The Rabbi Who Stood Alone Against Sabbateanism

1665 was a crazy time for Jews. Rumors of the imminent arrival of the Messiah spread like wildfire from Holland to Yemen. Rabbis and laymen alike began to prepare themselves with fasts and penitence being undertaken everywhere. The enthusiasm and unbridled joy of the crowds were palpable. Gluckel of Hameln, the German Jewish housewife wrote in her diary how Jews sold their belongings for a pittance in the belief that they will soon be transferred on the wings of eagles to the Promised Land.

Amidst all of this ruckus stood one man alone. He was not aloof or apathetic- not by any stretch of the imagination. The possibility of that man Shabtai Sevi being the long-awaited Messiah gnawed at him initially. Calling Sevi “a respected Rabbi” Rabbi Sasportas, an Algerian-born Talmudist of Sephardic origin, urged restraint and caution. He was mostly alone in this- in the initial phase of the Sabbatean movement. Shabtai’s groupies in Turkey were beset with zeal and sometimes responded with violence toward those who refuse to acknowledge the messiahship of Sevi. Sasportas was a man of letters. In a furious exchange of letters between him and many of the Rabbinic and lay leaders of large Jewish communities across Europe and North Africa, Sasportas gave voice to his doubts and skepticism. As Sevi’s actions became increasingly sacrilegious and bizzare, Sasportas increased his activism. When the much vaunted Messiah finally submitted to Islam in 1666 rather than face the executioner, Sasportas felt vindicated and his tone become even more more aggressive and strident.

In his detailed study of the affair, Princeton University Professor Yaacob Dweck fleshes out a portrait of a brilliant and complicated man. Dissident Rabbi, The Life of Jacob Sasportas is a dispassionate biography of a remarkable man of the long 17th century.

A deeply traditional man well-schooled in the halls of Talmud, Halakha and Kabbalah, Sasportas gazes with fear and trepidation at the uprooting and turning over of social order. His letters reflect a deep fear of social chaos. Jewish fealty should be to Halacha-established normative Jewish law, unbridled spirituality has its place but only within the confines of the former.

The exchange of letters between Sasportas and Jewish leaders (some of them former students and colleagues) regarding Shabtai and his followers would be preserved by Sasportas in manuscript form and entitled Sisat Novel Sevi, literally “the whithering of the flowering of Sevi”. This book, Dwek informs us, never appeared in print during his lifetime. This should give one pause. Dwek floats several theories as to why this was. One theory points to the will of many Rabbis to put the entire affair behind them. The trauma was such that it would not do anyone any good to have it printed and disseminated. Another interesting theory regards “the aristocratic contempt for print as a vulgar medium” Be it as it may the book did not appear in print until after his passing and even then in severely truncated form as an appendix to his book on responsa.

An interesting aside, Dweck seems to take a side in the oft-cited controversy regarding the deciphering of the acronym samekh tet ס”ט. Sasportas, like many Sephardic Rabbis appended that designation to his name. While many scholars believe that it stands for “safa tav” literally “may his end be good”, Dweck translates it as “Sephardi Tahor” or “pure Sephardi” (p. 51). Parenthetically, Dr. Lawrence Schiffman is likewise adamant that that is what the acronym stands for and “”all the other explanations are apologies by those who don’t understand the pride felt by the Sephardim who had left Spain rather than profess Christianity”.

Some glimpses into the correspondence of Sasportas affords us a look into the brain of a deeply learned man who could have written a book on Jewish philosophy, a contemporary Guide for Perplexed, if you will, but chose to limit his writing to works of legal scholarship. In a letter to his interlocutor (and kindred spirit) Rabbi Joseph Halevi of Livorno he writes, “whoever heard such a thing that while matters are still unclear we should set aside the words of Torah and tradition and hasten on hearing the one who says “thus sayeth the lord” [a reference to Shabbetai’s false prophet Nathan of Gaza], to sentence me to death for not believing in him [a belief] which G-d had not commanded”.

Although Dweck devotes an entire section to the interface between Sabbateanism and Christianity in the thinking of Sasportas, I am surprised that he did not notice the obvious (at least to me) reference here to Christianity (i.e. damnation as a result of lack in belief in anyone other than a deity).

Dwek’s study is also instructive and informative as it relates to Sephardic Ashkenazic relations in the 17th century. Sasportas was a well-traveled man but limited most of his contacts with fellow Sephardim(although he was obviously familiar with early Ashkenazic literature and sometimes cites it authoritatively). In his indictment of Nathan of Gaza, he accuses the latter of preying on and pandering to naive Ashkenazim. This stems from Nathan’s “prophecy” wherein he foretold that the Sultan would crown Sevi as the Messiah and then embark on a joint conquest. This military expedition would be bloodless with the exception of the Lands of Ashkenaz where many gentiles would perish.

“Why is Ashkenaz different from all other lands”? cries Sasportas. If this is because of the Chmielnicki Massacres of 1648–1649, still fresh in the minds of Jews, why then asks Sasportas rhetorically does he not recall “the many expulsions and persecutions in Aragon, Castille, and Portugal. Rather it seems that his entire intention was to draw and entice the people of Ashkenaz and Poland to follow his lying words”.

This is a very interesting perspective as the Sabbatean movement was dominated by Sephardim. Sevi himself was partially Romaniote (according to some he was of distant Ashkenazic origin as the surname Sevi was unknown among Sephardim) but thoroughly Sephardicized. The same holds true of the elite of movement. The Sabbatean masses of Poland were little different than the Sabbatean masses of Amsterdam in everything but their respective social status. Nathan of Gaza himself was the son of Ashkenazi parents who had ascended to the Holy Land and had themselves assimilated into an overwhelmingly Sephardic mileu. In enhancing the role of the Sabbatean Ashkenazim and disenhacing the role played by Sephardim, Sasportas seems to put an inordinate focus on Ashkenazi gullibility to Sabbateanism while casting Sephardim as more sophisticated and seeing behind the farce.

Dweck rightly points out that the Sephardim outnumbered Ashkenazim in such important cities as Asmsterdam and Hamburg and “if any Jews constituted what Sasportas derisively refers to as ‘the crowd’[hamon, hamon am], it was the Sephardim”. Interestingly, in his later years he would experience some run-ins with Ashkenazi Rabbis when he resided in Hamburg. In a dispute between two Ashkenazic parties, one of the claimants turned to the local Sephardic court which included Sasportas. The other (Ashkenazic) side refused to accede to the jurisdiction of a Sephardic court with Sasportas appealing for common sense claiming that “even if this had something to do with Sephardim we would remove ourselves and be judged by you…for we all the sons of one man”. Dweck acerbically concludes that “Sasportas was perfectly capable of overlooking the condescension that characterized his description of the Ashkenazim in Hamburg during the messianic enthusiasm and appealing to the shared genealogy of Ashkenazim and Sephardim as children of one man”.

It’s difficult for us in the 21st century to comprehend why so many Jews were caught up in a movement that venerated a man who seemed entirely unremarkable. It’s hard to understand why many more didn’t see it Sasportas’s way. In a letter to the Saabtean Rabbi Refael Supino, Sasportas discusses parallels between Bar Kokhba and Shabtai. Saportas pointedly exclaims that in contradistinction to Bar Kokhba (who comes under his blistering criticism), the latter had fought wars and emerged victorious yet Shabtai was a Messiah who achieved absolutely nothing in terms of politics. He waged no wars, established no sovereignty, and acquired no temporal power. His chief accomplishment, for Sasportas, consisted of public violations of the law.

In Chapter 6 entitled “Aftermath” Dweck paints a portrait of a respected prominent Rabbi finally getting his due. Sasportas would eventually be appointed head of the tony Sephardic Etz Haim Yeshiva (which, Dweck informs us, banned admission to Italian, Polish and German students). This was soon followed by his appointment as Chief Rabbi of Amsterdam. Interestingly, Sasportas rarely mentioned his struggle against Sabbateanism outside of the mentioned compendium (which, as mentioned, he never published), the role he played in the fight against Shabtai and his followers is almost never mentioned in his later writings. He either chose to remain oblivious or perhaps was unaware that Sabbateanism or Neo-Sabbatianism was still very much a problem long after Shabtai’s conversion and death. Perhaps Sasportas had had enough of the entire affair and was emotionally exhausted, it is also possible that he couldn’t contemplate that belief in Shabtai would linger long after the latter was so obviously exposed as a fraud.

In chapter 7 Dweck points to the long-lasting effect of Sasportas and his work. If Sasportas’s fight was not appreciated during his lifetime, he became even more relevant in the century that followed him. The chapter focuses on the mercurial and brilliant anti-Sabbatian fighter the Ashkenazic Rabbi Jacob Emden. Emden looked at Sasportas as a kindred spirit and wrote about how much he felt he had in common with him. With all the commonality between Emden and Sasportas, there were also some important distinctions Dweck points out. Their respective attitudes toward those who professed a belief in Sevi as the Messiah couldn’t be more different. While Emden the purist sought the harshest of measures against individuals suspected of Sabbatean leanings, Sasportas preferred to show the believer the error of his ways but in no way did he cease social intercourse with such an individual- let alone attempt to have him banned or excommunicated.

Emden eventually published a fuller edition of Zizat Novel Sevi (claiming that he came across the manuscript by happenstance) as part of his battle against those he considered neo-Sabbatians. “Emden’s edition turned Sasportas into a book”, Dweck concludes.

Chapter 8 focuses on Sasportas’s reception in Maskilic as well as anti-Maskilic circles. Sasportas would play a role in the struggle between Orthodox traditionalists and proponents of Wissenschaft. He would also play a role in the struggle between Zionists and anti-Zionists, particularly religious Anti-Zionists such as Joel Teitelbaum, the Rabbi of Satmar, abundantly showing that the battles of yesteryear are often repackaged and re-branded to serve contemporary purposes.

About the Author
Joel is the founder of Channeling Jewish History, a popular social media groups that daily disseminate Jewish history and culture to a large audience. He writes articles on various topics of Jewish interest.