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Sabbatai Zevi

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Sabbatai Zevi, also transliterated Shabbethai, Shabbetai, or Sabbetai; Zvi or Tzvi (July 23, 1626 - possibly September 30, 1676) was a famous claimed Messiah and Kabbalist. He was the founder of the Sabbataian sect, which drew elements from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Zevi was born at Smyrna, and died, according to some, on Yom Kippur (September 30), 1676, at Dulcigno[?], a small town in Albania. He was of Spanish descent. His father, Mordecai, had been 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 center of the trade in the Levant, Mordecai became the agent in that town of an English house, whose interests he guarded with strict honesty; and he acquired considerable wealth.

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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 did he apparently 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 — whereby 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 boyhood, he had inclined to a life of solitude. According to custom, he married early, but avoided intercourse with his wife; so that she 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 day after day, and lived constantly in a state of ecstasy.

Influence of English Millenarianism

During the first half of the 17th century, millenarian ideas of the near 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 assigned by Christian authors to the year 1666. This belief was so predominant that Manasseh ben Israel[?] in his letter to Oliver Cromwell and the English Parliament did not hesitate to use it as a motive for his plea for the readmission of the Jews into England, remarking that "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 have frequently heard of these expectations and, himself strongly inclined to believe them, must naturally have communicated them to his son, whom he almost deified because of his piety and cabalistic 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 lead him to conceive a plan which was of grave consequences for the whole of Jewry, and whose effects are felt even at 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 Kabbalistic knowledge, 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 Kabalistic literature. However, Sabbatai's authority at the age of twenty-two did not reach far enough to gain for him many adherents. Among the first of these to whom he revealed his Messiahship in the foregoing manner were Isaac Silveyra and Moses Pinheiro, the latter a brother-in-law of the Italian rabbi and cabalist Joseph Ergas. Sabbatai remained for several years at Smyrna, leading a pious, mystic life, and causing in the community many bickerings, the details of which are not known. The college of rabbis having at their 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, as 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 (God's) 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 as the Messiah, gaining many adherents. In order to impress his Messiahship upon the minds of his enthusiastic friends he indulged in all sorts of mystic juggleries; e.g., the celebration of his marriage as Son of God ("En 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 taken by him after this expulsion, Alexandria, Athens, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Smyrna, and other places being mentioned as temporary centers 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 ?alabi (= "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. His great wealth he used most benevolently, supplying the needs of poor Talmudists and cabalists, fifty of whom permanently dined at his table. Sabbatai at once made the acquaintance of Raphael Joseph, who, being possessed by eccentric, mystic 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 wherein 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 betook himself to Jerusalem, hoping that in the Holy City a miracle might happen to confirm his pretensions. Arriving there about 1663, he at first remained inactive, so as not to offend the community. He again resorted to his former practise of mortifying the body by frequent fasting and other penances in order to gain the confidence of the people, who saw therein proofs of extraordinary piety. With great shrewdness he adopted also various means of an inoffensive character which helped him to endear himself to the credulous masses. Being endowed with a very melodious voice, he used to sing psalms during the whole night, or at times even coarse Spanish love-songs, to which he gave a mystic interpretation, attracting thereby crowds of admiring listeners. At other times he would pray at the graves of pious men and women and, as 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 blindly placed their faith in him.

At this juncture 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 ?alabi, 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 ?alabi he obtained from him the necessary sum, a success which gave him great prestige and offered the best prospects for his future Messianic plans. His worshipers indeed 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 nunnery. After ten years' confinement she escaped in a miraculous way and was brought to Amsterdam. Some years later she came to Leghorn, where, according to authentic reports, she led an irregular life. Being of a very eccentric disposition, she 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, always looking for something unusual and impressive, at once seized upon the opportunity and claimed that such a consort had been promised him in a dream. Messengers were sent to Leghorn; and Sarah was brought to Cairo, where she was wedded to Sabbatai in ?alabi's house. Through her a romantic, licentious element entered into 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 Ghazzati

Equipped with ?alabi's money, possessed of a charming wife, and having 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 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. This revelation he proclaimed in writing far and wide, 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. All these grotesque absurdities received wide credence.

The rabbis of Jerusalem, however, looked with much suspicion on the movement, 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 delirious 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 Holland had centers where the Messianic movement was ardently promulgated; and the Jews of Hamburg and Amsterdam received confirmation of the extraordinary events in Smyrna from trust worthy Christians. A distinguished German savant, Heinrich Oldenburg, wrote to Spinoza ("Spinozæ Epistolæ," No. 16): "All the world here is talking of a rumor of the return of the Israelites . . . to their own country. . . . Should the news be confirmed, it may bring about a revolution in all things." Even Spinoza himself entertained the possibility that with this favorable opportunity the Jews might reestablish their kingdom and again be the chosen of God.

Among the many prominent rabbis of that time who were followers of Sabbatai may be mentioned 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 his zealous adherent. The most fantastic reportswere spread in all communities, and were accepted as truth even by otherwise dispassionate men, as, for instance, "that 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 Twelfe Tribes of Israel'." The community of Avignon, France, prepared, therefore, to emigrate to the new kingdom in the spring of 1666.

Spread of 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 desire and 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, A?mad Köprili, and cast into prison in chains. An under-pasha, commissioned to receive Sabbatai on the ship, welcomed him with a vigorous box on the car. 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" (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 all synagogues Sabbatai's initials, "S. ?.," were posted; and prayers for him were inserted in the following form: "Bless our Lord and King, the holy and righteous Sabbatai ?ebi, 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; and his cabalistic formulas and penances were embodied therein.

These and similar innovations caused great dissensions in various communities. In Moravia the excitementreached 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 Ab (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 happened which resulted in discrediting Sabbatai's Messiahship. Two prominent Polish Talmudists from Lemberg, Galicia, who were among the visitors of Sabbatai 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; and Nehemiah obeyed, reaching Abydos after a journey of three months, in the beginning of September, 1666. The conference between the two impostors ended in mutual dissatisfaction, and the 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, Mohammed IV. At the command of Mohammed, 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 Mohammedan slave, which order he obeyed. 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."


The effects of his conversion on the Jewish communities were extremely disheartening. Prominent rabbis who were believers in and followers of Sabbatai were prostrated by compunction and 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 purposed 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; and only the contrary advice of some of his counselors and of the sultana mother prevented these calamities. In spite of Sabbatai's shameful fiasco, however, many of his adherents still tenaciously clung to him, pretending 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 continued his plots, playing 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. Thus in March, 1668, he gave out anew that he had been filled with the Holy Spirit at Passover and had received a revelation. He, or one of his followers, published a mystic work addressed to the Jews in which the most fantastic notions were set forth, e.g., that he was the true Messiah, in spite of his conversion, his object being to bring over thousands of Muslims to Judaism. To the sultan he said that his activity among the Jews was to bring them over to Islam. He therefore received permission to associate with his former coreligionists, 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 surprised while 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.

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