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Portrait of Sabbatai Zevi, aged ca. 40. Photo of a chalcography print, JHI Collection, Berlinka
A series of coincidences
He was handsome, shapely, had beautiful black hair and beard, and a pleasant voice which captivated the hearts of many with what he said, and even more with what he sang. However, his spirit was tormented by fantasy; he was a dreamer, fascinated by miracles. Since being a youth he avoided the company of his peers, he looked for secluded places to spend time in, and never did anything that would usually entice or entertain young people. He had a poor understanding of the Talmud, which all the more drew him towards the chaos of Kabbalah. (…)
As was custom, he married early, but he avoided his young and attractive wife so persistently that she demanded a divorce. The same happened later with his second wife. His so rare in the hot Eastern lands aversion to marriage, his fascination in Kabbalah, and his strict lifestyle drew attention to him.1
Sabbatai Zevi was born in 1626 in Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey) in Anatolia, on the 9th day of the month of Av, on the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple. The name Sabbatai means that he was born on a Saturday. Historical circumstances favoured him from an early age. The war between Turkey and Venice moved trade from Istanbul to Smyrna. Zevi’s father, a poor poultry seller, became a wealthy merchant, able to pay for his son’s studies. He also learned from an Englishman that in 1666 (5426-5427 according to the Hebrew calendar) the end of the world was to come, the beginning of the Apocalypse “which was to give the Jews a new glory, bring them to Jerusalem and convert them to Christianity”2.
Sabbatai gladly listened to these anecdotes. The Zohar said that the dawn of the salvation era would come about in 1648 (5408-5409). In the same year, the slaughter of Jews at the hands of the Cossacks during the Khmelnytsky Uprising (in the Ukraine, which belonged to Poland) terrified Jews all over Europe3. Sabbatai then had his first mystical revelations, after which G-d “hid His face” and subjected him to temptations4. In the presence of his students – even in his twenties, he already had a circle of followers which he surrounded himself in – he loudly pronounced G-d’s Name, which the Talmud and tradition had forbidden since the destruction of the Temple almost 1,600 years earlier. The rabbinical college cursed him, and he was soon banished from the city along with his disciples. This prompted him to present himself as a suffering, persecuted messiah – humiliation and rejection were to signify his triumph. He sustained himself on a large fortune donated by his father.
In Istanbul, Sabbatai discovered old mystical writings that proclaimed the birth of a messiah named Sabbatai in 1626, the same year he was born. In Thessaloniki, where there was a large Jewish colony, he had a mystical wedding with the Torah.
In the Kabbalistic sense, this was to mean that the Torah, the daughter of heaven, had joined the Messiah, the son of heaven, with unbreakable ties, that is, he was the Torah incarnate and could replace it.5
The outraged rabbis expelled Sabbatai from the city. He travelled through Greece and the Levant, went to Cairo, and from there to Jerusalem. By now it was already 1663, three years before salvation, and it was time for a miracle to occur. At that time, the Jewish community in Jerusalem had to pay the Turks a contribution. Sabbatai went to Cairo as a deputy to dismiss the punishment. On his way to Egypt and back, the inconspicuous Kabbalist was about to start a messianic odyssey.
Sara said she was destined for the Messiah. She came from a town in Poland, which had been looted by the Cossacks. One morning, the Jews found her in the cemetery “only wearing a shirt”.
Astonished by the sight, they questioned her and found out that she was of Jewish origin, raised in a monastery, and that the night before that, her father’s spirit had carried her to the cemetery. To prove her testimony, she showed the women the marks of fingernails on her body6.
She ended up in Livorno, where, after expulsion from Spain, a colony of Jewish merchants was established. According to witnesses “she profited from her beauty, still holding on to the maddened thought that she was being destined to marry the Messiah and that she was not allowed to contract another marriage, but was allowed to live freely in the meantime”7. The fame of Sara of Livorno transcended national borders. Sabbatai Zevi had her brought to Cairo as the future wife of the messiah. His followers recognised “as the prophet Hosea was commanded to wed a harlot”8. Rafael Chelebi, the manager of mint who often saved Jerusalem from high taxes, organised a grand wedding and donated his fortune to Sabbatai . In the wake of the rich man, several other influential followers donated the messiah.
As Heinrich Graetz writes, Sara had a big influence on the teachings of Sabbatai . However, on the way back to Jerusalem, an even more important ally joined the procession. It was Nathan Benjamin Levi, whose ancestors came from Poland, better known as Nathan of Gaza. He claimed to be the resurrected Elijah, who was to guide the Messiah to his glory. The roles were split. “Sabbatai taught his messianic doctrine to a small circle of initiates, and the prophet engaged in pubic agitiation”9. After Natan’s appearance, “prophetic revelations showered.” Nathan’s extraordinary propaganda talent fell on fertile ground – Jewish communities, often poor, who had lived for many centuries under foreign rule, had found out about the massacres in Ukraine that had taken place over the previous years, eagerly read Kabbalah and expected miraculous events to occur.
The Sabbatai March was preceded by well-paid envoys, often Kabbalists, frauds, or ex-beggars. Fearing exclusion by the rabbis of Jerusalem, he set off to his native Smyrna and arrived there in the autumn on 1665. Although he was in no hurry to publicly announce that he was ‘the Messiah’, the pressure of the crowd thirsting for revelation, a delegation from Jerusalem, and Natan’s persuasion led to, in September or October 1665 in Smyrna synagogue, with the sound of horns, Sabbatai Zevi proclaiming himself as the Messiah. “The proverb that no one is a prophet in his homeland was demonstrated to be false,” concludes Gaertz.
The craze of the Smyrneans knew no bounds. Every show of reverence and exalted love was shown to him. The great and the small were overcome with joy at the thought that the long-awaited Messiah had finally arrived, and moreover, in their community. Women, girls, and children were completely entranced, and proclaimed Sabbatai Zevi as the true saviour in the language of the Zohar. It might have been assumed that the prophet’s words had come true, that G-d would at last help the poor. Everyone was making preparations for imminent departure, to return to the Holy Land.11
The inhabitants of Smyrna “inflicted upon themselves unbelievable mortification, fasted for several days in a row, kept watch at night to blot out sins and their consequences with Kabbalistic prayers, bathed in freezing cold water or even in snow; some buried themselves up to their necks in the ground and stayed in this grave until their body became numb with cold and wetness”12. Others, like Sara, plunged themselves into incessant festivities and debauchery. Several hundred 12-year-old children were married to each other “in order to incarnate the rest of the yet unborn souls in accordance with the Kabbalistic superstition and to remove the last obstacle to the messianic times”13. Sceptical rabbis were expelled.
Soon news from Smyrna circulated around the towns of Anatolia inhabited by Jews, and the messianic frenzy swiftly spread over the land. “The terror of friends and relatives, who saw the madness that came over their loved ones, often abandoning their possessions in the pursuit of dreams and empty promises, turned into rage as the madness grew and grew,” writes Harry Freedman in his book The Talmud – A Biography – “The case divided families and entire communities. Those who believed Zevi considered the others to lack faith. People turned away from the Talmud and undertook mystical practices (…). Many small communities and villages collectively joined the movement”14. Acts of faith in Sabbatai were recorded in Poland, Germany, the Papal States, Morocco, and Yemen15. Sabbatai followers revealed themselves in London and Amsterdam, or, worse, remained hidden.
Messiah in a turban
Sabbatai ’s actions did not escape the attention of the ruler of the state that included Smyrna, Cairo and Jerusalem – the Ottoman Empire, especially as Sabbatai went to Istanbul, in which the first wave of messianic rapture had already erupted, not only among Jews. In February 1666, Sabbatai was arrested and detained in good conditions in the Gallipoli fortress, where he continued to receive pilgrimages from his followers. In September, the Turks took him to the court of Sultan Mehmed IV in Adrianople.
The Sultan listened in to the interrogation of the messiah from behind a wooden lattice. No one who was present has ever given an exact account of this event. Most likely, the Turks gave Sabbatai a choice: conversion or death. The messiah, to everyone’s surprise, immediately agreed to convert to Islam. From then on, he was to be known as Aziz Mehmed Effendi, which was a distinction – the Sultan allowed him to use his own name. He was appointed the doorman at the palace, received a high salary, and was invited to live at the ruler’s court.
Sabbatai supporters were stunned by the conversion. Some, chosen by him personally, also adopted the Muslim faith, although the messiah did not explicitly encourage all his followers to convert to Islam. Others said that Sabbatai was only meant to prepare the final Messiah to come. Others put forward arguments that could be compared with early Christian docetism17: they argued that only the outer form of Sabbatai converted to Islam, which was expressed by him wearing a turban, while his divine essence remained undefiled. He was compared to Moses who lived as an Egyptian in Pharaoh’s court before he saved Israel. The biggest doubters believed that Sabbatai was under the influence of demons. Sabbatai himself said in a letter to his brother: “I did it of my own free will, with the power of truth and faith, which is my whole spirit, and no storms or wise men of the world will make me leave my place”18.
The Turks allowed Sabbatai to perform Jewish rituals. The messiah circumcised his son, who was born in 1668, in the presence of Jews and Turks, and named him Mardochai Ishmael. Sabbatai appeared in public in Turkish clothes and went to the mosque, but he also went to the synagogue and took a group of Muslims with him. It was the next chapter in the wild history of the heretic that would lead to his downfall.
The saviour of three religions
Sabbatai Zevi outraged the rabbis and disturbed the Turks for one reason: he was not only a Jewish reformer, but he tried to create a syncretic religion that combined Judaism with a fascination in Christianity and Islam. Wherever he appeared, there was a celebration in the scale of riots that could turn into political demonstrations. As Aziz Mehmed Effendi, he established contact with some Muslim clergymen; it was said that he had converted them to his faith. Therefore, the Sultan had him imprisoned in Dulcigno, Montenegro. There, the messiah lived until 1676. He never threatened the Turkish government, and because of him no persecution fell on the Jews.
For Jews who didn’t support him, Sabbatai was offensive, if only because it brought their religion closer to Christianity. The heresy was similar to the faith of Saint Paul, who argued that one can be saved by faith rather than sticking to the law. Opponents of Sabbataism were also worried about the prospect of converting to Islam, which was not too distant for Jews in so far as these big religions combine monotheism, worship of Holy text and circumcision. Sabbatai suggested that G-d abandoned the Jews for Christians when Moses smashed the tablets of the commandments; he also suggested that the Koran was the new holy book, or that, after conversion to Islam, the next phase would be baptism. Sabbataism was therefore a threat to the existence of Judaism.
The views of Sabbatai Zevi are difficult to demonstrate. Few of the texts that can certainly be attributed to the messiah have survived – Nathan of Gaza was much more prolific. The conflict between the prophet and Sabbatai further distracts the researchers’ presumptions. Nathan, it seems, wanted to declare himself a messiah. Some commentators point out that Sabbatai alluded to the legend of the messiah coming in every generation, and that he was followed by two more incarnations of the messiah: Barukhia Ruso and Jacob Frank19.
The doctrine of the heretic
The Holy Sparks that fell when G-d built and destroyed the world should be purified and lifted up by man: from stone to plant, from plant to animal, from animal to the speaking being, he should cleanse the Holy Spark, which is surrounded by power of the shell. This is the essential meaning of everyone’s service in Israel. 20
The above words about sparks and shells were proclaimed in the 18th century by Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Polish Hasidism. Sabbatai Zevi referred to a smaller vision of the world present in Kabbalah – Jewish mysticism. “Shells were a popular Kabbalistic term for demonic forces, among which are hidden sacred sparks that were dispersed during the creation of the world. (…) People, in order to acquire redemptive knowledge, must break through the shell that holds it yet preserves it”21, writes Jan Doktór. All religious Jews were tasked with releasing the sparks from their shells, but according to Kabbalists, the Messiah was to release the sparks most difficult to access.
The “spark” or “shell” could be holy books as well as people and objects. The “shell” was a literal understanding of the Torah, which did not yet let one know its code of revelation. Sabbatai , according to Natan, also claimed that Jesus and his teachings were “a shell”. This viewpoint was repeated in the 18th century by the renowned heretic Jacob Frank. Some commentators claim that Sabbatai saw himself as Jesus’ successor22.
Sabbatai repeatedly emphasised that he was above Jewish law, breaking the most sacred customs and violating Shabbat. He made a sacrifice of a lamb to the “one who permits the forbidden”23. The wedding with Sara was another confirmation of the messianic mission and a scandal proving that the saviour was not bound by the law, and at the same time – as his wife came from Poland – it meant the salvation of Jews persecuted by the Cossacks.
Other elements of the doctrine can be considered mobile. Natan sang the glory of Sabbatai and his miracles; but when miracles were lacking, the prophet explained that the messiah had to be believed without evidence, which again brought them closer to Christianity.
The conversion of Sabbatai caused great problems for Nathan. The prophet never accepted changing religion. First, he claimed that the messiah converted to Islam to “bring out the trapped sparks of holiness”24. Then he attempted to present the conversion as a temporary tactical measure. Traces of this conflict can be seen in the 18 commandments that Natan published that were said to come from Sabbatai . There it clearly states that one must “strictly obey the laws of the Ishmaelites, between whom they have entered, to blind their eyes and root out their seed,” and their “women are slippery and it is said of them: cursed is the one who communes fleshly with an animal"25. Such a stance would link the teachings of Sabbatai with Marranism, that is, the practice of Jews who, forced to renounce their religion, practiced it in secret.
To this day, the form of Sabbatai ’s teaching remains confused. Scholars of Judaism disagree about the role of the Kabbalah in it. “In retrospect, the Sabbatai movement, while taking on such hysterical forms, was nothing more than a product of its time,” notes Freedman. Sabbataism probably influenced the messianic, prophetic and other radical movements in Christianity, awaiting the Second Coming of Christ27.
The legacy of Sabbataism
Some Jews who succumbed to Sabbatai and Nathan threw off their turbans just after crossing the borders of Turkey and returned to the faith of their fathers in Poland and Germany. Others, however, continued to be heretics. Sabbataism continued after Sabbatai ’s conversion, and even after his and Nathan’s deaths. For a short while, Sabbatai ’s young son, born after his father’s conversion to Islam, was considered to be the messiah. Some picked up on Sabbatai ’s announcement that he would return after 80 or 124 years. In 1725, the next messianic year, it was said that he had appeared as a new incarnation, and, as before, allowed what Moses had forbidden, including adultery. Others searched again for the predictions of the Messiah in the Talmud.
It was thanks to the constant messianic fever in 1750 that Yaakov Emben, rabbi of Altona near Hamburg, could accuse Jonathan Eibeschütz, a distinguished scholar and Kabbalist, that he was involved in Sabbataism and produced amulets with an encrypted declaration of faith in the heretic. The long-standing dispute of scholars that engulfed the Jewish communities throughout Europe and in which, among others, the Vilna Gaon participated, ended with the acquittal of Eibeschütz – who, however, was most likely in actual fact a crypto-Sabbatist.
As a cultural phenomenon, Sabbataism continues to amaze historians, researchers and lovers of Judaism to this day. There are about 10,000 dönme, or “converts”, followers of Sabbatai Zevi, who worship him in western Turkey, Istanbul and Izmir, for “allowing everything that is forbidden”29. They are the last to follow his movement. “Even today, in retrospect, it seems unreal. People, families, and even entire communities in the Ottoman Empire and Europe were carried away by one of the most amazing outbursts of collective delusion the world has ever seen”30.
You can learn more about religious disputes in Judaism, Jonathan Eibeschütz, and the Vilna Gaon at the exhibition Hidden image. The Vilna Gaon and accompanying events to which we invite you from 22nd October 2021.
I used mainly the following books: Jan Doktór, Śladami mesjasza-apostaty [In the footsteps of messiah-apostate], Wrocław 1998; Harry Freedman, Talmud. Biografia, [Talmud – A Biography] transl. Aleksandra Czwojdrak, Kraków 2015; Heinrich Graetz, Historia Żydów [History of the Jews], vol. 8, transl. Stanisław Szenhak, Kraków 1990. Many details of Sabbatai Zevi’s life and activity are presented differently in various sources.
1 Heinrich Graetz, Historia Żydów [History of the Jews], vol. 8, transl. Stanisław Szenhak, Kraków 1990, p. 420. In some places additional paragraph breaks were added, punctuation was corrected and archaisms were replaced.
2 Ibid., pp. 420-421.
3 Harry Freedman, Talmud. Biografia [Talmud – A Biography], transl. Aleksandra Czwojdrak, Kraków 2015, p. 176.
4 Jan Doktór, Śladami mesjasza-apostaty [In the footsteps of messiah-apostate], Wrocław 1998, p. 31.
5 H. Graetz, op. cit., p. 422.
6 Ibid., p. 424.
9 J. Doktór, op. cit., p. 67.
10 H. Graetz, op. cit., p. 425.
11 Ibid., p. 427.
13 Ibid., p. 428.
14 H. Freedman, op. cit., p. 178.
16 J. Doktór, op. cit., p. 45.
17 Ibid., pp. 43-44.
18 Ibid., p. 60.
19 Ibid., pp. 115-117.
20 Rabbiego Izraela ben Eliezera zwanego Baal Szem Towem to jest Mistrzem Dobrego Imienia pouczenie o B-gu / zestawione z okruchów przez Martina Bubera [Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer so called Baal Shem Tov, or Master of the Good Name, instruction on G-d / compiled by Martin Buber], transl. Jan Doktór, Warsaw 1993, p. 13.
21 J. Doktór, op. cit., p. 37.
22 Ibid., p. 38.
23 H Freedman, op. cit., p. 179.
24 J. Doktór, op. cit., p. 78.
25 Ibid., pp. 83-84.
26 H Freedman, op. cit., p. 179.
27 Ibid., pp. 179-180.
28 J. Doktór, op. cit., p. 115.
29 Ibid., p. 99.
30 H. Freedman, op. cit., p. 176.