A messianic movement, established around Shabetai Tsevi (1626–1676), Sabbatianism (often Sabbateanism) erupted in the Ottoman Empire in the second half of the seventeenth century and spread widely among Jews in Europe, North Africa, and Asia.
The movement’s founder, Shabetai Tsevi, was born in Smyrna. Around 1648, he had a series of revelations and became convinced that he was destined to be the savior of the Jews. Expelled by the Smyrna community, he embarked on a path of wandering and visited such places as Salonika, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Cairo. In 1665, he met Natan of Gaza (Avraham Natan ben Elisha‘ Ḥayim Ashkenazi; 1643/44–1680), who became Shabetai’s prophet and greatly contributed to the spread of the messianic enthusiasm.
During the peak years of the Sabbatian movement, Shabetai dismissed rabbis and communal leaders, abolished fasts and proclaimed new festivals, and appointed “kings” among whom he divided the world. In 1666 he was arrested and forced to choose between death and conversion to Islam. His resulting apostasy put an end to Sabbatianism as a mass movement, but some of Shabetai’s adherents continued to regard him as the messiah. The “believers,” as they called themselves, developed a doctrine of Shabetai’s necessary apostasy, arguing that the redeemer must enter other religions in order to salvage the sparks of holiness scattered among gentiles. Some of the “believers” decided to follow Shabetai’s path and converted to Islam themselves; they formed crypto-Jewish communities, the most important being the Dönmeh (the Turkish word for converts or apostates), established after a mass conversion to Islam in Salonika in 1683.
Before the Apostasy
The study of the history of Sabbatianism in Eastern Europe is complicated by the destruction of sources consequent to orders to destroy all documents containing information about the “false messiah” issued by the Council of Four Lands, and also by king Jan Kazimierz. In the middle decades of the seventeenth century, Jews in Eastern Europe shared a general messianic enthusiasm and the hope for an immediate better future in the Diaspora. Such views are reflected in Bashraybung fun Shabsay Tsvi (Chronicle of Shabetai Tsevi) by Leyb ben Ozer, the notary of the Ashkenazic community in Amsterdam, who wrote, “For we, the Jews in this bitter exile, love to hear good tidings of comfort and salvation . . . especially in Poland where evil and exile are exceedingly great, and every day brings new persecution and harassment.” Similar descriptions of reactions by East European Jews to persecution are seen in the writings of the anti-Sabbatian activist Ya‘akov Sasportas (ca. 1610–1698) in his Tsitsatnovel Tsevi (condensed version [Kitsur], 1737; full text, ed. Y. Tishby, 1954).
East European Jewish communities sent emissaries to Shabetai Tsevi with different goals: some to pay tribute and inform him about Jewish adversities in Poland, others to verify that he was truly the messiah. Delegates from major Jewish communities, including Vilna (Avraham Kokesh), Kraków (Berekhyah Berakh), and Lwów (the sons of David ben Shemu’el ha-Levi, who was known as Taz) reported on their visits, which were widely discussed. The report to the Lwów community became the basis for Leyb ben Ozer’s Bashraybung and not only provides proof of messianic interest among Lwów’s Jews but also cites significant information on Shabetai Tsevi’s personality. Shabetai Tsevi entertained the delegates from Lwów with respect, informing them that he was aware of the sufferings of Polish Jews. The emissaries returned with a letter from him to David ha-Levi and—as did all important visitors—kabbalistic writings justifying Shabetai’s messianic mission.
Another visitor to Shabetai’s court, Neḥemyah ha-Kohen, was also from Lwów or its environs. A number of narratives describe his role in the movement, but common to all of them is the story that he came to Shabetai Tsevi to verify the latter’s messiahship and, after a debate, he declared Shabetai an impostor and denounced him to the Turkish authorities. Arrested, Shabetai Tsevi chose conversion over death.
Although we do not know the names of many of Shabetai Tsevi’s supporters from that period, it is obvious that masses of Jews were caught up in messianic fervor. The community of Kazimierz-Kraków, for example, received a letter supporting the movement from its emissary, Berekhyah Berakh. Mosheh Segal of Kraków discussed the same issue in a letter to Me’ir Isserles of Vienna. On the title page of the text for the Haftarot in the Rema’ (Remu) Synagogue, a short messianic prayer introduced an acrostic of Shabetai’s name five times under the date 25 Sivan 5426 (1666). In the Isaac Synagogue (Bóżnica Izaaka), also in Kazimierz-Kraków, a recently discovered inscription reads: “Ha-Shem yishlaḥ lanu meshiḥenu Hu yig’alenu bi-meherah be-yamenu” (God will send us our messiah, He will redeem us quickly and in our days), likely alluding to messianic hopes associated with the year 1666, particularly since the phrase “meshiḥenu hu” (our messiah, he) has a numerical value of 426. In 1672, a notation in the communal record book states: “[bi-shenat] ha-go’el meshiaḥ h”[ha-Shem] ba-lp”k (kelomar tl”b)” (Redeemer, messiah of the Lord already came [in the year 1672]).”
Other evidence of East European enthusiasm for Shabetai Tsevi in the years 1665 and 1666 comes from sources outside the Jewish community. Many anti-Sabbatian pamphlets were published in Polish, most of them translated from German or Dutch. Several chronicles (e.g., by Joachim Jerlicz and Bazyli Rudomicz) and newspapers in Poland, Slovakia, and Russia contain data about the “Jewish messiah.” Similarly, Christian theologians such as Joannicjusz Galatowski, in the face of Jewish claims that the messiah had arrived, wrote books defending Jesus as the true Messiah. On 4 May 1666, the Polish king, Jan Kazimierz, issued a proclamation demanding that Jews be protected from attacks but also that they cease parading in the streets carrying portraits of Shabetai Tsevi, and that all such portraits and related documents be destroyed.
After the Apostasy
The great shock and disappointment that followed the apostasy of Shabetai Tsevi did not signify the end of Sabbatianism. Indeed, it took a while for communal officials to begin to react. As Shemu’el Aboab writes: “After the initial feeling of pain and shame had passed . . . the time of repentance came, and in many countries, particularly in Poland and Russia, all of the records and writings in which his name was mentioned were burned, in order to forget all memories about him so they did not cause a downfall” (Zikaron li-vene Yisra’el; 1702). On the other hand, itinerant Sabbatian preachers traveled and taught openly about Shabetai as the messiah; one such preacher was Shabetai Refa’el of Mistra, who came to Poland in 1668 and in the course of two years openly visited many Jewish communities.
The activities of Sabbatian preachers evoked reactions. At a meeting of the Council of Four Lands in 1670 in Lublin, the first ban of excommunication was issued against the adherents of Sabbatianism; it was confirmed by the Council the next year in Jarosław. In the text of this excommunication, the term kat Shabetai Tsevi—the sect of Shabetai Tsevi—appeared for the first time. “Believers” in Eastern Europe nonetheless remained in contact with Shabetai Tsevi and distributed letters from him to his supporters. Sabbatians in Poland, Bohemia, Germany, and Italy maintained contact with each other; Mordekhai of Eisenstadt, from Prague, a leading Sabbatian “prophet,” was active in Poland as well.
In Eastern Europe, moderate or crypto-Sabbatians—who believed in the imminent second coming of the messiah but remained part of the Jewish community—existed in many localities and seemed to all appearances to be typically Orthodox. Confronted with rabbinic opposition, crypto-Sabbatians vehemently protested their innocence, refuted beliefs regarded as erroneous, and attempted to distance themselves publicly from heretics. They never intended to separate themselves openly from mainstream Judaism and, for the most part, practiced Sabbatian rituals in addition to rather than instead of normative Jewish observances.
Dissemination of Sabbatian ideology in Poland was facilitated when Podolia was ceded to the Ottoman Empire after the Buczacz Treaty of 1672. Podolian communities gained independence from rabbinic authorities in Poland as a result and could easily maintain ties with Sabbatian groups in Turkey. Even after the region was returned to Poland in 1699, Polish rabbis still had problems exerting control over the communities. Podolia became an independent unit represented separately in the Council of Four Lands, with Satanów as its leading community.
A unique feature of Sabbatianism in Podolia was its public and open character: Podolia was the only place in Europe in which several prominent individuals (as well as a few communities) openly adhered to what was regarded as heresy. Recurring excommunications were not effective, and in some cases even communal rabbis belonged to the sect. Rabbi Mosheh David openly practiced Sabbatianism in Podhajce, as did Rabbi Mordekhai ben Yehudah Ashkenazi in Żółkiew—where the bet midrash was reportedly controlled by Sabbatians. Żółkiew was a principal Sabbatian center, along with the towns of Buczacz, Busk, Gliniany, Horodenka, Nadworna, Podhajce, Rohatyn, and Satanów. Sabbatians were present in Lithuania, Bohemia, and Moravia; Prague itself became a major center of crypto-Sabbatianism. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, there were approximately 15,000 Sabbatians in East Central Europe.
Among the leading Sabbatian personalities were Yehoshu‘a Heshel Tsoref, Tsadok of Grodno, Mosheh ben Aharon ha-Kohen of Kraków, Yehudah Ḥasid ha-Levi, Ḥayim Malakh, Yehudah Leib Prossnitz, and Mosheh Me’ir of Kamionka. Their activities were often related to their belief in the resurrection of Shabetai Tsevi—such expectations were particularly strong in the years 1695, 1704, and other years connected to anniversaries associated with the messiah. Between 1696 and 1700 a group led by Yehudah Ḥasid and Ḥayim Malakh emigrated to Palestine to await Shabetai’s second coming in Jerusalem.
An echo of moderate Sabbatian ascetic ideology is found in ethical works such as Shevet musar (1712) by Eliyahu Itamari, Shem Ya‘akov (1716) by Ya‘akov Segal of Złotawa, and the anonymous Tohorat ha-kodesh (1717). Some kabbalists, such as Tsevi Hirsh ben Yeraḥmi’el Ḥotsh and Yeḥi’el Mikhl Epstein, also taught Sabbatian ideas.
In 1722, anti-Sabbatian excommunications were renewed a factor that, according to some sources, led to a wave of penitence within the movement. Others left Eastern Europe altogether, among them, Mosheh David of Podhajce, who became a close acquaintance of Yonatan Eybeschütz in Hamburg, and Ḥayim Shemu’el Ya‘akov Falk, known later as the Ba‘al Shem of London.
In 1725, a manuscript of the Sabbatian treatise Va-Avo’ ha-yom el ha-‘ayin was discovered in the luggage of a Sabbatian emissary traveling from Poland to Mannheim. A subsequent rabbinic investigation uncovered a clandestine network of contacts among such groups throughout Europe, leading to a number of excommunications. The treatise itself, though distributed anonymously, was associated with Yonatan Eybeschütz who promptly distanced himself and signed a proclamation publicly condemning Shabetai Tsevi and his followers. In fact, the most dramatic event of that period, which divided Jewish communities all over Europe, was the controversy that exploded in 1751 between Ya‘akov Emden and Eybeschütz over the latter’s alleged Sabbatian sympathies. In 1755, the Sabbatian leader Ya‘akov (Jacob) Frank arrived in Poland and started messianic agitation in Podolia, eventually leading to the creation of the Frankist movement.
Majer Bałaban, “Sabataizm w Polsce (Ustęp z ‘Dziejów mistyki żydowskiej w Polsce’),” in Księga jubileuszowa ku czci Prof. Mojżesza Schorra, pp. 47–90, (Warsaw, 1935); Michał Galas, “Sabbatianism in the Seventeenth-Century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth: A Review of the Sources,” in The Sabbatian Movement and Its Aftermath: Messianism, Sabbatianism and Frankism, ed. Rachel Elior, vol. 2, pp. 51*–63* (Jerusalem, 2001); Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah (Princeton, 1973), see esp. pp. 591–602; Gershom Scholem, “Ha-Tenu‘ah ha-shabta’it be-Polin,” in Meḥkarim u-mekorot le-toldot ha-shabta’ut ve-gilguleha, pp. 68–140 (Jerusalem, 1974); Michael Stanislawski, “The State of the Debate over Sabbatianism in Poland: A Review of the Sources,” in Poles and Jews: Myth and Reality in the Historical Context, pp. 58–69 (New York, 1986); Daniel Waugh, “News of the False Messiah: Reports on the Shabbetai Zevi in Ukraine and Muscovy,” Jewish Social Studies 41 (1979): 301–322; Bernard D. Weinryb, The Jews of Poland: A Social and Economic History of the Jewish Community in Poland from 1100–1800 (Philadelphia, 1982), pp. 206–235.