The Black Jewish Messiah of the 16th Century

April 21, 2023 | Matt Goldish
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Given the remarkable career of David Reubeni, a mysterious figure who billed himself as the representative of a remote Jewish kingdom, it’s no surprise that his story spawned multiple works of fiction. Reubeni also left behind a diary, which has recently been published in a scholarly translation into English. Matt Goldish writes:

In the 1520s, a striking black man—the Italian-Jewish scholar Gedaliah ibn Yahya described him as “black as a Nubian (shaḥor k’kushi)”—showed up in North Africa, claiming to be the son of a certain late King Solomon and the younger brother of King Joseph, who ruled a Jewish kingdom in the desert of Habor, somewhere in Arabia. His name was David Reubeni, and he described the 300,000 Jews ruled over by his brother as descendants of the biblical tribes of Gad, Reuben—hence Reubeni’s name—and half of Manasseh. According to Reubeni, they were at constant war with their Muslim neighbors. Consequently, King Joseph and his 70 elders had dispatched Reubeni on a mission to meet with the pope and to form an alliance with European Christendom in a new crusade against the Muslims.

Five hundred years after his sudden appearance in Europe, nobody knows who David Reubeni actually was or where he came from. Historians have argued variously that he was Indian, Abyssinian, Sephardi, Yemenite, a Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jew, or perhaps not really Jewish at all.

Despite various troubles and opposition from both Jewish and Christian adversaries, Reubeni and the unruly retinue of Jewish supporters he had collected on his travels reached Portugal. . . . The final straw came when, in a moment of messianic fervor, a young converso courtier named Diogo Pires circumcised himself. Diogo declared himself a Jew under the name Solomon Molkho and fled the country for refuge in the Ottoman empire. In Turkey, he became a famous kabbalist who influenced, among others, Rabbi Joseph Karo, the great mystic and author of the classic code of Jewish law, the Shulḥan Arukh.

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