Photo Credit: Jewish Museum of Prague
Shlomo Molcho's flag on display in the Jewish Museum in Prague.

Diogo Pires was only 20 when he served as a Supreme Court judge in Portugal. It was 1521, two decades after the forced conversion of Portugal’s Jews, and the brilliant young judge had a secret: he was a Jew. He would soon leave the court and the country and become one of the most influential kabbalists of all time. Justice Diego Pires would soon become Rabbi Shlomo Molcho, and he would be burned at the stake for doing so.

Nearly 500 years after he died al Kiddush Hashem, Molcho is in the news again. His manuscript commentaries on the Bible and Zohar were collected from various archives around the world and published as Kitvei Rabbi Shlomo Molcho Hakadosh in Jerusalem. (Disclaimer: This writer spent three years editing the commentaries.)

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In addition, a first-ever public memorial for Molcho is being held in Jerusalem to mark his assumed yahrzeit (the 5th of Tevet), a video about his life was produced for social media (“Sipuro Shel Shlomo Molcho,” in Hebrew) and a Hebrew pop song was written about him (“Shlomo Bechiri”).

Molcho was born to a Marrano family in Portugal sometime between late 1500 and early 1502. Many of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 had moved to adjacent Portugal, but in 1497 the Jews once again were forced to convert.

In 1521, when Molcho would have been 20 or perhaps even 19, he is referred to in Portuguese documents as Dr. Diogo Pires. That year, the king appointed him to the Court of Appeals, the country’s highest court, and also guaranteed him a second income by putting him in charge of the court stenographer’s office. This latter position explains why Jewish writers often described him as scribe to the king.

In December 1525, one of the more interesting figures in Jewish history appeared in the royal court in Lisbon: David Reuveni. He claimed his bother ruled over a kingdom of the lost tribes and needed weapons to wrest the Holy Land from the Moslems. The king received Reuveni with honors. The Marranos of Lisbon were flabbergasted: Here was a Jew dressed regally, carrying a flag with the 10 Commandments embroidered on it and negotiating with the king.

Diego Pires met Reuveni in the royal court and asked him to teach him Torah. Reuveni tried to dissuade him. Pires believed Reubeni didn’t want to teach him because, as a Marrano, he had not been circumcised. So he circumcised himself, enduring several days of excruciating pain and, shortly afterward, he had dreams in which he was taught the mysteries of the Torah and shown what his fate would be. He returned to Reuveni and announced he was now part of the Covenant of Abraham and again asked to be instructed in Jewish law.

Reuveni, a more astute politician than the young dreamer and idealist, correctly predicted that when news of Pires’ return to Judaism became public, both of them would be thrown out of Portugal. Indeed, Reubeni’s negotiations were soon cut short and he made his way through Europe, while Pires adopted the name Shlomo Molcho and made his way through Italy to Salonika, in the Ottoman Empire, where he was free from Christian oppression.

Molcho met Rabbi Yosef Taitazak, a great posek at the time, and apparently studied in his yeshiva in Salonika. His fellow students included Rabbi Moshe Alshich (the Alshich Hakadosh) and Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz. The yeshiva was not known for kabbalistic studies, yet, influenced by the charismatic Molcho, a number of its students turned to Kabbalah and – like Alkabetz who would write Lecha Dodi – became some of its major proponents.

Molcho won a reputation for being able to answer any question posed about the Torah, and people came from far away to pose questions to him. At the request of his friends or admirers in Salonika, Molcho wrote a book of commentaries that was published in August 1529.

Molcho did not bother naming the book, but after his death it was republished under the title Sefer HaMefoar (The Wondrous Book). In it, Molcho explains the nature of the soul and attributes Adam and Eve’s sin to their preferring material pleasure to divine contemplation – a sin he says the Israelites repeated in the desert when they preferred Egyptian fruits and fish to manna from heaven.

Molcho also interprets the Books of Ruth and Job as allegories for Jewish history and the redemption of Israel and reveals connections between dozens of seemingly unconnected Biblical verses.

Molcho’s own copy of his book is marked with corrections and edits, but these remained undiscovered until a few years ago and unpublished until this year, when they were included in the new Jerusalem edition of his works.

One of the first dreams Molcho had after his return to Judaism was of his being killed while trying to save flocks of doves that were under attack by other nations. Believing that he had a role to play in the process of redemption and in saving the Jews from oppression, Molcho left the safety of the Ottoman Empire and headed for the lion’s den – the center of Christian power, Rome.

Shlomo Molcho’s robe on display in the Jewish Museum of Prague.

Apparently Molcho’s reputation preceded him, and some Jews were afraid he would anger the Christian authorities, so they informed on him. Molcho wasn’t deterred; he went straight to the pope. He emerged from his meeting with Pope Clement VII’s permission to publicize Torah teachings offering comfort to the Jewish people as long as he did not malign Christianity.

An even cursory reading of Kitvei R. Shlomo Molcho Hakadosh, however, reveals he did not abide by these terms; he issued dire predictions for what would happen to the Christians when they were judged by heaven.

The pope nonetheless continued to protect Molcho, and Molcho repaid the favor by warning the pope that a flood was about to inundate the city. The flood struck on October 8, 1530, killing some 10,000 people.

Molcho then sent a message to his former friend, the king of Portugal, warning that an earthquake was imminent and, indeed, on January 26, 1531, a quake destroyed one-third of the houses in Lisbon. Molcho also predicted the appearance of a comet, which turned out to be Hailey’s Comet, whose cycle was unknown at the time.

The pope came to view Molcho as a seer and a strategic asset, and Molcho supposedly used his influence to delay the imposition of the Inquisition in Portugal.

Molcho wrote a second book of commentaries, among other things elaborating on the two messiahs of Jewish tradition, their respective roles in redemption, the wars of Gog and Magog, and the rivalry between Jacob and Esav. The book’s main theme is that for redemption to come, the Jewish people have to master not only the trait of mercy but also of strength; that for Israel’s enemies to be destroyed, Gad g’dud yegudenu – the people of Israel will have to form legions to fight wars.

One chapter comes close to poetry when it tells of the journey of the soul after death as it is greeted by our forefathers. A particularly beautiful section relates that every night our forefathers remember the destruction and pine for the messiah, and the messiah sees our mother Rachel weeping and he weeps, too. Our fathers hope the Divine Wisdom will inspire the messiah so our people can be freed, but G-d doesn’t want to have to punish the many evildoers he finds in Israel, so the redemption is delayed for another day.

The book remained in manuscript form and, except for excerpts, was not published until its inclusion in this year’s new edition of Molcho’s works.

In 1532, Molcho decided the time had come to act on his mission. Analyzing the geopolitical situation, he saw that the Christian leaders of Europe were fighting and losing battles with the Moslems of the Ottoman Empire. Molcho raised his own flag, embroidered with various Biblical verses and holy names, found and took him David Reuveni along, and set off to meet the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

The pair spent two hours with the emperor. Molcho proposed establishing a Jewish-Christian army to fight the Moslems and offered to lead it into battle. The emperor was aghast; a Jewish army would be bad enough, but the idea of a Jewish commander in chief was anathema. The emperor sent Reuveni to jail and sent Molcho to the Inquisition for trial and execution.

The Inquisitors feared Molcho because of his reputation as a seer and kabbalist. They gagged him as he was led to the auto-da-fé to prevent him from uttering any magic formulas or to prevent him from swaying the crowd. Just before he was executed, a messenger from Charles V arrived with an offer of clemency if Molcho recanted and converted to Christianity.

Molcho’s gag was removed. He replied that his only regret was that he had ever lived in Christian society, and now he was ready for his soul to return to its home with G-d.

Molcho’s lasting influence was felt in several ways. At the time, his public drashot in synagogues lifted the spirits of a downtrodden, oppressed people and kept alive the hope of redemption. His approach – that the redemption would come with strategic, political thinking and activity – would bear fruit only centuries later.

His rabbinical colleagues were greatly affected by his death. Rabbi Joseph Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, called Molcho “Shlomo Bechiri” (Shlomo, G-d’s chosen one) and prayed he would die like Molcho.

A few months after the execution, Rabbi Karo gathered with his friends for a nighttime of Torah learning. Apparently still shaken by the death of the charismatic dreamer who had given them such comfort, they heard a bat kol that night, which told them to go Eretz Yisrael and teach Torah there. They went, and thus was founded the kabbalistic community of Tzefas.

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