Strange and Curious Sects: Sabbatai Zevi

Past editions of Strange and Curious Sects have explored religious splinter groups that came into existence relatively recently. Today’s edition will focus on an older cult that still has lessons to teach us: the bizarre story of the would-be Jewish messiah, Sabbatai Zevi.

Sabbatai Zevi was born in 1626, supposedly on the anniversary of the Roman destruction of the Temple, to a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family in Smyrna, modern-day Turkey. In his youth, he studied the Talmud and especially the Kabbalah, and was later ordained as a rabbi. He was drawn to mysticism and asceticism; according to tradition, he was married twice, but both marriages ended in divorce because he refused to have sex with either of his wives.

By the age of 20, Zevi began displaying the behaviors that sowed the seeds of his messianic following. He would experience periods of deep depression and despair, withdrawing from his family to live in isolation and silence. Interspersed with these were periods of religious ecstasy during which he would deliberately and flagrantly violate Jewish law: eating non-kosher food, publicly uttering the forbidden name of God, and committing other “holy sins”. He claimed that he had been inspired to do these things by divine revelation. From our modern vantage point, it’s not difficult to recognize the symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Zevi also began to announce himself as the long-awaited Messiah, the legendary figure who would reunite the Jews in the Holy Land and rule over them in peace and security. He was not the only one doing so: in the first half of the 17th century, apocalyptic fervor was spreading among both Christians and Jews, perhaps linked to the significant year of 1666. Eventually, in 1656, the rabbis of Smyrna expelled Zevi, and he became a wanderer among the Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire. (Troublemakers were popping up all over; Baruch Spinoza was exiled by the rabbis of Amsterdam that same year.)

During his travels, Zevi continued his earlier “holy sins”, announcing, as did Jesus, that Yahweh had abrogated the laws of the Torah and permitted much that had formerly been forbidden. He also continued to proclaim himself the Messiah, and began to attract a following among mystically inclined Jews. One of them, Abraham ha-Yakini, wrote a pseudonymous epistle titled The Great Wisdom of Solomon, which presented itself as a prophetic book written by the biblical patriarch Abraham predicting Zevi’s coming and messiahship. Another was the wealthy, influential Raphael Joseph Halabi of Cairo.

But Zevi’s most influential follower found him in 1662, when he traveled to Palestine. In the grip of a depressive episode, he believed he was demon-possessed and sought out a famous exorcist named Nathan of Gaza. Nathan was greatly taken with Sabbatai Zevi and encouraged him in his delusions, explaining to him that his dark periods were signs that his soul was descending to the underworld to do battle with devilish powers. Sabbatai Zevi was won over by this flattery, and in 1665, at the height of a manic episode, he announced that the regathering of the Jews was imminent and the messianic age would begin in the next year.

Zevi’s followers had grown quite numerous by this time, and waves of excitement spread through Europe at the announcement. Palestinian Jews flocked to Zevi’s banner (he chose twelve of them to judge the soon-to-be-reassembled tribes of Israel), and Jewish communities as far abroad as Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands swelled with anticipation. As Karen Armstrong writes in A History of God:

His supporters came from all classes of Jewish society: rich and poor, learned and uneducated. Pamphlets and broadsheets spread the glad tidings in English, Dutch, German and Italian. In Poland and Lithuania there were public processions in his honor. In the Ottoman empire, prophets wandered through the streets describing visions in which they had seen Shabbetai seated upon a throne.

But there was a snag in the messianic plan. At the beginning of 1666, Zevi traveled to Istanbul, where he was arrested and imprisoned by the Ottoman authorities. At first, he was treated leniently and continued to lead his movement from prison. But after several months, the sultan grew fed up and issued him an ultimatum: either convert to Islam, or prove his messiahship in a trial by ordeal, where archers would fire arrows at him and the court would observe whether God protected him.

No doubt wisely, Sabbatai Zevi chose Islam. Pleased, the sultan released him and gave him a pension; Zevi remained a faithful Muslim until his death in 1676.

Zevi’s apostasy was devastating to his followers, who had been driven to desperation by a series of brutal pogroms and were feverish with anticipation for the coming of the Messiah. Many of them abandoned his movement, and humiliated followers across Europe destroyed much of the material that had been written about him. But incredibly, a substantial number – including Nathan of Gaza – hung on. In a final attempt to salvage something from the ruin of Sabbateanism, they concocted a mythology which claimed that Zevi’s apostasy was actually the crowning act of his messianic mission. As one of them, Abraham Cardozo, put it:

…because of their sins all Jews had been destined to become apostates. This was to have been their punishment. But God had saved his people from this terrible fate by allowing the Messiah to make the supreme sacrifice on their behalf.

Like Jesus on the cross, Zevi was viewed as having symbolically humbled himself for the redemption of all of Judaism.

Remarkably, although Zevi’s following dwindled after his death, it did not completely die out. Even today, some of his adherents live on and call themselves the Donmeh – supposedly, they are Muslims who continue practicing Jewish religious rituals in secret. Their existence seems semi-mythical, like the Illuminati, but then again there are those who openly profess allegiance to Sabbateanism.

The story of Sabbatai Zevi, more than anything else, demonstrates the limitless human capacity for self-delusion. Though explicitly denounced by their own messiah, Zevi’s followers continued to believe in him and to craft a mythology that explained his acts within the framework of their beliefs. Like many others who have invested their lives in cult leaders, their belief in him had become a deeply rooted part of their own identity, one that they clung to even in the face of all external evidence.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • mike

    At some point you have to stand in awe of the power of human creativity demonstrated by religious thought. I’d like to think that Zevi would have lost me after his apostasy, but his amazingly clever followers concocted an elaborate story to connect the dots. The belief-preservation instinct is very strong and it serves as a fantastic font of creative ideas. If only the “checking to see whether your ideas reflect reality” part were as fun as the “making up wild stories” part…

  • Polly

    People often do accord the mentally ill with higher intelligence or special abilities. I’ve seen it up-close. I know a (possibly) schizophrenic guy who has to take medication to remain even quasi-normal (NO, it’s not me…really). His family always attributed some kind of diabolical intelligence to him, but I found him to be quite average and maybe even a little below average intelligence.

    prove his messiahship in a trial by ordeal, where archers would fire arrows at him and the court would observe whether God protected him.

    This has the makings of some badly needed legislation regarding would-be messiahs, prophets, and faith-healers. Just my opinion :)

  • velkyn

    ah, so that’s what Sabbateanism is. I had run across the term and neve followed up to see what it was. As you say, it’s obvious that the man was bipolar. My husband is bipolar and when he’s off is meds, he certainly thinks he can do anything too . He’s also has a very high IQ but they sure don’t always come together.

    It seems that humans will always create a “reason” why they weren’t wrong and that their “messiah” really was one. Wasn’t there another relatively recent Jewish “Messiah” that inconveniently died?

    and I agree with Polly, if you make the claim, you get to face the archers! It’s only fair. :)

  • Nightcap

    One of the arguments for the historicity of Jesus is that the disciples were fervent in their belief, even to the point of martyrdom. The apologists argue that no one would sacrifice himself for a lie.

    The followers of Sabbatai Zevi (and many others) prove that people certainly will suffer and die for a lie, if they’ve deceived themselves. After all, oneself is the easiest person to fool.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    …because of their sins all Jews had been destined to become apostates. This was to have been their punishment. But God had saved his people from this terrible fate by allowing the Messiah to make the supreme sacrifice on their behalf.

    Wow.

    I’m actually sort of impressed.

    The level of contortionism in that concept puts the usual contorted religious apologetics to shame. That’s a level of contortionism that could earn you a place in Cirque du Soleil.

  • Christopher

    What can I say – some folks just don’t want to admit they’ve been had, so they invent all manner of convoluted thought patterns to keep themselves from facing the facts…

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    If only the “checking to see whether your ideas reflect reality” part were as fun as the “making up wild stories” part…

    Well put, Mike. :) What we can take away from this story is that, if we don’t require our hypotheses be testable, people can be infinitely creative in coming up with explanations that swerve and bend as necessary to explain the facts. Any set of facts can be explained in a nearly limitless number of ways. People whose true motivation is the desire to believe, not the desire to know the truth, can always come up with something that rescues their preferred belief from falsification.

  • Valhar2000

    Are these people really all that creative? I mean, if you compare these apologetics to the theories scientists have come up with over the centuries, the apologetics fall very short. You know, nature is smarter than you, and all that rot…

  • lpetrich

    Returning to Sabbatai Zevi, he allegedly worked lots of miracles, though he is far from alone in having miracles attributed to him. Pythagoras, Augustus Caesar, Vespasian, Apollonius of Tyana, lots of medieval saints, … and nowadays the likes of Sai Baba.

    And SZ’s disinterest in sex with his wives — a lot of holy people seem to have an aversion to sexual activity. There might be some neurological basis for that; neurologist V.S. Ramachandran has found that some Temporal Lobe Epilepsy patients get aroused by religious imagery in the way that “normal” people often get aroused by sexual imagery. He mentioned that curious result in his talk at the first Beyond Belief conference.

  • http://peyre.sqweebs.org/ Leon

    This is sort of a nitpick, but I thought I should mention: the 1600s wasn’t the Middle Ages; it was after the Renaissance *and* Reformation. This guy lived about 300 years too late to be properly called “medieval”.