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Later Messiahs (4)

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Sabbathai Zwi, Dutch etching from the seventeenth century. From S. Wagenaar, De Joden van Rome.
Sabbathai Zwi. The text under the crown says 'new monarchy'


Sabbathai Zwi

Cabalistic calculations were clear: the coming of the Messiah was scheduled for 1648. But although this year did bring the end of  the Christian Wars of Religion, it did not bring the Messiah. Even worse, the Jewish world was shocked by the notorious pogroms at Chmielniecki; thousands were killed. Another calculation suggested the year 1666 - 111 years after the pope had established a ghetto in 'Babylon'. This time, there was a very plausible candidate: Sabbathai Zwi (or Sebbathai Zevi).

He was born on 1 August 1626 in Smyrna, a Greek port under Turkish rule. According to the Jewish calendar, it was 9 Av, the anniversary of the Destruction of the Temple (Tisha B’Av) on which -according to one prophecy- the Messiah would be born. As a pupil of Joseph Eskava, he proved himself an eager student of the Scriptures, of Islamic mysticism (Sufism), the Talmud, the Cabbala and the writings of Isaac Luria, and became as famous for his profound wisdom as his extreme mood swings.

In 1648, Sabbathai heard a voice that declared that he was the Messiah, and that his mission was to restore the twelve tribes of Israel. He became soon notorious for his unorthodox interpretations of the Scriptures, for which he offered no other argument than the fact that he was the Messiah. He publicly dismissed the seventh of Ten Commandments and tried to change several regulations concerning sexual morality. Even bolder were his attempt to celebrate Passover, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles in one week, and the fact that he dared to pronounce God's name, which only the high priest is allowed to whisper (and then only on the Day of Atonement, in the Temple). No less offensive was the fact that he married to the Law of Moses.

It is small wonder that the new Messiah received not much support from the shocked inhabitants of Smyrna. They considered him mentally ill; after all, Sabbathai sometimes believed himself to levitate during his illuminations, but on other days locked himself up in his house, thinking that he saw the pit of Hell and fought with evil devils. (In our terms, he would be called manic-depressive.) At first, he was treated kindly. But some whispered that Sabbathai practiced magic and invoked demons, and although he argued that 'the true sign of the Messiah was not the ability to work miracles but the believe of his adherents', the authorities banished him from his home town in 1651.

Sabbathai started to wander through Greece, Turkey and Syria, hoping to convince the world outside Smyrna of his true nature. As one could have expected, he frequently changed rabbinic law and frequently had to run for his life. In 1658, he had a vision, in which he received eighteen new commandments, which were to supersede the Ten Commandments of Moses; the new rules were remarkably similar to the innovations he had proposed in Smyrna. An innovation was the idea that women were supposed to study the Law - until then a male prerogative. However, the Messiah did not gain a large following for six years, during which he visited the Jewish communities of Thessalonici, Cairo and Jerusalem.

Asher Lämmlin (c.1500)
Isaac Luria (1534-1573)
Hayyim Vital (after 1542)
Sabbathai Zwi (1626-1676)
Jacob Frank (1726-1786)
Moses Guibbory (1899-1985)
Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994)
Seventeenth-century etching of Nathan of Gaza.
Nathan leading Jews to Jerusalem

In May 1665, however, things started to change, when he met the charismatic Nathan Ashkenazi of Gaza in Jerusalem. This man had studied Mosaic Law and Cabbala and believed that he was the reincarnation of Elijah. Nathan proved himself to be a very active and successful disciple: soon, about eighty percent of the Jews -from Persia to Holland, from Morocco to Ukraine, in Asia, Europe, Africa and America- were convinced that Sabbathai Zwi was the Messiah. After all, he promised an end to ghetto life. Even when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, no messianic claimant had been so widely accepted.

Sabbathai was forced to go to Cairo to marry a Polish woman named Sarah. It was common knowledge that in the disappointing year 1648 (above), she had had a vision indicating that she would one day be the Messiah's wife. Sarah had lived Amsterdam and Livorno for some time, and the couple decided to leave for Europe.

Their first goal, however, was Smyrna, which they entered in triumph and where they celebrated the Jewish New Year (September 10,  1665). Sabbathai received scholars from all over the world, telling them that they would meet 'next year in Jerusalem'. His disciple Nathan wrote a circular letter to the Jewish communities, which contains a reference to 'the lion', i.e. Isaac Luria:

Now I shall disclose the course of events. A year and a few months from today, Sabbathai will take the dominion of the Turkish king without war, for by the power of the hymns and praises which he shall utter, all nations shall submit to his rule. He will take the Turkish king alone to the countries which he will conquer, and all the kings shall be tributary unto him, but only the Turkish king will be his servant. [...] This will continue for four or five years.
   Thereafter, the aforementioned rabbi will proceed to the river Sambatyon, leaving his kingdom in the charge of the Turkish king [...] but after three months the Turkish king will be seduced by his councilors and will rebel. [...] At that time,  the aforementioned rabbi will return from the river Sambatyon [...] mounted on a celestial lion; his bridle will be a seven-headed serpent and 'fire out of his mouth devoured'. At this sight all the nations and all the kings shall bow before him to the ground.
   On that day the ingathering of the dispersed shall take place, and he shall behold the sanctuary already built descending from above. There will be seven thousand Jews in Palestine at that time, and on that day there will be the resurrection of the dead that have died in Palestine. Those that are not worthy to rise will be cast out from the Holy Land. The general resurrection outside the Holy Land will take place forty years later.
After the winter, Sabbathai went to Istanbul, expecting that sultan Mehmed IV (1684-1687) would be so impressed by his arrival that, if he were to refuse to surrender his throne, he would certainly give the Jews a home land in Palestine. However, the sultan was not impressed at all; he ordered Sabbathai to be arrested and detained at the Dardanelles. But Sabbathai was not impressed either: during the summer, the prisoner received embassies and continued to behave himself as the worldly leader of the Jews.

Shabbatai's next stop was the citadel of Edirne, and finally he received his long hoped for audience. The sultan gave him the choice between three options: he performed a miracle and proved that he was the Messiah indeed, he was executed, or he became a Muslim. The Jewish world was shocked to discover that their leader had denounced Judaism and consented to conversion.

Shabbatai's courtiers -among them Nathan- tried to save their master's reputation by stating that the time was not right and that the Messiah first had to descend into the kelippah, the domain of evil, to defeat it from within. In other words, he had to convert to Islam and Christianity to rescue non-Jewish monotheists. Most adherents returned to their traditional beliefs, but some of Sabbathai's followers converted to Islam. Pilgrims continued to come to Dulcigno in Montenegro, where Sabbathai was forced to live by the Turkish authorities.

Even the death of their Messiah in 1676 did not shake the belief of these pilgrims. They became known as the Dönmeh sect (Turkish for 'apostates'). However, they were not united in their belief. Immediately after Sabbathai's death, his brother-in-law Jacob Querido announced that Sabbathai's soul had settled in him, and that he was the Messiah. His sister Sarah was convinced, but she was the only one and the new messianic movement was rather short-lived.

In 1716, one Baruchya Russo claimed to be the Messiah, the reincarnation of Sabbathai and an incarnation of God. He gained some adherents, but most members of the Dönmeh sect remained faithful to Sabbathai. There are currently some 40,000 members, most of them living in Istanbul.

Most Jews, however, were deeply disappointed. After the conversion of Sabbathai Zwi, the study of  the Cabbala was considered almost heretical. Mystical, extatic Judaism without messianism, known as Chassidism, became very popular.

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