Nathan of Gaza

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NATHAN OF GAZA (1643/4–1680), one of the central figures of the *Shabbatean movement. His full name was Abraham Nathan b. Elisha Ḥayyim Ashkenazi, but he became famous as Nathan the Prophet of Gaza, and after 1665 his admirers generally called him "the holy lamp" (buẓina kaddisha), the honorific given to R. Simeon b. *Yoḥai in the Zohar. His father, Elisha Ḥayyim b. Jacob *Ashkenazi, who had come from Poland or Germany, settled in Jerusalem and for many years served as an emissary of its community, visiting Poland, Germany, Italy, and (frequently) Morocco. He was a respected rabbinical scholar with kabbalistic leanings. Nathan was born in *Jerusalem, probably about 1643/44. His main teacher was the famous talmudist Jacob *Ḥagiz and he seems to have been a brilliant student, quick to understand and of considerable intellectual power. Before he left Jerusalem in 1663, having married the daughter of a wealthy merchant of Gaza, Samuel Lissabonna, and settled in the latter's home town, he must have seen Shabbetai *Ẓevi, then twice his age, in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem, where Shabbetai lived for almost the whole of 1663. It is also clear that he must have heard a great deal of talk about this strange personality and his tribulations. Strongly attracted by an ascetic way of life, Nathan took up the study of Kabbalah in 1664. The combination of great intellectual and imaginative power which was his main characteristic resulted in his having visions of angels and deceased souls after a short time. He delved deeply into Lurianic Kabbalah, following the ascetic rules laid down by Isaac *Luria. Shortly before or after Purim 1665 he had a significant ecstatic experience accompanied by a prolonged vision (he speaks of 24 hours) of the divine world revealing how its different stages were connected, a vision that differed in many significant details from the Lurianic scheme. Through this revelation he became convinced of the messianic mission of Shabbetai Ẓevi, whose figure he saw engraved on the divine throne. (For his further intensive activities during the following year, see the article on Shabbetai *Ẓevi). When the latter returned from his mission to Egypt and came to see him in Gaza, Nathan finally convinced him of his messianic destiny by producing a pseudepigraphic vision, attributed to a medieval saint, Abraham Ḥasid, who as it were foretold the birth and early history of Shabbetai Ẓevi and confirmed his superior rank.

In his ecstasy Nathan had heard a voice announcing in the name of God that Shabbetai Ẓevi was the Messiah; he therefore became the prophet of the "son of David," the mission that the biblical prophet Nathan had fulfilled for King David. As he had been vouchsafed charismatic gifts since his ecstatic awakening, many people made pilgrimages to him from Palestine, Syria, and Egypt. He showed "the roots of their souls," revealed their secret sins, and prescribed ways to penance. Since his prophetic powers were widely acknowledged as genuine, his endorsement of Shabbetai Ẓevi's messianic claim gave the decisive impetus to the mass movement which swept the Jewish people everywhere. Remaining in Gaza after Shabbetai Ẓevi left for Jerusalem and Smyrna (Izmir), he wrote letters to the Diaspora confirming that redemption was at hand and laying down elaborate kabbalistic rules of penance (tikkunim) to be followed by those who wished to usher in the new age. These were widely copied, and the exoteric portions of the ritual were printed in many editions during 1666. It is not known why the rabbis of Jerusalem, the majority of whom (including Jacob Ḥagiz) took a stand against the messianic claims of Shabbetai Ẓevi, did nothing to interfere with Nathan's activities. The fact that the small community of Gaza, including their rabbi, Jacob *Najara, were among his followers, is insufficient explanation. In the summer of 1666, during Shabbetai's confinement in Gallipoli, Nathan composed several kabbalistic tracts of which the Derush ha-Tanninim has survived (published in G. Scholem, Be-Ikkevot Mashi'aḥ, 1944), glorifying Shabbetai's mystical state since the beginning of creation. His correspondence with Shabbetai Ẓevi during this time, however, is lost.

After receiving the news of Shabbetai's apostasy, he left Gaza early in November 1666, accompanied by a large group of supporters, including his father-in-law and his family. On Nov. 20, 1666, he wrote to Shabbetai Ẓevi from Damascus announcing that he was on his way to see him, apparently on the latter's invitation. By this time he had already begun to sign himself Nathan Benjamin, the new name Shabbetai had given him in Gaza when he appointed 12 scholars to represent the 12 tribes of Israel. Nathan's faith in his messiah never wavered, and from the beginning he hinted at mystical reasons which justified the apostasy. Originally he planned to travel by sea via Alexandretta (Iskenderun) but he changed his route and went with his entourage by land, avoiding the larger Jewish communities which had been warned against him by the rabbis of Constantinople. By the end of January 1667 he arrived at Bursa (Brusa), where he was threatened with a ban unless he stayed out of the town and "kept quiet." Dispersing his group he continued with only six associates, including Samuel Gandoor, a scholar from Egypt, who became his constant companion until his death. Before leaving Bursa, he wrote a letter to Shabbetai's brothers in Smyrna, opening a long series of letters, tracts, and other pronouncements defending the apostasy and Shabbetai's continued messianic mission on kabbalistic grounds. Many of these have been preserved. On March 3, 1667, he arrived at a small village near Smyrna, then stayed until April 30 in Smyrna itself; there he met with some of the believers but kept largely to himself. He became very reserved toward all outsiders and even repelled the delegation of three northern Italian communities who were on their way to Shabbetai Ẓevi and had been waiting to hear Nathan's explanations. The Dutch clergyman Th. Coenen has left a description of his meeting with Nathan on April 25. Nathan tried to reach Adrianople, where he would see his messiah, but he was held up in the nearby small community of Ipsala and met by a delegation from Adrianople and Constantinople. After being interrogated he was forced to sign a document (dated May 31, 1667) promising not to approach Adrianople, not to correspond with "that man" in Adrianople, and not to convene public meetings, but to keep to himself; finally he admitted that all his words would be given the lie unless the messiah appeared before September 14, a date he had fixed earlier on the strength of an additional vision. Later Nathan repudiated all these obligations, claiming that he had acted under duress. He went to see Shabbetai Ẓevi secretly, then wandered with Gandoor through Thrace and Greece where sympathy with the movement was still very strong.

Early in 1668 he traveled from Janina to Corfu, where he held secret conclaves with his adherents. On the initiative of Shabbetai Ẓevi himself he then undertook a journey to Italy, with the intention of carrying out a mystic ritual at the seat of the pope in Rome. His arrival in Venice around March 20 caused considerable excitement and apprehension. Under pressure from someone in the government, he was allowed to enter the ghetto where he spent approximately two weeks, being closely questioned by the rabbis but also beleaguered by a host of admirers and followers. The events of Ipsala were repeated; the rabbis published the results of their examination in a broadsheet, including a declaration in which Nathan admitted his errors; later Nathan repudiated this in statements to the believers. From Venice he and Gandoor traveled to Bologna, Florence, and Leghorn, where he stayed for some weeks strengthening the hopes of the remaining believers. He and a wealthy Italian believer, Moses Cafsuto, then proceeded to Rome, perhaps disguised as gentiles. He stayed a few days only (end of May or beginning of June) performing some secret rituals patterned on those outlined at an earlier time by Solomon *Molcho. He returned to Leghorn or, according to another source, went straight to Ancona, where he was recognized and met the rabbi, Mahalalel *Halleluyah (Alleluyah), a fervent believer, who has left a detailed account of their meeting. By that time Nathan had written an account of his mission to Rome, couched in elusive Aramaic filled with kabbalistic and apocalyptic metaphors. This was widely distributed to the groups of believers. On his return to Turkey via agusa and Durazzo, Nathan went to stay for some time with Shabbetai Ẓevi in Adrianople. After this he spent six months in Salonika, where a considerable group of scholars flocked to him to receive his new version of the Kabbalah according to Shabbatean principles. For the next ten years he remained in Macedonia and Bulgaria – apart from secret pilgrimages to Shabbetai Ẓevi after the latter's banishment to Dulcigno in Albania (1673 – staying mainly in Sofia, Adrianople, and Kastoria, and paying occasional visits to Salonika. He maintained close contacts with many other leaders of the movement, who continued to consider him as a charismatic figure of the highest rank. Although Shabbetai Ẓevi never asked him to follow him into Islam, he staunchly defended not only the necessity of the messiah's apostasy but also those "elect ones" who emulated him on his command. Many of the rabbis of the Macedonian communities stood by him, paying no heed to the excommunications and warnings emanating from Constantinople and Adrianople.

Nathan's letters reveal him as a strong personality, although the few that have been preserved from his intense correspondence with Shabbetai Ẓevi are couched in adoring and submissive terms. They contrast curiously with his obvious moral and intellectual superiority over his master. In spite of all this, there were periods of tension between the two. After Shabbetai's death Nathan withdrew even more from public contact, although he continued to preach in the synagogues of Sofia on some occasions. Refusing to admit defeat, he upheld the theory that Shabbetai Ẓevi had only "disappeared" or gone into hiding in some higher sphere, whence he would return in God's own time. Israel Ḥazzan of Kastoria, who served as his secretary for about three years, took down many of his teachings and sayings after Shabbetai's death. Nathan continued to lead an ascetic life and, feeling that his end was near, left Sofia and went to Skoplje (èskśb), where he died on Jan. 11, 1680. His grave was revered as that of a saint, and over the generations many Shabbateans made pilgrimages there. His tombstone, whose inscription has been preserved, was destroyed during World War ii. The many legends spread about Nathan during his lifetime increased after his death. He had two sons, of whose fate nothing is known. A sketch of Nathan drawn by a ship's mate who saw him in Gaza in the summer of 1665, which was reproduced in several contemporary broadsheets, may be authentic.

Between 1665 and 1679 Nathan embarked on a manifold literary activity. Some of his many letters are in fact theological treatises. At first, he composed kabbalistic rules and meditations for a fast of six consecutive days, Seder Hafsakah Gedolah shel Shishah Yamim ve-Shishah Leilot, partly printed anonymously under the title Sefer le-Hafsakah Gedolah (Smyrna, 1732). These were accompanied by Tikkunei Teshuvah, both treatises being preserved in several manuscripts. The printed edition omits all mention of Shabbetai Ẓevi's name. At about the same time he began the explanation of his new vision of the process of creation, sending several tracts on this to Raphael Joseph in Cairo. Of these only the Derush ha-Tanninim has been preserved. After Shabbetai's apostasy he developed his ideas in a more radical way. The most elaborate presentation of his kabbalistic system, containing constant references to the function of the Messiah and his paradoxical actions, is found in the Sefer ha-Beri'ah, written in 1670, in two parts. It was also known under the title Raza de-Uvda de-Bereshit, and in some manuscripts was accompanied by a lengthy preface which may have been conceived as a separate literary entity. The work is extant, complete or in parts, in approximately 30 manuscripts and must have enjoyed a wide distribution in Shabbatean circles up to the middle of the 18th century. A short synopsis of its ideas, from Ms. Oxford, Neubauer Cat. (Bod.) no. 2394, is included in Scholem's Be-Ikkevot Mashi'aḥ. During the same period Nathan composed the book Zemir Ariẓim which, as well as other kabbalistic matters, contains long disquisitions on the state of the Torah in the messianic era and a justification of Shabbetai Ẓevi's antinomian actions (complete in British Museum Or. 4536, Margoliouth, Cat, no. 856 and elsewhere). In some manuscripts it was called Derush ha-Menorah and was partly included in the collection Be-Ikkevot Mashi'aḥ. These books were widely quoted by secret Shabbateans, sometimes even in printed works. Of his many pastoral letters, special mention must be made of the long apology for Shabbetai Ẓevi, published in Koveẓ al Yad, 6 (1966), 419–56, apparently written about 1673–74. Fragments of other writings are dispersed through several manuscripts and Shabbatean notebooks. Collections dealing with his special customs and behavior were made by his pupils in Salonika (who saw him as a reincarnation of Luria) and were distributed in Turkey and Italy. These are extant in several versions. An abridgment of Nathan's system was incorporated as the first part of the Sha'arei Gan Eden by Jacob Koppel b. Moses of *Mezhirech and was published as an authoritative kabbalistic text (Korets, 1803) without its heretical character being recognized.


G. Scholem, Shabbetai Ẓevi, passim, esp. chs. 3, 7–8; idem, Be-Ikkevot Mashi'aḥ (1944), a collection of Nathan's writings; idem, in: Alei Ayin, Minḥat Devarim le-S.Z. Schocken (1948–52), 157–211; idem, in: H.A. Wolfson Jubilee Volume (1965), 225–41 (Heb. sect.); C. Wirszubski, in: Keneset, Divrei Soferim le-Zekher Ḥ.N. Bialik, 8 (1943–44), 2nd pagination 210–46; idem, in: Koveẓ Hoẓa'at Schocken le-Divrei Sifrut (1941), 180–92; I. Tishby, in: Tarbiz, 15 (1943/44), 161–80; idem, in: ks, 21 (1945), 12–17; idem, in: Sefunot, 1 (1956), 80–117; idem, Netivei Emunah ve-Minut (1964), 30–80, 204–26, 280–95, 331–43.

[Gershom Scholem]