Sabbatai Zevi, (other spellings include Sabetay in Turkish, Shabbethai, Sabbetai, Shabbsai; Zvi; Sabbetai Tzvi; he was also known by the acronym ש״ץ Shatz) (August 1 1626 – possibly September 17 1676, in Dulcigno (present day Ulcinj), Montenegro) was a rabbi and Kabbalist who claimed to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. He was the founder of the Jewish Sabbatean movement and inspired the founding of a number of other similar sects, such as the Donmeh in Turkey.
Sabbatai Zevi was born in Smyrna on (supposedly) a 9th Av 1626 (a Sabbath), and died, according to some, on Yom Kippur, September 30 1676, in Dulcigno, a small town in the coastal region of Montenegro, now called Ulcinj. Zevi's family were Romaniotes from Patras; his father, Mordecai, was a poor poultry-dealer in the Morea. Later, when in consequence of the war between Turkey and Venice under the Sultan Ibrahim I, Smyrna became the centre of Levantine trade, Mordecai became the Smyrnan agent of an English house. As a consequence, he acquired considerable wealth.
In his youth he was inclined to solitude. According to custom he married early, but he avoided intercourse with his wife; she therefore applied for a divorce, which he willingly granted. The same thing happened with a second wife. When he was about twenty years of age, he began to develop unusual behaviors. He would alternately sink into deep depression and isolation, and become filled with frenzied restlessness and ecstasy. He felt compelled to eat nonkosher food, speak the forbidden name of God, and commit other "holy sins.
Sabbatai's father, who as the agent of an English house was in constant touch with English people, must frequently have heard of these expectations and, being strongly inclined to believe them, must have communicated them to his son, whom he almost deified because of his piety and kabbalistic wisdom.
Though only twenty-two years old Sabbatai chose (in the year 1648) to reveal himself at Smyrna to a group of followers as the true Messianic redeemer, designated by God to overthrow the governments of the nations and to restore the kingdom of Israel. His mode of revealing his mission was the pronouncing of the Tetragrammaton in Hebrew, an act which Judaism emphatically prohibited, except the Jewish high priest in the Temple in Jerusalem on the Day of Atonement. This was of great significance to those acquainted with rabbinical, and especially Kabbalistic, literature. However, Sabbatai's authority at the age of twenty-two did not reach far enough for him to gain many adherents.
Among the first of those to whom he revealed his Messiahship were Isaac Silveyra and Moses Pinheiro, the latter a brother-in-law of the Italian rabbi and kabbalist Joseph Ergas. Sabbatai remained at Smyrna for several years, leading the pious life of a mystic, and giving rise to much argument in the community, the details of which are not known. The college of rabbis, having at its head his teacher, Joseph Escapa, watched Sabbatai closely, and when his Messianic pretensions became too bold they put him and his followers under a ban of cherem, a type of excommunication in classical Judaism.
About the year 1651 (according to others, 1654) Sabbatai and his disciples were banished from Smyrna. It is not quite certain where he went from there. In 1653, or at the latest 1658, he was in Constantinople, where he met a preacher, Abraham ha-Yakini (a disciple of Joseph di Trani), who confirmed Sabbatai. Ha-Yakini is said to have forged a manuscript in archaic characters and in a style imitating the ancient apocalypses, and which, he alleged, bore testimony to Sabbatai's Messiahship. It was entitled The Great Wisdom of Solomon, and began:
"I, Abraham, was confined in a cave for forty years, and I wondered greatly that the time of miracles did not arrive. Then was heard a voice proclaiming, 'A son will be born in the Hebrew year 5386 [English calendar year 1626] to Mordecai Zevi; and he will be called Shabbethai. He will humble the great dragon; ... he, the true Messiah, will sit upon My throne."
At that time there lived in Cairo a very wealthy and influential Jew named Raphael Joseph Halabi ("of Aleppo"), who held the high position of mint-master and tax-farmer under the Ottoman government. Despite his riches and the external splendor which he displayed before the public, he continued to lead privately an ascetic life, fasting, bathing, and frequently scourging his body at night. He used his great wealth benevolently, supplying the needs of poor Talmudists and Kabbalists, fifty of whom regularly dined at his table. Sabbatai at once made the acquaintance of Raphael Joseph, who became one of the most zealous promulgators of his Messianic claims.
He left the Egyptian capital and traveled to Jerusalem. Arriving there in about 1663, he at first remained inactive, so as not to offend the community. He resumed his former practice of mortifying the body by frequent fasting and other penances. Many saw this as proof of his extraordinary piety. Having a very melodious voice, he sang psalms for the whole night, or at times even coarse Spanish love-songs, to which he gave mystical interpretations, thus attracting crowds of admiring listeners. At other times he would pray at the graves of pious men and women and, some of his followers reported, shed floods of tears. He distributed all sorts of sweetmeats to the children on the streets. Thus he gradually gathered around him a circle of adherents who placed their faith in him.
At this point an unexpected incident took him back to Cairo. The community of Jerusalem needed money in order to avert a calamity which Turkish officials planned against it. Sabbatai, known as the favorite of the rich Raphael Joseph Halabi, was chosen as the envoy of the distressed community, and he willingly undertook the task, as it gave him an opportunity to act as the deliverer of the Holy City. As soon as he appeared before Halabi he obtained from him the necessary sum, which gave him great prestige. His worshipers dated his public career from this second journey to Cairo.
The rabbis of Jerusalem regarded the movement with great suspicion, and threatened its followers with excommunication. Sabbatai, realizing that Jerusalem was not a congenial place in which to carry out his plans, left for his native city, Smyrna, while his prophet, Nathan, proclaimed that henceforth Gaza, and not Jerusalem, would be the sacred city. On his way from Jerusalem to Smyrna, Sabbatai was enthusiastically greeted in the large Asiatic community of Aleppo, and at Smyrna, which he reached in the autumn of 1665, the greatest homage was paid to him. Finally, after some hesitation, he publicly declared himself as the expected Messiah (Jewish New Year, 1665); the declaration was made in the synagogue, with the blowing of horns, and the multitude greeted him with: "Long live our King, our Messiah!"
The joy of his followers knew no bounds. Sabbatai, assisted by his wife, now became the sole ruler of the community. In this capacity he used his power to crush all opposition. For instance, he deposed the old rabbi of Smyrna, Aaron Lapapa, and appointed in his place Hayyim Benveniste. His popularity grew with incredible rapidity, as not only Jews but Christians also spread his story far and wide. His fame extended to all countries. Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands had centers where the Messianic movement was ardently promulgated, and the Jews of Hamburg and Amsterdam received confirmation of the extraordinary events in Smyrna from trustworthy Christians. A distinguished German savant, Heinrich Oldenburg, wrote to Baruch Spinoza (Spinozae Epistolae No 33): "All the world here is talking of a rumour of the return of the Israelites ... to their own country. ... Should the news be confirmed, it may bring about a revolution in all things."
Sabbatai numbered many prominent rabbis as followers, including Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, Moses Raphael de Aguilar, Moses Galante, Moses Zacuto, and the above-mentioned Hayyim Benveniste. Even the semi-Spinozist Dionysius Mussafia Musaphia likewise became one of Sabbatai's zealous adherents. Fantastic reports were widely spread and believed, as for example: "in the north of Scotland a ship had appeared with silken sails and ropes, manned by sailors who spoke Hebrew. The flag bore the inscription 'The Twelve Tribes of Israel'." The community of Avignon, France, prepared to emigrate to the new kingdom in the spring of 1666.
The readiness of the Jews of the time to believe the messianic claims of Sabbatai Zevi may be largely explained by the desperate state of European Jewry in the mid-1600s. The bloody pogroms of Bohdan Khmelnytsky had wiped out one third of the Jewish population and destroyed many centers of Jewish learning and communal life . There is no doubt that for most of the Jews of Europe there could never have seemed a more propitious moment for the messiah to deliver salvation than the moment at which Sabbetai Zevi made his appearance.
"The first-begotten Son of God, Shabbethai Tebi, Messiah and Redeemer of the people of Israel, to all the sons of Israel, Peace! Since ye have been deemed worthy to behold the great day and the fulfilment of God's word by the Prophets, your lament and sorrow must be changed into joy, and your fasting into merriment; for ye shall weep no more. Rejoice with song and melody, and change the day formerly spent in sadness and sorrow into a day of jubilee, because I have appeared."
This message produced wild excitement and dissension in the communities, as many of the leaders, who had hitherto regarded the movement sympathetically, were shocked at these radical innovations. Solomon Algazi, a prominent Talmudist of Smyrna, and other members of the rabbinate, who opposed the abolition of the fast, narrowly escaped with their lives.
Sabbatai's imprisonment had no discouraging effect either on him or on his followers. On the contrary, the lenient treatment which he secured by means of bribes served rather to strengthen them in their Messianic delusions. In the meantime, all sorts of fabulous reports concerning the miraculous deeds which "the Messiah" was performing in the Turkish capital were spread by Ghazzati and Primo among the Jews of Smyrna and in many other communities, and the expectations of the Jews were raised to a still higher pitch.
The immense sums sent to him by his rich adherents, the charms of the queenly Sarah and the reverential admiration shown him even by the Turkish officials and the inhabitants of the place enabled Sabbatai to display royal splendor in the castle of Abydos, accounts of which were exaggerated and spread among Jews in Europe, Asia, and Africa. In some parts of Europe Jews began to unroof their houses and prepare for a new "exodus". In almost every synagogue, Sabbatai's initials were posted, and prayers for him were inserted in the following form: "Bless our Lord and King, the holy and righteous Sabbatai Zevi, the Messiah of the God of Jacob." In Hamburg the council introduced this custom of praying for Sabbatai not only on Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath), but also on Monday and Thursday, and unbelievers were compelled to remain in the synagogue and join in the prayer with a loud Amen. Sabbatai's picture was printed together with that of King David in most of the prayer-books, as well as his kabbalistic formulas and penances.
These and similar innovations caused great dissension in various communities. In Moravia the excitement reached such a pitch that the government had to interfere, while at Sale, Morocco, the emir ordered a persecution of the Jews. It was during this period that Sabbatai transformed the fasts of the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av (his birthday) into feast-days, and it is said that he contemplated even the abolition of the Day of Atonement.
At this time an incident occurred which led to the discrediting of Sabbatai's Messiahship. Two prominent Polish Talmudists from Lwów, Galicia, who were among Sabbatai's visitors in Abydos, apprised him of the fact that in their native country a prophet, Nehemiah ha-Kohen, had announced the coming of the Messiah. Sabbatai ordered the prophet to appear before him. (See Jew. Encyc. ix. 212a, s.v. Nehemiah ha-Kohen). Nehemiah obeyed, reaching Abydos, after a journey of three months, at the beginning of September, 1666. The conference between the two ended in mutual dissatisfaction, and some fanatical Sabbataians are said to have contemplated the secret murder of the dangerous rival.
At times Sabbatai would assume the role of a pious Muslim and revile Judaism, at others he would enter into relations with Jews as one of their own faith. In March 1668 he again announced that he had been filled with the "Holy Spirit" at Passover, and had received a "revelation." He, or one of his followers, published a mystical work addressed to the Jews in which it was claimed that Sabbatai was the true Messiah, in spite of his conversion, his object being to bring over thousands of Muslims to Judaism. To the sultan, however, he said that his activity among the Jews was to bring them over to Islam. He therefore received permission to associate with his former co-religionists, and even to preach in their synagogues. He thus succeeded in bringing over a number of Muslims to his kabbalistic views, and in converting many Jews to Islam, thus forming a Judaeo–Turkish sect whose followers implicitly believed in him.
Gradually the Turks tired of Sabbatai's schemes. He was deprived of his salary, and banished from Adrianople to Constantinople. In a village near the latter city he was one day discovered singing psalms in a tent with Jews, whereupon the grand vizier ordered his banishment to Dulcigno (today called Ulcinj), a small place in Montenegro, where he died in solitude.
"Although outwardly Muslims and, to a lesser extent, Christians, the Donmeh secretly continue to observe Jewish rituals (such as circumcision, but at the age of three rather than eight days), pray in Hebrew as well as Aramaic and Ladino, and have clandestine festivals and fast days that are Jewish survivals. Karakash-Honiosos group also practise unique Sabbatian rites, probably instituted by Reb Berechia after Sabbatai's death, such as The Darkening of the Light."
Isik University (a private university in Istanbul, Turkey) and the Feyziye Schools Foundation (Feyziye Mektepleri Vakfi - FMV) under whose umbrella the University is operating, are claimed to be founded by the Karakash group of Donmeh.
Donmeh West and its leader, Yakov Leib HaKohain, have close ties with the hereditary donme of Turkey, many of whom look upon him as spearheading a spiritual revival in Sabbatianism of which they consider themselves to be a part, both in Turkey and the West. Hundreds of these "Sabbatians-by-Birth" have joined "Sabbatians-by-Choice" in the group for Neo-Sabbatian Ma'aminim created and led by Yakov Leib on Facebook.
The Israeli newspaper, Ma'ariv, recently published an interview with Yakov Leib explaining the Neo-Sabbatian revival they present him as heading. Ma'ariv is also translating and publishing Yakov Leib's Neo-Sabbatian writings as a series of feature articles in their spirituality section. The first of these, "Redemption through Sin," has already been published.