Sabbateans (Sabbatians) is a complex general term that refers to a variety of followers of, disciples and believers in Sabbatai Zevi (1626–1676), a Jewish rabbi who was proclaimed to be the Jewish Messiah in 1665 by Nathan of Gaza. Vast numbers of Jews in the Jewish diaspora accepted his claims, even after he became a Jewish apostate with his conversion to Islam in 1666. Sabbatai Zevi’s followers, both during his “Messiahship” and after his conversion to Islam, are known as Sabbateans. They can be grouped into three: “Maaminim” (believers), “Haberim” (associates), and “Ba’ale Milhamah” (warriors).
Part of the Sabbateans lived on until well into the 20th century as Dönmeh.
In Jewish history many Jews post Sabbatai Zvi’s apostasy, although horrified, clung to the belief that Zvi could still be regarded as the true Jewish messiah. They constituted the largest number of Sabbateans during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By the nineteenth century Jewish Sabbateans had been reduced to small groups of hidden followers who feared being discovered for their beliefs that were deemed to be entirely heretical and antithetical to classical Judaism. These very Jews fell under the category of Sectarian Sabbateans which was born when many Sabbateans refused to accept that Zvi’s apostasy might have been indicative of the fact that their faith was genuinely an illusion.
Another large group of Sabbateans succeeding the apostasy began to view Islam in an extremely negative light. Polemics against Islam erupted directly after Zvi’s conversion. Some of these attacks were considered part of a largely Anti-Sabbatean agenda. Accusations coming from Anti-Sabbateans revolved around the idea that Sabbatai Zvi’s conversion to Islam was rightfully an indicator of a false claim of messianism.
Sabbatai Zevi’s conversion to Islam
Jewish historians have stated that it is hard to describe the national sense of shock and trauma that set in when the masses of Jews all over the world learned that someone as famous as Sabbatai Zevi had officially abandoned his faith for Islam. However, the fact remains that Zevi is the most famous Jew to have become a Muslim, which is also what the term Sabbatean has come to denote. Many within Zevi’s inner circle followed him into Islam, including his wife Sarah and most of his closest relatives and friends. Nathan of Gaza, the scholar closest to Zevi, who had caused Zevi to reveal his Messiahship and in turn became his prophet, never followed his master into Islam but remained a Jew, albeit excommunicated by his Jewish brethren.
Sabbatean – Sufi similarities
Claims of ties between Sabbatean Kabbalah and Sufism go back to the days of Sabbatai Zevi. This is largely based on the contention that Zevi’s exile in the Balkans brought him into close contact with several forms of unorthodox Sufism which existed in the region. The Dönme community of Salonika came to play a significant role in the Sufi life of the region and its members actively involved with a number of Sufi orders, particularly the Mevlevi. Some alleged similarities between Dönme and unorthodox Sufi practice seem to exist, including the violation of kashrut/halal, sexual license, ecstatic singing, mystical interpretations of sacred scripture, and the practice of ritual meals. However, confirmed direct ties between Sabbatai Zevi and any Sufi order are conjectural and hearsay. The often claimed connection between the movement and Bektashi Sufismrelies merely on circumstantial evidence and coincidence rather than any concrete substantiation. During Zevi’s lifetime the Bektashi order had yet to attain widespread popularity in the Balkans; it came to dominate southern Albania only in the late 19th century. Nevertheless, there were a number of other heterodox Sufi movements in the region in the mid-17th century, including the Hamzevis, Melamis and Qalandars.
Inside the Ottoman Empire, those followers of Zevi who had converted to Islam but who secretly continued Jewish observances and Brit Mila became known as the Dönme (Turkish: dönme “convert”).
The Emden-Eybeschutz controversy
The Emden-Eybeschutz controversy was a serious rabbinical disputation with wider political ramifications in Europe that followed the accusations by Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697–1776) who was a fierce opponent of the Sabbateans, against Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz(1690–1764) whom he accused of being a secret Sabbatean.
The Emden-Eybeschutz controversy arose concerning the amulets which Emden suspected Eybeschutz of issuing. It was alleged that these amulets recognized the messianic claims of Sabbatai Zevi. Emden then accused Eybeschutz of heresy. Emden was known for his attacks directed against the adherents, or those he supposed to be adherents, of Sabbatai Zevi. In Emden’s eyes, Eybeschutz was a convicted Sabbatean. The controversy lasted several years, continuing even after Eybeschutz’s death.
Emden’s assertion of heresy was chiefly based on the interpretation of some amulets prepared by Eybeschutz, in which Emden professed to see Sabbatean allusions. Hostilities began before Eybeschutz left Prague; when Eybeschutz was named chief rabbi of the three communities of Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbek (1751), the controversy reached the stage of intense and bitter antagonism. Emden maintained that he was at first prevented by threats from publishing anything against Eybeschutz. He solemnly declared in his synagogue the writer of the amulets to be a Sabbathean heretic and deserving of cherem (excommunication).
The majority of the rabbis in Poland, Moravia, and Bohemia, as well as the leaders of the Three Communities, supported Eybeschutz: the accusation was “utterly incredible” – in 1725, Eybeschutz was among the Prague rabbis who excommunicated the Sabbatean sect. (Others suggest that the rabbis issued this ruling because they feared the repercussions if their leading figure was found to be a Sabbatean).
The controversy was a momentous incident in Jewish history of the period, involving both Rabbi Yechezkel Landau and the Vilna Gaon, and may be credited with having crushed the lingering belief in Sabbatai current even in some Orthodox circles. In 1760 the quarrel broke out once more when some Sabbatean elements were discovered among the students of Eybeschutz’ yeshivah. At the same time his younger son, Wolf, presented himself as a Sabbatean prophet, with the result that the yeshivah was closed.
Sabbateans and early Hasidism
Some scholars see seeds of the Hasidic movement within the Sabbatean movement. When Hasidism began to spread its influence, a serious schism evolved between the Hasidicand non-Hasidic Jews. The Hasidim dubbed any Jews who rejected the Hasidic movement as misnagdim (“opponents”).
Critics of Hasidic Judaism expressed concern that Hasidism might become a messianic sect as had occurred among the followers of both Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank. However The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, came at a time when the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe were reeling in bewilderment and disappointment engendered by the two Jewish false messiahs Sabbatai Zevi (1626–1676) and Jacob Frank (1726–1791) in particular.
Sabbateans and modern secularism
Some scholars have noted that the Sabbatean movement in general fostered and connected well with the principles of modern secularism. Related to this is the drive of the Donmeh in Turkey for secularizing their society just as European Jews promoted the values of Age of Enlightenment and its Jewish equivalent the haskalah.
Disillusioned Jewish Sabbateans
Sabbatai’s conversion to Islam was extremely disheartening for the world’s Jewish communities. Among the masses of the people the greatest confusion reigned. In addition to the misery and disappointment from within, Muslims and Christians jeered at and scorned the credulous and duped Jews. In spite of Sabbatai’s apostasy, many of his adherents still tenaciously clung to him, claiming that his conversion was a part of the Messianic scheme. This belief was further upheld and strengthened by the likes of Nathan of Gaza and Samuel Primo, who were interested in maintaining the movement.
Rabbis who opposed the Sabbateans
Rabbi Joseph Escapa (1572–1662) was especially known for having been the teacher of Zevi and for having afterward excommunicated him.
Rabbi Aaron Lapapa (1590–1674) was the rabbi at Smyrna in 1665, when Zevi’s movement was at its height there. He was one of the few rabbis who had the courage to oppose the false prophet and excommunicate him. Zevi and his adherents retorted by deposing him and forcing him to leave the city, and his office was given to his colleague, Hayyim Benveniste, at that time one of Sabbatai’s followers. After Sabbatai’s conversion to Islam, Lapapa seems to have been reinstated.
Rabbi Jacob Hagis (1620–1674) was one of Zevi’s chief opponents, who put him under the ban. About 1673 Hagis went to Constantinople to publish his Lehem ha-Panim, but he died there before this was accomplished. This book, as well as many others of his, was lost.
Rabbi Moses Hagiz (1671- c. 1750) was born in Jerusalem and waged a campaign against Sabbatean emissaries during 1725-1726.
Jacob ben Aaron Sasportas
Rabbi Jacob ben Aaron Sasportas (1610–1698) was one of the fiercest opponents of the Sabbatean movement. He wrote many letters to various communities in Europe, Asia, and Africa, exhorting them to unmask the impostors and to warn the people against them. He documented his struggle in his book Tzitzat Novel Tzvi, the title being based on Isaiah 28:4. He wrote a number of works, such as Toledot Ya’akob (1652), an index of Biblical passages found in the haggadah of the Jerusalem Talmud, similar to Aaron Pesaro’s Toledot Aharon, which relates to the Babylonian Talmud only; and Ohel Ya’akov (1737), a volume of halachik responsa which includes polemical correspondence against Zevi and his followers.
Rabbi David Nieto (1654–1728) was the haham of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community in London. He waged war untiringly on the Sabbateans, which he regarded as dangerous to the best interests of Judaism, and in this connection wrote his Esh Dat (London, 1715) against Nehemiah Hayyun (who supported Zevi).
Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi (1656–1718) known as the Chacham Tzvi, for some time rabbi of Amsterdam, was a resolute opponent of the followers of Sabbatai Zevi. In Salonica he also witnessed the impact of the Sabbatai Zevi movement on the community, and this experience became a determining factor in his whole career. His son Jacob Emden served as rabbi in Emden and followed in his father’s footsteps in combating the Sabbatean movement.
Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697–1776) was Talmudic scholar and leading opponent of the Sabbatians. He is best known as the opponent of Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz whom he accused of being a Sabbatean during The Emden-Eybeschütz Controversy.
Rabbi Naphtali Cohen (1649–1718) was a kabbalist who was tricked into giving an approbation to a book by the Sabbatean Nehemiah Hayyun. Provided with this and with other recommendations secured in the same way, Hayyun traveled throughout Moravia and Silesia, propagating everywhere his Sabbatean teachings. Cohen soon discovered his mistake, and endeavored, without success, to recover his approbation, although he did not as yet realize the full import of the book. It was in 1713, while Cohen was staying at Breslau (where he acted as a rabbi until 1716), that Haham Tzvi Ashkenazi of Amsterdam informed him of its tenets. Cohen thereupon acted rigorously. He launched a ban against the author and his book, and became one of the most zealous supporters of Haham Tzvi in his campaign against Hayyun.