An Ancient Duo of False Mashiachs
Has the Jerusalem Municipality Got it Wrong?
When most people think about a “false mashiach,” the first name that comes to mind is that of Shabbetai Tzvi, the infamous self-proclaimed redeemer who took Europe by storm in the late seventeenth century. In truth, there are tens of Messianic impostors scattered throughout the annals of our past, although few of their names and legacies have survived in the popular consciousness to the present.
Surprisingly, one of these unknown charlatans has had a street named after him. “Alroy’i”, named for David Alroy’i, a false Mashiach from circa 1150. Alroy’i, is the name of several well-known residential streets throughout Eretz Yisrael, including one close by to the Misgav Ladach Hospital in Yerushalayim.
Who was this mysterious man? And why did the state of Israel see fit to perpetuate his name?
A Supernatural Story
R’ Binyamin MiTudela,1Masaos R’ Binyamin MiTudela R’ Binyamin MiTudela and The Itinerary Of Benjamin Of Tudela Critical Text, Translation And Commentary By Marcus Nathan Adler, M.A. the famous medieval Jewish traveler, was one of the first to record Alroy’i’s story. In his peregrinations around the Mediterranean basin, R’ Binyamin describes the city of Amadiya, the false Mashiach’s home city. Located in the mountainous region, bordering northern Iraq and southeast Turkey, R’ Binyamin describes it as follows:
The first of the Kehillos in the Chaftan mountains, which contain hundreds of Jewish Kehillos, and it is the beginning of the land of Madai.
These communities, he writes, were founded by Jews exiled by King Shalmaneser in the very first galus. At the time of R’ Binyamin’s visit, they were obliged to pay tax to the King of Persia, via his local clerk. Their spoken language was Aramaic and there were many talmidei chachamim among them.
Amadiya itself was home to 25,000 Jews. Retaining its name until today, the geography of the city is fascinating. It is built on a flat mountaintop that protrudes from a cradle of lush green forest. The city is home to ruins of a shul and a tomb which the local authorities attribute to Yechezkel.2Wikipedia. This is almost certainly inaccurate, as R’ Binyamin MiTudela firmly places the Kever of Yechezkel on the bank of the Euphrates,3Masaos R’ Binyamin MiTudela, Chap. 16 R’ Binyamin MiTudela. and a prominent place of pilgrimage for thousands of Oriental Jews. Amadiyan Jews admit that the shul was dedicated to Yechezkel, called “Knis Navi Yechezkel,” but the tomb belonged to two brothers, Rabbi David and Rabbi Yosef, founding fathers of the Amadiyan Jewish community.
After introducing the Amadiyan kehilla, R’ Binyamin begins to relate the intriguing tale which he says took place ten years before his visit (circa 1160). In his words:4Masaos R’ Binyamin MiTudela, Chap. 19 R’ Binyamin MiTudela.
Today, ten years ago, a man arose and his name was David Alroy’i from the city of Amadiya.
R’ Binyamin relates that Alroy’i studied under the Rosh Hakehillah, Chisdai, and the premier Rosh Yeshiva, the head of Yeshivas Gaon Yaakov of Baghdad. He was an astute talmid and soon excelled in his Torah learning, consisting of Halacha and Gemara, as well as all types of external disciplines. These included Arabic and Arabian writings and books of occult and magic.
One day, it seems that the strange arts that he had mastered went to his head. He conceived the idea to fight the king of Persia, to unite all of the Jews in the Chaftan Mountains, and to go and conquer Yerushalayim.
To attract followers, he performed “miracles” which R’ Binyamin calls “Osiyos Sheker,” and declared to the Jews that Hashem had sent him to take possession of Yerushalayim and to relieve them from the yoke of their gentile overlords.
And he was believed. Not by all Jews, but by a small portion who became convinced he was Mashiach.
Rumors of Alroy’i’s activities reached the Persian king, who was deeply disturbed. He sent for him, wishing to ascertain whether the reports were true. At the king’s invitation, Alroy’i boldly set out for the palace. When he finally stood in the monarch’s presence, the king posed the loaded question: “Are you the king of the Jews?”
Alroy’i fearlessly responded that he was. The king was livid. He ordered that Alroy’i be seized and cast into jail. He was deposited in a prison occupied by men who had fallen out of the king’s favor and had been abandoned there for life.
Three days later, the king convened his cabinet to discuss the matter of the Jewish rebellion. He was suddenly flabbergasted to see none other than Alroy’i standing before him.
“Who brought you here?” the monarch demanded to know. “Who released you?”
“My own wisdom and skill,” Alroy’i answered confidently. “I am not afraid of you, nor of any of your minions.” The king flushed and immediately cried out to his servants to seize the errant prisoner. To his surprise, they told him in confusion, “We can’t see his body, we can only hear his voice!” The king was astonished and unnerved.
Alroy’i assessed the situation and declared simply, “I’m going on my way.” Uncontested, he made his way to the river. The king and his entourage follow him in amazement. Preparing to cross, Alroy’i removed his cloak, spread it out over the water, stepped on it, and was miraculously transported across.
The king’s servants stared in amazement. Gathering their wits, they lunged after him in small boats, desperately trying to bring him back, but they failed. “There is no magician in the world like this!” they marveled among themselves.
R’ Binyamin reports that having eluded the king and his men, Alroy’i pronounced the Shem Hameforash and was transported a distance of twenty days’ travel to his home town of Amadiya. He related to the local Jews what had occurred, leaving them amazed at his supernatural prowess.
The King of Persia, however, was not content to leave the situation as it was. He sent word to Emir Al-Muminin, the Caliph of Bagdad, urging him to warn the Reish Galusa and the Rosh Yeshiva of Gaon Yaakov, to restrain David Alroy’i from executing his designs.
“If not,” he threatened, I will kill all the Jews in my Empire.”
When they heard of this new development, the Persian kehillos grew terrified. They speedily dispatched letters to the leaders of the Baghdad community, indignantly querying:
“Why should we die…? Restrain this man from realizing his schemes and no innocent blood will be spilled!”
The Reish Galusa and the Roshei Yeshivos responded with a letter to Alroy’i:
Know that the time for the Geula has not yet arrived, and we have not seen its miracles, because it is not through the strength that a man will triumph. We order you to desist from taking any further action. If [you do] not, you will be excommunicated from Klal Yisrael.
They sent the missive to Zakkai, the Jewish Nasi of Mosul, and to Rabbi Yosef “Hachozeh,” (known as Burhan-al-Murk) who also lived there, with instructions to forward it to Alroy’i. They acquiesced and wrote to him, warning him of the promised consequences.
It was to no avail. The false mashiach persisted in his behavior.
One of the vassals of the king of Persia, Sin-el-Din, thought of a wily plan to relieve the king of Persia of the problem posed by Alroy’i. He struck a deal with Alroy’i’s father-in-law, promising him 10,000 gold pieces if he would silently dispose of him. He agreed and entered Alroy’i’s home while he slept and killed him in his bed.
Although the false Mashiach was dead, the King of Persia was still very angry at the Jews in his lands. When the Persian Jews realized this, they appealed to the Reish Galusa again, to intercede with the King on their behalf. The Reish Galusa acquiesced and obtained an audience with the Persian king, in which he calmed his anger and bribed him with 100 kikar of gold. Like his predecessor Achashverosh, “v’chamas hamelech shachacha,” his anger subsided and all was peaceful once again.5Esther 7:10.
The Ger’s Account
While R’ Binyamin’s account of the Alroy’i debacle is certainly the most colorful and detailed, there is another version of the story which precedes it by a couple of decades and supplies us with some significant details. This is the narrative of Ovadiah HaGer.
Ovadiah HaGer is known to us through documents found in the Cairo Genizah. He was born circa 1170 as Johannes of Oppido and produced a memoir, in which he describes the upheaval caused by a false Mashiach. He writes about events which took place in approximately 1105, not in connection with David Alroy’i but rather a dynamic duo: Shlomo ibn Ruji and his son Menachem.6Memoir of Ovadiah the Ger, V Recto – Cambridge T-S 10 K.21 fol. 1, recto.
Paraphrasing an apt pasuk in Daniel (11:14), Ovadiah begins:
In those days…”Bnei Peritzi Am Yisrael” (translated by the meforshim in Daniel as “Rishei Am Yisrael” – “evildoers”) arose to establish a “Navi,” but they stumbled.
A Jew by the name of Shlomo ben Ruji from the mountains of Assyria (Hakkeri region), together with his son Menachem and a smooth-talking Yerushalmi named Efraim ben R’ Azariah, wrote letters to all the Jews near and far declaiming that “the time had come!” Hashem would gather them in, from all the countries of the world and bring them to Yerushalayim. The letters clearly stated that Shlomo ben Ruji was the Melech HaMashiach.
When they received the letters, the Jews rejoiced. They began to spend their days in teshuva, tefilla, ta’anis and ma’asim tovim, eagerly awaiting the day that they would be reunited in Yerushalayim. Time inexorably marched on and nothing occurred. Doubt and disappointment began to creep into their minds. The local gentiles who had heard rumors of the Jewish Mashiach began to jeer at them, mocking:
“The Jews want to fly, yet they have no wings with which to fly to their land!”
Alroyi and Ibn Ruji
Ovadiah’s account immediately triggers the question – could David Alroy’i of R’ Binyamin’s travelogue and the Ben Ruji father-son team be one and the same? And if so, is the character “David’’ identical with father or son?
The phonetic relationship between ben Ruji (ibn Ruji or Al-Ruji in Arabic) and Al-Roy’i is immediately obvious. This relationship is confirmed by a third version of the Messianic narrative that is found in an unexpected place: The anti-Jewish polemic of a Jewish apostate r”l, Samau’al al-Maghribī, or Shlomo ben Yichyeh Almograbi who converted to Islam.
He describes how an imposter from Mosul, a young Jew named Manahim ibn Sulayman, popularly known as “Al-Ruji” swiftly gained recognition.7Ifhām Al-Yahūd: Silencing the Jews, page 72, Samau’al al-Maghribī, Perlmann M. (ed. and trans.). Scholars place his story circa 1150.8The Messianic Pretender Solomon Ibn Al-Ruji And His Son Menahem (The So-Called “David Alroy”) Norman Golb (The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago).
“Manahim” is clearly Menachem. “Sulayman” is the Arab equivalent of Shlomo. The nickname “Al-Ruji” brings us even closer to Alroy’i. The dichotomy is solved by an investigation into the Arabic letters that the apostate used. The only difference between the Arabic “j” sound as in “Ruji” and “h” sound as in “Ruhi (In Hebrew, Roy’i)” is a tiny dot, the “jim,” which could easily have been omitted by a copyist.9The Messianic Pretender Solomon Ibn Al-Ruji And His Son Menahem (The So-Called “David Alroy”) Norman Golb (The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago).
It appears, according to this account, that if one of the pair is referred to independently, the protagonist is Menachem, not his father. But how then did David come to be substituted for Menachem in R’ Binyamin MiTudela’s travelogue?
Moshe Gil, an Israeli historian, offered the following explanation:
In Arabic, a nickname for Sulayman (Shlomo) is Abu Da’ud (son of David). Menachem’s full name would have been Manahim ibn-abi-Da’ud Suleiman ibn al-Ruji. R’ Binyamin’s copyists may have just extracted “Da’ud al-Ruji” (or Ruhi) – “David Alroy’i” and recorded it like that.10The Messianic Pretender Solomon Ibn Al-Ruji And His Son Menahem (The So-Called “David Alroy”) Norman Golb (The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago).
(One may wonder if R’ Binyamin is referring directly to the father Shlomo, who may well have been nicknamed Abu Da’ud al-Ruji which is far closer to David Alroy’i. But considering the timeline, it is unlikely. Menachem must have been at least in his teens in 1105, when he acted as his fathers’ aide, according to the Ger. His father was likely 20 years older, making him about 95 when he purportedly performed all that R’ Binyamin described. Considering that the apostate actually named Menachem as the protagonist in (approx.) 1150, it is more logical to assume that the man about whom R’ Binyamin wrote was not the elderly Shlomo, but his son, who seems to have been very active on his father’s behalf, as explained below.)11The Messianic Pretender Solomon Ibn Al-Ruji And His Son Menahem (The So-Called “David Alroy”) Norman Golb (The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago).
Other ancient sources dub the false Mashiach differently: In Emek Habacha by R’ Yosef Hakohen Harofeh (published in the early sixteenth century), the false Mashiach is referred to as David Al Roy’i12Emek Habacha, page 47, R’ Yosef Hakohen Harofeh, published Krakow, 1895. (gap between “Al” and “Roy’i”). R’ Shlomo Ibn Verga in Shevet Yehuda, published some decades earlier, calls him David AlDavid!13Shevet Yehuda, page 50, R’ Shlomo Ibn Verga, published Hanover, 1854.
His Father’s Qua’im
From the Ger’s narrative, it is clear that Menachem did not consider himself to be the Melech HaMashiach, rather playing a supporting role to his father in claiming that title. What did this support consist of? How did Menachem present himself to the masses?
The apostate gives us a clue in his rendition of the saga.14Ifhām Al-Yahūd: Silencing the Jews, pages 72-73, Samau’al al-Maghribī, Perlmann M. (ed. and trans.).
Menachem, al-Maghribī wrote, was a handsome man. By the standards of the Amadiyan Jews, he was a talmid chacham. The local governor, commander of a fortress, liked Menachem and was impressed by his “piety,” and would visit and spend time with him.
Before long, Menachem decided that the governor’s fortress would be the perfect base from whence to conduct his activities. He felt sure that the governor, a man whom he considered to be simple and naïve, would easily surrender it. He addressed the surrounding Jewish communities in letters, urging them to appear at the gates of the fortress with weapons hidden beneath their garments.
The apostate quotes words of the communication, which he claims to have seen:
Perhaps you might say, “for what has he (i.e., Menahem himself) rallied us – for war or battle?” No, we want you not for war or battle, but rather so that you might stand before this qua’im being seen at his gates by the royal envoys surrounding him!
If this quote is correct, Menachem is telling his brethren that the point of the gathering was not merely bloodshed, but rather to support him, the “qua’im” and see him in a happy condition of glory.
What exactly is a qua’im? A “precursor or representative of an imam,” or “the head of a movement in favor of a saintly pretender or redeemer.”15The Messianic Pretender Solomon Ibn Al-Ruji And His Son Menahem (The So-Called “David Alroy”) Norman Golb (The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago).
It is clear from Menachem’s description of himself as a qua’im, that he knew well that he was not the “Melech Hamashiach,” that title being reserved for his father, Shlomo. As he was the active one, causing all the trouble as his father’s emissary, (or perhaps because he continued his father’s movement after his death), he is the one who is discussed by the historians.
R’ Binyamin’s version of the story does not uphold this assumption, as he writes that David Alroy’i cheerfully stated to the Persian king that he himself was the king of Jews. Whether R’ Binyamin’s account is off by a few decades – he could be referring to Shlomo, or whether this particular aspect is a slight inaccuracy – or whether his account is the only accurate one! – remains a historical conundrum.
One might wonder: What was the outcome of Menachem’s attempted takeover of the fortress? According to the apostate, the Persian Jews of the region flocked to Menachem’s side in Amadiya, concealing weapons as per the instructions.
The governor, because of his good opinion of Menachem, thought that all the visitors had simply come to pay homage to the “tzaddik.” When a report finally leaked through, informing the governor of their true purpose, he nipped the movement in the bud by executing Menachem. The Jews who had gathered there, dispersed in dismay.
The apostate, after poking fun at the “gullibility” of the Jews of Amadiya (whom he claimed still venerated Menachem as a Mashiach even in his death,) moved on to an interesting postscript, denigrating the Jews of Baghdad, who were in his words, the “cleverest, shrewdest and craftiest among them.”
When reports about Menachem’s activities reached Baghdad, two tricksters decided to forge letters he had purportedly written, informing them that Mashiach had come. In it, they named a certain date on which they would all fly to Yerushalayim. The Jews of Baghdad fell for the claim and their wives brought money and jewelry to the tricksters – who appeared to be distinguished elders — for them to distribute among the poor. By this method, the charlatans relieved the Jews of Baghdad of most of their wealth. If Mashiach was coming, after all, why would they need it?
On the appointed night, Baghdad’s Jews, their hearts filled with anticipation, donned green (the reason for the color is unknown) garments and gathered on the rooftops, expecting to be flown to Yerushalayim on angels’ wings. Women began to worry that their babies might fly before them or after them, and would suffer from delayed feeding. The local Muslims silently waited and watched.
Morning eventually dawned with no flight in sight. The two deceivers stealthily escaped with the Jews’ wealth.16Ifhām Al-Yahūd: Silencing the Jews, pages 73-74, Samau’al al-Maghribī, Perlmann M. (ed. and trans.)
A bit of historical context may indicate why Shlomo Al-Ruji’s movement gained so much traction. It is well-known that in times of great upheaval in the world, Jews begin to wonder if these events are indications of the coming arrival of Mashiach.
Many of the false Meshichim of history found adherents during or after similar periods of turmoil. Shabbetai Tzvi became popular, immediately following the horrors of Tach v’Tat. Shlomo Molcho and David Reuveini appeared during the era of the Spanish Inquisition and in a time of uncertainty for the Jews of Germany and Poland.
Shlomo Al-Ruji, too, appeared against the backdrop of the Crusaders. En route to “liberate” Yerushalayim, they were occupying large parts of Syria and upper Mesopotamia and engaging their foes in multiple, bloody battles. In 1103, an army led by Raymond of Poitiers attempted to reach the gates of Baghdad.
The persecution of Jewish communities aside, the very idea of a gentile force suddenly taking interest in the holy city was revolutionary. The awesome armies, stampeding across Europe, would have been viewed as mind-boggling and probably, apocalyptic!
So, did the Jerusalem municipality get it wrong when they named a street “David Alroy”? It seems that the name “Menachem Al-Ruji” would probably have been more accurate. But as R’ Binyamin MiTudela is a prominent source, not to mention the Emek Habacha, the council members, who never claimed to be historians, can’t really be blamed. But perhaps they should take a leaf out of the book of the Tel Aviv municipality, where, on the street sign for David Alroy’i Street in the city’s Neve Tzedek neighborhood, the following words appear:
ALROY’I STREET, Alroy’i David (Menachem ben Sulayman), killed circa 1163 in Kurdistan, a talmid of Chisdai, the Prince of the Diaspora in Bavel.