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The Messiah from Khorgbar & the Lady from Naples
"I am David, the son of King Solomon (may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing), and my brother is king Joseph, who is older than I, and who sits on the throne of his kingdom in the wilderness of Habor (Khorgbar), and rules over thirty myriads of the tribe of Gad and of the tribe of Reuben and of the half-tribe of Manasseh. I have journeyed from before the King, my brother and his counsellors, the seventy Elders. They charged me to go first to Rome to the presence of the Pope, may his glory be exalted. I left them by way of the hills, ten days’ journey..." *1
Thus starts the diary of David Reubeni, one of the many Jewish “messiahs” who have appeared in history. In Judaism, the term “messiah” ["anointed (one)"] refers (in at least one common interpretation) to a future king of Israel—a second David—who is to come in fulfillment of the words of Moses (Deut. 18:15): “The Lord Thy God will raise up unto thee a prophet...like unto me” or (among many other citations), “...there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel...” (Num. 24:17). This person shall come and reunite the tribes of Israel and restore Israel to the privileged and primordial state it enjoyed under King David. The list of those claiming to be that person, or perceived by followers to be that person, is long; chronologically, they range from Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire and the one who returned the captive Jews in Babylon to freedom, all the way to modern times and Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a Hasidic rabbi who died in 1994. (Obviously, the most historically conspicuous person on that list is Jesus.)
“Khorgbar” is probably Khaybar, north of Medina, in modern Saudi Arabia, but in spite of his diary, it is not at all clear from other sources exactly where David Reubeni came from. It is only clear that he showed up in Europe, in Venice, in 1523 and a year later in Rome, where he was received by Pope Clement VII. Reubeni’s plan was to drum up support to unite the scattered Jews of the Lost Tribes of Israel (at least some of whom are presumed to have been as far east as southern India); Reubeni would get support from European Jews in Italy, Spain and Portugal as well as from Christian rulers, and together they would take back ancient Israel from the Muslims. In return, western Christianity would again have access to the holy sites in Israel. Reubeni spent a number of years traveling to Spain, Portugal, France and back to Italy. At one point he apparently had an audience with the emperor, Charles V. In spite of the—at least in some quarters—"messianic" enthusiasm he generated among Jews in Europe and even financial support from many, and in spite of the attraction that expelling Islam from the holy sites of Christianity must have held for European popes and princes, the early 1500s was not a good time to be stirring up popular unrest among Jews in Europe, especially in Spain, which had expelled Jews in 1492. Reubeni apparently was examined by the inquisition and died in Spain in 1535. Some sources say he was burned at the stake, charged with having tried to reconvert Jews who had become Christians.
Some of the moral and financial support for the messianic Reubeni in Italy came from Naples, centered on the person of Benvenida Abravanel. The Abravanel family was one of the oldest and most distinguished Jewish families in medieval Spain. Benvenida was of that branch that fled to Italy and Naples at the time of the great expulsion in 1492, perhaps because Naples was relatively tolerant, meaning that it was resistant to the Inquisition and Jews could be Jews—at least in return for paying outrageous taxes.
Benvenida and her husband, Samuel, a financier and patron of scholarship, made their home in Naples a center for cultural activity within the community. Samuel became the financier for viceroy Don Pedro de Toledo and is praised in a number of sources as a benefactor in his community. The viceroy had his daughter, Eleonora, raised in Benvenida’s house, such was the esteem in which the Abravanel family was held. Benvenida, herself, is mentioned, even praised, in Reubeni’s diary, but it is not clear if the two actually ever met. Her support for Reubeni is evident from the fact that she sent him large sums of money on at least three occasions and even sent him a silk banner embroidered with the Ten Commandments.
Benvenida, with assistance from Eleonara, was successful in getting an imperial expulsion decree revoked in Naples in 1540, but a few years later, the decree was back. The brief period of tolerance was over; the Abravanels moved and settled in Ferrara, a major refuge for Sephardic Jews at the time. Samuel died there in 1551, and Benvenida three years later.
*1. Reubeni's diary is in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. The cited excerpt is found in Jewish Travellers by E.N. Adler. Edition: reprint, published by Routledge, 2004. Reubeni’s life has inspired at least two works of historical fiction, one by Max Brod in 1925 in German, Reubeni, Prince of the Jews, and one by Marek Halter in 1986 in French, The Messsiah. [back up to text]
—All encyclopedias of Judaism, on-line and off, contain entries on "David Reubeni" and "Abravanel."
—Beginnings in Jewish Philosophy by Meyer Levin. Behrman House, Inc, 1971.
—The Jew in the Medieval World by J. R. Marcus and M. Saperstein. Hebrew Union College Press, 1999.