Shabbetai Zevi

   False messiah. Shabbetai was the son of a prosperous merchant in Smyrna, the important trading centre of Asia Minor. From an early age he was extremely pious and showed an interest in cabbalistic books. His strange moods of elation and gloom would probably be classified today as manic-depressive. In 1648 he declared publicly that he was the Messiah, uttering the forbidden Name of God, which was taken as a sign that the time of redemption had come. He was banished by the rabbinical authorities. Arriving in Jerusalem in 1663, he met NATHAN OF GAZA, who two years later hailed him as the Messiah.
   Increasing persecution, and especially the CHMIELNICKI massacres in the Ukraine, made many Jews believe that the darkest hour had been reached which would be followed by the redemption. Shabbetai returned in triumph to Smyrna in 1665, where his ecstatic welcome was noted by the English ambassador. From there the movement inflamed Jewish communities throughout the world. The news that the Messiah had come was received with joy in Hamburg, Amsterdam and London. In Poland and Russia excited crowds marched through the streets carrying banners with a portrait of Shabbetai. It was confidently expected, even in some Christian circles, that he would be crowned king of the Jews in Jerusalem within a couple of years. A circular was sent to all Jewish communities in the name of ‘the first-begotten son of God, Shabbetai Zevi, messenger and redeemer of the people of Israel’. During this period of general rejoicing, little rabbinical opposition is recorded; when the rabbis of Amsterdam tried to oppose Shabbetai’s pronouncements, they were nearly stoned by their angry congregation. Even the news that Shabbetai Zevi had been arrested in Gallipoli by the Turkish authorities did not abate confidence in his mission. He was treated almost royally by his captors and it was widely believed that his imprisonment was part of a deliberate plan, his mystical ‘descent’ to struggle for the sparks of goodness imprisoned in the demonic powers. The news of Shabbetai’s conversion to Islam, however, came as a tremendous blow. In 1666, brought before the sultan and given the choice of conversion or death, he denied his messianic claims and became a Moslem. He was given an honorary post and a pension. His wife (an orphan from the Ukrainian massacres) and some of his followers were also converted. While many believers, stunned by the news, turned aside from the movement, others interpreted his apostasy as a further step in his ‘descent’: like Moses in the court of Pharaoh, he chose to live in the court of the sultan to redeem lost souls. On his death in a small Albanian town, many more followers abandoned the movement. Some others converted to Islam, yet continued to believe in Shabbetai as a redeemer who would come again to lead them. Throughout Europe, supporters of the movement persisted late into the 18 century, concealing their beliefs from increased rabbinical repression.
   The Shabbetean movement was the most disruptive force in Judaism for centuries. One important consequence of this near-schism was that the study of mysticism itself became regarded with suspicion. Later movements drawing their strength from mystic roots, such as that begun by Jacob FRANK, or the very different Chassidism of ISRAEL BEN-ELIEZER Ba’al Shem Tov, were considered dangerous from the outset.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

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