False Prophets and Messiahs Sabbatai Zebi

About the false prophet or messiah Sabbatai Zebi, biography and history of the man.


SABBATAI ZEBI (1626-1676)

The central figure in the largest messianic movement in Jewish history, Sabbatai Zebi was born in Smyrna in 1626, the son of a poultry man turned rich merchant. Sabbatai, a manic-depressive, was plagued all his life by wild mood swings, but was said to be very charming and possessed of a mellifluous voice. During one of his manic moods in 1648, he announced to the community that he was the Messiah and dared to speak the full name of God, a forbidden practice. His persistence in such blasphemy led to his expulsion from Smyrna in 1651. In a similar incident in Salonika, Sabbatai took the Torah as his "bride," with full Jewish ceremony--an act that got him kicked out of that city, too. He spurned his first two wives, divorcing them because, he said, he was waiting for God to send him a bride. That bride was Sarah, a Polish prostitute who had long maintained that she was destined to marry the Messiah. Just how they met is unclear, but the two wed in Cairo in 1664. An even more fateful meeting, however, was that between Sabbatai and Nathan ben Elisha Hayyim Ashkenazi, a young visionary. Nathan listened to Sabbatai's messianic claims in Jerusalem, became convinced that he was genuine, and announced to the people of the city that Sabbatai was the long-awaited redeemer, offering as proof a prophecy he claimed had been written long before, which clearly named Sabbatai as the Messiah. Word of Sabbatai's mission quickly spread from Jerusalem throughout Palestine and eventually across Europe. Even many Christians, including some as far away as England, came to believe in him. Returning to Smyrna, Sabbatai was mobbed by thousands of frenzied worshipers. Elsewhere, believers clogged the synagogues to hear the latest news. Many gave up their worldly goods and forgave debts to prepare for Judgment Day.

Sabbatai's message was anything but orthodox. He did not chastise the faithful for their sinful ways. On the contrary, he urged them to free themselves of all inhibitions and revel in life's pleasures. Sexual promiscuity and nudity were suddenly in fashion as virtues. Because equal rights for women were a basic tenet of the new faith, Jewish women became the movement's most ardent supporters. Of course, traditionalists denounced Sabbatai as a charlatan, often paying for their out-spokenness with a beating from pro-Sabbatai mobs. But Sabbatai's time of glory was brief. In 1666, while sailing from Smyrna to Constantinople, he was arrested at sea by Turkish authorities who had heard rumors that he was conspiring to overthrow the sultan. While in Turkish custody, he was visited by Nehemiah ha-Kohen, a cabalist who pronounced Sabbatai a fake and told the Turks that Sabbatai had indeed planned to topple the sultan. Summoned before the sultan and ordered to choose between death by torture or conversion to Islam, Sabbatai, without batting an eye, renounced Judaism for the faith of Mohammed and took the name Mehmed Effendi. He was made royal doorkeeper and lived well for a time, but his wanton sexual activity and erratic behavior eventually drew fire from Muslim authorities, who exiled him to the remote Albanian seaport of Dulcigno (now Ulcinj, Yugoslavia), where he died on September 17, the Day of Atonement, in 1676. Although his conversion to Islam had taken the steam out of the movement he had created, many of his worshipers, including Nathan, remained faithful. But during the 18th century Sabbataianism fragmented into numerous sects; the last of these to survive, the Doenmeh in Turkey, petered out in the mid-20th century.

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