When it is advisable to put on a fez

Richard Popkin

  • The Lost Messiah: In Search of Sabbatai Sevi by John Freely
    Viking, 275 pp, £20.00, September 2001, ISBN 0 670 88675 0

The dramatic story of the rise and fall of the self-proclaimed messiah Sabbatai Sevi has usually been presented as a weird anomaly in Jewish history, with no redeeming merit as a lesson. However, as more and more becomes known about it, the case becomes of greater, and more general interest.

Sabbatai Sevi was born in 1626, the son of a Jewish assistant to the Dutch, English and French merchants then living in Smyrna (now Izmir). He was a brilliant student, with an impressive knowledge and understanding of Jewish texts. But then, after periods of fasting followed by moments of ecstasy, he began violating the fundamental principles of Jewish belief and law, something only the messiah was permitted to do. He had heard that the messiah would be named Sabbatai, the Hebrew equivalent of Saturn, and seems to have gone around testing to see whether he was the right Sabbatai. He is supposed, for example, to have uttered the Tetragrammaton, the taboo name of God. The rabbis banished him from Smyrna, and not long afterwards Nathan of Gaza, a kabbalistic scholar who had got to know him, announced that Sabbatai was indeed the expected messiah.

By the end of 1665, Sabbatai was declaring that, as the messiah, he was no longer bound by Jewish ritual and laws; he changed a fast day into a feast on the grounds that although it commemorated the fall of the First and Second Temple, it was also his own birthday. He started eating forbidden food in public and giving women a leading role in religious services.

Over the next months he gained an immense following, not only in the Ottoman Empire but among Jews throughout North Africa, Europe and Central Asia. He also attracted quite a few non-Jewish adherents. The Sultan, fearing that Sabbatai might be trying to usurp his power, had him arrested and incarcerated in the Dardanelles, first in the notorious Bagno prison, then in more comfortable quarters. There, Jews from all over flocked to pay homage to him. However, a rabbi from Poland who spent several days discussing and arguing with him decided he was a charlatan, and said as much to the Turkish authorities. They removed Sabbatai from his sumptuous prison cell and brought him before the Sultan, who devised a simple test. He would have his archers shoot at him: if Sabbatai was the messiah, he would deflect the arrows and the Sultan would hand over his crown. As the archers prepared to shoot, Sabbatai is said to have given up his messianic pretensions, declared that he had always wanted to be a Turk and put on a fez. In 1667, he became a minor functionary of the Ottoman Empire as a guard at the Sultan’s palace; he later served in Albania. It was never clear to what extent he had given up Judaism or taken up Islam. He died at the end of a Yom Kippur service in Albania in 1676.

The cult of the messiah spread through most of the Jewish population of Europe and the Middle East, which became wildly excited only to learn some two years later that the new messiah had become a convert to Islam. The effects of this are brilliantly described in Satan in Goray, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s 1935 novel about a Polish village which becomes ecstatic at the news that the messiah has finally arrived and then loses its moral compass when its inhabitants learn that he has deserted them. I first heard Sabbatai’s story from my mother at an early age, when I was told that the alleged messiah was a confidence man, a scoundrel, one of the real villains of Jewish history. There was a period of a century or more after the events themselves when blame and then more blame was heaped on the pretended messiah and his leading propagandist, Nathan of Gaza.

New research in the last century has given us a much richer picture of Sabbatai’s background and career. In particular, Gershom Scholem, whose monumental biography appeared in Hebrew in 1957 and in English in 1973, found many new documents relating to Sabbatai and his followers and constructed a picture of a manic-depressive figure who had moments of wild excess. Scholem sought to make the story fit entirely within the context of the Jewish community of the time, stressing its expectations following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal, and the new kabbalistic ideas coming from the school of Isaac Luria in Palestine.

John Freely’s lively book is basically a retelling of Scholem’s story enriched by the author’s knowledge of the Ottoman background. His one significant addition to Scholem is his suggestion as to where Sabbatai might be buried. Freely has omitted all of Scholem’s scholarly apparatus, which has the advantage of making his book easier to read, but the disadvantage that we don’t know what the sources are for various elements in the story.

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