Sunday 24 July 2022

392) Causes of the Sabbatian movement: Revisiting the (unpopular) view of Gershom Scholem.


A work of Lurianic kabbalah



The Sabbatian movement, founded by the messianic claimant Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676) was the largest and most influential Jewish messianic movement since Christianity.[2] Shabbatai Tzvi is one of the best-documented personalities in Jewish history,[3] yet ironically both he and his movement are perhaps the least taught topics in classes on Jewish history today.[4] During the peak of the Sabbatian movement, the majority of the Jewish population believed Shabbatai Tzvi to be the final and righteous Messiah. This sentiment was endorsed by most leading and authoritative rabbis of that period, despite revisionist attempts to later hide these facts.[5] When Shabbatai Tzvi eventually apostatized to Islam, the ma’aminim or believers as his followers were known, experienced a major crisis of faith, the effects of which many maintain are still felt today. For these reasons, scholars have always been intrigued as to what exactly led the Jewish people to accept Shabbatai Tzvi as the Jewish Messiah.

          In this article, the classical view of Gershom Scholem is presented where the intense mysticism of Lurianic Kabbalah is seen as the primary cause of Sabbatianism. This is followed by six challenges to Scholem from more recent scholarship. This is followed by my own attempt at re-establishing, Scholem’s original premise but with some qualification, allowing for harmonization between his view and contemporary interpretations of the causes of the Sabbatian movement.


Seven approaches


1          Gershom Scholem: Lurianic Kabbalah

Scholem acknowledges the tragic and deep significance of the Khmelnytsky massacres, or the Cossack-Polish War, which occurred between 1648 and 1657. According to Michael Eldridge, about twenty per cent of the Jewish population of Poland (90 000 out of 450 000) may have perished during the massacres.[6] Notwithstanding the impact such destruction would have had on a burgeoning interest in messianism, Scholem takes the view that the causes of Sabbatianism must be more nuanced. Neither can Sabbatianism be compared to previous messianic outbreaks in Jewish history, because:


“[a]ll other messianic movements...were limited to a certain area...[but n]ever before had there been a movement that swept the whole House of Israel.”[7]

Scholem argues that if, as some posit, the Khmelnytsky massacres were the main cause of Sabbatianism, the movement would have been localized to Poland. However, the movement did not even start in Poland but rather in Palestine - and additionally, there were notably few Polish leaders of the Sabbatian movement. It spread to wherever Jews were living which included Yemen, Morocco, Persia, Kurdistan, Holland as well as 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 relatively 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, and even prospered. For these reasons, its root causes had to lie far deeper.

          Nor can one claim that economic conditions were the main cause because Sabbatianism was equally embraced by the impoverished communities of Poland as well as the wealthier communities of Constantinople, Amsterdam and Hamburg. The movement knew no social boundaries because there were millionaire patrons like Cairo-based R. Rafael Yosef Chelebi, as well as Amsterdam-based Abraham Pereira who offered all their wealth to Shabbatai Tzvi, and there were also beggars from the poorest regions who joined together in Sabbatian fellowship. Furthermore, the Jews of Persia, Yemen and Morocco had also experienced some manner of persecution, yet they did not resonate with Sabbatianism any more than the Jews who lived in relative freedom.[8]

          Scholem understands the Sabbatian movement as originating in something more theologically universal than any one particular historical or sociological event. That universal influence was Kabbalah - specifically Lurianic Kabbala which developed in Safed in northern Galilee. Lurianic Kabbalah is based on the teachings of R. Yitzchak Luria, known as the ‘Lion’ or Ari (1534-1572). Mystics and mystical teachings became so popular that the quiet town of Safed which started with just twelve hundred inhabitants, became a bustling centre of Kabbalah with eighteen thousand Jews, by the end of the sixteenth century.[9] After the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497, Safed drew many Marranos[10] because, besides its reputation as a Kabbalah centre, it was situated on major trade routes and this created economic opportunities. The main trade was the wool industry which is also why so many of the exiles from Spain were attracted to that city as they had been previously involved in the textile trade.[11] The fact that these Marranos were already exposed to the intense mysticism of Spain also explains why Kabbalah began to flourish in the new Safed. Scholem maintains that between the mystical centres of the old Zoharic Kabbalah of Spain and the new Lurianic Kabbalah of Safed: 

 “[t]here is only one main line.”[12]

In contrast to medieval Kabbalah based on the Zohar, which remained the domain of a select few, Lurianic Kabbalah was soon to spread from Safed throughout the Diaspora. The Ari passed away in 1572, just fifty-four years before Shabbatai Tzvi was born.  Lurianic Kabbalah had created a de facto movement so “highly charged with messianic tension” that it found its outlet and “discharge” just decades later in the Sabbatian movement.[13] There is far more emphasis on messianism in Lurianic Kabbalah than in any other kabbalistic system, to the extent that:


“Luria’s disciples saw him as the Messiah, son of Joseph, who was to prepare the way for later revelation of the Messiah, son of David.”[14]

As a result of the Lurianic theory of Tikkun (spiritual rectification):

“[T]he whole meaning of Judaism [was seen][15] as an acute messianic tension. Such tension finally broke in the Shabbatean movement.”[16]

This, in effect, created another “main line,” this time between Lurianic Kabbalah and Sabbatianism. The writings of the Ari were first printed in 1630, just four years after Shabbatai Tzvi was born. Scholem reminds us that the masses considered Lurianic Kabbalah to be the “final and ultimate revelation of kabbalistic truth,” and that it was the authoritative distillation of the thirteenth-century Zohar in a manner appropriate to the seventeenth century.[17] According to Scholem, without this powerful and popular Lurianic mystical foundation, the Sabbatian movement would never have been able to take root, develop and - importantly - continue to perpetuate after the demise of its leader. At the time of the genesis of the Sabbatian movement, mysticism had become synonymous with messianism:


“...kabbalistic esotericism and messianic eschatology were intertwined and acted in combination.”[18]

What the Ari did that was so appealing to that generation was to perfect the concepts of exile and redemption and elevate them to cosmic and divine levels thus removing them from a narrow historical and political interpretation.[19] Scholem puts it succinctly:

“Lurianic kabbalism hinges on the idea of redemption.”[20]

Kabbalah in general reflects the mood of the generation[21] and after the trauma of the expulsion from Spain, the Jews were living “between the poles of exile and redemption[22] as they awaited the expected Messiah. Exile took on a mystical theory which was matched by a corresponding theory of mystical redemption. Exile and redemption now co-existed within the fabric of creation. These two poles were present even within the Godhead, and redemption was no longer just a tenet of faith with a vague promise of a future utopia. Because the interconnectedness of exile and redemption was so primary to the cosmos and to God, it was a short step to translate that, with immediate effect, into historical reality on the ground which meant only one thing – messianism.

         Scholem[23] maintains that trying to find a basis for these concepts within the earlier Zohar, would be in vain as they are a uniquely Lurianic reworking of broader Zoharic ideas. Scholem continues expounding on the Lurianic doctrine:


“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...”[24]

These “holy sparks” are explained by the Ari’s student, R. Chaim 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 Presence][25] 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.”[26]

The notion, then, of Tikkun (rectification or restoration) made every Jew a:

“protagonist in the great process of restitution, in a manner never heard of before.”[27]

Lest one think that Lurianic Kabbalah was the sole proclivity of the specialised mystic, Scholem reminds us that it affected the general theology of non-mystics as well:

“The Lurianic Kabbalah was the last religious movement in Judaism the influence of which became preponderant among all sections of the Jewish people and in every country of the diaspora, without exception.”[28]

Based on the Lurianic notion that during the exile, the unity of God’s name had been divided and was thus incomplete and even ineffective, Shabbatai Tzvi claimed to restore the Name to its perfect state. He did so by uttering the Tetragrammaton, which united God’s Name and joined the lower worlds to the upper realms and thus the messianic redemption of God and the universe had begun through him.

          Lurianic Kabbalah is pregnant with messianism and it created a culture of messianic tension which Scholem refers to as “catastrophe,” which could only be neutralised by the actual appearance of a Messiah less than a century later. Scholem describes the rise of Lurianism, just decades after the expulsion of Jews from Spain, as being influenced by the expulsion.[29] Scholem explains that with time, the post-expulsion messianism began to wane until they were fanned and “recast” by the new Lurianic Kabbalah, and:


“once the catastrophic had been sown as a fertile seed in the heart of this new [Lurianic][30] Kabbalah, its teachings were bound to lead to that further catastrophe which became acute with the Sabbatian movement.”[31]


Scholem, in general, always writes about ‘catastrophic’ messianism:


“Jewish messianism in its origins and by its nature - this cannot be sufficiently emphasized - is a theory of catastrophe. This theory stresses the revolutionary, cataclysmic element in the transition from every historical present to the Messianic future.”[32]

If this was true of traditional Jewish messianism it was even more relevant to Lurianic and Sabbatian messianism.

2          Moshe Idel: Personal redemption and astrology

Although Scholem presents his arguments so eloquently, there is much debate as to whether Lurianic Kabbalah was indeed a major influencing factor in the rise of the Sabbatian movement. Moshe Idel, parts ways with Scholem’s ‘thunderous’ view of messianism as “tension,” “apocalyptic” and cosmic “catastrophe,” and draws our attention to the earlier Zoharic Kabbalah and its focus on a ‘quieter’ personal form of redemption.

          Idel rejects Scholem’s “attraction to catastrophic manifestations” because it disallows other forms of non-catastrophic redemption to take place.[33] Idel maintains that the role of ‘catastrophe’ in thirteenth-century Kabbalah, for example, was very minor indeed and focus more on ‘construction’:


“In fact, the perfection of the individual is redemptive, on both the personal level and the more cosmic one.”[34]

In this sense, the perfection of the individual (without the need to invoke national or universal ‘catastrophe’) is already messianic.

          Idel further suggests that instead of ‘catastrophe’ and drama, an important component of Shabbatai Tzvi’s theology was simply related to astrology and cosmic cycles.[35] Idel explains that these astrological and cosmic ideas were first formulated by early kabbalists including Nachmanides (1194-1270) and R. Yosef ben Shalom Ashkenazi (thirteenth century), more than two centuries before Lurianic Kabbalah began to emerge.

          Idel believes, contra Scholem, that Sabbatianism was influenced by this earlier kabbalistic notion of quiet personal redemption as well as the thirteenth-century astrological Kabbalah, more than the more recent sixteenth-century ‘catastrophic’ Lurianic Kabbalah.

3          Joseph Citron: Traditional belief in a Messiah   

According to Joseph Citron, the success of the Sabbatian movement was the result of a far more conservative and deep-seated traditional Jewish belief in redemption that had long since been a part of Jewish yearning and tradition. It was not, therefore, directly related to the influence of Lurianic Kabbalah. Citron denies that Lurianic Kabbalah even had a dominant component of messianic teachings:         

“[T]here is little evidence that they are particularly messianic.”[36]

Citron adduces - to my mind - a questionable argument by mitigating the degree of messianic mysticism to be found within the very corpus of Lurianic Kabbalah that Scholem seemed to emphasise. Scholem maintained that Lurianic Kabbalahhinges on the idea of redemption.”[37] In light of the many examples that Scholem brings, including the primary role of Lurianic Tikkun (rectification) leading to redemption, this challenge by Citron seems difficult to accept. Additionally, both the Ari and his ‘primary’ student R. Chaim Vital - two main conduits of Lurianic Kabbalah - were regarded separately as being the Messiah. This alone would have charged the air with intense messianic tension.

          Citron, however, brings new convincing evidence emphasising the widespread effects and knowledge of the Khmelnytsky massacres. Additionally, one has to agree with Citron that messianism was always part of Judaism. This approach might also explain why much of the rabbinic world initially went along with Sabbatian ideology as it seemed to represent an extension of the Judaism they were familiar with. Citron makes his point that:


“had Shabbatai not been clearly presented as the normative messiah of Israel he could not have achieved a mass following.”[38]

4          Yehuda Liebes: The Sabbatian concept of redemption

Yehudah Liebes, a student of Scholem,[39] describes Sabbatianism as “the most mystical” of all the earlier Jewish messianic movements.[40] There is a growing body of thought, as represented by Liebes and Idel, that Shabbatai Tzvi was more concerned with personal, mystical and spiritual redemption, not national redemption. This would place him in a different category of Messiah who showed little concern for his people as a nation.[41]

          On this view, Shabbatai Tzvi was not interested in redeeming his people but rather in redeeming the individual, the religion and even God Himself. In this sense, “redemption” also meant redemption from the Jewish religion. This was because Sabbatianism was an antinomian movement which deviated from some important Jewish practices and also promoted promiscuity. Liebes supports the idea of “redemption of God” by showing that Shabbatai Tzvi referred to himself as the Messiah of the God of Jacob, and he meant that quite literally.[42] He was audacious enough to claim he could even redeem God from the Kelipot, or husks of evil. Nathan of Gaza expresses this idea of his master redeeming God when he said:


“And our king, his majesty, took pains about this faith until he seated the King on his throne.”[43]

This way, Liebes completely reconstructs the Sabbatian messianic notion of political and historical redemption of the Jewish people as Scholem saw it, to a dramatic spiritual redemption from religion and it extended to the very redemption of God.

          On the matter of Lurianic influences on Shabbatai Tzvi himself, Liebes suggests that the Lurianic doctrine of God was far too technical and impersonal for him. This was because Lurianic Kabbala had become, in Liebes’ view:

“an advanced, multifaceted machine [that][44] had replaced the personal God.”[45]

Shabbatai Tzvi’s study partner, Moshe Pinheiro, attested that his colleague had abandoned Lurianic devotional prayer and adopted a less restrictive method to pray, simply:

"as someone who prays to His King.”[46]

Liebes also maintains that Shabbatai Tzvi chose to rather interact with the more personal Zoharic Kabbalah:

“rather than to the mechanistic Lurianic one.”[47]

5          Matt Goldish: Centrality of prophecy

Matt Goldish also parts with Scholem’s view of the centrality of Lurianic Kabbalah as a major influence on Sabbbatianism. Goldish explains that this was because the writings of Nathan of Gaza took some time to circulate and by then the movement was already well established. However, the people would have immediately known about the “first spectacular news of Nathan’s prophecy,” as this spread quickly and did not require any form of scholarship. Goldish, therefore, adopts the fascinating position whereby:

“Social movements spread according to the same dynamics as contagious diseases, and one of the keys in even the largest movements is the overwhelming influence of a few individuals.”[48]

Goldish maintains that a small but influential group of rabbis saw what had happened in Gaza on the Festival of Shavu’ot, where much ‘prophetic’ activity had taken place and they became convinced that Shabbatai Tzvi was the Messiah. These rabbis had the ear of the people. Goldish maintains that:

“the spectacle of prophecy rather than any mystical theology was clearly the main catalyst in the first and most critical success of the movement.”[49]

Goldish makes the point that Nathan’s vision took place in Gaza under Ottoman rule. It occurred at a time when there was a strong Sufi influence in the empire. To be clear, Goldish is referring to “prophecy” in its “widest meaning[50] akin to what we may also refer to as “enthusiasm.” Goldish refers to this style of prophecy as “self-induced.[51] These techniques were then “absorbed mimetically” by Nathan of Gaza’s followers.

          There were also parallels drawn between the Quakers and these prophesying Jews, and one Polish publication of 1666 called Shabbatai Tzvi a “Quaker Jew.”[52] By pointing to what has been described as a self-induced if not fraudulent mimesis, Goldish has touched upon a theologically less romantic influence on the Sabbatian movement than Scholem and his theory of a grander Lurianic Kabbalistic influence and an “epochal crisis.

6          David Ruderman: Sabbatianism as a catalyst for Lurianic Kabbalah

David Ruderman writes that the Hanhagot, or popular practices and moral guides within the prevailing Jewish religious literature of the seventeenth century containing ideas inspired by Lurianic Kabbalah, were only disseminated after the Sabbatian movement had begun to spread, and were distributed mainly amongst the Sabbatians themselves. This seems to indicate that:

“Lurianic kabbalah, contra Scholem, did not spread Sabbatianism but, instead, Sabbatianism spread popular forms of Lurianic doctrine among a wider laity”[53]

7          Stephen Sharot: Sephardim and Marranos      

In his sociological study of Sabbatianism, Stephen Sharot is of the view that millenarianism was more dominant among Sefaradim[54] and Marranos[55] than among the Ashkenazim:[56]

“The influence of the Lurianic cabbalah was a contributing factor to the messianic outburst, but it cannot be regarded as a sufficient or even major cause. The centers of Sabbatian enthusiasm in 1666 show a closer correspondence with another factor: the geographical distribution of the Iberian exiles and, in particular, the distribution of the former marranos…”[57]

Sharot goes on to explain that many of these Marranos had been baptized and had had a Catholic upbringing. When they later decided to ‘return’ to Judaism they were shocked by the ritual and attention to the letter of the law that traditional Judaism required of them. They thought they were returning to the biblical Judaism they had anticipated from their reading of the Bible. They risked their lives for something completely different from what they now saw in Judaism:

“They had rejected the authority of the church and the priesthood, and they were now expected to accept the discipline of the Jewish community and its rabbis, to which many educated marranos felt intellectually superior.”[58]

It was therefore particularly in the societies of former Marranos, because of their previous traumas “and problems of identity,” that they experienced a higher level of messianism.[59] Especially after Shabbatai Tzvi’s apostasy, they persisted in holding on to an idea that resonated with them: Shabbatai Tzvi’s apostasy (like the Marranos’ previous conversion to Christianity) was forced upon them; it was just a mask, it was not real. Shabbatai Tzvi was still the Messiah and his messianic adjustments to Judaism with his “new Torah” were a comforting antidote to the “old Torah” and the harshness of its ritual.

         Thus, according to Sharot, Sabbatianism generally followed the geographical paths of the Marranos, and for the reasons outlined above, they can therefore be regarded as an important influencing factor in the movement.

My arguments in favour of the (unpopular) view of Scholem

Having looked at seven different approaches to the root causes of the Sabbatian movement, I now return to the classical, if not unpopular, view of Scholem. My argument is that theological ideas in Judaism need just to ferment in the minds of a few in important positions of rabbinic leadership, for entire generations to be swayed even if they remain unaware of the provenance of those ideas.

        For example: Were one to prove, empirically, that Chassidism later emerged out of Sabbatianism, it would not even dent the mainstream worldview today, which is that the two movements are totally antithetical - because the masses follow leaders and do not concern themselves with the origins of ideas. Similarly, were one to prove that Kabbalah came from Gnosticism, as per Scholem, it would have no bearing whatsoever on the mystics who only follow their kabbalistic teachers and have no interest in tracing the origins of Jewish mysticism.

           By the same token, even if we assume that Sabbatians may have been unaware of the Lurianic origins of their leaders’ ideologies, and even if we assume that Lurianic Kabbalah was not yet a popular literature; it made no difference one way or the other to the people's desire to follow their leaders - and by extension to follow a form of Lurianism even while they may not have been aware of it. In other words, because ‘Torah’[60] transmission is vertical, the people followed their respected rabbis. And by following their rabbis, they were inevitably following Lurianic Kabbalah. My hypothesis is further bolstered by the ubiquitous nature of other forms of historical messianism always being inspired by some form of mysticism.

        In this sense, I argue against the flow of much modern scholarship that Lurianic Kabbalah with its messianic tensions should be seen as a root cause of the Sabbatian movement, because, again, ‘Torah’ transmission is vertical, not horizontal. It is carried out in the ‘rabbinic court’ as opposed to the ‘court of public opinion.’ In a religiously orientated community, rabbinic authority trumps all social and democratic forces and influences. This notion is supported by study and observation of historical and contemporary rabbinic authority within Judaism, and even has an official designation, “Da’at Torah,[61] although I use it here in its widest context. Thus, in my view, once the authority of the rabbinic circle of Nathan of Gaza had been established, the fate of Sabbatianism was sealed, long before societal pressures and other influences could begin to flow their course.

           My point of departure, based on pragmatic and observable evidence and behaviours, is that religious ideas which inevitably sublimate into religious movements, essentially originate from religious leadership. In Judaism, rabbinic leadership is by its very nature authoritative and is even perceived to be ‘Godly’. The notions of Emunat Chachamin (“faith” in the sages), or more recently Daat Torah, describe this very phenomenon where the rabbis’ ideas and proclamations are regarded as being expressions of the Torah, and by extension, even of God. There is much truth in the talmudic notion that a tzadik (righteous individual) decrees and the Holy One blessed be He fulfils [the tzadik’s decree]:


אֲנִי מוֹשֵׁל בָּאָדָם, מִי מוֹשֵׁל בִּי — צַדִּיק, שֶׁאֲנִי גּוֹזֵר גְּזֵרָה וּמְבַטְּלָהּ


“[God is said to declare:] I rule over man, [but] who rules over Me? - The righteous person [as represented by the rabbi]. I issue a decree and the righteous person [is powerful enough to] nullify it.”[62]

This talmudic statement underscores the experiential reality of the known power of the influence of the rabbi.  Even God is said to be moved by the influence of the ‘righteous person.’ This idea is likely based on empirical observations of how the religious masses are persuaded and prejudiced by the theological pronouncements of supreme rabbinic leadership. This way, the transmission of Torah ideology cannot always be fully explained historically or sociologically because it is primarily driven vertically, from the top down. In the early stages, there is very little room for a horizontal or democratic process or even a natural evolution of ideas to occur.

           The rabbinic process is comparable to a chain of command, as it were. One does not, therefore, require mass participation or a predominance of printed literature to perpetuate a religious ideology. All one needs are one or two sufficiently authoritative rabbinic leaders, even if they are active only within small circles, to sow the theological seeds and the ideology will root and spread in fertile ground. I would argue that the kernels of any new theological ideologies are to be found in the teachings of sometimes just one authoritative rabbinic personality. Only once this form of leadership is established and recognised, can history, sociology and even theology play out their important and inevitable roles. While the numbers of followers of a rabbi are sometimes open to dispute and exaggeration, the point is that the ideology gets established, verified and authorised in this initial stage, after which different ‘carriers’ and forces serve to spread the teachings to a wider audience. It is not just any rabbi, and like a perfect storm, the right leader combined with multiple factors have to be in place, but the process is initialised by a sufficiently authoritative rabbinic figure.

           Although the classical view of Scholem regarding the “supremacy” of Lurianic influence on the Sabbatian movement has been challenged by many scholars, another possibility to contemplate in his support, is that with the advent of Lurianic Kabbalah, however widely one wishes to view its dissemination, the foot was in the door to corrode the hitherto traditional authority of the community structures. I would suggest that the previous well-defined halachic[63] and ecclesiastic authority of community rabbis would have been compromised by the growing popularity of Lurianic Kabbalah and its constituent mysticism, which placed authority more on kabbalists and less on non-mystical halachists. As leadership lines became blurred, space would be created for other allied mystical ideas - most notably Sabbatian ideas - to be introduced as well. The world was seen to have pivoted spiritually since the time of the Ari - and particularly from 1630 when Lurianic teachings were publicised. It was believed that there was a shift in the cosmic balance, and from that moment on, there was to be a renewed emphasis on redemptive elements within Judaism.  Lurianic Kabbalah posed a challenge to Halacha.

           My supposition can be applied broadly to counter some of the challenges to Scholem. 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.[64] However, my analysis of Idel’s challenge that Lurianic Kabbalah was too complicated and therefore could not have been as widespread as Scholem suggests, is also based on contemporary observation of modern Jewish mystical approaches. Today, popular mystical Chassidic groups such as Chabad and Breslov, which are largely based on Lurianic Kabbalah, are easily conveying and teaching these concepts of spiritual exile and redemption to the lay population. Kabbalistic and theurgic ideas and practices are commonly even adopted ab initio by non-religious elements of Jewish society.[65] Not everyone might understand the intricate depths of the Kabbalah of the Ari, but many seem comfortably conscious of the basic structures and promises of modern mysticism, theurgy and messianism. By taking these observations and interpolating them back into the Jewish community of the seventeenth century - who would have been even more susceptible to these ideas - one can understand how Lurianic Kabbalah can indeed be considered a major conceptual influence on the general population.                            


Based on the demonstrable notion of intense rabbinic veneration, I would reason, therefore, for a reopening of the currently unfashionable hypothesis of Lurianic influence on the Sabbatian movement as championed by Scholem - but with this modification of rabbinic veneration as a major component in the argument.     

          It didn’t matter so much whether the masses were, or were not, studying Lurianic Kabbalah. The point was that a critical mass had been formed early on by the right core of authoritative rabbis who supported Shabbatai Tzvi.[66] The critical mass was not necessarily by numbers[67] but by something profoundly more influential: rabbinic authority. And by the power and prestige vested in that critical mass, Lurianic ideas and messianic tensions were both directly and subliminally transferred, vertically, to the masses. This way one can still turn to the classical position of Scholem, and Lurianic Kabbalah can once again be regarded as a major influence on the Sabbatian movement. At the same time, the contributions from modern scholarship, with their honing of historical, theological and sociological detail, can remain standing side by side.



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Ruderman, David. “Kabbalah and the Subversion of Traditional Jewish Society in Early Modern Europe.” Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities, vol. 5, Article 10, Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository (1993): 169-178.

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

Scholem, Gershom. “Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea.” Pages 51-74 in Messianism in the Talmudic Era. Edited by Leo Landman, New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1979.

Sharot, Stephen. Messianism, Mysticism, and Magic: A Sociological Analysis of Jewish Religious Movements. The University of North Carolina Press, 1982.










[1] This article is a shortened version of my larger Masters study, and is currently undergoing a peer review process.

[2] Matt Goldish, “Sabbatai Zevi and the Sabbatean Movement,” in The Cambridge History of Judaism (eds. J. Karp & A. Sutcliffe; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 419.

[3] Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah (New York: Dorset Press, 1987), 246

[4] Shaul Magid, “Review of the book Sabbatian Heresy: Writings on Mysticism, Messianism & the Origins of Jewish Modernity ed. by Paweł Maciejko,” AJS Review: The Journal of the Association for Jewish Studies 42 (2018/2): 463.

[5] Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676 (Princeton            University Press, 1973), 5.

[6] Michael Eldridge, Flawed Messiah, The Story of Sabbatai Sevi and Its Significance Today (Olive Press, 2010), 5.

[8] Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 3.

[9] Pinchas Giller, Reading the Zohar: the sacred text of the Kabbalah (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 14.

[10] Marranos were Spanish and Portuguese exiles who converted or were forced to convert to Catholicism but secretly continued to practice Judaism.

[11] Morris Faierstein, “Charisma and Anti-Charisma in Safed: Isaac Luria and Hayyim Vital”, The Journal of the Study of Sephardic and Mizrachi Jewry, 1,2 (2007): 2.

[12] Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken Books, 1941), 287.

[13] Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 8.

[14] Scholem, Kabbalah, 76.

[15] Parenthesis is mine.

[16] Scholem, Kabbalah, 75.

[17] Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 24.

[18] Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 22.

[19] Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 26.

[20] Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 52.

[22] Scholem, Major Trends, 288.

[23] Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 44.

[24] Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 45.

[25] Parentheses are mine.

[26] Chaim Vital, Sefer haLikuttim (Jerusalem 1913), fol. 89a. Translation is from Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 45.

[27] Scholem, Major Trends, 284.

[28] Scholem, Major Trends, 285-86.

[29] Scholem, Major Trends, 247.

[30] Parenthesis is mine.

[31] Scholem, Major Trends, 247.

[32] Gershom Scholem, “Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea,” in Messianism      in the Talmudic Era (ed. Leo Landman; New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1979), 7.

[33] Moshe Idel, “Multiple Forms of Redemption in Kabbalah and Hasidism”, The Jewish           Quarterly Review, 101,1 (2011): 35.

[34] Idel, “Multiple Forms of Redemption,” 36.

[35] Idel, “Multiple Forms of Redemption,” 31-32.

[36] Joseph Citron, “Can Shabbatai Tzvi's Popularity between 1665-66 be explained by his faithfulness to Jewish Messianic tradition?” (Thesis, University of Manchester), n.d., 25.

[37] Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 52.

[38] Citron, “Shabbatai Tzvi's Popularity,” 37.

[39] Scholem was his doctoral advisor.

[40] Yehuda Liebes, Studies in Jewish Myth and Jewish Messianism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), vii.

[41] Liebes, Studies in Jewish Myth, 100.

[42] Liebes, Studies in Jewish Myth, 100.

[43] Liebes, Studies in Jewish Myth, 100.

[44] Parenthesis is mine.

[45] Liebes, Studies in Jewish Myth, 109.

[47] Liebes, Studies in Jewish Myth, 110.

[48] Goldish, The Sabbatean Prophets, 7.

[49] Goldish, The Sabbatean Prophets, 7.

[50] Goldish, The Sabbatean Prophets, xi.

[51] Goldish, The Sabbatean Prophets, 147.

[52] Goldish, The Sabbatean Prophets, 111.

[54] Jews of Spanish extraction.

[55] The Spanish and Portuguese exiles from the expulsion who had been raised as Christians.

[56] Jews of German and central European extraction.

[57] Stephen Sharot, Messianism, Mysticism, and Magic: A Sociological Analysis of Jewish Religious Movements (The University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 101-2.

[58] Sharot, Messianism, 107.

[59] Sharot, Messianism, 109.

[60] The word Torah is used here in its broader sense, not referring to the Pentateuch, but rather conveying the general ethos of rabbinic Judaism and its constituent worldview.

[61] This expression is relatively new and perhaps anachronistic but the idea it represents still holds true in general (See Yitzchak Blau, “’Daas Torah’ Revisited: Contemporary Discourse  about the Rabbinate”, Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, 48, 2/3 (2015): 8-28.

[62] b. Moed Katan 16b. Translation is mine.

[63] Halacha is the legal and ritualistic aspect of Judaism.

[64] Moshe Idel, “One from a Town, Two from a Clan: The Diffusion of Lurianic Kabbala and Sabbatianism: A Re-Examination,” Jewish History, 7, 2 (1993): 79-104.

[65] Although beyond the scope of this discussion, these would include the adoption by the laity of mystical beliefs that a mezuza on the doorposts is for protection, that tehillim (psalms), challah (Shabbat bread) bakes and segulot (amulets) can heal the sick and so forth. The rationalist (Maimonidean) counterarguments to these matters are very often unknown to both the secular and even the popular religious camps.

[66] Or more accurately, Nathan of Gaza who was the ideologue of the Sabbatain movement and spokesperson of Shabbatai Tzvi.

[67] Although the numbers of rabbis who supported Shabbatai Tzvi, as we have seen, were not insignificant.

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