Sunday 5 March 2017




His story is long and intricate. His legacy, as we shall see, is highly controversial.

Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676) claimed he was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. He was born on the Ninth of Av in the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey). It was a time when the entire world was transfixed by the anticipation of the imminent arrival of the Messiah, who was expected to appear in the year 1666 (for non-Jews, or 1648 for Jews). 

He was drawn to the mystical tradition of the Ari Zal but abused it by seizing on the spirit of messianic fervour and declaring himself the Mashiach.[1] He had a compelling singing voice and was extremely charismatic.

He married twice. His second wife had had a rather promiscuous reputation, but it was interpreted as a mystical ‘rectification’ (along the lines of the Biblical prophet Hosea). On one occasion while in Salonika, Greece, he even ‘married’ a Sefer Torah.

Eventually, on 16 September 1666, he was discredited as a false Messiah when he converted to Islam. Earlier, his ‘prophet’ Natan haAzati (Nathan of Gaza) predicted that Shabbatai Tzvi would peacefully take the Turkish crown for himself, without war. But when he attempted to do so he was thrown into prison –something his followers considered as even more proof that he was the Messiah. 

It was then that he was given an ultimatum to either convert to Islam or be killed. He chose the former.
Many converted to Islam in solidarity with their ‘Messiah’ (as a mystical form of ‘descent for the purposes of ascent’) while many more remained secret Sabbateans, as his followers were called.

He died in Albania on Yom Kippur in 1676. There remains a letter in his handwriting, written just before he passed away, where he asks for someone to send him a Machzor for the high holy days. The letter is signed; Yehudah Shabbatai Mohammed Tzvi. After his death, there was a second wave of mass conversions to Islam, this time in Salonica, which became the centre for many of his secret followers.

His influence must never be underestimated because during his lifetime it appears as though half the Jewish population bought into the notion that he was the Messiah. Many sold their houses and businesses in preparation for the return to Zion. His movement spread from England to Persia, the Netherlands to Morocco, and Germany to Yemen. Those who rejected Shabatai Tzvi were scorned by his many ardent followers and made to feel like outsiders.

In this article we are going to look at some of these Sabbateans, both in and out of the rabbinic world, who continued to follow Shabbatai Tzvi’s mystical teachings even after most of the Jewish world eventually acknowledged that he was a false Messiah.

With the passage of time, some formed a more moderate branch of the Sabbatean movement and even tended towards strict halachic practices. This made it extremely difficult to identify Sabbateans from the mainstream community. Many Sabbateans were rabbis and some were even halachic authorities.


When R. Avraham Rovigo (who claimed he had a new reading of the Zohar which he had received from heaven) led a wave of emigration to Palestine and established a yeshiva in Jerusalem in 1701, the majority of his students were Sabbateans. And the only way they deviated from Halacha was by eating on the Ninth of Av in celebration of the birthday of Shabbatai Tzvi. The Sabbateans were now enmeshed within the community.


Some, like R. Mordechai Eisenstadt of Prague, tried to soften the Sabbatean approach even more by suggesting the Shabbatai Tzvi may have been Mashiach ben Yosef, the precursor to Mashiach ben David. However, he also claimed that he (R. Mordechai) was Mashiach ben David! He also claimed that Shabbatai Tzvi's conversion to Islam was necessary from a mystical point of view in order to 'elevate the fallen sparks' and that his death was merely an 'illusion'.

He travelled around Europe rebuking people, hence acquiring the title Mochiah or reprover
His son, R. Yehudah Mochiah became the Dayan or Judge of Eisenstadt and he authored many Halachic works.



The Chassidic movement, which began a mere thirty years after Shabbatai Tzvi’s death, initially had great difficulty in finding acceptance within normative Judaism. Understandably, this new mystical movement was suspected as being another form of Sabbateanism. People feared yet another rise of cultist and populist mysticism, which would bring Judaism back to the throes of false messianism.

These fears were not entirely unfounded because the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) is apparently known to have had a copy of a book called Sefer haZoref. This book, written in Poland by R. Joshua Heshel Zoref (1663-1700) describes the future Torah of Mashiach. It also refers to R. Zoref as Mashiach ben Yosef and Shabbatai Tzvi as Mashiach ben David. Yet, besides these theological issues, it appears not to deviate in other matters of halacha. The Baal Shen Tov said of it: “Universes can be built with it (Sefer haZoref).”

Document attesting the writer had received a manuscript of Sefer haZoref which was copied from another manuscript which belonged to the Baal Shem Tov.

The Sefer haZoref issue wouldn’t go away. R. Efraim Zalman Margolioth (1762-1828) got embroiled in a controversy with R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev over the sefer, and he argued it was Sabbatean in content and managed to prevent its printing and publication.[2]

I could not find Sefer haZoref in any database.  

[For more, see Sefer haTzoref.]

[NOTE: One needs to be careful about how one interprets the above-mentioned suggestions. Chassidism is a mystical movement which undoubtedly has roots in ancient Jewish mystical traditions. Whether there may or may not have been some overlap with the popular mysticism of the time is up to the Reader to decide. Any tradition can be shown to have common overlap with another - especially with another contemporary tradition.]


The kabbalist R. Nechemia Chiyun was alleged to have been a secret follower of Shabbatai Tzvi.  Whilst in Berlin he published what appeared to be a kabbalistic work.  He wrote about the “three bonds of faith,” – which some refer to as the Sabbatean Trinity comprising: Ein-Sof, the God of Israel, and the Shekhinah. Chiyun had already published many other works anonymously but he felt emboldened in Berlin because some rabbis sided with him, perhaps unaware of his Sabbatean affiliation. Chiyun moved on to Amsterdam where he hoped to make further inroads into the community.

In Amsterdam he was confronted by R. Tzvi Ashkenazi (1656-1718) also known as the Chacham Tzvi[3], was one of fiercest Sabbatean opponents. The Chacham Tzvi had earlier while visiting Salonica, seen first-hand the impact the Sabbateans had on the Jewish world.

When he saw that R. Nechemia Chiyun had arrived in Amsterdam he warned the other rabbis that R. Chiyun was a secret Sabbatean. The Chacham Tzvi already knew R. Chiyun from twenty years earlier while in Sarajevo, and also knew that he had been excommunicated for having had Sabbatean leanings.

At this time, another rabbi, R. Moshe Chagiz had also arrived in Amsterdam, and he (or possibly his father) had been one of the Jerusalem rabbis who had excommunicated R. Chiyun. (R. Chagiz had already had much contact with crypto-Sabbateans in Jerusalem. Both his maternal grandfather, as well as his father-in-law, were Sabbateans who were involved in promoting that community in Jerusalem.)

However, both the Chacham Tzvi and R. Chagiz had a hard time convincing R. Shlomoh Ayllon, the head of the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam, of R. Chiyun’s nefarious connections. So they themselves, suspecting that R. Ayllon himself was a secret Sabbatean[4], re-imposed the ban on R. Chiyun, who was accused of abusing Kabbalistic theology by introducing a Trinitarian component to G-d.

Both the Chacham Tzvi and R. Chagiz were met with fierce resistance and were attacked in the streets. The Portuguese community came out in total support of R. Chiyun and this further corroded the Ashkenazi and Sefardi divide in the city. More than 120 letters are known to have been written in support of one or other of the factions, which show the degree of theological debate which ensued at the time.

Even an intervention, by the much respected Italian Rabbi Leon Brielli of Mantua, failed to calm the situation. He provided additional evidence of R. Chiyun’s Sabbatean connections and sent a letter supporting the ban. Things got worse and after enduring house arrest, the Chacham Tzvi was forced to flee from Amsterdam.


R. Yaakov Emden (1697-1776), like his father the Chacham Tzvi, continued to champion the anti-Sabbatean movement. He claimed[5] that R. Yechiel Michel Epstein[6], author of Kitzur Shelah, was another secret Sabbatean.

The Kitzur Shelah is probably best known for providing verses which correspond to people's Hebrew names, as is found in many siddurim today towards the end of the Shemona Esrei prayer.[7]
R. Emden accuses R. Epstein of alluding to Shabbatai Tzvi in his Kitzur Shelah.

In the Introduction, we find reference to “meriting, through this book, to see the true Messiah and also the days of the Messiah.”

Although this may appear that the author does not believe the Messiah has already come because he writes that he is hoping to merit his arrival, nevertheless one notices four quotation marks over the words: true, Messiah, days of the Messiah.

Quotation marks above the words is a technique often used to indicate that the numerical values of those words need to be taken into consideration. It is often used on title pages of books where words with corresponding numerical values are used to allude to the date of publication. However, in this instance, they correspond, not to the date of publication, but to 814 which is the numerical value of Shabbatai Tzvi.

Photo from: ‘Change has come to Modena, by Eli Genauer’, showing early edition with the four quotation marks.

It is interesting to note that these quotation marks only appear in the early editions but they have been removed from the later editions!

In one later edition[9], not just the quotation marks but the entire Introduction has been removed.

In another later edition[10] the Introduction remained except that the actual text was altered to a benign: “And may we merit through this book to witness the coming of Mashiach Tzidkeinu.”[11]

Photo from: Seforim Blog; ‘Kitzur Shelah, Sabbateanism...Nov. 1 2006’, showing the three ‘edits’ to the original text.

These three changes (without any indication that ‘corrections’ were made to the original text) indicate some degree of discomfort with the original text. These changes may provide additional support to R. Yaakov Emden’s suspicion that the author was a secret Sabbatean.[12]

I also could not find this book on the HebrewBooks database.


R. Emden is additionally known to have accused the famous R. Yonatan Eybeschutz of Prague as being a secret follower of Shabbatai Tzvi. See KOTZK BLOG 81.

Around 1724, certain kabbalistic manuscripts originating in Prague began to circulate. The language was somewhat ambiguous and obscure but it spoke of the G-d of Israel entwined within Tifferet (the middle branch of the kabbalistic Tree of Life) and connected to Mashiach. This was evocative language suspiciously similar to Trinitarian and Sabbatean theology.   According to R. Yaakov Emden and others, it had R. Eybeschutz’s ‘fingerprints’ all over it.

It was only R. Eybeschutz’s great standing as a scholar that prevented R. Emden from proceeding any further. The matter was also clouded by the fact that R. Eybeschutz had publicly spearheaded an excommunication ban against the Sabbateans in 1725, an act some interpreted as disingenuous propaganda.

Then, in 1751 another scandal erupted when it was discovered that R. Eybeschutz had apparently distributed amulets of a distinctive Sabbatean nature, and this served to reinforce R. Yaakov Emden’s position even more.


Even the well-known mystic R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, known as the Ramchal, did not escape allegations of Sabbateanism.

Ramchal claimed a maggid or angelic being instructed him in kabballah.
One of Ramchal’s students, R. Yekutiel of Vilna, wrote a description of some of the mystical revelations he witnessed while under his teacher. Somehow R. Moshe Chagiz got hold of the writing and Ramchal was charged with Sabbatean heresy. 

Even R. Yaakov Emden weighed in on the controversy and accused Ramchal of believing that Shabbatai Tzvi was Mashiach ben Yosef (the precursor to the real Messiah). R. Emden’s basis was the fact that Ramchal used the ‘code word’ tzedek which was how Sabbateans referred to their Messiah. He further claimed that Ramchal had spent eight days in ‘matters of sorcery’ with R. Yonatan Eybeschutz.

Ramchal also wrote that he was influenced by some writings of Natan of Gaza. R. Chagiz and R. Emden were not aware of this admission of Ramchal, and had they known this, their opposition would have been even more vigorous. See KOTZK BLOG 90. for another side of Ramchal.

[Note to Reader; I am not suggesting that any of these accusations are true or not. The intention of this essay is simply to show just how far the effects, as well as the allegations of Sabbateanism, had rooted themselves within the community.]


The Sabbateans, or ‘Shabsazviniks’ as they were known in Yiddish, weren’t passive and quiet followers happy to keep to themselves. Instead developed a sophisticated programme of outreach activity through which they quite successfully managed to attract adherents.  The method they used was to appear to be part of the mainstream and then to slowly introduce their theology to their unsuspecting students. The students then felt part of an inner-circle privileged to know the ‘secrets of redemption’ before they were ‘revealed’ to the rest of the world. 


The Sabbatean movement experienced a resurgence through Yaakov Frank in the mid-1700’s. He became the representative of the more extreme Sabbateans and was said to be the reincarnation of Shabbatai Frank. Many of his followers, known as Frankists, eventually converted to Catholicism.
Frank’s distinctive contribution was to divest the movement of its kabbalistic and traditional roots by getting rid of the ‘old books’ and by introducing a type of mythology instead. 

He also seemed fascinated by the notion of a Trinity somehow incorporating G-d, the Shechina and Virgin Mary. He also advocated that the adherent keeps the external appearances of observances but deny them internally.

Some of R. Yonatan Eybeschutz’s children and grandchildren became followers of Yaakov Frank.


A little-known group, mostly in Turkey (numbering today at between a few thousand to possibly 100 00 depending on estimations), the Donmeh (Turkish for convert or apostate), continue to follow Shabbatai Tzvi and his teachings. For many years they lived in Salonica, Greece. Then in 1923 they were exiled to Turkey as part of a programme of population exchange after the First World War. 

They were isolated from the rest of the Greek Jews because they had a strange promiscuous practice, known as the Festival of the Lamb, which could result in children being born who would be considered illegitimate under Jewish law. For this reason, the rabbis of Salonica did not allow them to be considered as Jews, and they were sent to Turkey.

Ironically that exile to Turkey saved them from extermination during the Holocaust. More than 95 percent of Greek Jews (about 44 000) were later to perish in Poland.

Donmeh Mosque in Salonica.

They present a Muslim face to the outside world but claim to be secretly Jewish, and refer to themselves as Ma’aminin or believers. Once a year they set aside a day, called the ‘Great Shabbat’ to compensate for the other Sabbaths they cannot observe because of their appearance as Muslims.

The Donmeh do not believe Shabbatai Tzvi really converted to Islam. They hold secret celebrations on the ninth of Av (the birthday of Shabbatai Tzvi) instead of fasting, only marry within their group, and are only informed of their secret Jewish connection at the age of eighteen. Many have two names, a Turkish name and a secret Hebrew name. 

They have secret synagogues in private homes and basements. On Shabbat morning many go down to the sea to ‘await’ the boat heralding the arrival Shabattai Tzvi again. There they say in Ladino: “Sabbetay Sevi, asperamos a ti” (Shabbatai Tzvi we wait for you). It is alleged that they have a library which houses writings of Shabbatai Tzvi as well as his ring, caftan and his slippers.

They intentionally eat milk and meat together as part of the mystical notion of doing tikkunim (corrections) while sinning. Their leaders, however, are said to be very familiar and proficient with Jewish mysticism, particularly the Zohar.

Michael Freund, founder of Shavei Israel organisation writes about a meeting with one of these Ma’aminim in Istanbul:

I met him in the lobby of a small hotel, and he looked very stressed. He was constantly looking around and was afraid that someone who knows him would see him meeting with a Jew wearing a yarmulke from Israel. He told me ‘I am sick of hiding, I have had enough of acting deceitfully. I want to return to my people and be a Jew.’ I was surprised at the level of knowledge he had regarding Kabbalistic concepts, and I am not referring to the type of Kabbalah that Madonna and those from Hollywood study – I am talking about the real thing.”

There is a mosque in Turkey known as the ‘Jewish Mosque’. Many of the Donmeh are today part of the elite and privileged of the modern Turks, including some prominent ministers in government (including, allegedly, the revolutionary Mustafa Atatürk the founder of the Republic of Turkey and its first President).

President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), who abolished the Turkish caliphate and the sharia courts.


The question of how far the influence of Sabbateanism extended after its official demise, can never be fully resolved. It is an extremely emotive journey and touches too many nerves. 

It was a movement which managed successfully to entice nearly half the Jewish population at the time. It was also a mystical and messianic movement which captivated the minds and hearts of so many.

One thing is certain, though: – If even half of the allegations of rabbis like the Chacham Tzvi, R. Emden, R. Margolioth and R. Chagiz are true - that there were Sabbatean secret cells within the influential rabbinic community in the 1700’s and 1800’s...we would have some tough pondering to do.


The Underground Believers: Descendants of the Followers of the False Messiah Sabbatai Tzvi in Turkey – Shavei Israel.

The Donme; Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries and Secular Turks, by Professor Marc David Baer.

Secret Muslim Jews await their Messiah: Shabbetai Tzvi, by Gad Nassi.

Shnayer Z. Leiman ספרים החשודים בשתאות: רשימתו של הגאון יעב"ץ זצ"ל

Change has come to Modena, by Eli Genauer.

The Shabbatean Kabbalah, by Gershom Scholem.

The Alleged Sabbateanism of Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto, by Batya Galant.

A Closer Look at the Legacy of Shabbetai Tzvi, by Michael Schechter. Kol Hamevaser.

[1] Shabbatai Tzvi had two main ‘prophets’, Natan of Gaza and Cardozo. Each differed in their approach to kabbalah. Natan attempted to align the new movement with Lurianic mysticism, while Cardozo wanted to root it closer to the Zohar.
[2] See:  Selichot in Accordance with the Western Sefardic Rite, by Salomon Louis Vaz Diaz.
[3] Although the Chacham Tzvi was a Polish rabbi, his scholarship was so respected that while in Constantinople (Istanbul today) he received the title ‘Chacham’, which is usually reserved for Sefardic scholars.
[4] He is alleged to have studied under Nathan of Gaza. See Gershom Scholem.
[5] In his Torat haKenot.
[6] Not to be confused with another R. Yechiel Michel haLevi Epstein (1829- 1908), author of Aruch haShulchan.
[7] Although there are earlier sources for this custom [ possibly the Siddur  (Tihingen 1560) or even Rashi: From here we deduce that whoever recites daily a verse beginning and ending as his name begins and ends, the Torah saves him from Gehinnom.” (Micha 6:9)] the Kitzur Shelah is the first to specify the actual individualized verses.
[9] The Frankfurt edition of 1745.
[10] The 1998 edition of Kitzur Shelah.
[11]  וויזכו על ידי הספר הזה לראות ביאת משיח צדקנ:  as opposed to the original.
[12] For further study see: Change has come to Modena, by Eli Genauer. He found a further possible reference to Shabbatai Tzi in the same book. Towards the end of Kitzur Shelah, just before the section dealing with the verses for names, there is a reference to Mashiach as Nezer Rosheinu, which apparently was a known Sabbatean designation for Shabbatai Tzvi.


  1. Good post, thanks, but can you please discuss the Sefer Chemdas Yamim?

  2. Thank you for that. Will work on a post on Chemdas Yamim for next week.

  3. Thanks, looking forward. There is a lot on Seforim Blog about it, I was surprised you didn't bring any of it up.