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In 1648 a scholar declared himself as a Messiah, fracturing the Jewish World

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One estimate holds that in the 17th century, one million Jews –out of an estimated two million on earth – believed Sabbatai Zevi was the Messiah. (Image: Wikipedia)

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Salonica, an all-time attractive coastal city on the Egean Sea and capital of the Selanik Sanjak during the Ottoman times, has always been an important melting pot for Jews.

The Jewish presence in Salonica can be traced back to the aftermath of Alexandre the Great, who moved an important Jewish population to western Anatolia. However, a more precise presence is clear during the Byzantine era. In fact, Romaniots, Jews of Byzantium, were already there when the Ottomans conquered the city, back in 1430.

With its Romaniots, a tiny presence of Ashkenazim and the large Sephardi population previously expelled from the Iberic peninsula, Salonica became a vibrant city with a large Jewish impact.

While studying the history of Jewish Salonica, it is pretty impossible to miss Sabbatai Zevi (also known as Shabbetai Zvi), a very particular scholar who declared himself as a Messiah and attracted many people and split the Jewish World into fractions.

The messianic approach has an important place in Jewish belief. However, Jews have always been cautious about it. Think about persecutions, deportations, restrictions imposed on these people through history. And about the extermination that highlighted antisemitism. Only longed-for saviours could dissipate the oppression imposed on a people convicted to live far from its native land.

The Alhambra Decree ordering either the conversion of Jews to Catholicism or their expulsion from Spain was one of these incidents that profoundly affected Jewish life. It was the 10th August 1492, 9th Av 5252, Tesha B’Av, a mourning day of the Jewish calendar. That day was ordered to be the very last day for all Jews from Spain to leave their home.

Tough times were, in course, for these Jews that took refuge in Italy, Holland and mainly in the Ottoman lands, leaving all their fortune back in their country but bringing with them a deep culture and social wealth. 

A century later, in 1648, news that Jews were now attacked by Cossacks on Russian and Ukrainian land started to be heard. It was about a revolt of the step people against the Polish king and the by-product was the harassment of Jews, as history always proved. Many were forced to leave their places; villages were burned down, and a feeling of deep despair spread among the Jewish people. It is said that 300 villages were torn down and that around a hundred thousand people were massacred…

Therefore, when Sabbatai Zevi rose at the Sephardic Synagogue in Izmir, during a Yom Kippur overlapping with Shabbat, calling out the name of God and proclaiming himself Messiah, a wave of curiosity and excitement spread in the community and around him. 

Born in 1626 in Izmir, the most important city of western Anatolia and home to a quite influential Jewish community, Sabbatai Zevi was a charismatic wise young man, highly interested in Kabbalah. He was talking about raising the Kingdom of Israel to its previous glory, bringing the Jewish people back to the Holy Land and rebuilding the big Temple, the Beth Hamikdash, in Jerusalem. 

These messages created such turmoil that Zevi was ex-communicated by Izmir’s community, where he led a pious life for three years. His next stop would be Konstantina, capital of the Ottoman Empire, where a larger Jewish community was present to be exploited. He attracted new disciples, managed to be backed spiritually and financed. He had followers in the Balkans as well, in Albania and in Greece, that he visited. He was voicing his messianic ambitions, stirring the communities that already were depressed about their future. 

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Sabbatai Zevi’s most important visit was the one he paid to Jerusalem. His pilgrimage there changed the course of his life since he found a devoted supporter. Nathan of Gazza, a self-proclaimed prophet who vividly backed his messianic character and endorsed his whole rhetoric. This was a first for Sevi, as ten years later than his first appearance at the Izmir’s synagogue, a scholar approved him as “the long-missed” Messiah. 

Writing letters to all corners of the Jewish World and introducing him as Messiah, Nathan helped Sevi not only to bring his message to various communities but assisted him in explaining the zigs zags seen in his character. Indeed, if modern psychiatry existed at that time, it would definitely diagnose Sabattai Zevi as having a manic depressive disorder. One of Zevi’s problems was that he was propelled along a behavioural axis: sometimes charming, getting in touch with people and sometimes lonely, with no communication at all, as if trying to reach God. For Nathan, this was an important aspect proving Zevi’s messianic skills. 

The relation between the two men proved to be a win-win situation. Nathan was proud to bring in the Messiah with his savoir-faire. Zevi enjoyed the privilege to be known in the whole Jewish World, from Italy to Holland, from all the cities of the Ottoman Empire to the Sultan’s palace from where he was followed closely. 

In Amsterdam, a prayer book was printed with Sabattai Zevi’s portrait. (Photo: sjimondenhollander.com)

Salonica has been one of these cities where Zevi came to live. A center of the Kabbalistic teaching, there he found a devoted and deeply impressed community. He was greeted as the Messiah that would lead the Jews to their final destination, Jerusalem and built the big temple.  

Then, being the son of God, as was Jesus, he married the Torah! He abolished the mourning days of Tesha Be’Av, ordering festivities on the occasion of his birth the very same day. He started to enforce non traditional applications of religion unto his disciples. Many rabbis fiercely opposed him; however, there also was an important part of them that backed Zevi in his efforts. Not that they were thinking that the Messiah arrived with his great splendour.

There were many assimilated Jews in Europe who started to come back to Judaism, hoping to be taken to Holy Land very soon. And that was fine to hold Zevi on the scene. One estimate holds that 1 million Jews –out of an estimated 2 million on earth – believed he was the Messiah.

What Sabbatai Zevi created in the Ottoman territories and the annoying turbulence he started to cause to the Muslim World worried Sultan Mehmet IV, who ordered him to be detained and imprisoned.  As he did not stop his activities even in detention, in the end, he was given two options by the Sultan: to prove that he is the Messiah, thus immortal, or to convert to Islam. 

The latter would be his choice, and he would take the name of Aziz Mehmet Efendi, being employed in one of the Sultan’s Palace. This was on the 22nd September 1666… He is said to die on the 17th September 1676, corresponding to the High Holy Day of Yom Kippur, in a remote town of Albania, where he was held in isolation.

Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676), Hebrew mystic and self-proclaimed Messiah, before an Ottoman nobleman. (Image: Grangerprints)

It is said that around 300 Jewish families from Salonica followed Sabbatai Zevi in his conversion. They moved into a new world to them, practicing the Muslim law as it should be, however keeping also their Jewish roots alive… These were the dönmehs – which means converted… they also have been called to be crypto-Jews.

Modern-time antisemites have not failed to blame them for being an active part of the Young Turk movement that had its source in Salonica and toppled Sultan Abdulhamit II in 1908, putting an end to his 30 years long rule. 

There are heroes cherished by their people. However, there are also dark spirits that destroy the common sense in their societies. Sabbatai Zevi was one of them. He exploited his disciples, the Jews longing to be “next year in Jerusalem,” forcing them to oppose their teachings and their beliefs in God.

The destruction that Zevi brought to the Jewish World has been so important that communities took a long time to calm down. Even today, the impact of Sabbatism, as it is called, can still be traced in Turkey.

Marsel Russo was born in Istanbul and was raised in a secular Jewish family. He holds a Chemistry degree and an MBA. His deep interest in the Jewish history of the 20th century, as well as other topics, has appeared since 2005 in Shalom, the weekly newspaper of the Jewish community of Turkey.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

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