This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Roman Holiday*

It was the night of Rosh Hashanah, in the year 5040 (1280). For Rabbi Abraham Abulafia this was the perfect time to pay a visit on the Pope.

Abulafia was one of the most bizarre and colourful figures in Jewish history. A native of Spain, he set out towards the Middle East at the age of twenty in search of the fabled Sambation river whose rock-heaving waters presented an insurmountable barrier to the return of the ten lost tribes of Israel. When this project failed, he continued his travels in Greece and Italy.

Abulafia concocted a unique mystical discipline that wove together elements from the Kabbalah, Aristotelian philosophy, and yoga-like meditation. He believed that through the pursuit of this regimen he could aspire to prophetic revelations.

And it almost goes without saying that such an eccentric eventually became convinced that he was the messiah.

In most of Abulafia's writings, he seems to portray the messianic vocation in rather modest dimensions. Each individual can become a messiah insofar as they can bring about a spiritual liberation of their own souls.

Nevertheless, the conventional perception of the messiah as a national redeemer was not absent from Abulafia's self-image.

In keeping with the prevailing views of the time, this made it virtually mandatory that he have an audience with the leader of the Christian church.

Centuries of Jewish literature had elaborated the idea of an ultimate confrontation between the Jewish redeemer and presiding chief of the Evil Empire. Whereas ancient texts regarded the pagan Roman Empire as the ultimate foe, many medievals believed that this role had been inherited by the oppressive Roman church.

This expectation had been given explicit formulation in recent years by Rabbi Moses Nahmanides, who had declared, in his disputation against the apostate Pablo Christiani, in Barcelona 1264, that "when the final time arrives, the messiah will approach the Pope at God's command, and say 'Let my people go that they may worship me!' Only then will he have truly arrived."

Evidently it was with such thoughts in his mind that Abulafia (who preferred to designate himself by the mystical epithet "Raziel") was inspired to seek his audience with the pontiff on that fateful Rosh Hashanah.

The aspiring messiah did not hide his plans, and it did not take long for Pope Martin to receive word of his distinguished visitor. The Pope gave orders to the Vatican staff that if the rabbi should drop in seeking to discuss Judaism with him, they should arrest him immediately and send him to a place outside the city where firewood was already prepared for a quick execution. Though Abulafia was notified in advanced of the Pope's inhospitable intentions, he remained determined nonetheless to keep his appointment.

And thus it was that he approached the gates of the Vatican on that foreboding Rosh Hashanah eve.

And at that moment, the announcement was made that Pope Martin had passed away at the ripe age of eighty. Abulafia's life was saved.

Needless to say, the good rabbi saw this development as divine intervention and as irrefutable proof of the authenticity of his mission--notwithstanding the fact that he was imprisoned for a month by Franciscan monks.

More than two centuries later, another self-styled Jewish redeemer was planning a trip to Rome. The individual in question was David Reubeni, a mysterious adventurer who claimed to be the brother of the monarch of an independent Jewish kingdom in Arabia.

Masquerading as a descendent of the of Islamic prophet, he wandered through Ethiopia, Egypt and Israel. It was while sojourning in Alexandria in 5284 (1523) that he Rosh Hashanah in a small synagogue awaiting the next available ship to Italy.

It would take more than two months to find a galley sailing to Venice, and more than a year before he would enter the Papal palace on a white steed. Pope Clement greeted David with full diplomatic honours when the Hebrew emissary proposed a diplomatic alliance between his kingdom, Rome and Portugal, such that a Jewish army would expel the Turks from the Holy Land. Clement even provided David with letters of reference to several European rulers. With these documents in hand, he came close to finalizing a pact with the Portuguese king for the transporting of armaments to Reubeni's fictitious regiments.

So impressive were David Reubeni's exploits among the European elites that a young Marrano named Diego Pires was inspired to return openly to Judaism, taking the name of Solomon Molkho.

Convincing himself that he was the Messiah, Solomon journeyed to Turkey, Israel and Italy, and of course he eventually arrived in Rome for the obligatory confrontation with the Pope. The pontiff extended to him hospitality and protection.

When it became impossible to resist the Inquisition's persistent calls for Molkho's death, it is stated that Pope Clement saved his life by substituting a condemned criminal to be executed in his stead. Eventually however, Solomon became unable to fend off his accusers. He was arrested by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and perished as a martyr proudly proclaiming his Judaism to the end.

David Reubeni, who was imprisoned along with his disciple, managed somehow to escape death, and lived out the rest of his days in a Spanish prison under Imperial protection.

A Jewish chronicler reports that even after Molkho's demise there remained many Jews who were convinced that the aspiring messiah had miraculously cheated death, and that eight days after the auto-da-fé he had been seen at his home.

When Shabbetai Zvi, the mystical messianic figure of the seventeenth-century, achieved prominence throughout the Jewish world, he spent his entire career in Turkey and the Holy Land, and did not make any attempt to visit the Vatican. Nevertheless, the Pope could not ignore the momentous events of the age, particularly after he received anxious letters from clergy in Jerusalem who were convinced that a Jewish restoration was imminent and that Christians faced imminent expulsion. He was compelled to send a fact-finding delegation to keep a close eye on the developments.

In 1668, following Shabbetai Zvi's conversion to Islam, the aspiring messiah sent his "prophet" Nathan of Gaza on a special mission to Rome to perform a mysterious ritual whose purpose was to purify the Vatican, symbolically imprisoning the "Prince of Edom" and binding him in chains. His journeys through the Jewish communities of Italy served as a catalyst for the eruption of factionalist controversies between the messianists and their opponents. At length, perhaps in gentile disguises, Nathan was able to spend a few days in Rome, where he performed his secret rituals, felling the metaphysical princes of evil with the power of the divine name. Unfortunately he was eventually overcome by the demonic forces. Shabbetai Zvi reproached Nathan for the failure of his mission, and sent him to wage another spiritual battle in the Balkans, where his movement was more safely established.

Abraham's Abulafia's planned Rosh Hashanah visit with Pope Martin should therefore be seen as a link in a distinguished series of such encounters. If only we possessed the precise text of the message that the Jewish mystic intended to deliver to the Christian leader.

I hope, at least, that Abulafia had the good grace to wish the pope a cordial "Gut Yontef, Pontiff."

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressSeptember 9 1999, p. 24.

  • Bibliography:
    • Benayahu, M. (1971-1977). "The Shabbatean Movement in Greece." Sefunot 14(The Book of Greek Jewry--IV): 9-555.
    • Schwarz, L. W. (1963). Memoirs of my people; Jewish self-portraits from the 11th to the 20th centuries. New York, Schocken Books.
    • Scholem, G. G. (1972). Ha-Kabalah shel Sefer ha-Temunah ve-shel Avraham Abulafiyah. Jerusalem, Akadamon.
    • Scholem, G. G. (1973) Sabbatai Sevi : the mystical Messiah, 1626-1676. Princeton, N.J.