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).