False Messiahs

What prompted Jewish messianic zeal in the 16th and 17th centuries?

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Among them we may distinguish two radical currents. In Greece the sect of the Doenmeh (Turkish for "converts" or "apostates") professed Islam in public but adhered to a mixture of traditional and heretical Judaism in secret, believing in the divinity of Shabbetai Zevi and practicing sexual license. This sect survived in Greece till 1924 and then moved to Turkey.


In 18th‑century Europe, a last burst of Shabbateanism occurred with the appearance of Jacob Frank, a former dis­ciple of Shabbetai Zevi who came under the influence of radical Shabbatean trends in the Balkans. Frank declared himself to be an incarnation of divinity and the successor of the Messiah from Smyrna. Frankism advocated outward adherence to Catholicism while secretly believing in a nihilistic version of heretical Judaism. Spreading from Poland to central Europe, the influence of the Frankists persisted well into the nineteenth century.

Shabbateanism in its various forms weighed heavily on the Jewish conscience. Its immense success could be attributed partly to the phenomenon of marranism. Communities of Jews who had been forci­bly converted and returned to Judaism, without fully assimilating its rigid normative system, were naturally more inclined to accept the antinomian tendencies of Shabbatean messianism.

Another factor was the great social and intellectual mobility which facilitated the rapid transmission of ideas. The general crisis of the mid‑seventeenth century also precipitated a great wave of millenarianism in Europe, and Shabbateanisrn was the Jewish expression of this general outburst.

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Moshe Idel

Moshe Idel is Professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and one of the foremost contemporary experts on kabbalah.