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Overview: Shabbatai Zvi and Sabbateanism

Of far greater impact was the messianic movement that arose around Shabbetai Zvi (1626-1672). In fact, in its scope and intensity the so-called Sabbatian movement has no parallel in Jewish history. It drew its strength from traditional Jewish hopes for political and spiritual redemption; but the specific catalyst for it was the kabbalistic interpretation of exile and redemption, widely diffused by the mid-seventeenth-century, with its assumption that redemption was imminent.

The figure around whom the movement crystallized was a rather unlikely one. Shabbetai Zvi was born to an affluent family in Izmir (Smyrna) in 1626. Shabbetai and his followers claimed that he was born on the Ninth of Ab (Tisha be-Av), the fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem – a day on which, according to Jewish lore, the Messiah was to be born. He received a traditional rabbinic education and was recognized as a gifted student. In adolescence, he turned to the study of Kabbalah, in which he became proficient. At least superficially, he seemed destined for a career as a rabbinic scholar; but his behavior became increasingly erratic, with periods of depression alternating with states of exaltation. Some Smyrna Jews were strongly drawn to him and inspired by his religious utterances. However, his repeated claims to be the Messiah, and his utterances of the ineffable name of God, led the rabbis of Smyrna to banish him from that city in the early 1650s.

For years he traveled about the eastern Mediterranean, sometimes manifesting normal behavior, at others performing bizarre acts in a state of ecstasy. In 1664 Shabbetai married a woman named Sarah, whose doubtful reputation may have given a symbolic meaning to the marriage- He may have believed he was following in the footsteps of the prophet Hosea. At the same time, he was troubled by his compulsions to violate Jewish law. His hopes of a “cure” were stirred when he learned of a Jew who had appeared in Gaza, who claimed he could cure the soul. It was Shabbetai’s fateful meeting with Nathan of Gaza, whom he sought out in order to “find a tikkun and peace for his soul,” as one report put it, that set the movement in motion.

By the time the two men met in Gaza in 1665, the young kabbalist Nathan of Gaza had already heard of Shabbetai Zevi, and was soon convinced that he was the Messiah. At Nathan’s urging, Shabbetai revealed himself as such. Some of the leading rabbinic figures in Jerusalem denounced him, however, and he was banished from Jerusalem. But Nathan of Gaza called for a mass movement of repentance to hasten the redemption, attracting a large following. This penitential movement, in itself a desirable development, may have posed difficulties for the rabbis of Jerusalem, who took no further active steps to suppress the movement, even when their opinion was sought.

Reports that the Messiah had appeared in the person of Shabbetai Zevi spread quickly across the Ottoman Empire and Europe, with rumors of miracles and wild predictions accompanying the facts. Nathan of Gaza acted vigorously to promote the movement, sending letters, composing special liturgies, and prescribing fasts. Swept up in the excitement were not only ordinary men and women, but also rabbinic scholars and communal leaders. In Smyrna, where Shabbetai Zevi arrived in the fall of 1665, a heady penitential movement developed, fueled by Shabbetai’s performance of “strange acts” – symbolic behaviors that were often in violation of Jewish law, such as eating forbidden foods and uttering the ineffable name.

As letters reached Europe and North Africa with reports about the movement (reports that were often embellished), enthusiasm among Jews throughout the diaspora reached a fever pitch. In the year 1666, at the movement’s height, pamphlets publicizing the unfolding of the redemptive scenario were published, and fervent believers undertook penitential fasts and extreme acts of self-affliction. Some Jews sold their property, with the intention of journeying to the Land of Israel. The commotion was followed closely in Christian circles, especially among Christian millenarians, who were instrumental in the publication of letters, and pamphlets and broadsheets in Italian, German, Dutch, and English. To be sure, not everyone reacted with enthusiasm. In the Jewish world, in fact, many doubted the “news.” Tensions had developed early on between “believers” and “infidels”; but as the movement gained momentum, opponents were frightened into silence by punitive measures against them.

In 1666, Shabbetai Zevi traveled to Constantinople (Istanbul), seeking to meet with the Sultan. According to some sources, his goal was to persuade the Sultan to give Jerusalem to the Jews. The Sultan, probably disturbed by the disorder caused by the movement, had Shabbetai Zevi arrested and sent to Gallipoli. His imprisonment, however, did not diminish the excitement of his followers, many of whom flocked to visit him in prison. In a state of ecstasy, Shabbetai Zevi declared the solemn fast day of the Ninth of Av a holiday of celebration.

Accounts differ about exactly how events took a turn in September, 1666. It seems likely that the Ottoman authorities wanted to bring the alarming popular movement to an end. In any case, Shabbetai Zevi was taken to Adrianople, where he was given the choice of being put to death or converting to Islam. Fatefully, he agreed to convert, and took the name Aziz Mehmed Effendi.

News of the “messiah’s” apostasy spread rapidly, stunning the Jewish world. For most Jews, an apostate Messiah was an impossibility, and it became the task of the rabbinic and communal leadership to restore a sense of order and everyday purpose. The strategy adopted was one of studied forgetfulness- The movement was assigned to oblivion.

Not everyone, however, accepted this course. Nathan of Gaza, entirely invested in the movement, acted to keep it alive, declaring that the apostasy was a deep mystery, which he proceeded to explain in kabbalistic terms as part of the process of redemption. He and other followers of Shabbetai Zevi continued to adhere to a paradoxical theology that relied on reinterpretation of classic Jewish texts. The rabbinic establishment, of course, condemned such ideas as heretical.

As for Shabbetai Zevi, he drew around him a group of “believers” in Adrianople who in his footsteps had also accepted Islam outwardly. He continued to inspire his followers with his mystical mission, and died in 1676, apparently still persuaded of his covert messianic role.

The story of the Sabbatian movement after Shabbetai Zevi’s death is long and interesting, but largely marginal. Sabbateanism groups continued to be active in Turkey, Italy, and Poland. One of the most interesting of the defenders of Sabbateanism after Shabbetai Zevi’s death was Abraham Cardoso, an ex-converso whose Sabbatean theology, probably influenced by Catholicism, foresaw the return of Shabbetai Zevi to realize the final redemption. Sabbateanism had not entirely died out even in the late eighteenth century.

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