Sunday 29 December 2019


“I could not speak for my followers were few...and even they did not speak aloud but in secret”- Rabbi Yaakov Sasportas (1610-1698), a leader of the small anti-Sabbatean camp.


It can be well argued that the cataclysmic advent of the 17th century false messiah Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676) was one the most significant events in the early modern period of Jewish history.[1]

Although often glanced over and reduced to a mere ‘footnote to Jewish history’, Shabbatai Tzvi and his expansive Sabbatean[2] movement became the matrix into which almost every subsequent Jewish movement (including modern Zionism, Chasidism, Haskalah and Orthodoxy) could trace some aspects of their roots – either as a reaction to, or a reworking of.

According to many accounts, it seems possible that at some stage during the time of Shabbatai Tzvi, the majority of Jews, including prominent rabbis, believed him to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah.

In this article, I have drawn from Dr Michael Studemund-Halévy who has researched the story of Shabbatai Tzvi through 17th-century letters, newspaper articles and other contemporaneous media sources. The stories and events thus come alive in a unique way, adding yet another dimension to how we read this fascinating but disturbing history.

It is appropriate to tell the story of Shabbatai Tzvi through media reports because it was precisely those press reports that helped spur his popularity and gave him his notoriety.

As Studemund-Halévy puts it:

“In the absence of such printed gazettes, the Shabbatean movement would have taken a different course.”


For a period of over six years Shabbatai Tzvi was featured regularly in the international news.
Between 1665 and 1667, for example, there were about 100 press reports about the Messiah Shabbatai Tzvi. This is a large number considering the paucity of extant newspapers from that time.

Although there are some ‘huge gaps’ which will probably never be accounted for, all extant German newspapers from the 17th century are available on microfilm at the University of Bremen. Also, many illustrated broadsides and pamphlets are preserved in the Duke August Library in Wolfenbüttel.

The longest report on Shabbatai Tzvi is from the Nordischer Mercurius, May 11, 1666, and covers five pages.

Studemund-Halévy met with Gershom Scholem in 1979 and discussed the large array of media reports about Shabbatai Tzvi with him:

“The extremely rich stock of pamphlets was not systematically worked through and evaluated by Gershom Scholem in his biography of Shabbetai Ṣevi. He studied the published pamphlet literature but knew little of the extent to which the regularly published newspapers also reported about Shabbetai Ṣevi.”

What is interesting and exciting is that:

“Although we now have a more balanced picture than did Scholem of the array of new sources, most collections of manuscript pamphlets and newspapers in European libraries await future investigation”


The Jews, at the height of the Sabbatean movement, were fired up with messianic zeal. Setting the stage for us, Studemund-Halévy quotes from a desperate letter by R. Jacob Sasportas[3] of Morocco to his colleague R. Isaac Aboav[4] of Amsterdam.

“If everything that is necessary for the appearance of the Messiah does not occur precisely as required, we shall experience a catastrophe.”[5]

These were prophetic words because the Jews did indeed experience a Sabbatean messianic catastrophe and crisis of faith when the Jewish ‘Messiah’ Shabbatai Tzvi converted to Islam on 16th September 1666 together with 300 other Jewish families. 

He then became known by his new name Mehmed Effendi.


R. Yaakov Sasportas (like R. Yaakov Emden), was one of the lone voices who tried to warn the people of the dangers of this widespread messianic movement. He spent some time in Hamburg and managed to collect 373 letters and reports about his nemesis Shabbatai Tzvi:

 “What was done [in Hamburg][6] was very much greater than in Amsterdam, and the great sound was arousing...saying, this is the end of wonders and David King of Israel does live.

And I with my very own eyes did see...that they unleashed their tongues against the non-believers and called them heretics, in a way that made my hands tremble, and I could not speak for my followers were few...and even they did not speak aloud but in secret. 

And the masses were stronger than their leaders and there was no one to talk back to them, and on many occasions they desired to excommunicate the non-believer.”[7]


The two centres of Hamburg and Amsterdam, which had large populations of Spanish and Portuguese Jews, almost unanimously accepted Shabbatai Tzvi as the undisputed Messiah.  News travelled fast even in those days and “[w]hat happened in Izmir [the Turkish town where Shabbatai Tzvi was born][8] was soon the talk of Hamburg.”

Gershom Scholem records that people were almost crushed in the crowds waiting to hear the most recent news about Shabbatai Tzvi.[9]

According to Studemund-Halévy:

“The printed word dealing with the Messiah circulated widely and quickly from country to country, and the weekly local press also carried frequent reports on his appearances, his miracles, his supporters and promoters, but also about the arrival of the messianic age.”

According to a source cited by Marc Sapperstein:

“When the letters came [from Izmir], our joy was beyond description. Most of them were addressed to the Sephardim who, as fast as they came, took them to the synagogue and read them aloud.

Young and old, the Germans also hurried to the Sephardi synagogue.

The Sephardi youth came dressed in their best finery and decked in broad green silk sashes, the color of Shabbatai Zevi.”[10]


According to the newspaper reports, hundreds of thousands of Jews left North Africa to meet the Messiah in Jerusalem.


In 1666 there were reports of Jews preparing to leave Greece to meet the Messiah in the Holy Land, and they were selling their houses and belongings.[11]


There were reports of a ‘messianic’ inspired march on Mecca. 

The Oxford Gazette, 11 December 1665 reported:

 "[I]t is now about three months since the Jews gave out that near 600000 men were arrived at Mecha, professing themselves to be of the lost Tribes."

There were even reports that ‘Jewish warriors’ had conquered Mecca and plundered it. On October 13, 1665, there was a full-page report that a joint uprising against the Ottoman Empire by Arabs, Turks and Jews, under the command of the ‘Hebrew’ Rabbi Habacuc Rubal, had taken control of the grave of Mohammed. By the end of the year, the reports differed regarding the various details of this event.

In January 1666, there were more reports about ‘rebellious Jews’ and ‘Jewish victories against the Turks’ and that a ‘great force to suppress’ the Jews had been assembled in Constantinople.[12]

Shabbetai Zvi depicted as the commander of the ten tribes of Israel, Germany, 1666 


On January 3 1666, a special session was held within the Jewish community to try and curb the disruptive behaviour on the part of the enthusiastic followers of Shabbatai Tzvi. It also, in effect attempted to ban the publication of pamphlets reporting on the arrival of the Messiah. The meeting of the German group of Sefaradic elders known as the Ma’amad[13] discussed:

“...what regulations should be adopted in order to prevent the damage to us that can result by the disturbance of the peace by the rabble as a result of the news reports being published on the advent of the salvation we hope for (may the Lord in His mercy let it come soon nigh!).

The decision is made that the deputies Isaac Namias and Selomo Curiel, in the name of the Community, should confer with the lawyer Borderio Paulo, whom the Senate has appointed to inspect that printed matter. And they should advise him not to allow those pamphlets (gazetas) to be printed.

Mr H.H. Mose Israel, in his prudent caution, sent a note of warning to all members of this Community stipulating that no one should speak with members of another faith about those news reports. Whosoever violates this will be fined five Reichsthalers, [14] and payment of this fine will be strictly exacted.

Should the individual persist in this infraction, he shall be excluded from the Israelitic community.”[15]


Calculations surrounding the messianic era and its personalities are nothing new:

“The Shabbatean adherents everywhere were engaged in complicated eschatological calculations aimed at finding clues in the Holy Scriptures for the years 1665–1667 as well as the names Shabbetai Ṣevi and his Prophet Nathan.”


The following is a report from a Hamburg correspondent who described an experience of his own:

“Several days ago I received a sketch of their King, whom they call Sabutey Seby, and my house was thus packed with Jews. To prove the truth of the matter they had brought along a foreign Jew who assured us, speaking in Portuguese, that he had beheld this King in Smyrna [Izmir in Turkey][16] a short time ago and had venerated him there. 

The King is a man of 42 years of age and said to be very similar to the likeness in the drawing. And the local Jews believe in him, they chastise themselves, have done away with their casinos and are joyously awaiting to be soon delivered into the realm of their previous freedom.”[17]


A report from 1666 covers Shabbatai Tzvi’s conversion to Islam:

“From Smyrna comes the report via Livorno that the supposed Jewish Messiah has foresworn the Jewish religion due to threats from the Sultan in order to save his own life. And in doing so, he has heaped disgrace and shame for all eternity upon his people.”[18]

Shabbatai Tzvi was then held in Kilitbahir Fortress (Boğazhisarı) in the Dardanelles in Turkey. This report described the details of his incarceration:

“The purported Messiah of the Jews is still imprisoned in the Dardanelles, Jews from throughout the world come daily to pay him a courtesy visit, they arrive on foot, on horseback, 12 janissaries are at his side.”

(The Janissaries were elite infantry units that formed the Ottoman Sultan's household troops and bodyguards.)

“Smyrna, 28 August. The Messiah united with the Jews is still in the Dardanelles, where he is being grandly treated by the Turks, and his person empties the bags of the Jews, but fills those of the Turks. 

That because daily he welcomes many visitors from all corners of the globe. Some come from a distance 39, 40, up to 50 whole-day journeys, one person on horseback, another by foot. He is thus on the whole in great esteem. He goes out whenever he so desires, and has 12 janissaries at his side, who in their festive dress provide him company. 

People say that the reeve of the castle has, by this means, already accumulated from those desiring to see him the sum of some 60 to 70,000 Reichsthalers.”[19]


Studemund-Halévy describes how Jews destroyed their own records of the ‘messianic’ events surrounding Shabbatai Tzvi:

“When Shabbetai Ṣevi converted to Islam on September 16, 1666, after his arrest and under threat of execution, and the news of that arrived in Amsterdam, at the latest in November, almost all testimonials of the messianic hope were destroyed in the Portuguese Jewish Communities, books were confiscated, extensive bodies of correspondence were burned, entries were deleted from the Community books and registers or the corresponding pages were simply torn out.”

However, we know from history that the Sabbatean movement continued to thrive in various forms for many decades well after his death and certainly after his conversion:

“Despite his conversion, Shabbetai Ṣevi remained for many of his adherents the ‘King of Israel’, and they interpreted his apostasy as a move to save Israel from misfortune.
Just how great the Messianic longings remained among the Portuguese and (High) German Jews in Hamburg and Altona is underscored by the example of the 'charlatan' Shabbatai Rephael Supino (c.1639–after 1668), one of the greatest believers in Shabbetai Ṣevi, who in 1667 was still able to successfully appear in Hamburg as a Prophet of Shabbetai Ṣevi and who was enthusiastically received and celebrated, especially by the Ashkenazic Jews.”

Rabbi Rephael Supino was a distinguished scholar from Livorno in Italy who was an important figure in the Sabbaten movement in the post Shabbatai Tzvi era. He, like his teacher, adopted a mystical approach which he distorted from Lurianic Kabbalah where apostasy (conversion to another religion) holds great mysteries “brought about by God, for it was necessary for him [i.e., Shabbatai Tzvi][20] to enter the realm of the husks (kelippot) in order to subdue them, and that is why he clothed himself with them.[21]


Studemund-Halévy writes:

“After the forced conversion of Shabbetai Ṣevi to Islam in 1666, a great many disillusioned Portuguese Jews in Hamburg and Amsterdam left their communities, and some converted to Christianity.”

Besides the 300 Turkish Jewish families that converted to Islam in solidarity with Shabbatai Tzvi, many others later converted to Christianity. Over time, 150 Jews were converted in the Church of St. Michael in Hamburg.

The Protestant pastor Johann Rephun noted in his sermon on Ash Wednesday in 1666, that Jews could convert in large numbers to Christianity if they were thusly misled by their ‘messiahs’.[22]


Studemund-Halévy does not deal with this issue, but most ironically, moving ahead 300 years to the 1990s, the Lubavitcher Rebbe referred to reading about Mashiach in the newspapers:

"This is especially true in light of the well-known adage of our Rebbes [of Chabad who said that the news] of Moshiach's coming would appear in the newspapers.

Indeed, this has recently been fulfilled quite literally, as it has recently been fulfilled quite literally, as it has been publicized in various newspapers worldwide (and they should continue publicizing it even more) that 'Behold! He (Melech HaMoshiach) is coming!', and immediately [they will herald] 'He has already come!' literally and in fact."

(Shabbos Nitzovim, 5751, ch. 12--September 7, 1991)

The popular and contemporary focus on messianism within much of today’s Judaism should perhaps be viewed against both the backdrop of Sabbateanism and also against the surprisingly large numbers of false messiahs throughout Jewish history. 

By so doing, it will quickly become evident that we have been through phases like this - and on even much larger scales - numerous times before.[23]

This notwithstanding - may we indeed soon merit to read about the final long-awaited Mashiach in our contemporary newspapers and media.

For more on other false messiahs, see:

R. David Alro’i and the Night of the Flight.

David Reuveini and Shlomo Molcho – A Messianic Duo.

[1] The early modern period is usually defined as spanning from c. 1500 to around c. 1800.
[2] The Sabbatean (also Shabbatean or in Hebrew Shabta’im) movement was so named after Shabbatai Tzvi.
[3] Algerian born R. Jacob Sasportas (1610-1698) served as one of the Moroccan rabbinic leaders, who (like R. Yaakov Emden) was an outspoken antagonist of the Sabbatean movement.
[4] Isaac Aboab [Abuav] (1605-1693) was one of several elders within the Portuguese-Jewish community in the Netherlands who excommunicated Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677).
[5] Apud Eli Moyal, Rabbi Jacob Sasportas [Hebrew], Mosad haRav Kook, Jerusalem 1992, p. xix.
[6] Parenthesis mine.
[7] Tzitzit Novel Tzvi, p.47.
[8] Parenthesis mine.  The Turkish town of Smyrna was also known as Izmir.
[9] Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, The Mystical Messiah, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1973, pp. 519, 532–533. 

[10] The Jews in Christian Europe: A Source Book, 315-1791, by Jacob R. Marcus, Marc Saperstein, p. 649.

[11] Newe Vnpartheysche Zeitung vnd Relation [Zürich] / 1666 / 8 / 4. 
[12] Wochentliche N. Zeitung [Regensburg] / 21 1.1666 / 5 / 2, and Newe Vnpartheysche Zeitung vnd Relation  [Zürich] / 1666 / 4 / 2.
[13] The Ma’amad was the Sefaradic equivalent to the Kahal in Ashkenazi communities, and was a gathering of elders. Those who disobeyed the Ma’amad were severely fined or even excommunicated.
[14] Pronounced “raiykstaler”.
[15] Isaac Cassuto, "Aus dem ältesten Protokollbuch der Portugiesisch-Jüdischen Gemeinde",  Jahrbuch der Jüdisch-Literarischen Gesellschaft, vol. 10 (1913), p. 295.
[16] Parenthesis mine.
[17]  Newe Vnpartheysche Zeittung vnd Relation (Zürich) 14/2, 1666.
[18] Wochentliche Ordinari Postzeitung [Heidelberg] / 1666 / 48 / 3–4: London.
[19] Nordischer Mercurius / 1666 / 28 / 8 [Smyrna], p. 638.
[20] Parenthesis mine.

[21] The Jews in Christian Europe: A Source Book, 315-1791, by Jacob R. Marcus, Marc Saperstein, p. 647.

[22] Juedischer Heer-Zug / Das ist: Einfaeltige Jueden-Predigt. Thurnau 1666, leaf, B3 r+v.
[23] See Binyamin Shlomo Hamburger, Meshichei haShekker uMitnagdehem (Hebrew), Machon Moreshet Ashkenaz.


  1. Note that Shabtai Tzvi had homosexual relations with his tefillin and tallit on, as Rabbeinu Yehuda Fatiyah said. Shabtai Tzvi's ruach (who had nearly taken over the body of a certain yeshiva bachur) had told him. R' Fatiyah communicated through the ear of the bachur to speak with the ruach.

  2. R. Yehuda Fatiya (Fetaya) (d. 1942) practiced the kavanot of R. Shalom Sharabi and believed strongly in amulets and dream interpretation to foretell the future. He claimed to know which dreams came from Heaven and which from 'Demons'. He wrote his Minchat Yehuda which include Kabbalistic interpretations on Tanach based on his interaction with 'spirits'.
    This places him firmly within the camp of the magical and mystical - which found fertile ground in expounding on characters like Shabbatai Tzvi.

    Shabbatai Tzvi, by his nature and on so many other levels opened himself to a huge mythological literature.

  3. Why are you comparing the saintly chacham to that rasha? L'havdil a million times! HaShem Yerachem

  4. The 'comparison' is not to personalities but to techniques.

    Similar mystical techniques were used by the kabbalist Nathan of Gaza (who endorsed S T and became his 'navi', Rabbi Supino, and even Jacob Frank (another false messiah) who also 'communicated' with S T and claimed to be his gilgul (reincarnation) fifty years later.