The annals of Jewish history have their villians, but none more hilarious than the false messiah Shabtai Zvi.

Shabtai Zvi was born to an Ashkenazi family in Ismir (Smyrna), Turkey and received a tradition Talmudic education. His mental gifts were recognized and he was designated to study to be a "chacham", a member of the rabbinic elite, a post to which he was appointed when he was 18. He had a handsome appearence and a fine voice, and he loved to sing, alternating holy psalms with lewd Spanish romanzas.

As a young man, Zvi embarked on Kabbalistic studies and practiced asceticism. Between 1642 and 1648 he lived in semi-seclusion and began to display a clear case of bipolar disorder, alternating profound depression with spiritual exhaltation. In Ismir in 1648, when reached by the news of the tragic Chmielnicki massacres he began to pronounce the tetragamemnon, the full name of God, which according to Jewish law must go unpronounced. At this time he also pronounced himself the Messiah, but for the most part he was considered a lunatic in his hometown and his antics met with compassion. Between 1646 and 1650 he contracted two marriages in Ismir, but both were unconsummated and ended in divorce. His compulsive violation of Jewish law, his imagined experiences of levitation, and his repeated claims to be the Messiah led the Rabbis of Ismir to expel him around 1653.

Zvi wandered for several years through Greece and Thrace, staying for a long time in Salonika. At times he acted irrationally, once pushing a fish around in a baby carriage, an act which symbolized his fathering a Messianic age. His stay in Salonika ended when in 1658 he celebrated a nuptial service with a Torah scroll and was expelled. He then went to Constantinople, where he spent nine months. During this period he attempted to rid himself of demonic possesions through practical Kabballah. He also celebrated the three festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles in one week. He was expelled again, and returned to Ismir until 1662, going through a period of profound melancholy.

In 1662 Zvi travelled to Jerusalem via Cairo and Rhodes. He arrived in Jerusalem in the summer of 1662, completely anonymous, and quietly became a part of the community. He made a good impression as a scholar, spent a good deal of time fasting in seclusion, and would often wander in the Judean hills, meditating. After Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) of 1663, the Sephardic community asked him to go to Egypt and collect charity from the Jewish community there. They chose him because he had stayed in Cairo before coming to Jerusalem and had become friendly with the wealthy and influential Rabbi Raphael Yosef, who held the post of Chelebi, the highest post a Jew could hold in the Egyptian court. Shabtai Zvi accepted the appointment.

On his way to Cairo, Shabtai Zvi passed through Hebron and stopped at the Cave of Machpelah, where the Hebrew Patriarchs are buried. He prayed there with tremendous fervor, attracting much attention. A group stayed up all night with him, mesmerized by his tremendous charisma. One of them, Avraham Conki, became one of Zvi's most dedicated followers. During his extended stay in Egypt, Shabbetai Zvi collected close to four thousand rials, a significant sum. He lived in the courtyard of the Chelebi and continued his close relationship with Rav Raphael Yosef. While in Cairo, Zvi's messianic fancies returned and he decided to marry Sarah, an Ashkenazi girl from Italy with a disreputable past and a reputation for promiscuity. They married on March 31, 1664.

At this time Zvi asked God once again to rid him of his psychological abnormalities, and he entered into an extended normal state. In the spring of 1664, news reached Cairo of a young seer in Gaza named Natan Ashkenazi, who was reputed to have the ability to see into peoples' souls. Rav Raphael Yosef sent some students to investigate the authenticity of the supposed visionary, and the report he received was very positive. He related his findings to Shabtai Zvi, who decided to travel to Gaza and meet him in person. He told Rav Raphael Yosef that he was going to the seer to request a tikun, a spiritual rectification for his soul.

Shabtai and Sarah moved to the coastal town of Gaza around 1663. When Shabtai Zvi entered Natan's house, Natan fell at his feet and begged forgiveness for not coming to visit him first. Natan revealed to him their respective appointments as messiah and prophet. The Jews of Gaza soon fell under the spell of these two charismatic figures, and the momentum of their movement quickly began to spread to the rest of the Jewish world. Natan compensated perfectly for Shabtai's emotional instability and lack of initiative, proslytizing fervently and using Kaballah to invent theological justifications which would come to sanctify Shabtai's strange actions and even his blatant sins.

Shabtai and Natan travelled to Hebron, and arrived there soon before the fast of 17 Tamuz. Natan sent letters to the major cities in Palestine announcing a decree to annul the fast. This would be the beginning of the redemption, he announced. In Gaza the Jews rejoiced on the fast day and sang Hallel, a song of praise to God typically recited on holidays. Many people in Hebron also followed the decree.

Natan, Shabtai Zvi, and their entourage then travelled to Jerusalem, but they did not get an enthusiastic reception there. Children taunted Zvi with the chant, "You left as a shaliach (messenger), but you returned as a mashiach (messiah)." Audaciously, Zvi planned to offer sacrifices on the Temple Mount, something which hadn't been done since the destruction of the second temple, and chose one of his Gazan followers to be High Priest. When the rabbis of Jerusalem heard of this, they rent their garments. They feared such an act, could incite the politically dominant Moslems to react with force and punish the entire Jewish population. A message was dispatched demanding that Zvi not follow through with his plan. The messiah acquiesced, saying, "Woe, just when we were about to do this mighty thing, it was denied us."

Rabbi Moshe Galante, one of the leading rabbis of Jerusalem at the time, later recalled this period: "In the beginning, although I did not believe in him, I was not outspokenly against him. It was only after I saw a letter he wrote to one of his followers that I realized how dangerous he really was. He signed the letter, 'I am the Lord your God, Shabtai Zvi' - spelling God's Name as it is written in a Torah scroll." Next, Zvi openly declared that the formerly forbidden chelev fats were now kosher, or permissible to eat. He composed a special blessing to be recited before eating them: "Blessed are You our Master, our Lord the King of the Universe, who permits the forbidden." He also annuled the four major fast days which had commemorated the destruction of the Holy Temple. Claiming that he came to usher in the light of the redemption, and not to perpetuate the darkness of exile, he said that they were no longer necessary.

The Rabbis now openly attacked Shabtai Zvi, going before the civil authorities and accused him of embezzling some of the funds which he had collected. Furthermore, they claimed that by calling himself the messiah, he was rebelling against the Sultan. The Kadi, a judge or magistrate who exercised the judicial authority of the Sultan, brought these charges against Shabtai Zvi, but later dropped them under the spell of the accused's magnetic personality. The messiah and his followers were ecstatic with the news, calling it an open miracle. According to one report of the time, the Kadi permitted Shabtai Zvi to be led around the city on horseback, a privilege no Jew was permitted under Turkish law. While this and even more unbelievable reports of Zvi's growing political power are innacurate at best, the rumors which spread of Zvi's miraculous nature were a powerful factor in consolidating his influence over Jews in the Ottoman Empire and worldwide.

Rabbi Yaakov Chagiz, another Rabbi of Jerusalem, under whom Natan had studied, now threatened the prophet and the messiah. The rabbis of Jerusalem declared a cherem (decree of excommunication) on the pair. They were banished from Jerusalem, never to return, in the summer of 1664. Although Shabtai Zvi heeded the rabbis' injunction, he was infuriated by it and cursed them. Later, however, when he met a group of Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, he sent an apology. Rabbi Chagiz was unmoved. "See how empty this messiah is!" he said mockingly. "He obeys my cherem and is afraid of me."

Immediately after issuing their proclamation, the rabbis sent letters to all the world's major Jewish communities, warning them of the false messiah. However, despite the strong wording of their eyewitness report, the force of this messianic movement was very difficult to arrest. The local populations throughout the Ottoman Empire, including some rabbis, were swept away by the turbulent happenings. Soon, news of the messiah and his prophet had spread throughout the world. Not only did Shabtai Zvi gain militant adherents in his native Turkey and in the Near East, but even in such cosmopolitan European cities as Venice, Livorno, and Amsterdam leading rabbis and sophisticated men of affairs were caught up in the messianic frenzy.

Even the Pope in Rome sent a delegation to Jerusalem to get a firsthand report about Zvi. By the time his representatives arrived there, the messiah and his prophet were long gone. However, the strong impression they had made on the city lingered. The local priests told the papal nuncio that Shabtai Zvi and Natan were men who performed miracles. The two of them claimed that they would return and build the Temple, and that the time of redemption of the Jewish people had come. If so, continued the churchmen, they (the Christians) would have to leave Jerusalem. The priests were manifestly afraid of a Jewish messianic age and feared its ultimate consequences for Christians.

When he left Jerusalem, Shabtai Zvi travelled through Safed to Aleppo, and arrived back in Ismir in September 1665. At first the rabbis of that city neglected to enforce the Jerusalem rabbinate's excommunication against him and by the time they realized the effect that his ecstasies and strange acts were having on the local Jews it was too late. On one of the first days of Hannukah Zvi appeared in a synogogue in royal dress. About this time a delagation arrived from Aleppo to greet him officially as the Messiah of Israel. He had a wide following among both poor and wealthy Jews, and among many Rabbis as well, though following the failure of Zvi's movement these would do their best to revise recent history in order to create the appearance of their having protested strenuously all along.

Three members of Ismir's rabbinic court debated the wisdom of opening proceedings against Shabtai Zvi. In reaction, on December 11, 1665 Zvi led a mob which broke into the Portugese synogogue there. He read a Torah portion from a book instead of the customary scroll and, ignoring Priests and Levites, called up regular men (and women!) to read from it too. He distributed kingdoms to them and demanded that they pronounce the forbidden tetragememnon in their blessings. Then he launched into a diatribe against the traditional rabbis who doubted him, comparing them to unclean animals. He once again proclaimed himself the annointed son of God and set the date for the redemption as June 18, 1666. He promised to seize the crown of the "Great Turk" (the Sultan) at that time.

Instead, on February 8, 1666, Shabtai Zvi was arrested by Turkish officials. He was imprisoned in relative comfort, though later accounts made his condition out to be miserable. On Sebtember 15 of that year, he stood before the Sultan and was presented with a choice between apostasy to Islam and death. He chose to apostatize, assuming the name Aziz Mehmed Effendi, and he was granted the title of Kapici Bashi, "keeper of the palace gates" and was given a royal pension. His wife Sarah was brought to Ismir and coverted, too.

Even this shocking news did not completely extinguish the existing Sabbatean fervor. With characteristic audacity, Zvi claimed that his conversion was merely a climactic stage in the redemption process, hinted at in the holy books. Many Jews converted to Islam with him, including his old benefactor, Rav Raphael Yosef. Natan, the original prophet, continued to visit Shabtai Zvi and to proclaim him the true Messiah, announcing a number of forcasted dates for the redemption. Zvi lived in Adrianople and sometimes in Constantinople until 1672, living as a Muslim but performing some Jewish rituals secretly. The Jews who followed him and converted to Islam became known as the Donmeh and their movement remained active on for another few hundred years. Later on, a group of Sabbateans under the leadership of Jacob Frank converted to Catholicism. In his last years Shabbtai Zvi continued to claim contact with the divine and to act erratically. He died suddenly on September 17, 1676.

Adapted from...

Encyclopedia Judaica

My A.P. Medieval Jewish History class. (Thank you Mrs. Feinberg.)

Scholem, Gershom. Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676. Princeton University Press, Princeton: 1973.
At 900 pages, this book is a meticulously slow read. That said, it's an invaluable study of the Sabbatean context, especially its genesis in Lurianic Kaballism. The author admirably resists the biographical urge to attribute to his subject more credit than is due, exchanging the simplistic storytelling for a well-resoned study of the historical necessities from which theologies arise.

The almost-Messiah

During the mid-17th century, Bogdan Chmielnicki and his Cossacks raged through eastern Europe, inspiring pogrom after pogrom. Devastated, decimated and bereft, Jews longed for something to give them hope. And it seemed to come. In the year 1665, a man called Shabbetai Zevi proclaimed himself Messiah and announced that the Redemption was at hand. Jews believed him, and honoured and hailed him as the Messiah. Not since the time of Bar Kochba had anyone been honoured and hailed by so many as the redeemer.

The early histories of Shabbetarianism and Christianity have striking parallels. Both Jesus and Zevi came at times when great physical oppression was combined with a new flowering of religious doctrine. Both abrogated the old law, and publically broke it. Both aroused expectations of immediate physical emancipation, which they failed to fulfill. However, while Jesus is now the Messiah for millions, Zevi is only remembered as an 'almost-Messiah', a false claimant to Messiahood whose claim was nearly accepted.

The background

Born on the anniversary of the destruction of the temple in the year 1626 in Smyrna (now Izmir), Zevi had proved himself a competent student at Yeshiva. He loved music and song and had a gift for composing music. During adoloscence, he studied Talmud and Kabbala and began to speak of a coming redemption, which would be mystic rather than the physical redemption that was traditionally expected.

As a teenager, Zevi had periods of deep despair during which he withdrew completely from society and lived in seclusion. Just as frequently, he had periods of an inexplicable, ecstatic elation, during which he would sometimes deliberately and spectacularly break the Mosaic Law. He publicly ate forbidden foods, and in 1648 created a minor scandal by uttering the sacred Name of God in a crowded synagogue. In 1654, he claimed to have heard a voice proclaiming him Messiah. This was too much for the rabbis, who banished him in 1656.

Zevi now became a wanderer in the Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire. In many places he was initially well received as a scholar. However, he soon acquired acquired some notoriety by performing the most inexplicable acts, which he claimed were endowed with a mystical significance. In Salonika, he invited the most prominent rabbis to a banquet. He then erected a bridal canopy in which he placed a Torah scroll which he proceeded to marry in accordance with traditional rites. In Constantinople, he bought a very large fish, which he dressed up like a baby and placed in a cradle. He went on to announce that the Torah had been abrogated, crying aloud: 'Blessed art Thou, 0 Lord our God, who permits the forbidden!' The angry rabbis of Constantinople reacted by excommunicating him in 1658.

Messianic disappointment

Depressed and desolate, Zevi now began to believe that he was possessed by demons. He traveled to Palestine, where he heard of a skilled exorcist, Nathan Binyamin Ashkenazi (Nathan of Gaza). But when they met, Nathan told Zevi that he was not possessed, but was indeed the Messiah. Zevi was convinced by Nathan's eloquence, and on 31 May 1665 he proclaimed himself the Messiah. The news was spread to the world by Nathan. Most leading rabbis condemned him, but Jews all over the world from Lithuania and Holland to Yemen and Persia flocked to his call. It became dangerous for his opponents to speak out. Hysteria crisscrossed country after country as Jews began to sell off their property in delirious expectation of the return to the Holy Land. Zevi appointed twelve disciples to be the judges of the twelve tribes, who would shortly be regathered.

In January 1666, Zevi marched boldly to Constantinople, where he was arrested as a rebel and imprisoned in Gallipoli. He was housed in comfort, and began to sign his letters 'I am the Lord your God, Shabbetai Zevi.' In September, he was taken before the Sultan, and given a choice. Convert to Islam, or face execution. He converted, and was immediately released with a royal pension. To all appearances, he remained a loyal Muslim to his death, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in 1676.

Messianic hope

The news of his conversion caused many to lose all faith. But for many others, it was not the end. They believed that Zevi had only converted in appearance, and not in reality. During his apostasy, they said, Zevi told the Sultan:

"As long as this soul stays in this body, La illah illallah".
As soon as he had stepped out of the Sultan's presence, he took off his caftan and took out a bird which he had hidden in his bosom and said:
"The soul has flown out of the body. Shema Yisrael"
Just as early Christians believed it was necessary for Christ to die the death of a common criminal on the cross to redeem the world, early Shabbetarians said that Zevi's apostasy was a necessary part of his Messianic role.

"The grain of wheat had to rot for the earth to bear fruit."

By converting to Islam, Zevi descended into darkness essential to redeem the Children of Israel. His apostasy was as much a sacred mystery as the Pauline "scandal of the cross". The Shabbetarians went on to theorise that the Amirah (as they called him) did not die. He was exalted and hidden on that Yom Kippur day, and would return to complete his mission.

The decline of Shabbetarianism

This view had more adherents than was readily apparent. Up to his death in 1680, Nathan of Gaza continued to believe that Zevi was the Messiah, and wrote powerfully in favour of this view. Eminent scholars such as Benjamin Kohn of Reggio and Abraham Rorigo of Modena secretly kept links with the followers of Zevi.

Unlike Pauline Christianity, however, Shabbetarianism lacked the power necessary to capture the world. There is a world of difference between the messiah who dies upon the cross for his cause, and the one who abases himself and carries on his role in disguise. The peculiar seductive fascination of the latter - the "holy sinner" of Jorge Luis Borges' Three Versions of Judas - does not endure in the same way as the former does.

In addition, Zevi's teachings did not have the moral force of Jesus'. Zevi was a mystic. He replaced the Torah with a new spiritual Torah, which was in essence the idea of law without actual rules. Only through the experience of living the Law without commandments, he said, could the secret inner meaning of the Torah be understood. In contrast, Jesus spoke in easily understood parables and expounded simple, practical teachings of brotherly love which had widespread appeal.

In the end, these made all the difference. Over time, the Shabbetean episode became a matter of shame, and all pamphlets and manuscripts relating to Zevi were destroyed as the community tried to forget the episode. Within two generations, Shabbetarianism had disappeared, save for a small group of followers in Turkey, the Donmeh, who live outwardly as Muslims, but secretly practice a brand of Judaism which hails Shabbetai Zevi as the Messiah and awaits his return.

Scholem, Gershom. Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676. (Princeton University Press, Princeton: 1973)
Armstrong, Karen. A History of God (William Heinemann, London: 1993).

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