In the decades immediately following the false messiah Sabbatai Zevi there arose a tremendous backlash that unhinged the Jewish world. It is no exaggeration to say that the debacle of Sabbatai Zevi is the turning point of modern Jewish history. It let loose forces that are here today, including the division of the Jewish people into the factions, sects and groups. The fractionalization is a direct result of Sabbatai Zevi and the reaction to him. It pitted Jew against Jew in such a way that the deep scars have still not been erased.
Sabbatai Zevi’s messianism was a distortion of the ideas of the messiah in the Jewish world and the continued belief in him — in any dead person as being the messiah –was a direct threat to Jewish tradition. In the zeal to uproot any vestige of the major, damaging heresy of Sabbatai Zevi and his beliefs from the national body of Israel, many innocent people were punished. In excising the tumor of Sabbatai, healthy tissue was also cut away. Nevertheless, it was a task that needed to be done.
One of the first and greatest Jewish leaders who made it his mission to expose masked Sabbateans was Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi (1656-1718). He was a famous Talmudic scholar as well as a master of Kabbalah. His most well-known book is a collection of responsa called Chacham Tzvi (published in 1712), and he became known as the “Chacham Tzvi.”
Of Eastern European origin, he served as rabbi in many places throughout Europe. Some biographers say that he served as a rabbi in 18 locations. We know of at least a dozen. Eventually, he was appointed chief rabbi of Amsterdam and led a large, powerful and wealthy congregation.
A strong personality, he had within himself the facility of making enemies. He did not bother with diplomatic niceties. He said what he thought and because of his great genius and knowledge he did not suffer fools very well. Not surprisingly, he gained the reputation as a zealot.
Amsterdam was one of the great seats of support for the false messiah Sabbatai Zevi. At great personal risk, Rabbi Ashkenazi became his main opponent and was driven from Amsterdam for his opposition. After the false messiah was exposed, he saw it as his role to uproot any vestiges of Sabbatai Zevi’s movement that still remained in Amsterdam.
He set about on what amounted to a personal crusade. He sought out anyone who promoted the ideas of the Kabbalah upon which the Sabbatai Zevi movement was based. He personally went after all of those rabbis who supported Sabbatai Zevi and made sure that they did not retain any positions of importance in the community.
It was not possible to uproot it all. Even today there are certain customs in the Spanish Portuguese community which date back to the Sabbatai Zevi era. However, in the Ashkenazic community he was successful completely uprooting everything.