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Appellation for individuals and groups who attributed messianic significance to the Hebrew year 5600 (1840), which is represented in abbreviated form by the Hebrew letters tav, resh, and can be pronounced tar. The “Tarniks” expected that the redemption of the Jews would take place in that year—or, at least, that the process of redemption would begin, continue, and materialize sometime during the seventh century of the sixth millennium of creation.

According to a Talmudic–Midrashic tradition, which underlay the conception of time in medieval Jewish society, the created world would exist for 6,000 years (Sanhedrin 97a). The belief in the special significance of the year 5600 was based on passages in the Talmud, in midrashic literature, and, especially, in the Zohar that seemed to point to a defined date in the sixth millennium, in which the redemption of Israel would take place. A passage in the Zohar commenting on Parashat va-yera had particular influence on Jewish eschatologists: it states explicitly that raising the Congregation of Israel from the dust of exile would begin in the sixth century of the sixth millennium.

Belief in the messianic significance of the year 5600 was widespread in the Jewish Diaspora; there are indications of expectations at that time in North Africa, the Balkans, Persia, and Kurdistan. The influence of this belief was particularly notable among the rabbinical elite of the Sephardic Diaspora in the Ottoman Empire. The most prominent of the Sephardic rabbis who worked to spread messianic belief in anticipation of the beginning of the seventh century was Yehudah Ḥai Alkala‘i (1798–1878), whose writings are laden with messianic interpretations of the events of the day, which he connected to the significance of that year. In Hebrew and Ladino books that he published between 1839 and 1843, both before and after the year 5600, Alkala‘i dealt with kabbalistic understandings of the anticipated course of redemption. Among other things, he found allusions in ancient writings to the Damascus blood libel of 1840; to diplomatic activities of Jews in Western Europe, including Adolphe Crémieux and Moses Montefiore, on behalf of their persecuted brethren in the East; and to the awakening of the national movement in southern Central Europe. Although at the time Alkala‘i’s writings aroused no echo in Eastern Europe, his view that 5600 was the beginning of the process of redemption played a role in the prehistory of religious Zionism.

Considerable information is found in East European published and manuscript sources about the prevalence of hope for the coming of the messiah in that year; some oral traditions, which passed from generation to generation in Eastern Europe to become part of Jewish folklore, have also been preserved. Haskalah writers such as Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon and Shelomoh Yehudah Rapoport refer to their opposition to acute messianic expectations that had arisen in the 1830s. Extremely valuable historical material on the hope for 5600 has been preserved in the writings of English and Scottish missionaries, who showed great interest in expectations for redemption among Jews of the Russian Empire and the Austrian Kingdom.

From sources in our possession, it appears that a messianic movement did not arise in Eastern Europe, nor can one point out organized activity intended to hasten redemption. Moreover, it appears that the traditional religious leadership, both Hasidic and scholarly, tended to downplay such expectations. This was apparently because they remembered very well what had happened after the frustration of messianic hopes associated with messianic figures and various dates of redemption in the recent past. According to one source, many rabbis feared that ultimate disappointments would lead to the rise of a heretical sect, which is what happened in the case of Shabetai Tsevi after he converted to Islam in 1666. The rabbi of Warsaw in the 1830s, Ya‘akov Gesundheit, went so far as to swear on the pulpit, in the presence of a Torah scroll, that the messiah would not come in 5600. A vehement confrontation took place in Blumkes Kloyz (a local house of study) in Minsk between those who believed that redemption would occur that year and their opponents, as is known from the writings of the Haskalah author Israel Meir Wohlman (1821–1913).

Belief that the year 5600 was a possible date for the coming of the messiah was also widespread among Hasidim. Followers of Yisra’el of Ruzhin regarded their tsadik as such a figure, and they had hopes connected to him for that year. The tsadik himself apparently rejected these expectations. Among the first Orthodox Jews in Eastern Europe to respond to the new modernistic movements, however, messianic expectations for the year 5600 were considered a threat to traditional Jewish society along the lines posed by the Haskalah, Reform, and nationalism. Traditional leaders were well aware of the innovative interpretations these three movements gave to older messianic faith; accordingly, Orthodox leaders forcibly opposed the identification of scientific progress, the emancipation of the Jews, or political activity aimed at establishing a new Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel as signs of the beginning of a messianic age.

Scholars of Jewish history disagree about the extent of reciprocal influence between the messianic hopes prevalent among Jews and the millenarian ardor that throbbed in the hearts of quite a few Christian visionaries from the time of the French Revolution until the 1840s. One instance of possible contact between Christian mystics and Jews has interested scholars of the history of the Polish national movement in the years following the failure of the revolt of 1830–1831. The ideas and activities of the Lithuanian-born Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz aroused special interest. He lived in Paris as a political exile and was in contact with a broad variety of revolutionaries, reformers, and eschatologists. Mickiewicz was thought to be descended from Frankists who had converted to Christianity; his wife was of similar background. Some scholars have maintained that the Tarniks were secret believers in Ya‘akov Frank, and that they combined messianic expectations from the period of the Napoleonic wars with interpretations of the prophecy from the Zohar. These scholars emphasized possible connections among Polish mystics, Frankists, the Saint-Simonian movement, and the order of Freemasons. They took special note of the connections between the Polish mystic Andrzej Towiański and his Jewish disciple Gershon Romm. These matters await further research.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, within parts of the religious Zionist movement in Israel and the United States, some have tried to connect stages in the establishment of the State of Israel with messianic dates in the Hebrew calendar. The creation of the state and the 1948 war, along with the war of June 1967, have been integrated into a structure of messianic expectations looking instead toward the end of the sixth millennium. In recent decades among representatives of national religious Zionism and in scholarly writing on the history of the settlement of the Land of Israel in modern times, a counternarrative has developed vis-à-vis the commonly accepted version of the history of Zionism and the establishment of the state. In this narrative, the year 5600 takes the place of key dates in standard Zionist historiography. Thus, for example, the true First Aliyah, according to these thinkers, was the immigration of a group of learned Jews from Lithuania to the Land of Israel in 1808—not the immigration from Russia and Romania in 1882, at the time of pogroms in the southern part of the Russian Empire. The members of the 1808 aliyah known as perushim, who were opponents of the Hasidim, were, according to present-day religious–nationalist thinking, imbued with faith in the messianic character of the decades before 1840. Furthermore, they ostensibly acted as inspired and empowered by the spiritual testament of Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna (1720–1797). The figure of the great Lithuanian scholar, to whom several authors and public activists from Eastern Europe to Jerusalem attributed a proto-Zionist doctrine of redemption, has thus been enlisted in totally ahistorical fashion as one of the “heralds of Zionism.”

The controversy as to whether the Vilna Gaon believed in a doctrine of redemption akin to that of the Tarniks, which his disciples sought to implement, or whether a modern national vision has been attributed to him anachronistically, continues to this day. Traces of this controversy can be seen in contemporary writing dealing with the Gaon’s kabbalistic teachings as well as pre-Zionist immigrations to the Land of Israel from Eastern Europe.

Suggested Reading

Israel Bartal, “Messianic Expectations and Their Place in History,” in Vision and Conflict in the Holy Land, ed. Richard I. Cohen, pp. 171–181 (Jerusalem and New York, 1985); Israel Bartal, “Messianism and Nationalism: Liberal Optimism vs. Orthodox Anxiety,” Jewish History 20.1 (2006): 5–17; Abraham G. Duker, “The Tarniks,” in Joshua Starr Memorial Volume, pp. 191–201 (New York, 1953); Shmuel Ettinger and Israel Bartal, “The First Aliyah: Ideological Roots and Practical Accomplishments,” Jerusalem Cathedra 2 (1982): 197–227; Jonathan Frankel, The Damascus Affair: “Ritual Murder,” Politics and the Jews in 1840 (Cambridge, 1997), pp. 401–431; Jacob Katz, Le’umiyut yehudit: Masot u-meḥkarim (Jerusalem, 1979), pp. 308–356; Arie Morgenstern, Meshiḥiyut ve-yishuv Erets Yisra’el (Jerusalem, 1985); Arie Morgenstern, “Ben banim le-talmidim: Ha-Ma’avak ‘al moreshet ha-Gera ve-‘al ha-ide’ologyah; Torah Mul Erets-Yisra’el,” Da‘at 53 (1994): 83–124.



Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green