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While faith in the coming of the messiah is a linchpin of Judaism, Jews have traditionally taken a patient, quietistic approach to their messianic beliefs. Since the devastation wreaked by false messiah Bar Kochba and his rebellion against the Romans, and the centuries of persecution caused by another messianic movement–Christianity–Jews have been understandably suspicious about anyone’s claim to be God’s anointed.
The rabbis of the Talmud went so far as to introduce specific prohibitions against messianic agitation, instituting the “three oaths” which prohibited any attempt to “force the end” by bringing the messiah before his allotted time (Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 111a). Yet in the mid-17th century, belief in the false messiah Shabbetai Zevi spread like wildfire throughout the Jewish world, sweeping up entire communities and creating a crisis of faith unprecedented in Jewish history.
Shabbetai Tzvi was said to be born on the 9th of Av in 1626, to a wealthy family of merchants in Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey). He received a thorough Talmudic education and, still in his teens, was ordained as a hakham–a member of the rabbinic elite. However, Shabbetai Tzvi was interested less in Talmud than in Jewish mysticism. Starting in his late teens he studied kabbalah, attracting a group of followers whom he initiated into the secrets of the mystical tradition.
Shabbetai Tzvi battled with what might now be diagnosed as severe manic depression. He understood his condition in religious terms, experiencing his manic phases as moments of “illumination” and his times of depression as periods of “fall,” when God’s face was hidden from him. While at times of depression he became a semi-recluse, when “illuminated” he felt compelled to contravene Jewish law, perform bizarre rituals (ma’asim zari or strange acts), and publicly pronounce the proscribed name of God.
In 1648, Shabbetai Tzvi declared himself to be the messiah but did not make much of an impression on the Smyrna community which had become accustomed to his eccentricities. Nonetheless, the rabbis banished him from his hometown, and he spent much of the 1650s traveling through Greece and Turkey. He was eventually expelled from the Jewish communities in Salonika and Constantinople for violating the commandments and performing blasphemous acts. In the 1660s he arrived in Egypt via Israel. During this period he led a quiet life, displaying no messianic pretensions. The turning point in his messianic career came in 1665 as the result of a meeting with his self-appointed prophet, Nathan of Gaza.
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