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Shabbetai Zvi

(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 the Messiah. Then Shabbetai Zvi declared himself the messiah on May 31, 1665, and 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 1665 ... detailed accounts, deeply involved with legendary material, arrived in Italy, Holland, Germany and Poland.
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.

Source: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).

Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.