When Abraham and Plato Met in Barcelona

Medieval Barcelona was a unique meeting spot of Eastern and Western culture. A place where Jews, Muslims and Christians could mix. It was in Barcelona that the "first Jewish scientist" and one of the great Christian translators of the day conceived an ambitious plan to bring the wisdom of the Islamic and ancient worlds to an awakening Europe

The solar system according to Abraham Bar Hiyya, "Tzurat Ha'Aretz VeTavnit Kadurei HaRekia" (The Form of the Earth and the Pattern of the Heavenly Spheres), 1494, the National Library of Israel

There is an ancient Chinese curse that says: “May you live in interesting times”. Abraham Bar Ḥiyya indeed lived in interesting times. Yet, he managed to turn that curse into a blessing.

In 1065, around the time of Abraham Bar Ḥiyya’s birth, most of the Iberian Peninsula (today’s Spain and Portugal) was an integral part of the Islamic world, and had been for centuries. During his lifetime, the peninsula’s northern Christian kingdoms began conquering large swaths of territory from the Muslims. The Crusades taking place at the same time in the Middle East further spurred the “Reconquista” – the Christian re-conquest of Iberian lands from the hands of the infidels. Armed with the power of religious fervor and the sword, they managed to conquer all the cities in the north and center of the Iberian Peninsula.

One would assume that in a period of religious wars, Jews would suffer persecution. Images of the Inquisition, expulsion, forced conversion and Jewish martyrs being forced to hide their Judaism come to mind.

However, during Abraham Bar Ḥiyya’s own lifetime, very little of this came to pass. The Christian kingdoms remained relatively tolerant towards the Jews. The Muslims on the other hand, now the losing side in the conflict and on the defensive, began persecuting Jews and legislating strict regulations against them in the territories they still controlled.

Abraham Bar Ḥiyya grew up in a still-tolerant Muslim world and pursued higher studies in Zaragoza, which was a flourishing cultural center. But like many Jews living in those turbulent times, he eventually had no choice but to bid farewell to the world of Muslim culture and science and relocate to one of the nearby Christian kingdoms.

Abraham chose Catalonia, settling in its capital, Barcelona. There he met many Jews who were unfamiliar with Arabic and the rich world of Islamic science that also preserved the wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome. He decided to undertake the task of making the realms of science, geography and astronomy accessible to Jews. He began composing scientific essays in Hebrew, in which he combined his own knowledge with translations of ancient and Islamic sources. Yesodei HaTvuna U-Migdal Ha’Emuna (“The Foundations of Understanding and the Tower of Faith”) was an encyclopedic scientific work that summarized all the accumulated knowledge from the ancient and Islamic worlds relating to mathematics, geometry, astronomy, optics and music. Unfortunately, only the introduction and the first few parts have come down to us.

Drawing of Barcelona in the Early Modern period (1563), by Anton van den Wyngaerde

In Ḥibbur HaMeshiḥa VehaTishboret (“Treatise on Measurement and Calculation”‘), which was intended as a reference book for land surveying and contained complex formulas of arithmetic and geometry, Abraham not only included a basic collection of sources for the novice, but, in a first for the European reader, also the complete solution to the quadratic equation. The many and varied books of Abraham Bar Ḥiyya rightly earned him the accolade – “the first Jewish scientist”.

The book Tzurat Ha’Aretz VeTavnit Kadurei HaRekia (“The Form of the Earth and the Pattern of the Heavenly Spheres”) presented for the first time in Hebrew the geographical sciences of both the Islamic and ancient worlds, including the earth’s relationship to other stars and to the moon and the sun. Abraham Bar Ḥiyya went on to write many more books, including works on the Hebrew calendar, astronomy (which included the first appearance of trigonometric functions in Hebrew), philosophy and Judaism.

Illustration of a solar eclipse, from Tzurat Ha’Aretz VeTavnit Kadurei HaRekia (“The Form of the Earth and the Pattern of the Heavenly Spheres”) by Abraham Bar Ḥiyya, Switzerland, 1546, the National Library of Israel

And now we come to the second hero of the story.

The name of Abraham Bar Ḥiyya eventually spread to the Christian world that was then taking its first steps in the field of science. An Italian mathematician and astronomer by the name of Plato of Tivoli heard about the wisdom of Abraham Bar Ḥiyya and wanted not only to learn the basics of Islamic science from him, but also to disseminate his knowledge to the Christian world. Their meeting in Barcelona led to a longstanding friendship and collaboration. It is likely that Plato of Tivoli came to the city especially for this purpose. The Italian moved to Barcelona and lived there for about twenty years, where he continued to learn from the Jewish sage. Together, these two men, a Jew and a Christian, conceived a particularly daring and ambitious plan.

Abraham Bar Ḥiyya knew Hebrew, Arabic and Catalan, the language spoken in Barcelona. Plato of Tivoli knew Italian, learned to speak Catalan, and was of course fluent in Latin – the language of science and of European literature of the Middle Ages. And so, the two scholars embarked on a collaboration to translate into Latin the scientific writings of the ancient and Islamic worlds. Abraham would translate and explain to Plato in colloquial Catalan what was written in the Arabic sources, and Plato would translate and write it down in Latin. Together they compiled precious texts that became seeds of scientific knowledge, soon to spread across Christian Europe.

The duo translated a famous work by Ptolemy of Alexandria into Latin – the Tetrabiblos (Τετράβιβλος) or Quadripartitum (90–168 CE), which deals with philosophy, astrology and the constellations. This translation was studied for hundreds of years – in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance – in universities all over Europe. The book’s positive reception allowed other works by Ptolemy to be accepted, thus indirectly contributing to further developments in the fields of science and medicine in Europe.

Imaginary portrait (1584) of the astronomer and geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria (90–168 CE), whose book Tetrabiblos, on philosophy and the constellations, was translated into Latin by Abraham Bar Ḥiyya and Plato of Tivoli

Plato and Abraham worked together on other translations from Arabic of mainly astronomical and astrological writings, including the work Kitab al-Mawalid (“The Book of Birth”) by the scholar Abu Ali al-Hayat (770–835), the works of al-Battani (858–929) and much more. It’s worth bearing in mind that astronomy and astrology, which at that time were inextricably intertwined, contained a great deal of geographical information, complex calculations of angles, volume and area, as well as rich and valuable mathematical information.

But Plato of Tivoli was not satisfied with just translating other sources. He also wanted to share Abraham’s own wisdom, which he had written down in Hebrew, with the Christian world. Relying on the Hebrew he had learned during the years of their joint work, Plato of Tivoli, apparently after his friend’s death, translated the Treatise on Measurement and Calculation into Latin, thus bringing to the Christian world the basics of geometry, trigonometry and the science of algebra. The chapters dealing with division, including the complete solution to the quadratic equation, which were studied by many European scholars, greatly influenced the development of mathematics in Europe. Liber Embadorum, the Latin translation of Treatise on Measurement and Calculation, was one of the direct sources of inspiration for Practica Geometriae, by the well-known mathematician Fibonacci (Leonardo of Pisa, 1170–1250).

Abraham and Plato, a Jew and a Christian living in a war-torn region in 12th-century Spain, sat together and distilled the best of the Jewish, Islamic and European-Christian worlds of knowledge. What might have been a curse became a blessing in the form of a meeting of cultures and scientific progress. Indeed, the Middle Ages may not have been so dark after all.

In the Edelstein Collection for the History and Philosophy of Science at the National Library of Israel, there are a number of books by Abraham Bar Ḥiyya, including the Treatise on Measurement and Calculation, The Form of the Earth and the Pattern of the Heavenly Spheres and the Quadripartitum, Plato of Tivoli’s and Abraham Bar Ḥiyya’s joint translation of Ptolemy’s book. 21st century readers of Hebrew are in for a thrill when they realize that they can open up and read books on science and geography that were written over nine hundred years ago by one of the wisest and most prolific Jews who ever lived.

For all of Abraham Bar Ḥiyya’s books in the Edelstein collection at the National Library of Israel, click here.

Curate and Create: The Poster Competition That United Kids Worldwide With Israel

As Israel turned 75 years old, the National Library of Israel wanted to celebrate with a new and exciting project. Thus, Curate & Create was born, a poster competition for children from all over the world, complete with educational resources and primary sources. With over 600 participants, read about how this NLI project came to be so successful!

Curate & Create logo, Curate & Create Yom Ha'Atzmaut Program and Poster Competition, the National Library of Israel

In 1984 a competition was inaugurated in Israel for children worldwide to design a postage stamp for the upcoming Jewish New Year.  At the same time, a little girl named Shuvi Hoffman was living in New York, and was excitedly looking forward to her sixth birthday. For her birthday party, Shuvi decided to invite her friends to join her and design a stamp to submit for the competition. The children congregated around the posterboard and spent the afternoon making a stamp which represented their connection to Israel, not knowing that this art activity would leave a lasting impression on the little girl.

Nearly 40 years later, Shuvi, now an adult, sat around the meeting table with her colleagues at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, brows furrowed together as they brainstormed ideas. This year, the National Library had a big task: Israel was turning 75 years old the NLI wanted to celebrate Israel’s significant birthday with a new and exciting project.

Curate & Create logo, Curate & Create, Yom Ha’Atzmaut Program and Poster Competition, the National Library of Israel

After throwing around many ideas, Shuvi thought back to her sixth birthday party and how excited she had been to take part in an art competition which connected her to Israel, and a metaphorical light bulb flicked on over her head: Before long she was suggesting that the NLI host its very own competition. The idea would be to challenge kids all over the world to make a poster, much like the ones in our own archives, and send them in from around the globe for judgment, and the chance to win a trip to Israel. The team knew a great idea when they heard one and got to work almost immediately.

It was early in the summer of 2022 at this point, so they had almost a year to pull off the competition. The idea was complex but manageable: they would collate 75 archives from the National Library collections – mainly posters but a few photographs and adverts too – and upload them to a specially-made website. Next, they would formulate 6 unique lesson plans which educators could utilize to teach their students about Israel. Finally, a special portal was to be set up for students to submit their posters to the NLI, and within a few months the project would be ready to go live!

Some of the 75 primary sources, Curate & Create Yom Ha’Atzmaut Program and Poster Competition, the National Library of Israel

And soon enough the entrees started pouring in. As the competition went on, the whole National Library watched on with awe as a whopping 153 submissions came in. They had managed to reach 12 countries with a total of 5 languages, 28 schools and a massive 644 participants! Far and wide, the competition had taken root in the hearts of students and educators from Columbia and Estonia, Argentina and Canada, and so many other far-flung places.

Map of places from which submissions were received, Curate & Create Yom Ha’Atzmaut Program and Poster Competition, the National Library of Israel

As the posters were uploaded, an interesting trend could be seen: the posters were not just works of art but also commentaries on the society that they had come from, and how that specific student viewed Israel.

These elements considered, the winning posters were eventually chosen for their beautiful meaning, the tremendous efforts put in by the children, and their aesthetic and artistic quality. The winners, spanning four countries, each chose to focus on a unique part of Israel’s identity. From a love for Jerusalem, to Israel’s famous landmarks, the diverse and vast range of people who live in this special country, to the symbols and elements that make Israel spiritually elevated, these winning posters show how varied each student’s connections to Israel really are. It’s truly remarkable to see how different students relate to the State with different lenses – something which is worth diving deeper into.

Poster Competition Winners, Curate & Create Yom Ha’Atzmaut Program and Poster Competition, the National Library of Israel

Something that can be immediately noted is whether students related to Israel on a cultural, political or spiritual level.

Romanian 11th grader, and budding artist Rață Ionuț, drew an impressive poster of Einstein and David Ben-Gurion alongside other political leaders of Israel, explaining how Israel “champions democracy and freedom of expression. By showcasing these figures conversing with reporters, the poster suggests that Israel values open dialogue and transparency and strives to uphold these principles in its governance and society.” Alternatively, 6th grader Abraham Murciano Cohen-Henriquez from Panama who made a poster about Israeli dates, or Maya, a German 5th grader’s poster about Bissli, an Israeli snack, “convey the message that [Israeli food] turns you into a superhero.” Finally, Margie Pol, a 6th grader from Panama, showed that she relates to Israel via Judaism, as expressed with her poster of the Jewish holiday of Passover: “I chose Pesach for my poster to show why this Holiday is important for Israel.”

Abraham Murciano Cohen-Henriquez, Colegio Isaac Rabin, Margie Pol, Colegio Isaac Rabin, Maya, Heinz Galinski School, Rață Ionuț, Colegiul Național “Spiru Haret” – Tecuca, Curate & Create Yom Ha’Atzmaut Program and Poster Competition, the National Library of Israel

Whether it is the awesome food, the divine spirituality, the political discourse, or something else entirely, everyone has something that they can love about Israel or at the very least use to connect to Israel on some level. These students have proven this theory with their posters – some youngsters connect to the cultural elements of Israel, some the religious aspects, some the culinary, and some connect to elements not even shown here! But no matter what stands out for you, Israel is at the epicenter of it. In the original 75 primary sources, all of these elements are depicted via the various posters and images. Some educators taught their students from a more religious standpoint as is evident in their student’s posters, while one teacher had her entire class dedicate their posters to Israeli food! But ultimately all of these aspects were similarly used as vehicles to open discussion, teaching, and closeness to Israel.

The whole point of the poster competition was to meet educators where they were at and help them open the discourse on Israel. To encourage them to build connections between their students and our amazing country. To help them understand that Israel is a global project – one that we can all relate to, care about, have opinions about, and love. It is so evident that this goal has been achieved: just look at the gallery of posters and see how over 600 young people across the globe have found unique and beautiful ways to give meaning to this country which may even be thousands of miles away from them. Now that, is truly something remarkable.

The Wehrmacht’s Jewish Soldier

How did Walter Dirr, born to a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, come to be drafted into Hitler’s army? Clues from a family archive

The curious case of Walter Dirr begins with his father, Robert Heinrich Dirr (1880–1944), born into a Catholic family in Mühlhausen, Germany. Drafted at age seventeen, Dirr climbed the ranks to become an officer in 1904. By then, he was also apprenticing in construction. Robert became an architect in Metz, a city in Elsass-Lothringen, formerly part of the German Reich and now part of France. In 1907, Dirr fell in love with Frieda Rothschild (1889–1978, no relation to the famous banking family).

Their courageous romance didn’t last. Frieda (née Rothschild) and Robert Dirr early in their marriage

She was one of twelve children born to Orthodox Jewish parents in Jünkerath, Germany. Frieda’s family disapproved of the relationship. So when the couple asked permission to become engaged, her mother challenged them to test their love by refraining from all contact for a year. Should they still wish to marry after that, the Rothschilds would consent.

Throughout 1908, their year of separation, Robert kept a diary. Addressing every entry to Frieda, he filled more than 250 pages with thoughts such as “I can overcome everything with joy owing to my love and confidence in you.” At year’s end, he presented the leather-bound journal to Frieda. “You have to feel,” read the flyleaf dedication, “how in my whole being, with every drop of blood, with every beat of my heart, I have been living only for you. […] Only once can a man really and truly love, dedicating himself so fully to just one person.”

Frieda and Robert wed in either 1909 or 1910. Settling in Metz, they had three children: Mirjam Caroline (1913–2000), Argonna (1915–2003), and Walter Julius Hermann Stephan (1923–2012). Walter collected the family’s letters, diaries, photographs, and documents, later passing them on to a relative. In January 2021, the collection was deposited in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel.

The family archive at the time of its deposit. Photo: Franziska Ehmer


Separate But Safe

The few clues regarding the circumstances leading to Walter’s short-lived military career are located in several journals and letters written by Frieda Dirr between 1915 and 1945. Frieda and Robert’s initially happy marriage foundered in the economic crisis that began in 1923. Robert had to sell their new home, and ongoing financial struggles further strained their relationship. Frieda’s diary describes this difficult period, but in comparison with what was to come, it was positively idyllic.

The couple divorced after Hitler’s nomination as German chancellor in 1933, but Robert was still able to utilize his connections with the Catholic Church to move his family to nearby, independent Luxembourg.

Initially neutral after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Luxembourg fell victim to Nazi aggression in March 1940, when German troops crossed the border. Of the 35,000 Jews then in Luxembourg, most of them refugees from Germany, only a few hundred survived.

Here the intrigue begins. Robert registered his family as Catholics in Luxembourg, and though they never hid Frieda´s maiden name, the Dirrs joined the community of gentile German exiles. Letters indicate that acquaintances knew nothing of the family´s Jewish roots. In stark contrast to the fate suffered by Luxembourg’s Jews, the “cover” provided by Robert Dirr meant that his family could survive without going into hiding.

One piece of mail stands out among many sent to various family members during the war. Dated November 26, 1944, the letter is addressed to Walter, then twenty-one, by a German commandant in Luxembourg. Clearly oblivious to Walter’s background, the official hopes for a “good end” for their “mutual fatherland.” He sounds concerned for the Dirrs’ safety and surprised by their decision to stay in Luxembourg despite the Allies’ approach. The “anger of the people of Luxembourg” would, he feared, soon be directed toward the loyal Germans in their midst.


Home Front

So how was Walter Dirr drafted into the Wehrmacht, as the German army was known? There seems to have been an oversight. Dirr’s military papers list his religion as Catholic, although his mother’s typically Jewish maiden name appears here too.

Though the name Rothschild appears in Walter Dirr’s army papers, it seems to have been overlooked by clerks intent on drafting ever more Germans to fight in the east

Called up in 1943, Walter fought for Germany in the east. A leg wound after just two months in the field ensured that he spent the rest of the war recuperating in various field hospitals before returning to his mother and sisters. Although physically untouched by the conflict, Frieda Rothschild emerged from it a changed woman. Her nerves shattered by the strain of concealment and her fears for her son, she transformed from an open, confident socialite into a possessive, dependent matriarch. She told her children never to marry, and all complied; Argonna even lived with Frieda until the latter’s death. Robert Dirr’s undying love may not have withstood the Depression, but it did enable his ex-wife and children to survive the Holocaust more or less intact.

As far as we know – Walter, who discovered he was Jewish relatively late in life, continued living in Germany and apparently made contact over the years with some of his mother’s relatives who lived in Haifa, Israel.


The original version of this article was published in Segula – The Jewish History Magazine

The False Messiah: Shlomo Molcho’s Fascinating Life

When Portuguese crypto-Jew Diogo Pires met the daring adventurer David Reubeni, his life took an unexpected course. Converting to Judaism, Pires set off around the globe, learning Kabbalah, inspiring the greatest of Rabbis, attempting to create a Jewish army, and most famously, appointing himself as the Messiah.

"Portrait of a Man with A Turkish Hat", Maurycy Gottlieb, cover art for the book "Le Messie", Marek Halter, The Toby Press LCC, Robert Laffont, Paris

In the Kingdom of Portugal lived a group of Christians. These Christians kept the laws of kashrut, shabbat, and niddah. These Christians prayed from Jewish prayer books and learned from the Torah. These Christians did not want to be Christians, and in fact many claim that they never really were part of that religion. You see, these Christians had been born as Jews, but during the Middle Ages they were faced with a choice: convert to Christianity, leave their home, or be killed. They decided to convert, but in their hearts they still knew that they were Jews, and this secret group of people, known as crypto-Jews, continued to practice and believe in Judaism.

At some point between September 1500 and August 1502 (if you are already thinking that this timeframe is a little liberal, I’m warning you that this may not be the article for you!) a little boy was born to crypto-Jew parents, uncircumcised and denied a Jewish identity. He was named a traditional Christian Portuguese name: Diogo Pires. And for all legal intents and purposes Diogo Pires grew up as a Christian boy. He went through the Portuguese education system, doing well academically, and at the age of 21 he was appointed by the Portuguese King to become the royal secretary in the High Court of Appeals of Portugal.

Portrait of a Man with A Turkish Hat, Maurycy Gottlieb, cover art for the book Le Messie, Marek Halter, The Toby Press LCC, Robert Laffont, Paris

Diogo Pires would have made a name for himself in Portugal no matter what, and he was certainly on his way to doing just that, when fate decided that Pires’s life was about to change forever. He owed this upheaval to a man named David Reubeni.

Reubeni was born in 1490 in Khaybar in the Arabian Peninsula, but as with many aspects of Reubeni’s life, this fact is contested. Some claim that he was actually from India or Afghanistan, but considering that we have no proofs with which to confirm any of these myths, we will assume for our own purposes that the story Reubeni told of his own life is true. And according to Reubeni, he was an Arabian Prince and part of the lost Israelite tribe of Reuben (for which he was named). Reubeni had a brother, Joseph, who claimed that he was the King of the Jewish tribe of Reuben, and at least some of his community believed this to be true as he was granted authority to rule the ‘tribe’ with a group of 70 elders. The supposed Reubenite king and his elders kick off our story by sending young David on an important mission.

David Reubeni was an adventurer by trade and a political activist by choice. Shengold’s Jewish Encyclopedia describes him as “half mystic, half adventurer” as he spent his time learning Kabbalah and exploring Europe, carrying out daring missions on behalf of his brother. Arriving in Portugal in 1525, he began negotiating with the King of Portugal to seek an alliance and ask for weapons and money in order to create a Jewish army which would run the Ottoman Turks out of the Land of Israel and thus enable the Jews to regain control of the region. Reubeni needed resources and allies in order to fulfil this extravagant goal, and believed that Portugal, as a competing superpower to the Turks, would help.

An Illustration of David Reubeni on his horse

Considering that Israel is 75, not 500, years old, we know that this wasn’t a particularly successful mission, but it didn’t deter Reubeni. He stayed in Portugal for some time, secretly teaching Kabbalah to conversos and trying to garner support for his army. It was during one of these Kabbalah classes that Reubeni met Diogo Pires. Pires was completely taken by Reubeni and formed a belief that this remarkable man must be the Jewish Messiah. Pires claimed that he was given divine knowledge of this fact by G-d Himself, and would receive ‘visions’ informing him that Reubeni was the Messiah and would soon save the Jews, gather in the lost tribes of the Israelites, redeem the Land of Israel and rebuild the Jewish Temple. Yet again, considering the fact that no Messiah has thus far come to change the world, we know that this wasn’t the case, but to be fair Pires didn’t have that omniscience, despite his best efforts to persuade others that he did!

Diogo Pires believed that Reubeni had been brought into his world by divine providence, and that his entire life’s work was now laid out before him: to join Reubeni on his travels as a middle-aged groupie and preach on his behalf, convincing the world that Reubeni was the Messiah. Reubeni wasn’t very fond of this idea. For whatever reason, he decided that he would rather not have a super-fan attached to his heels, following him around adoringly on his brave adventures. Think: Donkey and Shrek. But unfortunately, Pires decided that no didn’t really mean no – it simply meant try harder. So Pires decided to circumcise himself and change his name, thus officially (well not really, but officially in his mind) converting to Judaism.

He took on the name Solomon Molcho, which has a deep symbolic meaning. Pires was determined to espouse and crown the next Jewish king, thus picking a name of one of the most famous historical Jewish kings (Solomon) and the name Molcho from the word Melech – king. However, this chosen name also has a deeper significance, seemingly overlooked by most literature on Molcho. King Solomon was actually not born with the name ‘Solomon’ (2 Samuel 12:25) – it was a name given to him upon his kingship due to the fact that he brought peace (shalom) to the Kingdom of Israel. When Pires adopted his goal of bringing the kingship back to Israel, and along with it, peace to the world, Solomon was thus an appropriate name to pick, like King Solomon did so many years earlier. Molcho is also evocative of the world Malach or angel, and as Pires believed that he was an emissary of G-d at this point, labelling himself as an angel seemed fitting.

But Reubeni wasn’t impressed. No matter what Pires, who we can now call Molcho, did, Reubeni was a lone-wolf through and through. However, now Molcho had a bigger issue: as we previously mentioned, being openly Jewish in Portugal was a death sentence, and he had just – very publicly – declared that he was Jewish. So, encouraged by Reubeni, Molcho fled from his home country. Additionally, in a turn of events that must have seemed truly unfair to Reubeni, his reluctant association with Molcho meant that he also had to flee Portugal.

From here, the story of Molcho gets a tad sticky. There are many different accounts of what may have come of him after he left Portugal, but we’ll do our best to use all the documents at our disposal to put an actual timeline on his subsequent travels.

All sources agree that Molcho spent time in Salonika soon after leaving Portugal, and we have good reason to believe that this was in fact his first destination after leaving his hometown. This is because Reubeni actually claimed later on, when being associated with Molcho had become a bit of a clout-booster, that he had sent him on an adventurous mission to the Ottoman Empire, which Salonika was a part of at the time. Reubeni doesn’t exactly say what this mission was, but it is more than possible that Molcho was indeed carrying out Reubeni’s will – he certainly had that influence over Molcho! Molcho also claimed in later writings that a divine power had come down to him and directed him to the region – maybe less of a likely story.

Sefer Hamefoar, Shlomo Molcho, Bavarian State Library, Munich, Germany, M. Steinschneider, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” project
Sefer Hamefoar, Shlomo Molcho, University Library Johann Christian Senckenberg, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” project

Either way, it seems that he ended up in Salonika, where a community of dedicated Jews were practicing their religion. Molcho was drawn to these Kabbalists and studied with them intensely. He was skilled at deciphering Kabbalistic codes and understanding the nuances of the mystical teachings, and he was soon accepted into Joseph Taitazak’s Bet Midrash. Joseph Taitazak, also known as the Maharitats, was one of the most preeminent Kabbalists in the Jewish world. He was known across Europe and the Land of Israel for his mysterious teachings and customs. He was a leading Talmudic scholar and writer, and was convinced by Molcho’s claims to legitimacy. In fact, he financially supported Molcho throughout his stint in the Ottoman realms where Molcho was lovingly accepted by the Kabbalists.

The Deeds of Shlomo Molcho”, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, NY, USA, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” project
Sefer Hamefoar, Shlomo Molcho, the Ben Zvi Institute, Jerusalem, Israel Ms. 235, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” Project

Molcho studied with the best of the best in the Jewish world, of course spending time in deep discussion with the Maharitats, but also learning with Rabbi Joseph Karo! Karo authored one of  the most important books in Judaism: the Shulchan Aruch, which remains the most comprehensive and widely-consulted book of Jewish law to this day. In fact, being the author of this book is such a big deal that Karo is often simply referred to as “the author” or even “our master.” So it is VERY cool that Molcho studied with him. It’s even cooler that some of Karo’s works actually mention Molcho and the deep respect that the esteemed Rabbi had for him. As a final name-drop, it’s also important to say that Molcho inspired Shlomo Alkabetz in his highly revered works. Alkabetz is the scholar who wrote the piyut (hymn) Lecha Dodi, as well as a wealth of vital books on Talmud, Kabbalah and more.

Joseph Karo (Bet Yosef), The Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Of course, all of this boosted Molcho to fame, and he soon had a growing group of students and followers who hung on his every word. He spoke and published works on Talmud, Tanach and Kabbalah, and preached his beliefs throughout the Ottoman Empire. One such belief was that the Messiah would be crowned in 1540, and many of his loyal followers believed him. They were wrong. But they didn’t know that yet, so they still revered Molcho and all that he had to say, and his students would often beg him to write down his sermons and publish his works, including his ideas of how the Jewish redemption would play out. In 1529 he finally agreed and published many of his sermons in a compilation which he titled “Derashot,” although it was actually renamed “Sefer ha-Mefoar” later on.

Derashot, Shlomo Molcho, the British Library, London, England, G. Margoliouth, Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan manuscripts, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” project
Derashot, Shlomo Molcho, he Ben Zvi Institute Jerusalem Israel, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” project

After this, it seems that Molcho did a bit of traveling. Sources place him in Tzfat, Bavaria, Amsterdam, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Constantinople, with loyal followers in each of these places and a wealth of his own published works now following him around. He documented his letters and dreams in Chayat Kaneh, his ideas of Kabbalah and the messianic days to come, as well as additional letters and even a song he composed in Kitvei Shlomo Molcho.

It is also worth mentioning that by this point Molcho had changed his tune, as was pretty inevitable, and he now believed, after a dream he claimed to have had in 1526, that he was the Messiah. Poor Reubeni had been replaced.

Despite it being a bit complicated to track his exact gap-year-esque travels around the globe, we do know that Molcho arrived in Italy in 1529 and by 1530 he was residing in Rome. Some strange things happened in Rome, but then again strange things seem to be the theme of Molcho’s life, so by now we can come to expect it.

Shlomo Molcho’s Kabbalistic graph, from Kitvei Shlomo Molcho: (The Collected Writings of Shlomo Molcho), edited by Zev Golan and Rinat HaBerman, the National Library of Israel collections

To start, while Molcho was preaching at the Great Synagogue of Rome to a large crowd of Jewish and Gentile followers and interested passers-by, Molcho predicted that there would be a flood in October of the same year. Sure enough, on October 8, 1530, a huge flood engulfed Rome! With his new-found meteorologist hobby, Molcho subsequently and accurately predicted an earthquake which he said would shake Portugal in January of 1531. As promised, on the 26th of January 1531, an earthquake was indeed felt throughout Portugal!

Pope Clement VII heard about these phenomenal feats and asked to meet with Molcho. Deciding that Molcho was the real deal, he granted him protection from the Inquisition and the rising tide of antisemitism that was sweeping across Europe. This was the nail in the coffin for Molcho who was now convinced without a shadow of a doubt that he must be the Messiah. In Sanhedrin 98a, it is written that the Messiah will endure a period of suffering in his lifetime. This came as a blow for Molcho as he had never really experienced suffering. What a shame! But it was no problem, he thought, because he could always inflict suffering on himself! So, Molcho donned the dress of a beggar, found a bridge over the river Tiber which was frequented by sick and poverty-stricken homeless people, and declared a 30-day stint of suffering, in which he refused to stand up, eat meat, drink wine, or be happy. Satisfied with this, he went home after 30 days, took a nice long bath (presumably) and got to work on his arts and crafts. He made a yellow flag bearing the word “MACCABI” – an abbreviation of the verse in Exodus 15:11 which says “Who among the mighty is like unto G-d”. This flag was with him until his (spoiler) eventual demise!

Shlomo Molcho’s handwritten signature, including his hand-drawn flag, Sefer Chayat Kaneh – Chazon Shlomo Molcho, the Gershom Scholem Collection, the National Library of Israel

Before long, Molcho heard news which made his heart sing: his old pal Reubeni was in Italy too, and wished to see him. The pair were reunited, but this time Reubeni saw what a following Molcho had garnered and took him a lot more seriously. This was a bad decision for Reubeni, as you’ll soon see.

By this time Molcho had hatched a plan to fulfil his messianic role and start saving the Jews, so with Reubeni in tow, the pair traveled to Regensburg in 1532, where the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V held court. Molcho and Reubeni were granted a private audience with the Emperor and the three of them engaged in a private conversation which lasted more than 2 hours. It would be amazing to know exactly what was said during that conversation. Unfortunately, we do not. However, there are letters from the court, found decades later, which give us an idea as to what the men discussed. These letters posit that Molcho proposed a joint Jewish-Christian army which would fight against the Emperor’s enemies and conquer the Land of Israel for the Jews. Alternatively, Josselman of Rosheim, an advocate for German and Polish Jews in the imperial court, wrote in his memoirs that Molcho hadn’t been trying to conquer the Holy Land but rather spent the meeting encouraging the Emperor to mandate that the Jews must fight against the Turks and regain their religious freedoms. A third account which appears in the Encyclopedia Britannica states that what Molcho really wanted from the Emperor was money and arms so that the crypto-Jews could stand up for themselves and fight the Ottomans.

Whatever the contents of their discussion, it seems clear that Molcho was trying to form some sort of army to fight the Turks either (or maybe both) in the Land of Israel or closer to home. Molcho assumed that since the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottomans were two of the world’s competing super-powers, the Emperor might be interested in pairing up with Molcho and the Jews to fight against their mutual enemy.

He was wrong. Charles V hated his idea so much that he labelled Molcho and Reubeni as heretics and threats to the order of power. He sentenced Molcho to a trial in Mantua, and Reubeni to imprisonment in Spain. During Molcho’s trial, he was given a choice: revert to Christianity and continue living his life as a good Catholic, or die. Molcho rejected this offer, and chose the death of a martyr. He was burned at the stake. Reubeni also died not long afterwards in prison, and many believe that he was actually poisoned while incarcerated.

Shlomo Molcho, formerly Diogo Pires, lived a life as interesting, meaningful, and confusing as they get. He fought for his beliefs all the way to the end, refusing to give up on what he always said was his path. He may not have been a Messiah, but he did at least try to stand up for the Jews. He may not have been a prophet, but he did gain the respect of some of the leading Jewish figures of his time. He may not have been a scholar, but his books are still widely circulated and read. His life may have been an enigma, but we can still see him for the determined, ambitious man that he was, and know that he undoubtably left his own unique, albeit somewhat bizarre, mark on Jewish history.