(1626 - 1676)
Shabbetai Zvi was born in Smyrna in 1626, he showed
early promise as a Talmudic scholar, and even more as a student and devotee
of Kabbalah. More pronounced than
his scholarship were his strange mystical speculations and religious
ecstasies. He traveled to various cities, his strong personality and his
alternately ascetic and self-indulgent behavior attracting and repelling
rabbis and populace alike. He was expelled from Salonica by its rabbis for
having staged a wedding service with himself as bridegroom and the Torah as
bride. His erratic behavior continued. For long periods, he was a respected
student and teacher of Kabbalah; at
other times, he was given to messianic fantasies and bizarre acts. At one
point, living in Jerusalem seeking "peace for his soul," he sought out a self-proclaimed
"man of God," Nathan of Gaza, who declared Shabbetai Zvi to be
Then Shabbetai Zvi began to act the part, as Gershom Scholem describes:
Riding around on horseback in majestic state [he]
summoned a group of his followers, appointing them as apostles or
representatives of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The messianic news spread
like wildfire to other communities in Palestine ... First reports about
Shabbetai Zvi reached Europe early in October 16,65 ... detailed accounts,
deeply involved with legendary material, arrived in Italy, Holland, Germany
Messianic fervor took hold of communities that had no
immediate experience of persecution and bloodshed as well as those which
had.... Repentance alternating with public manifestations of joy and
enthusiasm was the order of the day.
From many places delegations left bearing parchments
signed by the leaders of the community which acknowledged him as the
Messiah and king of Israel.
Not only did Shabbetai Zvi gain militant adherents in
his native Turkey and in the Near East, but even in such cosmopolitan
European cities as Venice, Livorno, and Amsterdam leading rabbis and
sophisticated men of affairs were caught up in the messianic frenzy.
On September 15, 1666, Shabbetai Zvi, brought before the
Sultan and given the choice of death or apostasy, prudently chose the
latter, setting a turban on his head to signify his conversion to Islam,
for which he was rewarded with the honorary title "Keeper of the
Palace Gates" and a pension of 150 piasters a day.
The apostasy shocked the Jewish world. Leaders and
followers alike refused to believe it. Many continued to anticipate a
second coming, and faith in false messiahs continued through the eighteenth
century. In the vast majority of believers, revulsion and remorse set in
and there was an active endeavor to erase all evidence, even mention of the
pseudo-Messiah. Pages were removed from communal registers, and documents
were destroyed. Few copies of the books that celebrated Shabbetai Zvi
survived, and those that did have become rarities much sought after by
libraries and collectors.
Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From
the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress,
(DC: Library of Congress, 1991).