The Mystical Messiah -  Shabbetai Zevi


I. Rav Kook on the relationship between Science, Philosophy and Mysticism:


Love of pure knowledge must be constrained that it not hinder us from continually desiring what is higher and more sublime than our pure knowledge, to what we can attain only by direct speculations, hidden feelings, and at times by meditations of the heart and imaginings, like visions and waking dreams; for just as they can harm us when out of laziness and used by science to gain possession of its clear knowledge, so they can ennoble us grounding the parts familiar to us with greater clarity, and elevating our entire being when they come from things exalted and beyond the grasp of our knowledge…


If only the content is not changed, letting the speculative concept be held as a scientific one, or an imaginary idea as something speculative, intellectual, and so on, for then one can be snared in the net of error. But when one is cautious of the limits of his understanding, and knows how to go beyond the revealed to the concealed, to things so lofty and sublime that his only access is through speculation and imagination, then man himself will discover the power of heaven, and the supernal light will shine on him, for his way is before the Lord…


In time, some imaginary parts will become speculation, and some speculations will be clarified in knowledge and pure awareness; then the imaginings and the speculations will rise, becoming more noble and sublime. And man will go from strength to strength…

Source: Rav A.Y. Kook – Orot HaKodesh, volume 1


II. The Mystical System of the Ari Z’L








Kabbalah's greatest period was under the charismatic leadership of Isaac Ben Solomon Luria, known as the Ari (1534-1572)… Through discussions with his disciples, the Ari provided a philosophical system to the discipline of Kabbalah which has influenced Kabbalah even to this day. He did practically no writing himself; his system and his teachings were written down by his primary disciple, Chaim Vital, after the Ari's death. It is impossible to describe Lurianic Kabbalah, but, with the understanding that all descriptions are already false because words oversimplify, this is an attempt…

Luria concentrated on the process of creation. Originally, the Divine created with too much… emanation. It was more than any creation could bear (even spiritual sefirot), and [those original vessels] exploded, producing shards which poison all subsequent creations. Those shards are the source of what we call "evil" in our world…

Most important, the Ari taught that a Jew's actions affect the amount of divine emanation present within the world. Through [focus (kavanah), and mitzvoth], a Jew can bring more holiness (more divine emanation essence) into the world. Through this process, a Jew can repair the world from the original damage produced by those exploding spiritual shards... This process of being able to repair the world is called Tikkun Olam. By bringing enough divine emanation into the world (via mitzvot) Jews could cause the Messiah to come.


Luria, with his charismatic personality, brought into his Kabbalah system the assumption that Tikkun Olam and the arrival of the Messiah were just around the corner.



III. The Strange Career of Shabbetai Zevi – 1626-1676








I.                   1626, 9th of Av – Shabbetai Zevi born in Smyrna (today Izmir, Turkey) to a family of wealthy traders

II.                1642 to 1648 - after education lives in semi-seclusion. Begins to suffer massive mood swings, and performs “maasim zarim” (including saying Hashem’s name and declaring himself the Messiah), marries twice.

III.             1648 to 1649 - Bohdan Khmelnytsky leads Cossack massacre of 100,000 to 200,000 Jews in the Ukraine, during revolt from Poles.

IV.             1651 to 54 -  Zevi banished by Rabbis of Smyrna

V.                1658 - Expelled from Salonika after marrying a sefer Torah. Goes to Constantinople and attempts to purge his demonic suffering. Celebrates 3 festivals in one week, and invents blessing.

VI.             1662 – Expelled again, moves to Jerusalem. Treated as a respected scholar.

VII.          1664 - Marries 3rd wife, Sarah. Again pursues freedom from his agitations through prayer and practical Kabbalah.

VIII.       1665 – In April, goes to meet famed soul healer, Nathan of Gaza. Nathan claims to have seen Zevi in a vision, and begins to convince him that he is the Messiah. Nathan speaks in trances and produces literature proving Zevi’s role as Messiah.

IX.             By May, Zevi is convinced, and appoints leaders of 12 tribes.

X.                In June he is expelled from Jerusalem by most local Rabbis.

XI.             Nathan sends letters throughout Jewish world, proclaiming the new age and canceling the fast of the 17th of Tammuz. Declares that signs and wonders are not needed, explains “descents” and “illuminations”. Predicts future events, composes new tikkunim. Redemption predicted to occur on June 18th, 1666. (many miracles reported)

XII.          September – Zevi passes through Aleppo, leaving enthusiastic supporters behind.

XIII.       December – Returns to Smyrna, and begins performing strange acts. Dresses as royalty, leads synagogue services, eats chelev. Community splits into “ma’aminim” and “kofrim”. Zevi breaks into synagogue of opposers with an ax, excommunicates them. He reads from Torah and sings a secular love song to it. Many people begin to experience “prophecy”.     

“At that time there appeared… more than two hundred prophets and prophetesses upon whom there fell a mighty trembling so that they swooned. In this state they exclaimed that Shabbetai Zevi was the messiah and king of Israel who would lead his people safely to the Holy Land, and that ships… with Dutch crews, would come and transport them. Thereafter their spirits returned to them, but they remembered nothing of what they had spoken… Even little children of four years or less recited psalms in Hebrew.          Source: Hollandtze Merkurius, Diarium Europaeum

XIV.       As news and rumors spread a massive movement sweeps the Jewish world (Europe, Orient and Asia) in preparation for the redemption. Excessive fasting, ritual bathing, and charity are common. So are scourging and mortification. Property was sold and travel arrangements made. Commerce froze. Returning of ill gotten gains was advised. Parades and riots occur. Prayers for “Amirah” enter liturgy. Leadership hardly protests.

XV.          1666 – In February, Zevi travels to Constantinople. Is arrested but not killed. (this seemingly confirms prophecy) Zevi refuses to be ransomed.

XVI.       Pesach – Moved to “Migdal Oz” in Gallipoli. Sees visitors. Offers korban Pesach and feeds chelev to followers. Declares festival of “The Day of the Revival of Shabbetai Zevi” and “The Birthday of Shabbetai Zevi”. Imprisonment seen by followers as symbolic.

XVII.    September – Zevi is brought before the Sultan’s court, and accused of fomenting sedition and immoral behavior. He is ordered to convert or be killed. Zevi converts to Islam, and changes his name to Aziz Mehmed Effendi. Sinks into depression.




















The apostasy produced a profound shock, paralyzing leaders and followers alike. In wide circles it was simply not believed and it took some time until the truth was accepted. The waves of excitement had been high, but deeper feelings were involved: for many believers the experience of the messianic revival had taken on the dimensions of a new spiritual reality. The tremendous upheaval of a whole year had led them to equate their emotional experience with an outward reality which seemed to confirm it. Now they were faced with a cruel dilemma: to admit that their belief had been wholly in vain and that their redeemer was an imposter, or to cling to their belief and inner experience in the face of outward hostile reality and look for an explanation and justification of what had happened. That many accepted the second alternative and refused to give in proves the depth of the movement. Because of this, the movement did not come to an abrupt end with the apostasy, an act which in all other circumstances would have terminated it automatically. Who could have dreamed of a Messiah who would forswear his allegiance to Judaism?”                 Source: Gershon Scholem, EJ

XVIII. November – Nathan hears of apostasy. Says all must await explanation of this deep mystery. By April, an explanation is developed.

The central point of his argument was that the apostasy was in reality the fulfillment of a mission to lift up the holy sparks which were dispersed even among the gentiles and concentrated now in Islam. Whereas the task of the Jewish people had been to restore the sparks of their own souls in the process of tikkun according to the demands of the Torah, there were sparks which only the Messiah himself could redeem, and for this he had to go down into the realm of the kelippah, outwardly to submit to its domination but actually to perform the last and most difficult part of his mission by conquering the kelippah from within. In doing this he was acting like a spy sent into the enemy camp. Nathan linked this exposition with his earlier metaphysical explanation of the biography of Shabbetai Zevi as a struggle with the realm of evil, to which his "strange actions" bore witness even in his earthly life. The apostasy was nothing but the most extreme case of such strange actions. He had to take upon himself the shame of being called a traitor to his own people as the last step before revealing himself in all his glory on the historical scene. By placing the paradox of an apostate Messiah, a tragic but still legitimate redeemer, at the center of the new, developing Shabbatean theology, Nathan laid the foundation for the ideology of the believers for the next 100 years. He, and many others after him, searched the Bible, Talmud, Midrash, and kabbalistic literature for references to this basic paradox and came up with a rich harvest of daring, audacious, and often outright heretical reinterpretations of the older sacred texts. Once the basic paradox was admitted, everything seemed to fall in line.” Ibid.

XIX.       1669 – Jacob Sasportas composes Zizat Novel Zevi.

XX.          1667 to 1672 – Zevi lives in Turkey, leading a quasi-Jewish Moslem cult. Is briefly arrested for immoral behavior. Nathan leads faithful Sabbateans in the Balkans.

XXI.       1673 – Zevi banished to Albania.

XXII.    1676, Sept. 17 – Dies on Yom Kippur. Many more believers begin to turn away.

XXIII. 1680 – Nathan dies after having explained that Zevi was an incarnation of the messiah soul which had been reabsorbed into the “supernal lights”.

XXIV. 1683 – 300 families in Salonika convert to Islam to follow in the messiah’s footsteps. Beginning of the Doenmeh sect.

XXV.    1700 – Mass aliyah of Sabbateans awaiting second coming. Group disintegrates because of fights between moderates and extremists.

XXVI. 1721 – Death of Doenmeh leader Baruchiah Russo, who explained that in the new Torah, the 36 issurim punished by karet were now positive commandments. He is proclaimed "Santo Senor" and an incarnation of the Sabbatean version of the "God of Israel."

XXVII.          1725 - Jonathan Eybeschuetz publicly condemns Sabbateanism and its sectarians. However, his name is never cleared of suspicion.















XXVIII.       1752 to 1769 - Jacob Emden publishes reports exposing  Sabbateanism and Sabbateans, including Eybeschuetz and Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato.

XXIX. 1756 to 1760 – Jacob Frank arrives in Poland from Turkey. Begins Catholic version of Doenmeh, following Baruchiah’s model. Creates a simpler theology than classic Sabbateanism and practices the “path of Esav”. Defends church and blood libels. Movement lasts into 19th century.

XXX.         1760 – Death of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer after fighting against Frankists. Said after their conversion, "As long as a diseased limb is connected with the body, there is hope that it may be saved; but, once amputated, it is gone, and there is no hope."




Five factors contributed to the overwhelming success of the messianic awakening:

(1)        The messianic call came from the Holy Land, from the center that stood for pure spirituality at its most intense. A message from there would be received in Persia, Kurdistan, or Yemen with a respect which it could scarcely command had it arrived from Poland or Italy. The tremendous prestige of the new Kabbalah which emanated from Safed also played a part.

(2)        The renewal of prophecy with the conspicuous figure of Nathan, the brilliant scholar and severe ascetic turned prophet, helped to obscure the more dubious facets of Shabbetai Zevi's personality which, indeed, played little or no role in the consciousness of the mass of the believers.

(3)        The efficacy of traditional and popular apocalyptic beliefs, whose elements were not relinquished but reinterpreted, played its part. The old eschatological visions were retained but many new elements were absorbed. The conception of the future was, throughout 1666, thoroughly conservative. At the same time, however, the propaganda was also addressed to a widespread group of kabbalists, to whom it presented a system of ambiguous symbols. Nathan's symbolism satisfied his readers by its traditional terminology, and the apparent continuity enabled the new elements to exist, undetected, under cover of the older kabbalism.

(4)        The prophet's call to repentance played a decisive role, appealing to the noblest longings in every Jewish heart. Who, even among the movement's opponents, could condemn the one demand which the prophet and the Messiah made in public?

(5)        There was, as yet, no differentiation between the various elements taking part in the movement. Conservative minds, responding to their sense of unbroken continuity, saw in it the promise of fulfillment of traditional expectations. At the same time the message of redemption appealed to the utopianists who longed for a new age and would shed no tears for the passing of the old order. The national character of the movement obscured these contrasts in the emotional makeup of its participants.