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Tuesday, August 11, 2020
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Solomon Molcho was one of the more interesting characters of 16th-century Europe. Born Diogo Pires in Lisbon to converso parents in 1500, he eventually rose through the ranks to become secretary to the king’s council and recorder at the court of appeals. The year 1525 would forever change young Solomon’s life when he encountered one of the most bizarre and still-unexplained characters in Jewish history, namely the enigmatic David Ha-reuveni. Ha-reuveni, whose true name and identity remains unknown, claimed to be the son of a Jewish king named Solomon and a brother of a King Joseph who ruled over the lost tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh in the desert of Habor: hence his name “Reuveni.” At other times he claimed descent from the tribe of Judah and even compiled a pedigree tracing his descent back to King David.

He first made his grandiose appearance in Venice in 1523, claiming to be the commander-in-chief of his brother’s army and requested aid from the local Jewish community. Although most regarded him with suspicion and even derision, he did gain a measure of support among notable members of the community who helped him gain an audience with the Pope Clement VII at Rome. His proposition was nothing short of astonishing: an alliance between the forces under his command and those of Western Christendom, in other words, a joint Jewish-Christian Crusade to liberate the Holy Land from Islamic rule.

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As mentioned, in 1525 Reueveni was in Portugal where King John III received him as an official ambassador. Reuveni’s appearance in the city spread like wildfire and fired the imagination of Jews and Christians alike. Particularly smitten by him were the “marranos,” those Jews who had been forced to live outwardly as Christians but secretly held on to their Jewish heritage. One of them, Diogo Pires, met Reuveni and asked to be circumcised. Reuveni, probably fearing for the success of his mission, dissuaded the young man. But Molcho circumcised himself and took on a Hebrew name. Reuveni, aghast at the young man’s audacity, urged him to flee the country, which he did. Most scholars agree that he studied Kabbalah for a time in Salonika under the tutelage of Rabbi Joseph Taitaczak. There he probably met Rabbi Joseph Karo (see later).

Meanwhile, Reuveni was ordered to leave Portugal by order of the imperial authorities. He continued to wander around Spain, France and Italy before finally dying in a Spanish prison, accused of having seduced conversos to recant.

In Salonika, Molcho gathered a group of devotees and it was there that he published his first book of sermons titled “Derashot” (later known as Sefer Ha-mefoar). To his peril, he returned to Catholic Europe in 1529 and began to preach in Ancona. It wasn’t long until he had to flee from the arms of the “Holy Office” yet again. For some inexplicable reason (probably convinced that he was the Messiah to whom no harm shall befall), he traveled to Rome, the lion’s den. In fulfillment of the Talmudic legend (see Sanhedrin 98A) he sat for 30 days at the gates of Rome among the paupers and the sick.

Molcho continued to preach and successfully predicted some major natural disasters, which further heightened his stature among both Jews and Christians. He even escaped the auto-da-fe in Rome by the personal intervention of Pope Clement III himself, whom he had met.

In 1532 he traveled to northern Italy where he again met with David Reuveni and together they went on a mission to Emperor Charles V who was then at Regensburg (Ratisbonne). Some scholars believe that the pair (especially Reuveni) were interested in creating a certain geopolitical situation that would have Messianic meaning for the Jews (a Christian-Muslim war that would herald the long-awaited war of “Gog and Magog”).

Charles’ court Jew, R’ Joselman of Rosheim (1478-1554), recalls in his memoirs that “Molcho came in order to rouse the emperor to call upon the Jews to fight the Turks.” Rosheim utterly condemned the activities of the Messianic pair and feared that they would bring calamity upon the whole of European Jewry. He relates: “Hearing what was in his mind, I wrote a letter to him and warned him not to rouse the emperor lest the Great Fire consume him. And I removed from the city…in order that the emperor should not say I was helping him in his ideas and activities.” Yet after Molcho was martyred, he wrote of him, “He died sanctifying the name and faith of Israel and he turned many away from sin. His soul rests in the garden of Eden.”

However, Charles brought Molcho to Mantua, Italy, where he was finally burned at the stake as a recalcitrant heretic in 1532. Remarkably, many Jews and conversos refused to believe that he had in fact been killed and continued to await his return…Not surprisingly, his influence on Sabbateanism, a century later, was not insignificant.

In the second decade of the 16th century, Molcho was to prove an inspiration to, arguably, the most well-known halachic decisor of all time, Rabbi Joseph ben Ephraim Karo. As mentioned before, Molcho spent some time in Salonika studying Kabbalah under Taitaczak. We do not know if Karo ever met Molcho in person, but he undoubtedly made an indelible impression on him.

R.J. Zwi Werblowsky in his “Joseph Karo, Lawyer and Mystic” wrote:

In Karo’s mind, Molcho’s death at the stake assumed the significance of a coveted privilege and supreme realization, and throughout his Maggid Mesharim, the maggid repeats the promise “and thou shalt be privileged to rise as a burnt offering before me and to be burned for the sanctification of my name.”

The profound psychological roots of this desire of martyrdom (probably utilizing the Talmudic martyrdom of Rabbi Akiba, the “ultimate martyr” as well, see Berachot 61B) became even more evident when we realize its practical improbability. Ambitions of this kind could be entertained with a reasonable chance of fulfillment only under the dominion of the cross. The prospect of being martyred and burned in an auto-da-fe for the “Sanctification of the Name” was practically nil under the rule of the crescent

The dependence of Karo’s fantasies on Molcho’s fate is borne out by the one passage in the M.M. where the Maggid, summing up all Karo’s ambitions, explicitly refers to Molcho:

Behold what thou hast attained and what degree thou hast reached, that (words) are spoken through thy mouth the way I speak in thee. I shall make thee worthy to be publicly burned in Palestine, to sanctify my name in public, and thou shalt rise as a burnt offering to my pleasure on my altar and thy sweet savior shall rise as frankincense…and thine ashes shall be heaped on my altar to my pleasure. I shall privilege thee also to finish thy book to illuminate thereby the eyes of Israel, for all wise men and scholars and sages shall draw from thy work which is to be called the House of Joseph (Bet Yosef); they shall be filled with the fatness of thine house, your springs will flow to all directions…and your name will be mentioned in synagogues and houses of study. Wherever thou shalt be mentioned in the house of study, the sweet savour of your ashes shall rise like frankincense. Behold what thou hast attained so far and what thou shall still attain by publicly sanctifying my name. Even so Solomon my chosen one, who is called Molcho, was anointed with a great and supernal anointing and rose on my altar to my pleasure. You likewise shall go up…Lo, I am the Mishnah speaking in your mouth, kissing you with kisses of love and embracing you, for it is in the shadow of my wings, that thou restest thy head. “My glory is on thee and thy glory is on me, my splendour is on thee and thy splendour is on me, I shall not forget thee and thou wilt not forget me, neither in this world nor in the world to come.”

The possible dates of this revealing entry are 1533, 34 or 37. The temptation is great to prefer the former date—the year after Molcho’s death.

Very different from the aforementioned two is the estimation of the rabbi and scholar Yosef Shlomo Delmedigo of Crete. In his epistle to the Karaite Zerach ben Natan Ha-troki, entitled Michtav Achuz, he utterly mocks Molcho and his supposed Kabbalistic powers “which did not help him on the day of his death.”

First, Delmedigo praises the Karaites for their rationalism and contrasts their attitude to Kabbalah to that of the Rabbanites:

כן ארחות כל קלי הדעת פתי יאמין לכל דבר, לא אליכם בני

מקרא הביטה וראה אתה בחירי, ותן חודה לאלהים שבראך ועשאך

עברי, ואל תתאוה להיות פלשתי או מצרי, ותהיה מכת המאמינים

וכרות עמהם ברית מלח כאשר מעט קט ממנו במאכל נ ותנ ים,

וכאשר הצדיקים....ואינם מרבים תפנוקים

ומעדנים

After excoriating the Kabbalists and their beliefs and superstitions, he directly references Molcho, and his estimation of the man is not kind, to say the least:

ובדברי השוטה ר׳ של מ ה מ ל כ ו ראיתי שערוריה, ואיך נשרף

בגזירת קרולו ק ו י נ ט ו הקיסר גדול העצה ורב העליליה, וכל מעשי

שגעונותיו כתובים בספר יוסף ה כ ה ן וחקוקים בעט ברזל ו ה ו א

נשיה, וברפאים בארץ מאפליה, בחטאו מת לא יראה י ה, בארץ

ל א הועילה ביום צרתו ידיעתו הצירוף והחמורה והגימטריאה(4

Did a cult spring up around the figure of Molcho?

As mentioned before, even after he was burned at the stake, many of his followers believed that he was still alive (or more precisely, that the flames did not burn him). The writer Micha Berdicewski describes it in his writings:

והיה בהגיעה השמועה לתלמידיו ומעריציו, ויבכו עליו ויספדו לו; ואחרים ששו ושמחו ואמרו, כי לא שלט ביה נורא כלל. לרבים גם נגלה שלמה שבוע ימים אחרי שרפתו והוד לו. זר סביב לראשו, אחר-כך לא נראה עוד אליהם, אבל דבריו וכל אשר עשה וכתב בסתרי התורה קיימים עד היום הזה.


Joel Davidi Weisberger is an independent researcher and translator.

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