Yemenite Jews were plagued by false Messiahs since the time of the Rambam. We discussed in a previous article how two men known as Shukr Kuhayl I and Shukr Kuhayl II were among the most infamous of these imposters. The first of them appeared in Sana’a, Yemen’s largest community, in 5619/1859, and was assassinated by order of the king in 5623/1863.
A wealthy Alexandrian Jew, Yichye Mizrachi, recorded that there were rumors that Shukr Kuhayl was expected to come back to life, “His sister and his son did not mourn over him because it was clear to them that what he had told them earlier [would happen]: ‘Don’t believe it [when people say] that they cut off my head. I am only making it seem like this to them so that they won’t persecute the Jews during the time I disappear until I reveal myself again.’”
BACK TO LIFE
Sure enough, less than five years later, in 5628/1868, Shukr Kuhayl II made his debut for the first time in the Yemenite town of Tan’im, northeast of Sana’a. One of the first things he did was to send for Shukr Kuhayl I’s widow from Sana’a and marry her. At the subsequent bris of their son, he pretended that the mohel was none other than Eliyahu HaNavi. Through the use of traveling emissaries and skillful manipulation, he made it seem as if he miraculously knew about far-off events. These, and a dozen other tricks of the trade, convinced the incredulous that he was Shukr Kuhayl I, returned from the dead.
But there were many differences between him and his predecessor. Unlike the self-deluded Shukr Kuhayl I who was a learned man, Shukr Kuhayl II was an unlearned but cunning opportunist who banked on people’s credulity. To explain his boorishness, he claimed that when Eliyahu HaNavi raised him from the dead, he had commanded him to not study Torah anymore so that there should not be an accusation against Jews who were not learning and keeping mitzvos properly.
In a long letter to the rabbanim of Yerushalayim, written in 5630/1869, he described his objectives. Interestingly, he did not always claim to be the Mashiach. When it suited him, he merely claimed to be a messenger of Eliyahu HaNavi.
“Afterwards, I ascended Mount Al Ti’al where Hashem would have made me a great salvation were it not for the sin of Yisroel,” he wrote. “Enemies came, killed me and cut off my head, and all this was for Yisroel’s sake. My master, Eliyahu, came and brought me back to life. And from that day, he decreed that I should not busy myself in Torah. Immediately he said to me, ‘Go and wander the land as you did the first
time.’ He commanded me to reveal myself in the town, Tan’im, in Yemen. Afterwards, the Jews sent a chacham from Sana’a, whose name was Yeshua al Chamadi and, in his hand, were measures against witchcraft since they claimed that I was a wizard, and they hired gentiles to assassinate me but they could not as my neck became like a pillar of marble.
“My master, Eliyahu, comes to me whenever I need him, and everything I do is by the word of Hashem and the command of Eliyahu. I cannot do more or less.” (This was a convenient excuse when he was asked to perform miracles).
“And now the time has come for the redemption of Yisroel.”
Surprisingly, Shukr Kuhayl II gained a huge following and some of his opponents were forced to flee. One of them, Salaman ben Saliman Amar of Sana’a, had informed the beis din in Yerusha- layim what was going on:
“During the Pesach of 5628/1868, rumors went out among gentiles and Jews that, on Rosh Chodesh Adar, [Shukr Kuhayl II] and his forces would come and besiege Sana’a with a huge army. Therefore the kings of these states wanted to kill and destroy the Jews, [which they would have achieved] if not that Hashem was with us and had set up an advocate, the mayor of Sana’a.
“After Pesach, the mayor called the rabbanim, dayanim and Jewish leaders, and said to them: ‘You must pray to Hashem concerning this. If he is a messiah from Heaven, we too will accept him but if he is a liar, his strength should be weakened so that he no longer confuses the world.’ They did this and prayed by the graves of the tzaddikim for three days and cried loudly to Hashem. On the third day, Hashem heard their cry and no more was heard of the perplexing rumors [of Shukr Kuhayl’s pending attack]. However, the Jews of Sana’a had [to financially compensate the efforts of] the mayor. Afterwards, people said that [Shukr] had settled in the town of Altoyla and was sending messengers everywhere so that people should give maaser from their money [to him].”
Shukr Kuhayl II had, indeed, begun sending letters to Jews in Aden, India, Egypt and Eretz Yisroel.
“You should avoid flattery, false oaths and abandonment of hope for redemption,” he wrote, “and you should be especially careful not to desecrate the Sabbath. You should keep the law and practice charity, and study the holy Zohar and sefer Tehillim.”
Most of his letters ended with a demand for maaser.
For example, he wrote to the Jews of Aden, “You must fulfill the command of Hashem and give the amount mentioned after this letter, compulsorily and not as a donation, in order to support the redemption of the Shechinah. Even a poor person who lives from charity is obligated.”
Thousands people heeded his call.
An Arab civil servant, Amram Qorah, recorded that “the trouble stricken Jews from the villages were flowing to him, making fools of themselves and gave him whatever was in their hands, money or valuables, and even the garments off their backs.”
One tragic-comic interlude was when Shukr Kuhayl II demanded money from
a wealthy Aden Jew, Moshe Chanoch HaLevi. HaLevi ignored his demands until he accidentally fell off a roof. Convinced that this had happened to him because of his recalcitrance, he sent a letter to Shukr Kuhayl II: “I have sinned against Hashem and also against our master, Shukr Kuhayl, and beg his forgiveness.”
During the days of his delusion, HaLevi acted as one of Shukr Kuhayl II’s delegates and sent the following letter to Rav Zalman Menachem Mendele- vitch, an emissary from Chevron who was in Bombay at the time:
“These days, [Shukr Kuhayl’s] reputation has become very great and whoever witnesses it with his own eyes cannot remain an unbeliever. All the nations of the world believe in him wholeheartedly, since he says that he is the messenger of the prophet, Eliyahu, and is doing everything that the prophet Eliyahu is telling him to do.”
Shukr Kuhayl II got as much money as he could out of the deluded gvir until HaLevi regained his senses and refused to send another penny.
Shukr Kuhayl II needed an endless supply of money for three purposes: maintaining his court, giving charity and paying protection money.
Concerning his large court, HaLevi wrote in 5629/1869, “These days, [Shukr Kuhayl] asks all Yisroel to pay maaser since his table is large. More than two hundred ministers eat and drink at his table.” Amram Qorah put it more bluntly: “He spent the money on delicacies for himself and his servants.” In addition, large amounts of money were required to pay off the local Arab leaders to leave him unmolested. As Amram Qorah put it, “He gives the money to Arabs, the heads of the villages, to defend him from both foes and jealousy.”
One of Shukr Kuhayl II’s greatest enemies was Rav Yaakov Sapir, a Yerushalmi emissary, who traveled the Orient collecting funds. Ironically, he thought that Shukr Kuhayl I and II were one and the same person. To combat the false Messiah, he published “The Second Iggeres Teiman” in emulation of the original “Iggeres Teiman” of the Ram- bam, and this letter was a turning point in Shukr Kuhayl II’s career. He affixed a letter of approbation signed by the rabbanim of Yerushalayim, to the Iggeres and circulated this in Yemen. This document was decisive in Shukr Kuhayl II’s downfall.
In reply to Rav Sapir’s scathing letter, Shukr Kuhayl II sent a rejoinder to the rabbanim of Yerushalayim in 5630/1870 and to Rav Shmuel Heller of Tzfas. In the letter to Rav Heller, he tried to answer Rav Sapir’s objections that according to the Zohar, the Mashiach would be revealed in Eretz Yisroel:
“The Ancient One sends his greetings to Rav Shmuel of Tzfas. I wish to inform you of the secret meaning of Rav Shimon bar Yochai who writes in the Zohar that the Mashiach will be revealed in the land of the Galil (and not in Yemen). His real intent is referring to the Upper Worlds and may Hashem enlighten your eyes. [I remain here in Yemen] because there are two klipot (husks) of impurity that the people of Yemen have not yet managed to subdue, and therefore I have no permission to leave.
“[I do not study much Torah] because my lord, Eliyahu (the prophet], has forbidden me and also, if I did so, it would be an accusation against the Jews who are lacking in their study of Torah and mitzvah performance. Nevertheless I inform you that soon you will see wonders when [the people of] Israel gather in the appointed place and enter the land of Israel.”
Shukr Kuhayl II also claimed that the Zohar Chadash writes that “the Mashiach will be revealed on a mountain that has horns like the horns of a ram, and we find no such mountain except the mountain named Altiel in the mountains of Yemen and, furthermore, that is where Moshe the prophet is buried.”
As Shukr Kuhayl II’s popularity plummeted, he was forced to collect loans at high interest from rich Arabs to keep up his operations. When he could not repay the loans, he was clapped in irons and thrown into jail. In 5632/1872, the Ottoman Turks conquered Yemen and exiled Shukr Kuhayl II to Istanbul. He eventually returned to Yemen and died in poverty in Sana’a, around the year 5638/1878.
The last false Yemenite Messiah was Yosef Abdullah whose career extended from 5648/1888-5653/1893. He, too, managed to fleece many Jews of their money but he was eventually deposed, and his wife and daughter were forced to grind flour to eke out a living.
Despite our yearning for the time of the real Mashiach and the Geulah Shleimah, our duty is to learn from these pious Jews’ mistakes, who were fooled by deluded charlatans.