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.

Mia Amran
"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.


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