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SABBATAI ZEVI (1626-1676)

False Messiah, a native of Smyrna, Turkey. When Sabbatai Zevi was still a young and impressionable Talmud student, he became so deeply attracted by the Kabbalah that he devoted himself completely to its study. In Kabbalist circles, he learned that the year 1648 would bring the “end of days,” when the Messiah would come to bring Israel back to the Holy Land. Exactly when he came to look upon himself as the Messiah is difficult to tell. It is known, however, that at the age of 20 he lived the life of a mystic, praying, fasting, and bathing in the sea, even in the winter. He saw mystic visions and began to interpret the messianic passages in the Kabbalah. Handsome and magnetic, Sabbatai was swiftly surrounded by a circle of followers, to whom he revealed openly for the first time in 1648, at age 22, his belief in himself as the Messiah. The Jewish community of Smyrna expelled Sabbatai, and he began the wanderings that spread his fame far and wide. The time was ripe for him. Everywhere, the Jewish people were suffering from poverty, degradation, and persecution. They longed with all their might for the coming of the Messiah who would save them, and almost everywhere there were people who believed Sabbatai was the Messiah. When Sabbatai Zevi came to Constantinople, Abraham Jachine, a self-proclaimed prophet, produced an “ancient document” prophesying Sabbatai’s Messiahship.

Banished from Salonika, he went to Cairo. There, Rabbi Joseph Calaba, treasurer at the governor’s court, honored him with his open support. In Jerusalem he was warmly received by the local Kabbalists. Sabbatai was now convinced he was the Messiah. He fasted and prayed, wept and chanted psalms through wakeful nights. Sent on a mission to Cairo, he heard of Sarah, a beautiful Jewish maiden from Poland who believed that she was the predestined bride of the Messiah. His disciples sent for Sarah, and Sabbatai married her amid great rejoicing. “Prophets” continued to spring up and proclaim him the Messiah, and his fame grew so wide that he dared to return to his native Smyrna in 1655. There he came to the synagogue, and amid the blowing of trumpets and the shouting of “Long Live Our King, Our Anointed One!” Sabbatai proclaimed himself the Messiah.

His following grew everywhere, among Marranos in Amsterdam, among the communities of Hamburg and Venice, among Polish Jews stricken by the Cossack uprising, and in far-off Morocco as well. In Smyrna, all business stopped, and people prepared to follow the Messiah to the Holy Land. In 1666, Sabbatai Zevi set sail for Constantinople, in full expectation that Sultan Mohammed IV would give him a royal reception as the supreme king on earth. On landing, he was arrested and taken in chains to prison. Meantime, a rival “Messiah” from Poland, Nehemiah Cohen, became a Muslim and told the authorities that Sabbatai was plotting to overthrow the Ottoman rule. Sabbatai was brought before the Sultan and given the choice of becoming a Muslim or dying. Sabbatai chose to live, took off his Jewish head-covering, and put on the white turban of the Turkish Muslim. The Jewish Messiah was no more; he had assumed the name Mehemet Effendi. Sabbatai was banished to Dulcigno, a small Albanian town, where he lived until his death on the Day of Atonement in 1676. Neither his conversion nor even his death put an end to the Sabbataian movement. His imprisonment and conversion were accepted as preliminary, mystic suffering before the final glory. After his death, one false messiah after another followed Sabbatai’s ways. Mystic dreamers as well as imposters continued to draw followers because of the people’s hunger to return to the Holy Land and because of their great longing for redemption. (See also Messianism.)

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