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Parshat Balak — Miscalculations

How Maimonides' Letter to Yemen, sunshine in Yorkshire, and several pregnant virgins teach that we cannot predict the date of the Messiah's arrival (Balak)
Jonathan Pryce as John Wroe in the BBC's 'Mr. Wroe's Virgins.' (Screen capture: YouTube)
Jonathan Pryce as John Wroe in the BBC's 'Mr. Wroe's Virgins.' (Screen capture: YouTube)

On Sunday, February 29, 1824, at 1 p.m., John Wroe stood on the banks of the River Aire in Yorkshire, in front of 30,000 people who had come to see the self-proclaimed messiah.

Afterwards, reports of what he had planned to do were unclear. Some said he would walk on water. Some said he would split the sea like Moses. Others (and this is probably closer to the truth) said he had come to be baptized in the river. But according to a contemporary source:

He had a sign given him by the Lord, that at the time he went into the water the sun would shine: it rained from morning until after twelve o’clock… Having reached the place of baptism and the sky being dark with clouds, and no sun appearing, he retreated from the water intending to walk a little along the bank, on the people vociferated, he was walking away, and that he durst not go in, and at the same time appearing to push themselves forward… — he however made his: — on this the clouds were dispersed, and the sun broke out.

To be fair, splitting the clouds in Yorkshire and making the sun shine may be almost as miraculous as splitting the sea and leading the Israelites to freedom from Egypt. But John Wroe was no Moses.

Sun shining through storm clouds over the Yorkshire Moors. (Public Domain/ Max Pixel)

According to his letters, Wroe was virtually unschooled and almost unable to read and write. He suffered a series of what were probably epileptic fits, and was several times close to death with other illnesses. Once, after being blind for six days, he recovered his sight on the seventh day and announced that he was a prophet. Often his prophecies would follow his fits. He eventually became convinced that not only was he a prophet, but also the messiah.

In 1820, he set off from Yorkshire to try and convince the Jews of Liverpool of his mission. By all accounts, he was completely unsuccessful.

Image of Joanna Southcott in ‘Devonshire Characters and Strange Events’ by Sabine Baring-Gould, 1908. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

In 1822, he was sitting with some of his believers and convinced them that he had heard a voice, which came from the second bar of the fire-grate, telling him “Go to my people Israel, and speak the words that I command thee.” Once again, the Jews were not interested in his message. He then headed a tour of Europe in an attempt to gain followers and preach to the Jews there. We know he spoke in the synagogue in Gibraltar, but as far as we know, not a single Jew joined his group.

So, instead, Wroe convinced the Society of Joanna Southcott that he was their expected messiah. Southcott had predicted that the promised Shiloh would reveal himself to them on October 14, 1822.

Wroe teamed up with George Turner, the leader of the Southcott group, who agreed to support him.

On August 25th, 1822, Wroe visited the Society at Bradford and gave the following prophecy:

You are expecting Shiloh to appear and be amongst you on a certain day; but I tell you He will not; and many of the believers will fall off, not merely one or two in a society, but whole societies will fall away. Yet I do not doubt that the visitation to George Turner is of God; and as a testimony of which, I will give in my name among you.

Having been accepted as the group’s messiah, Wroe publicly baptized himself near Apperley Bridge, watched by tens of thousands of supporters and detractors. He also publicly circumcised himself and encouraged his followers to do the same.

Apperley Bridge to Esholt (CC BY, Mark Stevenson/ Wikimedia Commons)

In 1830, Wroe announced that heaven had ordered him to take seven virgins to comfort and cherish him. Three of his followers reluctantly let him take their daughters, and Wroe set off with his virgins and some married women, on a tour of Britain. In Manchester, he convinced William Lees, another disciple, to allow Wroe to marry his daughter. When she became pregnant, Wroe announced that the baby would be the promised Shiloh. In the meanwhile, Lees discovered that Wroe was no more than a fraud and a drunkard. And when his grandchild was born, she turned out to be a girl.

His followers finally lost patience with Wroe when he returned to Yorkshire and several of the virgins who had been accompanying him were pregnant. Wroe fled to Australia, where he started preaching again and gathered more followers. Most of the people he had left behind in England were convinced that he was neither the messiah nor a prophet.

But Wroe left his mark — in 1993, the BBC made a TV mini-series about him, entitled “Mr Wroe’s Virgins.”

There have been many who claimed to be the messiah, with a variety of disastrous results. Some of the more famous Jewish claimants were:

  • Moses of Crete, who in the fifth century led his Jewish followers into the sea, promising it would split as it had for Moses.
  • David Alroy, who, according to Benjamin of Tudela, plotted a revolt against Seljuk Sultan Muktafi and was assassinated in by his father-in-law in about 1160.
  • Solomon Molcho, who proclaimed himself the messiah and ultimately led to the rebirth of kabbalah in Safed, but who was burned at the stake in 1532 by the Inquisition.

And another false messiah who appeared in 12th century Yemen. We do not know his name, but he was immortalized in a letter written by Maimonides to the Jews of Yemen.

For decades, the Jewish communities of Yemen had thrived, first under the Fatimid rulers and then under the Ayyubids. But in the late 1160s,’Abd-al-Nabī ibn Mahdi became the ruler, and gave the Jews a stark choice — either convert or be killed. Many converted, many were killed. In 1173, the persecutions ended with the defeat of Ibn Mahdi by Saladin’s brother.

However, during the worst of the persecutions, in 1172 the head of the Yemenite community wrote to Maimonides. Though we don’t have Jacob ben Netan’el al-Fayyūmi’s letter, we have the great rabbi’s response. He was asked for halakhic advice on whether the Jews of Yemen must accept martyrdom. They also asked him about a man who had proclaimed himself the Messiah and promised to save all the Jews.

A bronze statue of Maimonides, located in Cordoba, Spain. (CC BY-SA, David Baron/ WIkimedia Commons)

Maimonides replied in a letter which has since become an important theological thesis (an online version is available, translated from Arabic to English by Boaz Cohen).

Maimonides offered words of comfort and hope. He wrote that the Bible predicted that there would be times of trouble and that the faith of many people would be shaken. He encouraged them to remain strong, while also showing understanding for those who had chosen to convert rather than be killed.

Maimonides was even able to judge the man who claimed to be the Messiah favorably:

As I live, I am not surprised at him or at his followers, for I have no doubt that he is mad and a sick person should not be rebuked or reproved for an illness brought on by no fault of his own. Neither am I surprised at his votaries, for they were persuaded by him because of their sorry plight, their ignorance of the importance and high rank of the Messiah, and their mistaken comparison of the Messiah with the son of the Mahdi [the belief in] whose rise they are witnessing.

However, Maimonides stressed the dangers of trying to calculate the date of the Messiah’s arrival.

In your letter you have adverted to the computations of the date of the Redemption and R. Saadia’s opinion on the subject. First of all, it devolves upon you to know that no human being will ever be able to determine it precisely as Daniel has already intimated, “For the words are shut up and sealed.” (Daniel 12:9). Indeed many hypotheses were advanced by scholars, who fancied that they have discovered the date, as was anticipated in Scripture, “Many will run to and fro, and opinions shall be increased.” (Daniel 12:9). That is, there shall be numerous views concerning it. Furthermore we have a Divine communication through the medium of the prophets that many persons will calculate the time of the advent of the Messiah but will fail to ascertain its true date. We are cautioned against giving way to doubt and distrust because of these miscalculations… Our sages have forbidden the calculation of the time of the future redemption, or the reckoning of the period of the advent of the Messiah, because the masses might be mystified and bewildered should the Messiah fail to appear as forecast.

But then, after a long letter warning of the dangers of predicting when the Messiah will come, Maimonides, surprisingly, uses a verse from this week’s Torah portion to do exactly that:

The precise date of the messianic advent cannot be known. But I am in possession of an extraordinary tradition which I received from my father, who in turn received it from his father… According to this tradition there is a covert indication in the prediction of Balaam to the future restoration of prophecy in Israel…

To come back to Balaam’s prophecy, the verse “After the lapse of time, one will tell Jacob and Israel what God hath wrought,” (Numbers 23:23), contains a veiled allusion to the date of the restoration of prophecy to Israel. The statement means that after the lapse of an interval equal to the time that passed from the Six Days of Creation to Balaam’s day, seers will again tell Israel what God hath wrought. Now Balaam uttered his prediction in the 38th year after the Exodus which corresponds to the year 2485 after the Creation of the World… According to the interpretation of this chronology, prophecy would be restored to Israel in the year 4970 after the creation of the world… This is the most genuine tradition concerning the Messianic advent.

Maimonides predicted that the Messiah would arrive in, or soon after, the year 1210.

This prediction, almost 40 years in the future, was probably distant enough that Maimonides felt it safe enough to offer the Jews of Yemen hope for the future.

In chapter 11 of his Laws of Kings Maimonides, uncharacteristically, goes through several verses from Balak’s prophecy in this week’s’ Torah reading, showing line by line how they relate to King David and the Messiah. So he clearly views Balak’s words as referring to the Messiah.

We are left with this strange paradox in Maimonides. On the one hand, it is one of his principles of faith that Jews must wait every day for the coming of the Messiah. Yet at the same time it is forbidden to actually set a date for his coming or name an individual as the Messiah.

Actually, this is exactly what Maimonides writes in his commentary to the Mishna in which he lists the 13 principles of faith.

The twelfth principle concerns the time of the Messiah. One must believe and know it is true that he will come, and not think that he will delay. “If he tarries I will wait for him,” (Habbakuk 2:3). But one must not set a time and not make calculations from the verses to work out when he will arrive.

Maimonides wants us to wait for the Messiah; but he warns of the dangers of believing in a person or a time, which can lead to false messiahs and massive disappointment.

There have been many false messiahs, both Jewish and non-Jewish, throughout history. Some, like the Messiah in Yemen disappeared without leaving even a record of their name. Others, like Shabbatai Tzvi, had a huge impact on Jewish history for hundreds of years afterwards.

But as far as I know, only one false messiah was able to successfully part the clouds on a rainy Yorkshire Sunday.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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