The belief in a coming era of ultimate justice and world peace inaugurated by a redeemer who will liberate Jews from their exilic state, a principle of Jewish faith since classical times. Premodern expressions of Jewish messianism include analysis of classical prooftexts or astronomical portents to predict the date or contours of the messianic age; literary apocalyptic writings initiating spiritual, quasi-military, or political actions to pave the way for the messianic era; and fixing on a particular individual as the awaited messiah.
Jewish messianism has flourished in times of peace and prosperity as well as during extreme distress and calamity. In Christian lands, it explicitly challenged the Christian belief in a redeemer who had already come. In modern times, utopian movements such as socialism and communism, along with Jewish nationalist movements, have commonly been interpreted as secular forms of messianism.
Rabbinic traditions stipulated a divinely predetermined time for the messiah’s coming even if Jews were not sufficiently meritorious. It was held that attempts to force the hand of God by initiating a messianic era before its time would result in deferring the appointed date. Thus, medieval Jews regarded the active cultivation of messianism as, paradoxically, delaying it, whereas fervent but “passive” waiting was felt to be the most effective means of bringing about the redemption. This paradox lies at the heart both of many medieval messianic conflicts and of modern historiographic characterizations of traditional messianism—and even underlies the traditionalist stance toward Zionism.
Jews came to Eastern Europe, primarily from Western and Central European Ashkenazic communities, carrying medieval Jewish messianic beliefs with them. Jewish messianism then unfolded in Eastern Europe with the same variety and energy as it did elsewhere in the Jewish world.
Medieval Jews inherited a belief that the world was created at a certain point in time and would be redeemed at another. Biblical exegesis, numerology, and gimatriyah were some of the methods they used to calculate the end. Jewish chroniclers of the Crusades noted with bitter irony that the year 1096 CE fell close to the 256th lunar cycle according to Jewish chronological calculations (the Jewish calendar year 4856 divided by 19 years of the lunar cycle). The Hebrew letters designating the 256th cycle, resh-nun-vav, spelled the word ranu. Jews linked it to a verse beginning with that word (Jeremiah 31:6, “Sing with gladness for Jacob”), and in Byzantium and Western Europe took it as a portent that it would be the cycle for “salvation and comfort.” Instead, the chroniclers lamented, the bloody Crusades turned 1096 into a year of “agony and sighing.” Compilers of the influential Sefer ḥasidim (13th century) warned against “any person who prophesies concerning the messiah,” for fear of the humiliation of the Jews if it did not materialize. As the year 1240 (5000 in the Jewish calendar) approached, messianic excitement swept over the Jews of Central Europe. One account has Jews expelled from Prague on account of messianically inspired seditious activism. The sixteenth-century Bavarian chronicle of Johannes Aventinus cites Jewish messianic excitement at the time of a comet’s appearance in 1337, a time of papal schism and the persecution of German Jews by the Armleder bands, marauding peasants who viciously attacked Jewish communities from Franconia to Alsace in 1336. Jews looked to divine intervention to avenge their suffering at the hands of Christians.
Migration to the Holy Land in the Middle Ages was often motivated by pietistic messianism. In 1210–1211, several hundred French and German Jews prepared to migrate there, although they expressed no messianic motive. Me’ir ben Barukh of Rothenberg (1215–1293), along with a contingent of Central European Jews, was arrested in 1286 on the orders of Habsburg Emperor Rudolph I for departing to “emigrate to the Holy Land without the emperor’s permission or consent.” In the wake of the Black Plague and depredations against the Jews of Europe in 1348–1349, several survivors from Central Europe made their way to Palestine, the most renowned being Menaḥem Tsiyon, whose redemption theology looked to divine intervention to avenge the suffering of Jews at the hands of Christians.
Early Modern Messianism
The Hussite revolt against the dominance of the Roman church in the early fifteenth century gave rise to Jewish messianic expressions and to a literature of speculation about the effect of a schism on Christendom’s hegemony. This excitement grew among the Jews of Bohemia, particularly in Prague. Zalman of Sanct Goar, amanuensis of Ya‘akov ha-Levi Molin (Maharil), wrote Ma‘aseh bene Khushim (Deeds of the Sons of Khushim [the biblical name Khushim refers to Hussites here]; first published by Samuel David Luzzatto in Halikhot kedem; 1847) to commemorate the events, and Avigdor Kara (d. 1439) composed a piyut expressing messianic hopes, apparently to be sung to a Hussite tune.
Wine cup. Poland, ca. 1890. Silver. Among some Hasidim, it was customary for rebbes to bless silver coins and bestow them upon their followers as protective amulets. These coins, known in Yiddish as shmires (protections) were sometimes melted down into kiddush cups. As seen in this rare example, the cups often had the Hebrew inscription “zeh ha-kesef shel tsadikim” (this is the silver of the righteous) and were decorated with a shield flanked by a lion and unicorn, symbols that carried messianic meaning. (Gross Family Collection)
Asher Lemlein of Reutlingen, a Jew of German descent with pronounced Ashkenazic cultural identity, arose as a messianic herald around 1500–1503 in northern Italy. David Gans (1541–1613) and other chroniclers describe an intense and widespread penitential movement in anticipation of the arrival of the messiah. The 1532 sojourn of a would-be Marrano messiah, Shelomoh Molkho (1500–1532) to Regensburg to meet Emperor Charles V left a deep impression on Ashkenazic Jews. His messianic flag and caftan were preserved by the Jews of Prague and can still be seen there today.
In the aftermath of the terrible devastation visited upon Polish Jews in 1648–1649 and the Swedish invasion that followed in 1654, some Jews responded with messianism, others with a repudiation of it. Exalted figures such as the Kabbalah disseminator Yesha‘yahu ha-Levi Horowitz (1565–1630), author of Shene luḥot ha-berit and known by the acronym Shlah, predicted 1648 as the year of redemption, based on the numerical exegesis of a biblical verse. Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (1579–1654) initially made the same prediction, but the eminent halakhist Shabetai ben Me’ir ha-Kohen (1621–1662), in his Megilat ‘efah, implied that the year 1648, joyfully anticipated, had turned into a year of sorrow. Yisra’el ben Binyamin of Bełżec preached a sermon in which he referred to 1648 as “a year of messianic birthpangs.” Heller added new lines to a Crusade-era (twelfth century) poem to commemorate victims of the 1648 massacres, the final words of which allude to a messianic denouement.
Sabbatianism in Eastern Europe
When the messianic movement of Shabetai Tsevi erupted in 1665, the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe reacted first with curiosity and then with great enthusiasm. Some historians have hypothesized that the pogroms of 1648–1649 were the key factor in the widespread support accorded Shabetai throughout the Jewish Diaspora. The Sabbatians linked their movement to these Polish calamities by explaining that the messiah of the House of Joseph, who was to precede the messiah of the House of David but would die before completing his task, had in fact met his death in Poland. Other historians believe that a more distant disaster, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, was the catastrophic prelude to the anointing of the messianic pretender. Recent scholarship has shown that Sabbatian propaganda among Polish Jews was extensive, public, and successful, and other historians continued to argue that the pogroms of 1648 did send shock waves through many Jewish communities and that its impact should not be discounted.
During 1665 and 1666, Polish ambassadors in European capitals reported back to their sponsors among the nobility on the tumult in the Jewish world, and Polish Jews undoubtedly had more direct sources of news of Shabetai Tsevi, along with printed broadsheets that disseminated reports. Kraków preacher Berekhyah Berakh ben Yitsḥak visited Shabetai on his way to the Land of Israel and filed a detailed report. The first skeptical Polish visitor was the eminent kabbalist Neḥemyah Kohen, who reported on a three-day debate he held with Shabetai. Kohen was unimpressed and reported to Ottoman officials in Adrianople that Shabetai was a seditious charlatan, precipitating a confrontation in which both he and Shabetai converted to Islam. Kohen then left for Poland, where he reverted to Judaism and repented.
David ben Shemu’el ha-Levi (Taz; 1586–1667), author of Ture zahav and then rabbi of Lwów, sent his son and stepson to meet with Shabetai. When they told him about the depredations of 1648, Shabetai reportedly replied, “You do not have to tell me anything; the book Tsuk ha-‘itim (by Me’ir ben Shemu’el of Shebreshin [Szczebrzeszyn]; 1650), in which all the persecutions are recorded, lies before me.” When they reported on his manners and his wealth and the respect that non-Jews were paying him, “all of Poland” was in an uproar. At its height, the messianic frenzy gave rise to a penitence movement in Poland, as reflected in the triple printing of the Yiddish penitential Tikune teshuvah me-erets Tsevi (1666).
In Pinsk, Vilna, and Lublin, among other cities, Jews marched through the streets with portraits of Shabetai and Natan of Gaza in the spring of 1666. On 5 May of that year, King Jan Kasimir issued an order forbidding Jews to display these portraits and prohibiting the attacks by Christian locals that they provoked. Polish priests denounced the arrogance of the Jews and the public displays of their new superstitions, concerned that Christians might waver in their own faith in Jesus’ messianic mission.
Even after Shabetai’s conversion to Islam, some Jews continued to believe that his messianic mission would be fulfilled. Young rabbinical students and pietists, in both Central and Eastern Europe, embraced Sabbatian creeds. Mordekhai “Mokhiaḥ” of Eisenstadt, who preached in Prague in 1677; Ber Perlhefter of Prague; Yehoshu‘a Heshel Tsoref of Vilna; Tsadok of Grodno; and Ḥayim Malakh of Kulish (Kalish; Kalisz) all promoted forms of Sabbatianism in the late seventeenth century. They met in Moravia to plan their strategy in 1698. In 1700, dozens of families from Central Europe, Prague, and Poland immigrated with Sabbatian pietist and preacher Yehudah Ḥasid ha-Levi of Shidlev (Szydlów) to found a community in the Holy Land.
The fluid borders between the Ottoman Empire and Poland in the late seventeenth century opened Polish Jewry to extreme manifestations of nihilistic messianism that had developed in Salonika. In the mid-eighteenth century, these developments culminated in two of the best-known expressions of the movement. In 1751, a rabbinic controversy erupted when Ya‘akov Emden (1697–1776) accused a titanic figure of rabbinic scholarship, Yonatan Eybeschütz (ca. 1694–1764), of holding secret Sabbatian beliefs. The antinomian cult of the Polish Jew Jakub Frank (1726?–1791), who converted to Catholicism with his followers in 1756, resulted in the erosion of the last vestiges of respectability for the movement.
The notion that the rise of the Hasidic movement founded by Yisra’el Ba‘al Shem Tov (Besht; ca. 1700–1760) neutralized many of the acute elements of messianism by focusing his followers’ attention on individual salvation rather than on communal redemption, can be only partially sustained. Many Hasidic leaders attempted to disseminate their teachings as redemptive preparation for the messianic age. The immigration to Palestine by a group of 200–300 hundred Hasidim led by Menaḥem Mendel of Vitebsk and Avraham Kalisker has been explained by some scholars as having been motivated, at least in part, by messianic expectations. The rebbe most acutely aware of his messianic mission was the great-grandson of the Besht, Naḥman of Bratslav (1772–1810). After his death, his followers appointed no replacement.
With the secularization of European Jewry in the nineteenth century, traditional forms of Jewish messianism survived alongside secular utopian movements. Napoleon’s ambitions in the Middle East caused widespread messianic excitement among Jews who believed rumors that he would capture Palestine and return it to the Jews. Menaḥem Mendel of Rimanov (1745–1815) is said to have prayed that the Napoleonic wars would turn out to be the last premessianic wars, leading to the final redemption—even if the price was “that from Pristik [Przytyk] they should walk up to their ankles in Jewish blood.”
A strong traditional messianic movement arose as the year 1840 approached. Based on an interpretation of a Zohar passage, many Jews saw the year 5600 (1839–1840) as the year of redemption. As that Jewish year is spelled (transliterated) and pronounced tar, both adherents and critics labeled the messianists Tarniks. Eastern and Central Europe formed one of the strong bases for the movement, although it was not confined there. Adherents began to prepare for the messianic advent early in the nineteenth century, although they never identified a specific messianic figure. Associations of pietistic Jews prepared to immigrate to the Land of Israel, to purchase homes there, and to rebuild the devastated site known as the Ḥurvah, the destroyed synagogue of Yehudah Ḥasid. These groups included both perushim (pietists), as they came to be called—mostly disciples of the Gaon of Vilna—and Hasidim.
One of the messianists, Balkan-born Yehudah Alkala‘i (1798–1878), turned his disappointment after 1840 into a new program, according to which Jews must resettle and populate the Land of Israel before the messiah’s advent. Messianists, including Tsevi Hirsh Kalischer (1795–1874), advocated a return to the Land as a culmination of the emancipation process, and are considered to be harbingers of modern Zionists.
In the decades between 1840 and 1880, Western European Jews received civil equality, and expressions of Jewish nationalism remained muted. The Reform movement in Judaism excised from its liturgy and platform all references to national forms of messianism, while retaining the ideal of Israel as a “light unto the nations.” Movements for religious reform had less appeal for East European Jews, however, than those that promised liberation from antisemitism and poverty. Both socialism and Zionism originated in Western Europe yet reached their full potential only among East European Jews. Vilna became the cradle of Jewish socialism; Arkadii Kremer founded the Jewish socialist organization, the Bund, there in 1897. The Yiddish nationalism championed by the Bund, along with its universalist utopian message, appealed to Russian Jews as a secular form of messianic idealism.
The Zionist movement adopted much of the freighted apocalyptic language and symbols of traditional Jewish messianism, such as the return to the Land of Israel and the ingathering of the exiles, while rejecting the politically passive, transcendent, and eschatological dimensions of traditional messianic belief. Many saw its founder, the visionary Theodor Herzl (1860–1904), as a prophetic restorer of Jewish national pride. In 1881, with anti-Jewish violence on the rise in Russia and Romania, serious migration and settlement of the land began. Jews of Eastern Europe remained divided over the idea of a state that did not conform to the traditional messianic ideal. Radical anti-Zionists such as Satmar Hasidim and the Neture Karta sect saw establishing such a state as constituting an inherently sinful revolt against Jewish tradition. A more centrist traditionalist position objected to the secular character of the state. Religious followers of Avraham Yitsḥak Kook (1865–1935), however, viewed the unfolding of Zionism as part of the messianic process. In the twentieth century, many Jews viewed the Holocaust as birthpangs for the creation of the State of Israel, which they saw as the realization of Zionist aspirations and the fulfillment of a mission.
At the end of the twentieth century, a full-blown traditional messianic movement developed in Brooklyn, adopting modern technology to spread the message of the supposed messianic status of the Hasidic rebbe of Lubavitch, Menaḥem Mendel Shneerson (1902–1994). The movement persisted even after Shneerson’s death, leaving Lubavitch without a living leader.
Joseph Dan, Ha-Meshiḥiyut ha-yehudit ha-modernit (Tel Aviv, 1999); Abraham Duker, “The Tarniks,” in Joshua Starr Memorial Volume, 191–201 (New York, 1953); Michal Gałas, “Sabbatianism in the 17th-Century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth,” in The Sabbatian Movement and Its Aftermath, ed. Rachel Elior, vol. 2., pp. 51–63 (Jerusalem, 2001); Harris Lenowitz, The Jewish Messiahs (New York, 1998); Aryeh (Arie) Morgenstern, Meshiḥiyut ve-yishuv Erets Yisra’el: Ba-Maḥatsit ha-rishonah shel ha-me’ah ha-19 (Jerusalem, 1985); Aviezer Ravitzky, Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism, trans. Michael Swirsky and Jonathan Chipman (Chicago, 1996); Gershom Scholem, “Ha-Tenu‘ah ha-shabta’it be-Polin,” in Meḥkarim u-mekorot le-toldot ha-shabta’ut ve-gilguleha (Jerusalem, 1974).