1987, Hebrew Typography in the Northern Netherlands, 1585-1815, Leiden.

[8] Shmuel Feivush Kahane, Leket Shemuel, Venice, 1694.

[9] Square brackets are mine. 

[10] Square brackets mine.

[12] Also know as R. Elazar haKallir, a poet whose prayers are included in many of the Festival and Fast Day services particularly in the Ashkenazi rite. According to some traditions,  he was the son of the Tanna Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Others claim him to have been R. Elazar ben Arach from the latter period of the Second Temple. Still others identify him the fifth century R. Eliezer ben R. Shimon mentioned in Midrash Rabbah to Vayikra 23:40.


  1. Another remarkable blog post and a lesson for us. "Secondary religious leadership" and "democratisation" is not for us Jews. If social media has shown us nothing else, it has shown that unrestrained freedom of speech and abundant forums means that the opinions of ignorant people are heard and sadly given weight.

    May we merit the real geulah soon. This world is just becoming more muddled by the minute.