Rabbi Pini Dunner

Jewish History

Part Three

In the first two parts of this series we discovered how a charismatic Turkish rabbi suffering from mental illness, Shabbetai Tzvi, wandered for a number of years from community to community, dazzling and horrifying people with behavior that fluctuated from deep depression to public insanity. After a fateful meeting with a young kabbalist, Nathan of Gaza, Shabbetai Tzvi declared himself the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, redeemer of the scattered Jewish nation and the Divinely designated King of the Jews. This unlikely pair first tried their luck in Jerusalem, where they were met with derision. Defiant, despite the rejection, Shabbetai Tzvi and Nathan decided to launch a massive international Messianic campaign so they could gain recognition by Jew and non-Jew alike. It was a fateful decision that would devastate the Jewish world in an unprecedented debacle of hubris and disappointment.

After their expulsion from Jerusalem, Shabbetai Tzvi and Nathan split up. Nathan returned to Gaza – which he declared the new holy city of Judaism – while Shabbetai Tzvi travelled back to Izmir. On his way he stopped at all the towns and cities with a Jewish community. The news of his Messianic declaration had travelled ahead of him and wherever he went he was enthusiastically welcomed. Although his behavior remained erratic, the enthusiasm generated by the belief that he was the Messiah rendered any aberration irrelevant – whether he behaved normally or strangely, his personal conduct was completely overshadowed by the euphoric feelings of the thousands of Jews who believed he had come to liberate them from exile.

As Shabbetai Tzvi meandered triumphantly from community to community, Nathan simultaneously launched a feverish propaganda campaign. In numerous letters dispatched to every major Jewish center he called for mass repentance in anticipation of the imminent redemption. He began to refer to Shabbetai Tzvi as “AMIRAH” – ‘Adonenu Malkeinu Yarum Hodo’ – ‘Our Lord, our King, may his majesty be exalted’. His flowery predictions of the great redemption and how it would unfold became more fanciful with each letter. His ‘prophecies’ were apocalyptic and supernatural. A blazing fire would surround Jerusalem and Hebron, he wrote, to prevent any uncircumcised gentiles from entering these holy places. Mosques and churches would spontaneously disappear without trace. These predictions were lapped up by the masses, as fact and fiction became indistinguishable. With hindsight, it is evident that Nathan had set himself and the entire Messianic movement up for crushing failure from the very earliest moment.

Shabbetai Tzvi arrived in Izmir in September 1665, and stayed there for four months. He secluded himself upon arrival, and rarely emerged. Throughout this time, letters from supporters and detractors piled up at the homes of local rabbis and leaders. Two distinct groups emerged – those who enthusiastically believed in him, and those who emphatically did not. At the head of the unbelievers was the Chief Rabbi of the city, Rabbi Chaim Benveniste, acclaimed author of the authoritative halachic work, Knesset Ha-Gedolah.

Tension in the city mounted until, on 12 December 1665, coinciding with Shabbat Vayikra, Shabbetai Tzvi led a mob of supporters to the Portuguese synagogue, where he disrupted the service and read the Torah portion from a book instead of the Torah. He announced that he was appointing one of his brothers as the new Sultan of Turkey, and another brother was to become Emperor of Rome. While everyone watched disbelievingly, he began to hurl insults at the rabbis, including Rabbi Benveniste.

“Why has Jesus been so abused by Jewish tradition?” he asked them disparagingly, declaring that he would ensure Jesus would be counted among the Jewish prophets from now on. He then performed a number of weird rituals, and announced to the stunned worshippers that the date of the Messianic redemption, led by him, would be 15 Sivan, 1666. At this point Rabbi Benveniste stood up and demanded proof that he was the Messiah. Shabbetai Tzvi sneered, hurled more insults at him, and then threatened him with excommunication. The synagogue erupted in complete pandemonium, with Shabbetai Tzvi screaming abuse and the rabbi’s supporters screaming back at him.

Inexplicably, within a matter of days Rabbi Benveniste reconciled with Shabbetai Tzvi and he suddenly became one of the Messianic imposter’s most ardent supporters. Rabbi Benveniste was a man with a stellar international reputation, both as a pious Jew and as a wise and learned rabbi, and his support was a turning point in the Messianic campaign, as numerous doubters noted his support and changed sides to join the believers. In gratitude, Shabbetai Tzvi arranged for a rival local rabbi to be fired, and began to treat the elderly rabbi with great respect. Izmir’s Jews, now led by their Chief Rabbi, erupted with Messianic fervor, and the unbelievers were utterly marginalized. Sadly, the respected Rabbi’s support for Shabbetai Tzvi persisted until the conclusion of the episode nine months later, a tragic mistake that stained his reputation for the remainder of his life.

While all this was going on, Nathan continued his energetic campaign to promote the redemption. Believers began to proliferate throughout the Jewish world. The legend fed on itself – the more people who believed that Shabbetai Tzvi was the Messiah, the more ambassadors there were for the cause. With the excitement growing, and the anticipation increasing, Shabbetai Tzvi and his acolytes decided it was time to inform the Ottoman authorities, and in particular the Sultan, about his Messianic mission, and to demand their full cooperation. In early 1666, Shabbetai Tzvi set sail for Constantinople. Rough seas disrupted the ten-day journey, and the ship floundered for more than a month. Meanwhile, the news of his imminent appearance in the Ottoman capital created a massive stir, and the Jewish community leadership struggled to formulate a cogent strategy. While they were ready to believe it possible that Shabbetai Tzvi was who he claimed to be, they knew that acknowledging him as Messiah, King of the Jews, was a treasonable offense, punishable by imprisonment or execution. On the other hand, if he was actually the Messiah, not welcoming him enthusiastically would be a blatant denial of his status, and would be a terrible dishonor, as well as a desecration of G-d’s name. There were also people in the community who simply refused to believe the Messianic claims at all, and some even urged the community leaders to arrange for Shabbetai Tzvi’s assassination.

While all this was being deliberated in Constantinople, such was the power of the propaganda emanating from Gaza and Izmir, that Jews as far away as Germany, Holland, Poland and North Africa, were selling up their businesses and wrapping up their affairs as they prepared for the impending Messianic redemption and the long-awaited return to Zion.

The Turkish authorities had by this time caught wind of the affair, and an emergency meeting was called with the Jewish leadership to decide what to do. After examining the evidence, and based on first-hand accounts of the pretender’s personal history, everyone concluded that he was, in fact, an imposter, and that he had to be stopped in his tracks. And so, when Shabbetai Tzvi’s ship finally reached Constantinople on 5 February 1666, a group of Turkish soldiers sailed up to his vessel before it was able to dock, unceremoniously arrested him and escorted him to shore. The arrest essentially marked the anticlimactic end of the Messianic adventure in any kind of practical sense, and Shabbetai Tzvi was carted off into custody like a common criminal. The authorities were unsure what to do with this unlikely revolutionary leader, so it was decided that the Grand Vizier, a young but extremely powerful man called Ahmed Koprulu, would take personal charge of the case.

Shabbetai Tzvi did not present a military threat to the Ottomans, and it seems no one was concerned by his political ambitions either. The main problem posed by the eccentric rabbi and his following was economic. With Jews in control of so many trade routes, the potential disruption to Turkey’s trade and industry as a result of a religious awakening provoked by the Messianic furore was of grave concern to the Ottoman ruling class, and they recognized that this matter needed careful handling. In the meantime, as his fate was being deliberated, Shabbetai Tzvi was treated benignly, a fact misinterpreted by his supporters as further proof that he was the Messiah. He was kept in a comfortable suite of rooms at the prison, and friends and supporters were permitted to visit him in a constant stream. Then, shortly before Pesach, Shabbetai Tzvi was transported just under two hundred miles, to a fortress across the water from Gallipoli.

Thousands of believers travelled from all over the world to catch a glimpse of their Messiah. So great was the influx of pilgrims that food prices began to rise, while local boat owners charged exorbitant rates to ferry the believers to the prison fortress and back. This surreal pantomime continued for several months and meanwhile the date of redemption came and went. But the hysteria continued unabated. On the fast of 17 Tammuz, Shabbetai Tzvi ate heartily and so did his supporters. Then, during the traditional three weeks of mourning that followed, Shabbetai Tzvi announced he was cancelling the fast of Tisha B’Av, a decision hailed by his followers as the ultimate crystallization of the redemptive era.

But by now the penny was beginning to drop. Things were clearly not going as planned, and nothing that was happening seemed to match Nathan’s ever escalating predictions and ‘prophecies’. It didn’t take a great genius to work out that Shabbetai Tzvi was not leading the Jews to redemption. In fact, he wasn’t even getting out of jail. In addition, there were worrying rumors emerging from the jail of his immoral activities with young women who were being supplied to him on a regular basis.

The Sultan, who had been receiving reports from his Grand Vizier about the strange prisoner and his following, decided that the matter needed to be addressed urgently, before it got completely out of hand. In September, Shabbetai Tzvi was spirited away to Adrianople without any warning. Adrianople was where the Sultan resided during the summer months. Shabbetai Tzvi was brought to the palace for an audience with the Sultan, who was joined by a group of senior advisors, as well as the Royal Physician, who was a Jewish convert to Islam. Questioned about his Messianic pretensions, Shabbetai Tzvi simply denied that he was the Messiah, and claimed that the entire story was a fabrication. When it was pointed out to him that a Messianic movement had grown around him, and that the movement was in danger of escalating into a rebellion against Ottoman rule, he just shrugged his shoulders dismissively. One of the Sultan’s advisors mentioned that he had heard Shabbetai Tzvi was a miracle worker, and politely requested that he perform a miracle for them, but the now bashful Messiah tactfully declined.

The apostate royal physician then told him that the situation was untenable, and that the solution to the crisis would be his immediate conversion to Islam, or the Sultan would have no choice but to have him executed on the spot, on the grounds that he was a dangerous revolutionary. Shabbetai Tzvi didn’t bat an eyelid. He tore off his Jewish cap and spat on it, and began to speak viciously against the Jewish faith. A Muslim cleric was quickly summoned to convert him, and after the conversion was concluded the Sultan presented him with a special turban and changed his name was to Aziz Mehemed Effendi. Without further ado he was appointed keeper of the palace gates, and was awarded a generous government sponsored salary. Those who were at the meeting reported later that both Shabbetai Tzvi and the Sultan appeared delighted by the result of the meeting, and parted from each other in good spirits.

The Messiah’s conversion was widely publicized even before the day was out. At first the news was dismissed as a fabrication. For the believers, it was inconceivable that their Messiah would choose apostasy over martyrdom, while the unbelievers couldn’t believe that the Sultan had allowed him to remain alive. Confusion reigned. As the days went by, and Jews in Adrianople saw the turbaned Shabbetai Tzvi manning the palace gates, the news began to percolate through the Jewish world, and so began a long and tortured journey back to normality for the masses of Jews who had been hyped up by this eccentric pretender, a man who had proven to be nothing more than a disappointing phony.

Shabbetai Tzvi lived on for another ten years. At times he assumed the role of a pious Muslim and spoke ill of Judaism; at other times he associated with Jews and acted as a Jew. In March 1668 he claimed to have had a prophetic vision that revealed he was still the true Messiah, in spite of his conversion, and that the conversion was a holy act meant to attract Muslims to Judaism as part of the redemption process.

This and other shenanigans proved to be too much for the authorities to tolerate. His salary was terminated and he was banished to a Muslim district of Constantinople, with strict instructions not to interact with the Jewish community. He was unable to stay out of trouble. Within a short period he was discovered leading Jewish prayer groups, and was immediately banished to a small coastal village in Montenegro. There he died in isolation, possibly on September 17, 1676, which coincided with Yom Kippur. He was hastily buried in an unmarked grave, and his burial site is unknown to this day.

The vast majority of those who had believed that he was the Messiah rejected him as soon as the truth of his conversion to Islam was confirmed. But there was a significant group who tenaciously clung to his Messianic promises, finding convoluted kabbalistic explanations to prove that the conversion was part of the Messianic scheme. Most prominent among these believers was none other than Nathan of Gaza, who spent the remainder of his life traveling nomadically around the world, shoring up belief in the Muslim Messiah, even after he had died. Then, in 1780, Nathan unexpectedly dropped dead at the age of 37, in Skopje, Macedonia. Despite the death of the movement’s main life-force, belief in Shabbetai Tzvi and the mystical teachings he had espoused persisted for well over a century, and it wasn’t until the end of the 1700’s, and only after numerous notorious and bitter battles, that the remnants of Shabbetai Tzvi’s Messianic movement finally disappeared from the mainstream Jewish world, bringing to an end one of Jewish history’s strangest and most damaging affairs.