According to Kabbalistic tradition 1648 was destined to be a messianic year, and hopes for the coming of the messiah were raised throughout the Jewish world. It is, therefore, ironic that in 1648 a Messiah did reveal himself and gained wide popularity throughout the Jewish world – but caused a disaster of historic proportions, the results of which still reverberate through our time.
Sabbatai Zevi was born in Smyrna, Turkey, in the year 1626. His family originally came from Greece and later emigrated to Turkey. His father was a merchant and a commercial agent for European traders. The Jews generally found their occupation as middlemen between the European traders on the continent and the suppliers of the Middle East and in Asia.
He was blessed with a very charismatic personality from the time he was a young child. He also had many traits of genius, including apparently a photographic memory and a very high IQ. By the time he was 20 he had already received rabbinic ordination from some of the leading rabbis in Smyrna, and even though he was so young he was considered to be a Kabbalist of note. He therefore gained a very wide following in Smyrna and also in other Jewish communities in Turkey.
The Dark Side of Genius
He was a strange person, though. Modern psychology might classify him as a manic depressive, if not a schizophrenic. He had various flights of mood and long episodes of depressions. He practiced ascetic ways, fasting for weeks on end, only drinking water. He practiced self-flagellation, which was a common practice among the Shiite Muslims who frequented his part of the world. He would act like a hermit and go out to lonely places, like forests. He would immerse himself in ritual baths 20 or 30 times a day.
By the time he was 22 — in the year 1648 — he was already a source of concern to the rabbinical leaders.
In 1648, news of the massacres occurring to the Jews in Eastern Europe began to filter down to the Jewish communities in Turkey. In light of the messianic expectations of 1648, this triggered in his mind the idea that he could be the Messiah. In his dreams, he had an apocalyptic vision of himself actually taking revenge against the Cossacks for their terrible mistreatment of the Jews. He had dreams of leading the Jewish people to the holy land, rebuilding the city of Jerusalem and the Temple.
It was one thing to have the dream, but once he started telling them to others the rabbis in Smyrna warned him that if he continued in this fashion they would have no choice but to excommunicate him.
In 1650, he almost drowned while swimming in the Mediterranean and was miraculously saved. He used that as a proof that God saved him for great messianic purposes. He claimed to have fought with bare hands against the wild dogs, against wolves. He claimed to have killed serpents. All of these stories gained wide circulation and acceptance. The world then was extremely superstitious. And much of the superstitions of the outside world infiltrated the Jewish world. Jews were therefore gullible to Sabbatai Zevi’s claims.
In 1651, the rabbis could no longer look askance. They not only excommunicated him from Smyrna, but whipped him publicly. From 1651 to 1658, Sabbatai Zevi wandered throughout the major Jewish communities of Greece, Albania and Turkey. Wherever he went he attracted followers. He was always accompanied by bizarre behavior. He always made grand statements regarding his messianic abilities. He always stated that the apocalypse was at hand and that the Jews should prepare for it.
In many of the communities his behavior was so insulting that the rabbis banned him, flogged him and sent him out. But he always had support — monetary support, physical support and spiritual support. In 1658, he finally returned to Constantinople and from there he came home to Smyrna. The original ban against him was a seven year ban. Having now expired, he returned to his home. There he was met by mixed reception.
Nathan of Gaza
The story of Sabbatai Zevi could very well have ended there. The thing that kept his myth going was another man: Nathan of Gaza. He is to Sabbatai Zevi what Paul was to Christianity. He was the one who spread his fame throughout the world.
In 1662, when he was 36, Sabbatai Zevi left Smyrna and traveled to Egypt. From Egypt he embarked upon a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In 1663, he finally came to Jerusalem, and there he met Nathan. Nathan convinced Sabbatai that he was the real Messiah. Sabbatai had been saying this for 10 years, but had not gotten anywhere. Now, even Sabbatai had no doubts.
Nathan was not just a self-proclaimed prophet but a great publicist as well. He wrote letters to every corner of Jewish world. He organized a team of missionaries. Within a year, the belief of Sabbatai Zevi as the Messiah had spread as he had hoped.
He was also able to explain all of the inconsistencies in Sabbatai Zevi’s behavior, including all his transgressions and non-observances of Jewish law. He explained that all of these things were only a method by which God was testing the true believers. God sent a Messiah one could find fault with so that true believers should believe in him anyway.
Chaos Breaks Loose
What happened next is indescribable. We know it from diplomatic records, from ambassadors of countries who sent records to their government describing what happened throughout the Jewish world. Sabbatai Zevi was not just a Jewish phenomenon, but an international one. His arrival affected the economy and politics of all Europe.
Wild rumors regarding the advent of the Messiah circulated all over the civilized world. Jews in Greece, Italy, Syria, Egypt and Turkey, began to sell out their properties in anticipation of moving to the Holy Land.
The Jewish communities of Amsterdam, Hamburg, Altona, Frankfurt am Main were all taken over by supporters of Sabbatai Zevi. The chief opponent of Sabbatai Zevi was a rabbi in Amsterdam by the name of Jacob Sasportas. He sent letters to the rabbis of Europe to oppose Sabbatai Zevi. Shockingly, hundreds of rabbis refused to do so. Many of them said in effect that even if Sabbatai Zevi was not the Messiah he was good for the Jews because a lot of assimilated Jews were now more religious or at least more aware and proud of their Jewish identities. One can feel in Sasportas’ writings the terrible frustration of somebody that sees a fire burning but he can’t get the fire department to put water in the hose.
By the end of 1665, the messianic fervor had moved from the Mediterranean basin to Western and Eastern Europe. In short, Sabbatai Zevi hysteria swept throughout Europe, especially Eastern Europe which was still reeling from the Tach T’tat massacres. The Jews were looking for something. Here was the solution; here was the Messiah.
Enter now the Sultan of Turkey
The Sultan of Turkey watched the Sabbatai Zevi phenomenon unfold for seven years. He did not oppose it because of all the money it was bringing into Turkey. Sabbatai Zevi was a remarkable tourist attraction. Jews came from all over the world and they left large sums of money. Sabbatai Zevi himself kept the pretense going by paying off all of the police and governors. They all had to give their cut back to the sultan, so he was happy to look the other way.
However, the success of Sabbatai Zevi eventually forced his hand, because the Muslims came to him and complained that he was going kick them out of Jerusalem, recapture it from the Turks and prove the truth of Judaism over Islam. The sultan was frightened of unloosing the wrath of the Muslim fundamentalist.
The last straw was that in 1666 Sabbatai Zevi abolished the fast days commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples. He said that since the Messiah had come, by next year the Temple in Jerusalem would be rebuilt. That proclamation frightened the sultan. He arrested Sabbatai Zevi, moved him to the city of Gallipoli and imprisoned him in a large castle.
However, Sabbatai Zevi was only under house arrest and he behaved as if he was a free man, an emperor in fact, and the castle was his palace. Indeed, Jews came from all over the world to see him in his “palace” prison. He proclaimed there that this was again only a temporary setback. Nathan said that it was part of the birth pangs of the Messiah. Believers should keep the faith, because everything was going to turn out all right.
End of the Charade
Even now Sabbatai Zevi was unable to control himself. One day he had a costume made for himself that closely resembled the royal robes of the sultan. The sultan naturally had spies present at Sabbatai Zevi’s “court.” When the sultan was informed that Sabbatai now dressed like him, he took umbrage. He decided it was time to end the charade completely.
In September 1666 he had Sabbatai Zevi brought to the city of Adrianople, where the sultan and his entourage were encamped. He questioned Sabbatai Zevi in front of his court. Sabbatai Zevi denied all messianic pretensions. He pledged his undying loyalty to the sultan.
That was not enough, though. The sultan then offered Sabbatai Zevi the choice of either publicly converting to Islam or to being beheaded. As the sultan so delicately put it: “Your head or the turban” (the turban being a symbol for becoming a Muslim). Sabbatai Zevi, the man who was supposed to be the Messiah of Israel, shamefully chose the turban. He agreed to convert and now adopted a new name Aziz Mehmed Effendi.
That should have ended the story. But, incredibly, it didn’t.
Nathan was able to keep the charade going for almost another decade. He claimed, again, that Sabbatai Zevi’s apostasy was the final culminating test to see who really believed in him. If you still believed in him after his conversion to Islam you were truly a true believer.
That is why until the 1670s there still were pockets of believers in Sabbatai Zevi throughout the Jewish world. Nevertheless, by now most Jews had given up on it. Most had completely seen through the charade and now were forced to deal with the debacles that had come upon them.
To a great extent, Sabbatai Zevi is the direct cause of the Reform movement, because he broke the back of the idea of waiting for the Messiah. The Jews in Western Europe and elsewhere were no longer willing to wait for a miraculous redemption. Having raised the expectations of the messianic time to such an extent and bankrupted it, there were vast sections of the Jewish people that were no longer willing to invest their faith in a messianic era.
Therefore, the Reform movement came and gave a completely different solution to the Jewish problem — a solution not dependent upon the land of Israel, the Messiah and supernatural events, but rather within the grasp of human reach and reason. It proved enormously popular because Sabbatai Zevi had bankrupted faith.
Even though he and his movement are forgotten, and it remains only an historic anachronism, the effects are very much alive among us today. In that transformation lays the seeds of all modern Jewish history.