Jewish History: The Jarring Episode Of Shabbetai Tzvi – Infamous Messianic Deceiver


By Rabbi Pini Dunner, Rav of Young Israel North Beverly Hills.

Jewish History

Part One.

Three hundred and fifty years ago this year, in 1665, a young Sephardic rabbi called Shabbetai Tzvi claimed that he was the long awaited Messiah, redeemer of the Jews. The announcement bounced around the Jewish world and was widely welcomed. It was not too long before he was exposed as a fraud, although – sadly – not in time to prevent hundreds of Jewish communities from being thrown into turmoil.

Who was this Messianic pretender? How was he ever taken seriously? And how is it possible that even his conversion to Islam failed to convince people that he was a charlatan?

To understand this jarring episode one must understand its origins in Kabbalah, or the Jewish mystical tradition. For centuries Kabbalah did not have a history of being interested in Messianism or in the process of Jewish redemption from exile. Rather, it had mainly focused on the mystical and symbolic view of the universe and its creation, on understanding G-d and on how one could connect to G-d through the performance of His commandments.

To the early Kabbalists, who were small and secretive groups of Jewish mystics, the concept of Messiah and the redemption process was seen in the same way as non-Kabbalists: a firm belief in an ultimate moment when a Messiah chosen by G-d would lead the Jews back to the Holy Land, and the Temple would be rebuilt. It was very much part of the belief system, but neither urgent nor particularly mystical.

Jewish History2

After the dramatic expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, this paradigm shifted. The upheaval of the Spanish expulsion, and the Inquisition that followed in its wake, shook the Jewish world to its foundations, probably more than any other event since the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by Titus 1,400 years earlier. During the sixteenth century Tzfat emerged as the spiritual and Kabbalistic headquarters of Judaism. Its emergence proved to be pivotal, particularly as the Kabbalah espoused by the Kabbalists of Tzfat, was mainly eschatological in theme and content. Eschatology is the branch of theology concerned with the end of time.

Some of Judaism’s greatest minds and souls found their home in Tzfat, and to this day some of the most studied mystical and legal texts of Judaism can be traced to sixteenth century Tzfat.

The greatest of the Kabbalists of Tzfat, and the one with the most far-reaching influence, was Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi (1534-1572), known as ‘The Arizal’ or ‘The Ari.’ The Arizal had a close circle of disciples who recorded all his teachings. He wrote nothing himself, and everything we know of him and his teachings emanates from these disciples, principally a man called Rabbi Chaim Vital. The Arizal’s Kabbalistic system – known as Lurianic Kabbalah – revolved almost exclusively around this previously overlooked topic of exile and redemption.

In the most basic of terms, it posited that the whole of creation was directly tied into the exile and redemption process of the Jewish nation. In summary, G-d can only allow for the existence of a physical world through an act of withdrawal. The calibration of ‘withdrawal’ and ‘G-d’ within creation is the balance between spiritual and unspiritual, or physical, in the universe.

The sin of Adam and Eve created a state of imbalance, in need of tikkun, or correction. The exile of the Jewish people in the physical world is a reflection of this imbalance. If the Jewish nation achieves ultimate perfection, as reflected through Messianic redemption, then all of creation can at last be in balance, and G-d will have realized His original purpose for creation.

It is noteworthy that the Arizal did not devote much attention the Messiah himself. Who he would be, or what he might do or say, and how he might reveal himself, seemed of little relevance. Among the few scattered references within Lurianic mysticism that discuss the Messiah figure, one is worth noting. The Arizal predicted that he would possess an ‘Evil Side’, and in the course of his activities the Messiah would perform actions or be involved in events that might seem antithetical to his Messianic mission.

One fascinating example of this idea can be found in a text from the 1550’s, by an anonymous author of the Tzfat school. He discusses the frequency of Biblical heroes who were somehow connected with ‘inappropriate’ women: Yehudah and Tamar, Yosef and the wife of Potiphar, Mohe and Tzipporah, Shimshon and Delilah, Boaz and Ruth, Yehoshua and Rahab. The text offers a number of explanations and interpretations, for example the necessity for G-d’s chosen hero to have a relationship with those who G-d needs to vanquish; or another one: the need for a male – representing good – to effect ‘tikkun’ on a female – representing evil; or another one: by uniting two disparate elements from opposite ends of the spectrum G-d can realize the purpose of creation. In time these ideas would be used by Shabbetai Tzvi’s apologists as justification for his peculiar behavior and public desecration of Jewish law.

Lurianic Kabbalah’s interest in the redemption created a Messianic excitement and expectation in the Jewish world that had not been seen since Bar Kochba’s devastating defeat by the Romans at Betar in 135 C.E. Groups devoted to bringing about the redemption proliferated, and between 1630 and 1660 the sense of an imminent redemption was heightened, promoted and discussed in many communities.

Let us turn now to the protagonist himself: the Messianic pretender, Shabbetai Tzvi. Shabbetai Tzvi’s biography is unsurprisingly full of contradictions. Glorified by acolytes, and vilified by detractors, the truth about him is hard to pin down. But some of the facts are incontrovertible. He was born on August 1, 1626, which that year was also the 9th of Av – Tisha B’Av, when we fast, and mourn the distruction of the two Jerusalem temples. But there was no fast that day, as it was a Shabbat. Mystical literature is insistent that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av, which will mean that redemption emerges out of the ashes. It was in honor of the day of his birth that his parents named their baby son Shabbetai.

Shabbetai Tzvi was born in Izmir, Turkey, known in those days as Smyrna. His family was originally from Greece, but his father, Mordechai, had moved his family to the coastal city to more easily and profitably conduct his trading business. It is possible that the family were originally Ashkenazi – Tzvi is not a typical Sephardic family name. Mordechai was a trading agent, acting on behalf of English traders living in Izmir. This was a common arrangement: Western European traders would hire Jews to act for them, as they spoke many languages and were extremely well connected.

Shabbetai was the second of three sons, and his family was wealthy, prosperous and prominent. Both his parents died before the Messiah saga – his father in 1663, and his mother many years earlier. Shabbetai’s main teacher was a man called Rabbi Yosef Escapa, author of the halachic work ‘Rosh Yosef’. As a student, Shabbetai was earnest and competent, and he mastered Talmud and Jewish law at an early age. Aged just 18, he received his rabbinic ordination.

No one knows when he started studying Kabbalah, but it was certainly at a young age. Crucially, he studied it on his own – a practice that was highly unusual. Aspiring Kabbalists were expected to master their subject only with guidance from a mentor – hence the term ‘kabbalah’, or ‘received’ teachings.

At 20, Shabbetai Tzvi married for the first time, but the marriage was never consummated and a few months after the wedding, following a complaint to the local rabbis by his wife’s father, the young couple divorced. Almost immediately he married again, but again the marriage was not consummated and ended in divorce. At around the time of his marriages it became evident that his behavior was erratic and unpredictable. Many of the accounts written about this period were written much later, and mostly by his detractors, but even those written by his supporters and defenders reveal an extremely strange young man.

At times Shabbetai Tzvi was enthusiastically joyful, exuberant and ecstatic; at other times he was depressed, anxious, paranoid and passive. Today we recognize these symptoms as those of someone suffering from acute manic depression, or bi-polar syndrome. In the 1600’s such symptoms were interpreted somewhat differently. To his enemies his behavior demonstrated that he was an evil madman. To his supporters and devotees his behavior proved that he was special, divine and holy. He claimed to experience visions, and he was able to stay awake for days at a time without food. Or he would disappear for days, or even weeks. His supporters claimed he needed time alone so that he could atone for the world’s sins.

One of the most unusual aspects of his manic episodes was his transformation from a meticulously observant orthodox Jew into a flagrant violator of Jewish law. His supporters would later refer to these antinomian acts as ‘Maasim Zarim’ – strange or paradoxical acts. His weird behavior eventually grabbed the attention of the senior Jewish leadership in Izmir, and they decided to expel him from the city before his malign influence could cause problems for the insular and fairly unsophisticated Jewish community.

NEXT TIME: Shabbetai Tzvi’s nomadic travels as he battles detractors and descends into ever stranger behavior, and his fateful meeting with a brilliant rabbinic scholar in Gaza called Nathan Azati that changed his life, and began his journey towards Messianic revelation.