Sabbatai Zevi: Wikis


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Shabbatai Tzvi in 1665

Sabbatai Zevi, (Hebrew: שַׁבְּתַי צְבִי, Shabbetay Ẓevi, other spellings include Sabetay Sevi in Turkish), (August 1, 1626 – c. September 17, 1676, in Dulcigno (present day Ulcinj), Montenegro) was a rabbi[1] and kabbalist who claimed to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. Later he converted to Islam. He was the founder of the Jewish Sabbatean movement. Some of his followers also converted to Islam, about 300 families who were known as the Dönmeh (aka Dönme) (converts).[2]


Early life and education

Sabbatai Zevi was born in Smyrna on (supposedly) Tisha B'Av or the 9th of Av, 1626, the holy day of mourning. Zevi's family were Romaniotes from Patras in present-day Greece; his father, Mordecai, was a poultry dealer in the Morea. During the war between Turkey and Venice, Smyrna became the center of Levantine trade. Mordecai became the Smyrnan agent of an English trading house and managed to achieve some wealth in this role.

In accordance with the prevailing Jewish custom of the time, Sabbatai's father had him study the Talmud . He attended a yeshiva under the rabbi of Smyrna, Joseph Escapa. Studies in halakha (Jewish law) did not appeal to him, but apparently he did attain proficiency in the Talmud. On the other hand, he was fascinated by mysticism and the Kabbalah, as influenced by Rabbi Isaac Luria. He found the practical kabbalah, with its asceticism, 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 was inclined to solitude. According to custom he married early, but he avoided intercourse with his wife; she applied for a divorce, which he granted. The same thing happened with a second wife.[citation needed] When he was about twenty years of age, he began to develop unusual behaviors. He would alternately sink into deep depression and isolation, or become filled with frenzied restlessness and ecstasy. He felt compelled to eat nonkosher food, speak the forbidden name of God, and commit other "holy sins."[3]

Influence of English millenarianism

During the first half of the 17th century, millenarian ideas of the approach of the Messianic time were popular. They included ideas of the redemption of the Jews and their return to the land of Israel, with independent sovereignty. The apocalyptic year was identified by Christian authors as 1666 and millenarianism was widespread in England. This belief was so prevalent that Manasseh ben Israel, in his letter to Oliver Cromwell and the Rump Parliament, appealed to it as a reason to readmit Jews into England, saying, "[T]he 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."[citation needed]

Sabbatai's father was also, among other commercial activities, the agent of an English house in Smyrna and must have had some business contact with English people. Sabbatai could have learned something about these Western millenarian expectations at his father's house. - [note: this theory was originally suggested by Graetz; Gershom Scholem argued forcefully against it in his major work on Sabbatai quoted throughout this entry.]

Claims of messiahship

Apart from this general Messianic theory, there was another computation, based on an interpreted passage in the Zohar (a famous Jewish mystical text), and particularly popular among the Jews, according to which the year 1648 was to be the year of Israel's redemption by their long-awaited Jewish Messiah.

At age 22 in 1648, Sabbatai started declaring to his followers in Smyrna that he was the true Messianic redeemer. In order to prove this claim he started to pronounce the Tetragrammaton in Hebrew, an act which Judaism emphatically prohibited to all but the Jewish high priest in the Temple in Jerusalem on the Day of Atonement. For scholars acquainted with rabbinical, and kabbalistic literature, the act was highly symbolic. He revealed his Messiahship early on to Isaac Silveyra and Moses Pinheiro, the latter a brother-in-law of the Italian rabbi and kabbalist Joseph Ergas.

However, at this point he was still relatively young in terms of accepted and established rabbinic authority, and his influence in the local community was not widespread. Even though Sabbatai had lead the pious life of a mystic in Smyrna for several years, the older and more established rabbinic leadership was still suspicious of his activities. The local college of rabbis, headed by his teacher, Joseph Escapa, kept a watchful eye on him. When his Messianic pretensions became too bold, they put him and his followers under a ban of cherem, a type of excommunication in Judaism.

About the year 1651 (according to others, 1654), the rabbis banished Sabbatai and his disciples from Smyrna. It is not certain where he went from there. By 1658, he was in Constantinople, where he met a preacher, Abraham ha-Yakini (a disciple of Joseph di Trani), who confirmed Sabbatai's messianic mission. Ha-Yakini is said to have forged a manuscript in archaic characters 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, Cairo, and Jerusalem

With this document, Sabbatai chose Salonica, at that time a center of kabbalists, for his base. He proclaimed himself the Messiah, gaining many adherents. He put on all sorts of mystical events — e.g., the celebration of his marriage as the “One Without End” (the Ein Sof) with the Torah, preparing a solemn festival to which he invited his friends. The rabbis of Salonica, headed by Rabbi Hiyya Abraham Di Boton, banished him from the city. The sources differ widely as to the route he took after this expulsion, with Alexandria, Athens, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Smyrna mentioned as temporary centers. After wandering, he settled in Cairo, where he resided for about two years (1660–1662).

Raphael Joseph Halabi ("of Aleppo") was a wealthy and influential Jew who held the high position of mint-master and tax-farmer in Cairo under the Ottoman government. He privately lead an ascetic life, which included practices of fasting, bathing in cold water, and scourging his body at night. He used his great wealth for charity, supplying the needs of poor Talmudists and Kabbalists, fifty of whom reportedly dined at his table regularly. Sabbatai befriended Raphael Joseph, who became a supporter and promoter of his Messianic claims.

About 1663 Sabbatai moved on to Jerusalem. Here he resumed his former ascetic practice of frequent fasting and other penances. Many saw this as proof of his extraordinary piety. He was said to have a good voice, and sang psalms all night long, or at times Spanish love-songs, to which he gave mystical interpretations. He attracted crowds of listeners. At other times he prayed and cried at the graves of pious men and women. He distributed sweetmeats to children on the streets. He gradually gathered a circle of adherents.

The important community of Jerusalem at the time was also in need of money to keep up with the heavy taxes imposed on it by the Turkish government officials. The community was coming short on these dues and these arrears could have dire consequences. Sabbatai, known as the favorite of the rich and powerful Raphael Joseph Halabi in the Turkish government center in Cairo, was chosen as the community envoy to appeal to Halabi for money and support. His success in getting the funds to pay off the Turks raised his prestige. His worshipers dated his public career from this journey to Cairo.

Marriage to Sarah

Another event helped spread Sabbatai's fame in the Jewish world of the time in the course of his second stay in Cairo. During the Chmielnicki massacres in Poland, a Jewish orphan girl named Sarah, about six years old, was found by Christians and sent to a convent for care. After ten years', she escaped (reportedly through a miracle), and made her way to Amsterdam. Some years later she went to Livorno where, according to some reports, she led a life of prostitution. She also conceived the notion that she was to become the bride of the Messiah, who was soon to appear.

When the report of Sarah's adventures reached Cairo, Sabbatai claimed that such a consort had been promised to him in a dream because he, as the Messiah, was bound to fall in love with an unchaste woman.[citation needed] He reportedly sent messengers to Livorno to bring Sarah to him, and they were married at Halabi's house. Her beauty and eccentricity reportedly helped him gain new followers. Through her a new romantic and licentious element entered Sabbatai's career. Even the overturning of her past scandalous life was seen by Sabbatai's followers as additional confirmation of his messiahship, following the biblical story of the prophet Hosea, who had also been commanded to take a "wife of whoredom" as the first symbolic act of his calling.

Nathan of Gaza

With Halabi's financial and political backing, a charming wife, and many additional followers, Sabbatai then triumphantly returned to Palestine. Passing through the city of Gaza, which at the time had also an important Jewish community, he met Nathan Benjamin Levi, known since under the name of Nathan of Gaza (נתן עזתי Nathan 'Azzati). Nathan was to become very active in Sabbatai's subsequent Messianic career. He became Sabbatai's right-hand man and professed to be the risen Elijah, the precursor of the Messiah. In 1665, Nathan 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 and Elijah, without bloodshed; that the Messiah would then lead back the Ten Lost Tribes to the Holy Land, "riding on a lion with a seven-headed dragon in its jaws". These types of messianic claims were then widely circulated and believed.

The rabbis of Jerusalem 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 (Jewish 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![citation needed]

At this point also his followers appeared to start using for him the title of AMIRAH, which is a Hebrew acronym for the phrase "Our Lord and King, his Majesty be exalted" (Adoneinu Malkeinu Yarum Hodo).

Proclaimed messiah

"Shabbatai Tzvi enthroned", from Tikkun, Amsterdam, 1666.

Assisted by his wife, Sabbatai became the leader of the community. He used his power to crush the opposition. He deposed the old rabbi of Smyrna, Aaron Lapapa, and appointed Hayyim Benveniste in his place. His popularity grew, as people of all faiths repeated his story. His fame extended to all countries. Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands had centers where the Messianic movement was followed, and the Jews of Hamburg and Amsterdam heard about the events in Smyrna from trustworthy Christians. A distinguished German savant, Heinrich Oldenburg, wrote to Baruch Spinoza (Spinozae Epistolae No 33): "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."

Sabbatai had many prominent rabbis as followers, including Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, Moses Raphael de Aguilar, Moses Galante, Moses Zacuto, and the above-mentioned Hayyim Benveniste. Dionysius Mussafia Musaphia, an adherent of Spinoza, likewise became one of Sabbatai's followers. In this time, people spread fantastic reports, which were widely believed. For example, it was said: "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'."[citation needed] The Jewish community of Avignon, France prepared to emigrate to the new kingdom in the spring of 1666.

The readiness of the Jews of the time to believe the messianic claims of Sabbatai Zevi may be largely explained by the desperate state of European Jewry in the mid-1600s. The bloody pogroms of Bohdan Khmelnytsky had wiped out one third of the Jewish population and destroyed many centers of Jewish learning and communal life (Cohen 1948). There is no doubt that for most of the Jews of Europe there could never have seemed a more propitious moment for the messiah to deliver salvation than the moment at which Sabbetai Zevi made his appearance.

Spread of his influence

Probably with his consent, Sabbatai's adherents planned to abolish many of the ritualistic observances because, according to a minority opinion in the Talmud, in the Messianic time they would no longer be holy obligations. He changed 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 when the latter went to Smyrna, directed in the name of the Messiah the following circular to all of the Jews:

"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 was considered blasphemous, as Sabbatai wanted to celebrate his birthday rather than the holy day. There was outrage and dissension in the communities; many of the leaders, who had regarded the movement sympathetically, were shocked at such 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 because of the enthusiasm of followers.

In Istanbul

At the beginning of the year 1666, Sabbatai left Smyrna for Istanbul (the Ottoman Empire's capital, then known in the Christian West as Constantinople.) He may have been forced to do so by city officials or hoped for a miracle in the Turkish capital. Nathan Ghazzati had prophesied that Sabbatai would place the sultan's crown on his own head. However, the grand vizier, Ahmed Köprülü, ordered Sabbatai's immediate arrest upon arrival and had him imprisoned, maybe to avoid any doubts among local and foreign observers of the imperial court as to the mettle of state power still wielded by the Turkish Sultanate and by the Sultan himself.

Sabbatai's imprisonment had no discouraging effect either on him or on his followers at this initial stage. The lenient treatment to which he was subjected in prison, which may have been secured by means of bribes, seems to have rather strengthened his immediate circle of followers in their messianic beliefs. In the meantime also, 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 messianic expectations in the Jewish diasporas seem to have raised initially to a still higher pitch with the move to the capital of the Empire.

At Abydos (Migdal Oz)

After two months' imprisonment in Constantinople, Sabbatai was taken to the state prison at Abydos. Some of his friends were allowed to accompany him. As a result, the Sabbataians called the fortress Migdal Oz (Tower [of] Strength). As Sabbatai had arrived at the day preceding Passover, he slew a paschal lamb for him and his followers. He ate it with its fat, a violation of Jewish 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 admiration shown by the Turkish officials and inhabitants of the place enabled Sabbatai to display royal splendor in the castle of Abydos. Accounts of his life there 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 a new "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 the custom of praying for Sabbatai not only on Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath), but also on Monday and Thursday. 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, Morocco, the emir ordered a persecution of the Jews. It was during this period that Sabbatai transformed the fasts of the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av (his birthday) into feast-days. He contemplated converting the Day of Atonement to one of celebration.

Nehemiah ha-Kohen

Shabbatai Tzvi as a prisoner in Abydos.

At this time an incident occurred which led to the discrediting of Sabbatai's Messiahship. Two prominent Polish Talmudists from Lwów, Galicia, who were among Sabbatai's visitors in Abydos, apprised him 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. (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. Some Sabbataians are said to have contemplated the secret murder of the rival.

Sabbatai adopts Islam

Nehemiah, however, escaped to Constantinople, where he pretended to embrace Islam to get an audience with the kaymakam. He told him of Sabbatai's ambitions. The kaymakam informed the sultan, Mehmed IV. Sabbatai was taken from Abydos to Adrianople, where the sultan's physician, a former Jew, advised him to convert to Islam. On the following day (September 16, 1666), brought before the sultan, he cast off his Jewish garb and put a Turkish turban on his head. Thus his conversion to Islam was accomplished. The sultan was much pleased, and rewarded Sabbatai by conferring 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. About 300 families converted and were known as dönmeh (converts).[4] The sultan's officials ordered Sabbatai to take an additional wife to demonstrate his conversion. Some days after his conversion he wrote to Smyrna: "God has made me an Ishmaelite; He commanded, and it was done. The ninth day of my regeneration."


Sabbatai's conversion was devastating for his followers. Muslims and Christians criticized his followers after the event. In spite of Sabbatai's apostasy, many of his adherents still tenaciously clung to him, claiming that his conversion was a part of the Messianic scheme. False prophets such as Ghazzati and Primo, who were interested in maintaining the movement, encouraged such belief. In many communities, the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av were still observed as feast-days in spite of bans and excommunications by the rabbis.

Former followers of Shabbatai do penance for their support of him.

At times Sabbatai assumed the role of a pious Muslim and reviled Judaism; at others he associated with Jews as one of their own faith. In March 1668 he 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 claiming Sabbatai was the true Messiah in spite of his conversion. His goal was to bring thousands of Muslims to Judaism.[citation needed] After telling the sultan he was trying to convert Jews to Islam, Sabbatai was permitted to associate with them and preach in their synagogues. He succeeded in bringing over a number of Muslims to his kabbalistic views. Whether through his efforts or their willingness to follow in his latest steps, a small number of Sephardic Jews, about 300 families, converted to Islam, becoming known as the Dönmeh (also spelled Dönme), convert.[5] Some of the followers adhered to a combination of their former Jewish practices as well as Islam.

Gradually the Turks tired of Sabbatai's schemes. They ended his salary and banished him to Constantinople. When he was discovered singing psalms with Jews, the grand vizier ordered his banishment to Dulcigno (today called Ulcinj), a small place in Montenegro. There he died in isolation, according to some accounts, on September 17, 1676, the High Holy Day of Yom Kippur.

"By the 1680s, the Dönme had congregated in Salonika, the cosmopolitan and majority-Jewish city in Ottoman Greece. For the next 250 years, they would lead an independent communal life — intermarrying, doing business together, maintaining their own shrines, and handing down their secret traditions." By the 19th century, the Dönmeh had become prominent in the tobacco and textile trades. They established progressive schools and some members became politically active. Some joined the Committee on Union and Progress (CUP), the revolutionary party known as the Young Turks. With independence, in the 1910s, Greece expelled the Muslims from its territory, including the Dönmeh. Most migrated to Turkey, where by mid-century they were becoming highly assimilated.[6]

Modern followers

Although rather little is known about them, various groups called Dönmeh (Turkish for "convert") continue to follow Sabbatai Zevi today, mostly in Turkey. Estimates of the numbers vary. Many sources claim that there are less than 100,000 and some of them claim there are several hundred thousands in Turkey. According to one source:

"Although outwardly Muslims and, to a lesser extent, Christians, the Dönmeh 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, and have clandestine festivals and fast days that are Jewish survivals. Karakash-Honiosos group also practise unique Sabbatian rites, probably instituted by Reb Berechia after Sabbatai's death, such as The Darkening of the Light."

[citation needed]

Işık University (a private university in Istanbul, Turkey) and the Feyziye Schools Foundation (Feyziye Mektepleri Vakfi - FMV), under whose umbrella the University is operating, are claimed to have been founded by the Karakash group of Dönmeh.[citation needed]


Dönmeh West and the Neo-Sabbatian revival

A group called Donmeh West, founded in California in 1972 by Yakov Leib HaKohain, is a Neo-Sabbatian virtual community existing on the Internet. More than 100,000 visitors have visited the website to read and listen to HaKohain's Neo-Sabbatian teachings.[citation needed] Dönmeh West and its leader, Yakov Leib HaKohain have close ties with the dönmeh of Turkey. His own family comes from Constantinople (now Istanbul). The group claims some of the traditional dönmeh consider HaKohain the leader of a world-wide revival in Neo-Sabbatian Kabbalah.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah: 1626-1676, p. 111, mentions, among other evidence of Sabbatai's early rabbinic training and smicha by Rabbi Joseph Eskapha of his native town of Smyrna: "According to the testimony of Leib b. Ozer, the notary of the notary of the Ashkenazi community of Amesterdam . . . , Sabbatai was eighteen years old when he was ordained a hakham." Scholem also writes, in the previous sentence: "Thomas Coenen, the Protestant minister serving the Dutch congregation in Smyrna, tells us . . . that he received the title hakham, the Sephardi honorific for a rabbi, when still an adolescent."
  2. ^ Adam Kirsch, "The Other Secret Jews", review of Marc David Baer, The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks, The New Republic, 15 Feb 2010, accessed 20 Feb 2010
  3. ^ Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism, Random House, 2001, p26.
  4. ^ Adam Kirsch, "The Other Secret Jews", review of Marc David Baer, The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks, The New Republic, 15 Feb 2010, accessed 20 Feb 2010
  5. ^ Adam Kirsch, "The Other Secret Jews", review of Marc David Baer, The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks, The New Republic, 15 Feb 2010, accessed 20 Feb 2010
  6. ^ Adam Kirsch, "The Other Secret Jews", review of Marc David Baer, The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks, The New Republic, 15 Feb 2010, accessed 20 Feb 2010

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