Yemenite Jews were plagued by false Messiahs since the time of the Rambam and experienced more messianic claimants than any other Jewish community. A Yerushalmi emissary, Rav Yaakov Sapir, who traveled extensively in Yemen collecting funds, explained what he felt was the reason for this. He described their culture in his sefer, Even Sapir. Rav Sapir testified:
“As the yoke of exile and the heavy load of the king and princes that is upon these oppressed brothers of ours who groan in the land of Yemen, so are their hearts strong. in the belief of the coming of our Mashiach. Therefore it is easy for them to believe in any dreamer and every madman who prophesies good for them and [promises] to extricate them from their trouble” (vol. II pg. 149).
In addition, the local Zaydi Muslims had their own Messianic beliefs and also produced a number of fake Messiahs over the course of thirteen years, from the year 4690/930 when Ali ben Alaftz’l ruled Yemen until 4703/943, when Ali Sabula, a simple Arab shepherd, swayed thousands of Muslims to follow him. Although no Jew ever believed in the Muslim messiahs, many Muslims were taken in by the Jewish ones and this facilitated their temporary success.
The Ramban discusses the first false Yemenite Messiah, who rose to prominence in the year 4932/1172, in his “Iggeres Teiman” – letter to the Jews of Yemen:
“Concerning the man who claims in the towns of Yemen that he is Mashiach: on my life, I am neither surprised at him nor at those who go after him. Concerning him, because he is doubtless insane and one should not blame or insult a sick person for his disease since he did not cause it. And concerning those who follow him, because of their difficult situation and their ignorance concerning the Mashiach and his exalted level, they think . he can arise just like the rising of Ibn Hahadi (a Muslim pseudo-messiah) whom they see.
“I am only surprised at your words that this might be true, for you are a ben Torah and have already looked into the statements of the Sages. Do you not know, my brother, that the Mashiach is a greatly exalted prophet, greater than all the prophets after Moshe Rabbeinu? And do you not know that if someone claims prophecy, if his claim is false, he is liable for the death penalty by taking this lofty level for himself. and what proof indicates clearer than anything his falsehood if not the actual claim that he is Mashiach? And how surprising are your words concerning him that he is known for pure midos and has a little wisdom.
“The general fact is that this man is. sick with depression and his imagination is distorted. I offer you the following advice that is good for both you and him. That is, to lock him up for a few days until it has been publicized among all the gentiles that he is mad. Spread and publicize this. and then release him. In this way, you will, first and foremost, save his life because, after these steps, when the gentiles hear these claims from him, they will laugh at him and tolerate him as they tolerate a mad person, which he is. And you will save yourselves from the evils of the gentiles. But if you leave the matter until he is revealed to the gentiles, you will cause his death and perhaps bring suffering upon yourselves.”
The Rambam’s premonitions were partially fulfilled, as he later wrote to the Sages of Montpelier in France: “Concerning the matter of the [false] Messiah. In Yemen, a man arose about twenty-two years ago, and claimed that he was a messenger sent to straighten the way before the Messianic king, and he told them that the Mashiach was there in Yemen. Many people gathered round him, Jews and Arab. And I cautioned them that they should warn this person lest he and communities be destroyed. In the end, he was arrested after a year and all his adherents fled.
“The Arab king who arrested him asked him, ‘What did you do?’
“And he replied, ‘I did true things and did them at G-d’s behest.’
“The king asked him, ‘What is your proof?’
“He said to him, ‘Cut off my head and I will immediately come back to life.’
“[The king] said to him, ‘There is no greater proof than this. I and the whole world will certainly believe and know that our father inherited us falsehood.’ “[The king] immediately killed that fool, may his death be an atonement for him and for all Yisroel, and the Jews were financially penalized in most places. But, even now, there are fools who say, ‘Now he will live and rise up.’ This is how it was.”
AN ANONYMOUS CROWD
Like the pseudo-Messiah discussed by the Rambam, most of Yemen’s false Messiahs were anonymous. The only ones recorded are those who brought great disaster in their wake.
Thus Chaim ben Yichye Chavshush, a Yemenite Jew, reported the tragic revolt of a pseudo-messiah in 5255/1495 who fought against a local ruler and stirred up the Arabs in retaliation:
“After many terrible wars, [the Arabs] conquered the false Messiah. No survivor remained and even today, no [Jewish] foot passes there.”
The best-known Yemenite pseudo- Messiahs were Shukr Kuhayl I and Shukr Kuhayl II. Yehudah ben Shalom, otherwise known as Shukr Kuhayl I, emerged in Sana’a, Yemen’s largest community in 5619/1859, and claimed that Eliyahu HaNavi had appeared to him in a vision and appointed him as Mashiach. From 5622/1862 to 5624/1864, he traveled through Yemen ostensibly performing miracles and gaining adherents among both Jews and Muslims.
The historian, Sa’id ben Yosef Alarosi, writes:
“In 5619/1859, a man named Shukr Kuhayl arose and discombobulated mystified people by claiming that he was the Mashiach. He traveled wherever there were Jews, and then he went to a place called Chariv and stayed there for twelve months, alarming all the rulers of the surrounding places. Some Jews believed in him and some did not. He brought proof from Torah and Gemara and, for the gentiles, he brought proofs from the Koran.”
The “Even Sapir” describes Shukr Kuhayl’s activities as follows:
“In the great town of Sana’a, a man arose to announce the Redemption and the end of days. This man… is one of the town’s chachamim who knows Mikra and Aggadah, Zohar and practical Kabbalah with letter combinations and gematriyos. I know the man and his character, and am familiar with him from when I was in Sana’a, three and a half years ago. He makes clay bowls for tobacco pipes, like all the rabbanim of that land.
“He came and told them of a terrible dream, saying: ‘A being, like an angel, appeared to me in a night vision and commanded me to send away my wife with a get, to separate from the ways of the world, be alone where there are no people, to go around the towns of Yis- roel, arouse them to repentance and announce the redemption that is close. He took his stick and cloak and lived outside town alone and went from town to town. And this insane man also went to Aden.”
Rav Yaakov Sapir reported that although various people claimed he had worked miracles, the only “miracle” he could see was that the new king of Yemen, who had been good to the Jews, now began to make decrees against them. “He was furious at the Jews and punished them financially.”
Rav Yaakov later sent the following report from Yerushalayim:
“After Shavuos 5621/1861. [Shukr Kuhayl] began to prophesy. Sometimes he said that was he was the Mashiach and, sometimes, he said that he was only a messenger sent by Eliyahu HaNavi to announce the redemption and arouse people to repentance. On his right hand, he wrote, ‘Mashiach ben David’ and, on his left hand, he wrote the name of an imaginary Arab king who would fall into the Mashiach’s hands.
“Almost all the Jews in Yemen believed in him and said miraculous things about him. After that. he settled. in the town of Bnei Gubar, where there were ten poor Jews . for close to two years. From there, great tidings came to Sana’a of his miraculous deeds on top of the tall mountain. that people were afraid to climb, because of its demons, and he climbed it without fear. until, in the end, when he was in the mountain, Arabs ambushed him and shot him. and the Jews took his body and buried it. But some fools said that he was not killed and only seemed to be killed. And some said that he was killed but would live once again and do miracles, because he himself had prophesied so.”
Three years later, in 5635/1875, his prophecy materialized with the appearance of an imposter whose real name remains unknown until this day. He claimed to be the incarnation of the original Shukr Kuhayl and sent letters, far and wide, announcing his return. His escapades will, IY”H, be discussed in another article.