Saturday 26 September 2020




The Sabbatian movement is the name given to the followers of the false messiah Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676). At the peak of the movement, around half or even more than half of the Jewish population at that time, including prominent rabbis, believed that Shabbatai Tzvi was the Messiah.

Historians have not reached consensus as to the influences which gave rise to the Sabbatian movement. While Scholem acknowledges the significance of the Khmelnytsky massacres which occurred between 1648 and 1657 - which left between one hundred thousand and five hundred thousand[1] Polish Jews dead (Dubnow 1916:1:156-157) - as a factor leading up to the Sabbatian movement, he takes the view that the causes are more nuanced.

Scholem (1973:1) writes:

The weightiest argument against overestimating the causative role of the massacres of 1648 follows from a consideration of the difference between the Sabbatian outbreak and previous messianic movements. This difference lies in the extension, in space and time, of Sabbatianism. All other messianic movements...were limited to a certain area....

Never before had there been a movement that swept the whole House of Israel.

Because, in Scholem's estimation, “the whole House of Israel”, was swept into the vortex of Sabbatianism, the reasons for its emergence had to be more fundamental and theologically underlying.

Scholem argues that if, as many posit, the massacres were the main cause Sabbatianism, the movement would have been localized to Poland. However, the movement did not even start in Poland but in Palestine - and, also, there were notably few Polish leaders of the Sabbatian movement.

It spread to wherever Jews were living which included Yemen, Morocco, Persia, Kurdistan, Holland and Poland. Scholem suggests that the Jews of Morocco would probably not even have been aware of the massacres.

Historically, with previous messianic claimants, the movements died out very soon after the claimant was shown to be false. In the case of Shabbatai Tzvi, however, the movement did not dissipate but persisted for generations. Its root causes, therefore, had to lie deeper.

One cannot claim that economic conditions were the cause, either, because Sabbatianism was equally embraced by the impoverished communities of Poland as well as the wealthier communities of Constantinople, Amsterdam and Hamburg.

Furthermore, the Jews of Persia, Yemen and Morocco were experiencing some manner of persecution, yet they did not resonate with Sabbatianism any more than the Jews who lived in relative freedom.

With other messianic movements, once the messiah was shown to be false, the people experienced great disappointment and crises of faith, some followers lingered for a while and then the movement wilted away. This was not the case with Sabbatianism as the movement continued to survive and even prosper.

One cannot say that the Sabbatian movement comprised of the rabble and poorer classes because as Scholem (1973:5) attests:

All the more surprising is the real proportion of believers and unbelievers within the ruling class. All later statements notwithstanding, the majority of the ruling class[2] was in the camp of the believers [in Shabbatai Tzvi][3], and the prominent and active part played by many of them is attested by all reliable documents....

The essential correctness of this picture is not impugned in the least by the ‘revised version’ of events that was put forward afterward by a kind of self-imposed censorship.”

The movement knew no social boundaries because there were millionaire patrons like Amsterdam based Abraham Pereira who offered all his wealth to Shabbatai Tzvi. There were also beggars from the poorest regions, who joined together in Sabbatian fellowship.

For all these reasons, the intriguing roots causes of this movement must, therefore, have been deeper than any other messianic movement before.


Scholem understands the deep-seated roots of the Sabbatian movement as originating in something far more theologically universal than any one particular historical event. That universal influence was Kabbalah - specifically Lurianic Kabbalah - as it originated during the sixteenth century, in the mystical town of Safed in northern Ottoman Syria, now Israel. The Sabbatian movement was to use and abuse Lurianic Kabbalah as a mainstay for their messianic enterprises.

Mystics and mystical teachings became so popular that the quiet town of Safed which started out with just twelve hundred inhabitants, became a bustling centre of Kabbalah with eighteen thousand Jews, by the end of the sixteenth century (Giller 2001:14).

In contrast to medieval Kabbalah which remained the domain of a select few, Lurianic Kabbalah soon to spread from Safed throughout the Diaspora. R. Yitzchak Luria Ashkenazi, known as the Lion or the Ari, passed away in 1572, just fifty-four years before Shabbatai Tzvi was born. Lurianic Kabbalah had already created a defacto earlier movement so “highly charged with messianic tension” that it found its outlet and “discharge” just decades later in the Sabbatian movement.

The writings of the Ari were first printed in 1630, just four years after Shabbatai Tzvi was born. Scholem (1973:24) reminds us that the masses considered Lurianism to be the “final and ultimate revelation of kabbalistic truth,“ and the distillation of the Zohar appropriate to that generation. Without this powerful and popular mystical foundation, the Sabbatian movement would never have been able to take root, develop and – importantly - continue to perpetuate itself after the demise of its leader.

Scholem (1973:22) writes that at the time of the genesis of the Sabbatian movement:

“...kabbalistic esotericism and messianic eschatology were intertwined and acted in combination.”

What the Ari did that was so appealing to that generation (Scholem 1973:26), was to perfect the concepts of exile and redemption and elevate them to cosmic and divine levels thus removing them from a narrow historical interpretation. Scholem put it succinctly: “Lurianic kabbalism hinges on the idea of redemption.

Exile and redemption now existed even within the Godhead, within the fabric of creation and was no longer just a tenet of faith with a future utopian promise. Because the interconnectedness of exile and redemption was so primary to God and creation, it was a short step to translate that, with immediate effect, into historical reality on the ground.

 “In the popular mind, the history of the world was essentially the drama of God seeking to perfect His true image and ‘configuration’ and of man seeking to promote this aim by means of good work.”

Many of these Lurianic ideas were being perpetuated and popularised amongst the masses by preachers and moralists, and they would have emphasized the more dramatic, spectacular and immediate aspects and potential effects of this ideology.

Scholem maintains that trying to try to find a basis for these concepts within the Zohar, would be in vain as they are a uniquely Lurianic reworking of broader Zoharic ideas:

“There is something startlingly novel about this kabbalistic explanation which regarded exile not merely as a test of our faith or a punishment for our sins, but first and foremost as a mission. The purpose of this mission was to raise the scattered, holy sparks...”

These “holy sparks” are explained by R. Vital as follows:

“[Egypt, or exile, represented the Kelipot, or unclean husks which the holy sparks had to elevate. M]any sparks got entangled there and Israel too was enslaved there. Even the Shekhina [God’s Pressence] was exiled with it in order to raise the sparks that were there....For that reason Israel had been condemned to bondage among the seventy nations, so that it might extract the holy sparks that had fallen among them.”[4]

We must also remember, though, that even what we refer to as Lurianic Kabbalah is not a monolithic mystical literature. In other words, when we refer to Lurianic kabbalah which Lurianic Kabbalah are we referring to?


1) On the one hand, R. Chaim Vital (1543-1620) claimed to be the foremost student of the Ari who, unfortunately for the theologian, never published any of his original teachings. R. Vital, similarly, did not allow his interpretations of his master’s teachings to be copied. When the teachings were finally published in printed form in 1630, a decade after R. Vital’s passing, they were no longer the original pure Lurianic teachings.

2) Another important student of the Ari was R. Yosef Ibn Tabul (c.1545-early seventeenth century) from North Africa, known as Yosef haMa’aravi or Yosef from the west. He also spent time in the Ari’s kabbalistic circle in Safed, and like R. Vital, he kept his written notes out of public circulation.

3) Additionally, R. Yisrael Sarug, from Egypt and Italy, also claimed to be a foremost student of the Ari, although according to Scholem (1939-40:214-241) he certainly was not. Unlike the former two students, R. Sarug, due to his “missionary zeal” did hold back on publicising his interpretations of the Ari. According to some accounts (Eldridge 2010:9-10), R. Yisrael Sarug obtained stolen copies R. Vital’s writings and between 1592 and 1598, published them in Italy.

4) Yet another student, R. Moshe Yonah, published his own manuscripts in Europe, under the title Kanfey Yonah (the Wings of the Dove).

5) Additionally, most of the writings of the Ari were edited by R. Natan Nata Shapira (1585-1633), the Chief Rabbi of Kracow who later settled in Palestine. Besides a kabbalist, he seems to have been a social activist in terms of criticising the wealthy (of the Diaspora) and championing the poor (of Jerusalem). He never took a salary during his tenure as Chief Rabbi. He wrote:’

[When the Messiah comes, the dead Jews of the Holy Land will arise and] fly in the air like eagles – all this in the sight of the returning exiles. When the returning exiles see that their [Palestinian] brethren have become a new creation and are flying in the air toward the lower Paradise where they will study the Law from the mouth of God, then their heart will fill with sorrow and dismay and they will complain to the messianic king, saying, “Are we not Jews like the others? And why have they become spiritual beings and we not?” Then the messiah will answer them, “It is known to all that God dispenses justice measure for measure. Those of the Diaspora who endeavored to come to Palestine to receive a pure soul, who spared neither money nor efforts and came by sea and by land and were not afraid of being drowned in the sea or captured by cruel masters [pirates]: because they were concerned primarily for their spirits and their souls and not for their bodies and money, therefore they were turned into spirits—measure for measure. You, however, who could have come to Palestine like them, but failed to come because of your cupidity, having made a principal concern of your wealth and your bodies, while considering your souls and spirits a lesser concern: you shall remain corporeal—measure for measure. As for the money that you coveted, behold God shall give you riches…. However they that were not concerned with their bodies and their possessions but only with their spirits, God shall make of them a new creation and lead them into Paradise.[5]

Perhaps the writings of the Ari were edited through this filter of ‘spiritual activism’ of R. Natan Nata Shapira, and this may have had some bearing on its widespread acceptance by the common masses. Scholem may have alluded to this when he wrote that R. Natan Nata Shapira edited most of the “so-called Lurianic writings”, indicating that we do not have the authentic Lurianic traditions.

R. Natan Nata Shapira’s student, R. Berachya Berach wrote:

I have seen a scandalous thing in the matter of kabbalistic studies …,

[T]here have appeared presumptuous men who abuse the crown [of heavenly wisdom], turning it into a spade with which to feed themselves. They write books on kabbalistic subjects, obtain permission to print them, and then hawk them around to “divide [that is, distribute] them in Jacob.” … They reveal hidden and secret things to great and small, and even mingle the inventions of their hearts with [authentic] kabbalistic teachings, until it becomes impossible to distinguish between the words of the kabbalist masters and their own additions….

But even if they contented themselves with merely copying faithfully the words of the kabbalist masters, their sin would be too great to bear, for they make public this wisdom and turn it into common talk....

I know that the rabbis of old kept aloof from this science because they feared it might have been adulterated by unqualified persons, as indeed we now see it has been….

May the sages of our generation forgive me if I say that they are responsible for this abuse, because they grant approbations and licenses for printing [these books], commending, justifying, and extolling them to heaven, whereby they make themselves like false witnesses on behalf of liars.[6]

In effect, there was a veritable battle for the soul of the Ari because all his students and editors brought different interpretations of their master’s Kabbalah and claimed to most accurately represent his teachings. By 1650, Lurianic Kabbalah had become a well-known and well-accepted composite and blend essentially of Vitalian and Sarugian Kabbalah (Scholem 1973:25).

In R. Vital’s autobiographical notes (known as the Book of Visions) from between 1610-12, he describes his teacher, the Ari, as a potential messiah and doesn’t exclude himself from such a role either. R. Vital also saw himself as a reincarnation of some earlier figures in Jewish history (Faierstein 1990:156) and he wrote of himself that ‘half the world exists through my merits” and that he was told by “a woman who was an expert in divining by dropping oil into water...[that] – you will undoubtedly rule over all of Israel in the future.” R. Vital records that the woman said that she “never saw anyone, in my practice of oil divination, on such a high level in this whole generation.” (Faierstein 1990:44).

The Lurianic doctrine was according to Scholem (1973:26) “more likely than any other to increase messianic tension among the people.” This doctrine was based on the assumption that the process of Tikkun, or restoration of the fallen sparks had almost been fully accomplished and achieved, and messianic redemption was at hand. Everything now was dependant on the holy mystic who alone knew how to effect the final rectifications.

Against this backdrop, Lurianic Kabbalah emerged as the mystical literature of “almost unchallenged supremacy” (Scholem 1973:25). Its widespread acceptance set the stage for the inevitable emergence of not just a ‘potential’ messianic figure, but the ‘real’ Messiah, in the form of Shabbatai Tzvi who, as Yehuda Liebes (1993:93) puts it, created:

“the largest, most important, and most sweeping messianic movement that arose in Jewish history.”

Significantly, and perhaps ironically, Scholem considers the Lurianic doctrine in general to have presuppositions that are “essentially gnostic.”

Mystical thinking changed dramatically from the traditional mystical experience to a focus on a cosmic “drawing down” of the messiah, particularly after the emergence of Lurianic Kabbalah. Consider the following text from the seventeenth century kabbalist Moshe Prager who wrote:

Since the year 335 [1575] the souls from the world of tiqqun shone forth, and the Emanator [God] granted him [Isaac Luria] permission to open the supernal sources and channels with the mysteries of Torah; and he [Luria] expressly told us that at the present time esoteric knowledge has become like that which was formerly exoteric knowledge. Although Luria’s disciples discretely concealed his teaching from the years 335–390 [1575–1630], which is the mystery of pure oil.…

The year 390 contains the mystery of drawing the pure oil down on the head of the kingdom of the House of David which is the perpetual union of Ze’ir Anpin with his consort, the mystery of redemption and freedom, the shining forth of the souls from the world of tiqqun according to the degree attained by these souls in the year 390, as is known to us [kabbalists]. From 390 onward we are in duty bound, every one of us, to achieve the tiqqun of our souls in their aspects of nefesh, ruaḥ, and neshamah, and to accomplish, together with our own tiqqun, that of the whole world … [and] to refine and purify the holy sparks by the study of the Zohar and the Tiqquney Zohar according to their Lurianic interpretation.

Scholem points out that Moshe Prager was no Sabbatian, yet clearly the world was seen to have pivoted spiritually since the Ari - and particularly from 1630 when Lurianic teachings were publicised, there was to be a renewed emphasis on redemption.


We must draw attention to the fact that not all scholars agree with Scholem’s well-argued and convincing thesis that Lurianic Kabbalah was the great catalyst that prepared the way for an inevitable messianic outbreak. His former student, Moshe Idel, challenges Scholem on the assumption that Lurianic Kabalah was all that widespread because of the inherent difficulty in understanding its contents. He encourages scholars to seek out wider-ranging explanations for the rise of Sabbatianism (Idel, Fall 1993:79-104).

My analysis of this challenge that Lurinic Kabbalah was difficult and therefore not as widespread as Scholem suggests, is based on contemporary observation of much of modern Jewish mystical approaches. Today, popular groups such as, Chabad and Breslover Chassidism which are largely based on Lurianic Kabbalah, are easily teaching and understanding these concepts of spiritual exile and redemption. Not everyone might understand the intricate depths of the Kabbalah of the Ari,  but everyone is conscious of the basic structures and promises of modern messianism.

Furthermore, even before the popularisation of Lurianic Kabbalah in 1630, the printing presses of Cracow and Lublin were producing large amounts of general kabbalistic material and had been doing so since the sixteenth century. This shows a real demand for mystical teachings, so much so, that even as early as 1570 R. Moses Isserles, known as the Ramah, criticised the “ignorant crowd” for dabbling so enthusiastically in such matters:

Many of the unlettered crowd jump at kabbalistic studies, for they are a lust to the eyes, especially the teachings of the later masters who expounded their doctrines clearly and in detail. And especially now that kabbalistic books such as the Zohar, Recanati, and [Gikatila’s] Sha’arey Orah are available in print every reader can indulge in their study believing that he has penetrated their meaning; whereas in reality it is impossible to understand these things unless they are expounded orally by a master. Not only scholars try to study it, but even ordinary householders, who cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand and who walk in darkness unable to explain [even] a portion of the Pentateuch or a chapter of the same with Rashi’s commentary, rush to the study of kabbalah.… A single coin in a box causes a noisy rattle, and anyone who has merely sniffed a little [kabbalah] preens himself on it and discourses on it in public—but he will have to render account [at the day of judgment].[7]

A short while later R. Shmuel Edeles (1555-1631), known as the Maharsha, expressed a similar sentiment:

[I]t behooves us to protest against those who discourse on it [kabbalah] in public.[8]

If general Kabbalah was in such demand by the “ignorant crowd”, then after 1630 when Lurianic Kabbalah became available, it is most likely that it similarly enjoyed widespread and popular attention.

In 1660, R. Yakov ben Moshe Temerles, a kabbalist who had been actively teaching in Volhynia for many decades, wrote the following about the spread of Lurianic Kabbalah:

They [the kabbalistic mysteries] have spread to all sides, … they are known in the gates, … and the earth is full of knowledge. Verily, all, great and small, are knowledgeable in the mysteries of the Lord. This is my comfort in my affliction: to behold the great desire and longing of our contemporaries for this hidden wisdom, and all—people and priests, small and great—desire to be admitted to the mystery of the Lord and live by it. Surely this signifies that our salvation is soon to come.”[9]


Other mystical works may also have contributed theological influences that gave rise to Sabbatian eschatology. One such work was the Gali Razaya or Revealed Mysteries, attributed to the Moroccon born R. Avraham haLevi Beruchim who became an important part of the circle of Safed Kabbalists. It was he who introduced many of ascetic and devotional practices which became the hallmark of the mystical Safed circle (Scholem 1973:61).

The Gali Razaya became popular and was widely disseminated in written form as well as in oral teaching in the era just prior to the appearance of the Sabbatian movement.

It must be borne in mind, while reading the following text, that the Sabbatians were intentionally promiscuous as part of their theology was to sin in order to repent and thereby, they claimed, become more elevated.

The text deals with the ‘reason’ why so many biblical personalities had relationships with “strange women” who would normally have been considered out of bounds. These include the relationships such as Judah and Tamar, Josef and Potiphar’s wife, Joshua and Rahab, and Boaz and Ruth.

According to Gali Razaya:

Whenever God wants to raise a king or hero to wreak vengeance on the heathen, it is necessary that there be some kind of relationship or rapport between the gentile nations and the Jewish king, so that Scripture should be fulfilled [Isa. 49:17]: ‘Thy destroyers and they that make thee waste shall go forth from thee’..., for whoever is born in order to humble the foes of Israel must have some measure of communion with the ‘left side’.[10]

The ‘left side’ refers to the ‘feminine’ side (that ‘receives’ emanation from the ‘male’ side) of the Kabbalistic model of the cosmic Tree of Life, and it is the source of Kelipah:

All offspring of the ‘pure side’ have a part in the ‘impure side,’ through the females...[11]

Then we read an articulation of this mystical idea that leaves room for much (mis)interpretation:

Know for sure that the ‘other side’ has been permitted to contract marriages between some of its women and the heroes and saints of Israel. The souls of these women are descended from pious gentiles, and the pious gentile thereby acquire a share in the world to come because [in this way] they mingle with Israel. Therefore, whenever the ‘other side’ sends its impure forces to oppress Israel by destroying its religion, it is necessary that an Israelite king or hero, who has some contact with the ‘impure side’ through the daughter of a strange god [a gentile woman], step out against them.[12]

Scholem (1973:62) sums this up as follows:

More than a hundred years before the Sabbatian movement we find a philosophy of history based on a mystical psychology exhibiting striking similarities to some of the doctrines of later Sabbatians...

This theology is related to the doctrine known as “holy deceit” which is paralleled in Lurianic Kabbalah, and which the Sabbatians were very familiar with.

R. Vital wrote that:

[W]hen a soul is exceedingly great [holy], it is impossible to save it from qelippah[13] except by ruse and cunning....

Then R. Vital adds in a personal note:

In my case too, the evil powers did not mind the matter [of my soul coming into this world] because they thought that I was already lost, but God snatched me from them....

They thought it would be to their advantage [to use me for their purposes], but I became their enemy.[14]

Thus, sometimes the birth of a ‘great soul’ has to come about as a result of deceit or even a sinful union and a Tikkun or rectification is thereby allowed to occur.

This notion of ‘holy deceit’ was later to be seized upon by the Sabbatians and even used in the first instance, to bring about a state of redemption.



Dubnow, S 1916. History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, trans. Israel Friedlander, 3 vols. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

Faierstein, MM 1990. Jewish Mystical Autobiographies: Book of Visions and Book of Secrets (Classics of Western Spirituality). New Jersey: Paulist Press.

Scholem, G 1973. Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676. Princeton University Press.

Idel, M Fall 1993. One from a Town, Two from a Clan: The Diffusion of Lurianic Kabbala and Sabbateanism: A Re-Examination. Jewish History 7;2, 79-104. Springer.

Liebes, Y 1993. Studies in Jewish Myth and Jewish Messianism (trans. A. Schwarz, S. Nakache and P. Peli). Albany NY: State University of New York Press.

Giller, P 2001. Reading the Zohar: the sacred text of the Kabbalah. New York: Oxford University Press.

[1] According to Eldridge (2010:5), about twenty percent of the Jewish population (90,000 out of 450,000) may have perished during the massacres.

[2] Scholem points out that the ruling class, includes “rich merchants, lay leaders, and rabbis.”

[3] Parenthesis mine.

[4] Chaim Vital, Sefer haLikuttim (Jerusalem 1913), fol. 89a.

 [5] Natan Nata Shapira, Tuv haAretz, fol. 37a.

[6] Introduction, Zera Berach, II (Amsterdam, 1662).

[7] Isserles, Torat haOlah, III, ch. 4.

[8] Edeles, Novellae to B. Ḥagigah 13a.

[9] This extract is from R. Yakov Temerles’ unpublished approbation for a Kabalistic prayer book, which his student, R. Chaim Buchner intended to publish. However, the approbation was eventually printed by Buchner in his introduction to his Or Chadash (Amsterdam, 1672–75).

[10] Gali Razaya, 1812, fol. 23a.

[11] Gali Razaya, 1812, fol. 6d.

[12] Gali Razaya, 1812, fol. 29.

[13] Kelipah or husks.

[14] Chaim Vital, Sha’ar haGilgulim, fol. 65a.

1 comment:

  1. Comment from Dr Paul Shaviv:

    Great material, as always - but see Matt Goldish “The Sabbatean Prophets” for an excellent discussion of the Millennial/ Apocalyptic currents in Europe at the time. “Wie es christelt sich, so judelt es sich”.

    - Paul Shaviv / Florida - NY