Sabbateans

The Sabbateans (or Sabbatians) were a variety of Jewish followers, disciples, and believers in Sabbatai Zevi (1626–1676), a Sephardic Jewish rabbi and Kabbalist who was proclaimed to be the Jewish Messiah in 1666 by Nathan of Gaza. Vast numbers of Jews in the Jewish diaspora accepted his claims, even after he outwardly became an apostate due to his forced conversion to Islam in the same year. Sabbatai Zevi’s followers, both during his “Messiahship” and after his forced conversion to Islam, are known as Sabbateans. Part of the Sabbateans lived on until well into 21st-century Turkey as descendants of the Dönmeh.

Illustration of Sabbatai Zevi from 1906 (Joods Historisch Museum)

Illustration of Sabbatai Zevi from 1906 (Joods Historisch Museum)

Main article: History of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire

Sabbatai Zevi "enthroned" as the Jewish Messiah, from Tikkun, Amsterdam, 1666

Sabbatai Zevi “enthroned” as the Jewish Messiah, from Tikkun, Amsterdam, 1666

In Jewish history, many Jews after Sabbatai Zevi’s feigned apostasy, although horrified, clung to the belief that Zevi could still be regarded as the true Jewish Messiah. They constituted the largest number of Sabbateans during the 17th and 18th  centuries. By the 19th century, Jewish Sabbateans had been reduced to small groups of hidden followers who feared being discovered for their beliefs, that were deemed to be entirely heretical and antithetical to Rabbinic Judaism. These very Jews fell under the category of “sectarian” Sabbateans, which originated when many Sabbateans refused to accept that Zevi’s feigned apostasy might have been indicative of the fact that their faith was genuinely an illusion.

Another large group of Sabbateans succeeding Zevi’s feigned apostasy began to view Islam in an extremely negative light. Polemics against Islam erupted directly after Zevi’s forced conversion. Some of these attacks were considered part of a largely anti-Sabbatean agenda. Accusations coming from anti-Sabbatean Jews revolved around the idea that Sabbatai Zevi’s feigned conversion to Islam was rightfully an indicator of a false claim of Messianship.

Sabbatai Zevi’s conversion to Islam

Jewish historians have stated that it is hard to describe the national sense of shock and trauma that set in when the masses of Jews all over the world learned that someone as famous as Sabbatai Zevi had officially abandoned his faith for Islam. However, the fact remains that Zevi is the most famous Jew to have become a Muslim, which is also what the term Sabbatean has come to denote. Many within Zevi’s inner circle followed him into Islam, including his wife Sarah and most of his closest relatives and friends. Nathan of Gaza, the scholar closest to Zevi, who had caused Zevi to reveal his Messiahship and in turn became his prophet, never followed his master into Islam but remained a Jew, albeit excommunicated by his Jewish brethren.

Sabbatean – Sufi similarities

Claims of ties between Sabbatean Kabbalah and Sufism go back to the days of Sabbatai Zevi. This is largely based on the contention that Zevi’s exile in the Balkans brought him into close contact with several forms of unorthodox Sufism which existed in the region. The Dönme community of Salonika came to play a significant role in the Sufi life of the region and its members actively involved with a number of Sufi orders, particularly the Mevlevi. Some alleged similarities between Dönme and unorthodox Sufi practice seem to exist, including the violation of kashrut/halal, sexual license, ecstatic singing, mystical interpretations of sacred scripture, and the practice of ritual meals. However, confirmed direct ties between Sabbatai Zevi and any Sufi order are conjectural and hearsay. The often claimed connection between the movement and Bektashi Sufism relies merely on circumstantial evidence and coincidence rather than any concrete substantiation. During Zevi’s lifetime the Bektashi order had yet to attain widespread popularity in the Balkans; it came to dominate southern Albania only in the late 19th century. Nevertheless, there were a number of other heterodox Sufi movements in the region in the mid-17th century, including the Hamzevis, Melamis and Qalandars.

The Dönme

Main article: Dönmeh

Inside the Ottoman Empire, those followers of Zevi who had converted to Islam but who secretly continued Jewish observances and Brit Mila became known as the Dönme (Turkish: dönme “convert”). There were some internal sub-divisions within the sect, according to the geographical locations of the group, and according to who the leaders of these groups were after the death of Shabbatai Zevi.

Sabbatean-related controversies in Jewish history

The Emden-Eybeschutz controversy

Main articles: Jacob Emden and Jonathan Eybeschutz

The Emden-Eybeschutz controversy was a serious rabbinical disputation with wider political ramifications in Europe that followed the accusations by Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697–1776) who was a fierce opponent of the Sabbateans, against Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz (1690–1764) whom he accused of being a secret Sabbatean.

The Emden-Eybeschutz controversy arose concerning the amulets which Emden suspected Eybeschutz of issuing. It was alleged that these amulets recognized the messianic claims of Sabbatai Zevi. Emden then accused Eybeschutz of heresy. Emden was known for his attacks directed against the adherents, or those he supposed to be adherents, of Sabbatai Zevi. In Emden’s eyes, Eybeschutz was a convicted Sabbatean. The controversy lasted several years, continuing even after Eybeschutz’s death.

Emden’s assertion of heresy was chiefly based on the interpretation of some amulets prepared by Eybeschutz, in which Emden professed to see Sabbatean allusions. Hostilities began before Eybeschutz left Prague; when Eybeschutz was named chief rabbi of the three communities of Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbek in 1751, the controversy reached the stage of intense and bitter antagonism. Emden maintained that he was at first prevented by threats from publishing anything against Eybeschutz. He solemnly declared in his synagogue the writer of the amulets to be a Sabbatean heretic and deserving of ḥerem (excommunication).

The majority of the rabbis in Poland, Moravia, and Bohemia, as well as the leaders of the Three Communities, supported Eybeschutz: the accusation was “utterly incredible” – in 1725, Eybeschutz was among the Prague rabbis who excommunicated the Sabbatean sect. (Others suggest that the rabbis issued this ruling because they feared the repercussions if their leading figure was found to be a Sabbatean).

The controversy was a momentous incident in Jewish history of the period, involving both Yechezkel Landau and the Vilna Gaon, and may be credited with having crushed the lingering belief in Sabbatai current even in some Orthodox circles. In 1760 the quarrel broke out once more when some Sabbatean elements were discovered among the students of Eybeschutz’ yeshiva. At the same time his younger son, Wolf, presented himself as a Sabbatean prophet, with the result that the yeshiva was closed.

Sabbateans and early Hasidism

Some scholars see seeds of the Hasidic movement within the Sabbatean movement. When Hasidism began to spread its influence, a serious schism evolved between the Hasidic and non-Hasidic Jews. Those who rejected the Hasidic movement dubbed themselves as misnagdim (“opponents”).

Critics of Hasidic Judaism expressed concern that Hasidism might become a messianic sect as had occurred among the followers of both Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank. However the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, came at a time when the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe were reeling in bewilderment and disappointment engendered by the two Jewish false messiahs Sabbatai Zevi (1626–1676) and Jacob Frank (1726–1791) in particular.

Sabbateans and modern secularism

Some scholars have noted that the Sabbatean movement in general fostered and connected well with the principles of modern secularism. Related to this is the drive of the Donmeh in Turkey for secularizing their society just as European Jews promoted the values of Age of Enlightenment and its Jewish equivalent the haskalah.

Disillusioned Jewish Sabbateans

Former followers of Shabbatai do penance for their support of him.

Former followers of Shabbatai do penance for their support of him.

Sabbatai’s conversion to Islam was extremely disheartening for the world’s Jewish communities. Among the masses of the people the greatest confusion reigned. In addition to the misery and disappointment from within, Muslims and Christians jeered at and scorned the credulous and duped Jews. In spite of Sabbatai’s apostasy, many of his adherents still tenaciously clung to him, claiming that his conversion was a part of the Messianic scheme. This belief was further upheld and strengthened by the likes of Nathan of Gaza and Samuel Primo, who were interested in maintaining the movement.

Rabbis who opposed the Sabbateans

Joseph Escapa

Main article: Joseph Escapa

Rabbi Joseph Escapa (1572–1662) was especially known for having been the teacher of Zevi and for having afterward excommunicated him.

Aaron Lapapa

Main article: Aaron Lapapa

Rabbi Aaron Lapapa (1590–1674) was the rabbi at Smyrna in 1665, when Zevi’s movement was at its height there. He was one of the few rabbis who had the courage to oppose the false prophet and excommunicate him. Zevi and his adherents retorted by deposing him and forcing him to leave the city, and his office was given to his colleague, Hayyim Benveniste, at that time one of Sabbatai’s followers. After Sabbatai’s conversion to Islam, Lapapa seems to have been reinstated.

Jacob Hagis

Main article: Jacob Hagis

Rabbi Jacob Hagis (1620–1674) was one of Zevi’s chief opponents, who put him under the ban. About 1673 Hagis went to Constantinople to publish his Lehem ha-Panim, but he died there before this was accomplished. This book, as well as many others of his, was lost.

Moses Hagiz

Main article: Moses Hagiz

Rabbi Moses Hagiz (1671- c. 1750) was born in Jerusalem and waged a campaign against Sabbatean emissaries during 1725-1726.

Jacob ben Aaron Sasportas

Main article: Jacob ben Aaron Sasportas

Rabbi Jacob ben Aaron Sasportas (1610–1698) was one of the fiercest opponents of the Sabbatean movement. He wrote many letters to various communities in Europe, Asia, and Africa, exhorting them to unmask the impostors and to warn the people against them. He documented his struggle in his book Tzitzat Novel Tzvi, the title being based on Isaiah 28:4. He wrote a number of works, such as Toledot Ya’akob (1652), an index of Biblical passages found in the haggadah of the Jerusalem Talmud, similar to Aaron Pesaro’s Toledot Aharon, which relates to the Babylonian Talmud only; and Ohel Ya’akov (1737), a volume of halachik responsa which includes polemical correspondence against Zevi and his followers.

David Nieto

Main article: David Nieto

Rabbi David Nieto (1654–1728) was the haham of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community in London. He waged war untiringly on the Sabbateans, which he regarded as dangerous to the best interests of Judaism, and in this connection wrote his Esh Dat (London, 1715) against Nehemiah Hayyun (who supported Zevi).

Tzvi Ashkenazi

Main article: Tzvi Ashkenazi

Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi (1656–1718) known as the Chacham Tzvi, for some time rabbi of Amsterdam, was a resolute opponent of the followers of Sabbatai Zevi. In Salonica he also witnessed the impact of the Sabbatai Zevi movement on the community, and this experience became a determining factor in his whole career. His son Jacob Emden served as rabbi in Emden and followed in his father’s footsteps in combating the Sabbatean movement.

Jacob Emden

Main article: Jacob Emden

Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697–1776) was Talmudic scholar and leading opponent of the Sabbatians. He is best known as the opponent of Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz whom he accused of being a Sabbatean during The Emden-Eybeschütz Controversy.

Naphtali Cohen

Main article: Naphtali Cohen

Rabbi Naphtali Cohen (1649–1718) was a kabbalist who was tricked into giving an approbation to a book by the Sabbatean Nehemiah Hayyun. Provided with this and with other recommendations secured in the same way, Hayyun traveled throughout Moravia and Silesia, propagating everywhere his Sabbatean teachings. Cohen soon discovered his mistake, and endeavored, without success, to recover his approbation, although he did not as yet realize the full import of the book. It was in 1713, while Cohen was staying at Breslau (where he acted as a rabbi until 1716), that Haham Tzvi Ashkenazi of Amsterdam informed him of its tenets. Cohen thereupon acted rigorously. He launched a ban against the author and his book, and became one of the most zealous supporters of Haham Tzvi in his campaign against Hayyun.

See also

References

  • Editors (23 January 2020). “Judaism – The Lurianic Kabbalah: Shabbetaianism”Encyclopædia BritannicaEdinburgh: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Retrieved 6 October 2020Rabbi Shabbetai Tzevi of Smyrna (1626–76), who proclaimed himself messiah in 1665. Although the “messiah” was forcibly converted to Islam in 1666 and ended his life in exile 10 years later, he continued to have faithful followers. A sect was thus born and survived, largely thanks to the activity of Nathan of Gaza (c. 1644–90), an unwearying propagandist who justified the actions of Shabbetai Tzevi, including his final apostasy, with theories based on the Lurian doctrine of “repair”. Tzevi’s actions, according to Nathan, should be understood as the descent of the just into the abyss of the “shells” in order to liberate the captive particles of divine light. The Shabbetaian crisis lasted nearly a century, and some of its aftereffects lasted even longer. It led to the formation of sects whose members were externally converted to Islam—e.g., the Dönmeh (Turkish: “Apostates”) of Salonika, whose descendants still live in Turkey—or to Roman Catholicism—e.g., the Polish supporters of Jacob Frank(1726–91), the self-proclaimed messiah and Catholic convert (in Bohemia-Moravia, however, the Frankists outwardly remained Jews). This crisis did not discredit Kabbalah, but it did lead Jewish spiritual authorities to monitor and severely curtail its spread and to use censorship and other acts of repression against anyone—even a person of tested piety and recognized knowledge—who was suspected of Shabbetaian sympathies or messianic pretensions.
  • Karp, Abraham J. (2017). Witnesses to History”: Shabbetai Zvi – False Messiah (Judaic Treasures)”Jewish Virtual Library. American–Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE). Archivedfrom the original on 16 October 2017. Retrieved 6 October 2020Born in Smyrna in 1626, he showed early promise as a Talmudic scholar, and even more as a student and devotee of Kabbalah. More pronounced than his scholarship were his strange mystical speculations and religious ecstasies. He traveled to various cities, his strong personality and his alternately ascetic and self-indulgentbehavior attracting and repelling rabbis and populace alike. He was expelled from Salonica by its rabbis for having staged a wedding service with himself as bridegroom and the Torah as bride. His erratic behavior continued. For long periods, he was a respected student and teacher of Kabbalah; at other times, he was given to messianic fantasies and bizarre acts. At one point, living in Jerusalem seeking “peace for his soul,” he sought out a self-proclaimed “man of God,” Nathan of Gaza, who declared Shabbetai Zvi to be the Messiah. Then Shabbetai Zvi began to act the part […] On September 15, 1666, Shabbetai Zvi, brought before the sultan and given the choice of death or apostasy, prudently chose the latter, setting a turban on his head to signify his conversion to Islam, for which he was rewarded with the honorary title “Keeper of the Palace Gates” and a pension of 150 piasters a day. The apostasy shocked the Jewish world. Leaders and followers alike refused to believe it. Many continued to anticipate a second coming, and faith in false messiahs continued through the eighteenth century. In the vast majority of believers revulsion and remorse set in and there was an active endeavor to erase all evidence, even mention of the pseudo messiah. Pages were removed from communal registers, and documents were destroyed. Few copies of the books that celebrated Shabbetai Zvi survived, and those that did have become rarities much sought after by libraries and collectors.
  • Kohler, KaufmannMalter, Henry (1906). “Shabbetai Ẓevi”Jewish EncyclopediaKopelman Foundation. Retrieved 6 October2020At the command [of the sultan], Shabbetai was now taken from Abydos to Adrianople, where the sultan’s physician, a former Jew, advised Shabbetai to embrace Islam as the only means of saving his life. Shabbetai realized the danger of his situation and adopted the physician’s advice. On the following day […] being brought before the sultan, he cast off his Jewish garb and put a Turkish turban on his head; and thus his conversion to Islam was accomplished. The sultan was much pleased, and rewarded Shabbetai by conferring on him the title (Mahmed) “Effendi” and appointing him as his doorkeeper with a high salary. […] To complete his acceptance of Mohammedanism, Shabbetai was ordered to take an additional wife, a Mohammedan slave, which order he obeyed. […] Meanwhile Shabbetai secretly continued his plots, playing a double game. At times he would assume the role of a pious Mohammedan and revile Judaism; at others he would enter into relations with Jews as one of their own faith. Thus in March, 1668, he gave out anew that he had been filled with the Holy Spirit at Passover and had received a revelation. He, or one of his followers, published a mystic work addressed to the Jews in which the most fantastic notions were set forth, e.g., that he was the true Redeemer, in spite of his conversion, his object being to bring over thousands of Mohammedans to Judaism. To the sultan he said that his activity among the Jews was to bring them over to Islam. He therefore received permission to associate with his former coreligionists, and even to preach in their synagogues. He thus succeeded in bringing over a number of Mohammedans to his cabalistic views, and, on the other hand, in converting many Jews to Islam, thus forming a Judæo-Turkish sect (see Dönmeh), whose followers implicitly believed in him [as the Jewish Messiah]. This double-dealing with Jews and Mohammedans, however, could not last very long. Gradually the Turks tired of Shabbetai’s schemes. He was deprived of his salary, and banished from Adrianople to Constantinople. In a village near the latter city he was one day surprised while singing psalms in a tent with Jews, whereupon the grand vizier ordered his banishment to Dulcigno, a small place in Albania, where he died in loneliness and obscurity.
  • Scholem, Gershom (1973). Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah. Princeton University Press. pp. 687–693.
  • Jacobs, Martin (2007). “An Ex-Sabbatean’s Remorse? Sambari’s Polemics against Islam”. Center for Advanced Judaic StudiesUniversity of PennsylvaniaJSTOR25470213.
  • “A Strange Sect in Saloniki”(PDF)The New York Times. January 26, 1919.
  • “Post Sabbatian Sabbatianism”. Bezalel Naor (Rav Kook on Sabbatianism). December 12, 2006. Archived from the original on December 5, 2006.
  • “Sabbatean Messianism as Proto Secularism”. M. Avrum Ehrlich. December 12, 2006. Archived from the original on January 14, 2007.
  • Scholem, Gershom (1973). Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah. Princeton University Press. pp. 821–828.
  • Kahana, Maoz (2012). “The Allure of Forbidden Knowledge: The Temptation of Sabbatean Literature for Mainstream Rabbis in the Frankist Moment, 1756–1761”. The Jewish Quarterly ReviewJSTOR41681764.
  • Goldstein, M.B. (2013). The Newest Testament: A Secular Bible. Archway Publishing. p. 468. ISBN9781480801554.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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