50 Jewish Messiahs
By Jerry Rabow
Gefen Publishing House, 2002, 201 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - January 26, 2010
Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), who understood Judaism better than anyone, explains in his Code of Jewish Laws, Laws of Kings 11:3 that the messiah is not a miraculous figure: "Do not think that the messianic king must perform miracles and wonders, bring new things into being, revive the dead, or perform similar feats as foolish people believe." He continues in 12:1, "Do not think that in the messianic age, things will be different, or the laws of nature will change. Rather, the world will continue in familiar ways."
Thus if people listen to Maimonides, they will not cry out or even pray for the messiah in times of trouble. Sensible people would realize that their future lies in their own hands, not in some miracle or outsider. And they would not wait for difficulty times before they act.
But the multitude of the people are, unfortunately, not sensible, especially in stressful times. Instead of acting and resolving their difficulties, they rely on prayer, certain that if they pray enough, God will send them a messiah.
And so, some sixty years after the destruction of the Temple, in 132 CE, when the Jews were suffering because of the horrid six decade persecutions of the Romans, many Jews, including the famous Rabbi Akiva, decided to rebel against the Romans. Rabbi Akiva assured the people that their military leader, Bar Kokhba, was the long awaited messiah who would deliver them. Rabow tells about the failure of this first messiah and the tens of thousands of people who died relying on his false dream. He also tells of some four dozen other messiahs that followed because the people did not learn from this first experience.
The stories that Rabow relates are real history, tragic and pathetic periods when people relied on the supernatural instead of reality.
Beside Bar Kokhba, the most famous messiah was Shabbatai Zevi who persuaded millions, including many rabbis, to believe in him, sell their property for cheap prices, and be ready to leave with him to live in peace in Israel. Shabbatai Zevi failed and was forced to convert to Islam in 1666, but many of his followers were convinced that it was a fake conversion and he would fulfill his promise. When he died, many thought he would return from the grave.
Today, many Chabad Chassidim are similarly convinced that Chabad’s last rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994) is the messiah and, although dead, will return and bring them salvation.
Rabow’s stories are interesting and well-written. They are important because they recall a tragic segment of Jewish history that should prompt people, as Maimonides tried to do, to assume their human responsibilities to improve themselves and society and thereby produce a better world.