Shabbetai Zevi


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Turkish scholar and mystic (1626–76) who claimed to be the Messiah.

Shabbetai Zevi was born in the city of Smyrna, where he received a sound grounding in the Talmud. He was ordained as a Rabbi at the early age of 18. He later acquired, too, a comprehensive knowledge of the Kabbalah. Shabbetai was born on 9 Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple but also, according to tradition, the day on which the Messiah will be born. To prepare himself for his Messianic role Shabbetai consciously carried out a number of illegal acts, in the belief that in the redeemed world some of the laws of the Torah will no longer be required. In 1665 Shabbetai journeyed to the land of Israel where he was hailed as the Messiah by the young visionary Nathan of Gaza (1643–80) who claimed to be his Elijah, the herald of the Messiah. When Shabbetai returned to Turkey his claim to be the Messiah became widely acknowledged.

The news spread rapidly throughout the Jewish world. There was even talk of Shabbetai assembling a Jewish army to reconquer the Holy Land. Jewish communities everywhere were captivated by these events which gave many their first taste of real religious enthusiasm. But when Shabbetai was given the choice of either converting to Islam or being executed, he became a Muslim, though he continued to practise the Jewish religion. Later Shabbetai was banished to Albania where he died still venerated by his loyal followers. After Shabbetai's death his followers still believed in him but kept quiet about it. These crypto-Shabbeteans behaved outwardly as learned and pious Jews but, in secret, carried out ‘holy sins’, sins committed for the express purpose of bringing to completion the task begun by Shabbetai. In the eighteenth century the Frankist sect, the followers of Jacob Frank, who claimed to be a reincarnation of Shabbetai Zevi, carried out bizarre rituals which included sexual excesses such as incest. Eventually the Frankists became converted to Christianity.

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.

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