Sabbatai Zevi

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Sabbatai Zevi, also transliterated Shabbethai, Shabbetai, Sabbetai, or Shabtai; Zvi or Tzvi (July 23 1626–possibly September 30 1676) was a famous claimed Messiah and Kabbalist. He was the founder of the Donmeh sect, which flourished in the Ottoman Empire, and which drew elements from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as of the more Judaism-influenced Sabbatian movement (Sabbatianism), which continued in Europe after his death.

Zevi was born in Smyrna, and died, according to some, on Yom Kippur, September 30 1676, in Dulcigno, a small town in Albania. He was of Spanish descent; his father, Mordecai, was a poor poultry-dealer in the Morea. Later, when in consequence of the war between Turkey and Venice under the sultan Ibrahim, Smyrna became the centre of Levantine trade, Mordecai became the Smyrna agent of an English house, whose interests he guarded with strict honesty. As a consequence, he acquired considerable wealth.


Zevi's early years

In accordance with the prevailing custom of the Sephardic Jews of that time, Sabbatai's father had him study Talmud. In his early youth he attended the yeshivah under the veteran rabbi of Smyrna, Joseph Escapa, but halakhic studies did not appeal to him, nor apparently did he attain proficiency in the Talmud. On the other hand, he was fascinated by mysticism and the Kabbalah, in the prevailing style of Isaac Luria. He found the practical Kabbalah, with its asceticism, and its mortification of the body – through which its devotees claimed to be able to communicate with God and the angels, to predict the future, and to perform all sorts of miracles – especially appealing.

In his youth he inclined to solitude. According to custom he married early, but avoided intercourse with his wife; she therefore applied for a divorce, which he willingly granted. The same thing happened with a second wife. Later, when he became more imbued with Kabbalah, he lost mental equilibrium. He imposed the severest mortifications on himself: he bathed frequently in the sea, even in winter, fasted for days on end, and lived constantly in a state of ecstasy.

Influence of English Millenarianism

During the first half of the 17th century, millenarian ideas of the approach of the Messianic time, and more especially of the redemption of the Jews and their return to Jerusalem, were set forth by Christian writers and entertained by Jews and Christians alike. The so-called apocalyptic year was identified by Christian authors as 1666. This belief was so dominant that Manasseh ben Israel in his letter to Oliver Cromwell and the Rump Parliament did not hesitate to use it as a motive for his plea for the readmission of the Jews into England, remarking: “the opinions of many Christians and mine do concur herein, that we both believe that the restoring time of our Nation into their native country is very near at hand”.

Sabbatai's father, who as the agent of an English house was in constant touch with English people, must frequently have heard of these expectations and, being strongly inclined to believe them, must have communicated them to his son, whom he almost deified because of his piety and kabbalistic wisdom.

Claims of Messiahship

Apart from this general Messianic theory, there was another computation, based on a presumably interpolated passage in the Zohar (a famous Jewish mystic text), and particularly popular among the Jews, according to which the year 1648 was to be the year of Israel's redemption by the Messiah. All these things led Sabbatai to conceive a plan which was of grave consequences for the whole of Jewry, and whose effects are felt even to the present time: he decided to assume the role of the expected Messiah.

Though only twenty-two years old, he dared (in the ominous year 1648) to reveal himself at Smyrna to a band of followers (whom he had won over through his knowledge of the Kabbalah, his attractive appearance and personality, and his strange actions) as the true Messianic redeemer designated by God to overthrow the governments of the nations and to restore Israel to Jerusalem. His mode of revealing his mission was the pronouncing of the Tetragrammaton in Hebrew, an act which was allowed only to the high priest in the Temple in Jerusalem on the Day of Atonement. This was of great significance to those acquainted with rabbinical, and especially Kabbalistic, literature. However, Sabbatai's authority at the age of twenty-two did not reach far enough for him to gain many adherents.

Among the first of those to whom he revealed his Messiahship were Isaac Silveyra and Moses Pinheiro, the latter a brother-in-law of the Italian rabbi and kabbalist Joseph Ergas. Sabbatai remained at Smyrna for several years, leading the pious life of a mystic, and giving rise to much argument in the community, the details of which are not known. The college of rabbis, having at its head his teacher, Joseph Escapa, watched Sabbatai closely, and when his Messianic pretensions became too bold they put him and his followers under a ban of excommunication.

About the year 1651 (according to others, 1654) Sabbatai and his disciples were banished from Smyrna. It is not quite certain where he went from there. In 1653, or at the latest 1658, he was in Constantinople, where he met a preacher, Abraham ha-Yakini (a disciple of Joseph di Trani), who confirmed Sabbatai. Ha-Yakini is said to have forged a manuscript in archaic characters and in a style imitating the ancient apocalypses, and which, he alleged, bore testimony to Sabbatai's Messiahship. It was entitled The Great Wisdom of Solomon, and began:

“I, Abraham, was confined in a cave for forty years, and I wondered greatly that the time of miracles did not arrive. Then was heard a voice proclaiming, 'A son will be born in the Hebrew year 5386 [English calendar year 1626] to Mordecai Zevi; and he will be called Shabbethai. He will humble the great dragon; . . . he, the true Messiah, will sit upon My throne.”

In Salonica

With this document, which he appears to have accepted as an actual revelation, Sabbatai determined to choose Salonica, at that time a center of Kabbalists, as the field for his further operations. Here he boldly proclaimed himself the Messiah, gaining many adherents. In order to impress his Messiahship upon the minds of his enthusiastic friends he put on all sorts of mystical events — e.g., the celebration of his marriage as the “Son of God” (the Ein Sof) with the Torah, preparing for this performance a solemn festival to which he invited his friends. The consequence was that the rabbis of Salonica banished him from the city. The sources differ widely as to the route he took after this expulsion, Alexandria, Athens, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Smyrna, and other places being mentioned as temporary centres of his impostures. Finally, however, after long wanderings, he settled in Cairo, Egypt, where he resided for about two years (1660–1662).

At that time, there lived in Cairo a very wealthy and influential Jew named Raphael Joseph Halabi (“of Aleppo”), who held the high position of mint-master and tax-farmer under the Turkish government. Despite his riches and the external splendor which he displayed before the public, he continued to lead privately an ascetic life, fasting, bathing, and frequently scourging his body at night. He used his great wealth benevolently, supplying the needs of poor Talmudists and Kabalists, fifty of whom regularly dined at his table. Sabbatai at once made the acquaintance of Raphael Joseph who, being possessed by eccentric, mystical ideas, became one of the most zealous promulgators of his Messianic plans.

It seems, however, that Cairo did not appear to Sabbatai to be the proper place to carry out his long-cherished scheme. The apocalyptic year, 1666, was approaching, and something had to be done to establish his Messiahship. He therefore left the Egyptian capital and travelled to Jerusalem, hoping that in the Holy City a miracle might occur to confirm his pretensions. Arriving there in about 1663, he at first remained inactive, so as not to offend the community. He again resorted to his former practice of mortifying the body by frequent fasting and other penances in order to gain the confidence of the people, who saw this as proof of his extraordinary piety. He also adopted various means of an inoffensive character which helped to endear him to the masses. Having a very melodious voice, he used to sing psalms for the whole night, or at times even coarse Spanish love-songs, to which he gave mystical interpretations, thus attracting crowds of admiring listeners. At other times he would pray at the graves of pious men and women and, some of his followers reported, shed floods of tears, or he would distribute all sorts of sweetmeats to the children on the streets. Thus he gradually gathered around him a circle of adherents who placed their faith in him.

At this point an unexpected incident brought him back to Cairo. The community of Jerusalem needed money in order to avert a calamity which greedy Turkish officials planned against it. Sabbatai, known as the favorite of the rich Raphael Joseph Halabi, was chosen as the envoy of the distressed community, and he willingly undertook the task, as it gave him an opportunity to act as the deliverer of the Holy City. As soon as he appeared before Halabi he obtained from him the necessary sum, which gave him great prestige and offered the best prospects for his future Messianic plans. His worshippers dated his public career from this second journey to Cairo.

Marriage to Sarah

Another circumstance assisted Sabbatai in the course of his second stay at Cairo. During the Chmielnicki massacres in Poland, a Jewish orphan girl named Sarah, about six years old, had been found by Christians and sent to a convent. After ten years' confinement she escaped (reportedly through a miracle), and was taken to Amsterdam. Some years later she went to Livorno where, according to authentic reports, she led an irregular life. She also conceived the notion that she was to become the bride of the Messiah who was soon to appear. The report of this girl reached Cairo, and Sabbatai at once seized upon the opportunity and claimed that such a consort had been promised to him in a dream. Messengers were sent to Livorno, and Sarah was brought to Cairo, where she was married to Sabbatai at Halabi's house. Through her a romantic, licentious element entered Sabbatai's career. Her beauty and eccentricity gained for him many new followers, and even her past lewd life was looked upon as an additional confirmation of his Messiahship, the prophet Hosea having been commanded to marry an unchaste woman.

Nathan of Ghaza

Having Halabi's money, a charming wife, and many additional followers, Sabbatai triumphantly returned to Palestine. Passing through the city of Gaza, he met a man who was to become very active in his subsequent Messianic career. This was Nathan Benjamin Levi, known under the name of Nathan of Ghaza (Nathan Ghazzati). He became Sabbatai's right-hand man, and professed to be the risen Elijah, the precursor of the Messiah. In 1665, Ghazzati announced that the Messianic age was to begin in the following year. Sabbatai spread this announcement widely, together with many additional details to the effect that the world would be conquered by him, the Elijah, without bloodshed; that the Messiah would then lead back the Ten Tribes to the Holy Land, “riding on a lion with a seven-headed dragon in its jaws”, and similar fantasies. These claims were widely circulated and believed.

The rabbis of Jerusalem, however, regarded the movement with great suspicion, and threatened its followers with excommunication. Sabbatai, realizing that Jerusalem was not a congenial place in which to carry out his plans, left for his native city, Smyrna, while his prophet, Nathan, proclaimed that henceforth Gaza, and not Jerusalem, would be the sacred city. On his way from Jerusalem to Smyrna, Sabbatai was enthusiastically greeted in the large Asiatic community of Aleppo, and at Smyrna, which he reached in the autumn of 1665, the greatest homage was paid to him. Finally, after some hesitation, he publicly declared himself as the expected Messiah (New Year, 1665); the declaration was made in the synagogue, with the blowing of horns, and the multitude greeted him with: “Long live our King, our Messiah!”

Proclaimed Messiah

The joy of his followers knew no bounds. Sabbatai, assisted by his wife, now became the sole ruler of the community. In this capacity he used his power to crush all opposition. For instance, he deposed the old rabbi of Smyrna, Aaron Lapapa, and appointed in his place Hayyim Benveniste. His popularity grew with incredible rapidity, as not only Jews but Christians also spread his story far and wide. His fame extended to all countries. Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands had centres where the Messianic movement was ardently promulgated, and the Jews of Hamburg and Amsterdam received confirmation of the extraordinary events in Smyrna from trustworthy Christians. A distinguished German savant, Heinrich Oldenburg, wrote to Baruch Spinoza (Spinoz Epistol No 16): “All the world here is talking of a rumour of the return of the Israelites . . . to their own country. . . . Should the news be confirmed, it may bring about a revolution in all things.”

Among the many prominent rabbis of that time who were followers of Sabbatai were: Isaac da Fonseca Aboab, Moses Raphael de Aguilar, Moses Galante, Moses Zacuto, and the above-mentioned Hayyim Benveniste. Even the semi-Spinozist Dionysius Mussafia Musaphia likewise became one of Sabbatai's zealous adherents. Fantastic reports were widely spread and believed , as for example: “in the north of Scotland a ship had appeared with silken sails and ropes, manned by sailors who spoke Hebrew. The flag bore the inscription 'The Twelve Tribes of Israel'.” The community of Avignon, France, prepared, therefore, to emigrate to the new kingdom in the spring of 1666.

Spread of His Influence

The adherents of Sabbatai, probably with his consent, even planned to abolish to a great extent the ritualistic observances because, according to a tradition, in the Messianic time most of them were to lose their obligatory character. The first step toward the disintegration of traditional Judaism was the changing of the fast of the Tenth of Tevet to a day of feasting and rejoicing. Samuel Primo, a man who entered Sabbatai's service as secretary at the time when the latter left Jerusalem for Smyrna, directed in the name of the Messiah the following circular to the whole of Israel:

“The first-begotten Son of God, Shabbethai Tebi, Messiah and Redeemer of the people of Israel, to all the sons of Israel, Peace! Since ye have been deemed worthy to behold the great day and the fulfilment of God's word by the Prophets, your lament and sorrow must be changed into joy, and your fasting into merriment; for ye shall weep no more. Rejoice with song and melody, and change the day formerly spent in sadness and sorrow into a day of jubilee, because I have appeared.”

This message produced wild excitement and dissension in the communities, as many of the pious orthodox rabbis, who had hitherto regarded the movement sympathetically, were shocked at these radical innovations. Solomon Algazi, a prominent Talmudist of Smyrna, and other members of the rabbinate, who opposed the abolition of the fast, narrowly escaped with their lives.

In Constantinople

At the beginning of the year 1666, Sabbatai again left Smyrna for Constantinople, either because he was compelled to do so by the city authorities or because of a hope that a miracle would happen in the Turkish capital to fulfil the prophecy of Nathan Ghazzati that Sabbatai would place the sultan's crown on his own head. As soon as he reached the landing-place, however, he was arrested at the command of the grand vizier, Ahmed Kprl, and cast into prison in chains. An under-pasha, commissioned to receive Sabbatai on the ship, welcomed him with a vigorous box on the ear. When this official was asked later to explain his conduct, he attempted to exonerate himself by blaming the Jews for having proclaimed Sabbatai as their Messiah against his own will.

Sabbatai's imprisonment, however, had no discouraging effect either on him or on his followers. On the contrary, the lenient treatment which he secured by means of bribes served rather to strengthen them in their Messianic delusions. In the meantime, all sorts of fabulous reports concerning the miraculous deeds which the Messiah was performing in the Turkish capital were spread by Ghazzati and Primo among the Jews of Smyrna and in many other communities, and the expectations of the Jews were raised to a still higher pitch.

At Abydos (Migdal 'Oz)

After two months' imprisonment in Constantinople, Sabbatai was brought to the state prison in the castle of Abydos. Here he was treated very leniently, some of his friends even being allowed to accompany him. In consequence the Sabbataians called that fortress Migdal 'Oz (the Tower of Strength). As the day on which he was brought to Abydos was the day preceding Passover, he slew a paschal lamb for himself and his followers and ate it with its fat, which was a violation of the Law. It is said that he pronounced over it the benediction: “Blessed be God who hath restored again that which was forbidden.”

The immense sums sent to him by his rich adherents, the charms of the queenly Sarah, and the reverential admiration shown him even by the Turkish officials and the inhabitants of the place enabled Sabbatai to display royal splendor in the castle of Abydos, accounts of which were exaggerated and spread among Jews in Europe, Asia, and Africa. In some parts of Europe Jews began to unroof their houses and prepare for the exodus. In almost every synagogue, Sabbatai's initials were posted, and prayers for him were inserted in the following form: “Bless our Lord and King, the holy and righteous Sabbatai Zevi, the Messiah of the God of Jacob.” In Hamburg the council introduced this custom of praying for Sabbatai not only on Saturday, but also on Monday and Thursday, and unbelievers were compelled to remain in the synagogue and join in the prayer with a loud Amen. Sabbatai's picture was printed together with that of King David in most of the prayer-books, as well as his kabbalistic formulas and penances.

These and similar innovations caused great dissension in various communities. In Moravia the excitement reached such a pitch that the government had to interfere, while at Sale, Africa, the emir ordered a persecution of the Jews. This state of affairs lasted three months (April to July), during which time Sabbatai's adherents busied themselves in sending forged letters to deceive their brethren in distant communities. It was also during this period that Sabbatai, in a general desire for innovations aiming at the abrogation of all laws and customs, transformed the fasts of the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av (his birthday) into feast-days, and it is said that he contemplated even the abolition of the Day of Atonement.

Nehemiah ha-Kohen

At this time an incident occurred which led to the discrediting of Sabbatai's Messiahship. Two prominent Polish Talmudists from Lemberg, Galicia, who were among Sabbatai's visitors in Abydos, apprised him of the fact that in their native country a prophet, Nehemiah ha-Kohen, had announced the coming of the Messiah. Sabbatai ordered the prophet to appear before him. (But see Jew. Encyc. ix. 212a, s.v. Nehemiah ha-Kohen). Nehemiah obeyed, reaching Abydos, after a journey of three months, at the beginning of September, 1666. The conference between the two ended in mutual dissatisfaction, and some fanatical Sabbataians are said to have contemplated the secret murder of the dangerous rival.

Sabbatai adopts Islam

Nehemiah, however, escaped to Constantinople, where he embraced Islam and betrayed the treasonable desires of Sabbatai to the kaimakam, who in turn informed the Sultan, Mehmed IV. At the command of Mehmed, Sabbatai was now taken from Abydos to Adrianople, where the sultan's physician, a former Jew, advised Sabbatai to embrace Islam as the only means of saving his life. Sabbatai realized the danger of his situation and adopted the physician's advice. On the following day (September 16 1666), being brought before the sultan, he cast off his Jewish garb and put a Turkish turban on his head; and thus his conversion to Islam was accomplished. The sultan was much pleased, and rewarded Sabbatai by conferring on him the title (Mahmed) Effendi, and appointing him as his doorkeeper with a high salary. Sarah and a number of Sabbatai's followers also went over to Islam. To complete his acceptance of Islam, Sabbatai was ordered to take an additional wife, a Muslim slave. Some days after his conversion he had the audacity to write to Smyrna: “God has made me an Ishmaelite; He commanded, and it was done. The ninth day of my regeneration.”


Sabbatai's conversion was extremely disheartening for the Jewish communities. Prominent rabbis who were believers in and followers of Sabbatai were prostrated with shame. Among the masses of the people the greatest confusion reigned. In addition to the misery and disappointment from within, Muslims and Christians jeered at and scorned the credulous and duped Jews. The sultan even planned to exterminate all the adult Jews in his empire and to decree that all Jewish children should be brought up in Islam, also that fifty prominent rabbis should be executed; only the contrary advice of some of his counsellors and of the sultana's mother prevented these calamities. In spite of Sabbatai's shameful behaviour, however, many of his adherents still tenaciously clung to him, claiming that his conversion was a part of the Messianic scheme. This belief was further upheld and strengthened by false prophets like Ghazzati and Primo, who were interested in maintaining the movement. In many communities the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av were still observed as feast-days in spite of bans and excommunications.

Meanwhile Sabbatai secretly played a double game. At times he would assume the role of a pious Muslim and revile Judaism; at others he would enter into relations with Jews as one of their own faith. In March 1668 he again announced that he had been filled with the Holy Spirit at Passover, and had received a revelation. He, or one of his followers, published a mystical work addressed to the Jews in which it was claimed that Sabbatai was the true Messiah, in spite of his conversion, his object being to bring over thousands of Muslims to Judaism. To the sultan, however, he said that his activity among the Jews was to bring them over to Islam. He therefore received permission to associate with his former co-religionists, and even to preach in their synagogues. He thus succeeded in bringing over a number of Muslims to his kabbalistic views, and, on the other hand, in converting many Jews to Islam, thus forming a Judaeo–Turkish sect whose followers implicitly believed in him.

This double-dealing with Jews and Muslims did not last very long. Gradually the Turks tired of Sabbatai's schemes. He was deprived of his salary, and banished from Adrianople to Constantinople. In a village near the latter city he was one day discovered singing psalms in a tent with Jews, whereupon the grand vizier ordered his banishment to Dulcigno, a small place in Albania, where he died in loneliness and obscurity.

Modern followers

Although rather little is known about them, various groups called Donmeh (Turkish for “apostate”) continue to follow Sabbatai Zevi today. Estimates of the numbers vary, up to a maximum of 15,000, mostly in Turkey with some in Greece. According to one source:

“Although outwardly Muslims and, to a lesser extent, Christians, the Donmeh secretly continue to observe Jewish rituals (such as circumcision, but at the age of three rather than eight days), pray in Hebrew as well as Aramaic and Ladino (Judo-Spanish), and have clandestine festivals and fast days that are Jewish survivals. They also practise unique Sabbatian rites, probably instituted by Reb Berechia after Sabbatai's death, such as The Darkening of the Light.”

External links

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