Jewish History

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

Following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain & Portugal, and a sudden focus on Messianic belief in the teachings of the Tzfat kabbalists, a young rabbi from Izmir called Shabbetai Tzvi would become one of the most infamous Messianic pretenders in Jewish history. In the first article of this series we discovered how he began to show signs of severe bipolar disorder as a young man, how he was married and divorced twice, and how he eventually came to the attention of the rabbis in Izmir as a result of his strange behavior.

After some deliberation, the rabbis of Izmir told Shabbetai Tzvi to stop behaving so bizarrely, or face the consequences – but their warning was to no avail. Consequently, in 1651, Shabbetai Tzvi was expelled from Izmir and he began to drift from community to community.

Before we follow him on his journey, let us pause to consider Shabbetai Tzvi the man. Numerous people who knew him during these wilderness years – detractors, supporters and neutral observers – would subsequently offer their observations and reflections, describing all the facets of his fascinating, if troubled personality. The picture that emerges is mesmerizing. He was incredibly charming and charismatic. He was also musically talented, handsome, extremely kind and generous spirited, diplomatic, and a brilliant conversationalist. He was fluent in several languages, and extremely knowledgeable in numerous subjects. All this, combined with his family’s relative wealth, ensured he was welcomed wherever he went. It also enabled him to befriend anyone he met. Those who met Shabbetai Tzvi were immediately impressed, and he was always able to win people over with his endearing personality and acute intelligence. Sadly, this also meant that people were blinded – at least initially – to his severe mental illness.

After his expulsion from Izmir, Shabbetai Tzvi proceeded to Salonika, now known as Thessaloniki, Greece. There he was well received, and he quickly befriended the local rabbis. But the honeymoon was shortlived. Within weeks his behavior had deteriorated dramatically. One fateful day, he invited all the local rabbis to his residence. They arrived to discover he had set up a wedding canopy under which he proceeded to perform a marriage ceremony between himself and a Torah scroll. Within days he was unceremoniously evicted from Salonika.

He drifted on to Athens, then Peloponnese, then Patras, and finally in 1658, he was back in Constantinople (Istanbul), where he remained for several months. By now his outlandish behavior had escalated even further. In one notorious incident, he purchased a large dead fish, and publicly dressed it up in baby clothes and put it in a crib, announcing to startled onlookers that fish represented liberation and salvation and that this particular fish was the childlike Jewish nation in need of salvation. Shortly after this bizarre episode, Shabbetai Tzvi implemented a ‘three festival week’. During the course of seven days he celebrated every major Jewish festival – Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot – with all the associated laws, customs, and prayers. He claimed he was atoning for all the sins committed by any Jew throughout history who had ever sinned during any of these festivals, or had not observed them properly.

At the conclusion of this strange week Shabbetai Tzvi innovated a blessing over sin – ‘mattir issurim’ – a corruption of the daily blessing ‘mattir assurim’. ‘Mattir assurim’ describes G-d as, ‘He who liberates the imprisoned.’ ‘Mattir issurim’ describes G-d as ‘He who permits the forbidden’. At this stage he was in full manic mode, announcing to the group of bewildered spectators that a new era had begun, with new laws and commandments, and by doing what he was about to do, he would effect the final mystical perfection of God’s physical creation. He then took a piece of pork, uttered the ‘mattir issurim’ benediction, and proceeded to eat it.

The local community went into complete shock. Local rabbis, infuriated, and compelled to react, arranged for him to be publicly flogged and then had him excommunicated. No one was permitted to speak to him, feed him, or house him. Shunned by every Jew in the city, Shabbetai Tzvi returned to his birthplace, Izmir, where he kept a very low profile for about three years. By 1662 he had recovered his confidence, and he departed for Eretz Yisrael. On his way to the Holy Land he spent time in Egypt, where he once again befriended rabbis and community leaders, and in particular a man called Raphael Joseph, the government appointed ‘Chelebi’ or Community President of Egyptian Jewry.

A few months later he arrived in Jerusalem, where he impressed the small community. After spending a year there, Jerusalem’s community leaders trusted him sufficiently to send him back to Egypt as their official fundraiser. On 31 March, 1664, in Egypt, Shabbetai Tzvi wed for the third time.

Sarah, his bride, was a girl with her own remarkable life story. Orphaned during the infamous Chmielnicki massacres of 1648/9 in Poland and Ukraine, she was brought up by gentiles as a Christian. In adulthood, she discovered her Jewish origins, whereupon she began drifting from community to community, possibly in search of her family; a rootless girl, very beautiful, and very seductive. She gained a reputation for immoral behavior, but nevertheless often made the strange claim that she was destined to marry the ‘Messiah’, a prediction that was treated with great amusement by all who knew her. How she came across Shabbetai Tzvi in Egypt, and what convinced her to marry him, or indeed him to marry her, is hard to determine – but the wedding took place at the home of Raphael Joseph.

At this point let us turn to the one person besides for Shabbetai Tzvi himself, whose prominence in this tragic story cannot be overstated: Abraham Nathan ben Elisha Chaim Ashkenazi, known to Messianic believers as Natan Hanavi (Nathan the Prophet,) and to everyone else as Natan Azzati (Nathan of Gaza.)

Nathan was born in approximately 1643, in Jerusalem. Despite being born into an Ashkenazi family – hence his last name – his father lived among the Sephardim of Jerusalem. In truth, however, his father was rarely there, as he spent the majority of his time collecting money for the Jerusalem community in communities outside Eretz Yisrael. Nathan was highly intelligent, extremely learned, and a gifted writer. At the age of 20 he married the daughter of a wealthy Jew from Gaza, and with the promise of full support by his wife’s family, moved there and took up the study of kabbalah.

The change from Talmud and Jewish law to kabbalah seems to have been explosive for Nathan. He withdrew from society, began to fast regularly, and to engage in intense prayer and ritual bathing, as well as other forms of self-mortification. Before long he let it be known that he was regularly having visions, with angels appearing to him to tell him about the past, present, and future.

Like Shabbetai Tzvi, Nathan was an incredibly talented and engaging individual, but he had many qualities that Shabbetai Tzvi did not. He was by nature a persistent campaigner for his ideals, highly motivated and focused; he was consistent, and unimpeachably mitzvah observant, with none of the highs and lows, or aberrant behaviors, of Shabbetai Tzvi. He was an original and systematic thinker, and fast on his feet. Last but not least, he was an exceptionally talented writer, which would prove critical in the Messianic propaganda campaign.

Nathan would ultimately be the catalyst that allowed a messianic movement to flourish around the flawed character of Shabbetai Tzvi. Before him, Shabbetai Tzvi had not succeeded at anything much, except for attracting attention to himself for the wrong reasons in a dozen communities across the Jewish world. Most likely, without Nathan, Shabbetai Tzvi would have disappeared without trace, confined to the trashcan of forgotten historical weirdos who have proliferated throughout Jewish history. But that was not to be. Their fateful meeting would create a toxic partnership that wreaked havoc across the Jewish world.

In 1665, Raphael Joseph heard about the young man in Gaza who claimed to be having spectacular visions and was being visited by countless pilgrims. Joseph informed Shabbetai Tzvi about Nathan, and he decided to visit the ‘healer’ and ask for help with his tormented soul. He travelled as quickly as he could from Egypt to Gaza, and sought an appointment with Nathan. Upon entering Nathan’s room, the young healer fell to the ground in a trance. When he awoke, he gushingly informed Shabbetai Tzvi that he was none other than the Messiah himself.

Shabbetai Tzvi burst into laughter, and dismissed Nathan’s pronunciation, but Nathan refused to give up. For three weeks he relentlessly cajoled Shabbetai Tzvi to see the light, and to concede that he was the King Messiah, destined to lead the Jews out of exile and back to the Promised Land. Nathan accompanied Shabbetai Tzvi to Jerusalem and Hebron, to pray at holy sites. When they returned to Gaza, Shabbetai Tzvi fell into one of his periodic depressions. It was the festival of Shavuot, and during the first night Torah study session, Nathan once again fell into a trance, and in that state said some incredible things about Shabbetai Tzvi. Once awake, he informed his stunned audience that numerous visions had informed him that Shabbetai Tzvi was the Messiah.

With the pressure now piling on, it took just one more week for Shabbetai Tzvi himself to concede, and on 17 Sivan, coinciding with 31 May, 1665, Shabbetai Tzvi publicly declared himself as the Messiah, King of the Jews and Redeemer of Israel. His first act as Messiah was to abolish the fast of 17 Tammuz. In Gaza the decree was greeted enthusiastically, and not only did the community not fast – they recited hallel, they feasted, and they rejoiced with live music, singing and dancing. The community in Hebron was next to join the believers. But in Jerusalem the story was quite different. That community knew Shabbetai Tzvi, and the rabbis were incredulous, refusing to accept that the man they all knew so well was truly the Messiah.

When Shabbetai Tzvi and Nathan arrived in Jerusalem, they were ridiculed. Shabbetai Tzvi tried to gain entry to the Temple Mount to bring a sacrifice, but was prevented from doing so. Soon a fight erupted about monies he had collected in Egypt for the community, which some people claimed had been misappropriated. The case was brought in front of the local Muslim ruler and Shabbetai Tzvi was exonerated, with his supporters claiming this legal victory was a miracle that proved he was the Messiah. Soon he was in trouble again. At a victory celebration he personally cooked and served non-kosher meat, and recited the ‘mattir issurim’ benediction. Nathan’s teacher and former mentor, the highly regarded Rabbi Jacob Chagiz, called together the local rabbis and they decided to excommunicate both Shabbetai Tzvi and Nathan. The two imposters were expelled from the Holy City, and although they left defiantly, they were never to return.

The rabbis of Jerusalem were not yet done. Extremely concerned by the actions of the two intoxicated fraudsters and their awestruck supporters, and alarmed by the possible repercussions of their actions and claims, they wrote dozens of letters to rabbis across the world, to warn them of the dangers posed by this double act, and to inform them what had transpired in Jerusalem. Sadly, getting Shabbetai Tzvi and Nathan out of their jurisdiction had been fairly simple, but putting a stop to the nascent false-Messianic movement would prove to be completely beyond their grasp.

NEXT TIME: The Messianic campaign goes viral, and Shabbetai Tzvi travels to Constantinople to confer with the Sultan of Turkey. But as Jewish communities across the world welcome the news of the Messiah’s arrival, the movement hits a brick wall when it becomes evident the gentiles are not taking the Messiah declaration seriously, and the Turkish authorities are becoming concerned that Shabbetai Tzvi’s campaign might lead to violent insurrection. How did this episode conclude, and what was to become of Shabbetai Tzvi and Nathan? Find out in the final article of this series.