Shabbetai Zvi & His Messianic Movement

    October 1998         
Search the Jewish Magazine Site: Google
The Jewish Magazine is the place for Israel and Jewish interest articles. Put us on your book mark!


Search our Archives:

Opinion & Society

Shabbetai Zvi

By Eli Goldman

  Amongst the most influential persons in Judaism, was a person by the name of Shabbetai Zvi. Shabbetai Zvi lived from 1626 to 1676, yet his life and circumstances can still be felt in our times. He was the central figure in one of the most bizarre false messiah ordeals that the Jewish people have ever experienced.

  Shabbetai Zvi was born in Smyrna, Ismar to a traditional religious merchant family. He was given a traditional Jewish education and showed much promise for future success. He received rabbinical ordination at the early age of eighteen. He was well versed in the Talmud but began to live a life of an ascetic studying the Kabbala (Jewish mystical doctrine).

  He had a dual personality. On one side, he was handsome and outgoing, speaking in Kabbalistic terminology; and very knowledgeable in Talmudic lore. But he had a darker side, that of a recluse, depressed from his ignoble desires and compulsive behavior that drove him to violate the traditional laws. At times he had what were described as illuminated states, where he experienced deep religious experiences that ultimately caused him to consider himself to be the messiah.

  The rabbis, including his teachers, would not accept such deviant behavior and Shabbetai Zvi was banned from his home town. He wandered through Greece and settled in Salonika where he made friends quickly. Again, he, in an exalted state, began to commit acts of excess which were intolerable to the community. He was shortly expelled by the rabbis.

  In his various travels, he studied the Kabbala and tried to use it to purge himself of his evil side. At times he went through periods of deep melancholy due to his inability to cleanse himself of the evil inclination that seemed to possess his body. Eventually he decided to try his fortune in Israel.

  During his tour of Egypt and Israel, he made many friends with his pleasing personality, his handsome appearance and his deep knowledge of both the legal and mystical aspects of the Torah. During these years he seemed not to succumb to his depressed and melancholic state.

  In 1663, the rabbis of Jerusalem sent Shabbetai Zvi to Egypt on communal business. There he studied with the great and famous rabbis of Kabbala. He was accepted into the most distinguished circles and accepted as a true Torah scholar and mystic.

  At this time, in Gaza, a man by the name of Nathan lived. Nathan was the son of a distinguished rabbinical family from Jerusalem. Nathan was a well known and respected scholar who studied mysticism. Nathan possessed the secrets of the Kabbala and used it to bequeath blessings on those who came to him. His name soon traveled far and wide and many seeking divine intervention in their problematic lives, sought him out. Because of his lofty status and ability to invoke divine intervention to help others, Nathan declared himself to be a prophet.

  Shabbetai Zvi, hearing of the miracle man of Gaza, decided to visit him in hope of procuring a relief for his bouts of melancholy and feeling that he was the messiah. As he set out upon his journey, Nathan of Gaza had a dream that the messiah came and appeared to him. When Shabbetai Zvi came to speak with Nathan, Nathan recognized Shabbetai Zvi as the messiah from his dreams. Instead of curing Shabbetai Zvi from his delusions of being the messiah, Nathan convinced Shabbetai Zvi that he was indeed the true messiah.

  The two discussed the matter in the deepest Kabbalistic terms. Nathan explained to Shabbetai Zvi that he had come to bring the world to its perfection. He explained to Shabbetai Zvi the lofty status of his soul and its mission here on earth. Nathan of Gaza announced to the world that the true messiah had arrived. Shabbetai Zvi himself was transferred into a state of elated illumination, becoming certain of his true self and mission to the world.

  In 1665, he proclaimed himself the messiah. Gaza, was in euphoria. Nathan the prophet, who was highly respected, independently confirmed Shabbetai Zvi's proclamation. The local population accepted the declaration and even the local rabbis, who spoke with Shabbetai Zvi, were convinced that he, indeed, was the messiah.

  The news of the messiah spread like lightening. All of Israel was electrified. As Shabbetai Zvi and Nathan of Gaza toured the country, hordes came out to greet the newly revealed messiah. In each encounter with local people and their leaders, Shabbetai Zvi's charm and personality won over the masses. His talmudic erudition and deep knowledge of the Kabbala, together with his aesthetic life style impressed the rabbinical leaders.

  Only the rabbis of Jerusalem were wary of this messiah. Jerusalem was the center of scholarly pursuits. The rabbis of Jerusalem were the most gifted and knowledgeable in the middle-east. They were not impressed the claim that Shabbetai Zvi was the messiah, however they did not oppose him.

  As long as Shabbetai Zvi merely raised the spirits of the masses and adjured them to repent, the rabbis of Jerusalem did not interfere. However, Shabbetai Zvi decided that the fast days that commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem were to be abolished. In its place festive meals were to be partaken to celebrate the beginning of the promised redemption. Hordes of people, Jews and gentiles, ignoramuses and learned people, swarmed to see him. His character and charisma stimulated the hearts and emotions of the people. The pent-up yearnings for the true messiah, the belief that the terrible conditions that the Jews lived under would now change, gave additional impetus to the movement.

  Soon Shabbetai Zvi decreed that certain animal fats, which were forbidden by the Torah, could now be eaten. He introduced a special blessing to thank G-d for permitting that which was forbidden. He would publicly make this blessing and eat these fats. In addition, he would utter the four letter name of G-d that is not to be pronounced. He declared that the lost ten tribes of Israel are coming for the ingathering and named his chief followers and leaders of those tribes. After hearing and witnessing these acts, the rabbis of Jerusalem turned against Shabbetai Zvi and his prophet, Nathan. The rabbis soon banned them from the holy city.

  The reputation that Shabbetai Zvi had made of being the messiah was already public. Letters from Israel had reached the Diaspora. As Shabbetai Zvi and Nathan continued their travels, their popularity increased. Nathan wrote many letters explaining in Kabbalistic form and style, the necessities for changes and how this agreed with the mystical traditions.

  Shabbetai Zvi left Israel and returned to traveling through out the Diaspora. In each community, his popularity increased. At first he refused to appear publicly as the messiah, speaking privately with influential individuals. Never the less, the public acceptance of him was overwhelming.

  The rabbis of Jerusalem, hearing of Shabbetai Zvi's success in convincing people of his mission, now lifted up the pen and quill and began sending letters to the leading rabbis of Europe and Asia. As he traveled through Turkey and Greece, he excited the local population and there was born a fervorous excitement. He introduced new practices into the accepted religious life and declared that the fast days commemorating the Temple were abolished. Festive meals should be eaten instead. Amid the clamor and emotional acceptance of Shabbetai Zvi, the detractors from this messianic movement were not given fair hearing. Those who opposed Shabbetai Zvi, were verbally abused or physically threatened. In several instances people were actually beaten. Opposition came only from several brave and distinguished rabbis.

  The Turkish authorities became suspicious of the man and his movement. Jews and gentiles alike were being caught up in a frenzied messianic fever. Commerce was slowing as many began making plans to greet the final redemption in Israel. Divisions in communities began causing civil unrest. The absolute authority of the Turkish ruler was being compromised.

  Shabbetai Zvi was arrested in 1666, and brought before the grand vizier in chains. At first Shabbetai Zvi was imprisoned in a dark cell. Later, through bribery, his prison cell was changed to more imperial accommodations. Incarcerated, he still met with his many supporters. Undampened by the imprisonment, he held court in the jail. As he was transferred to another prison, he publicly sacrificed the Pascal lamb and ate it. Through much bribery, which was very common in those times, his confinement was turned into a period of grandiose martyrdom, and he attracted even more adherents.

  The Turkish authorities, alarmed by the swelling masses of adherents and their avowed fanaticism, gave Shabbetai Zvi an ultimatum. Either convert to Islam or be executed. Shabbetai Zvi, known as the Jewish messiah, in a startling move, accepted conversion. He was accepted into Islam, given a Moslem name and a regal office with a large salary.

  Even more startling, his followers were not dazed by this seemingly apostasy although it is clearly forbidden to convert to another religion. It was explained that Shabbetai Zvi had come to perfect human race for the final redemption. Now that that rectification of the Jewish souls had reached its completion, it was necessary to effect a change also in the non-Jewish world. For this purpose, Shabbetai Zvi had to descend into the depths of non-kosher beliefs and make there also a correction for the gentiles. In order to achieve this correction, he had to convert, but this was only a temporary state. When this correction was achieved, then the world would be ready for that final redemption.

  Unfortunately, many of his followers followed him and converted. The resultant shock waves and emotional upheaval of the times electrified the Jewish world. The rabbis were shocked at the outcome of this messiah. Yet it was Nathan of Gaza who came to Shabbetai Zvi's support and extolled his self sacrificing actions on behalf of mankind. Nathan left the land of Israel and traveled to Shabbetai Zvi. The foundation for the ideology of this new dogma was now firmly entrenched in the annals of the Jewish communities. The self sacrificing messiah delving into the depth of impurity, risking his soul for the betterment of all mankind. These ideas were ingrained into the new mystical thoughts which were to surface throughout the next one hundred years.

  Shabbetai Zvi himself lived a double life. At times he lived as a Moslem, adhering to their customs. At other time he would act as a Jew. Each community, the Jewish and Moslem, had it's own understanding of his actions and accepted him. His proclamations still were erratic and his followers were a staunch group. He made many contacts with Muslim mystics and enjoyed much support. His erratic behavior finally caused his arrest and eventual deportation to Albania. There he lived out his final years composing and teaching his mystical philosophy and explaining how his system of thought supercedes the existing mystical thoughts.

  He died suddenly in his fiftieth year, in 1676. However, Nathan the prophet from Gaza continued disseminating the belief in Sabatean mysticism and philosophy. Amongst the believers in Shabbetai Zvi, a search for an explanation and a new leader was apparent. Many lesser characters tried to become the messiah. Each failed.

  The repercussions of the Shabbetai Zvi incident precipitated the antagonism that erupted some fifty years later as the Chassidic movement began to spread it's influence in Europe. The early Chassidim were strongly suspected of being another surfacing of the same Sabatean mysticism that caused much apostasy. This fighting still continues till this day in the present Orthodox circles. Shabbetai Zvi may be long removed from our world, but the stigma of the false messiah amid the mystical promises still abounds in the world of the Observant Jew.


from the October 1998 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

Please let us know if you see something unsavory on the Google Ads and we will have them removed. Email us with the offensive URL (