One of the People
“Let Messiah come, but let me not see him.” (BT, Sanhedrin 98b)
Shabbateanism (Shabta’ut) was a Jewish messianic movement whose widespread influence and profound impact in the 17th and 18th centuries remain difficult to comprehend even today.
What made so much of world Jewry—Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Mizrahim alike—accept and support the messiahship of Shabbtai Tzvi and the prophethood of Nathan of Gaza? What accounts for the reflorescence of mysticism among Jewry just as the rationalistic Enlightenment was set to dawn in Europe?
The Chmielnicki massacres, which became known as the evil decrees of 1648–1649 (Gzeirot Tah V’Tat), were construed as the cataclysmic events—the birth pangs of Messiah (hevlei moshiah)—traditionally believed to usher in the messianic era. In their uprisings against Catholic Polish feudalism, the Cossacks (Orthodox Christian Ruthenians)—and their Tatar Turkish allies from Crimea—slew tens of thousands of Jews in a prolonged pogrom: fatality estimates vary widely from 20,000 to 300,000. Understandably, the tragedy and trauma of these tumultuous events intensified Jewish yearnings for deliverance and expectations of impending redemption. Yet while the pogroms were an immediate and important impetus, they were localized in eastern Europe and alone cannot account for the meteoric rise of Shabbateanism throughout world Jewry.
In Judaism, after Isaac Luria (HaAri/Arizal) innovated a speculative and abstruse kabbalistic system, messianism permeated mysticism, and belief in the imminent advent of Messiah was prevalent among the sages and the laity alike. By the first half of the 17th century, the dissemination of Lurianic kabbalah, at least among kabbalists and rabbis, had cultivated favorable conditions for the expression of messianic impulses and aspirations.
The Zohar, Lurianic kabbalah, Christian millenarianism (chiliasm), and the Chmielnicki massacres all combined to foster revolution and foment mania. Among the Jewish laity tens of thousands became true believers and bandwagoners, ardent adherents swept up in the surging waves of messianic enthusiasm and the momentum of a mass movement whose time had come. With the advent of Shabbtai Tzvi—and his scattered cadre of apostles—Jews were divided into believers (ma’aminim) and infidels (koferim); as the frenzy intensified, tensions and suspicions proliferated, splitting communities and families.
What follows is a survey of key Shabbateans of the early modern period:
A disciple of Joseph di Trani, Abraham Yakhini (1611/1617–1682 CE) was a native of Istanbul (Turkey) and studied Talmud and kabbalah in his hometown. From adolescence he was fascinated by and preoccupied with Lurianic kabbalah. He became a preacher (maggid) and earned a reputation as a skillful orator. In 1653/1658, he became acquainted with Shabbtai Tzvi, who was convinced that he was Messiah but was too diffident at the time to declare his claim publicly. In 1665, he visited neighboring Smyrna (Izmir), where he was appointed by Shabbtai among the kings who would reign over realms throughout his prospective global dominion. In 1666, when Shabbtai was incarcerated in Istanbul, Abraham forged official opinions of the local rabbinate attesting to Shabbtai’s messiahship. When a pair of Polish rabbis representing eastern European Jewry arrived in Istanbul to investigate Shabbateanism, he subtly influenced them to accept Shabbtai’s claim and join his followers. He corresponded with Shabbtai and the other leaders of the movement, including Abraham Miguel Cardozo. He indited Hod Malkhut, a hymnal comprising 150 psalms in biblical style; Eishel Avraham, a homiletic collection; Tosefet Merubah, a Tosefta commentary; Seifer Razi Li, kabbalistic notes; Pliat Da’at; Seifer Vavvei Amudim; and various responsa. He also composed a genealogy of the patriarch Abraham for his friend, the German-born Dutch diplomat Levinus Warner, a bibliophile for whom he also copied Karaitica. He is remembered today as the foremost spokesman of Shabbateanism in Istanbul.
Shabbtai ben Mordekhai Tzvi (AMIRAH/Aziz Mehmet Effendi) (1626–1676 CE) was a disciple of Isaac de Alba, Joseph Escapa, and David Habillo. A native of Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), he was born (reportedly on Tisha B’Av) into a family whose origins were in Patras (Greece), and his father had been a poultry dealer in Morea (Peloponnese/Peloponnesus) before becoming the local broker in Smyrna of an English trading firm. He studied Talmud and kabbalah, and received rabbinical ordination (smikhah) at 18. He inclined to a life of asceticism and solitude but acceded to custom and married twice, consecutively, both unions ending because he refused to consummate them. At 22, he revealed himself as Messiah to a small circle of friends and brazenly pronounced the ineffable Tetragrammaton in Hebrew (a proscribed act reserved solely for the high priest in the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur). He was excommunicated by the rabbinate of Smyrna and soon banished from his hometown in 1651/1654. In 1653/1658, he moved to neighboring Istanbul, where during one of his manic states he celebrated in a single week the three pilgrimage festivals of Sukkot (Booths/Tabernacles), Pesah (Passover), and Shavuot (Weeks/Pentecost). In Istanbul he encountered the reputable preacher (maggid) Abraham Yakhini, and soon identified as fertile ground for his pretensions and impostures the kabbalistic bastion of Salonika (Thessaloniki, Greece), where he attracted numerous followers. In Salonika he celebrated a bizarre wedding ceremony wherein he married a Torah scroll, as a consequence of which he was banished from the city by the local rabbinate. Thereafter he wandered around the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean regions. In 1662, he migrated to Cairo, Egypt, where he garnered the support of the wealthy and influential head of Egyptian Jewry, Raphael Joseph, mint-master and tax-farmer of the Ottoman pasha (and may have first met Abraham Miguel Cardozo). That same year, he immigrated to the Land of Israel, where he settled in Jerusalem. By means of pious and ascetic acts he gradually ingratiated himself to credulous locals. In 1663, he returned to Cairo in his capacity as a fundraising envoy (meshulah) of Jerusalem Jewry, and obtained emergency funds from his benefactor Raphael Joseph to pay the extortionate taxes imposed by avaricious officials of the Ottoman Empire. In 1664, while in Cairo, he married an unlikely consort—an eccentric but charming Jewess named Sarah who had been orphaned during the Chmielnicki massacres and had since become a harlot in Leghorn (Livorno, Italy)—in the home of Raphael Joseph. In 1665, on his return journey to Jerusalem, he passed through Gaza, where he consulted the acclaimed young kabbalist Nathan of Gaza, who recognized Shabbtai as Messiah and professed to be his herald, the reincarnated Elijah the prophet. He joined Nathan on a pilgrimage to sacred sites in Hebron and in Jerusalem before returning with him to Gaza, where he again declared himself Messiah. He then returned to Jerusalem, where he encountered strong opposition from the majority of rabbis, who banished him from the city. After this turndown he returned via Tzfat and Aleppo, Syria to Smyrna, where in the synagogue he again declared himself Messiah, his proclamation this time accompanied by shofar blasts and greeted by delirious congregants shouting, “Long live our king, our Messiah!” He earned the epithet “AMIRAH”, an acronym for the Hebrew phrase “Adoneinu Malkeinu Yarum Hodo” (“Our lord and king, may his majesty be exalted”). Shabbtai’s status and fame disseminated throughout Europe and catalyzed much excitement and enthusiasm among Jews and Christians alike, especially in England, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Poland, and Lithuania. Remarkably, he managed to gain the allegiance of eminent sages, including Isaac Aboab (Simao) da Fonseca, Moses Raphael de Aguilar, Moses ben Jonathan Galante (Moses Galante the Younger), Moses Zacuto, and Hayyim Benveniste. He adjured world Jewry, through his trusty scribe Samuel Primo, to transform the fast day Asarah B’Tevet into a feast day instead. That same year, he sailed for Istanbul, hoping for a miracle that would facilitate his fulfillment of Nathan of Gaza’s prediction that he would place the sultan’s crown upon his own head, but his voyage was delayed for several weeks by stormy weather; ultimately, his vessel was intercepted once it emerged from the Strait of Gallipoli (the Dardanelles/Hellespont) into the Sea of Marmara, and upon arrival he was arrested, shackled, and incarcerated. He was transferred to the state prison at the fortress of Gallipoli just prior to the Passover festival; on that day he slew a paschal lamb and ate it with its forbidden fat (heilev) in violation of the Torah, reportedly reciting over it the benison, “Blessed be God who has restored again that which was forbidden.” He advocated transforming the fast days Shiva-Assar B’Tammuz and Tisha B’Av into feast days. When he was informed that a prophetic kabbalist in Poland, Nehemiah Kohen, had announced the coming of Messiah, he summoned him to appear before him at Gallipoli; their acrimonious confrontation over the course of three days eventuated in mutual antipathy, and as a result he was denounced—as a specious impostor fomenting sedition—to Sultan Mehmet IV of the Ottoman Empire and soon brought under guard before him in neighboring Adrianople (Edirne). The sultan issued an ultimatum: conversion or death. Shabbtai donned a turban and embraced Islam. He accepted the new name Aziz Mehmet Effendi and was rewarded with the honorary royal title “Keeper of the Palace Gates” (Kapiči Bashi) and a generous royal pension of 150 aspers per day (w/no actual duties required). His wife Sarah also converted to Islam. In 1668, he claimed to have received a divine revelation during the Passover festival; he, or one of his followers, subsequently published a mystical tract justifying his apostasy. In 1672, he was arrested in Istanbul and perhaps even deprived of his pension by the Ottoman authorities, who tired of his antics. In 1673, he was exiled to Dulcigno (Ulcinj, Montenegro), where he all but vanished from public view. In 1674, his wife died; he remarried Yokheved (a.k.a. “Esther”, “Mikhal”, post-apostasy Aisha), daughter of Joseph Filosof, a respected rabbi of Salonika and one of his leading supporters, and sister of Jacob Querido. He died on Yom Kippur in Dulcigno, just two months after his 50th birthday and almost exactly a decade post-apostasy, in isolation and obscurity. He had a son, Ishmael Mordekhai Tzvi, who died in childhood, as well as a daughter.
A native of Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), Moses Pinheiro (c. 1626–1689 CE) studied Talmud and kabbalah as a youth with his fellow student Shabbtai Tzvi. There is no indication that he supported Shabbtai’s original messianic claim in 1648. Around 1650, he migrated to Leghorn (Livorno, Italy), where he became a highly respected scholar. When news of the Shabbatean movement reached Italy, he became one of its most passionate spokesmen and continued to believe in Shabbtai’s messiahship long after his apostasy. In 1666, as a delegate of Leghorn’s Jewish community, he visited Shabbtai at the height of the excitement, but reached Smyrna only post-apostasy. There his faith was bolstered by communications he received from both Shabbtai and Nathan of Gaza. In 1667, he returned to Italy with a delegation from three other communities. In 1668, he hosted Nathan at his house during the latter’s visit to Italy. Moses stood at the center of the Shabbateans in Leghorn and corresponded with Shabbtai over the years. In 1690, he was still considered a believer; when and whether he finally renounced his belief remains uncertain. His daughter was the mother of the well-known kabbalist and rabbi, Joseph Ergas, who kept silent about his grandfather’s Shabbatean connections. He was lauded for his piety and asceticism by Ergas’ disciple, Malakhi HaKohen of Leghorn. Several of his recollections of Shabbtai are extant. His disciples included Abraham Miguel Cardozo.
Abraham Miguel Cardozo (1627–1706 CE), a native of Rio Seco (Spain), was born into a family of Portuguese conversos from Celorico da Beira (Portugal). He and his older brother Fernando Isaac studied medicine at University of Salamanca (in addition, he studied Christian theology); while his brother was studious, Abraham was inclined to serenade ladies from beneath their balconies. He completed his training nevertheless and lived for a time with his brother in neighboring Madrid. In 1648, he migrated to Italy, where he settled first in Venice (and became a disciple of Moses Zacuto) then in neighboring Leghorn (Livorno). In Italy he reverted formally to his ancestral faith of Judaism, either in Venice or in Leghorn, where he established himself as a physician and studied kabbalah under Moses Pinheiro. He migrated to Egypt, where he settled in and around Cairo for five years and studied Lurianic kabbalah (and may have first met Shabbtai Tzvi). In 1663/1664, he migrated to Tripoli (Libya) and lived there for about a decade. Once prosperous—thanks to the recommendation by the Grand Duke of Tuscany to Othman, the bey of Tripoli—he married two wives. In 1665, with the advent of Shabbateanism, he assumed the mantle of a prophet and claimed to have experienced revelations by means of dreams and visions. He dispatched circulars in support of Shabbtai and justified the latter’s apostasy on the grounds that Messiah needed to be counted among sinners to atone for Israel’s sins (although he opposed the apostasy of other Shabbateans, as well as religious antinomianism in general). Abraham averred that opposition to Shabbtai was necessary so that belief in him would constitute a leap of faith. In 1668, he wrote that the Ottoman authorities refrained from executing Shabbtai to avoid making a martyr of him and engendering a new religion. That same year, he was accused by the rabbinate of Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey) of being remiss in his religious observance, but was defended in writing by the religious judges (dayyanim) on the rabbinical court (beit din) of Tripoli. He corresponded with other leaders of the movement, including Nathan of Gaza, Abraham Yakhini, and later Heschel Tzoref, as well as with Shabbtai himself. In 1673, he sent his theological tract Boker Avraham to Shabbtai, but garnered no response. That same year, after intensively propagating Shabbateanism, he was banned from Tripoli. He migrated to Tunis (Tunisia), where he became physician to the local ruler and remained for nearly two years. He was additionally excommunicated by the rabbinates of Smyrna and Venice. In 1674, he returned to Leghorn, but the local council soon demanded his isolation from the community. In 1675, he returned to Smyrna, where he attracted many disciples among the local Shabbateans, including Elijah HaKohen HaItamari and Daniel Bonafoux. Around this time, he conceived of himself as Messiah son of Joseph (though he later retracted and even denied the claim). In 1681, he was expelled from Smyrna and moved to a series of neighboring cities: Bursa, Istanbul, and Gallipoli (Gelibolu). He claimed to have received, during a sojourn in neighboring Rodosto (Tekirdağ), epistles from Shabbtai’s widow Yokheved (a.k.a. “Esther”, “Mikhal”, post-apostasy Aisha) wherein she proposed marriage to him since he was then the leader of the believers (ma’aminim). When mass apostasy occurred among the Jewish community in Salonika (Thessaloniki, Greece), he polemicized in writing against the newly formed Dönmeh sect. He also dissented from Nathan of Gaza’s system of Shabbatean kabbalah, preferring instead his own paradoxical theology, which generated controversy. He indited his masterwork Boker Avraham, a bipartite kabbalistic tract reinterpreting monotheism; HaKtav; Zeh Eli; Hokhmato Shel Avraham Avinu; Seifer HaMa’or; Or Tzah V’Metzukak; Vikuah Klali; Sulam Ya’akov; Herev Pipiyot; Elohei Avi; Shema Kadishah; Tov Adonai LaKol; Drush Amen; Eretz Yisrael; Sod Hai Alamin; Sod Adonai L’Yireiav, Drush HaKtav; Solet Nekiyah; and Raza D’Razin. In 1686, he returned to Istanbul, where he lived for a decade under the protection of prominent Christian consuls. Tragically, most of his children died of plague. He returned to Rodosto and received there a copy of Shabbtai’s short tract Raza D’Meheimanuta (“The Mystery of the Faith”), which Abraham deemed supportive of his own kabbalistic system and which featured in many of his later writings. He sojourned for three months in neighboring Adrianople (Edirne), but failed to settle there because of Samuel Primo’s opposition, which effected his expulsion therefrom. He returned to Rodosto then traveled to the island of Chios (Greece). In 1698/1699, he moved to neighboring Crete, where he settled in Candia (Heraklion) for a few years. In 1703, he immigrated to the Land of Israel, where he arrived in Jaffa and attempted without success to settle both in Jerusalem and in Tzfat (where he reportedly met Nehemiah Hiyya Hayyun) before migrating to Egypt, where he settled in Cairo or Alexandria and became physician to the Ottoman pasha. He was slain by his nephew during a quarrel about financial matters. Abraham is remembered today as the founder of kabbalistic dualism. His disciples included Elijah HaKohen HaItamari, Daniel Bonafoux, and Elijah Tarragon.
A native of Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania), Joshua Heschel ben Joseph Tzoref (Heschel Tzoref) (1633–1700 CE) received only a limited Jewish education and earned his livelihood as a silversmith. He inclined to asceticism early on in life. Around 1656, during the Second Northern War (1655–1660), he sought refuge in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where he first learned of the advent of Shabbtai Tzvi. In 1666, he returned to his hometown and began studying moral and mystical texts. That same year, he experienced visions that others considered comparable to those of the prophet Ezekiel. He soon became the leading spokesman of the Shabbateans in Lithuania and urged asceticism and penance. Reportedly, for several years he never left his home except to attend synagogue or to visit the ritual bath (mikveh). In time he began to transcribe his revelations in five books, corresponding to the five books of the Torah. He was viewed as an oracle by his ardent adherents, and suppliants seeking his guidance or hoping to bolster their Shabbatean beliefs flocked to him from across Poland—a model that anticipated the paradigm of Hasidism. He issued declarations regarding messianic events as well as contemporary political developments. Joshua deemed himself Messiah son of Joseph and considered his role to be that of the revealer of the secrets of redemption in the interim between the first and second comings of Messiah son of David. His written revelations, which ultimately comprised some 5,000 pages, delve into the recondite meanings of the “Shema” prayer and were based on numerology (gematria) in line with Nathan Nata ben Solomon Spira/Shapira’s masterwork, the kabbalistic commentary Megalleh Amukot. Although the Shabbatean character of Joshua’s revelations is evident, he disclosed his faith only to confidants sworn to discretion and willing to dissemble before infidels (koferim). He corresponded with Shabbateans in Italy and Turkey. In 1696, Hayyim Malakh composed an epistle, after several visits to Joshua, wherein he acknowledged his numerical ingenuity yet expressed serious reservations concerning his kabbalistic proficiency and psychic powers. In 1698/1699, about ten Shabbatean scholars gathered in Nikolsburg for a secret council, including Joshua, Judah HeHasid, and Hayyim Malakh, to discuss issues relating to Shabbtai. He became a supporter of the holy society (havurah kedoshah) of Judah HeHasid, but did not immigrate to the Land of Israel. He migrated to Kraków, Poland, where he married the daughter of Jacob Elazar Fischhof, a benefactor of the holy society, and later died. A portion of his collected revelations, Seifer HaTzoref, came into the possession of the kabbalist Nathan ben Levi, a member of the Hasidic synagogue (kloiz) of Brody (Ukraine), who concealed them; another portion reached the founder of Hasidism, Israel ben Eliezer (Ba’al Shem Tov/Besht), who highly esteemed these writings while apparently unaware of their origin and who, late in life, ordered a copy of Seifer HaTzoref to be made by his disciple Shabbtai of Raszków (Poland), though this was done only posthumously. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev’s attempt to have the book printed in Zholkeva/Żółkiew (Zhovkva, Ukraine) was thwarted by Ephraim Zalman Margoliot, who recognized the Shabbatean character of Joshua’s work. He is remembered today as the foremost proponent of Shabbateanism in Lithuania.
Samuel Primo (c. 1635–1708 CE) was a disciple of Judah Sharaf. A native of either Jerusalem or Cairo, Egypt, he studied Talmud and kabbalah. In 1662, he unsuccessfully represented Jerusalem Jewry in its dispute with Judah Habillo (son and heir of the deceased kabbalist David Habillo), whose inheritance included funds the Jerusalemites claimed as proceeds of the decedent’s fundraising mission on their behalf. Thereafter he became acquainted with Shabbtai Tzvi during the latter’s sojourn in Jerusalem and was among the first batch of believers upon the advent of the Shabbatean movement. In 1665, he was in Gaza during the peak of messianic excitement that summer. That same year, he became private secretary to Shabbtai on the latter’s journey from Jerusalem to Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey) and thenceforth remained a key figure of his inner circle. In 1666, he accompanied Shabbtai to neighboring Istanbul, and served as his scribe and steward when Shabbtai was incarcerated in the state prison at the fortress of Gallipoli. He composed circulars in a majestic style on behalf of his master, lending an air of dignity to the movement. In one infamous missive he encouraged messianic terrorism against detractors who had disparaged Shabbtai. He defended Shabbtai’s apostasy as a foreordained messianic act. He migrated to Sofia (Bulgaria) but frequently visited Shabbtai, first in Adrianople (Edirne, Turkey) then in Dulcigno (Ulcinj, Montenegro). He also corresponded with other Shabbatean leaders, including Nathan of Gaza. He was privy to Shabbtai’s later kabbalistic teaching regarding the “Mystery of the Godhead”, which he subsequently disclosed in secrecy only to those he deemed trustworthy. He earned a reputation as a learned Talmudist and a masterful writer. After 1680, he migrated to Adrianople, where he became rabbi of the Apulian synagogue and later chief justice on the rabbinical court (beit din). He refrained from joining the Dönmeh sect and strongly opposed public demonstrations of Shabbateanism. In 1693 and 1697, when Abraham Miguel Cardozo propounded his own system of Shabbatean kabbalah and tried to settle in Adrianople, he repudiated these teachings and prompted his expulsion. From 1694–1696, he hosted Hayyim Malakh in his home. He reportedly considered Hayyim Alfandari the Younger to be the successor of Shabbtai after the latter’s apotheosis. He suffered severe rheumatism in his legs for a lengthy period. In 1704, most of his writings, including his halakhic responsa, were destroyed in a conflagration in Adrianople; some of his surviving responsa and sermons were published in the collection Kehunat Olam and the subjoined Imrei Shefer. He died in Adrianople. His disciples included Hayyim Malakh, Hayyim Alfandari the Younger, and David ibn Shanji.
A disciple of Jacob Hagiz and a native of Jerusalem, Nathan of Gaza (Abraham Nathan ben Elisha Hayyim HaLevi Ashkenazi) (1643/1644–1680 CE) studied Talmud and kabbalah in his hometown and became renowned as a prodigy (ilui). In 1663, he probably first encountered Shabbtai Tzvi, at least in passing, in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem. That same year, he married the daughter of Samuel Lissabona, a Sephardic Jew and an affluent merchant of Gaza, where he then moved. In 1664, he began to delve deeper into mystical studies, focusing on the Zohar and Lurianic kabbalah. He claimed to have experienced profound revelations from angels and prophetic visions of the divine chariot (merkavah). In 1665, during the overnight study custom known as “Tikun Leil Shavuot”, he reportedly swooned and convulsed on the ground while possessed by a heavenly mentor (maggid). Thereafter he earned a reputation as a spiritual physician who rectified souls, and the epithet “the holy lamp” (butzina kaddisha), the honorific applied to the tanna Shimon bar Yohai in the Zohar. During his episodes of raptus or afflatus, he claimed to have beheld the figure of Shabbtai engraved on the divine throne and to have heard a voice announcing in the name of God that Shabbtai was Messiah. When Shabbtai approached him as a patient in search of spiritual healing, instead of treating him Nathan confirmed his messianic claim and encouraged his salvific vocation. He professed to be Elijah the prophet and assumed the role of messianic herald, acting as both Shabbtai’s baptist and his apostle, as it were. He announced that in a year’s time Messiah would make his glorious appearance (and repatriate the Ten Lost Tribes to the Land of Israel, “riding on a lion with a seven-headed dragon in its jaws”), take captive the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and establish Israel’s predominance over all the world’s nations. Since his vatic powers were widely acknowledged as authentic, his endorsement of Shabbtai as Messiah gained credence. Among his followers in Gaza was its chief rabbi, Jacob Najara, with whom Shabbtai had lodged. In response to the hostility of the rabbinate of Jerusalem toward Shabbateanism, he declared Gaza the new holy city. He publicized the messianic advent by dispatching epistles to the most important Jewish communities in Europe and beyond. He subsequently visited Jewish communities in Europe, Africa, and India before finally returning to the Land of Israel. In 1666, he was compelled by Shabbtai’s apostasy to retcon messianic doctrine and elaborate Lurianic kabbalah so as to account for the shocking turn of events, which he deemed a profound mystery that would resolve itself in due course. That same year, he set out with his family and entourage on an overland journey that included a stop in Damascus, Syria, where he visited the grave of Hayyim Vital and wherefrom he wrote Shabbtai to inform him that he was en route to their reunion. In 1667, he reached Bursa (Turkey), where he was threatened with excommunication and adjured to keep quiet, then arrived in neighboring Smyrna (Izmir), where he remained for almost two months and met with some Shabbateans but otherwise kept a low profile. Before he could reunite with Shabbtai, he was intercepted in neighboring Ipsala by a Jewish delegation from neighboring Adrianople (Edirne) and Istanbul, whose members interrogated him and compelled him to sign a statement pledging to avoid Adrianople and to refrain from corresponding with Shabbtai or convening public gatherings. He reneged on his pledges, which he claimed to have made under duress, and furtively visited Shabbtai in Adrianople, where he persisted in his Shabbatean agitation, urging the local Jews to abrogate the fast days Shiva-Assar B’Tammuz and Tisha B’Av. He was excommunicated again in Adrianople and fled with a few followers, including the Egyptian-Jewish scholar Samuel Gandoor, to Salonika (Thessaloniki, Greece). That same year, he visited the neighboring island of Chios, where he hosted clandestine conclaves with Shabbateans, as he did on the neighboring island of Corfu in 1668. That same year, heeding Shabbtai’s suggestion that he conduct esoteric rites amidst the papal seat in Rome, Italy, he ventured thereto via neighboring Venice, where again he was intercepted, interrogated, and compelled by the local rabbinate and Jewish community council to sign a written confession that all his prophecies were merely the product of his imagination; the published statement prompted Abraham Yakhini to condole with him in correspondence. He then progressed through several neighboring cities—Bologna, Florence, Leghorn (Livorno)—before proceeding incognito to Rome, where he performed a secret ritual previously adumbrated by messianic pretender Solomon Molkho and intended to precipitate the pontiff’s downfall. After being recognized and banished from Rome, he returned to Leghorn then proceeded to neighboring Ancona, a seaport whose chief rabbi, the aged and blind Mahallalel Halleluyah, was an ardent adherent of Shabbateanism. He then returned to Adrianople and sojourned with Shabbtai. Thereafter he migrated to Salonika, where for half a year he imparted his system of Shabbatean kabbalah to scholars and where his disciples deemed him a reincarnation of Isaac Luria. For the next decade he alternated between several cities, including Sofia (Bulgaria), Adrianople, Kastoria (Greece), and Salonika. He continued leading an ascetic life and occasionally preached in synagogues in Sofia. He indited his masterwork Seifer HaBriah (Raza D’Uvda D’B’Reishit), a bipartite kabbalistic treatise; Zmir Aritzim (Drush HaMenorah), a tract on the state of the Torah in the messianic era and a defense of Shabbtai’s antinomianism; Drush HaTaninim, an antinomian treatise glorifying Shabbtai’s mystical state since the beginning of Creation; Hadrat Kodesh, kabbalistic glosses on Genesis; Otzar Nehmad, extracts of and supplements to Hadrat Kodesh; Pri Eitz Hadar, prayers for Tu B’Shvat; and Tikun Kriah, an ascetic tract featuring Shabbatean doctrines. He died in Üsküb/Uskup (Skopje, North Macedonia), and his grave became a pilgrimage site; his tombstone was destroyed during WWII. He had two sons, whose destiny remains unknown. He is remembered today as a sedulous propagandist, an innovative kabbalist, and a seminal proponent of the Shabbatean movement.
Daniel Israel Bonafoux (c. 1645–1710? CE) was a disciple of Abraham Miguel Cardozo. A native of Salonika (Thessaloniki, Greece), he settled in Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey) and became cantor of the Pinto synagogue. He became a follower of Shabbtai Tzvi and remained so even after the latter’s apostasy. He claimed to have experienced visions and to have been gifted the powers of prophecy, and gained credence among fellow Shabbateans. Following Shabbtai’s decease in 1676, he asserted that the decedent was merely in occultation and would re-emerge after 45 years. In the 1680s, he returned for a few years to Salonika, where his detractors alleged that he had joined the Dönmeh. Around 1695, he returned to Smyrna and caused great confusion by his visionary feats, such as reading questions addressed to him in sealed letters and demonstrating various phenomena of light. Many visitors, including critics from abroad who wished to examine him and ascertain his Shabbatean beliefs, consulted him for answers to their questions. In 1702, he was expelled by the authorities at the behest of the local rabbinate and lived for a time in the neighboring village of Kasaba. In 1704, he was visited by Abraham Rovigo. He was close friends with Elijah HaKohen HaItamari, the leading preacher (maggid) of Smyrna. His “oracles” are detailed in an epistle from the Dutch consul in Smyrna and dated 1703. After 1707, he went to Egypt and returned to Smyrna in 1710 with a fabricated epistle from the Ten Lost Tribes in praise of Shabbtai, who would reveal himself anew. He embraced Islam, perhaps as a result of the antagonism of the Smyrna rabbinate. Until his decease, he corresponded with his master Abraham, who asserted that the heavenly mentor (maggid) who spoke through Daniel’s mouth was the soul of the deceased kabbalist David Habillo.
As the son of Joseph Filosof and the brother of Yokheved (a.k.a. “Esther”, “Mikhal”, post-apostasy Aisha), final wife of Shabbtai Tzvi, Jacob Querido Filosof (Jacob Tzvi/Abdullah Yacoub) (c. 1650–1690 CE), a native of Salonika (Thessaloniki, Greece), became a successor to Shabbtai. After Shabbtai’s decease in 1676, Yokheved returned to Salonika and purportedly asserted that her brother had received her late husband’s soul. His father and another rabbi, Solomon Florentin, supported his aspirations, which engendered the mass apostasy of a large group of Jewish families in Salonika in 1683 and/or 1686; these converts to Islam, along with the previous proselytes among Shabbtai’s followers, constituted the core of the Dönmeh sect. Jacob assumed the Muslim name Abdullah Yacoub and became the most prominent leader of the Shabbateans, although his leadership style and innovations provoked dissension within the group due to the dissatisfaction of the previous proselytes, who soon opposed his leadership. In 1688, he went on pilgrimage to Mecca with one of his foremost followers, Mustapha Effendi, but died along the return journey in Alexandria, Egypt. Thereafter the schism deepened among his adherents, and some 43 families formed a new subsect, the Jacobites. His principal acolytes controlled the group’s affairs, preserved several relics of him and of Shabbtai, and administered the personal fortune left by the pseudo-messiah. The Jacobites comprised mostly merchants and lower officials, and their subsect survived until the 20th century.
Abraham ben Mikhael Rovigo (c. 1650–1713 CE), a disciple of Moses Zacuto and a native of Modena (Italy), was born into an affluent family. He studied kabbalah in neighboring Venice, where he became close friends with Benjamin ben Eliezer HaKohen Vitale of Reggio and dedicated himself solely to his studies. He became renowned as a supporter of pietistic and Shabbatean activities, and in time emerged as one of the leading proponents of the moderate faction of Shabbateanism. He attracted into his orbit numerous crypto-Shabbateans who visited him while in Italy (such as Issachar Bär Perlhefter, Mordekhai ben Hayyim, and Mordekhai Ashkenazi) and corresponded with many of the movement’s leaders, including Nathan of Gaza, whom he hailed as a genuine prophet, and Meir bar Hiyya Rofe. Throughout his life he amassed information regarding Shabbtai Tzvi and others active in the messianic movement and collected their compositions, but kept these activities clandestine and interrogated others before disclosing to them his Shabbatean leanings. He prepared to immigrate to the Land of Israel on several occasions without success. In 1700/1701, he supervised the printing of Mordekhai Ashkenazi’s Zoharic commentaries in Fürth, Germany, whose atmosphere seemed more conducive to the activities of crypto-Shabbateans. In 1702, he and his followers immigrated to the Land of Israel, where he settled in Jerusalem and established an academy. In 1704 and again in 1710, he was dispatched as a fundraising envoy (meshulah) to Europe by the rabbinate of Jerusalem, which respected his affluence and influence; he traveled to several countries, including Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy, and died during his final mission while in Mantua (Italy).
A native of Prague (Czech Republic), Issachar Bär ben Judah Moses Eybeschütz Perlhefter (c. 1650–c. 1714 CE) became a crypto-Shabbatean. He married Bella, daughter of Jacob Perlhefter, and adopted her surname. He served as a religious judge (dayyan) on the rabbinical court (beit din) of Wandsbek (Germany). He migrated to Vienna, Austria, where he dwelt until all Jews were expelled therefrom in 1670. That same year, he returned to his hometown, where he remained for four years. In 1674, he migrated to Altdorf (Altdorf bei Nürnberg, Germany), where he taught Hebrew and Jewish literature to the Christian Hebraist Johann Christoph Wagenseil (whose daughter was taught music and dancing by Issachar’s wife). In 1676, he migrated to Modena (Italy), where he dwelt in the home of Abraham Rovigo for five years. He may have originated the doctrine of occultation to explain the apparent decease of Shabbtai Tzvi. Thereafter he moved to neighboring Mantua, where he became chief rabbi, a position in which he served for six years. He made the mistake of inviting to Italy the Shabbatean pseudo-messiah Mordekhai Eisenstadt, whose deceptions and derangement he discovered and sought to expose; he was compelled to depart Italy as a result of the ruction that ensued. He migrated to Ottensoos (Germany), where he dwelt for some time, then again returned to his hometown, where he served as a religious judge on the rabbinical court and as a scribe. He indited Ohel Yissakhar, a halakhic guide on the ritual slaughter of animals for food (sh’hitah); Ma’aseh Hoshen U’Ketoret, on Jewish archaeology; Ba’eir Heiteiv, a commentary on Targum Sheini, an Aramaic translation (targum) of Esther; and Be’er Sheva, a septempartite ethical work in Yiddish, dedicated to his wife and commemorating their seven deceased children.
Mordekhai ben Hayyim of Eisenstadt (Mordekhai Mokhiah) (1650–1729 CE) was a native of Alsace (France) and became an itinerant preacher (maggid). He led an ascetic life and earned a reputation for his passionate preaching (his Hebrew cognomen “Mokhiah” means “Reprover”). He propagated Shabbateanism across central and eastern Europe after Shabbtai Tzvi’s conversion to Islam, and propounded the notions that for mystical purposes Shabbtai had to undergo conversion, that his death was illusory, and that he would return in three years to complete the messianic redemption. His wanderings took him to Austria, Germany, Moravia (eastern Czech Republic), Poland, and Hungary. Around 1678, he traveled to Modena (Italy) at the behest of local kabbalists and crypto-Shabbateans Issachar Bär Perlhefter and Abraham Rovigo. The Italian Shabbateans depicted him in their apocalyptic compositions as the forerunner of Messiah, and mentioned his plan to undertake certain preliminary messianic activities in Rome, but he began to claim that Shabbtai had been merely Messiah son of Joseph while he himself was Messiah son of David. His host Issachar recognized signs of derangement in Mordekhai and turned against him, prompting his abrupt departure from Italy. Thereafter he traveled through Bohemia (western Czech Republic) and Poland, where he attracted many followers. He died in Pressburg (Bratislava, Slovakia). His son, Judah Löb Mokhiah, became an eminent Talmudist, and his grandson was the sage Isaiah ben Judah Löb Berlin (Isaiah Pick).
A native of Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania), Jacob ben Benjamin Wolf Wilna (Jacob Vilna Ashkenazi) (c. 1650–1732 CE) studied kabbalah in his hometown. He migrated to Salonika (Thessaloniki, Greece) and studied Shabbatean kabbalah under Barukhiah Russo. Thereafter he disseminated Shabbateanism in Podolia (southwestern Ukraine) and in Galicia (southeastern Poland/northwestern Ukraine). He joined the holy society (havurah kedoshah) of Judah HeHasid and became one of the pillars of that community. In 1700, he immigrated to the Land of Israel, where he settled in Jerusalem. He endeavored to join the local Sephardic community and became a member of the study house (beit midrash) of Abraham Rovigo and of the Sephardic academy Yeshivah Beit Ya’akov Ferrera. He became close friends with Nathan Nata Mannheim, with whom he indited Me’orot Natan (which comprises Me’orei Or by Meir Poppers and their commentary thereon, Ya’ir Nativ). He also composed glosses on the Tikunei Zohar, which were published with the text. In the first quarter of the 18th century, he departed Jerusalem thrice, on two occasions as an emissary of the Ashkenazic community, and promulgated Shabbatean kabbalah throughout his travels to Anatolia (Turkey), Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy. In 1726, he repatriated to the Land of Israel, where he settled in Tzfat. In 1728, he became chief rabbi of Tzfat and headed an academy. Jacob was a moderate Shabbatean and earned a reputation as an authoritative kabbalist among his contemporaries in the Land of Israel, Anatolia, Italy, and Poland. His distinction in kabbalah is attested by Abraham of Kitov, brother-in-law of Israel ben Eliezer (Ba’al Shem Tov/Besht). He died in Tzfat at an advanced age. His son Hayyim Nissim Yeruham also became a Shabbatean kabbalist. His disciples included Israel Jacob ben Yom Tov Algazi and Raphael Israel ben Joseph Kimhi.
Nehemiah Hiyya ben Moses Hayyun (c. 1650/1655–1730 CE) was a disciple of Hayyim ben Jacob Abulafia and perhaps a native of Sarajevo (Bosnia-Herzegovina). He and his family immigrated to the Land of Israel, where they settled in Jerusalem. He was raised in Jerusalem and in Nablus, and studied Talmud in Hebron. From his adolescence, he was attracted to kabbalah and became familiar with the Shabbatean groups. At 18, he returned with his father to Sarajevo, where he married. Thereafter he traveled throughout the Balkans and migrated to Belgrade (Serbia), where he lived until its occupation by Austria in 1688. He may have joined his father as an emissary to Italy for the ransoming of Jewish captives from Belgrade. In 1691, he was reportedly in Leghorn (Livorno, Italy). He became chief rabbi of Üsküb/Uskup (Skopje, North Macedonia), a position in which he served for a short time. Around 1695, he repatriated to the Land of Israel, where he lived for several years in Nablus. After the decease of his first wife, he remarried the daughter of one of the scholars of Tzfat. His kabbalistic doctrine evades the issue of Shabbtai Tzvi’s messianic claims, but is based on principles common to Shabbateanism. Upon receiving a copy of Shabbtai’s short tract Raza D’Meheimanuta (“The Mystery of the Faith”), he claimed that he himself had written it and that it had been imparted to him by Elijah the prophet or by the angel Metatron. He renamed the tract Meheimanuta D’Khula and indited a double commentary thereon, Oz L’Elohim. He sojourned in Rosetta, (Rashid, Egypt), and earned a reputation as a practitioner of practical kabbalah. Around 1702–1705, he returned to Jerusalem, where the inimical Abraham Yitzhaki leveled many accusations against him. He later returned to Tzfat and thence migrated to Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), where he arrived in 1708. There he hoped to publish his commentary to Meheimanuta D’Khula and to fundraise for an academy that he wished to establish in Jerusalem. Upon his triumphant return to Jerusalem, the local rabbis excommunicated him, condemned his book to be burned, and compelled him to vacate the country. In 1709/1710, he migrated via Egypt to Italy, where in Leghorn he reportedly confessed his Shabbatean beliefs to the well-known kabbalist and rabbi, Joseph Ergas. In 1711, he went to neighboring Venice, where he published a pericope of his book, entitled Raza D’Yehudah, concerning the meaning of the “Shema” prayer. Venetian rabbis approbated this excerpt without recognizing its intent, and the work did not generate controversy. That same year, he migrated to Prague (Czech Republic), where he was welcomed within scholarly circles and garnered approval for Oz L’Elohim and for his selected sermons, Divrei Nehemiah. He adjusted the endorsement of Divrei Nehemiah that he had received from David Oppenheim, chief rabbi of Prague, to include the kabbalistic Oz L’Elohim as well. In Prague he befriended the latter’s son, Joseph Oppenheim, and the kabbalist and rabbi Naphtali Cohen, who later kept his distance after a rumor circulated connecting Nehemiah with the Dönmeh in Salonika (Thessaloniki, Greece). He migrated via Moravia (eastern Czech Republic) and Silesia (southwestern Poland) to Berlin, Germany, where he succeeded in publishing Oz L’Elohim, with the approval of Berlin’s chief rabbi Aaron ben Benjamin Wolf, in 1713. In certain passages of his work he criticized the writings of both Nathan of Gaza and Abraham Miguel Cardozo, although the latter’s kabbalistic system resembled his own. Unlike his adversary Joseph Ergas, he thought that Isaac Luria’s doctrine of divine contraction (tzimtzum) was meant to be understood literally. His conception of the three superior divine aspects (partzufim)—attika kaddisha, malka kaddisha, and shkhinah—differs from other Shabbatean kabbalistic systems only in its details and terminology. That same year, he migrated to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where he received the patronage of Solomon Ayllon, rabbi of the Sephardic community, and his rabbinical court (beit din), and of the trustees (parnasim) of the Jewish community. Almost from the outset, however, he was opposed by Tzvi Hirsch Ashkenazi, rabbi of the Ashkenazic community, and by Moses Hagiz, who recalled Nehemiah’s former troubles in the Land of Israel and recognized the Shabbatean character of his teachings; the pair excommunicated him in the summer of 1713. Solomon, perhaps fearing that Nehemiah would expose his past life as a Shabbatean to the entirety of Amsterdam Jewry, became his staunch advocate and headed a committee that declared him innocent of heresy. The ruction engendered tension in Amsterdam and rapidly spread to other countries. Naphtali Cohen repented his previous support of Nehemiah and likewise excommunicated him, as did the Italian rabbis to whom both sides turned for support. He responded to his chief opponents—Tzvi Hirsch Ashkenazi, Moses Hagiz, Joseph Ergas, and Judah Leon Brieli—in several books and pamphlets wherein he defended his ideas but denied their Shabbatean character. Due to the bitter controversy he had provoked, he failed to publish his second comprehensive kabbalistic work, Seifer Ta’atzumot. In 1714, the rabbinates of Smyrna and Istanbul excommunicated him and condemned his works, a decisive strike against his cause, which compelled him to travel to Anatolia (Turkey) and strive to have his ban rescinded. In 1724, through the influence of a vizier, he managed to absolve himself from the excommunication provided that he refrain from any further kabbalah-related writing, teaching, and preaching; he promised to comply, but soon reneged on his vow. He subsequently visited Vienna, Austria, where he obtained a letter of protection from the Austrian emperor by accenting his trinitarian teachings and professing his intention to convert the Jews to Christianity. In 1725, he published some favorable documents in the pamphlet HaKolot Yehdalun, which was challenged the following year in Moses Hagiz’s booklet Lehishat Saraf. Most Jewish communities barred their doors against him: before Prague’s city walls he faced inanition; in Berlin, he threatened to embrace Christianity if assistance were denied him; in Amsterdam, even his erstwhile ally Solomon Ayllon forsook him. In 1726, he was excommunicated in Hamburg, Germany and in neighboring Altona. Finally, he fled to North Africa, where he died. His son converted to Catholicism and sought to avenge him by calumniating Judaism.
A native of either Dubno (Ukraine) or Shedlits (Siedlce, Poland), Judah HeHasid Segal HaLevi (c. 1650/1660–1700 CE) became an itinerant preacher (maggid). He was attracted to the Shabbatean movement in Poland. Around 1678, he migrated to Italy, where he studied kabbalah. In 1696, he and Hayyim Malakh became co-leaders of a pietistic group active in preparing European Jewry for the highly anticipated second coming of Shabbtai Tzvi in 1706. He earned a reputation as an impressive preacher and traveled to many Jewish communities urging repentance, asceticism, mortifications, and fasts, while also advocating immigration to the Land of Israel. In 1697, his holy society (havurah kedoshah) comprising 31 families of scholars organized a mass immigration to Jerusalem, where they would await the messianic redemption. In 1698, Tzvi Hirsch Ashkenazi condemned the holy society for its rumored Shabbateanism, but the group was openly supported by David Oppenheim, chief rabbi of Nikolsburg (Mikulov, Czech Republic) and Moravia (eastern Czech Republic). In 1698/1699, about ten Shabbatean scholars gathered in Nikolsburg for a secret council, including Judah, Hayyim Malakh, and Heschel Tzoref, to discuss issues relating to Shabbtai. In 1699, the society departed Poland for Moravia, where its members sojourned in Nikolsburg among its sizable Shabbatean community. In 1700, Judah and several of his fellow Shabbatean scholars—garbed in white satin garments and traveling in splendor with servants and an entourage—roamed Germany and Austria, urging the local Jewish communities to repent and to contribute funds in support of those preparing to repatriate to their ancestral homeland. They garnered sympathy and support from certain rabbis and affluent individuals in these communities, but others opposed them and suspected them of being crypto-Shabbateans. That same year, he sermonized on the imminent coming of Messiah in the synagogue of Frankfurt, Germany and entered its women’s section carrying a Torah scroll, thereby evoking the wrath of the local rabbinate and of Tzvi Hirsch Ashkenazi, but he soon embarked from Italy and immigrated to the Land of Israel, where he settled in Jerusalem. Sadly, he died within a week of his arrival and was buried on the Mount of Olives. The holy society’s membership, embarking from Germany and Moravia and mustering in Venice, Italy or Istanbul (Turkey), had reached 1,300–1,700; tragically, about a third of these members perished during their journey of between two and six months due to sundry hardships and illnesses. Many among the survivors had contracted debts and had been compelled to offer the Ottoman authorities financial guarantees in the name of Jerusalem Jewry to enter the Ottoman Empire. Judah’s sudden decease caused great tumult and disheartened the remnant of his adherents. The abrupt influx of approximately a thousand Jews triggered a crisis and Jerusalem Jewry, comprising some 200 Ashkenazic and 1,000 Sephardic inhabitants, was unable to integrate such a large group into its midst. Moreover, some newcomers were suspected of being Shabbateans, toward whom the Jews of Jerusalem were inimical. Emergency assistance was sought by means of emissaries dispatched to the Va’ad Arba Artzot (Committee of Four Lands), but no aid was forthcoming. After a few years, ructions erupted between the moderate and radical Shabbatean factions among the members, some of whom remained in Jerusalem while others joined Shabbatean groups in Poland and in Germany, or else converted to Islam or to Christianity (including Judah’s own nephew). Judah’s holy society was the initial organized Ashkenazic immigration to the Land of Israel. Some 150 years later, the main synagogue of the Ashkenazic community in Jerusalem, Hurvat Rabbi Yehudah HeHasid (Hurvah Synagogue), was constructed on a large plot in the Old City.
Benjamin ben Eliezer HaKohen Vitale of Reggio (1651–1730/1739 CE), a disciple of Moses Zacuto and a native of Alessandria (Italy), was born into an affluent family. He studied kabbalah in neighboring Venice, where he became close friends with Abraham Rovigo. While still a youth, he became chief rabbi of neighboring Casale. After 1682, he became chief rabbi of neighboring Reggio. He earned a reputation as one of the chief exponents of Lurianic kabbalah in Italy, and as a notable kabbalist, preacher, and poet. He numbered among the moderate Shabbateans who supplemented their orthodox Jewish practice with the heterodox belief in the messiahship of Shabbtai Tzvi. Many leading Shabbateans convened in his home, and he amassed information on the movement and its emergent “prophets”. In 1714, he refused to participate in the persecution of Nehemiah Hiyya Hayyun. He indited Eit HaZamir, a collection of hymns (pizmonim) for the annual festivals; Allon Bakhut, a commentary on Lamentations; Avot Olam, a commentary on Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers); Gvul Binyamin, a homiletic collection; scholia on Totzeot Hayyim; Gishmei Brakhah and Pithei She’arim, responsa on Joseph Karo’s Shulhan Arukh; Sod Adnut Adoneinu, a Shabbatean pamphlet; and She’eilot U’Tishuvot HaRei, a compilation of responsa. Late in life, he consulted Moses Hayyim Luzzatto regarding the root (shoresh) of his own soul and its restitution (tikun). His disciples included his son-in-law Isaiah Bassani, Joseph Ergas, Hayyim Malakh, and Menasheh Joshua Padova.
A native of Kalisch (Kalisz, Poland), Hayyim ben Solomon Malakh (c. 1655–1716/1717 CE) became an esteemed rabbi, kabbalist, and preacher (maggid). He felt an attraction to Shabbateanism and soon attached himself to Heschel Tzoref in Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania). In 1690, he sojourned in Italy, where he was hosted by the local Shabbatean leaders Abraham Rovigo and Benjamin HaKohen Vitale of Reggio, who imparted to him their secret traditions concerning Shabbtai Tzvi. In 1692, he returned to Poland and was active as a Shabbatean emissary among rabbinic circles. His activities reached the notice of Tzvi Hirsch Ashkenazi, who became his bitter opponent. Thereafter he migrated to Adrianople (Edirne, Turkey), where he stayed for two to three years with Samuel Primo, from whom he received the secret traditions of Shabbtai’s inner circle. He visited neighboring Bursa, where some prominent Shabbateans dwelt, and there experienced a vision that prompted his return to Poland, where he joined forces with Judah HeHasid. In 1696, he migrated to Zholkeva/Żółkiew (Zhovkva, Ukraine), where he attracted numerous influential followers. Around this time he dispatched an epistle to his former teachers in Italy—moderate Shabbateans—informing them that in Anatolia (Turkey) he had discovered the most authentic Shabbateanism. In 1697, he might have returned to Adrianople, where he apparently met Abraham Miguel Cardozo. Hayyim sided with Samuel in the latter’s dispute with Abraham. At some point he encountered the radical leader of the Dönmeh sect in Salonika (Thessaloniki, Greece), Barukhiah Russo, whose dicta he cited in writing to one of his disciples. He cofounded and headed a pietistic group that did not openly profess Shabbateanism but that advocated the immigration of ascetic scholars to Jerusalem to await the advent of Messiah, privately understood to be Shabbtai Tzvi, whose return in 1706, forty years post-apostasy, Hayyim had foretold. He visited Germany and Moravia (eastern Czech Republic), where numerous crypto-Shabbateans constellated. In 1698/1699, about ten Shabbatean scholars gathered in Nikolsburg for a secret council, including Hayyim, Judah HeHasid, and Heschel Tzoref, to discuss issues relating to Shabbtai. In addition, he traveled to Vienna, Austria, where he proposed to discuss Shabbateanism with fellow kabbalists. To that end, Abraham Broda, chief rabbi of Prague, dispatched his disciples Moses Hasid and Jonah Landsofer; the debate lasted a fortnight but ended inconclusively. In 1699, he led a pilgrimage via Istanbul (Turkey) to the Land of Israel, where his party settled in Jerusalem. In 1700, after the sudden decease of Judah HeHasid, he was chosen by one pietistic faction as its leader. Internal dissensions between moderate and radical Shabbateans plagued the group, however, and he was expelled from the Land of Israel. He probably returned to Istanbul then to Salonika, where he met with Barukhiah and joined the Dönmeh. Consequently, he was deemed a missionary of the antinomian faction of Shabbateanism, which engendered his prolonged harassment by the rabbinical authorities. Between 1708 and 1710, he was excommunicated, banished, and vehemently denounced by the rabbinate of Istanbul. He later returned to Poland and established radical Shabbateanism in Podolia (southwestern Ukraine), where the Frankist movement later arose. Publicly he denied any Shabbatean connections but privately he divulged his doctrines, and earned a reputation as a persuasive spokesman for the underground Shabbatean movement. He was compelled to depart Poland, and subsequently roamed Germany. In 1715, he was in Amsterdam, the Netherlands but departed the city just prior to the arrival of an epistle from Abraham Broda, then chief rabbi of Frankfurt, Germany, urging his immediate expulsion. In 1716/1717, he returned to Poland and died shortly thereafter. His disciples included Mordekhai Suskind Rotenburg.
Solomon ben Jacob Ayllon (c. 1655/1665–1728 CE), a native of Salonika (Thessaloniki, Greece), received rabbinical training in his hometown. As a young man he became a follower of Shabbtai Tzvi, was in personal contact with Nathan of Gaza, and joined the Shabbatean circle of Joseph Filosof and Solomon Florentin. His opponents insinuated that his first wife had not been properly divorced from her first husband. He was apparently among the moderate Shabbateans who remained faithful to mainstream Judaism. In the 1680s, he immigrated to the Land of Israel, where he settled in Tzfat. After several years there he went to Europe as a fundraising envoy (meshulah) for Tzfat Jewry. In 1688, he sojourned in Leghorn (Livorno, Italy) and established close ties with the Shabbateans among Italian Jewry before visiting Amsterdam, the Netherlands. In 1689, he migrated to London, England, where after a few months he became Sephardic rabbi (hakham). In 1690, relations between Solomon and his congregation became acrimonious when his former affiliation with Shabbateanism was revealed, and a decade of bitterness and tension ensued. In 1700/1701, he migrated to Amsterdam, where he became Sephardic rabbi of the Portuguese community, a position in which he served for the rest of his life. He supported efforts to print an important work of Shabbatean proponent Abraham Miguel Cardozo, likely Boker Avraham, and averred that the work’s theology was above suspicion; nevertheless, the manuscript was burned as heretical in accordance with the views of learned rabbis in Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey). In 1713, he was embroiled in conflict with Tzvi Hirsch Ashkenazi, chief rabbi of the Ashkenazic community in Amsterdam, regarding the heretical writings (including Oz L’Elohim) of Shabbatean kabbalist Nehemiah Hiyya Hayyun, a newcomer to the city who was welcomed by the Sephardic community. Nehemiah deemed Solomon a crypto-Shabbatean, although in Amsterdam Solomon had acted cautiously in matters concerning the Shabbateans. That same year, despite their condemnation as heretical by Tzvi Hirsch Ashkenazi, Nehemiah’s writings were deemed benign kabbalistic works by Solomon and his committee. The dispute engendered tension in Amsterdam and generated controversy among other Jewish communities, especially in Italy. Solomon laid charges against Tzvi Hirsch Ashkenazi before the Amsterdam magistrates and his opponent was compelled to depart the city, as was Nehemiah. In 1726, when Nehemiah reappeared in Amsterdam, Solomon refused to receive him. His extant kabbalistic works evidence their Shabbatean character; it is uncertain whether in his later years he abjured his Shabbatean convictions.
A disciple of his father Solomon Abraham HaKohen and Abraham Miguel Cardozo and a native of Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), Elijah ben Solomon Abraham HaKohen (Elijah HaKohen HaItamari) (c. 1655–1729 CE) hailed from a rabbinical family. He studied Talmud and kabbalah, received rabbinical ordination (smikhah), and served as a religious judge (dayyan) on the rabbinical court (beit din) of his hometown. He earned a reputation as an outstanding preacher (maggid) and as a prolific author, and approximately 30 of his works are extant. He indited his masterwork Midrash HaItamari, a homiletic collection; Sheivet Musar, a homiletic collection comprising 52 sermons corresponding to the weeks of the year and to the numerical value of his Hebrew name; Me’il Tzdakah, a treatise on charity; Midrash Talpiyot, novel construals of various topics, collected from 300 listed works; Minhat Eliyahu, a homiletic collection comprising 33 sermons on ethical subjects; Megalleh Tzfunot, kabbalistic treatises; Smukhim L’Ad, homilies on the weekly Torah reading; V’Lo Od Ella, a treatise on the Talmudic and midrashic verses commencing with these words; Eizor Eliyahu, a commentary on Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) and on the Passover Haggadah; Ta’amei HaMitzvot, a treatise on the 613 commandments of the Torah; Shloshah Mahadurot, a Torah commentary; Hidushim Nifradim and Yado HaKol, commentaries on three of the five megilot; a commentary on Lamentations; a commentary on Psalms; a commentary on the Haftarot (weekly pericopes from Prophets); a commentary on the aggadot in the Jerusalem Talmud; and She’eilot U’Tishuvot, a compilation of responsa. His writings evince a special sensitivity to social injustice. He numbered among the moderate Shabbateans and many of his sermons treat of messianic topics. Many legends were related about him in Ladino folktales.
Moses ben Aaron HaKohen of Kraków (Johann Kemper) (1670–1716 CE), a native of Kraków, Poland, studied Talmud and kabbalah. He became attracted to Shabbateanism early on and was active among the holy society (havurah kedoshah) of Judah HeHasid. In 1694, he was among those heartened by the prediction of a Shabbatean itinerant preacher (maggid), the former brandy distiller Tzadok ben Shmaryah of Grodno, that Shabbtai Tzvi’s second coming would occur the following year; when in 1695 this prediction proved false, he was deeply disappointed. He soon abandoned his Shabbatean messianic expectations and instead became increasingly receptive to Christian influences. In 1696, he converted to Christianity in Schweinfurt (Germany) and embraced the Lutheran branch of Protestantism, and accepted the name Johann Christian Jacob Kemper. That same year, he moved to neighboring Altdorf, where he became lecturer of Hebrew at University of Altdorf. Between 1696 and 1698 he also worked as a research assistant to the Christian Hebraist Johann Christoph Wagenseil, with whom he resided for a short time and for whom he copied or composed a play for the Purim festival. Around 1698, he migrated to Uppsala (Sweden), where he became lecturer of Hebrew at University of Uppsala. In 1701, he married Anna Strömer. He indited the tripartite Matteh Mosheh, a treatise wherein he attempted to demonstrate the inherent trinitarian doctrine of the Zohar; a Hebrew translation of Matthew; and Me’irat Einayim, a kabbalistic commentary on Matthew (later translated into Latin as Illuminatio oculorum). The central aim of his oeuvre was to prove the veracity of Christianity on the basis of traditional Jewish sources, and to render esoteric allusions exoteric for missionary purposes. He is remembered today as a Christian kabbalist and polemicist.
A native of Ungarish-Brod (Uhersky Brod, Czech Republic), Judah Leib (Löbele/Leibele) ben Jacob Holleschau Prossnitz (c. 1670–1730/1750 CE) received little formal education. He married and moved to neighboring Prossnitz (Prostějov), where he earned his livelihood as a peddler in the surrounding villages. He lived in poverty and occupied a derelict hovel that was deemed haunted. Around 1696, he experienced a spiritual awakening and began studying the Mishnah and, subsequently, the Zohar and kabbalah. He believed that he was visited by the souls of the deceased and claimed that he studied kabbalah with the decedents Isaac Luria and Shabbtai Tzvi. He may have been initiated into Shabbateanism by Tzvi Hirsch ben Yerahmiel Chotsh, a kabbalist and itinerant preacher (maggid) who sojourned in Prossnitz at this time. Judah Leib became a local instructor (m’lammed) of children but later his followers in Prossnitz provided for him and his family. Thereafter he dwelt in the study house (beit midrash) of Prossnitz and led a strictly ascetic life. Soon he began disclosing kabbalistic and Shabbatean secrets and publicly exhorting and admonishing others in the manner of a revivalistic reprover (mokhiah). He earned a reputation as an inspired kabbalist and attracted numerous adherents; crucially, he garnered the support of Meir Eisenstadt, chief rabbi of Prossnitz from 1702. Nevertheless, the Shabbatean propaganda of an ignorant mystic elicited hostility among many detractors. Between 1703 and 1705, he roamed Moravia (eastern Czech Republic) and Silesia (southwestern Poland), whose Jewish communities were roiled by his Shabbatean agitation and his prophesying the second coming of Shabbtai in 1706. In Poland his overt propagandizing prompted clashes in Glogau (Głogów) and in Breslau (Wrocław), where the local rabbis threatened him with excommunication unless he returned home and stayed put. His agitation peaked as the year 1706 approached. He assembled a cadre of 10 adherents who studied with him and performed mortifications. He was popularly acknowledged as a thaumaturge who endeavored to end the dominion of Samael (Satan) and reportedly sacrificed a chicken to appease the evil spirit (sitra ahra). He also promised to summon the divine presence (shkhinah) at midnight before a large gathering, including Meir Eisenstadt, who soon parted ways with him. Judah Leib was excommunicated by a rabbinical court (beit din) in Moravia and sentenced to exile for three years, but was permitted to return after only several months. He resumed instructing children and continued to lead a clandestine Shabbatean group in Prossnitz. He is said to have secretly imparted radical Shabbatean doctrines to Jonathan Eybeschütz, a disciple of Meir Eisenstadt in Prossnitz for several years, and supported heretical teachings concerning Providence. In 1717, he was supposedly composing a kabbalistic commentary on Ruth. In 1724, with the resurgence of Shabbatean activities in the wake of the visit to Moravia of apostate Shabbateans from Salonika (Thessaloniki, Greece), he resurfaced and claimed to be Messiah son of Joseph, precursor to Messiah son of David. Once more, he attracted numerous adherents in Moravia, as well as in Bohemia (western Czech Republic) and in Vienna, Austria. He corresponded with Jonathan Eybeschütz and Isaiah Mokhiah, and seems to have been profoundly influenced by Nehemiah Hiyya Hayyun. He wandered throughout Austria and Germany, duping the credulous who furnished him with material assistance. In 1725, he was again excommunicated by the rabbis of Moravia, and his final years were spent in Hungary, where according to Jacob Emden he died among gentiles. After his decease, an active Shabbatean circle survived in Prossnitz throughout the 18th century. He has been identified as the probable author of a pair of anonymous kabbalistic tracts (previously ascribed to Isaac Luria), Tzadik Yesod Olam and Raza D’Atvin Gelifin.
Barukhiah Russo (Osman Baba) (1676/1677–1720/1721 CE) was apparently of Jewish birth and the son of one of Shabbtai Tzvi’s earliest adherents, Joseph Russo. He assumed the Muslim-Turkish name Osman Baba upon joining the Dönmeh in Salonika (Thessaloniki, Greece). Around 1700, he emerged among the Izmirlis (Izmirim) subsect of the Dönmeh and his acolytes proclaimed him the reincarnation of Shabbtai Tzvi. In 1716, his acolytes declared him the divine incarnation. His group, whose members were called Konyosos (in Ladino) or Karakashlar (in Turkish), was deemed the most extreme subsect of the Dönmeh (and thus of the Shabbateans as a whole) and became notorious for its religious nihilism. Barukhiah taught that in the new Torah, the 36 proscriptions punished by spiritual excision (khareit) were now prescriptions. He and his followers were deemed syncretists who desired to amalgamate discrete elements of various world religions. Between 1720 and 1726, his followers embarked upon a missionary campaign to major Jewish communities in Poland, Germany, and Austria, where they provoked a tremendous stir. Branches of Barukhiah’s subsect, from which the Frankists later emerged, were established in several loci. He proved profoundly influential for Jacob Frank, who conceived of Shabbtai as the first Messiah, Barukhiah as the second, and himself as the third and last in the cycle. He died relatively young and his grave became a pilgrimage site for subsect members until recent times. His son succeeded him as leader and died in 1781. Several Dönmeh members participated in the Young Turks’ political reform movement, which originated in Salonika. In 1909, the initial administration that came to power after the Young Turks’ revolution included several ministers of Dönmeh origin, such as the finance minister Mehmet Cavid, a descendant of Barukhiah’s family and one of the subsect’s leaders.
A disciple of his uncle Eliezer HaLevi Ettinger, Meir Eisenstadt, Samson Wertheimer, and Mordekhai HaKohen, Jonathan ben Nathan Nata Eybeschütz (1690–1764 CE) was a native of Kraków, Poland. He studied variously in Poland; Prossnitz (Prostějov, Czech Republic); Prague (Czech Republic); and Vienna, Austria. He became renowned as a prodigy (ilui). He married Elkele, daughter of Isaac Spira, and earned a reputation as a preacher (maggid) and as a kabbalist. He earned his livelihood as a trial lawyer in the civil court system and as a customs agent. In 1711, he settled in Prague, where he became head of the academy; in 1715, after a brief departure from the city, he returned and established his own academy. Jonathan obtained permission from the bishop of Prague to print the Talmud without certain passages deemed offensive to Christianity. In 1724, this license was revoked by David Oppenheim, chief rabbi of Prague, who objected to a censored Talmud edition. In 1725, Jonathan and the other rabbis of Prague excommunicated the Shabbateans as heretics. In 1736, after the decease of David Oppenheim, he became a religious judge (dayyan) on the rabbinical court (beit din) of Prague, but was denied the chief rabbinate. In 1741, he became chief rabbi of Metz (France), a position in which he served for nine years. In 1750, he became chief rabbi of Germany’s Three Communities: Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbek. Here were renewed his troubles, which would endure decades: in 1751, his rival candidate for the rabbinate of the Three Communities, Jacob Emden, suspected him of Shabbatean inclinations and produced amulets (keme’ot) circulated among the ailing by Jonathan that allegedly contained Shabbatean inscriptions. Jonathan denied the accusation, again excommunicated the Shabbateans, and was re-elected to his office. Most German rabbis supported Jacob, while most Polish and Moravian rabbis supported Jonathan. In 1753, the matter was brought before the Va’ad Arba Artzot (Committee of Four Lands), which ruled in Jonathan’s favor. In 1755, he excommunicated the Shabbateans for the third time. In 1760, however, the ruction erupted anew when Shabbateans were found among the students attending Jonathan’s academy and his youngest son Wolf declared himself a Shabbatean prophet, resulting in the closure of the academy. In 1761, he excommunicated the Shabbateans for the fourth and final time. He indited 30 halakhic tracts including Urim V’Tumim, Kereti U’Feleti, Sar HaAlef, Tiferet Yisrael, Binah LaItim, Hidushim Al Hilkhot Yom Tov, and Bnei Ahuvah; homiletic treatises including Ahavat Yonatan, Ya’arot Dvash, Peirush Al Piska Had Gadya, Keshet Yonatan, and Tiferet Yonatan; a commentary on Lamentations, Allon Bakhut; a defense against his critics, Luhot Eidut; and the kabbalistic monograph Shem Olam. Fueling the lingering doubts regarding Jonathan’s genuine beliefs is the affinity between Shem Olam and the overtly Shabbatean work V’Avo HaYom El HaAyin, which was ascribed to him by several of his own students and which he ultimately admitted authoring at least in part. Paradoxically, Jonathan seemed to oppose pseudo-messiahs while appreciating messianism as an exilic phenomenon; in this way his supporters and detractors represented manifestations of his own internal, contradictory views. Prevented from returning to Prague by Ezekiel Landau, chief rabbi of Prague, he died and was buried in the Jewish cemetery of Altona (where Jacob Emden would soon join him only a few grave plots away). His disciples included Meshulam Zalman HaKohen and Hillel of Stampfen.
Jacob Joseph Frank (Jacob Lejbowicz) (1726–1791 CE), a native of either Buczacz (Buchach, Ukraine) or neighboring Korołówka (Korolivka), was raised in a family of Shabbateans. In 1730, he moved as a child with his family to neighboring Czernowitz (Chernivtsi). As a schoolboy he was averse to Talmud study and became a traveling merchant dealing in gems and textiles. In this capacity he frequented territories of the Ottoman Empire, where he encountered radical Shabbateans in Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey) and in Salonika (Thessaloniki, Greece) and where he received the moniker “Frank” (commonly applied in the East to Europeans). Around 1740, he joined the Dönmeh sect in Salonika. Around 1752, he proclaimed himself Messiah. That same year, he married in Nicopolis (Nikopol, Bulgaria); a pair of disciples of Barukhiah Russo served as witnesses at his wedding. Sometime between 1752 and 1755, he made pilgrimage to the tomb of Nathan of Gaza in Üsküb/Uskup (Skopje, North Macedonia). In 1755, he returned to Ukraine and founded a sect that inclined to antinomianism and declared certain elect persons exempt from Judaism’s moral law; the sect abjured traditional Judaism in favor of a supposed higher law premised upon the Zohar, and its members referred to themselves as Frankists or Zoharists. They professed an extreme form of kabbalah with a trinitarian conception of the divine, engaged in sexually promiscuous and orgiastic rites, and asserted that the Talmud should be discarded as blasphemous. In 1756, he and his adherents were discovered performing one of their secret rites in Landskron/Lanckorona (Zarichanka, Ukraine), which scandalized the Jewish community, whose leaders denounced them to the local authorities. Jacob and his fellow participants were arrested; as a subject of the Ottoman Empire, however, he was released the following day. He soon converted to Islam and fled to Istanbul (Turkey), and received an estate in Chocim (Khotyn, Ukraine). That same year, his sect was condemned by the rabbinical court (beit din) of neighboring Satanov/Satanów (Sataniv) and excommunicated by a rabbinical assembly in neighboring Brody; the ban was confirmed and extended throughout Podolia (southwestern Ukraine) during a session of the Va’ad Arba Artzot (Committee of Four Lands) in Konstantin (Konstantynow nad Bugiem, Poland). In 1757, the bishop of Kamenetz-Podolsk (Kamianets-Podilskyi, Ukraine), Mikołaj Dembowski, who had taken the Frankists under his protection, seized the opportunity to meddle in internal Jewish affairs and arranged in his see a medieval-style religious disputation between the Frankists and the rabbis, who were reluctant to offend the church dignitaries present and thus offered only a mild reply to the Frankists’ theses. The bishop decided in favor of the Frankists, ordered the rabbis to pay them a heavy indemnity, and further ordered all copies of the Talmud in the bishopric of Podolia to be burned in the city square. In 1758, King Augustus III of Poland issued an edict guaranteeing the safety of the Frankists and granted them a haven in Iwanie (Ivane-Zolote, Ukraine). Jacob promoted himself as the direct successor of Shabbtai Tzvi and Barukhiah Russo, and assured his adherents that he had received new divine revelations, which called for their collective conversion to Christianity. He further portrayed himself as the reincarnation of Shabbtai and even of King David. In 1759, the Frankists secured from the Christian authorities a second disputation with the rabbis, which occurred that summer in neighboring Lemberg (Lviv) under the auspices of the local bishop, De Mikulski; this time around, the rabbis refuted and defeated the Frankists. In the aftermath of the disputation, Jacob and the Frankists were challenged to demonstrate their allegiance to Christianity. That same year, he publicly committed his sectarians to mass baptism and led them into the ranks of Christianity: Jacob was baptized twice, first in Lemberg then in Warsaw, Poland, with King Augustus serving as his godfather. Within a year, more than 500 Frankists had converted to Christianity in Lemberg, and ultimately about 3,000 sectarians converted in Lemberg, Lublin (Poland), and Warsaw. Nevertheless, fellow Christians remained suspicious of the Frankists and their unconventional doctrines. The Frankists continued to practice endogamy, and revered Jacob as their “holy master”. His attempt to pass as a Muslim in Anatolia (Turkey) was discovered and exacerbated suspicions. In 1760, he was arrested on charges of heresy, tried and convicted by a church tribunal, and incarcerated in the monastery within the fortress of Chenstochov (Częstochowa, Poland). During his durance, he developed an aura of martyrdom that enhanced his stature among his adherents. In 1772, following the First Partition of Poland, he was liberated from captivity by the Russian general Aleksandr Ilyich Bibikov and subsequently migrated to Brünn (Brno, Czech Republic), where he lived until 1786, surrounded by his retinue of devotees and pilgrims. He traveled frequently to Vienna, Austria, where he made a favorable impression at the royal court of Queen Maria Theresa of Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia, who deemed him a disseminator of Christianity among the Jews. Eventually he outlived his welcome and with his hangers-on migrated to Offenbach (Germany), where he occupied a princely palace and dubbed himself “Baron of Offenbach”, and where his sycophants catered to him in a manner befitting a wealthy nobleman. In 1788 and 1789, he suffered attacks of apoplexy but recovered, only to succumb to a final stroke late in 1791. He was succeeded by his beautiful daughter Eva/Eve, known as the “holy mistress”, a prodigal who lived in luxury but whose fortunes dwindled in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815); she was placed under house arrest for bankruptcy and died destitute in 1816. He is remembered today as the most notorious of Judaism’s pseudo-messiahs.
Doubtless there is a pitiable aspect to Shabbtai Tzvi, who in all likelihood would today be diagnosed as bipolar (manic-depressive) or perhaps schizophrenic, a mentally ill and quixotic man whose delusions of grandeur were confirmed and encouraged by his entourage, whose members may have been true believers or may have had self-interested reasons for preserving the pretense. Indeed, the movement’s most imaginative kabbalists and scholarly theologians—Abraham Yakhini, Nathan of Gaza, Abraham Miguel Cardozo, Nehemiah Hiyya Hayyun—ultimately overshadow Shabbtai Tzvi and reduce him to the movement’s figurehead, a preposterous pretender propped up by superiors.
Despite the support of his apostles, Shabbtai Tzvi, supposed savior of the Jews, elected in the end to save himself. In the wake of his shocking apostasy, disheartened adherents repented their involvement in the mass hysteria and resumed their observance of normative Judaism. Revulsion and remorse prompted the majority of his disillusioned followers to efface all memory and expunge all mention of the pseudo-messiah and his movement. The believers had been stricken with fever but at last the delirium had passed.
For a minority of Shabbateans, however, the craze continued. The activities of the Shabbatean groups were mainly centered in Turkey, Greece, Italy, Poland, and Lithuania, where fervid leaders and purported prophets and claimants to the succession to Shabbtai Tzvi appeared. Though there were many believers in other parts of the Diaspora, such as Morocco, Yemen, and Kurdistan, the largest of the Shabbatean circles were based in the cities of Salonika (Thessaloniki, Greece), Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), and neighboring Istanbul. In 1683 and/or 1686, some 300 Jewish families in Salonika followed in the footsteps of the false messiah and converted to Islam en masse, forming the core of the crypto-Shabbatean Dönmeh sect, which later divided into three subsects.
As time passed and the cohort of early leaders passed away, the Shabbatean movement lost its momentum and was driven underground, a process expedited by the antinomianism and nihilism of Barukhiah Russo and his radicals. The slogan of the extremists, “the nullification of the Torah is its true fulfillment,” represented an anti-rabbinic and anti-halakhic revolt in Judaism. In this and in other ways, the Shabbatean movement was the Jesus movement redivivus and redux, and it is small wonder that for many Jews Shabbateanism became a gateway to Christianity.
In the 18th century, the Shabbatean spirit endured in both moderate and extreme forms. The moderate form found expression within the circles of Hasidim in Poland, especially in Podolia (southwestern Ukraine), which emerged prior to Hasidism proper. These prototypical Hasidim practiced a type of pious asceticism that featured a salient element of Shabbateanism. The extreme form manifested itself in Frankism, a semi-Jewish/semi-Christian religion, and Frankists gradually evolved from feigned to authentic Catholics. The founder of Hasidism, Israel ben Eliezer (Ba’al Shem Tov/Besht), was reportedly so distraught by the mass conversion of the Frankists to Catholicism that he suffered a depression from which he never fully recovered. Unlike Shabbateanism, Frankism had no lasting impact on Judaism. The Frankists lasted until around 1860, by which time they had been absorbed into mainstream Christianity, whereas by the late 20th century 15,000 Dönmeh remained, primarily in Istanbul, Izmir, and neighboring Adrianople (Edirne).
The paradox of kabbalah is that it springs from creativity but can eventuate in destruction: historically, kabbalah study and practice has evidenced a tendency to engender antinomianism, nihilism, heresy, sectarianism, dissimulation, charlatanism, copycatism, apostasy, and conversion to Christianity or Islam. For this reason, Ashkenazic rabbis erected fences around kabbalah, striving to circumscribe its study to mature and grounded initiates anchored to the propaedeutics of Torah and Talmud and moored to the realities of this world.
For world Jewry, modernity arose in the aftermath of Shabbateanism. Jews learned to recognize and to appreciate kabbalah for what it is: mystical speculation—benign in theory, parlous in praxis. While theoretical mysticism demonstrates the ingenuity of the human imagination, applied mysticism engenders subversion, transgression, and division.
If there is a moral to glean from the melodramatic saga and tragic debacle of Shabbateanism, perhaps it is that messiahship is best declared never by Messiah but only by others, never in the present but only in hindsight. Or, as the insightful and farsighted Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai advised:
“If you’re holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you, ‘Come quickly, Messiah is here!’, first finish planting the tree and then go to greet Messiah.” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan B31)