Shabbetai Zevi

The kabbalistic false messiah.

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If Shabbetai Tzvi's initial reception was conditioned by these religious factors, once inaugurated, the movement took on a momentum of its own. Around the Jewish world, a divide emerged between believers and their opponents. In many communities the anti-Shabbatean minority, including many rabbis , were careful not to antagonize their congregations for fear of terror and reprisals. Thus any effective opposition was neutralized.

Zevi's Conversion to Islam

In 1666 Shabbetai Tzvi was arrested in Constantinople. After a period of imprisonment -- during which he held court as messiah, replaced the fast of the 9th of Av with a festival celebrating his birthday and began to sign his letters "I am the Lord your God Shabbetai Tzvi"--he was denounced for fomenting sedition and brought before the Sultan. Now in a depressive state, he denied ever having made messianic claims. Offered the choice of apostasy or death, he chose to convert to Islam. Shabbetai Tzvi became Aziz Mehmed Effendi, and, with a royal pension, lived until 1676, outwardly a Muslim but secretly participating in Jewish ritual. His letters reveal that at the time of his death, he still believed in his messianic mission. 

While Shabbetai Tzvi's conversion created a crisis of faith for most of his followers, the movement lived on, sustained by esoteric kabbalistic explanations for the apostasy and by its adherents' psychological need to prevent their deep-seated religious world view from falling apart. The movement survived into the early 18th century, when the Shabbateans divided into two camps: moderates who combined their secret messianic faith with adherence to Jewish law and radicals who set about covertly spreading the heretical doctrine that the "nullification of the Torah was its true fulfillment." This radical wing of the Shabbatean movement achieved a short-lived revival under Jacob Frank, a Polish Jew who, in 1756, was heralded as the reincarnation of Shabbetai Tzvi.

Shabbateanism subsequently died out as a significant feature of Jewish life, but its long-term impact was far-reaching. Its most immediate influence was in the formulation of a new version of Jewish mysticism--the Hasidic movement, born in late 18th century Poland. The quietistic, inwardly spiritual tone of early Hasidism was a conscious reaction against the messianic excesses of the Shabbeteans, while the Hasidim's unconditional faith in their rebbe or tzaddik had as its precedent the dynamic between Shabbetai Tzvi and his followers. Today, the resurgence of messianic fervor among many Lubavitch Hasidim lends credence to this relationship. Historian Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson has taken this idea one step further, arguing that the whirlwind of popularity and enthusiasm generated by a secular Zionist like Theodor Herzl at the end of the 19th century cannot be understood without reference to the Shabbaetean movement. 

Gershom Scholem, the seminal historian of Jewish mysticism, makes an even bolder claim. He argues that the split between outward orthodoxy and secret heresy, which characterized Shabbetai Tzvi's followers, destroyed the unity of their Jewish identity from within. This, combined with the trauma caused by the false messiah's apostasy, was one of the decisive factors which explain the disintegration of traditional Judaism and the onset of modern Jewish history.

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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.