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Adventures in Jewish Studies

The Association for Jewish Studies Podcast

Episode 6: (False) Messiahs: Messianism in Jewish History and Thought


Jeremy Shere: In September of 1665, the town of Smyrna, on the western coast of modern-day Turkey, was taken by storm, when its prodigal son, the self-proclaimed Jewish Messiah Shabbtai Zvi, returned triumphantly to his hometown. He had with him his wife, Sarah, his prophet, Nathan of Gaza, and hundreds of followers. 

Barging into the synagogue of his rival, the head rabbi of Smyrna, Zvi and his gang stormed the bimah. He called his friends and family up to the Torah, including women, blatantly violating traditional Jewish law and custom. Zvi then ordered them to pronounce the forbidden name of God, and again declared himself to be the Messiah, who would lead the Jews back to the Promised Land. 

Shabbtai Zvi wasn't the first or last Jew to claim to be the Messiah. In fact, there have been many Jewish and non-Jewish messianic claimants throughout history. And it's not just something that happened a long time ago in the ancient world. Every year, as many as a hundred people succumb to what's known as Jerusalem Syndrome, a type of psychosis that causes some who visit Jerusalem to have messianic delusions, often wrapping themselves up in white hotel sheets and wandering around the city saying Messiah-like things. Even Homer Simpson falls victim in an episode of the long-running animated TV show where the family visits Israel.

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Messianism is a powerful and complex concept in Judaism, a concept with ancient roots that's been seen by thinkers and scholars throughout history as alternately inspiring, mystifying, and even terrifying. In this episode, we explore the idea of messianism, from its earliest origins to the ways it continues to shape the beliefs and the actions of Jews today.

First, though, we have to understand what the term messiah means. And in the most basic sense, it simply means “the anointed one.”

Kenneth Seeskin: Kings in ancient Israel were anointed with oil and the Messiah, as a descendant of David, is going to be a king. 

Jeremy Shere: This is Kenneth Seeskin, professor of Philosophy and Jewish Civilization at Northwestern University and author of the book Jewish Messianic Thoughts in an Age of Despair.

Kenneth Seeskin: And he will presumably be anointed. And so maschiach just means “the anointed one of God.” And eventually this becomes the term messiah.

Jeremy Shere: Variations of the term appear throughout the Torah, or five books of Moses. For example, in Exodus, chapter 28, verse 41, the text reads, “And you will put them on Aaron your brother and upon his sons with him. And you will anoint them and consecrate them and sanctify them that they may minister unto me in the priest's office.”

But to be clear, in the Torah, the term is typically in verb form. The concept of a messiah who will appear to save and redeem the Jewish people appears only later, in Jewish prophetic writings.

Kenneth Seeskin: In the prophet Amos, in the prophet Isaiah, in the prophet Jeremiah, what we see is the idea that there's going to be someone who will be a descendant of King David and will come and set things straight.

Jeremy Shere: For example, in the Book of Jeremiah chapter 23, verse 5, the prophet declares, “Behold, the day has come, said the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous shoot. And he shall reign as King and prosper and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” 

But what does it mean exactly to perform justice and righteousness in the land?What will that look like? And for that matter, what will the Messiah look like? Jewish tradition offers no clear answers. What's more, there's little agreement about how the Messiah will appear. There's the apocalyptic version…

David Berger: Apocalyptic texts speak about a kind of eruption of the messianic age into history.

Jeremy Shere: This is David Berger, a professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University. 

David Berger: This can happen dramatically; it can happen suddenly. And the world that it inaugurates will be a world that is different in important ways from our world. 

Jeremy Shere: Berger says that another way of envisioning the messianic age is more gradual and natural.

David Berger: Others, most notably Maimonides, spoke about the messianic age as one that emerges when a king from the house of David observes the Torah and gets the Jewish people to observe it, and defeats his enemies that surround him. But the natural order remains in effect as well. 

Jeremy Shere: See, what's really interesting about the concept of the Messiah isn't just that it's complicated. It's also seductive and potentially dangerous. Because in theory, messianism is utopian and idealistic, envisioning a world reborn and free of war and strife. But like most utopian ideas in practice, things tend to play out much differently.

Laura Arnold Lehman is a professor of English and the Humanities at Reed College and the author of the book Messianism, Secrecy and Mysticism. She notes that messianic figures tend to appear at moments of despair and upheaval. 

Laura Arnold Liebman: Early on in Jewish history, we’ll see messianic figures appearing, for example, around the destruction of the Second Temple.

Jeremy Shere: The earliest documented would-be Jewish messiahs began appearing a few centuries before the destruction of the Second Temple, during the late second century BCE, when Judea was under Roman control. It was a period of apocalyptic thinking and messianic expectations that God would deliver the Jews from Roman oppression, and Jewish history seemed to predict it.

After all, according to tradition, God had ended the Babylonian exile and returned the Jews to the Promised Land, where they rebuilt the temple. Or at least that's what many fervently believed. And the Jewish prophets had predicted that a Messiah from the house of David would arrive and lead the Jewish people to a new age of holiness and peace.

In other words, the time seemed ripe for the appearance of the Messiah. And so messiahs began appearing — or, at least, people claiming to be the Messiah or hailed as such by their followers. The most famous and consequential of these figures is, of course, Jesus of Nazareth. The nature of Jesus' messianic claim, and how Jewish authorities of the time took it, is a fascinating story, but we're not going to focus on Jesus in this episode. It’s just too large and complex a topic to do justice to here. 

Instead, we're going to jump ahead nearly 100 years to 132 CE when the Jews of Judea province, for the second time that century, rose up against their Roman rulers. The first revolt, which began in 66 CE, had resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and the defeat of the last remaining Jewish rebels at Masada a few years later.

After crushing the rebellion, the Romans waged an aggressive campaign to Hellenize Judea and more fully integrate Jews into the Roman empire. The Roman emperor Hadrian outlawed circumcision and ordered that a new Roman city be built on the ruins of Jerusalem. And for good measure, he erected a temple to the Roman God Jupiter on the ruins of the Second Temple.

Outraged, the Jews waged a guerrilla war against Roman forces occupying Judea. Their leader was Shimon Ben Kosiba, better known as Bar Kokhba. Not much is known about Ben Kosiba. According to documents discovered by the famous Israeli archeologist Yigal Yadin, he was a religious man and a ruthless military commander. According to legend, he threatened to retaliate against any Jew who refused to join his cause and demanded that recruits cut off their little finger to demonstrate their toughness and dedication. Ben Kosiba himself was rumored to have superhuman strength and be able to yank a tree from the ground with one hand. 

What we know for certain is that the rebel leader was endowed with enough charisma and self-belief to raise an army large and powerful enough to push back Roman forces and retake most of Judea province. No less an authority than Rabbi Akiba renamed Ben Kosiba as Bar Kokhba, meaning “son of the star,” drawing from Numbers, chapter 24, verse 17: “A star shall come out of Jacob and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel.” The name Bar Kokhba has messianic connotations, and there's evidence that Rabbi Akiba did, indeed, consider Bar Kokhba to be the Messiah, and his rebellion the first stage in the dawning of a messianic age.

David Berger: Seeing a Jewish rebel leader who was a religiously observant, he appeared to be behaving like a king. And he was, so Rabbi Akiba believed, on the verge of defeating the people that had destroyed the empire, that had destroyed the Temple that was, as I said a few moments ago, seen as the final kingdom before the messianic age.

Jeremy Shere: Not everyone agreed with Akiba. Many Jews thought that taking on Rome was foolish and that the rebellion would end in disaster. But just as many followed Akiba's lead, believing that Bar Kokhba was, indeed, the Messiah come to vanquish the oppressor. 

In the end, the skeptics were correct. In 134 CE, a large Roman force crushed the rebellion and devastated the Jewish population. Around half a million Jews were killed — including Bar Kokhba — and many were enslaved. All the hope and excitement built up around Bar Kohkba's emergence as the Messiah dissolved, and Jews would not regain control over their ancestral land for more than 2000 years.

Bar Kokhba’s career is a good illustration of the dark, seductive side of messianism. The idea of the Messiah is aspirational, promising a better, brighter future. But in reality, the appearance of so-called messiahs, as in the case of Bar Kokhba, typically does not end well. 

Kenneth Seeskin: One of the problems of messianism is that it leads to people claiming, “I’m it — follow me.” And in many cases, these have led to disasters, as in the case of the Roman revolts, where thousands were killed. In other cases, it leads to a great deal of disappointment. So messianism is a tricky doctrine.

Jeremy Shere: The Bar Kohkba disaster led the rabbis of the Talmud to be cautious when discussing the Messiah. Early rabbinic literature doesn't say much about it at all. Later rabbinic discourse features lots of speculation and a wide range of mostly contradictory views. There is no such thing as the rabbinic view of the Messiah.

Kenneth Seeskin: There are multiple views of the Messiah in rabbinic literature and when the Messiah is going to come. Will the Messiah come when human beings have reached their zenith and have perfected themselves and have repented and turned to God, and the Messiah will come in and usher in an age of reconciliation? Or is the Messiah going to come when the human beings reach their nadir, when things are just rotten and awful? Both are present. Has the Messiah already come? These kinds of speculations are all over the place.

Jeremy Shere: It wasn't until the 12th century that Jewish thinking about messianism came into focus. The great Jewish rabbi and philosopher, Moses Ben Maimon, more commonly known as Maimonides or the Rambam, tried to clarify and simplify the Jewish approach to messianism.

Kenneth Seeskin: Maimonides inherited the whole rabbinic tradition and I think saw how much confusion there was. And so Maimonides said, look, we shouldn't expect the Messiah to work miracles and we shouldn't expect there to be a cosmic upheaval. All of this kind of sensationalism about the Messiah, he thought was false.

Jeremy Shere: Still, Maimonides established the doctrine as central to Judaism, including among his 13 principles of faith the directive that Jews must fully believe in the coming of the Messiah, no matter how long it takes. But recognizing the danger of heightened messianic expectations, Maimonides also preached patience.

David Berger: He tries very hard to discourage people from trying to calculate the End of Days or identifying people as the Messiah without powerful evidence. And he even says that one cannot rely, necessarily, on the statements of the Talmudic rabbis about how the messianic process will unfold, because even they did not have a tradition about such matters.

Jeremy Shere: For several centuries, Maimonides’ measured, rationalist approach to messianism held sway. A handful of minor messianic figures appeared and quickly vanished, often leaving turmoil behind. It really wasn't until the 17th century that a figure emerged whose messianic claim captured the imagination and belief of Jews around the world.

His name was Shabbtai Zvi. He was born in the 1620s in Smyrna, today the city of Izmir in Turkey. He received a thorough Jewish education and, in his teens, was recognized as a prodigy, excelling in Talmudic studies. From a young age, he became interested in Lurianic Kabbalah, a school of Jewish mysticism developed by Rabbi Yitzhak Luria in Israel, in the town of Tzfat, during the 16th century.

In the wake of the catastrophe of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, Luria, Moshe Cordovero, Joseph Karo, and other kabbalists felt pressure to restore the Jewish people, by hastening messianic redemption. To that end, their mode of Kabbalah stressed communal rituals, such as fasting, meant to help bring about the messianic age. Gershom Scholem, who pioneered the scholarly study of Jewish mysticism and messianism, believed that the spread and popularity of Lurianic Kabbalah was central to Shabbtai Zvi’s success.

David Berger: The world has an admixture of good and evil, and our objective is to remove the final sparks of good from evil, so that evil would die for lack of, as it were, spiritual nourishment. This, to Scholem, created an almost graphic picture of imminent redemption. And so people were ready for a Messiah in a way they hadn't been before.

Jeremy Shere: Scholem also believed that Shabbtai Zvi suffered from bipolar disorder, and that his manic episodes help explain some of his most bizarre behavior. For example, in 1648, at the age of 22, during what was most likely a manic period, Zvi declared himself to be the Messiah. To prove it, he began pronouncing the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of God that only the High Priest is allowed to utter, and then, only on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Zvi also claimed that he could fly, although when his followers asked for a demonstration, he declined, claiming that they were not worthy of witnessing such a display of power.

To a degree, these wild claims were in keeping with a strain of Jewish messianism, according to which the coming of the Messiah would result in the subverting of Jewish law. 

Laura Arnold Liebman: He really is a messianic figure that's very deeply embedded in what people at the time would have referred to as antinomianism, and antinomianism just means “against the law.”

So he sees, as this messianic figure, suddenly the world is ruptured. And the laws that used to bind us are in a moment of change because the Messiah has come. And so we see some of these changing notions of what's acceptable.

Jeremy Shere: Around 1651, the rabbinical authorities of Smyrna banished Zvi, and for the next several years, he traveled throughout Arabia, Greece, and Egypt. In 1665, passing through Gaza on his way to Jerusalem, Zvi met Natan Benjamin Levy, a kabbalist and ascetic who championed Zvi’s messianic pretensions and became his partner and enabler. Better known as Nathan of Gaza, Levy declared himself to be Elijah the Prophet, risen from the dead. He also declared that the next year, 1666, would begin the messianic age and that Shabbtai Zvi would lead the ten lost tribes of Israel back to the Promised Land. 

Word that the Messiah had arrived and that a new age would soon dawn spread far and wide throughout the Jewish world.

Laura Arnold Liebman: So what makes him somewhat distinctive is that he's popular not just amongst Jews in his own community, but much more widely spread. So he's somebody who is able to carry his message across Jewish communities, both Sephardic and Ashkenazi , Eastern Sephardic, Western Sephardic, or Portuguese Jews, as sometimes people like to call them, and even into Christian communities. 

Jeremy Shere: Scholars have long debated how and why Sabbateanism became so prevalent. As we heard a few moments ago, for Gershom Scholem, the key was the strong messianic focus of Lurianic Kabbalah. But later scholars have challenged that theory, arguing that Lurianic Kabbalah wasn't as prominent at the time as Scholem assumed. Instead, some scholars have argued Sabbateanism took hold as a reaction to the terrible violence perpetrated against Polish Jews during the Chmelnitsky uprising, a revolt against Polish rule in Ukraine led by Cossack commander Bohdan Chmelnitsky from the late 1640s through the late 1650s. But this theory, too, has come under attack. 

David Berger: The problem with that is that the Sabbatean movement begins in the Sephardic world, in Israel, Shabbtai Zvi himself came from Turkey, and was apparently somewhat more successful there. So to connect it with a tragedy, however serious, that happened among Ashkenazi Jews seems, at least, problematic. 

Jeremy Shere: Another explanation suggests that the existence of large numbers of Jews who had converted to Christianity, but still clung to elements of their identity as Jews, played an important role.

Laura Arnold Liebman: Shabbtai Zvi makes sense of all those years when they were doing things that most openly Jewish communities would consider heresy, and he takes those and transforms those into being a time that was productive and an important part of world renewal. 

Jeremy Shere: It's also likely that technology played a role. The 17th century was an age of discovery and invention. The printing press, invented in 1440, had by the 17th century become even more efficient, making printed material more widely available. And major advances in navigation and transportation made it easier for people to travel abroad and spread news and ideas in an age of improved communications.

David Berger: The message of the Messiah moved much more rapidly than in the past. Previous messiahs wouldn't even be heard of in neighboring countries before they had already been discredited. Shabbtai Zvi became known at a much more rapid rate. 

Jeremy Shere: Whatever combination of factors fed the success of Shabbtai Zvi’s messianic career, it was ultimately short-lived. In 1666, he was arrested in Constantinople by Muslim authorities. Given a choice between being executed or converting to Islam, Zvi chose the latter. He was given the Muslim name Aziz Mehmed Effendi and lived for another decade, outwardly as a Muslim, but secretly still practicing Judaism, and according to some evidence, still believing that he was the Messiah.

Zvi's followers were devastated. Most abandoned their beliefs and returned to traditional Judaism, but many continued to believe in Shabbtai Zvi, refusing to give up hope. Some, who became known as the Dönmeh, which means “convert” in Arabic, followed Zvi’s example and converted to Islam, outwardly practicing Islam, but secretly still following Zvi’s brand of Judaism.

By the late 18th century, the Sabbatean movement had effectively died out, but its legacy and impact were far-reaching. For one thing, it influenced the rise of the Hasidic movement in the late 18th century with its revered rebbes and tzadiks attracting devoted followers in a way reminiscent of Shabbtai Zvi.

Meanwhile, as European rulers granted Jews more rights and freedoms, a growing population of increasingly secular Jews in Western and Central Europe grew away from traditional Jewish ideas about messianism. But over time, the messianic concept re-emerged in secularized form. In the early 20th century, messianic thinking among some secular Jewish intellectuals took a dark turn in the wake of the catastrophe of the First World War.

Kenneth Seeskin: Millions of people are killed, maimed, left homeless. Destructive weapons that nobody ever dreamed possible. All of Europe, and indeed other parts of the world, are brought into this awful conflict, for the purpose of what? It's unclear what this is for, but what is clear is that it unleashes untold evil on people.

And so what emerges is a pessimism of people who begin to see the human situation, and they look at the human situation — it's just not making progress. In fact, we may be going down, not up. 

Jeremy Shere: In the 1920s, German Jewish intellectuals, such as Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch, adopted an apocalyptic brand of messianism, to try and come to terms with the devastation and mass slaughter of the war, and to find hope for the future of humanity.

Kenneth Seeskin: What that means is that they think that some event, something from outside of history or beyond history, something that will be an upheaval of history, is the only thing that can save the human race.

Jeremy Shere: Among religious Jews, especially religious Zionists, messianic thinking remained mostly positive and progressive. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who was named the Chief Rabbi of Palestine in 1921, justified the hands-on approach of Zionist pioneers as an instrument, however unwitting, of God's will. 

But then, just a few decades later, the horror of the Second World War and the mass murder of European Jews was so devastating that it seemed to verify Benjamin’s and Bloch’s fears that humanity was spiraling down toward chaos and evil. If the Messiah was ever going to arrive to save the Jews from destruction, the time was now.

Strikingly, during the Holocaust, many Jewish victims sought comfort in messianism, reciting Ani Ma’amin, a prayer of based on Maimonides’ 13 principles of Jewish faith.

Kenneth Seeskin: Many of them were led to the gas chambers, saying the words, “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah. And though he may tarry, yet I still believe.”

Jeremy Shere: As the full and terrible scope of the Holocaust and the destruction of European Jewry became clear, some Jewish thinkers began to question if the concept of the Messiah was still relevant. After all, the Messiah had not appeared to save Jews from the gas chambers. Plus, after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Zionism had shown that Jewish salvation lay not in waiting patiently for an anointed savior to arrive, but in taking action to change Jewish fortunes. And in the Jewish diaspora, meanwhile, especially in the United States, many Jews were growing more prosperous and secure, and for the first time becoming fully equal members of mainstream society. They had little need or desire for the Messiah to swoop in and save the day. 

But the messianic idea is nothing if not resilient. After World War II, in some religious communities, especially Hasidic communities, messianic thinking was very much alive. And it eventually came to be embodied in the figure of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Rebbe of the Lubavitch Hasidim. 

Born into a leading Hasidic family in 1902 in what is today Ukraine, Schneerson was, like Shabbtai Zvi, a Talmud prodigy. He immigrated to New York in 1941 to escape the Nazis, and in 1950, was named Rebbe of the Lubavitch sect. Soon he began making big changes, turning what had been a mostly insular community into an outreach organization that sent the Rabbi's followers out into the world to help Jews remake the world into a place of radical transformation and renewal. 

And as the decades went on and Schneerson’s renown grew, the reverence that the Rabbi's followers held for their leader grew into something more. Starting in the 1980s, an increasing number of his followers began to claim that the Rebbe was the Messiah.

David Berger: Many Lubavitch Hasidim believe that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe was the Messiah in a fully traditional sense. 

Jeremy Shere: Hasidic Judaism was built around the belief that the arrival of the Messiah was imminent, and that Jews are obligated to raise awareness of his coming. Since the emergence of Hasidism at the end of the 18th century, many revered rebbes were designated by their followers as worthy of being the Messiah. And so, in some ways, it was natural for Lubavitch Hasids to think in messianic terms about their leader. But proclaiming that Rabbi Schneerson was actually the Messiah was another matter. 

Now to be clear, the point is not to compare Rabbi Schneerson to Shabbtai Zvi, but their stories do share some common elements.

Laura Arnold Liebman: He has a similar sort of pattern that, very much, I would see his rise to prominence as a response of what happens in the wake of the Holocaust. And also what happens to the Hasidic communities and Russia after Communism takes over. And particularly as people are struggling, that a number of members of Schneerson's family, including his father-in-law are imprisoned in Russia. And there's really a way in which he becomes an important figure of, how do we make sense of those incredibly painful moments in Jewish history and within the history of the Lubavitch community, or Hasidic community, in particular?

Jeremy Shere: Rabbi Schneerson died in 1994. Still, many of his followers continue to believe that the Rebbe will one day rise and reveal himself in all his messianic glory. 

If you're not a Hasid, or a practicing Jew of any kind, this sort of devotion might be hard to comprehend. In fact, the very concept of a Messiah who will one day appear and usher in a new and glorious age may seem fanciful. But at a time of bitter political division in the United States and Israel, of widespread economic disparity, terrorist violence, climate change, and many other problems, the central idea of Messianism may seem more relevant today than ever. 

Laura Arnold Liebman: People who didn't grow up thinking about messianism within Judaism, or don't practice a form of Judaism today that involves messianism — I still think that the concept of the Messiah has a lot of importance in terms of how we think about the world and how it might change. So I would suggest people might think of messianism as just a way, or one way, of saying, “I have great hope. I have great hope that the world could be transformed radically into a much better place.”

Episode Guests

David Berger

David Berger, PhD

David Berger, PhD, was President of the Association for Jewish Studies from 1998 to 2000, and is the Ruth and I. Lewis Gordon Professor of Jewish History and Dean at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, Yeshiva University. His books include The Jewish-Christian Debate in the High Middle Ages, the co-authored Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration?, and The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference, as well as two volumes of collected essays on Jewish-Christian relations and the intellectual history of the Jews.

Laura Arnold Leibman

Laura Arnold Leibman, PhD

Laura Arnold Leibman, PhD, is Professor of English and Humanities at Reed College. Her publications include Indian Converts; Messianism, Secrecy and Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life, which won a National Jewish Book Award, a Jordan Schnitzer Book Award from the Association for Jewish Studies, and was selected as one of Choice’s Outstanding Academic Titles for 2013; and Jews in the Americas, 1776-1826. Her research and teaching interests address material religion, Jewish Studies, and early American studies. Her latest book The Art of the Jewish Family: A History of Women in Early New York in Five Objects will be available in Spring 2020.

Kenneth Seeskin

Kenneth Seeskin, PhD

Kenneth Seeskin, PhD, is Professor of Philosophy and Philip M. and Ethel Klutznick Professor of Jewish Civilization at Northwestern University. He received his PhD in philosophy from Yale University in 1972 and has been at Northwestern ever since. He specializes in the rationalist tradition in Jewish philosophy with an emphasis on Maimonides. Publications include Maimonides on the Origin of the World, Jewish Messianic Thoughts in an Age of Despair, and Thinking about the Torah: A Philosopher Reads the Bible.

Episode Host


Jeremy Shere, PhD

Jeremy Shere, PhD, is a podcast producer based in Bloomington, Indiana. Jeremy earned his doctorate in English Literature and Jewish Studies from Indiana University. He is currently the producer of the Frankely Judaic podcast for the Jewish Studies program at the University of Michigan.

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