Shabbetai Tzevi’s Messianic Movement Begins Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

At the celebration of Pentecost in Gaza, a young rabbi announced his vision of the arrival of the Messiah. Jews throughout the Ottoman Empire and in Europe joined the mystic Shabbetai Tzevi and his movement, which emphasized inner union with the divine, a symbolic approach to Jewish law, and women’s equality.

Summary of Event

The mid-seventeenth century was an apt time for messianic movements. Mystics such as Isaac ben Solomon Luria had encouraged the study and interpretation of Kabbalah as the primary catalyst for the coming of the Messiah and a world of tiqqun, or harmony. One date for the coming, 1648, was taken from the Zohar, but that year brought the beginning of a decade of severe Chmielnicki massacres Chmielnicki massacres (1648-1649) of Jews in Poland and the Ukraine (1648-1649). Because the Messiah was to come after a great disaster, the massacres heightened expectation. However, the year of the Messiah’s coming had to be revised to 1666. [kw]Shabbetai Tzevi’s Messianic Movement Begins (Jan., 1665) [kw]Messianic Movement Begins, Shabbetai Tzevi’s (Jan., 1665) [kw]Tzevi’s Messianic Movement Begins, Shabbetai (Jan., 1665) Religion and theology;Jan., 1665: Shabbetai Tzevi’s Messianic Movement Begins[2200] Middle East;Jan., 1665: Shabbetai Tzevi’s Messianic Movement Begins[2200] Palestine;Jan., 1665: Shabbetai Tzevi’s Messianic Movement Begins[2200] Shabbetai Tzevi Jews;Shabbetian movement

At Pentecost prayers in Gaza in the Holy Land in early 1665, a previously unknown rabbi by the name of Nathan Ghazzati Ghazzati, Nathan announced that the Messiah had appeared to him in a vision. Nathan would wait until summer of the following year, after one year of repentance and a renewal of faith, to reveal the name of the Messiah: Shabbetai Tzevi Shabbetai Tzevi , a Jewish mystic from Izmir, Asia Minor (now in Turkey). The rule of the Ottoman Empire would be transferred to Tzevi, not through violence but through prayer and the singing of hymns. Jews, including the lost ten tribes of Israel, would return to the Holy Land where the resurrection of the dead would take place.

Previous Jewish messianic movements had focused on the requirement of the observance of law and in miraculous signs. Nathan had written that the focus would be on a deep and genuine faith prepared by repentance and meditation and that followers should not expect external signs. Tzevi was identified by Nathan as having been born in 1626 and thus nearing the biblically significant age of forty.

Nathan’s words were considered credible because of his reputation as a scholar and a dynamic preacher. Even more significant is that Nathan had experienced his initial vision—a light lasting twenty-four hours and a voice identifying Tzevi by name—in January, 1665, before he made the acquaintance of Tzevi. In March, Tzevi arrived in Gaza with two other delegates from the Jewish community in Cairo to inquire about rumors that the Messiah had arrived. Nathan responded by falling on his face in obeisance, but Tzevi only laughed in surprise. In the next months, the two became well acquainted and certain about the revelations. Tzevi soon came to believe he was the Messiah, and the Shebbetian movement began.

It was not long until legendary stories were circulating about Tzevi. What is clear is that he came from a family of merchants in Izmir in Asia Minor, had studied the Torah, and was ordained at the age of eighteen. Yet at the age of twenty-five, he had been expelled from his hometown by the local rabbinate and had wandered throughout the eastern Mediterranean area until he found his way to Jerusalem. While there his ascetic lifestyle and devotion to study had impressed the Jewish community, who sent him on a fund-raising trip to Egypt.

Less certain is the date of his birth in 1626, thought to be the same day that commemorates the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Through the years, scholars had predicted that the Messiah would be born on this particular day. Likewise, there was controversy about Tzevi’s marriage in Cairo in March of 1664 to a young woman named Sarah. The marriage was most unusual for the ascetic character of Tzevi, because Sarah had the reputation of a prostitute in Mantua, Italy. She and her brother likely were survivors of the 1648 massacre in Poland, and they fled to Amsterdam as orphans. Sarah, just a young girl, announced that she was destined to someday marry the Messiah. Detractors said that the marriage between Tzevi and Sarah had been staged, but followers saw it as a sign that Tzevi was indeed the Messiah.

The excitement over Nathan’s prophesy spread so quickly that there were communities of followers throughout the Ottoman Empire and as far away as northwestern Europe. There was a spontaneous outbreak of prophesizing, as men and women uttered aloud revelations. Part of the prophesizing was influenced by the preaching of Nathan, which focused on faith and repentance, and part was due to the charismatic example set by Tzevi, who often worked himself into a trance and sang with a sweet, melodious voice.

From his earlier days in Izmir, Tzevi learned about freedom from Jewish law. Women were invited to read the Torah in public. Traditional fasts were abolished and replaced with days of celebration. Nonkosher foods found their way on banquet menus. His most offensive action, however, was to utter the divine name in worship, something considered blasphemous. So the response against him was divided. Rabbinic groups in Jerusalem condemned him. Women;Jewish

Tzevi returned to Izmir with fanfare. He dressed in royal robes and began delegating future ruling roles to followers. He sent out decrees and letters, signing his name as Annointed of the God of Jacob and AMIRAH, an anagram for “our lord and king, his majesty be exalted.” He adopted the symbol of a holy serpent, the letters of which in Hebrew had the numerical equivalent of the word “messiah.”

Until this time, the Ottoman government had been disinterested in Tzevi’s actions. Persecution, religious;Jews in Ottoman Empire However, in January of 1666, while sailing to Istanbul, Tzevi was arrested by the Turks and then imprisoned for nine months in Gallipoli. His followers assumed that this would lead to a direct confrontation with the sultan, after which the Messiah would begin his rule. Instead, at their meeting in September, Tzevi publicly announced that he had converted to Islam rather than succumb to execution, and he took the name Kapici Bashi.

In some ways Tzevi’s conversion marked the end of the Shabbetian messianic movement. Many followers deserted him, but others joined him in apostatizing. However, Nathan and others declared that Tzevi’s action marked a stage only, in which the true nature of the Messiah remained hidden while he descended to the depths of evil. Followers were urged to focus on repentance and not on the mysterious character of the Messiah. For the next ten years, Tzevi remained duplicitous. For the Ottomans, he made a public show of Muslim prayers and reading the Qur՚ān. Yet, among his friends, he continued to read the Torah, to recite the Jewish prayers, and to keep the feasts, such as Passover. However, his support gradually waned until his death on September 17, 1676, in Dulcigno, Albania (now Ulcinj, Montenegro), where he had been exiled.

Significance

The Shabbetian messianic movement is often described in terms of either the tragedy of its leader or of the misguided gullibility of its followers. The movement clearly shows that there had been longing for a faith and for hope in an era of extreme suffering.

The tragic end to Shabbetian messianism was so great that it often has been considered the last major messianic movement in Judaism. Yet, in some minor forms, it did continue long after Shabbetai Tzevi’s apostasy and death. In Turkey, a Shabbetian Donmeh sect of Judaism existed until the twentieth century. Its followers practiced Islam “on the outside.” In Poland, the Frankist movement converted to Catholicism while its followers remained Jewish at heart. The leader of this group was Jacob Frank (c. 1726-1791), who considered himself the new Shabbetai Tzevi.

Many of the characteristics of the Shabbetian movement influenced modern Judaism. One example is that the Shabbetian focus on the experiential character of Judaism resurfaced in the eastern European Hasidic movement of the eighteenth century. Another example is Reform Judaism adopting the Shabbetian movement’s assimilating character, its focus on the equality of women, and a symbolic approach to Jewish law.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freely, John. The Lost Messiah: In Search of the Mystical Rabbi Sabbatai Sevi. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 2003. This is a popular account based primarily on the work of Gershom Scholem. The author, a travel writer, makes the story interesting through his own acquaintance with the cities where Shabbetai flourished.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Liebes, Yehuda. Studies in Jewish Myth and Jewish Messianism. Translated by Batya Stein. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993. A study, originally in Hebrew, that includes an examination of Tzevi’s movement. Chapters include “Sabbatean Messianism” and “Sabbetai Zevi’s Religious Faith.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schaefer, Peter, and Mark R. Cohen, eds. Toward the Millennium: Messianic Expectations from the Bible to Waco. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1998. A collection of sixteen scholarly essays, including several concerning Shabbetai specifically. The works come from a symposium on messianic movements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scholem, Gershom. Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah. New York: Littman, 1997. Originally written in Hebrew in 1957 and published in English in 1976, this volume remains the standard resource on this topic. The author takes a scholarly approach, evaluating every contemporary letter, document, and liturgical book written in response to Tzevi and the movement.
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