Sunday 5 May 2024

470) Nineteenth-century Jewish Messianism



In our lifetimes, we have experienced multiple events that have sparked the notion that there is something unique in the air and Mashiach is on the way. Many great leaders have indeed declared this to be the case and it has become rather commonplace in the minds of the masses across the religious and even the secular spectrums that we are living in messianic times. Some suggest that Mashiah is already here. While this may or may not be the case, this article looks at another period in Jewish history (and there have been very many similar periods) where the same sentiment had been expressed. We shall explore various approaches to messianism during the nineteenth century as articulated by some in rabbinic leadership positions. 

This article based extensively on the research by Dr Arie Morgenstern[1] − examines some of the messianic statements emerging from rabbinic leadership in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These statements were generally made in reaction to specific events of the Modern Period, which began around the French Revolution of 1789 and culminated with universal messianic expectations for the year 1840 − the year for the Messiah to appear according to predictions in the Talmud and Zohar. 

Jews as full citizens

The French Revolution brought with it nuanced times for the Jews on several levels. In France, a 1791 law provided for full citizenship of Jews. 

“Two fundamental Jewish ideas were seen as obstacles to granting Jews full civic rights: that of chosenness, which obligates Jews to separate themselves from the gentiles; and that of the Messiah, which, by invoking the hope to return to Zion…seems to conflict with loyalty to a European homeland” (Morgenstern 2006:4). 

The Jewish reaction to these two ‘stumbling blocks’ was either to go deeper into traditionalism or to move towards reformation. The extreme reformers saw civil liberties as a form of messianism. They saw no need to encourage a return to Zion because they found redemption in their French homeland. The more moderate reformers saw the granting of full citizenship as the beginning of messianic universal peace and harmony and felt that a return to Zion would hamper that universalism. 

On the other hand, moderate traditionalists did not see a return to Zion as an obstacle to universalism because their messianism was pushed forward and deferred to some future reality and distant time. However, the more fundamental traditionalists promoted the notion that current events indicated and confirmed that they were indeed experiencing the beginnings and stirrings of the long-awaited Messiah. 

In Germany in 1822, a member of the Haskalah (Enlightenment movement) published a book entitled Hilchot Yemot haMashiach (Laws of the Messianic Era). It promoted America as the new homeland for the Jewish people: 

“And the proof that now is the time of redemption is that now, matters are to be found in the world. . . . In North America, known as the United States . . . the government has determined that when 35,000 Jewish souls arrive, they will be permitted to establish a state . . . and it turns out that there will be a Jewish kingdom in a settled land” (Eliezer Sinai Kirschbaum, Hilchot Yemot haMashiach, 1822). 

Napoleonic messianic theology 

R. Menachem Mendel of Rimanov

For twenty years following the French Revolution, Europe experienced conflict and wars. During the First Napoleonic War, the Chassidic Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel of Rimanov considered the war to be the eschatological battle of Gog and Magog: 

“He pleaded in his prayer that he [Napoleon] would be victorious in battle in order to bring about the redemption. And he said that in his opinion, it was good that Jewish blood be spilled, and that from Pristik to Rimanov they walk knee-deep in Jewish blood, so that it would be the time for our redemption” (Raphael Mahler, History of the Jews, part 1, vol. 1, 1952:129). 

Napoleon’s conquest (!) of the Land of Israel

Many rabbis saw the Napoleonic wars as the harbinger of the Messiah. Morgenstern notes that this is difficult to understand because Napoleon’s goal was not related to Israel but rather to the conquest of Egypt. Napoleon, therefore, passed through the coastal area and did not try to conquer Jerusalem. Nevertheless, rumour abounded that he intended to hand over Jerusalem and all of Israel to the Jews, thus creating a Jewish kingdom in the Holy Land: 

“Thus…the Jews wanted to believe that Napoleon’s expedition to the Land of Israel was undertaken as a venture in its own right, to conquer the Land and turn it over to the Jews. Beyond that, they wanted to believe that in invading the Land of Israel, Napoleon battled for Jerusalem and conquered it” (Morgenstern 2006:10). 

This inaccurate view became so widespread that Menachem Mendel of Kamenets, during his visit to Jerusalem in 1834, described the cemetery as follows: 

“Still standing there among them is large marble pillar with the form of a hand at its top, known as yad avshalom. And when Napoleon, King of France, did battle on the Mount of Olives, its fingers were broken off of it by the cannons” (Korot haItim leYeshurun beEretz Yisrael, 1840:22). 

This way, the “invented ‘reality’” became the common belief as it adopted messianic overtones. Even some newspapers reported that Napoleon had conquered Jerusalem

 for the Jews” (Morgenstern 2006:11). Some non-Jewish millenarian literature, building on the Jewish sentiment, also emphasised the ‘messianic’ nature of Napoleon’s conquests and claimed that Napoleon would proclaim himself the Jews’ Messiah and bring them to the Holy Land.[2] This idea was also prevalent within the Jewish community prompting reports like: 

“The Jews are beginning almost to believe in Bonaparte as the Messiah” (Mevorakh, The Messianic Question, 88-91). 

Gershom Mendes Seixas

In the Orthodox world, messianic theology was ubiquitous not just amongst the rabbis but even in the thought of Chazanim (Cantors). The first native-born Jewish religious leader in the United States was Gershom Mendes Seixas (1745-1816).[3] He wrote: 

“The recent events [Napoleon’s conquest of the Land of Israel] that unfolded in an orderly fashion, one after another, in the spiritual and physical worlds, constitute clear and reliable evidence of the truth of God’s word... that the great and exalted day is taking shape and approaching” (Raphael Mahler, History of the Jews, part1, vol. 1, 1952:290). 

Chatam Sofer

R. Moshe Sofer (1762–1839), known as the Chatam Sofer, kept a diary of the siege of his city, Pressburg, and the French artillery attacks against it: 

“And now, my brethren, please see and look how many great troubles and hardships were visited upon us during this present war, the full force of suffering...but if we pray for the deliverance of our souls and our redemption, then war will be the beginning of the redemption” (R. Moshe Sofer, Sefer haZikaron, 1957:53). 

 Post-Napoleonic messianism

Napoleon was defeated in 1812 and for a while, the messianic fervour calmed down a little, but not for long.

The European Cholera Epidemic of 1831-1832

The European cholera epidemic resulted in the deaths of thousands of Jews between 1831 and 1832. This too was seen as a messianic event. 

The Admor of Munkacz

In 1831, the Rebbe of Munkacz wrote that the epidemic was a heavenly decree that preceded the Redemption: 

“Although my soul is terrified and my spirit still has not calmed down within me after the sorrows and tribulations that have come over us…do not fear…for according to my reasoning, and what has been verified to me and my confidants regarding the force of the decree that has been issued on account of our many sins to augment the torments for our good, to bring near the set time for our redemption…” (Yemot haMashiach 76-7). 

R. Yehuda Chai Alkalai

R. Yehuda Chai Alkalai (1798-1878) compares the ten years between 1830 and 1840 to the Ten Days of Penitence (between Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur). These events were ordained by Heaven to awaken the Jews to repentance in anticipation of the ‘end of time.’ Part of this process necessitated the terrible cholera epidemic: 

 “In 1831, there occurred the first cholera [epidemic], which destroyed many families and embittered many mothers.” (Kitvei haRav Yehuda Alkalai, vol. 1 1975:75). 

R. Tzvi Hirsch Lehren

From 1830, political uprisings began in France and soon spread to Brussels resulting in the independence of Belgium. The Poles rose against Russia and there was general partisan tension. R. Tzvi Hirsch Lehren responded to this chaos and in 1831, he wrote: 

“The [political] earthquake that has now come upon the world in several countries, and the manner in which the fear of government has declined and descended to the dust—who can be sure that this does not entail preparation for the coming of King Messiah, for God, may He be blessed, thereby shows the worldly kings that He alone appoints kings and kingship is properly His. And the shoot of David will sprout and his glory will be raised up, and the kingdom will be restored to Jerusalem” (Igerot haPekudim, vol. 4, 48b). 

He continues: 

“And I have said already from the beginning of this year, that if the entire world thought as I do and as do many flawless ones who similarly think that we have attained the days of the Messiah…But on account of our many sins, many [people] attribute everything to natural events, in the way of the world, and they pay no attention to the fact that we have already reached the afternoon preceding the onset of the [messianic] Sabbath” (Igerot haPekudim, vol. 4, 116b). 

The Safed earthquake of 1837

A second cholera outbreak occurred in 1836 and that was followed by the Safed earthquakes a year later, in 1837. Then the passing of R. Akiva Eiger in 1838 added to all these events. R. Yisrael ben Leivush wrote: 

“[G]reat communities in Safed and Hebron were destroyed, houses collapsed, and several hundred were killed....A plague and epidemic, the illness of cholera, God protect us, spread throughout almost all the cities of Europe and claimed many victims…It is said [Sota 49b]…‘that the son of David will not come until a fish is sought for one who is ill and will not be found,’ for it is known that a sage [i.e., R Akiva Eiger] is compared to a fish” (R. Israel ben Leivush of Krotchin, Kol Bochim). 

The cholera outbreak, the Safed earthquake and the death of R. Akiva Eiger were all taken as messianic indicators. 

The Jews in Russia

Until the late eighteenth century, very few Jews lived in Russia. Under Russian religious laws, Jews were not permitted to enter its borders. It was only after the partitions of Poland in 1793 and 1795 that Jews began to move to Russia and soon the Jewish population reached one million making it the largest Jewish centre in Europe (Morgenstern 2006:14). 

However, unlike the Jews in more liberal areas within Europe, the Russian Jews were persecuted for their Judaism and severe methods were used by the Russian regime to forcibly assimilate them into the general Russian culture. The harshest of these decrees was the Cantonists’ Edict from around 1827, where young Jews were forcibly drafted into the Russian army for twenty-five years, with the specific intent to divest them of their Jewish heritage. This was not done just to swell the numbers in the Russian army but it had a malicious intent because of its demand from the Jewish leadership for a quota of their people. If the quota was not met, the entire Jewish community would be under threat. This did not apply to the other draftees who were viewed as individuals and not as representative of their ethnicities. 

“In order to meet the quota but avoid the painful task of selecting the draftees, the Jewish community used the ‘services’ of criminal elements still known in Jewish history as ‘the kidnappers.’ As the time for the draft approached, they would snatch children from among the poorer elements of the populace, and they were determined to meet the quota even if the boys they seized were of tender years” (Morgenstern 2006:15). 

The Austrians had a similar draft which they introduced in 1798, but they based it, not on malice against Jews, but on emancipation principles where equal rights  − which they afforded to the Jews – came with equal civil obligations, just like all the other Austrian citizens. Although fair, this draft could also threaten the identity of the Jews. 

Hillel of Kovno reacted to the Austrian draft and we can assume he included the much harsher Russian Cantonist Edict as well: 

“A new misfortune, greater than any that has arisen or been seen since we became a holy nation, is the kaiser’s decree to take men for service as soldiers,... destroying both body and soul… in the space of an instant they are given over to another nation, in gentile garb, with shaved side curls and beard, and your eyes see it . . . and you are powerless to save them…Without doubt, it is the sparks of the tribulations of the Messiah” (Hillel ben Shachar, 23a-25a). 

Once again, another world event was interpreted as the beginning of the messianic era. The Cantonist Edict and the Austrian military draft were seen as such extreme and cataclysmic affairs that annulled the traditional concept of the Three Oaths. 

The Three Oaths

Jewish tradition bound the Jews to remain loyal to their host nations and not try to create a new political reality to alleviate their exilic suffering: 

“What are these three oaths? One, that Israel would not scale the wall [i.e., would not prematurely attempt to restore Jewish dominion in the Land of Israel]; one, that God adjured Israel not to rebel against the nations of the world; and one, that God adjured the heathen not to subjugate Israel excessively” (see Ketuvot 111a). 

In other words, the Three Oaths demanded that: 1) Jews were not to attempt to resettle in the Land of Israel; 2) They remain passive within their host countries; and 3) The host countries do not suppress or subjugate the Jews too much. 

However, the Cantonist Edict was deemed to be the last exilic staw and some began to rethink attempts at resettling in the Land of Israel. These included the students of the Vilna Gaon. 

The students of the Vilna Gaon

Many Jews, notably including the students of the Vilna Gaon, began to believe the time had come to annul the Three Oaths. 

“[T]hey [the gentiles] have augmented their harsh yoke many times more than warranted…and they have violated the oath imposed on them by the Lord our God not to subjugate Israel too harshly so they will not press for the [messianic] End” (Igerot Eretz Yisrael, ed. A Yairi, 1943:352).

This idea is particularly evident in the writings of R. Yisrael of Shklov, the head of the Perushim (separatists), as the students of the Vilna Gaon who had made messianic aliya, were known. In 1830, he wrote a general letter to the Ten Tribes (who would be reunited with the body of Jewry in messianic times). There were reports and rumours of the discovery of traces of some of these Tribes and efforts were made to identify and locate them. The Jewish people, it was believed, were once again on the threshold of Redemption: 

“For that purpose, they relied on R. Simeon bar Yochai [to whom authorship of the Zohar is traditionally ascribed]…that at the time of the Footsteps of the Messiah, some of our brothers of the Ten Tribes will be discovered...” (Igerot Eretz Yisrael, ed. A Yairi, 1943:348). 

Muhammad Ali rules over Israel

In 1831, the Egyptian ruler, Muhammad Ali rebelled against the Ottoman authorities and conquered the Holy Land from them. He was sympathetic to the Jewish inhabitants and ruled over Israel between 1832 and 1840. This was seen as a significant messianic event. 

The only problem was that Muhammad Ali was a Muslim (Ishmaelite) and Jewish tradition expected redemption from a Christian (Edom) ruler. According to the Zohar, Muslims were given sovereignty over the Holy Land as a reward for observing the commandment of circumcision: 

“And the Children of Ishmael [i.e., the Arabs] are destined to rule over the Holy Land for an extended time, while it is empty and lacking perfection, and they will impede the Children of Israel’s return to their place until the merit of the Children of Ishmael is recompensed” (Zohar, Perush haSulam, Vaeira, 13). 

R. Tzvi Lehren wrote: 

“His exalted majesty [Muhammad Ali] judged well, for it is good for the people of the Land of Israel to live under the Egyptian king. . . . But days will come when they will speak of what God has commanded, for it is not a simple thing in our eyes, and there is room here to question whether the aforesaid king is, in fact, Ishmaelite, in which case there is no ignoring the words of the holy Zohar…But if he is not Ishmaelite, a doorway of hope is opened that he has come only to clear the way to the kingship of Israel” (Igerot haPekudim, vol. 5, 86a). 

The Jews got around this matter by regarding Muhammad Ali as an ‘enlightened Muslim.’ He allowed the Jews to repair and reconstruct their synagogues. R. Eliezer Bregman, who had made aliya in 1834 and was one of the leaders of the new Jewish settlement, wrote: 

“And the Ishmaelite gentiles are subjugated and greatly cast down, and the Jews, in contradistinction, especially the Ashkenazim, are, with the help of God, may He be blessed, raised to a high level.... And from reliable people it is heard that not in a long while (perhaps not since the time of our holy rabbi [R. Judah the Prince, late second to early third-century c.e.]) have the Jews in the Land of Israel experienced, blessed be God, such great tranquility. It has reached the point where it reasonable to say that with supernal grace the beginning of the redemption has already arrived…” (Yisu Harim Shalom, ed. A. Bartura, 1968:76). 

The fire in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

There is only one Jewish source − of nine lines − describing the fire that engulfed the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, on Hoshana Raba, in 1808: 

“A great event that took place in the holy city of Jerusalem (may it be built and established speedily and in our day), for the rabbi R. Nahum of Zamost came to us from Jerusalem and told us that…a fire descended from Heaven and the appalling house of idolatry, the prime source of impurity, was destroyed, [and it was] a wonder… and God judged it by fire, and several of their houses were burned along with several priests and treasures of kings and emperors that had been there from ancient times, [though] they maintained guards there, about sixty men, never stopping by day or night. And the cloister was made of marble, with a roof of iron, but it nevertheless was burned—destroyed, destroyed to its very foundation—and was left dust and ashes. And for the Jews, there was light and joy, and they all went up on the rooftops to rejoice, for they also had a tradition from the people of Jerusalem that when the foregoing impurity was burned, the time of our righteous Messiah’s coming would be near. And they wrote to the Sultan [requesting permission] to rebuild its ruins, and he replied that because He had shown from the heavens His great fire…it was not possible to rebuild it… And bless God that for the Jews, there was comfort and relief” (see Morgenstern 2996: 21). 

Talmudic and Zoharic predictions about the Messiah’s appearance in 1840

There are Talmudic and Zoharic predictions that the Messiah will come in 1840: 

The Talmud (b.Sanhedrin 99a) quotes R. Dosa as saying that the Messiah will come four hundred years before the Jewish year 6000. This corresponds to the year 5600/1840. 

The Zohar (1, Vayeira, 117a) quotes R. Yehuda as saying that after six hundred years of the sixth millennium, the gates of wisdom above and the springs below will open up and God will raise Israel from the dust of exile. 

R. Yehuda Chai Alkalai wrote about the great messianic expectations around the year 1840. He confirmed this by stating: 

“Now it has become clear, my brethren, that this 5600, which is spoken of by everyone, is true and settled” (Kitvei haRav Yehuda Alkalai, 78). 

Calculating and confirming the arrival of the Messiah was generally discouraged but those times were seen as extenuating circumstances: 

“End-reckonings could already be found as part of the mystical teachings in the talmudic and midrashic literature, but engaging in them was not generally accepted, lest the reckonings be proven false. The audacity to break that taboo could be mustered only in a period of messianic awakening, when the subject had become immediately pertinent. Accordingly, engaging in End-reckoning and in fixing the time of the redemption—and, even more, reducing those matters to writing—constitute unparalleled proof of how seriously the matter was taken and of its being so immediate that the masses saw its realization as imminent” (Morgenstern 2006:30). 

R. Chaim Of Volozhin

A leading student of the Vilna Gaon was R. Chaim of Volozhin. There exists testimony from an ex-student of R. Chaim of Volozhin − Benjamin Bary (who became an apostate!) and who had earlier studied in the Yeshiva of Volozhin – that on Shabbat afternoons, between the afternoon and evening services, they would discuss matters of Mashiah. 

The Vilna Gaon had written the following in his commentary on Sifra deTzeniuta: 

““And know that all these days allude to six thousand years… and all the details of these six days [of creation] pertain to the six thousand [years], each one at its day and hour. Know, accordingly, that the time of redemption is at hand…but I adjure the reader, by the Lord God of Israel, not to reveal this” (Commentary on Sifra deTzeniuta, 1820:54b). 

These matters were discussed in the Volozhin Yeshiva and, according to Benjamin Bary: 

“were accepted as absolute, unquestionable truth, and the inquiry was limited to the circumstances that would attend the Messiah’s arrival in 5600” (Morgenstern 2006:38). 

R. Moshe Turgeman and ‘recalculations’

People took these messianic predictions of 1840 so seriously that were prepared to sacrifice everything if they were proved wrong. The leader of the North African or Mughrabi Jews in Jerusalem, R. Moshe Turgeman, wrote: 

“I heard the calumny of many... that if the Messiah does not come in 5600, he will never come, . . . and some of them left the community for the Christian religion” (Pi Moshe, 40a). 

When the Messiah didn’t appear, it became necessary to recalculate some of the predictions. R. Moshe Turgeman wrote that then people had misread the Talmud and Zohar and: 

“they themselves fabricated on the basis of their error in understanding the foregoing words of the Zohar” (Pi Moshe 1a). 

He continued to suggest that the author of the Zohar appeared to him in a dream and explained the calculation: 

“I have come to write what R. Simeon bar Yochai (may his memory protect us, amen) said to me in a dream...I dreamt that R. Simeon bar Yochai said to me...I heard only the sound of words but I knew that it was R. Simeon bar Yochai speaking with me” (Pi Moshe 11a). 

R. Moshe Turgeman then offered a new date: 

“Pay no heed to words of falsehood…to numerological calculations devised by their whims…for they know not that the words of the Zohar regarding the true End are obscure and sealed…And I travailed and found the little [understanding] I achieved not through any wisdom within myself but through God’s kindness to me and the merit of [my] ancestors” (Pi Moshe 38a-b). 

He goes on to explain that the date 5600/1840 was just the beginning and the Messiah would arrive and that the correct date would be ten years later in 1850: 

“That is, the End will be in the seventh [century] after ten years of it have gone by, that is, in the year 5610 [1850]” (Pi Moshe 14a). 

R. Aviezer of Ticknin

One of the second-generation students of the Vilna Gaon and part of the group of Perushim was R. Aviezer of Tichnin who arrived in the Holy Land in 1832. Like. R. Moshe Turgeman, he also recalculated the Zoharic prediction, but instead of 1850, he came up with 5606 /1846 as the time for the Messiah, because: 

“This was [the situation] only on high, but it had not yet come to pass below... ‘The blossoms are seen in the land’ refers to the beginning of blossoming, which remains in the supernal land, but people do not know of it” (Shaarei Tzedek leZera Yitzchak, 1843:56a). 

In other words, it would take a few more years for the messianic redemption, which began in 1840, to manifest in reality down on earth. 

R. Yakov Emden

Although R. Yakov Emden was a great Sabbatian exposer, he maintained some messianic aspirations for himself. This means that he opposed Shabbatai Tzvi as the righteous Messiah because he believed that he (R. Emden himself) was the Messiah. He, like R. Moshe Turgeman and R. Aviezer of Tichnin, also recalculated the messianic arrival from 5600/1840 to 5608/1848. 

Opponents of the messianic fervour

R. Menashe of Ilya

While many of the students of the Vilna Gaon were caught up in these waves of messianism, one exception was his rationalist student, R. Menashe of Ilya: 

“Anyone who abounds in stupidity and firmly clings to a false belief is holy in his own eyes. But anyone who wishes to use his mind to inquire whether there is substance to his words is said to be of the mixed multitude [cf. Exod. 12:38], whose nature and origins preclude belief. But Jews are believers, the sons of believers, . . . and it is well known what happened in this regard in the time of the false messiah Shabbetai Zevi, may his name be erased, and we still have not escaped him and his legacy…In any event, the implication of our remarks… is that one should agree with true intellect…and that Torah and commandments should not contradict straight intellect” (Alfei Menashe, part 2, 51-52).

R. Elazar ben David

Like R. Menashe of Ilya, R. Elazar ben David also forewarned the people of messianic fervour, calculations and the interpretation of worldly events. He was writing about another messianic event that was to have taken place in 1800: 

“Now I know that just as they went mad over this year [5560 (1800)], there will be other periods and times, with their hidden and perverse allusions, of which people will say the year has come, and they will cite indications and raise up signs, [said to be] from secrets of the sage and wise. Thus [they do] regarding the year 5600…they find an allusion in the Zohar, in these words: “In six hundred years . . .” I therefore have written these discourses… so they will know unto the last generation and the allusions not lead you astray . . . for the matters are hidden and sealed up until the wondrous time” (Ahavat David, 1800:Introduction). 


I wrote my Masters Thesis on Jewish Messianism from 500 BCE to Shabbatai Tzvi and was astounded by the fact that these types of messianic events have been repeated over and over again in every generation. The surprising thing is that each generation always seems to have been completely unaware of the messianic aspirations and predictions of the previous generation. These events were often endorsed and encouraged by leading rabbinic personalities of those generations. Even our generation, today, seems totally oblivious to the blatant and certain messianism of the last generation. 

The problem is that our generation, therefore, thinks they are experiencing events and hearing teachings that are new and have never been expressed before. Yet they are ubiquitous to Jewish history. A serious study of Jewish messianic history and some of the rabbinic responses to messianism would help put the very genuine notion of Mashiach in perspective and restore the fallen crown of that noble ideal. Rabbis like R. Menashe of Ilya and R. Elazar ben David may serve as anchors in this regard.


Further Reading

(99+) Jewish messianism culminating in the rise and dissemination of Sabbatianism - An excursion into messianic Kabbalah and its theological enterprises - | Gavin Michal -

[1] Morgenstern, A., 2006, Hastening Redemption: Messianism and the Resettlement of the Land of Israel, Oxford University Press.

[2] Holty, J., 1815, A Combined View of the Prophecies of Daniel, Esdros and St. John, 387, 466.

[3] He served as the chazzan of Shearit Yisrael which was New York City's first Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, for five decades


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