On September 14th, 1666, a man named Shabbetai Tzvi was arrested and subsequently thrown into prison by the Turkish Sultan. The most infamous false Messiah of the middle ages, and possibly in all of Jewish history, Shabbetai Tzvi was widely believed by many Jews to be the chosen Messiah. Several months later, Shabbetai Tzvi was given two choices by the Sultan: torture followed by execution or conversion to Islam. He chose the latter, causing at first disbelief, and then widespread anguish and distress throughout Eastern European and Mediterranean Jewry. Ten years later, he died alone in exile, never to bring about the ultimate redemption for the Jewish people. How did this eccentric figure become so confident of his Divine appointment and abilities to end the centuries long exile of the Jewish people? How was he able to attract such a large following despite his odd and anti-traditional behavior?
Shabbetai Tzvi was born in Smyrna, in the Ottoman Empire, in the year 1626. In his book, History of the Jews, the famous Jewish historian Heinreich Graetz explains that Shabbetai Tzvi came from a rather typical background, received a traditional education and learned Talmud in his community’s Yeshiva. As he grew, he was eventually exposed to the Zohar, and found his true calling in Kabbalah. Shabbetai Tzvi was especially attracted to the teachings of Isaac Luria, and led a life of asceticism, which included daily mortification of his body and long periods of time in solitude. His intense study of Kabbalah, ascetic lifestyle, and beautiful voice attracted a number of members of his community to follow him until he had a small circle of faithful disciples.[i]
According to many historians, Shabbetai Tzvi seems to have suffered from bipolar disorder. During his manic episodes, he would violate Jewish teachings, and perform strange and disturbing acts.[ii] Dr. Graetz writes that Shabbetai Tzvi frequently engaged in antinomian behavior, rejecting traditionally accepted rules and standards. More than once, he publicly violated Kashrut and Shabbat laws. According to Luria, who was deeply revered by Shabbetai Tzvi, the Jewish Messiah would be a pious man, possess an immaculate soul, and have a deep connection to the world of spirits. For Shabbetai Tzvi, this may have served as a satisfying elucidation for his bizarre behavior, for it meant that his craziness was due to the fact that he was the Messiah and that he was connected to a secret, mysterious world. After Shabbetai Tzvi revealed himself to his followers as the Jewish Messiah, he and his adherents were put under herem by the community’s rabbinic leaders and then later banished from Smyrna.
The self-proclaimed Messiah wandered around the Ottoman Empire gathering a large group of supporters. He continued to perform strange acts, including an episode in which he married a sefer Torah. The turning point of Shabbetai Tzvi’s Messianic career came when he traveled to Jerusalem. As Graetz explains, he there met a man named Nathan of Gaza, and the two formed a close friendship. Soon after meeting each other, Nathan of Gaza announced that he was Elijah the Prophet and that Shabbetai Tzvi was to be the Jewish Messiah. He sent news of this to many Jewish communities and circulated outlandish stories and fantastical details about the powers of Shabbetai Tzvi. According to Nathan of Gaza, Shabbetai Tzvi would soon go before the Turkish Sultan himself and take the crown from him. Perhaps fueled by psychological imbalance, and spurred on by the faith of Nathan of Gaza, Shabbetai Tzvi became entrenched in his view of himself as the long-awaited Messiah. Perhaps more surprisingly, many Jews were very receptive to these false prophecies, and almost immediately accepted Shabbetai Tzvi as the long awaited Messiah. Especially in Jerusalem and its neighboring communities, those who rejected Shabbetai Tzvi were scorned by his believers, known as Sabbateans.[iii]
Looking back, historians question why Shabbetai Tzvi was so readily accepted as the Messiah by so many Jews. Throughout Jewish history there were many people who declared themselves to be the Savior of the Jewish people, yet were shunned and did not gain a large following. Why should the story of Shabbetai Tzvi be any different?
The majority of historians claim that the success of Shabbetai Tzvi’s messianic campaign was due to the fact that it emerged after a very tumultuous time in Jewish history. Dr. Jacob Barnai explains that the Jews had suffered centuries of oppression and persecution at the hands of their Gentile rulers, and so they were eager to believe that the Messiah had finally come. Persecutions in Poland left Jewish Poles in a state of great suffering, and the Chmielnicki pogroms ravaged the Jewish communities of Ukraine. The Jewish community was left wondering if God really cared about His people, and started searching for the deeper meaning of their exile. By the time Shabbetai Tzvi announced that he was the Messiah, many Jews were prepared to believe him and become his devoted followers. These Jews turned to the leadership of Shabbetai Tzvi, thinking that he would provide for them the solution to their problems.[iv]
In any event, Nathan of Gaza’s stories permeated through many communities and continued to spread. The Sabbatean movement burst forth, sweeping the Jewish world into a Messianic frenzy. By the time Shabbetai Tzvi returned to his hometown, the people of Smyrna were eagerly awaiting him, and immediately accepted him as the true redeemer. The ban pronounced on him fifteen years earlier by the community’s rabbis was conveniently forgotten. Exaggerated stories of his miracles continued to spread throughout the Jewish world, and many took mere rumors to be absolute truths. With increasing support, Shabbetai Tzvi started to engage in more antinomian behavior, and he proclaimed that the mourning period for the galut had ended.
When Shabbetai Tzvi eventually went to the Turkish authorities to obtain the royal crown, they remained unconvinced of his powers and threw him into prison. With the Jewish community in such a state of unrest, the Turkish authorities decided to keep him in prison for several months while they deliberated on how best to handle the false Messiah and the fervor that he was creating. Dr. Heinrich Graetz relates how Shabbetai Tzvi’s followers took his imprisonment as a positive sign, and viewed it as a step closer to redemption. While Shabbetai Tzvi was in prison, the Messianic craze only intensified. Hungarian Jews unthatched their roofs in preparation for the end of galut, and the Jews in Amsterdam prepared to sell their homes. In Hamburg, one could walk into a synagogue and see all members of the community, including very respectable and dignified men, dancing and jumping in jubilation over the coming redemption. Prayers for Shabbetai Tzvi were recited in many synagogues, and all the congregants were forced to reply Amen. Shabbetai Tzvi’s many followers exalted him to such a state until they considered him to be almost a god in his own right. It remains unclear whether Shabbetai Tzvi truly viewed himself as a deity, or whether he simply followed what his disciples led him to believe was the truth.
Heinrich Graetz also explains that the Sabbatean movement greatly undermined Jewish rabbinic authority. Generally speaking, the learned population and scholarly rabbis were against the Sabbatean messianic movement and were appalled at the radical changes taking place in the community. However, there were few Jews who were willing to listen to them, and many rabbis felt powerless in the wake of the new messianic craze.
In the end, neither the Rabbis nor the Jewish populations at large were able to put a stop to the Sabbatean fever. Instead, the Ottoman Sultan decided to put a stop to Shabbetai Tzvi’s influence and forced him to choose death or conversion to Islam. The false Messiah chose to convert to Islam, and placed a turban on his head. Initially, Shabbetai Tzvi’s believers refused to accept the news, as they could not believe that they had been deceived in such a terrible manner. Eventually the reality of his conversion to Islam set in. His followers were badly shaken and deeply ashamed. Shabbetai Tzvi’s rejection of Judaism and conversion to Islam sparked a great crisis in the Jewish community, and plunged many of his former adherents into a great depression. It took many years for the Jews to recover from the messianic craze that Shabbetai Tzvi brought about.[v]
Shabbetai Tzvi’s legacy continues to linger until today. Dr. Graetz relates that at the time of his conversion, Nathan of Gaza announced in a fit of desperation that Shabbetai Tzvi’s conversion to Islam was part of the grand Messianic plan. A few hundred of his followers, in order to show their support, outwardly converted to Islam, but secretly continued to practice Sabbateanism. Long after the disappearance of their charismatic leader, these Donmeh, still exist in Turkey today, numbering about 4,000 individuals. The persecutions which primed the Jews to accept Shabbetai Tzvi have long passed, and have been replaced with new sufferings. And yet, these Donmeh faithfully continue to await the return of Shabbatai Tzvi, the self-proclaimed Messiah, to finally bring about their long awaited redemption.[vi]
Michal Schechter is a Junior at SCW majoring in Biology, and is a staff writer and copy editor for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] Graetz, Heinrich. “Spinoza and Sabbatai Zevi.” History of the Jews. Vol. 5. Jewish Publication Society, 1895. 118-21.
[ii] Soltes, Ori. Mysticism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: Searching for Oneness. Rowman & Littlefield, 2009. 236.
[iii] Graetz, 122-33.
[iv] Barnai, Jacob. “The Outbreak of Sabbateanism-the Eastern European Factor.” Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 4 (1995): 171-83.
[v] Graetz, 134-63.
[vi] Graetz, 209-11.