T O P I C
STORY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE
STORY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE
JEWISH MESSIAH CLAIMANTS
Messiah in Judaism originally meant a divinely appointed king or "anointed one" and included Jewish priests, prophets and kings such as David, Cyrus the Great or Alexander the Great. Later, especially after the failure of the Hasmonean Kingdom (37 BCE) and the Jewish–Roman wars (66–135 CE), the figure of the Jewish Messiah was one who would deliver the Jews from oppression and usher in an Olam HaBa ("world to come") or Messianic Age.
Some people were looking forward to a military leader who would defeat the Seleucid or Roman enemies and establish an independent Jewish kingdom. Others, like the author of the Psalms of Solomon, stated that the Messiah was a charismatic teacher who would give the correct interpretation of Mosaic law, restore Israel, and judge mankind.
Jesus (ca. 4 BCE–30 CE), in Galilee and the Roman province of Judea. Jews who believed him to be the Messiah were the first Christians, also known as Jewish Christians. It is estimated that there are 2.5 billion Christians in the world today, making Jesus of Nazareth the most widely followed Messiah claimant.
Vespasian, c. 70, according to Flavius Josephus
With the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the appearance of messiahs ceased for a time. Sixty years later a politico-Messianic movement of large proportions took place.
Simon bar Kokhba (also: Bar Kosiba) (?– died c. 135), led a revolt against Rome circa 132–135 CE. Bar Kokhba was hailed as Messiah-king by Rabbi Akiva, who referred to him using Numbers xxiv. 17: "There shall come forth a star out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite through the corners of Moab," and Hag. ii. 21, 22: "I will shake the heavens and the earth and I will overthrow the thrones of kingdoms...." (Talmud tractate Sanhedrin97b). His messiahship was doubted by some, but bar Kokhba led a rebellion and founded a short-lived Jewish state. He was killed in the siege of Betar, which was the final battle of the Third Jewish-Roman War that devastated Judea.
Moses of Crete. The unsuccessful issue of the Bar Kokba war put an end for centuries to Messianic movements, but Messianic hopes were nonetheless cherished. In accordance with a computation found in the Talmud, the Messiah was expected in 440 (Sanh. 97b) or 471 ('Ab. Zarah 9b). This expectation in connection with the disturbances in the Roman empire attendant upon invasions may have raised up the Messiah who appeared about this time in Crete, and who won over the Jewish population to his movement. He called himself Moses, and promised to lead the people, like the ancient Moses, dry-shod through the sea back to Israel. In about 440-470, his followers, convinced by him, left their possessions and waited for the promised day, when at his command many cast themselves into the sea to return to Israel, some finding death, others being rescued. The pseudo-Messiah himself disappeared. Socrates of Constantinople states that Moses of Crete fled, while the Chronicle of John of Nikiû claims that he perished in the sea. While he called himself Moses, the Chronicle gives his actual name as 'Fiskis'.
The Khuzistan Chronicle records an otherwise-unknown Messianic claimant who arose alongside the Muslim conquest of Khuzistan. This Messiah led the Jews to destroying numerous Christian churches in Iraq and coastal Iran.
The pseudo-Messiahs that followed played their roles in the Orient, and were at the same time religious reformers whose work influenced Karaism. Appearing at the first part of the 8th century in Persia:
Isḥaḳ ben Ya'ḳub Obadiah Abu 'Isa al-Isfahani of Ispahan. He lived in the reign of Marwan II (744–750). Known as Abu Isa, he claimed to be the last of the five forerunners of the Messiah and that God had appointed him to free Israel. Having gathering a large number of followers, he rebelled against the caliph in Persia. But he was defeated and slain at Rai. His followers claimed that he was inspired and urged as proof the fact that he wrote books, although he was ignorant of reading and writing. He founded the first sect that arose in Judaism after the destruction of the Temple, the 'Isawiyya.
Yudghan, called "Al-Ra'i" ("the shepherd of the flock of his people"), who lived and taught in Persia in the first half of the 8th century. He was disciple of Abu Isa who continued the faith after Isa was slain.. He declared himself to be a prophet, and was by his disciples regarded as a Messiah. He came from Hamadan, and taught doctrines which he claimed to have received through prophecy. According to Shahristani, he opposed the belief in anthropomorphism, taught the doctrine of free will, and held that the Torah had an allegorical meaning in addition to its literal one. He admonished his followers to lead an ascetic life, to abstain from meat and wine, and to pray and fast often, following in this his master Abu 'Isa. He held that the observance of the Sabbath and festivals was merely a matter of memorial. After his death his followers formed a sect, the Yudghanites, who believed that their Messiah had not died, but would return.
Serene (his name is given variously in the sources as Sherini, Sheria, Serenus, Zonoria, Saüra, Severus) the Syrian was born a Christian. He preached in the district of Mardin between 720 and 723. Those Christian sources dependent on Theophilus's history report that "Severus" proclaimed himself Messiah; the Zuqnin Chronicle reports that he proclaimed himself Moses "sent again for the salvation of Israel". Serene promised "to lead you into the desert in order to introduce you then to the inheritance of the Promised Land which you shall possess as before"; more as a "prophet like Moses" than as a Davidic "anointed one" as such. The immediate occasion for his appearance may have been the restriction of the liberties of the Jews by the caliph Omar II (717-720) and his proselytizing efforts. Serene had followers even in Spain, where the Jews were suffering under the oppressive taxation of their new Arab rulers, and many left their homes for the new Moses. These Jews paid instead a tithe to Serene. Like Abu 'Isa and Yudghan, Serene also was a religious reformer. According to Natronai b. Nehemiah, gaon of Pumbedita (719-30), Serene was hostile to rabbinic Judaism laws. His followers disregarded the dietary laws, the rabbinically instituted prayers, and the prohibition against the "wine of libation"; they worked on the second day of the festivals; they did not write marriage and divorce documents according to Talmudic prescriptions, and did not accept the Talmudic prohibition against the marriage of near relatives. Serene was arrested. Brought before Caliph Yazid II, he declared that he had acted only in jest, whereupon he was handed over to the Jews for punishment. Natronai laid down the criteria by which Serene's followers might rejoin the synagogue; most of said followers then presumably did so.
Under the influence of the Crusades the number of Messiahs increased, and the 12th century records many of them;
One appeared in France (c. 1087) and was slain by the French.
Another appeared in the province of Córdoba (c. 1117).
Moses al-Dar'i, a Moroccan teacher, gained a large following. He was convinced that the Messiah would free the Jews in the Almoravid countries at Passover 1127.
David Alroy or Alrui, who was born in Amadiya, appeared in Persia about 1160 declaring himself a Messiah. Taking advantage of his personal popularity, the disturbed and weakened condition of the caliphate, and the discontent of the Jews, who were burdened with a heavy poll tax, he set out upon his political schemes, asserting that he had been sent by God to free the Jews from the Moslem yoke and to lead them back to Jerusalem. For this purpose he summoned the warlike Jews of northern Persia and his coreligionists of Mosul and Baghdad to come armed to his aid and to assist in the capture of Amadia. From this point his career is enveloped in legend. His movement failed, and he is said to have been assassinated, while asleep, by his own father-in-law. A heavy fine was exacted from the Jews for this uprising. After his death Alroy had many followers in Khoy, Salmas, Tabriz, and Maragheh, and these formed a sect called the Menahemists, from the Messianic name "Menahem," assumed by their founder. Benjamin Disraeli wrote the novel Alroy based on this man's life.
The Yemenite Messiah, was an anonymous alleged forerunner of the Messiah from Yemen, who appeared in Fez. Just as the Muslims were making determined efforts to convert the Jews living there. He declared the misfortunes of the time to be prognostications of the coming Messianic kingdom, and called upon the Jews to divide their property with the poor, preaching repentance that those who gave their worldly possessions to the poor would gain a treasure in heaven. This anonymous pseudo-Messiah was the subject of Maimonides' Iggeret Teman. He continued his activity for a year, when he was arrested by the Muslim authorities and beheaded at his own suggestion, it is said, in order that he might prove the truth of his mission by returning to life. Nothing is known beyond the mention of him in Maimonides' "Iggeret Teman" (The Yemen Epistle).
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Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia (b. 1240–after 1291), the cabalist, begin the pseudo-Messiahs whose activity is deeply influenced by their cabalistic speculations. Because of his mystic studies, Abulafia came to believe first that he was a prophet; and in a prophetic book, which he published in Urbino (1279), he declared that God had spoken to him. It is thought, though not proven, that in Messina, on the island of Sicily, where he was well received, and won disciples, he declared himself the Messiah and announced 1290 as the year for the Messianic era to begin. Solomon ben Adret, who was appealed to with regard to Abulafia's claims, condemned him, and some congregations declared against him. Persecuted in Sicily, he went to the island of Comino, near Malta (c. 1288), still asserting in his writings his mission. His end is unknown. Two of his disciples, Joseph Gikatilla and Samuel, both from Medinaceli, later claimed to be prophets and miracle-workers. The latter foretold in mystic language at Ayllon in Segovia the advent of the Messiah. Abulafia gained much modern notoriety as the name for the computer of a character in Umberto Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum.
Nissim ben Abraham (?), another individual making claims of prophethood, active in Avila around 1295. His followers told of him that, although ignorant, he had been suddenly endowed, by an angel, with the power to write a mystic work, The Wonder of Wisdom, with a commentary thereon. Again an appeal was made to Solomon ben Adret, who doubted Nissim's prophetic pretension and urged careful investigation. The prophet continued his activity, nevertheless, and even fixed the last day of the fourth month, Tammuz, 1295, as the date for the Messiah's coming. The credulous prepared for the event by fasting and almsgiving, and came together on the appointed day. Instead of finding the Messiah, some saw on their garments little crosses, perhaps pinned on by unbelievers to ridicule the movement. In their disappointment some of Nissim's followers are said to have gone over to Christianity.
Moses Botarel of Cisneros (?), active around 1413. After the lapse of a century another false Messiah came forward with Messianic pretensions. According to H. Grätz (l.c. viii. 404), this pretended Messiah is to be identified with Moses Botarel. He claimed to be a sorcerer able to combine the names of God. One of his adherents and partisans was Hasdai Crescas. Their relation is referred to by Gerónimo de Santa Fe in his speech at the disputation in Tortosa 1413.
Asher Lämmlein, Asher Kay (Käei) (?), a German proclaiming himself a forerunner of the Messiah, appeared in Istria, near Venice in 1502, and announced that if the Jews would be penitent and practice charity the Messiah would come within half a year, and a pillar of cloud and of smoke would precede the Jews on their return to Jerusalem. He found believers in Italy and Germany, even among the Christians. In obedience to his preaching, people fasted and prayed and gave alms to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, so that the year came to be known as the "year of penitence." However, the "Messiah" either died or disappeared.
David Reubeni (1490–1541?) and Solomon Molcho (1500–1532):
Reubeni was an adventurer who travelled in Portugal, Italy, and Turkey.He pretended to be the ambassador and brother of the King of Khaibar, a town and former district of Arabia, in which the descendants of the "lost tribes" of Reuben and Gad were supposed to dwell. He claimed he was sent to the Pope and the powers of Europe to secure cannon and firearms for war against the Muslims, who prevented the union of the Jews living on the two sides of the Red Sea. He denied expressly that he was a Messiah or a prophet (comp. Fuenn, Keneset Yisrael, p. 256), claiming that he was merely a warrior. The credence which he found at the papal court in 1524, the reception accorded to him in 1525 at the Portuguese court (whither he came at the invitation of John III, and where he at first received the promise of help), and the temporary cessation of persecution of the Marrano;all gave the Portuguese and Spanish Marranos reason to believe that Reuveni was a forerunner of the Messiah. Selaya, inquisitor of Badajoz, complained to the King of Portugal that a Jew who had come from the Orient (referring to Reuveni) had filled the Spanish Marranos with the hope that the Messiah would come and lead Israel from all lands back to Israel, and that he had even emboldened them to overt acts (comp. H. Grätz, l.c. ix. 532). Reuveni met Rabbi Solomon Molcho, a former Spanish Christian who had reverted to Judaism. Reuveni and Molcho were arrested in Regensburg on the orders of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain. He was taken to Mantua, in Italy, where, being a baptized Catholic he was convicted of being a heretic and burned at the stake in November, 1532. A spirit of expectancy was aroused by Reuveni's stay in Portugal. In Herrera del Duque, close to Puebla de Alcocer (Badajoz, Extremadura), a girl of 15 described ecstatic visions in which she talked to the Messiah, who took her to heaven where she saw all those who were burned seated in thrones of gold, and assured her of his near coming. She (only known for us as the Maiden of Herrera) was enthusiastically proclaimed a prophetess, and such was the commotion caused by her visions that the Toledo Inquisition had her promptly arrested.
Shabbatai Tzvi in 1665
Main article: Sabbateans
Sabbatai Zevi (alternative spellings: Shabbetai, Sabbetai, Shabbesai; Zvi, Tzvi) (b. at Smyrna 1626; d. at Dulcigno (present day Ulcinj) 1676), an Ottoman Jew who claimed to be the Messiah, but then converted to Islam; still has followers today in the Dönmeh. The most important messianic movement, and one whose influence was widespread throughout Jewry, lasting in some quarters over a century. After his death, Sabbatai was followed by a line of putative followers declared themselves Messiahs "Sabbethaian pseudo-messiahs".
Barukhia Russo (1695–1740; Osman Baba), successor of Sabbatai Zevi.
Mordecai Mokia (1650–1729), ("the Rebuker") of Eisenstadt, another follower of Shabbethai who remained faithful to him, Mordecai Mokiaḥ ("the Rebuker") of Eisenstadt, also pretended to be a Messiah. His period of activity was from 1678 to 1682 or 1683. He preached at first that Shabbethai was the true Messiah, that his conversion was for mystic reasons necessary, that he did not die but would reveal himself within three years after his supposed death, and pointed to the persecution of the Jews in Oran (by Spain), in Austria, and in France, and to the pestilence in Germany as prognostications of his coming. He found a following among Hungarian, Moravian, and Bohemian Jews. Going a step further, he declared that he was the Davidic Messiah. Shabbethai, according to him, was only the Ephraitic Messiah and was furthermore rich, and therefore could not accomplish the redemption of Israel. He (Mordecai), being poor, was the real Messiah and at the same time the incarnation of the soul of the Ephraitic Messiah. Italian Jews heard of him and invited him to Italy. He went there about 1680, and received a warm welcome in Reggio and Modena. He spoke of Messianic preparations, which he had to make in Rome, and hinted at having perhaps to adopt Christianity outwardly. Denounced to the Inquisition, or advised to leave Italy, he returned to Bohemia, and then went to Poland, where he is said to have become insane. From his time a sect began to form there, which still existed at the beginning of the Mendelssohnian era.
Jacob Querido (died 1690), son of Joseph Filosof, and brother of the fourth wife of Sabbatai, became the head of the Shabbethaians in Salonica, being regarded by them as the new incarnation of Shabbethai. He pretended to be Shabbethai's son and adopted the name Jacob Tzvi. With 400 followers converted to Islam about 1687, forming a sect called the Dönmeh. He himself even made a pilgrimage to Mecca (c. 1690). After his death during the pilgrimage his son Berechiah or Berokia succeeded him (c. 1695–1740).
Miguel (Abraham) Cardoso (1630–1706), born of Marano parents, may have been initiated into the Shabbethaian movement by Moses Pinheiro in Leghorn. He became a prophet of the Messiah, and when the latter embraced Islam he justified this treason, saying that it was necessary for the Messiah to be reckoned among the sinners in order to atone for Israel's idolatry. He applied Isa. liii. to Shabbethai, and sent out epistles to prove that Shabbethai was the true Messiah, and he even suffered persecution for advocating his cause. Later he considered himself as the Ephraitic Messiah, asserting that he had marks on his body, which were proof of this. He preached and wrote of the speedy coming of the Messiah, fixing different dates until his death (see Cardoso, Miguel).
Löbele Prossnitz (Joseph ben Jacob) (?–1750), (early 18th century). He taught that God had given dominion of the world to the "pious one," i.e., the one who had entered into the depths of Kabbalah. Such a representative of God had been Shabbethai, whose soul had passed into other "pious" men, into Jonathan Eybeschütz and into himself. Another, Isaiah Hasid (a brother-in-law of the Shabbethaian Judah Hasid), who lived in Mannheim, secretly claimed to be the resurrected Messiah, although publicly he had abjured Shabbethaian beliefs. He was a proven fraud who nevertheless attained some following amongst former followers of Sabbatai, calling himself the "Messiah ben Joseph."
Jacob Joseph Frank (born 1726 in Podolia; died 1791), founder of the Frankist movement, also claimed to be the messiah. In his youth he made contact with the Dönmeh. He taught that he was a reincarnation of King David and the Patriarch Joseph. Having secured a following among some Turkish and Wallachian Jews, he came in 1755 to Podolia, where the Shabbethaians were in need of a leader, and revealed himself to them as the reincarnation of the soul of Berechiah. He laid stress on the idea of the "holy king" who was at the same time Messiah, and he accordingly called himself santo señor ("holy lord"). His followers claimed he performed miracles; and they even prayed to him. His purpose, as well as that of his sect, was to uproot rabbinic Judaism. He was forced to leave Podolia; and his followers were persecuted. Returning in 1759, he advised his followers to embrace Christianity, and about 1,000 converted and became privileged Polish gentry of Jewish origins. He himself converted in Warsaw in November 1759. But the Catholic Church mistrusted his opinions, and he was imprisoned as a heretic, remaining, however, even in prison the head of his sect.
Eve Frank (1754–1816/1817), was the daughter of Jacob Frank. In 1770 Eve was declared to be the incarnation of the Shekinah, the female aspect of God, as well as the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary and thus became the object of a devotional subcult herself in Częstochowa, with some followers keeping small statues of her in their homes. Historian Jerry Rabow sees her as the only woman to have been declared a Jewish messiah.
Shukr Kuhayl I, 19th-century Yemenite pseudo-messiah.
Judah ben Shalom (Shukr Kuhayl II), 19th-century Yemenite pseudo-messiah
Moses Guibbory (1899–1985)
Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn
Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994). During the 1990s, many people believed that he would be revealed as the Messiah. Although he never stated that he was the Messiah, and even rejected the claims when made before him, admirers felt that Schneerson was worthy of such stature. Even after his death in 1994, people still believed that he will be the Messiah. The Chabad umbrella organization, Agudas Chasidei Chabad have condemned Messianic behavior, stating that it defies the express wishes of Schneerson. Many leading non-Chabad Rabbis and organizations have also condemned Chabad Messianism, some calling it tantamount to heresy
THESE TWO EXAMPLES OF THE JEWISH CULTURAL BACKGROUND TO SHOW THE IMPORTANCE OF MESSIAH'S AS SAVIOURS
SHLOMO MOLKHO (CA. 1500-1532) AND DAVID REUVENI REUBENI, CA. 1490’s-1535 ?
Early Modern Jewish history
After the Expulsion from Spain and the forced conversions in Portugal, many Jews and New Christians, seeking an explanation for the twin disasters, saw in them signs of the approaching messianic era – that is, the necessary “birth pangs.” They could point to a series of events that appeared to be further signs: the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottoman Turks in 1453; Ottoman expansion into both Europe and North Africa; the breakup of western Christendom with the Reformation; and, in a different vein, European expansion to the new world and the “discovery” of previously unknown territories.
Messianic hopes and speculations spawned messianic myths, among both Jews and Christians. Jews recalled the legend of the Ten Lost Tribes, whose members, in popular memory, were believed to reside in a very distant land, from which they would be summoned forth to unite with the rest of the Jewish people in the messianic era. Among Christians, a somewhat similar myth had spread since the twelfth century—the myth of the kingdom of Prester John. According to this legend there existed somewhere in the world (according to some versions in India, or in Ethiopia) an ancient Christian kingdom. This myth was revived during the European expansion, when reports of newly discovered lands and peoples reached Europe. It is against this background that we can view the extraordinary careers of David Reuveni (or Reubeni, ca. 1490s-1535?) and Solomon Molkho (ca. 1500-1532).
David Reuveni, whose actual origins are obscure, appeared in Cairo in the 1520s, introducing himself as “a chief of staff of the army” of a kingdom of 300,000 Jews ruled by his brother Joseph. These Jews, he claimed, were “sons of Reuben, Gad, and Menasseh [three of the lost tribes],” living “near the river Sambation.” After traveling in the Middle East, Reuveni reached Venice in 1523. There he contacted prominent figures among the Venetian elite, arousing considerable interest. In 1524, he went to Rome, where he contacted Daniel da Pisa, an influential Jewish banker. Da Pisa arranged for David Reuveni to meet Cardinal Egidio de Viterbo, a prominent Christian Hebraist. Eventually, Reuveni was granted an audience with the Pope Clement VII. At the audience, Reuveni proposed a joint expedition of his own Jewish army and European Christian armies to capture the Holy Land from the Ottoman Turks. Under the sway of prevailing currents of thought and Reuveni’s powerful personality, the pope granted Reuveni a letter of introduction to the king of Portugal.
In Portugual, Reuveni met with King João III in 1525. The news of “the King of the Jews” stirred excitement in the converso community, whose members had been living outwardly as Catholics since the forced conversion in 1497. One young New Christian, Diogo Pires, a secretary to the royal council, became a fervent follower of David Reuveni. When Reuveni – whose political objectives required maintaining a safe distance from the conversos – refused Diogo Pires’s request to circumcise him, the distinguished young converso performed the surgery himself and adopted the name Solomon Molkho, a name with messianic overtones.
Both David Reuveni, who was dangerously stirring up converso feeling, and Solomon Molkho, whose reversion to Judaism rendered him a heretic, were forced to leave Portugal, and the two men embarked for a while on separate paths. Molkho traveled to Italy and Salonica, where he studied Kabbalah and even produced a kabbalistic work, The Book of Splendor (1529). Reuveni found his way to Avignon, where he was arrested and imprisoned, but released in 1529 on orders of King Francis I.
By 1530, both Solomon Molkho and David Reuveni were in the Italian states, each pursuing his own ambitious plans. Remarkably, Molkho succeeded in obtaining an audience with the pope, despite the fact that, as a baptized Jew, he was technically a heretic. (The pope offered him a letter of protection, stipulating that he “shall not be molested by anyone under whatever authority.”)
Reuveni, meanwhile, had been encountering difficulties among the Jews of Rome, some of whom viewed his intrigues as dangerous to the well-being of the community – as they surely were, given the complex political and religious realities of Rome in the early Reformation period. Still hoping to realize his military scheme, in 1532 Reuveni, who had been joined again by Molkho, sought to gain the ear of the Habsburg emperor Charles V. Despite a warning from the undisputed leader of the Jews of the Holy Roman Empire, the Alsatian Jew Josel of Rosheim, the two messianic adventurers met with the emperor. Reuveni’s aim was still to create a Christian-Jewish alliance against the Turks. The two men, however, had by now aroused serious opposition in various quarters. Both were imprisoned and tried by the Inquisition in Mantua. Molkho was burned at the stake there in 1532. Reuveni was sent to a Spanish prison and was apparently tried by Inquisition in Llerena, where he died some time after 1535.
B) SHABBETAI ZVI AND SABBATIANISM
Early Modern Jewish history
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 publicatipn 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.
n 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.