Sabbatai Zevi was a rabbi and Kabbalist who claimed to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. After several initial rejections, he was finally accepted and revered by the Jewish community around the world in the 17th century. He was interested in a messianic life since a tender age. Zevi's growth was, however, opposed several times. His own Jewish community, too, opposed him once due to the fear of being harassed by the Ottomans. Zevi accepted Islam to please the Turkish sultan but wisely continued to spread his Kabbalistic beliefs. He died in solitude, but his sect continued to flourish and peaked in the 18th century.
Childhood & Early Years
Sabbatai Zevi was born on Tisha B'Av, the holy day of mourning (the 9th of Av), 1626, in Smyrna (modern-day Izmir), Turkey, to a Spanish Jewish couple. His father, Mordecai, was a poor poultry dealer but later earned wealth by working as a Smyrnian agent of an English trading house.
According to Jewish customs, Zevi studied the ‘Talmud’ at a Jewish educational institution (“yeshiva”) under the tutelage of Rabbi Joseph Escapa. Simultaneously, as Rabbi Isaac Luria was gaining popularity around that time, Zevi too, developed a keen interest in mysticism and the Jewish mystical writings called 'Kabbalah.' He believed that the 'Kabbalah' was a direct connection to God and the angels.
Zevi preferred solitude. He was married off early but never performed the conjugal duties. Thus, when his wife claimed a divorce, he readily agreed. His second marriage, too, had the same fate. Zevi dedicated himself to meditation and prayers and imposed severe mortifications on his body. He was always either in a state of complete joy or immersed in intense grief.
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Zevi was quite young when he had begun leading an ascetic life. As a devoted Kabbalistic ascetic, he pronounced himself the Messiah to a group of people in Smyrna. He pronounced the sacred name of God and claimed that God had sent him to restore the kingdom of Israel.
The Jewish Kabbalists had already predicted that 1648 would witness salvation. That year, Zevi proclaimed himself as the Messiah by pronouncing the “Tetragrammaton.” He declared the ninth day of the month Av as the traditional birthday of the Messiah.
Many people from Smyrna identified him as the Messiah. Isaac Silveyra, Italian rabbi and Kabbalist Joseph Ergas, and Moses Pinheiro (brother-in-law of Joseph Ergas) were among the first ones to confirm Zevi's position as the Messiah.
After this proclamation, Zevi spent a couple of years in Smyrna, leading the pious life of a mystic, and acquired many followers. However, his new position stirred tension in the community, and his fame did not last long.
He eventually had conflicts with local rabbinical authorities. Due to his bold messianic claims, he and his followers were banned. A Jewish excommunication was imposed on him in the early 1650s.
Constantinople, Cairo, & Marriage
Zevi left Smyrna in 1651 and lived at the Kabbalist school of Salonica, where he found many followers. However, the rabbi head of Salonica, Hiyya Abraham Di Boton, banished him from the city.
Zevi then moved to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), where he met an esteemed and influential Jewish preacher and Kabbalist named Abraham ha-Yakini, who reportedly claimed with false documents that Zevi was the Messiah.
He traveled from Constantinople to Palestine, where the Jewish community was being tortured by corrupt Ottoman officials. The Jews chose Zevi to reach out to the treasurer of the Turkish governor of Egypt, Raphael Joseph Halabi, who was a wealthy and influential Jew in Cairo, for help.
After reaching Cairo, he met Halabi, who eventually not only supported Zevi but also financially promoted his plans as the Messiah. He lived in Cairo for about 2 years, probably from 1660 to 1662.
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Shortly after he reached Cairo, Zevi got married again, and this time, also consummated the marriage. He had heard of an orphan Jewish girl named Sarah, who had escaped the Chmielnicki massacres in Poland.
While she was working as a prostitute to support herself, Sarah came to believe that she was destined to marry the Messiah. She also came to know that the Messiah was arriving shortly.
When Zevi heard of Sarah's story, he sent his messengers to Livorno, to bring her. He married Sarah, then 16, at Halabi's house in Cairo.
The union was reportedly a romantic one. He was smitten by Sarah's angelic beauty and eccentricity. The marriage also brought him more followers. The fact that Zevi had accepted her despite her unconventional past convinced more people that he was the Messiah.
Nathan of Gaza & Return to Jerusalem
Zevi, equipped with immense wealth, a charming wife, and several new followers, decided to return to Jerusalem. While passing through the city of Gaza, he met a young student named Nathan Benjamin Levi, better known as Nathan of Gaza. He became Zevi's chief disciple and claimed to be Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah.
Zevi returned to Jerusalem in around 1663, to promote himself as the Messiah. However, for a few initial years, he remained inactive to avoid stirring any rage in the community. Instead, he utilized the time to show his devotion by frequent fasting, singing psalms all night long, praying at the pious graves, shedding tears, being generous to the underprivileged, and distributing sweetmeats to street children.
In the summer of 1665, Nathan recognized Zevi as the Messiah and declared the following year as the beginning of the new messianic age. As the modern Elijah, Nathan was to conquer the world with the help of Zevi's non-violent victories.
Despite this, the rabbis of Jerusalem did not accept Zevi. They feared that he might enrage their Turkish overlords. Hence, they threatened him with excommunication in private, as his growing popularity as the Messiah ensured they could do nothing to him in public.
Return to Smyrna
Scared of being excommunicated, Zevi left for Smyrna. Meanwhile, Nathan had proclaimed Gaza, and not Jerusalem, as the sacred city. While on his journey to Smyrna, Zevi received a grand welcome in Aleppo.
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He reached Smyrna in the autumn of 1665 and received an even grander homage there. On the day of the Jewish New Year, he officially declared himself the Messiah at the city's synagogue.
His fame spread to countries such as Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands. Jews in cities such as Venice, London, Amsterdam, and Hamburg had centers to propagate his messianic movement.
Zevi and his wife had now become the leading members of the Jewish community. Using his position, he removed the previous chief rabbi of Smyrna, Aaron Lapapa, and placed his rabbi follower Hayyim Benveniste in his place.
Some of Zevi's other prominent rabbi followers were Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, Moses Raphael de Aguilar, Moses Galante, Moses Zacuto, and the secularized scholar Dionysius Mussafia Musaphia. Meanwhile, the Jews in Avignon, France, were preparing to settle in the new messianic kingdom.
Zevi's religious principles made his Jewish followers gravitate more toward mysticism and adopt extremism. Such marginalized Jews in Poland established secret societies known as "Sabbathai Zeviists," or "Shebs," which abolished strict Jewish doctrines and ceremonial practices. Zevi changed the fast of the Tenth of Tevet to a day of feasting and rejoicing. His secretary, Samuel Primo, circulated the new policies throughout Israel.
Such revolutionary changes agitated prominent Smyrnian Talmudist Solomon Algazi, who vehemently opposed the abolition of the fast. However, he narrowly escaped being attacked by the ''Zeviists.''
In 1666, Zevi began his journey to Istanbul, the Ottoman Empire's capital. However, the exact reason for his travel is not known even to this day. According to some sources, Smyrna’s gentile authorities might have forced him to leave.
Unfortunately, as soon as he reached the Turkish capital, Zevi was captured at the command of the grand vizier. It, however, did not affect either him or his followers. He was treated leniently even in prison, as he had moulded the guards with his messianic beliefs and bribes.
Meanwhile, Nathan was propagating Zevi's miraculous activities in Istanbul, among the Jews of Smyrna and in many other communities.
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Zevi was moved to the castle-prison in Abydos after 2 months of imprisonment in Istanbul. He was treated generously there, too. He was even allowed to take a few of his followers to the prison. The huge sums sent to him by his wealthy followers, along with the charms of Sarah, enabled Zevi to display his splendor in the Abydos castle.
On the Jewish holiday Passover (Pesach or Pesakh), also known as the Festival of Unleavened Bread, held to commemorate the Exodus, Zevi violated a priestly law by slaughtering a paschal lamb and eating it along with its fat. While he ate it, he pronounced the benediction "Blessed be God who hath restored again that which was forbidden."
Jews from several parts of the world praying for their Messiah were highly opposed by various communities. The Moravian government intervened, and the emir ordered a revolt against the Jews.
Conversion to Islam & Consequences
Zevi had a failed meeting with the Polish Kabbalist and self-proclaimed prophet Nehemiah ha-Kohen, who had announced the coming of the Messiah. Nehemiah had to escape to Istanbul, as some followers of Zevi had plotted to murder him.
Soon, Sultan Mehmed IV summoned Zevi to Adrianople. According to the advice (or threat) of the sultan's physician, Zevi embraced Islam to avoid any danger. On the following day, September 16, 1666, he accepted a Turkish turban and hence officially announced his conversion.
The pleased sultan rewarded Zevi with the title of “Effendi” and appointed him as his doorkeeper, with a high pay.
Sarah and many of Zevi’s followers, too, accepted Islam. Zevi sent a message to Smyrna, informing that his conversion was the will of God. It was believed that he had some connection with the Bektashi Sufi order around the time.
Zevi's conversion disappointed his followers. There were, however, some followers who continued to follow his apostasy, as they believed that the conversion was under the messianic scheme to restore a cosmic connection.
Nathan and his secretary, Primo, both continued to promote Zevi. Since he was allowed to preach in synagogues, Zevi eventually succeeded in making Muslims develop an interest in his Kabbalistic views. On the other hand, he converted many Jews to his newly established form of Islam, recognized as a Judeo–Turkish sect.
The Ottomans eventually got tired of Zevi's treachery. His pay was canceled, and he was banished from Adrianople and sent to Istanbul, where he was later found singing psalms with Jews. The grand vizier then banished him to Dulcigno (present-day Ulcinj) in Montenegro, where he died in solitude in 1676.