Shabbetai Tzevi (also Sabbatai Sevi, Zevi, or Zebi, 1626–1676)

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SHABBETAI TZEVI (also Sabbatai Sevi, Zevi, or Zebi, 16261676)

SHABBETAI TZEVI (also Sabbatai Sevi, Zevi, or Zebi, 16261676), Jewish rabbi of the Ottoman Empire whose messianic claims and abrupt conversion to Islam in 16651666 convulsed Jewish communities in Europe and the Near East. The widespread appeal of his messiahship establishes the movement as the most significant millenarian outpouring in modern Jewish history. The crypto-Jewish sect known in Turkish as Dönme, 'convert (to Islam)', refers to a minority of devotees who clung to belief in Tzevi as messiah and followed his lead in converting. Although "Shabbetean" principally denotes believers in Tzevi's messiahship, the term also can apply to currents and sympathies among nonadherents, especially regarding the movement's mystical (Cabalist) conceptions.


Many of the details of Shabbetai Tzevi's life have been clouded by partisanship and Tzevi's own self-representations. He was born in Ottoman Izmir (Smyrna) in 1626, the son of Mordecai Tzevi, a merchant broker recently arrived from Salonika. Both his mother, Clara, and his father died before his famous movement. After a period of study in Izmir, Tzevi was ordained as a rabbi when he was eighteen (Scholem, p. 111). Tzevi's early inclinations toward Cabala, or Jewish mysticism, are unclear. In his subsequent travels, he studied the Lurianic teachings (after Isaac Luria, 15341572) that permeated contemporary Cabalism. The revelations and prophecies of his eventual movement are deeply imprinted with Cabalist thought. He was pious and ascetic for the most part, but his behavior could also be bizarre and unpredictable. Observers saw in his eccentricities everything from madness and blasphemy to genius and divine blessing. In 1648, his behavior, which included messianic utterances, led to chastisement by the rabbinic authorities and, in the early 1650s, expulsion from Izmir. His transgressions at the time are not known, but in the following years he was reprimanded for saying aloud the divine name and for parodying religious rituals.


For a number of years Tzevi lived in a succession of Jewish communities in Ottoman Europe, but he was expelled from both Salonika and Istanbul and returned to Izmir in 1658. After three years he decided to travel to Palestine. However troubling his reputation may have been at this point, when he arrived in Jerusalem in 1662 he was well received by the rabbinic leadership and was even employed as their agent to gather Egyptian contributions for the city. In Egypt in 1664, Tzevi married Sarah, a young woman who had been orphaned by the massacres in Poland of 16481649. Until then his messianic claims had been cryptic and inconsistent, but that changed in 1665 when he formed a relationship with a famed Cabalist, Nathan Ashkenazi of Gaza. Buoyed by Nathan's zeal, Tzevi proclaimed himself messiah in May 1665 (Scholem, pp. 220221) Nathan's letters of announcement and the rumor of miracles soon stirred messianic fervor from Gaza deep into Europe. The promise of imminent redemption and retribution took on a life of its own. European Christian millenarians shared in the enthusiasm, predicting the fall of the Ottomans and Islam. Given the recent Jewish massacres in Europe and the memory of the expulsion from Spain, the movement's own retributive focus fell more on Christendom than on Muslims or the Ottoman Turkish Empire (Scholem, pp. 349350).

In December of 1665, Tzevi and his adherents fought their way into the main opposition synagogue in Izmir, and the movement had its greatest triumph to date. Congregations all over the eastern Mediterranean were in an uproar. As Tzevi attempted to land at Istanbul in February 1666, the Ottomans arrested and imprisoned him, first at Istanbul, then later and more comfortably at Gallipoli. Tzevi's opponents and the rabbinic authorities in the capital, skeptical of Tzevi and fearful of repercussions from the Ottomans, no doubt had a role in his detention, but the movement among the masses continued to grow. With pilgrims from as far away as Poland converging upon Gallipoli and partisan clashes disrupting life in the cities, the central government acted again. In September 1666 Tzevi was brought to the imperial palace at Edirne for interrogation by the grand vizier Ahmed Köprülü and Mehmed IV's chief preacher Vani Efendi, among others. Faced with the prospect of execution, probably for encouraging mayhem, Tzevi denied his messianic mission and, to gain the sultan's mercy, agreed to convert to Islam. With a new name (Aziz Mehmed), a Muslim turban, and a paid appointment in the palace service, Tzevi was pardoned. His renunciation of Judaism was a calamitous shock to the Jewish community, especially when Tzevi began to proselytize on behalf of Islam.

Although some Shabbeteans, including Tzevi's wife, also converted, Tzevi was not a convincing Muslim for long. In 1672 he was banished to Dulcigno in Albania, where he died in 1676. Many believers clung to the hope that his conversion had been part of the messianic plan or a sacrifice in their interests. In the 1680s and 1690s, hundreds of Jews converted to Islam, most of them as members of the Donme sect. The rabbinical leadership sought to restore the community by erasing memory of the episode, but its effects were too profound to forget.

See also Jews and Judaism ; Messianism, Jewish .


Barnai, Jacob. "Messianism and Leadership: The Sabbatean Movement and the Leadership of the Jewish Communities in the Ottoman Empire." In Ottoman and Turkish Jewry: Community and Leadership, edited by Aron Rodrigue. Bloomington, Ind., 1992.

Benbassa, Esther, and Aron Rodrigue, eds. The Jews of the Balkans: The Judeo-Spanish Community, 15th to 20th Centuries. Oxford, 1995.

Idel, Moshe. Messianic Mystics. New Haven, 1998.

Levy, Avigdor. The Jews of the Ottoman Empire. Princeton, 1994.

Scholem, Gershom. The Messianic Idea in Judaism, and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality. New York, 1971.

. Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 16261676. Translated by R. J. Zwi Werblowsky. Princeton, 1973.

Madeline C. Zilfi