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David Reuveni

REUVENI, DAVID (d. 1538?), adventurer who aroused messianic hopes in the first half of the 16th century. The main sources of information about his life are his "diary," written in Hebrew, and contemporaries' letters. Yet the "diary" accounts of his travels in the East prior to his appearance in Europe seem mainly fictitious, based on myths prevalent at the time. His true name and identity are unknown. He claimed to be the son of a King Solomon and brother of a King Joseph who ruled the lost tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half Manasseh in the desert of Habor: hence his name "Reuveni." At other times, however, he claimed descent from the tribe of Judah and even compiled a pedigree tracing his ancestry back to King David. Although scholars disagree about his origins, there is some evidence that he was of Sephardi origin and lived in Israel and hence had good knowledge of the land, and especially the holy places. It also seems that he was connected to the sages of the Jerusalem Yeshivah, particularly the famous rabbi and kaballist Avraham ben Eliezer Halevi.

His first historically recorded appearance was in Venice in autumn 1523. According to contemporary accounts, he appeared to be aged about 40. He claimed to be commander in chief of his brother's army and requested the Jews of Venice to aid him on an important mission to the pope. Although most of the Jews doubted his story, he found support among certain notables including the artist Moses da *Castelazzo. In February 1524 he arrived in Rome, riding on a white horse, and was received by the humanist Cardinal *Egidio da Viterbo, whose support strengthened Reuveni's position with Rome's Jews and it seems they were ordered to attend to his needs. Shortly afterward he was received by Pope Clement *VII to whom he proposed a treaty between his state and the Christian world against the Muslims.

According to his diary, he requested the pope to give him letters to the Holy Roman emperor Charles V and to Francis I of France, recommending them to extend him their help, mainly in the form of armaments. He also asked for a letter to the mythical "Prester John" in Ethiopia. Yet it seems that his real purpose was to get to Portugal, for to which he indeed received a letter of recommendation, so that the description in his diary is only a cover-up, written after the failure of his mission in Portugal. In Rome Reuveni found support in some enlightened Jewish circles, including the bankers Daniel and Vitale da Pisa and Benvenida Abravanel, wife of Samuel *Abravanel, who sent him money and a silk banner embroidered with the Ten Commandments. This and the other banners he carried created a theatrical impression wherever he traveled.

In 1525 Reuveni was in Portugal where the king, John III, received him as an official ambassador. He was immediately acclaimed by some of the *Marranos, who flocked to see him and kiss his hands, convinced that he heralded the coming messiah. To the representative of the sultan of Fez he openly said that the time had come for the Jews to take Jerusalem and Ereẓ Israel from the hand of the Ishmaelites. Reuveni also established contact with the Jews of North Africa and sent them letters of encouragement. However, while his prestige as a harbinger of redemption grew among the Crypto-Jews, his reputation with the nobility and officials gradually declined. The unrest he caused aroused serious suspicions at court and Reuveni was summoned to the king, who accused him of coming to suborn the Marranos to revert to Judaism. When Diego Pires (Solomon *Molcho) declared himself a Jew, Reuveni was ordered to leave Portugal. He left amid the grief of the Marranos, but he encouraged them by saying that he had come on that occasion only to inform them that redemption was near. He was arrested off the Spanish coast and imprisoned until, as he says, he was released on the instructions of the emperor Charles V. Here the "diary" breaks off but additional facts are known. A short while afterward he was shipwrecked off the coast of Provence, imprisoned for two years by the lord of Claremont, and released at the request of the king of France on the payment of ransom by the Jewish communities of Avignon and Carpentras. In November 1530 he was back in Venice, after having visited various places in Italy. He tried to have consultations with the city governors and attempted to bring his plans to the attention of the emperor. At the suggestion of Frederick, marquis of Mantua, he traveled to that city. However, Frederick was informed by some of Reuveni's enemies among the Jews that he had forged several letters – to himself, to the pope, to Charles, and to the Jews from his brother King Joseph – to replace the documents which he claimed had been lost during his travels. The marquis now warned the pope and Charles V against Reuveni and when he and Molcho appeared before the emperor in the summer of 1532 they were imprisoned. Molcho was burned at the stake while Reuveni was taken to Spain in chains. He perished in due course (probably at Badajoz in 1538), charged with having seduced New Christians to embrace Judaism.

From his "diary" Reuveni emerges as a man in whom the misery of the Jews aroused strong feelings. He admired the Jews of the West (while despising those of the East) and addressed himself to them; they in turn were impressed by those very qualities in him which he found in them. His deep feeling, fearlessness, and steadfast character are greatly praised by the banker Daniel de Pisa. Reuveni aroused the greatest fervor among the Marranos and downtrodden Jews brought up in the new spirit of the Renaissance and longing for redemption. Reuveni was the first to move the messianic idea and activity to a rational political sphere. He felt that an impressive appearance and a seemingly realistic political program were likely to help the messianic propaganda among the Jews and Marranos. Hence his constant stress that he is not a prophet nor a messiah but only a military commander and occasionally he evaluates the martial qualities of the Jews he has encountered. All his exaggerated stories about his many expenses, his wicked servants, and his great treasures reflect his naive idea that nobles acted in this fashion. His activity is in sharp contrast with the messianic magical-mythical activity typical of that period, and in this he seems to continue in the path of R. Avraham ben Eliezer Halevi. It appears that Reuveni was interested in creating a certain geopolitical situation which would have messianic meaning for the Jews (a Christian-Muslim war which would become the war of Gog and Magog). This was probably the purpose of his traveling with Solomon Molcho to meet the Emperor Charles V in Regensburg. He re-edited his diary after his failure in Portugal, in the hope that it would help him reestablish his credibility and continue in his messianic activity. This is the explanation for the many contradictions in the diary. However, all his pretentious posturing does not hide the fact that he was a deeply religious man, scrupulously observing the Jewish precepts, fasting six days in the week, and feeling that Providence had chosen him to announce the coming redemption to his oppressed fellow Jews.

The story of David Reuveni fascinated subsequent generations and was the subject of a number of novels (e.g., by Max *Brod).


A.S. Aešcoly, Sippur David ha-Re'uveni (1940); E.N. Adler, Jewish Travellers (1930), index; Y. Baer, in: KS, 17 (1940), 302–12; A.S. Yahuda, in: Ha-Tekufah, 33–34 (1940), 599–625; Rodriguez-Moñnino, in: REJ, 115 (1956), 73–86; C. Roth, ibid., 116 (1957), 93–95; Révah, ibid., 117 (1958), 128–35; C. Roth, in: Midstream, 9 (1963), 76–81; M.D. Cassuto, in: Tarbiz, 32 (1962/63), 339–58; S. Simonsohn, in: Zion, 26 (1961), 198–207.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.