We like to say that Messianic Judaism is a modern movement with an ancient past, and that’s true.

In the centuries before the modern Messianic Jewish congregational movement began, however, isolated rabbis scattered across the world individually came to faith in Yeshua while retaining their Jewish identity and practice. We call these forbears “luminaries,” and as we scour history for them, the number we find continues to grow.

Today’s Messianic Jewish followers of Yeshua have been encouraged and strengthened through the discovery of documents that reconstruct the history of Messianic Judaism from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and Enlightenment into the modern era. Much of this documentation consists only of manuscripts and written material, but for more recent followers of Yeshua—living after the mid-1800s—this documentation also includes photographs.

Hacham Ephraim Ben-Yosef Elkaim (ל״ז), of blessed memory, was a rabbi and dayan (judge) in Old Yishuv Tiberias. Hacham is a Hebrew title meaning “sage.” Most of what we know of him comes to us from an article titled “A Tiberias Rabbi,” written by Henry Chaim-Yechiel Einspruch.

Einspruch was a yeshiva student and the son of a Sanzer Chasid but walked away from Jewish observance before meeting Hacham Ephraim. As a teenager, he cast aside Jewish practice in favor of political activism on behalf of socialism and workers’ unions. He returned to faith and spirituality of a sort within a Lutheran church but never to Jewish observance. However, his article on the subject of Hacham Ephraim praises the life of a Jew who never left his faith, his people, or his practice.

The Elkaim family is Sephardic with deep roots in Spain and North Africa. According to Ephraim’s own testimony, members of this family authored Torah commentaries and sat on rabbinic courts from Israel to Morocco. The family continues to produce Torah scholars. It is quite probable that these include Hacham Ephraim’s descendants, who were taken by force along with their mother and separated from the rabbi sometime after 1892.

At the age of thirty-six, Ephraim was teaching children in his yeshiva when a Gentile came to the window and greeted him in competent Hebrew. His name was William Ewing, and Einspruch was there to witness this first fateful meeting. Ewing wanted someone to speak Hebrew with, and Hacham Ephraim was willing. They were the same age. They were both leaders in religious communities. Unsurprisingly, their conversations turned to messianic topics and prophetic writings. The issues raised by Ewing could not have presented new problems for the rabbi; instead, they would have highlighted prominent ideas within the kabbalistic and spiritually rich
Sephardic tradition.