David Reubeni and the Ten Lost Tribes

An excerpt from Conversos and the Sabbatean Movement

The prominence of the idea of the Ten Lost Tribes in Jewish circles is also reflected in the much earlier reference by David Reubeni to this theme. David Reubeni was born around about 1490 possibly in central Arabia, in Khaibar. He died in Llerena, Spain, sometime after 1535. He left Khaibar in 1522 and traveled to Nubia in Egypt, where he claimed to be a descendant of Mohammed. He also cast himself as a representative of Jewish kingdoms in the East. It is possible that he was referring to the region of Cochin. He traveled to the land of Israel in the spring of 1523. In 1524 he traveled to Venice, by way of Alexandria. In Venice, he claimed to have a mission from the Jews of the East to the Pope. With some local, he traveled to Rome. He arrived and entered the city on a white horse. Amazingly, he was able to obtain an audience with Cardinal Giulio and Pope Clement VII. He told the Pope he was the representative of a Jewish kingdom ruled over by his brother Joseph in Arabia, where they lived near the legendary Sambation River typically associated with the Lost Tribes. He was successful in convincing the Portuguese minister, Miguel da Silva, of his story. Da Silva supported Reubeni’s purported mission in the hope that the Kingdom of Portugal might secure allies in the struggle against Salim I who had conquered Egypt in 1521. Salim I diverted the spice-trade.

With the support of Benvenida Abravanel, the wife of Samuel Abravanel, and the successors of Jehiel of Pisa, Reubeni traveled to Almeria, to meet King John III of Portugal. He reached Almeira on November 1525. King John was initially interested, but the prospect of allying with a Jewish midst of the issues with New Christians was untenable. Reubeni’s messianic extrapolations drew the attention of Diego Pires, a Converso youth serving in a government position. Pires was so convinced of Reubeni’s mission that he circumcised himself and took the name, Solomon Molko. Jewish ambassadors from North Africa states visited Reubeni during his stay at the Portuguese royal court. His presence stirred excitement among many New Christians, and some even attempted to revolt near the town of Badajoz. This violence drew the attention of the Portuguese authorities to the perils innate in Reubeni’s work.

Converso Involvement in the Sabbatean Movement
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Reubeni traveled to Avignon to once again meet with Pope. He then journeyed to the city of Milan, where he met Solomon Molko again. Molko had in the meantime trekked to the East and had made messianic claims. In Milan Reubeni and Molko appear to have fallen out. Reubeni continued to Venice. There the senate selected a commission to determine whether his venture for attaining support from the Jews in the East were feasible. He left Venice and made amends with Solomon Molko. The two journeyed with a flowing banner to Bologna and Regensburg to meet Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. They intended to offer him an alliance of the Jews of the East against the Ottoman Empire.

In Ratisbon, they met a certain Josel of Rosheim, who cautioned them against inciting the misgivings of the emperor by raising the Jewish question. Despite the warning, they persevered and were ultimately arrested and put in chains and taken to Mantua, where both Solomon Molko and David Reubeni were questioned. Solomon Molko was condemned to death by burning in December 1532. Reubeni was taken to Spain and placed in the custody of the Inquisition in Llerena. Nothing more is known about Reubeni. It is likely that he died while in Inquisitional custody. A Jew who came from India to Portugal was reported to have been burned at an auto da fé at Evora, 1541 by the Portuguese historian Alexandre Herculano.

The Ten Tribes were also discussed in the Nathan of Gaza’s infamous letter to his fellow Sabbatean Raphael Joseph of Egypt. They were also featured in the writings of Rabbis Jacob Sasportas.[1]

Another source which may connect Conversos to the Sabbatean movement is a book of rules written in Ladino or Judeo-Spanish. The book was found in the records of the Orphan Society of the two Portuguese congregations in Smyrna. An appendix lists the names of those who served in the Society between 1644 and 1749. Many of the names found during the Sabbatean period up until Sabbatai’s death in 1676 are identical to the names of Conversos who were living in communities in Western Europe. This may point to extensive travel between ex-Converso communities in Italy, Amsterdam, and Smyrna. Jacob Barnai’s statement marks the extent of the connection:

“Marranos not unlike those in Europe, therefore –including, it would seem in their millernaristic attitudes-and also perhaps related to blood, were among the prominent members of the Smyrna Marrano community at the time of Sabbatai Zevi.Moreover, many of these same Smyran Marranos were among the direct supporters of Sabbatai Zevi, as well as eventual leaders of the Sabbatean movement. Some…were also childhood friends of Sabbatai Zevi, who continued to be enthusiastic supporters from the inception of the his messianic activity in the 1640s through his proclamation of messiahship in 1665-1666 and were among those Zevi appointed when he took control of Smyrna in 1665, divided the world into regions, and named his supporters as kings.”[2]

Members of the Orphan Society were also connected with Mordecai Jessurun who was Zevi’s “King Jehoiakim.” Dr. Abraham Baruch was also a member of the Orphan board and was designated as “King Portugal.” Another individual Haim Pena was designated as “King Jeroboam.” Pena initially opposed the Sabbatean movement, but later came to support it. His brother, Jacob Pena was also married to a woman designated as a Sabbatean prophetess. Abraham Leon was designated as “King Ahaz.” The previously mentioned Abraham Jessurun was also known as a Sabbatean prophet. Isaac Silveira was listed as King David and had been a friend and student of Sabbati Zevi for some time. Barnai notes:

“Indeed, the membership list of the Orphan Society includes five of Sabbatai Zevi’s twenty-five kings, and nearly half of the eleven he appointed in Smyrna alone. This list, moreover, is not exhaustive. Other Portuguese supporters of Sabbatai Zevi included the propagandist R. Moses Pinheiro, who lived in Smyrna until at least 1648, when, exiled at the command of the communal rabbi Joseph Escapa (as was later Sabbatai Zevi himself), he moved to Leghorn.”[3]

[1] Ibid., 122.

[2] Ibid., 122.

[3] Jacob Barnai, “Christian Messianism and the Portuguese Marranos: The Emergence of Sabbateanism in Smyrna,” Jewish History, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1993): 123.

Posted by Rabbi Juan Marcos Bejarano Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education. For a more complete review of Iberian Jewish history and the Crypto- Jewish Experience see The Rise of the Inquisition and Secret Jews: The Complex Identity of Crypto-Jews and Crypto-Judaism

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