Sunday 24 June 2018


'Eshel Avraham' by R. Avraham Rovigo and R. Mordechai Ashkenazi.

In this article, we will look at the surprising ease with which some mainstream rabbis of the 1700’s would delve in and out of known Sabbatean writings as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Sabbateans were the followers of the false messiah Shabattai Tzvi, who, long after his death still continued to secretly follow his mystical teachings and infiltrate the Torah community. [See previous post.] 

Once again I draw from the fascinating and outstanding research of Rabbi Dr Maoz Kahana[1].
We will look particularly at the writings of R. Pinchas Katzenellenbogen who was a typical mainstream rabbi - not a Sabbatean - who openly studied Sabbatean Kabbalah:


R. Pinchas Katzenellenbogen (1691-1765) was a descendant of R. Meir, the Maharam of Padua (1482-1564). He served in many communities throughout Europe and eventually settled in Boskowitz in Moravia (Czech Republic) and was known as the Rav of Boskowitz.

Fortunately, we know much about him because he fastidiously kept about two thousand pages of notebooks and diaries, some of which are at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, on all matters Halachic, Talmudic, as well as personal encounters with mystics.


One of R. Katzenellenbogen’s notebooks, Yesh Manchilin[2], records his interaction with two mystics, R. Avraham Rovigo and R. Mordechai Ashkenazi in the early 1700’s:

R. Katzenellenbogen describes how he met: “A holy and pure man...his faith was in the hidden secrets of Torah, and all the pious (Hasidim) including their most learned and ascetic, would approach him in order to draw living waters from his well of kabbalistic wisdom...My father...also attended him.
...his name was the Sage, our Master, Avraham Rovigo.

His student who served him...Rabbi Mordechai from...Lwow...cleaved unto his master’s Torah and faith until he merited...that a [heavenly] Magid was revealed to him in the form of his perfectly wise rabbi, the same master, Rabbi Avraham Rovigo.

[In other words, R. Mordechai Ashkenazi allegedly merited to be taught by a Maggid or angelic being which resembled his teacher R. Avraham Rovigo, apparently while his teacher was still alive!]

He studied the wisdom of the Kabbalah with him, and revealed secrets to him until he [R. Mordechai] wrote a book...called Eshel Avraham[3] [so named after his teacher] Rabbi [Avraham Rovigo].

...since I know that...R. Mordechai was not learned enough to be versed in Talmud, he must have obtained the knowledge as a gift from heaven for serving the great man [R. Avraham Rovigo].

...for I have known him [R. Avraham Rovigo] from youth – his countenance is like an angel of G-d, and his appearance is majestic...and every Shabbat I would go to him to receive his blessing.”

The Eshel Avraham was "based on a new interpretation of the Zohar he [R. Moredchai] received from heaven."[4] R. Mordechai Ashkenazi claims that through the principles revealed in this book one can understand more of the Zohar in three months than others have been able to achieve in many years.

 Then R. Kahana drops a bombshell: 

Abraham Rovigo and his student Mordecai Ashkenazi were not, however, merely ordinary kabbalists. The pair played an important role at the center of the dissemination of Sabbatean teachings in the early eighteenth century.”


R. Avraham Rovigo (1650-1713), a wealthy collector and publisher of Kabbalistic manuscripts, claimed to be the recipient of revelations by otherworldly maggidim. He had studied under the renowned Kabbalist R. Moshe Zacuto in Venice, but broke away from him after Zacuto became an opponent of Shabbatai Tzvi. 

R. Avraham Rovigo's signature.

Rovigo chose instead to remain a supporter of Sabbateanism, known as one of the ma’aminim or believers.[5] In 1701 (or 02) he and his followers established a Kabbalistic Sabbatean yeshiva in Jerusalem.


Surprisingly, Rovigo and Ashkenazi’s combined work Eshel Avraham, has the enthusiastic approbations of very many great rabbis of the period even though both the author and his teacher were known Sabbateans:


R. Katzenellenbogen, unashamedly and quite openly, acknowledges and praises the greatness of the authors and the book Eshel Avraham, and thus effectively declares himself as having being influenced by known followers of Sabbateanism!

Importantly though, R. Kahana goes on to make the point that despite this - R. Katzenellenbogen (who associated with avowed anti-Sabbateans like the Nodah biYehuda) was NOT a Sabbatean!

This amazingly shows how easy and common it was for some rabbis of that time to move in and out of Sabbatean teachings, even though they knew full well that Shabattai Tzvi had already been shown to be a false messiah decades earlier in 1666.


R. Kahana draws our attention to R. Katenellenbogen’s expressions in his aforementioned notebook, like “his faith was in the hidden secrets of Torah” and “R. Mordechai...cleaved unto his master’s Torah and faith”, which may indicate that R. Katzenellenbogen was aware that both Rovigo and Ashkenazi were adherents to an almost distinct ‘faith’– that of messianic Sabbateanism. Also, later in reference to another work, Or Yisrael, R. Katzenellenbogen refers similarly and clearly to ‘the faith of Sabbatai Zevi’.

Amazingly, R. Katzenellenbogen was still prepared to admire and continued to consult many of these Sabbatean mystical teachings.


R. Katzenellenbogen, furthermore, also had a manuscript copy of a Kabbalistic composition of about fifteen pages, entitled Tikkunei Teshuva.[6]

This composition contains the following note:

Tikunei Teshuva (penitential rectifications), sent from Gaza, instituted by our most dignified teacher, Rabbi Nathan the Prophet Ashkenazi.”[7]

This is a reference to R. Natan haAzati (Nathan of Gaza) who was the prophet and messianic endorser of Shabbattai Tzvi.
And R. Katzenellenbogen identified the copier of this clearly Sabbatean composition as none other than R. Avraham Rovigo!

R. Kahana writes:
Just as the reference to Nathan of Gaza did not lead Katzenellenbogen to burn the Sabbatean manuscript, or even remove it from his house, so Rovigo’s affiliation with Sabbateanism, clearly established by the manuscript, failed to induce the author [Katzenellenbogen][8] to repudiate his youthful relationship with the latter.”


Additionally, R. Katzenellenbogen claimed (like R. Mordechai Ashkenazi) to have seen R. Avraham Rovigo in a dream where he was taught the Biblical verse which corresponded to his name. (This is a practice whereby a Biblical verse - which begins with the same letter as the first letter of one’s name and ends with the same letter of the last letter of the name – is recited, often at the end of the Amidah prayer.) 

And more than fifty years later, R. Katzenellenbogen wrote that he continued to recite it every day “since I merited from heaven that he (R. Rovigo) show it to me, and I heard it from that holy, pure mouth.”[9]

Again, the fact that R. Rovigo was a Sabbatean who taught Sabbatean practices, did not at all deter R. Katzenellenbogen in the slightest.


About two years later, in 1758, R. Katzenellenbogen added another comment, as if to cover himself from suspicions of Sabbateanism, in that selfsame manuscript:

Now I have observed in this book that he [R. Avraham Rovigo][10] calls Nathan of Gaza a true and righteous prophet... the same man who prophesied falsely regarding Sabbatai Zevi...who caused a great stumbling-block.

Lest anyone suspect me, G-d forbid, of being one of them, far be it for [me].

However, we do not criticise...[R. Avraham Rovigo][11], that G-d fearing righteous man...for in those days, in the year 1666, most communities in Israel believed in those strange matters [that Sabbatai Zevi was the Messiah][12].

But their disgrace has since been revealed, and no more need be said.”[13]

The fact is that by the time R. Katzenellenbogen wrote this last note (in 1758), the Council of the Four Lands has already banned the possession of Sabbatean literature two years earlier (in 1756)[14] – so perhaps he felt it necessary to explain why he still possessed such writings.


'Or Yisrael' by. R. Yisrael Yaffe.
In R. Katzenellenbogen’s notebooks[15], he again wrote concerning another Sabbatean work, Or Yisrael, from which he had also studied from. It was authored by R. Yisrael Yaffe.

R. Yisrael Jaffe (1640-1702) had witnessed the suffering brought about by the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648. Thereafter, he dedicated his life to the study of Kabbalah in order to understand why G-d had permitted those terrible tribulations. He rebuked rabbis who did not study Kabbalah and composed his Or Yisrael to encourage the study of mysticism. He repeatedly made use of the word ‘Tzvi’ in his work. He claimed constant heavenly visions and visitations by Elijah the Prophet and spoke urgently about messianic redemption.

The Or Yisrael also came with very many respected rabbinic approbations:

Note R. Katzenellenbogen’s angst when he wrote about R. Yisrael Yaffe’s Or Yisrael:

 “When I was [serving as rabbi][16] in the community of Markbreit, a book entitled Or Yisra’el came into my possession. I realised that this man [the author, R. Yisrael Yaffe][17] was a great Kabbalist. I learned wonderful ideas from this book, which I studied literally every day.

However, when I came to realise from his words that he was a believer in the faith of Sabbetai Zevi[18]...I realised that it was a mitzvah to withdraw from the study of this book, so that I should not be drawn into error...

I said that just as I will receive reward for expounding it, so will I be rewarded for withdrawing from it.

Subsequently, however, I retracted and said to myself: why should I refrain from studying this book? It is entirely comprised of kabbalistic explanations, elucidations of the Zohar, and clarifications of the words of the Holy Ari...

All his teachings are insightful, becoming and in good taste. If he is in error of his belief, I will make sure not to follow his mistake, just as R. Meir learned Torah from ‘Aher’[19] by eating the pulp of his words and discarding the rind etc.

I did not want to hold back from the book any longer, but I was confused as to what to do; I would not read it on a regular basis as before, but only occasionally, etc.

[This remained the case] until one time, [a certain individual] appeared to me in a dream and greeted me with peace, and I answered him with peace.

I asked him who he was and he replied that he was Elijah the Prophet.

Among other things, he encouraged me to study the book Or Yisra’el, praising it highly.
I awoke perturbed by this dream and I said myself: who am I that Elijah the Prophet should reveal himself to me?

This dream must be a worthless message that the deceiving and destructive forces have sent to mislead me...

After this incident, which happened in about 5483 (1723), I withdrew my hand from that book, only reading it on the ninth of Av [!], or the occasional halacha which cannot lead one astray, and even this only once or twice a year.

Several years passed during which I did not so much as glance at it...

Nonetheless, this last summer [1756] I have occasionally returned to the book, for he was truly a great and cherished kabbalist, all of his words are in good taste, and composed with perceptive understanding.

And if he was in error - I said to myself – now that I have reached old age [G-d] will assist me and teach me the way of truth, and until the day of my death he will lead me in straight paths...”

This is a fascinatingly personal and honest account of R. Katzenellenbogen’s angst which he experienced over what R. Kahana calls ‘the allure of forbidden knowledge’. He squarely rejected Sabbateanism and he was not a Sabbatean but he had no issue with delving into Sabbatean mysticism wherever he could see its value.


The Sabbatean movement was no mere footnote to Jewish history, although it is often portrayed as such. Its subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) influence can be seen in the Judaism that was to emerge during the 1700s and continues to exist within some trends of Judaism to this day.

R. Nachman of Breslov wrote: 

For that Shabbatai Tzvi...led astray a number of the greatest men of the generation and outstanding scholars...they left the fold and spoke evil regarding the Oral law...but when a Tzadik sweetens their words, he transforms their sayings back into Torah.”[20]

This underscores what we have seen regarding many of the leading rabbis of the 1700’s. It appears as if forays into some forms of Sabbateanism may have been more common than imagined.

According to an account in Shivchei haBesht, Shabbatai Tzvi came in a dream to the Baal Shem Tov, to ask for a rectification. This rectification was to be done “soul with soul, spirit with spirit, and breath with breath...the Baal Shem Tov said that Shabbatai Tzvi had a spark of holiness in him.”

This again shows that the Chassidic movement felt that some Sabbatean elements were considered redeemable. 

But it wasn’t just the Chassidic movement, because even rabbis like Menachem Mendel of Shklov, the student of the Vilna Gaon may have been attracted to elements of Sabbateanism.[21]  And R. Kahana writes that Sabbateanism presented: “ attraction common to Hasidim and Mitnagdim, Sephardim and Ashkenazim alike.”

Gershom Scholem writes that Sabbateanism didn’t just influence Judaism in its various forms, but even non-Jewish thought systems: 

Sabbateanism is the matrix of every significant movement to have emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, from Hasidism, to Reform Judaism, to the earliest Masonic circles and revolutionary idealism.”

[Definition of 'matrix' - the set of conditions that provides a system in which something grows or develops.]

Sarena Di Nepi writes: 

Sabbateanism has recently been the subject of renewed interest among social and religious historians. Attention has been focused on the vicissitudes of Sabbatai Zevi himself as well as on the movement that gathered around him in 1665 and 1666, and that would continue to express itself through activist missionizing and subterranean conventicles [secret religious meetings] in the decades and even centuries that followed.”[22]

With Sabbateanism exerting such widespread influence (arguably according to some, including aspects of Chassidism, modern Messianism, revival of popular Mysticism, Communism and even Zionism – let alone apparent inroads into the non-Jewish world, as many Sabbateans and Frankists converted to other faiths) – it should not come as a surprise that many in the rabbinical world continued to delve in and out of Sabbateanism as well. See R. Ya’akov Koppel Lifschitz and Sefer haTzoref and Chemdat Yamim and Shabbatai Tzvi.

Might one say that in terms of sheer numbers alone - with most Jews having initially been Sabbatean followers of Shabbatai Tzvi - the movement was probably larger and more successful than many of the other religious Jewish movements which were to rapidly follow on its heels!

That energy, as we have seen, did not just dissipate into thin air.

[1] The Allure of Forbidden knowledge: The Temptation of Sabbatean Literature for Mainstream Rabbis in the Frankist Movement, 1756 - 1761, by Maoz Kahana.
[2]There are Those who Bequeath’, published in 1986 by R. Isaac Dov Feld.
[3] This was a commentary to selections of the Zohar, based in part on dreams.
[4] Kabbalah, by Gershom Scholem, p.275.
[5] See The Hebrew Goddess by Rafael Patai, p. 209.
[6] This short manuscript is contained within another larger manuscript of Shulchan Aruch haAri Zal. This was not a work of Halacha, as the name would suggest, but rather a compilation by the Ari Zal’s students of their teacher’s Kabbalistic customs, practices including the use of amulets.
[7] Hebrew Oxford manuscript, MS Mich. 36, 214a
[8] Parenthesis mine.
[9] P. 259a of the manuscript. This entry was made in 1756.
[10] Parenthesis mine.
[11] Parenthesis mine.
[12] Parenthesis mine.
[13] P. 259a of the manuscript.
[14] As well as other subsequent events such as the burning of Talmuds after the disastrous Kamenetz-Podolsk debate with the Frankists and their recognition by the authorities.
[15] Oxford manuscript MS Heb. E. 130
[16] Parenthesis mine.
[17] Parenthesis mine.
[18] This was apparent already from page four of the book.
[19] The Talmud records that the great R. Meir continued to study under the rebel sage turned heretic, Elisha ben Avuya who was referred to as ‘Acher’ the ‘Other’.
[20] Likkutei Moharan 1:207
[21] See Yehuda Liebes, The Vilna Gaon School. Sabbateanism and Das Pintale Yid. 

[22] CFP: Sabbateanism in Italy and its Mediterranean Context. International Conference. Roma, January 20-22, 2019

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