History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

David Alroy, Messiah.

Conditions in the Orient.

The East was still the Jewish centre of population, though no longer of learning or authority. Its academies were closed, and the lives of those who lived there were obscure. Jehuda Halevi and Nachmanides turned to Zion, but they were drawn to the beloved soil, sacred by its past, not dignified by its present association. It was adjudged a merit to spend one's declining years in the Holy Land. To some it is so still. The Jews of Jerusalem were noted now only as weavers and dyers. In Asia Minor and Palestine they left Christian centres to settle by preference under Moslem regime. The Holy Land was closed to them only while held by the Crusaders. Yet the later Caliphs of the East did not show the vigor and ambition of their predecessors, nor the thirst for learning of their Moslem brethren in the Peninsula. Possessing the vices of the Orient without its virtues, they were indolently satisfied to leave the administration of the State in the hands of their viziers. This often meant government by corruption and bribery, from which Jews suffered with the rest.

Resh Galutha of Bagdad.

In the 11th century, after the schools of Sora and Pumbeditha had been closed, we still find the bulk of Eastern Jews located between the Euphrates and the Tigris, with Bagdad, Akbara and Mosul (new Nineveh) as their chief centres. Here they were left undisturbed, and Bagdad was permitted to reestablish the office of Resh Gelutha (or Exilarch ) with all its associated pomp. His power of appointment of rabbis and judges reached from Persia to Yemen. His sway even included the few Jews who had drifted as far as Thibet and India. The revival of the Exilarchate was followed by the reinstitution in Bagdad of a college and a Gaon. It was the ambitious Gaon, Samuel ben Ali, who crossed swords with Maimonides. Mosul, with its seven thousand Jews, also had a local "Prince," but it manifested no desire for college or culture. The further one penetrated into the northern interior, the less learning did he find among the Jews. Loyal to the Faith in a blind and bigoted way, they knew it only as a transmitted tradition and hardly appreciated its grandeur. In the mountain wilds some even lived as robber bands, like the Ishmaelites of old.

In Khorasan the Jews were cattle breeders. Persia had large Jewish settlements in Ispahan, Ramadan and Susa; but those in Susa had dwindled away by the end of the 12th century. Their only points of importance in post-Mohammedan Arabia were Chaibar and Yemen. The merchants of the latter earned a reputation for benevolence. The bulk of Arabian Israel were in the North and many of these still lived the Bedouin life. All the communities scattered through Moslem Asia acknowledged the sway of the Exilarch of Bagdad. Each group developed local customs and local superstitions. They set great store on pilgrimages to supposed graves of great men, such as Ezekiel and Ezra.

Eastern Jews then were no longer making history. But an incident in the 12th century breaks the silence. A man emerges, a Messiah — David Alroy.

The Messianic Hope

From the days of Bar Kochba's downfall in the year 135 A.D., the hope of the advent of a Messiah, who would restore the Jewish nation, had never died out, and no century has since passed without some individual rising from the ranks of Israel and claiming to be the long-awaited scion of the Royal House of David. The historian, Graetz, enumerates seventeen such Messiahs. Some were enthusiastic visionaries, some were only adventurers. The appearance of a claimant to this title was usually a consequence of local persecution. In no case has a self-styled Messiah brought relief to his community. In most cases he left behind a legacy of humiliation and usually aggravated the persecution he promised to remove. None the less, the Messiah idea played a great part, not only in Jewry, but also in Christendom throughout the Middle Ages. It was woven into the mysticism of the Kabala, it was not absent from the creed of the rationalist Maimonides. Jewish speculation has varied widely as to the nature of the Messiah and as to the world changes he would bring about. Some theories were fantastically extravagant. Preceded by days of terror he was to be a man with miraculous gifts, whose coming was to be inaugurated with marvel and who would bring about spiritual redemption.

Some Messianic hopes again were sober and moderate. The Messiah of Maimonides is but a great king who will restore the Jewish nationality and who will render war obsolete.

Heralded by various portents, his advent was sometimes calculated to the year. The Karaites, among whom Messianic claimants had appeared in Syria and Persia, looked for the genuine Redeemer at the end of the 10th century. A mystic told the Jews of Germany that he would appear in the year 1100. A Kabalist and an astronomer of Spain had calculated it for the year 1358, while the Zohar fixed 1648 for his coming. The Messiah was daily looked for by the Jews of pre-Moslem Arabia, and a persecution in the East at the opening of the 9th century was interpreted as a precursor of his arrival. It was fondly expected by the Jews who suffered in the Almohades persecution that the advent of the Messiah would change their sorrow into joy. About the same time an enthusiast appeared, claiming to be the advance herald of his coming, the Elijah, so to speak, of the Meshiach.

David Alroy.

A word has been said of each Messiah as he has appeared in the course of this history. Something more than a word is deserved by David Alroy.

He was born in Almadia in Kurdistan, in 1160, thirty-four years before Nachmanides. In his youth the Cross was in combat with the Crescent for the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem. It was the time of Richard Coeur de Lion and Saladin. The struggle brought trouble for the Jews and invited them once more to seek their own. Why should they remain in passive suffering while others fought for the land of their ancestry?

Alroy was a scholar, versed in Bible and Talmud, esteemed by Arabs as well as Jews. Seeing the Caliphate weakened from without and torn with dissension from within, he conceived the daring plan of announcing himself as the Messiah. He appealed to some Jewish outlaws of the mountains and to the Jewish warriors of Bagdad and Mosul to enter Almadia with concealed weapons and seize the fortifications. Many answered the summons. The puerile attempt naturally met with the failure that the more sober expected. Alroy was soon in the hands of the Sultan, his crude army dispersed.

Now romance weaves legend into the story. As Samson broke from his foes, so Alroy had mysterious powers to set himself at liberty. Again he was in the midst of his followers who once more rallied round him. The Sultan offered the Jewish community a curt alternative. Either they must deliver him to the Caliph or all be put to the sword. The less credulous, led by the Exilarch, sought to save the perilous situation. Alroy was put to death by order of the local ruler and the Sultan appeased with a hundred talents of gold. What a sorry outcome!

But this does not quite end the story. Prior to Alroy's death, two adventurers took advantage of the prevailing excitement to play upon the credulity of the Jews of Bagdad. They induced them to part with their property and to wait on their roofs in green robes the appointed hour of departure for Jerusalem. They waited with a trust pathetic indeed. Although their eyes were opened to the deception only when it was too late, and in spite of the fact that Alroy was dead and with him the cause, a certain number continued to believe in his Messiahship, calling themselves Menachemites (a name for the Messiah), and still hoped for his glorious return. How history repeats itself!

The one question that interests us now is, Was Alroy an enthusiast or an adventurer? Many think that this ambitious man only decided to pose as a Messiah as an afterthought. Benjamin Disraeli has spun a romance out of the scant material of the story, but in this way has idealized the incident far beyond sober history. He incorporates in it the prowess of the warlike Jews of Khorasan against the Seljuk Sultan Singar in 1153. So the incident closed, and the Jews of Asia again retired to their obscurity for three centuries more.


Disraeli's "David Alroy":—This book makes delightful reading, and is rich in local color, but the gifted author is restricted in the authorities available to him on Jewish practice. But the description of Jerusalem contained in it is the vivid impresson of an eye witness, the result of Disraeli's personal visit to the land of his fathers.

Messiah and the Messianic Time:—This doctrine is accepted in different senses by the two schools of Judaism. Orthodox Jews look to a scion of the House of David, who will arise in some marvelous way and lead Israel back to the Holy Land. This national restoration will be followed by the world's acceptance of the one God and by the dawn of an era of peace and good will. The Reform Jews also look to the coming of just such a glorious day as the climax of man's earthly pilgrimage. But they believe that it will come about not suddenly or by marvel, but gradually and normally. Nor do they teach that this glorious era needs the special leadership of a Messiah nor of Israel's national restoration. They believe in the Messianic Time, not in the Messiah Man; in a Redemption, not in a Redeeemer.

See treatment of this subject in the concluding volume of this series, Modern Jewish History, pp. 120, 121.

Alroy —The Man of Rai or Rages:—The Messianic Idea in Jewish History, Greenstone, Jewish Publication Society, 1906.

Theme for Discussion:—The relation between the doctrine of the Messiah and Jewish nationalism.