Biography25 May 2010 07:27 pm
A new edition of The Intellectual Devotional, this time with a focus on Biographies, will be available online and in stores on May 11. (Click here to pre-order your copy.) As the release date approaches, “The Devoted Intellect” blog will introduce and expand on material from that book. Today’s entry on “Sabbatai Zevi” draws from the “Preachers and Prophets” section of the Biographies edition.
“I, Abraham, was confined in a cave for forty years, and I wondered greatly that the time of miracles did not arrive. Then was heard a voice proclaiming, ‘A son will be born in the Hebrew year 5386 [English calendar year 1626] to Mordecai Zevi; and he will be called Shabbethai. He will humble the great dragon; … he, the true Messiah, will sit upon My throne.”- Sabbatai Zevi, as quoted by Abraham ha-Yakini in “The Great Wisdom of Solomon.”
Sabbatai Zevi (August 1, 1626 – September 17, 1676) was a rabbi, mystic and kabbalist from present-day Turkey who claimed to be the long-awaited Messiah of the Jewish people. Referred to by the abbreviated title of Amirah by his followers, Zevi adopted the mysticism of Isaac ben Solomon Luria as a young man, and began leading an ascetic life. An avid student of the Kabalah, he was granted the rabbinical title of hakham (“wise” or “sage”) when he was still an adolescent. However, according to some modern scholars, Zevi began to show symptoms of manic-depressive disorder in his late teens, when he began behaving erratically and suffering from intermittent delusions of grandeur (hence the whole Messiah thing). He was subsequently expelled from Smyrna around 1651-54 for his sacrilege and flagrant violations of religious law.
After he was expelled from his homeland, Zevi wandered throughout Greece, Palestine and Egypt. In 1665 Zevi had a fortuitous encounter with the charismatic Nathan of Gaza, who persuaded him that he was indeed the Messiah. Then only twenty-two year old, Zevi subsequently announced that he was the Messiah of the Jewish people, declared 1666 as the millennium, and soon gained an enthusiastic following in Palestine and the Diaspora (to the dismay of the religious authorities). In Cairo he married a girl named Sarah who had survived the Chmielnicki massacre; he attributed a mystical value to his marriage, basing it as much on his wife’s survival as on her .
Zevi was eventually captured and imprisoned by the Turkish authorities in 1666. He converted to Islam during his incarceration, supposedly to escape execution by the Turkish authorities. Zevi’s conversion was devastating to many of his followers, and most of them abandoned him as their leader. However, Nathan and his most ardent followers interpreted Zevi’s conversion differently, believing that their prophet’s apostasy actually represented his descent into the klippotic realm in order to reclaim the lost sparks of light (don’t ask), and was all a part of his Messianic plan. Thus, many of Zevi’s followers dutifully converted to Islam.
In fact, although rather little is known about them, various groups called Dönmeh (Turkish for “convert”) continue to follow the teachings of Zevi to this day. Estimates of the numbers of Dönmeh living in present-day Turkey vary anywhere from slightly less than 100,000 to several hundred thousand. According to one source:
“Although outwardly Muslims and, to a lesser extent, Christians, the Dönmeh secretly continue to observe Jewish rituals (such as circumcision, but at the age of three rather than eight days), pray in Hebrew as well as Aramaic and Ladino, and have clandestine festivals and fast days that are Jewish survivals. Karakash-Honiosos group also practice unique Sabbatian rites, probably instituted by Reb Berechia after Sabbatai’s death, such as The Darkening of the Light.”
Not bad for a guy who claimed to be the son of God and started his own religion, only to repudiate said religion because of fear for his life…
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