Shabbetai Zevi

The kabbalistic false messiah.

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Nathan, however, initiated a mass movement of repentance, fasting and ascetic acts to prepare the way for the coming redemption. In September 1665, he announced that a fundamental cosmic shift had taken place and that within the year, without war, Shabbetai Tzvi would take the Turkish Sultan's crown and make the Sultan his servant. After that Tzvi would bring back the lost tribes of Israel and marry Rebecca, the daughter of a resurrected Moses. The Sultan would then rebel and the ensuing war would usher in the tumultuous birth pangs of the messiah.

In the same month, Shabbetai Tzvi traveled to Aleppo and Smyrna amidst an atmosphere of religious agitation; several sightings of Elijah were reported. Rabbis and communal leaders were swept up in the excitement. When Shabbetai Tzvi reverted to a state of ecstasy and began performing ma'asim zarim, the rabbis tried to stop him, but it was too late. With his followers, he stormed the synagogue of his opponents, called up family members and friends--including women--to the reading of the Torah, and had them pronounce the divine name in their blessings. Comparing his rabbinical opponents to unclean animals, he declared himself the anointed one of God. 

Embracing the "Messiah"

Messianic fervor began to spread throughout the communities of the Diaspora. Repentance, extreme asceticism, scourging, and fasting alternated with periods of ecstatic joy. Messianic prayers written by Nathan of Gaza were published. While some Jews began to make travel plans for their imminent departure to the Land of Israel, others refused, believing that they would miraculously be transported there on clouds. 

What made the Jewish world so receptive to the false messianism of Shabbetai Tzvi? In 1648-49, Cossack bands led by Bogdan Chmielnicki massacred 300,000 Jews in the Ukraine amid unprecedented acts of cruelty. Many communities that escaped were then devastated in the Russian-Swedish war of 1655. In this context, the Jewish people's historical dream of redemption from the bondage of exile took on a new degree of urgency and desperation. In these communities, Shabbetai Tzvi found a receptive audience.

But Shabbateanism influenced communities all over the Jewish world, many of whom were unaffected by Chmielnicki and had no significant history of persecution. Here, the movement's popularity must be understood in its theological context. The 16th century had seen the development of a popular new religious movement, emanating from the town of Safed in northern Israel: Lurianic Kabbalah. The new doctrine held that the creation of the world had sent the presence of God into exile, shattering the divine light into countless sparks, and concealing them within the shells of mundane reality. By uncovering and raising up these sparks through mystical prayer and ritual, the redemption--not only of the Jewish people but of the cosmos and of God himself--could be achieved. Whereas previously kabbalah had been speculative and esoteric, it was now a popular movement, shot through with messianic tension. The appearance of a messiah who, by contravening Jewish law, could descend into the depths of sin to redeem the last of the sparks, invigorated the Jewish people with the sense that the end of the exile was at hand.

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.