Biography of Sabbatai Zevi

Name: Sabbatai Zevi
Bith Date: 1626
Death Date: 1676
Place of Birth: Smyrna, Turkey
Gender: Male
Occupations: mystic, religious radical
Sabbatai Zevi

The Jewish mystic and pseudo-Messiah Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676), or Sebi, was the founder of the Sabbatean sect.

Sabbatai Zevi was born in Smyrna (modern Izmir), Turkey, of Spanish-Jewish parentage. At an early age he adopted the mysticism of Isaac ben Solomon Luria and began to lead an ascetic life. Sabbatai's continual prayer, prolonged ecstasies, and Messianic prophecies secured for him by the age of 22 a large and enthusiastic following.

Sabbatai's father was the local agent in Smyrna for an English firm. Perhaps through his father, Sabbatai heard excited talk about the English Fifth Monarch Men, a group that with Christian millennialists had fixed upon 1666 as the year of the Messiah and of millenarian fulfillment. The Jewish Cabalists had already proclaimed 1648 as the year of salvation. In that year Sabbatai announced himself as the coming Messiah, pointing to his birthday (the ninth day of the month Av) as the traditional birthday of the Messiah.

Sabbatai left Smyrna in 1651, lived at the Cabalist school of Salonika, and then proceeded to Constantinople, where he met a man who claimed to have been told by angelic voices of Sabbatai's coming as the Redeemer. From Constantinople he traveled to Palestine and Cairo. The treasurer of the Turkish governor of Egypt, Raphael Halebi, gave Sabbatai moral support and funds. In Cairo he married a girl named Sarah who had survived the Chmielnicki massacre; he attributed a mystical value to his marriage, basing it as much on his wife's survival as on her name.

Sabbatai returned to Jerusalem to organize his movement. In the summer of 1665 Nathan of Gaza recognized Sabbatai as the Messiah, and he proclaimed that Sabbatai would win the longed-for Messianic victory "riding on a lion with a seven-headed dragon in his jaws."

The rabbis of Jerusalem, however, did not accept Sabbatai, and they also feared that his activities would arouse the anger of their Turkish overlords. Privately they threatened him with excommunication; publicly they could do nothing to stem the delirium of expectation that swept the Jewish communities of Egypt, Palestine, and Turkey and even those of Europe.

Sabbatai returned to Smyrna in the autumn of 1665, as the year of salvation approached. Jews in Venice, Amsterdam, London, Hamburg, southern Europe, and North Africa began to sell their belongings in expectation of being transported miraculously back to the restored Holy Land. At the beginning of 1666 Sabbatai went to Constantinople. Some reports say he was summoned by the Turkish authorities, who feared a popular uprising throughout their empire. He was arrested and imprisoned for 2 months in Constantinople and then transferred to the island of Abydos. Sabbatai's followers still believed in him, and in prison he held court, directed his movement, and lived like a king.

Denounced to the sultanate, Sabbatai was summoned to appear before the Sultan. To save his life he renounced Judaism and accepted Islam. Afterward, he was appointed doorkeeper to the Sultan. Later he was sent to Albania, where he died in complete obscurity. Long after his death many of his followers continued to believe in him. The influence of the Sabbatean movement survived into the 18th century.

Further Reading

  • A study of Sabbatai is Julius Katzenstein (pseudonym: Josef Kastein), The Messiah of Ismir: Sabbatai Zevi (1930; trans. 1931). He is discussed in Israel Zangwill, Dreamers of the Ghetto (1898), and Solomon Schechter, Studies in Judaism (1958).

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