A widespread messianic movement among the Jews of the 17th and 18th centuries, named after one of the principal pseudo-Messiahs of this period, Shabbatai (Sabbatai) Sevi (Zevi). It is known also as Shabbataianism (Sabbataianism) after the Shabbataians (Sabbataians), or followers of this man.
maimonides (1135–1204) formulated one of the 13 basic principles of Judaism as follows: "I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and, though He tarry, I will wait daily for His coming." Ever since the destruction of Jerusalem, Jewish history records a great number of messianic movements, none of which can compare in importance with Shabbataiïsm. With the expulsion of the Jews, toward the end of the 15th century, first from Spain and then from Portugal, with the great sufferings in the wake of the Thirty Years' War, with the Chmielnicki massacres between 1648 and 1658 in Poland and the Ukraine, in which approximately 100,000 Jews perished and countless refugees sought asylum throughout Europe, messianic expectations among Jews came to a climax. The horrible sufferings seemed to be the ḥablê šel māšîaḥ, the birth pangs of the messianic age, as fore-told by tradition. Even the Christian world was in expectation, and the main argument put forward by Manasseh ben Israel (1604–57) in his petition for the readmission of Jews in England, submitted to the Parliament in 1650, was that unless the Jews were introduced into the British Isles, the Dispersion would not be complete and thus the messianic deliverance would be unattainable.
Background. The outbreak of Shabbataiïsm must be understood against the background of the resurgence of the cabalistic speculations in Safed, Upper Galilee, in the 16th century. But for the revival of cabalism (see caba la) by Isaac luria (1534–72) of Safed, Shabbataiïsm would have been deprived of theological foundation. According to the Lurianic doctrine, Israel's exile is only an aspect of the cosmic fall of the creation and the whole cosmos is in desperate need of salvation. The task of mankind, viz, of its elect portion Israel, consists in taking an active part in the great work of saving the world by a life of sanctity, mystical concentration, and the fulfillment of the divine commandments, which are mystically related to the structure of the cosmos. The restoration (tiqqûn ) of the divine sparks (niṣṣûṣîm ) imprisoned in the "shells" (q elîpôt ), i.e., fallen matter and fallen souls, or the repair of the "broken vessels," is the aim of the initiates of Safed. All this religious fervor and asceticism was focused on the coming of the Messiah and the eager expectation of the deliverance.
Climax. This expectancy reached its peak when Shabbatai Sevi, the messiah of Smyrna, arose. Born in 1626 of a family exiled from Spain, young Shabbatai attended the Talmudic school of Rabbi Joseph Escapa, but apparently the casuistical teaching did not appeal to him. His favorite studies were the cabalistic writings, especially the practical cabala, and his way of life was modeled on the ascetic principles of the masters of Safed. G. Scholem, the foremost authority on Jewish mysticism, has shown conclusively that Shabbatai suffered from manic-depressive personality troubles, melancholic depression alternating with ecstatic exaltation. In 1648, a year considered by cabalistic circles as the year of the manifestation of the Messiah, Shabbatai revealed his claim to messiahship to a small group of followers by pronouncing the sacred tetragrammaton (the divine name) in Hebrew. The elders of the Jewish community of Smyrna put him and his followers under ban; Shabbatai himself left his home town and started a wandering life through the Orient, without friends or real disciples and without doing anything for the furtherance of the messianic aspirations that dominated him at periods of exaltation.
The second and definitive awakening of Shabbatai's messianic consciousness was a result of an ecstatic vision of the cabalist Nathan of Gaza (1644–80), who announced in 1665 that the messianic age was to begin in the following year and that Shabbatai was the messiah. It was Nathan who dispelled Shabbatai's doubts and prevailed upon him to proclaim himself the messiah. The declaration was made in the synagogue of Smyrna on Rosh Hashanah (New Year's Day), amidst the blowing of horns and the multitude shouting: "Long live our King, our Messiah!"
"Letters were sent broadcast throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa announcing the good tidings. Everywhere the approaching deliverance was hailed with jubilation. Prayers were offered up in all the synagogues on behalf of 'Our Lord, King and Master, the holy and righteous Shabbatai Sevi, the anointed of the God of Israel.' The frenzy of the masses knew no bounds. Chaste matrons fell into trances and prophesied, in tongues of which they had previously had no knowledge, the marvels that were soon to take place. There was a wave of penance and ascetic exercises. Special liturgies poured from the printing presses. The merchant princes of the community of Amsterdam, men whose signature would have been good for almost any amount on the bourse, prepared a petition to forward to the pretender assuring him of their implicit faith" [C. Roth, A Short History of the Jewish People (rev. ed. Oxford 1943) 329].
All the Jewish communities from Persia and Yemen to England and Holland were involved in the tremendous upheaval and even Gentiles expected the return of the Jews to the Holy Land within a short time. Shabbatai Sevi became a figure of legend, seldom attained by a person still living.
When the Sultan judged that things were going too far, Shabbatai was summoned to Constantinople and imprisoned in the fortress of Abydos on the Gallipoli peninsula. There he established a sort of court, receiving delegations and sending out messengers. Relatives and friends were given provinces of his future kingdom. His birthday, the fast of the 9th day of the month of Ab in memory of the destruction of the Temple, was proclaimed a day of rejoicing. The enthusiasm of the Turkish Jews knew no limits, and warnings from some opponents and disbelievers were not heeded. Finally, faced with death or conversion to Islam, Shabbatai made the latter choice and, since he continued to make trouble, was exiled to Dulcigno in Albania, where he died in 1676.
The emotional impact was so deep and the belief in the legitimacy of the messiah struck such firm roots that even the apostasy of their master did not shake the faith of his followers. Nathan of Gaza, who possessed the secret of interpreting ancient texts, succeeded in elaborating a theory justifying Shabbatai's defection: the messianic deliverance requires the liberation of the sparks of holiness out of the reign of the uncleanness; the messiah would save the world from sin through sin; for the sake of redemption, he would accept worse than death, the disgrace of sin—and the worst of sins, apostasy; this, however, was not real, only apparent: the descensus ad inferos would he followed by the ascension to heaven.
Aftermath. Even the death of Shabbatai did not change the belief of his followers. They held that the messiah did not really die; he was "carried off." The doctrine of the reincarnation held by the cabalists justified this interpretation. The believers were faced with the alternative, either to follow Shabbatai in his apostasy or to remain, as a heretical underground, within the framework of Judaism. A minority were converted to Islam and formed the group of the Doenmeh ("apostate" in Turkish), who even today, after 300 years, are aware of their Jewish descent. The Doenmeh constituted a compact group in Salonica that broke up only in 1924, in the wake of the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey. The Shabbatian underground continued in some circles of European Jewry for over 150 years, disappearing only in the early 19th century.
After Shabbatai's death, a number of pseudo-messiahs claimed to be his successor, having inherited a portion of his messianic soul. The last in this line was Jacob frank of Galicia (1726–91), an unscrupulous adventurer, who, with his followers, temporarily entered the Catholic Church.
After the Shabbatian conflagration, rabbinical circles tried to minimize its extent and to suppress the evidence concerning it. It is the merit of the scholars of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, outstanding among them Professor Gershom Scholem, to have established on the grounds of a thorough study of manuscript material available, the significance of the Shabbatian movement.
Bibliography: g. g. scholem, Sabbatai Zvi and the Sabbatean Movement during His Lifetime, 2 v. (New York 1957); "In Search of Sabbatai Zevi," in Hadassah (June 1961), magazine published in NY; Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (3d ed. London 1955), ch. 8; "Die krypto-jüdische Sekte der Dönme (Sabbatianer) in der Türkei," Numen 7 (1960) 93–122. i. ben-zevi, The Exiled and the Redeemed, tr. i. a. abbady (Philadelphia 1957.). j. h. greenstone, The Messiah Idea in Jewish History (Philadelphia 1906). a. h. silver, A History of Messianic Speculation in Israel: From the First through the Seventeenth Centuries (Boston 1959). r. j. z. werblowsky, "Crises of Messianism," Judaism 7 (1958) 106–120.
[m. j. stiassny]
"Shabbataiïsm." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/shabbataiism
"Shabbataiïsm." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved September 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/shabbataiism