Born in Smyrna in 1626 of a Romaniote Jew family hailing from Patra, in his youth, Zevi, was inclined to solitude. According to custom he married early, but he avoided intercourse with his first and second wives; both successively applied for a divorce, which he willingly granted. At twenty he began to develop unusual behavior that indicated sanctity. He would alternately sink into deep depression and isolation, and become filled with frenzied restlessness and ecstasy. According to Jewish legend, he would eat nonkosher food, speak the forbidden name of God, and commit other "holy sins.”
At twenty two, Sabbatai chose 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, since the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. 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 in Smyrna 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.
About 1651 Sabbatai and his disciples were banished from Smyrna. It is not quite certain where he went from there. In 1653, he was in Constantinople, where he met a preacher, Abraham ha-Yakini who confirmed Sabbatai. Ha-Yakini is said to have forged a manuscript in archaic characters and in a style imitating the ancient apocalpyses, 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."
With this document, which he appears to have accepted as an actual revelation, Sabbatai determined to choose Thessaloniki, at that time a center of Kabbalists, as the field for his further operations. Here he boldly proclaimed himself the Messiah, gaining many adherents. In order to impress his Messiahship upon the minds of his enthusiastic friends he put on all sorts of mystical events — e.g., the celebration of his marriage as the “Son of God” The consequence was that the rabbis of Salonica banished him from the city. Finally, after long wanderings, he settled in Cairo, where he resided for about two years (1660–1662) and then re-settled in Jeruslam, where he met an enthusiastic disciple, Nathan of Gaza, who travelled the country, proclaiming his teacher as the Messiah and causing wodespread consternation.
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 his sacred city. On his way from Jerusalem to Smyrna, Sabbatai was enthusiastically greeted in the large Jewish 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 on Jewish New Year in the in the synagogue, with the blowing of horns, and the multitude greeting 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 Smyrnan Jewish 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 Beneviste. 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. The Jewish centres of Italy, Germany and Holland were particularly receptive to his Messianic movement. 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."
Fantastic reports were widely spread and believed regarding Sabbatai’s powers. There was a rumour that “In 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 Jews of Avignon, 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 Bogdan Chelmytsky in the Ukraine 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 adherents of Sabbatai, probably with his consent, even planned to abolish to a great extent much of Jewish ritual, because, according to a minority opinion in the Talmud, in the Messianic time most of them were to lose their obligatory character. The first step toward the disintegration of traditional Judaism was the changing of the fast of the Tenth of Tevet, to a day of feasting and rejoicing. Samuel Primo, who entered Sabbatai's service as secretary at the time when the latter left Jerusalem for Smyrna, directed in the name of the Messiah the following circular to the whole of Israel:
"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… 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.
At the beginning of 1666, Sabbatai again left Smyrna for Constantinople because of a hope that a miracle would happen in the Turkish capital to fulfill the prophecy of Nathan of Gaza that Sabbatai would place the Sultan's crown on his own head. As soon as he reached the landing-place, however, he was arrested at the command of the grand vizier Ahmen Köprülü, and cast into prison in chains.
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 Nathan 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.
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 the Sabbath, but also on Monday and Thursday, and unbelievers were compelled to remain in the synagogue and join in the prayer. 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 intervene, while in Morocco, the emir ordered a persecution of the Jews. It was at this stage that some of his disciples informed on him to the authorities, accusing him of seeking to overthrow the Sultan. At the command of Sultan Mehmed, Sabbatai was taken to Adrianople, where the sultan's physician, a former Jew, advised him to convert to Islam. Sabbatai realized the danger of the situation and adopted the physician's advice. On the following day, being brought before the sultan, he cast off his Jewish garb and put a Turkish turban on his head, and thus his conversion to Islam was accomplished. The sultan appointed him as his doorkeeper with a high salary. His wife and a number of Sabbatai's followers also went over to Islam. To complete his acceptance of Islam, Sabbatai was ordered to take an additional wife. Some days after his conversion he wrote to Smyrna: "God has made me an Ishmaelite; He commanded, and it was done. The ninth day of my regeneration."
Sabbatai's conversion was devastating for his followers. In addition to the misery and disappointment from within, Muslims and Christians jeered at and scorned the credulous Jews. In spite of Sabbatai's apostasy, many of his adherents still tenaciously clung to him, claiming that his conversion was a part of the Messianic scheme. This belief was further upheld and strengthened by false prophets like Nathan and Primo, who were interested in maintaining the movement. In many communities Shabbatai’s birthday was still observed as feast-days in spite of bans and excommunications.
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 Ulcinj in Montenegro, where he died in solitude in 1676.
Although rather little is known about them, various groups called Donmeh (Turkish for "apostate") continue to follow Sabbatai Zevi today, mostly in Turkey. Estimates of the numbers vary. Many sources claim that there are less than 100,000 and many of them claim hundreds of thousands of adherents. Though he manifestly was not the Messiah, Sabbatai did much to place the creation of a Jewish state on the political agenda of Europe, delude the masses, and earn the title of one of the most remarkeable Hellenes ever to have existed. As such, he requires a vastly more prominent place in our ethno-specific pantheon. Until next week, l’hitraot.