History is remembering and re-experiencing: of the two,
the latter is the more rewarding. For the student of Jewish history, the
Library of Congress offers a sumptuous feast; solid fare and occasional
delicacies making for a rich, variegated menu. Classic works in Hebrew,
Yiddish, Latin, English, German, French, Spanish, and Russian abound.
Multivolume works of the great historians, from first century Josephus
writing in Greek to twentieth-century Salo Baron writing in English, share
the shelves with communal and topical histories, anthologies, periodicals,
and monographs, from classic pioneering studies to sophisticated
contemporary works on the cutting edge of the discipline.
For both researcher and reader the most exciting finds
are those works-book, broadside, and manuscript-which witnessed and
recorded history in the making or which themselves partook in the unfolding
of the Jewish historical experience. We can offer only a small sampling of
the rich lode of primary source materials, printed and written, which
enable us, fortified with knowledge and imagination, to re-experience
And May the Messiah Come Soon,
in Our Time
The grandest of prophetic visions is of the "end of
days," the days of the Messiah, as envisaged by the prophet Isaiah:
A scion of the house of Jesse ...
Filled with the spirit of the Lord ...
Who with righteousness shall judge the poor ...
And with the breath of his lips slay the wicked ...
And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb ...
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation
Neither shall they learn war anymore ...
They shall not hurt nor destroy ...
For the earth shall be filled with the presence of the Lord.
Isaiah (Ch. 11 and 2)
Among the saddest chapters in Jewish history are those
which tell the tales of messiahs.
In February 1524, there arrived in Rome an exotically
dressed figure riding on a white horse, who announced himself to be David
Reuveni, brother to Joseph, King of a Jewish kingdom in the heart of the
Arabian peninsula. At an audience granted him by Pope Clement VII, Reuveni
stated his mission, which was to effect an alliance between that kingdom
and the Christian world against the Moslems. Intrigued by the prospect, the
Pope gave him a letter to the King of Portugal, who received him warmly. He
received an even greater welcome from the Portugese Marranos, Christians in name only,
who still adhered to their ancestral faith despite having formally
surrendered it. These Marranos saw Reuveni as a herald of the Messiah.
None was more taken than a brilliant young man, Diogo
Pires, born in Lisbon of Marrano parents, who at age twenty-one was
appointed secretary to the king's council and recorder at the court of
appeals. His meteoric rise did not assuage young Diogo's spiritual malaise.
Obsessed by a yearning for the faith of his father, Pires met Reuveni in
1525 and hearing Reuveni's tale of Jewish dominion and aspirations, decided
to return to the ancestral faith and asked to be circumcised. Reuveni
warned him against it, pointing to the peril to his life from the
Inquisition, so Pires circumcised
himself, almost bleeding to death in the process. He took the Hebrew name
Shlomo Molcho and fled Portugal to wander in the Near East--Damascus,
Safed, and Jerusalem--studying
and to a remarkable degree absorbing the teachings and mysteries of his
The Ottoman Empire extended welcome to Jews exiled from
Spain in 1492 and Portugal ill 1497. Salonica became a major Jewish center
through the new immigrants. The colophon of this prayer book printed in
Salonica, 1527, is a document in the saga of their immigration and
Completed on the eve of the Great Fast in the year 'My help is from the
Lord' [i.e., 15271, here In the City of Salonica under the sovereignty of
the great King, Sultan Suliman ... by Moses Soncino, in the printing house
of the noble Abraham Senior, for the exiles of Catalonia, especially
Eliezer Shimoni, the light of whose Torah illumines them, (Mahzor
L'Nusach Barcelona Minhag Catalonia (Festival Prayer Book ... Custom of
Barcelona of the Catalonian Rite), Salonica, 1527. Hebraic Section, Library of Congress Photo).
He went to Salonica to study Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, and soon
student became teacher, During the fifteenth and into the sixteenth century
Salonica was a haven for Jewish exiles fleeing the Iberian peninsula and
Italy. Of Salonica, the haven, Portuguese Marrano chronicler Samuel Usque
writes in his Consolacam as tribulacoems des Israel (Consolation for
the Tribulations of Israel) Ferrara, 1553 (English edition, translated and
edited by Martin A. Cohen, Philadelphia, 1965): "the largest number of
the persecuted and banished sons from Europe and other places have met
therein and have been received with loving welcome, as though it were our
venerable mother Jerusalem." it was a community of communities living
with historic memories and messianic expectations. In 1527, the year Molcho
arrived in Salonica, Catalan Jews who had fled from that Spanish province
and its major city Barcelona, in order to retain their historic identity,
published a Mahzor L'Nusach Barcelona Minhag Catalonia (Festival
Prayer Book, According to the Custom of Barcelona of the Catalonian Rite)
whose colophon records: "The work was completed before the Great Fast,
here in the city of Salonica, under the sovereignty of our great king,
Sultan Suleiman, by the young Moses Soncino in the printing establishment
of the noble Don Abraham Seneor, at the behest of the survivors of the
expulsion from Catalonia, especially the sage Eliezer Shimoni, the light of
whose Torah shines upon them, may he see progeny and length of days."
The Library of Congress copy of this exceedingly rare volume bears the
ownership inscription of Moshe bar Shmuel Falcone.
A coterie of disciples gathered about Molcho, before
whom he preached eloquent sermons announcing the certainty of an imminent
messianic redemption. His disciples prevailed upon Molcho to permit
publication of some of those sermons, as Molcho states in the Introduction:
"For my dear brothers and friends living in Salonica, who ask of me to
send them some expositions and explanations of biblical verses and rabbinic
sayings. To fulfill their request I write this work, though I lack the
requisite knowledge and understanding, for my sins cast me out of the
inheritance of the Lord [i.e., the Jewish people], yet I trust that His
divine mercy will lead me along the correct path." Molcho sees the
history of the world as a struggle between Esau and Israel. "The evil
decrees which befall the Jewish people," he proclaims, "are sent
to try them, not to destroy them." The war of Gog and Magog, prelude
to the coming of the Messiah, had already begun in 1527, in the
sacking of Rome by German and Spanish soldiers; in 1529 when Derashot,
later called Sefer Ha-Mefo'ar appeared, Molcho was certain the
Messiah would soon appear, probably in 1540; and he began to
entertain the idea that he had been chosen for that role.
Derashot (titled Sefer ha-Mefo'ar in
later editions), published in Salonica, 1529, is a collection of the
sermons of the returned to Judaism, Christian-born Marrano Shlomo Molcho
preached in that city, in which he pronounced his faith in imminent
messianic redemption. He may also have declared himself a messianic
candidate to his disciples. After a brief meteoric career, the would-be
Messiah was burned at the stake for heresy. Shlomo Molcho, Derashot,
Salonica, 1529. Hebraic Section, Library of
In a letter to his disciples in Salonica, Molcho
wrote: "Seir [the Christian world] will fall into the hands of its
enemies. The people of Israel will reveal its power. God will have mercy
upon His servants ... I will take vengeance and pay to each his
Molcho saw visions, announced prophecies-at least two of
which, a flood in Rome and an earthquake in Portugal, came to pass-and, in
fulfillment of a Talmudic
depiction of the Messiah, sat fasting and praying for thirty days with the
beggars and the afflicted at the gates of Rome. As he began to act the
Messiah, adherents multiplied, and the Pope offered his protection.
Together with David Reuveni, Molcho approached the Emperor Charles V, who
decided to put an end to this messianic adventure. The emperor took Molcho
to Mantua, where he was tried as a heretic, convicted and, after refusing
to recant and return to the Christian faith, was burned at the stake. At
his martyrdom, Molcho was only thirty-two years old. Many of his disciples
were certain that he had survived the flames and awaited his advent as the
Messiah in 1540, the promised year of redemption. We look at Molcho's only
monument, his Derashot (Sefer Ha-Mefo'ar), a small, worn volume of
consolation and hope, a work which bolstered the spirits of a generation
painfully recovering from the trauma of apostasy and expulsion, and we
shudder at the martyr's death imposed on this well-born, gifted, and
favored young man, who gave up all for the love of God and His people
Source: Abraham J. Karp, From
the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress,
(DC: Library of Congress, 1991).