The notion of a Messiah began with King David, and was developed in the books of Isaiah and Daniel. Very briefly, the Jewish concept of the Messiah is that one day there will be a person who will usher in a period of world-wide peace and harmony. This person is referred to as the mashi’ach (transliterated into English as ‘messiah’), a Hebrew word meaning ‘anointed one’ and indicating that he will have been appointed to his role by God.
Simon Bar Kochba launched an ill-fated revolt against Rome in 132 and was believed by many to be the Messiah. In 448, Moses of Crete said he would lead the Jews back to Judea over the sea.
A messianic pretender, David Alroy of Iraq, inspired Caucasian Mountain Jews to attack Persia in the 12th century. In 1290, Abraham Abulafia proclaimed a new dawn in Sicily using a kabbalistic technique called ‘The Way of the Divine Name’.
The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 revived messianic yearnings. In 1502, the north Italian Rabbi Asher Lemlein predicted the Messiah’s imminent arrival.
In 1523, a charismatic mystic known as David Reubeni came to Venice claiming descent from King David. Possibly an Ethiopian Jew, he convinced many Jews and even Christian princes, but ended up in a Spanish prison. In 1530, Solomon Molcho, a disciple of Reubeni, proclaimed himself Messiah in Rome. He was burned at the stake in Mantua after refusing to convert to Christianity.
Isaac ben Solomon Luria developed an influential school of Kabbalah known as Lurianic Kabbalah. In 1612 his greatest pupil, Hayyim Vital, wrote that Luria was “the anointed one”, and suggested that he, Vital, was Messiah ben Joseph. Another Lurianic scholar, Nathan of Gaza, proclaimed in 1665 that Shabbtai Tzvi, an eccentric and often heretical Jewish mystic from Smyrna, Turkey, was the Messiah. Even after Tzvi converted to Islam, Nathan argued that this was just occultation before a final revelation. (See video below for more information on Shabbtai Zvi, probably the best known of all the false messiahs to have arisen over time).
A Polish Jew, Jacob Frank (1726-91), claimed to be a reincarnation of Shabbtai Tzvi. He employed deviant sexual practices, was excommunicated in 1756, and became in turn a Muslim, a Catholic and an orthodox Christian. Yet devotees still adhered to his messianic doctrine: a Trinity of ‘Good God’, ‘Big Brother’ and ‘She’.
Rabbi Alkalai of 19th century Sarajevo predicted that Jewish settlement in Palestine would herald the Messiah ben Joseph in the guise of a revived assembly of elders. His messiah was not so much a person as a collective, or a new age.
The Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of Chassidism, rejected the notions of Shabbtai Tzvi about an imminent Messiah. Yet in the 1990s, some Lubavitch Chassidim began to proclaim their Rebbe as the living Messiah. His death in 1994 prompted hopes of a resurrection after 30 days, an idea which owes more to Christianity than to normative Judaism.
Jewish texts predict that a Messiah will redeem Jews, and then the whole world.
A short video by Rabbi Berel Wein about Shabtai Zvi, the best known of the false messiahs, and his impact.
A short video about Shabtai Zvi by Dr Henry Abramson.