Who Was Shabbatai Zevi?

Shabbatai Zevi (1626-1676, also spelled Shabsai and Sabbatai) was a false messiah, who succeeded in deluding thousand of Jews into believing that he was the long-awaited redeemer. Born in Turkey, he taught radical new notions based on the Kabbalah and ultimately converted to Islam, dashing the hopes of the masses, who had trustingly placed their hopes in him.

The Beginnings of Messianic Murmurs

The 1600s were a time of terrible suffering for the Jewish people. In Eastern Europe, entire communities were wiped out by Cossacks and others led by Ukrainian leader Bogdan Chmielnicki.

Not surprisingly, the terrible suffering of the Jewish people heightened messianic aspirations, with the Jews grasping at any idea that might bring an end to their travails. Consequently, the time was ripe for impostors to make messianic claims. As such, the messianic fervor started by Shabbatai Zevi and his followers became the greatest and most pernicious false messianic movement in Jewish history since the time of Bar Kochba.

Born in Turkey in 1626, Shabbatai Zevi claimed to be born on Tisha B'Av, the date of the destruction of both Temples and traditionally believed to be the birthday of the Messiah. At a young age, he displayed great brilliance and became an accomplished Talmudic and Kabbalistic scholar. Between 1642 and 1648 he lived in semi-seclusion and began to display character traits that psychologists describe as manic-depressive. As Shabbatai also exhibited periods of normal behavior, his followers explained his irrational moments as Divine inspiration.

At this time, Shabbatai began violating Jewish law, explaining his actions by saying that according to Kabbalah his sins were actually righteous deeds. When reciting blessings, for example, he often pronounced the name of G‑d literally, which is forbidden. According to halacha, the Divine Name Yud-Kay-Vov-Kay must be read Aleph-Daled-Nun-Yud, and one who reads it as written forfeits his portion in the World-To-Come. Shabbatai also ate forbidden fats, chelev, claiming that they elevated the Divine sparks embedded in the animal. Because of these actions, the rabbis of Smyrna, his hometown, expelled him in 1654.

The Birth of a Cult

After his expulsion, Shabbatai visited a number of Jewish communities in the Mediterranean area, his great charisma causing him to attract numerous followers. There, Shabbatai further transgressed halacha by celebrating the holidays of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot all in one week, and by coining a new blessing Mattir Asurim, praising G‑d for permitting what is forbidden. Shabbatai also married a Torah scroll under a wedding canopy, with a full nuptial celebration. Expelled once again, he visited Jerusalem, where he attracted further adherents by exhibiting normal behavior and displaying his great scholarship. In 1664, he married Sarah, a woman of ill repute, justifying his behavior by comparing himself to the Prophet Hosea, who was commanded by G‑d to do something similar.

The Messiah Fervor Spreads

The Shabbatean messianic movement began in earnest in 1665, when Shabbatai Zevi met Nathan of Gaza, a young scholar and Kabbalist who suffered from delusions. Nathan convinced Shabbatai to make Messianic claims, with Nathan adopting the role of Elijah the Prophet, whom Jewish tradition believes to proclaim the arrival of Messiah. This heretical movement, unfortunately, spread quickly, causing countless Jews in Eretz Israeland the Sephardic Mediterranean lands to sell their possessions in anticipation of the triumphant journey to the Holy Land. From the Mediterranean basin, the hysteria spread to Holland and Germany, where assimilated Jews repented, and descendants of conversos returned to their Jewish roots. Benedictions for the Messianic King were even recited in many synagogues. In 1666, excitement heightened when Shabbatai Zevi abolished the fast days of 17 Tammuz and Tishah B'Av, declaring them instead to be days of joy. In Turkey, Shabbatai also captivated people when he slaughtered the Korban Pesach, roasted it in its fat, and eating it. These sins, punishable by karet (spiritual extinction), were explained as capturing the inner essence of the Torah. Strong, reasonable rabbinic opposition was swept aside in the frenzy, with those showing disbelief in the so-called Messiah hounded and reviled.

One courageous rabbi, the great Rabbi Jacob Sasportas of Amsterdam, fearlessly spoke out against the messianic craze, stating that the true Messiah would not deviate one iota from the Torah and halacha. As such, he published a book, Tzitzat Novel Tzvi, refuting all the arguments of the Shabbateans. Although Rabbi Sasportas was largely ignored, and was even forced into exile by the followers of Shabbatai Zevi, Rabbi Sasportas was nevertheless influential in combating the spread of the movement.

From Western Europe, the movement swept into the Ashkenazic heartland of Poland and the Ukraine, where the bloodied and battered Jews eagerly embraced the heresy. Even great rabbis were caught up in the atmosphere of anticipation – so much so that entire communities became followers of Shabbatai Zevi.

The End of Shabbatai Zevi

Art by Rivka Korf Studio
Art by Rivka Korf Studio

Concerned by a possible threat to his rule, the Turkish sultan arrested Shabbatai in February 1666. However, Shabbatai was placed in comfortable surroundings and permitted to receive visitors. In September, having heard that Shabbatai wanted to depose him, the sultan offered him the choice between conversion to Islam or death. Renouncing Judaism, Shabbatai took the name Aziz Mehmed Effendi. The sultan gave him a pension and eventually sent him to Albania, where Shabbatai died in 1676.

Their deepest hopes cruelly dashed, Jews everywhere reacted to the news of Shabbatai's apostasy with shock and disbelief. Nathan tried to explain that Shabbatai's seeming conversion was all part of the messianic plan, but this outright lie was not believed. Many Jews retreated within themselves, finding solace in the eternal truths of the Torah. Others turned away from Judaism, discarding their Torah observance. Fearing a backlash from the government, rabbis, especially in Turkey, foreswore any previous support of the campaign. In religious life, a movement against the study of Kabbalah began to take hold. Nevertheless, spinoff Shabbatean messianic movements appeared from time to time, although none had the effect of the original craze.