Shabtai Zvi and the Messiah

    January 1999 - New Year Edition            
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Shabtai Zvi and the Messiah


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The Infamous Shabbetai Tzvi

© by Dovid Russoff

Wood cut of shabbtai Zvi in Prison

Wood cut of Shabbatai Zvi in Prison

Jewish history has its list of heroes and villains. Many of the latter have been forgotten over the course of time, perhaps for the betterment of all. However, one of the most treacherous culprits of the last thousand years to have aspired to stand up against God was a man by the name of Shabbetai Tzvi. Unfortunately, his name has been enamoured with a false mystique of some esoteric righteousness hidden behind acts of blatant sacrilege. There is no doubt, however, that he caused one of the greatest uproars within the Jewish rank and file. And it is sadly true that he caused large numbers of fellow Jews to apostatize and thereby forfeit all the eternal gifts awaiting every faithful Jew in the world to come.

This is not the place to unravel the complex historical and ethical parameters concerning Shabbetai Tzvi as a false messiah. Instead, we shall take a brief look and what brought him to the road of disaster.

The False Messiah

One of the most earth-shattering episodes in Jewish history is the story of Shabbetai Tzvi, who became one of the most infamous false messiahs of all time. In the span of two years, from his "coronation" in Israel in 1664 until his conversion to Islam in 1666, Shabbetai Tzvi was responsible for a major upheaval throughout the Jewish world. At the time, he posed a major threat to Judaism from within, and the repercussions of his actions are still being felt today, hundreds of years later.

When Shabbetai Tzvi came to Jerusalem from Izmir, Turkey, in the summer of 1662 (5422) he was completely anonymous and quietly became a part of the community. Much later it would come out that he had been banished from Izmir and from Constantinople because of his outlandish behavior, but at the time, no one had reason to suspect him of anything. In fact, the opposite was the case, and he was very careful not to behave in a manner that would cast aspersions on him. As was true of most settlers, everyone in the small Jewish community knew Shabbetai, and he made a good impression as a scholar. He spent a good deal of time fasting in seclusion and would often wander in the Judean hills, meditating. He was thirty-six years old then, tall and handsome, with a distinct presence about him. His speech was lofty and passionate, and he loved to compose and sing songs.

After the High Holidays of 1663 (5424), the Sephardic community asked him to go to Egypt and collect for the kehillah (Jewish community). They chose him because he had stayed in Cairo before coming to Jerusalem and had become friendly with the wealthy and influential Rabbi Raphael Yosef, who was also unaware of his past. As the Jelebi, the highest post a Jew could hold in the Egyptian court, Rav Raphael Yosef was a leading figure in Egypt. Shabbetai Tzvi accepted.

On his way, Shabbetai Tzvi passed through Hebron and stopped at the Cave of Machpelah, where the Patriarchs are buried. He prayed there with tremendous fervor, attracting much attention. A group stayed up all night with him, mesmerized by his tremendous charisma. One of them, Avraham Conki, became one of his most dedicated followers.

During his extended stay in Egypt, Shabbetai Tzvi collected close to four thousand rials, a significant sum. He lived in the courtyard of the Jelebi and continued his close relationship with Rav Raphael Yosef.

In the spring of 1664, news reached Cairo of a young seer in Gaza named Nasan Ashkenazi. Rabbi Raphael sent some students to investigate the authenticity of the supposed visionary, and the report he received was very positive. He related his findings to Shabbetai Tzvi, who decided to travel to Gaza and meet him in person. He told Raphael Yosef that he was going to the seer to request a tikun (spiritual rectification) for his soul.

The False Prophet

Nasan Ashkenazi was born in Jerusalem, around the year 1643. His father, a man of impeccable character, had emigrated from Europe and had spent extended periods of time in chutz laAretz (outside of Israel) as an emissary for the Jerusalem community. He studied Kabbalah and published the second half of Maggid meYesharim, Rabbi Yosef Karo's record of his conversations with his Heavenly maggid (angelic mentor).

Nasan himself studied in the Beit Yaakov Yeshivah and was one of Rabbi Yaakov Chagiz's foremost students. A recognized genius, Nasan's grasp of Torah was phenomenal. As a teenager he had memorized half of Shas (the Talmud), and his depth of learning was remarkable. Many people saw greatness on the horizon for the young man, believing that he was destined to become a giant in Torah learning.

When a wealthy Jew from Gaza spoke with the Rosh Yeshivah (head of the Talmudic academy) about a match for his daughter, Rabbi Chagiz pointed to Nasan as the best prospect. As a result of this fortuitous match, Nasan would be able to concentrate on his studies without any financial distractions for the rest of his life. The only stipulation that his father-in-law made was that he live in Gaza. This was not an untowardly demand, for Gaza had a sizable Jewish community at the time. Everyone agreed, and the young couple moved to the coastal town around 1663.

At that time, the Rabbi of Gaza was Rav Moshe Najara, the son of the famous Rabbi Yisrael Najara, who composed the song Kah Ribon Olam. The town had also hosted Rabbi Avraham Azulai twelve years earlier, after that saintly man had fled there from an epidemic in Hebron. Rabbi Avraham, it will be recalled, was the pious scholar who had received Heavenly permission to unearth Rabbi Chaim Vital's buried writings. While in Gaza, he completed his book, Chesed l'Avraham, an important compendium on mystical topics.

While in Gaza, Nasan discovered the world of Kabbalah and steeped himself in its study. Although he initially understood it in the proper fashion, unfortunately, due to reasons we will discuss shortly, he came to misuse it. Soon he was having visions and was conversing with what were, unbeknownst to him, damaging angels. Meanwhile, word of the "holy man" began to spread, and people far and near were drawn to him for spiritual healing.

One day while fasting, Nasan suddenly felt an unearthly spirit come upon him. Trembling, he saw before him what he thought was a vision of the Heavenly Chariot. He would later write: "From that moment I began to prophesy like one of the prophets: Thus says the Lord, 'Their savior is coming; his name is Shabbetai Tzvi..., who will succeed against his enemies.'" Thus Nasan of Gaza was irrevocably set on the road to destruction that would bring so much damage, sorrow, and grief in its wake, all the while believing in the righteousness of his cause.

When Shabbetai Tzvi entered Nasan's house, the false prophet fell at his feet and begged forgiveness for not going to him first. He revealed to him their respective appointments as prophet and messiah.

The Jews of Gaza soon fell under the spell of these two charismatic figures, and the momentum of their movement quickly began to spread to the rest of the Jewish world. Soon the two took to the road to proselytize, first going to Hebron. On the way, Shabbetai Zvi's prophet gave full reign to the spirit bubbling within him, and everybody was caught up in his frenetic intensity. Walking past a stone in a field, he would announce that it was the heretofore unknown grave of a particular tzaddik (perfectly righteous man), in a manner seemingly similar to that of the Ari Zal (the acronym of Rabbi Yitzhak Askenazi, the famous mystic) decades earlier. He even claimed to be in communication with these dead souls. When they arrived in Hebron, the community was electrified by the news.

At the time, the fast of 17 Tamuz was close at hand. Nasan sent letters to the major cities in Israel announcing a decree to annul the fast. This would be the beginning of the redemption, announced the missive. In Gaza they rejoiced on that day and sang Hallel. Many people in Hebron also followed the decree.

When the two reached Jerusalem, they faced one of their biggest tests. Could they convince the rabbis who resided there of their mission? Besides Rabbi Chagiz and the kabbalist, Rabbi Tzemach, there was RabbMoshe Galante, Rabbi Avraham Amigo, and Rabbi Shmuel Garmizan.

A Traitor to His People

When Jerusalemites saw Nasan and Shabbetai Tzvi and their entourage, they could hardly believe their eyes. Children taunted them, saying, "You left as a shaliach (messenger), but you returned as a mashiach (messiah)."

Shabbetai Tzvi was undaunted by his less than enthusiastic reception. Audaciously, he planned to offer sacrifices on the Temple Mount, choosing one of his Gazan followers to be High Priest. When the rabbis of Jerusalem heard of this, they rent their garments. Such an act, besides being a chillul Hashem (desecration of God's name), could incite the Moslems to react with force and punish the entire Jewish population.

A message was dispatched demanding that he not follow through with his plan. With a sigh, the false messiah acquiesced, saying, "Woe, just when we were about to do this mighty thing, it was denied us."

Shabbetai Tzvi was no fool. He had accumulated a lot of Torah knowledge during his youth and knew how to make an impressive presentation. Rabbi Moshe Galante recalled later: "In the beginning, although I did not believe in him, I was not outspokenly against him. It was only after I saw a letter he wrote to one of his followers that I realized how dangerous he really was. He signed the letter, 'I am the Lord your G-d, Shabbetai Tzvi' - spelling G-d's Name as it is written in a sefer Torah."

Next, he openly declared that forbidden fats (chelev) were now permissible. Additionally, he composed a special blessing to be recited over them - "Blessed are You...Who permits the forbidden."

With this blatant attempt to abrogate Torah law, Shabbetai Tzvi drew the firm opposition of the rabbis upon himself. Openly attacking him, they went before the civil authorities and accused him of embezzling some of the funds which he had collected. Furthermore, they claimed, by calling himself the mashiach, he was rebelling against the Sultan.

Under the spell of Shabbetai Zvi's magnetic personality, the kadi and his court freed him of all charges. The "messiah" and his followers were ecstatic with the news, calling it an open miracle. The kadi, in a bizarre turn of events, permitted Shabbetai Tzvi to be led around the city on horseback, a privilege no Jew was permitted under Turkish law.

Deeply disturbed over Nasan's behavior, Rabbi Chagiz asked his renegade disciple what had caused such a great change to come over him. Nasan answered him openly. He said that the kabbalist Rabbi Avraham Chananiah of Hebron had been in Gaza recuperating from an illness. When he was about to return to Hebron, Nasan stole a private manuscript on practical Kabbalah from Rabbi Avraham Chananiah, which explained how to reach celestial beings and communicate with them. With this book, he succeeded in soliciting powers from the spiritual worlds.

Jerusalem's Stand

Realizing the dangerous threat posed by Nasan and Shabbetai Tzvi, Rav Chagiz threatened them. In the time of the Sanhedrin, Nasan would have been convicted of being a false prophet, and sentenced to death. The same fate would have befallen Shabbetai Tzvi. Barring that possibility, Rabbi Chagiz had the authority to excommunicate them, a formidable punishment in itself, which would exclude them from the Jewish community. His words, however, fell on deaf ears. Thus it was that the rabbis of the city, under the leadership of Rabbi Yaakov Chagiz, declared a cherem (decree of excommunication) on them. They were banished from the Holy City, never to return, at the beginning of Av, 1664 (5424). Though they were only there for about a week, in that short time they succeeded in arousing the hostile feelings of nearly everyone in the city.

Although Shabbetai Tzvi heeded the rabbis injunction, he was infuriated by it and cursed them. Later, however, when he met a group of Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, he sent an apology.

Rabbi Chagiz was unmoved. "See how empty this messiah is!" he said mockingly. "He obeys my cherem (ban of excommunication) and is afraid of me."

Immediately after issuing their proclamation, the rabbis sent letters to all the world's major Jewish communities, warning them of the false messiah.

However, despite the strong wording of their eyewitness report, the force of this messianic movement was very difficult to arrest. The local populations throughout the Ottoman Empire (and some rabbis) were swept away by the turbulent happenings. Soon, news of the messiah and his prophet had spread like wildfire throughout the world. Even the Pope in Rome sent a delegation to Jerusalem to get a firsthand report about him. By the time his representatives arrived there, the false messiah and his prophet were long gone. However, the strong impression they had made on the city lingered. The local priests told the papal nuncio that Shabbetai Tzvi and Nasan were men who performed miracles. The two of them claimed that they would return and build the Temple, and that the time of redemption of the Jewish people had come. If so, continued the churchmen, they (the Christians) would leave Jerusalem. The priests were manifestly afraid of them and what the ultimate consequences for the Gentile people would be.

The Aftermath

The aftermath of Shabbetai Tzvi's brief but eventful stay in Jerusalem was hard to measure. Trying to entirely snuff out his influence, the rabbis forbade the practice of any customs he had instituted and firmly censured public allegiance to his messianic cause.

One of the most obtrusive of Shabbetai Zvi's new minhagim (customs) was the annulment of the four major fast days which commemorated the destruction of the Temple. Claiming that he came to usher in the light of the geula (redemption), and not to perpetuate the darkness of galus (exile), he said they were no longer necessary.

Shabbetai Tzvi left Jerusalem several days before the fast of Tisha b'Av. In other towns, like Gaza and Hebron, many people marked the day with a festive meal. In Jerusalem, the rabbis implored everyone not to break away from tradition and halachah.

In a large measure, the rabbis were successful in minimizing Shabbetai Tzvi's influence in Jerusalem. However, it was impossible to completely wipe out the impression he had made, and some individuals continued to clandestinely practice the impostor's customs.


Due to the Jerusalem rabbis vigilance and decisive action, the local community's brief encounter with the false messiah left it relatively unscathed. However, the same could not be said for the rest of the world. The momentum of the movement created by Shabbetai Tzvi and Nasan of Gaza was intense and out of control, presenting a very real peril to the entire Jewish nation. The danger was twofold: Shabbetai Tzvi, as "Mashiach," stood as a direct threat to the Sultan. Every gentile realized that the redemption of the Jewish people meant the termination of their reign in the world. Confronted with this possibility, the Sultan might very easily interpret the mass movement as a rebellion by his Jewish subjects. In his wrath, he could declare genocide for the Jews throughout his kingdom.

The second danger was internal, within the ranks of the Jewish people. The rabbis had disclosed him as an instigator against the Torah and her people, and anyone who followed him would become an accomplice to his crime. Thus, the "messiah" would be responsible for a terrible rift within the Jewish people.

Thankfully, the first danger never materialized. However, as history has so sadly proven, all too many people followed Shabbetai Tzvi into apostasy and forsook their Jewish heritage.

It would be over two years, until the beginning of 5427 (Fall, 1666), before Shabbetai Tzvi stood before the Sultan and, presented with a choice to convert to Islam or die, choose to apostatize. However, even this shocking news did not completely extinguish the blaze he had started. With characteristic audacity, he claimed that this was merely a climactic stage in the redemption process, hinted at in the holy books. Incredibly, many Jews converted with him, including his old benefactor, Raphael Yosef, the Jelebi in Cairo.

Though Shabbetai Tzvi came to an ignoble end, the movement which surrounded him would not die out for decades after his passing. Rav Chagiz's son, Rabbi Moshe Chagiz, one of the foremost opponents to the Shabbetian movement - just as his father had been to the "messiah" himself - wrote: "We see from this how God watches over the Jewish people with a special supervision. This whole episode should stand as an example and a reminder to us. If the nations of the world stood in fear over the flurry of a false messiah, then how much more so when the true messiah will come and redeem us!"

© by Dovid Rossoff
The author, Dovid Rossoff, resides in Jerusalem over twenty-five years. He has written Land of Our Heritage, Safed: The Mystical City, and The Tefillin Handbook, among others. He has just published a new book entitled When Heaven Touches Earth which is about the Jewish history of Jerusalem from the Crusader period until the present.


from the January 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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