Our Apocalypse: Sabbatai Tsevi in the 21st Century

Mark Gunnery

Sabbatai Tsevi by eyewitness sketch, Smyrna, 1666. Ink and paint by Mark Gunnery for the 5779  Radical Jewish Calendar .

Sabbatai Tsevi by eyewitness sketch, Smyrna, 1666. Ink and paint by Mark Gunnery for the 5779 Radical Jewish Calendar.

Originally published in Doykeit Zine issue 4, 2019

In moments of crisis, whether geopolitical or personal, people search for messiahs. These can be religious figures, but don’t have to be. The promise of salvation that some find in a Christ others do in political movements, in communities built around shared lifestyles and beliefs, or in conspiracy theories.

Messianism fulfills a human desire to force sense onto chaos, to find direction in despair, and to have a sense of control where one really has none. It satisfies a nihilistic tendency, summed up in the somewhat jokey anarchist slogan “make total destroy.” The messianic age means totals destruction of earthly oppression and the replacement of earthly power with something more holy, something utopian. The messiah and the apocalypse are inseparable. In times of intense suffering and uncertainty, the urge to topple the systems and people that at least seem to be causing that pain and confusion is heavy.

We are in an apocalyptic moment now, or at least that’s how many people feel. Catastrophic weather events are revealing how vulnerable humans are to climate change. There were several weeks recently when nuclear destruction felt closer than it had since the cold war. People’s brains are evolving through use of personal technology in ways that seem to confirm the dystopianism of Black Mirror and Philip K. Dick. In times like these, with oceans turning to plastic, with fires, floods, and wars creating refugees across the globe, who wouldn’t yearn for a utopia?

The 17th century was another time of crisis. The earth was in a period of climate change now known as the Little Ice Age. Global cooling led to environmental, political, and agricultural collapse, with crop failure, starvation, and violence spread across the northern hemisphere. London burned in 1666, fueling already rampant Christian prophecies that the end times would begin that year. Instability and political turmoil led to the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire’s global dominance. Between 1648 and 1657, tens of thousands of Eastern European Jews were slaughtered in massacres during Cossack rebellions in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. 

This is the world that Sabbatai Tsevi emerged onto. He was a rabbi and kabbalist from Smyrna, modern day Izmir, Turkey, who claimed to be the Jewish messiah. He was known for his “strange deeds,” actions he took that were decidedly outside normative Jewish practice, like pronouncing the forbidden four letter Hebrew name for God, marrying a Torah scroll, calling women to read from the Torah, and pushing a fish around in a baby stroller to announce that the Piscean age of the messiah had arrived. A movement arose around Sabbatai when he met a young, respected kabbalist named Nathan of Gaza, who also saw him as the redeemer and began dispatching letters to Jewish communities worldwide announcing that their messiah had come. 

In 1665 and 1666 Jews from Yemen to London believed that the messianic age was upon them. People did penance, like meditation, prayer, burying themselves in snow, and whipping themselves with nettles, to cleanse their souls for the messianic moment. Women, children, and men, especially the poor and uneducated, prophesied in the streets, and people listened. Commerce was disrupted as many Jews pulled out of the labor market, selling their property for pennies on the dollar and stopping work to prepare to go to Palestine to be part of the coming historical epoch when Jews would reconquer Jerusalem and Sabbatai would sit over the world as king, savior, and representative of God on earth. 

Though widespread, it was a controversial movement, with Jewish communities and authorities deeply divided over Sabbatai’s legitimacy. There were violent confrontations between “believers” who embraced him and “heretics” who did not, with nonbelievers forced into silence in some particularly fervent communities. Lines were drawn that would have lasting implications well beyond the 17th century.

At the height of the messianic zeal, Sabbatai was arrested by Ottoman authorities, and given the choice to convert to Islam or die. He converted, took on the name Aziz Mehmed Effendi, and lived for another decade among a small circle of true believers. The spectacle of the Jewish messiah becoming a Muslim had immediate effects on the movement, leading to three general reactions among believers. The first, and most common, was disillusion. Most Jews who had believed in him found Sabbatai’s conversion proof that he was either a charlatan or a sick man, but definitely not the savior. Others maintained their belief in Sabbatai’s messianic status, but kept their beliefs hidden, living as normal Jews, but with some secret rituals and convictions and allegiances to a secret community of closet Sabbatians. Another set of believers saw Sabbatai’s conversion as central to his messianic mission and converted to Islam along with him. In the next century, still others, following another messianic figure named Jacob Frank, converted to Catholicism. 

The fallout from the Sabbatian affair was tremendous. Divisions were unveiled within Jewish communities, and Jews who wanted to see more engagement and integration with the non-Jewish world and those who wanted to see less moved further apart than ever. Rabbinic authorities, recognizing the role that popular mysticism played in the spread of the movement, clamped down on the kabbalah, deepening and enforcing restrictions on its study among lay people. The seeds sown by Sabbatianism later blossomed into movements as diverse as Hasidism, Turkish nationalism, the Jewish enlightenment/Haskalah, Zionism, and Yiddish socialism. 

It’s worth reassessing the history of Sabbatai Tsevi and the Sabbatian movement now, in our apocalyptic moment. Indeed, there are people in academia doing just that, including Paweł Maciejko, Marc David Baer, Ada Rapoport-Albert, and Cenzig Sesman to name a few. And I am not suggesting a spiritual or political return to messianism, but I do think its prevalence in moments of crisis make it worth trying to better understand today. 

In closing, a few questions. What human desires does messianism serve? What did it mean for our ancestors? Are there uses of messianism today, even for the non-religious? Are there secular forms of messianic thinking in our lives? Do we feel like we are living at the culmination of something, and on the edge of another? How does that affect how we interact with one other, the planet, and the spiritual beings some of us believe in? What are the political, ethical, and spiritual implications of the urgency that comes with the belief that the collapse of humanity or industrial capitalism or civilization is imminent? And for Jews in particular, what can we learn from the violent rifts within the Jewish community of the 17th century—and the repression of Sabbatianism that followed—and how can they inform our lives today, when our communities are more divided by religion and politics than probably ever before?