Sabbatai ?evi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676

Sabbatai ?evi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676


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Gershom Scholem stands out among modern thinkers for the richness and power of his historical imagination. A work widely esteemed as his magnum opus, Sabbatai Ṣevi offers a vividly detailed account of the only messianic movement ever to engulf the entire Jewish world. Sabbatai Ṣevi was an obscure kabbalist rabbi of seventeenth-century Turkey who aroused a fervent following that spread over the Jewish world after he declared himself to be the Messiah. The movement suffered a severe blow when Ṣevi was forced to convert to Islam, but a clandestine sect survived. A monumental and revisionary work of Jewish historiography, Sabbatai Ṣevi details Ṣevi's rise to prominence and stands out for its combination of philological and empirical authority and passion. This edition contains a new introduction by Yaacob Dweck that explains the scholarly importance of Scholem's work to a new generation of readers.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691172095
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/04/2016
Series: Bollingen Series , #80
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 1096
Sales rank: 825,036
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.50(h) x 2.50(d)

About the Author

Gershom Scholem (1897–1982) was one of the most important Jewish intellectuals of the twentieth century and the father of the academic study of Jewish mysticism. He was a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Yaacob Dweck is associate professor of history and Judaic studies at Princeton University. He is the author of The Scandal of Kabbalah (Princeton).

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Sabbatai Sevi

The Mystical Messiah 1626â" 1676

By Gershom Scholem


Copyright © 1973 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-17209-5




A Survey of Jewish history during the period immediately preceding the outbreak of Sabbatian messianism would unduly surpass the limits of the present study. Nonetheless there are problems that cannot go unmentioned if we are to understand the generation that gave birth to this messianic movement. Many factors were involved in producing the events described in the following pages. An analysis of their relative importance is all the more urgent as historians have reached no unanimity in answering the great initial question: What exactly were the decisive factors that brought about the messianic outbreak?

The usual, somewhat simplistic explanation posits a direct historical connection between the Sabbatian movement and certain other events of the same period. According to this view, the messianic outbreak was a direct consequence of the terrible catastrophe that had overtaken Polish Jewry in 1648–49 (see below, pp. 88–93) and had shaken the very foundations of the great Jewish community in Poland. The destruction had, in fact, surpassed anything known of earlier persecutions in other countries. This explanation was plausible enough as long as it could be maintained — as, indeed, it has been until now — that Sabbatianism as a popular movement started as far back as 1648, when Sabbatai Sevi came forward for the first time with messianic claims. It was supposed that Sabbatai's followers conducted a propaganda campaign, converting more and more believers until the movement reached its climax in 1666. Though it will be argued in what follows that there is no foundation whatever for this view, at the outset we may duly take note of one grimly concrete historical fact: there had been a major disaster, and soon afterward there was a messianic outbreak. The real significance of the former for an understanding of the genesis of the latter will become clearer as our story unfolds.

Even on its own premises the aforementioned explanation accounts for only half the facts — and the lesser half, for that matter. 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 earlier messianic movements, from Bar Kokhba, who led the Jewish revolt against Rome in 132–35 C.E., onward, were limited to a certain area. Somewhere a prophet, or possibly a messiah himself, arose proclaiming that the end of days was at hand and launched a movement limited to a province or a country. Never before had there been a movement that swept the whole House of Israel. It would seem unwise to try and explain this wide extension by factors that were operative in one area only, whatever their weight and significance there. Our caution will increase when we consider the fact that the Sabbatian movement did not originate in Poland but in Palestine. If the massacres of 1648 were in any sense its principal cause, why did the messiah not arise within Polish Jewry? And if there was such a messiah, why did he fail to rouse the masses, and why did he sink into oblivion? The Sabbatian movement spread wherever Jews lived — from the Yemen, Persia, and Kurdistan to Poland, Holland, Italy, and Morocco. There is no reason for assuming that Moroccan Jewry was particularly affected by the massacres of 1648, of which they probably had heard very little anyway. It is also a remarkable fact that Polish Jews were not particularly conspicuous among the main propagandists of the movement.

Of even greater relevance to our argument is the collapse of earlier messianic movements as a result of disappointment. Initial reports turned out to be untrue, the messiah disappeared or was killed, and the movement petered out. This was the usual course of things; but for some contemporary chroniclers or letter writers not even an echo of many of these movements would have reached us. Occasionally traditions about such an outbreak would linger in popular memory, but after a generation or two everything would be forgotten. The Sabbatian movement is the great exception to this rule: not only did history belie its message, but the disillusionment was so exceptionally cruel that normally it should have been the last nail to the movement's coffin. The messiah had apostatized and publicly betrayed his mission. If the movement did not die out there and then but survived the seemingly fatal crisis, persisting for generations in various forms and metamorphoses, then its roots must have lain deeper than in local circumstances and conditions. Indeed, they must have reached down to the layer of common heritage on which the attitudes of seventeenth-century Jewry as a whole were founded. The massacres of 1648 no doubt contributed their share, but as an historical factor they lack the dimension of depth within which alone the Sabbatian movement becomes intelligible. We must, therefore, look for other factors of wider and more fundamental validity.

The quest for other specific conditions, common to Poland as well as other Jewish communities, is not likely to be more successful. In some countries the situation was actually or potentially one of persecution, and the message of redemption could reasonably be expected to find ready ears. Persia, the Yemen, and Morocco are instances of this kind. However, the movement did not manifest any lesser momentum in those Jewish centers that enjoyed peace and prosperity. If these communities too were haunted by a sense of catastrophe, it did not stem from their immediate experience but from deeper and less specific causes.

For the same reason we must view with grave doubts all attempts at an easy sociological or economic explanation of the Sabbatian success, all the more so as there is no possibility at all of describing the movement in terms of an eruption of social or class tensions within Jewry. As regards the economic situation, one is struck by the similarity of responses to the messianic tidings in ruined and pauperized communities, such as Poland, and in the most prosperous and flourishing centers. The Jewries of Constantinople, Salonika, Leghorn, Amsterdam, and Hamburg, whose star had for some time been in the ascendant, were in the vanguard of Sabbatian enthusiasm. Christian contemporaries more than once voiced their angry surprise at the privileges and freedoms enjoyed by the Jews of Salonika, Leghorn, and Amsterdam. Yet these Jews threw all economic considerations to the winds and, as far as we can ascertain, gave way to unbridled messianic enthusiasm. Our knowledge of the last-named communities and of their attitudes during the messianic outbreak is good. Turkish Jewry was safely established and had not yet passed its prime. Palestinian Jewry was, as usual, sunk in the depths of misery, but its misery has no bearing on our evaluation of the position of the Jews in the rest of the expanding Ottoman Empire in which anti-Jewish persecutions were extremely rare and ran counter to the considered policy of its rulers. Here, in the empire, by far the great majority of Spanish Jews, the main bearers of the Sabbatian movement, had settled. The amazing rise of the communities of Amsterdam and Hamburg is well known. Yet the members of these communities, descendants of marranos, reacted no differently from their brethren in Morocco who smarted under almost continuous oppression and persecution.

The question of internal social relations is far more delicate and obscure and requires very careful examination. Whatever the legitimacy of generalizations about the attitudes of particular communities to Sabbatianism, we ought still to ask what were the personal and social differences in the attitudes of the rich and the poor, of the ruling class and the masses. The problem is much confused by the subsequent arguments of both Sabbatian believers and opponents. In the years of the great disillusionment following Sabbatai's apostasy, the opponents again raised their heads and contended that the "rabble" had forced the unwilling rabbis and sages to comply or, at least, to keep quiet. Conversely we find the Sabbatians themselves accusing the rabbis and the rich, that is, the social elite, of opposing the movement. The suspicion that the response to the Sabbatian message was conditioned by social factors thus appears to be confirmed by both sides and supported by such diverse witnesses as Jacob Sasportas and Joseph ha-Levi on the one hand, and Abraham Miguel Cardozo on the other. This unanimity, however, is misleading, and the measure of truth that it contains is less than appears at first sight. We are dealing here with an explanation after the fact, useful to both sides, though for opposite reasons. It provided an easy way out to the leaders of the Jewish communities — particularly if they were anti-Sabbatians — who could now exculpate themselves and their colleagues by claiming that their unwilling co-operation had been extorted under pressure from the "mob." The Sabbatians, on the other hand, who wanted an explanation for the failure of the movement, could easily agree with their opponents and point to them as the scapegoats whose lack of true faith had led to the messianic debacle.

None of these explanations is borne out, however, by the documents composed during the high tide of the movement. True enough, the opposition to Sabbatai Sevi included rich merchants, lay leaders, and rabbis, that is, members of the ruling class. There is nothing surprising in this. The theologians were faced with grave religious and intellectual difficulties by the personality and behavior of the "messiah"; their doubts could easily turn to opposition. The rich had something to lose by the new order which the messiah was supposed to inaugurate. The "small man" was more easily drawn into the emotional vortex generated by the messianic proclamation; he had neither reason nor strength to resist. All the more surprising is the real proportion of believers and unbelievers within the ruling classes. All later statements notwithstanding, the majority of the ruling class was in the camp of the believers, and the prominent and active part played by many of them is attested by all reliable documents. No doubt there was also pressure from below, yet most of the communal leaders did not wait for this pressure; as a matter of fact, they did not require it in order to be spurred into action. 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. As a matter of fact, this picture is supported by some later writers who had long ago given up all their former hopes and wrote without special pleading, but just spoke their minds. Their reports tend to confirm the earlier documents. The movement knew no class distinctions. It embraced the millionaires of Amsterdam who, much as Abraham Pereira, offered their whole fortunes to the messiah, as well as the poorest beggars in forlorn corners of the Diaspora. Social stratification cannot account for the actual alignment of forces, which contradicts all expectations based on social instinct or interest alone. Very possibly there were economic reasons for the hesitancy of some of the rich, and we can easily appreciate the tendency of some of them to hold fast to the status quo. But what about the majority who acted against their ostensible interests? The messianic awakening clearly transcended all classes, insofar as we are at all entitled to apply this term to Jewish society, where the social mobility of individuals and the frequency of sudden changes of fortune were hardly conducive to the consolidation of "classes."

It should be possible, no doubt, to draw a picture of Jewish social life in the middle of the seventeenth century that would bring out its inner tensions. Exploitation of authority or of connections with gentile rulers for private or clique interests, graft, and even occasional corruption in the direction of communal affairs, the helplessness of the small artisan and shopkeeper — all these are facts which social historians have had no difficulty in establishing wherever sufficient documentary evidence has survived. Even if there is much exaggeration in the fulminations and criticisms of preachers and moralists, the substance of their charges is amply confirmed by the documentary material that has been preserved in archives. No doubt the specific social conditions in any given community and the relations obtaining between individuals and groups duly influenced the responses to the messianic movement. The strained personal relations between the rabbis of Smyrna at the time of Sabbatai's revelation in 1665 present one such instance among many which we shall come across. Local conditions certainly shaped and colored the movement in many places; yet, without wishing to minimize their significance, we must also beware of overestimating their role as a general factor explaining the phenomenon as a whole. If there was one general factor underlying the patent unity of the Sabbatian movement everywhere, then this factor was essentially religious in character and as such obeyed its own autonomous laws, even if today these are often obscured behind smokescreens of sociological verbiage. The interrelations and interaction of religion and society should not make us forget that ultimately the two are not identical. It was this religious factor that set up the peculiar spiritual tension out of which Sabbatian messianism could be born, manifesting itself as an historical force throughout Israel, and not merely in one of the many branches of the Diaspora. Religious factors are not isolated entities and they never operate in a vacuum. Impinging on the social situation, the religious factor caused the various groups, the leading classes in particular, to join the messianic movement. As it happens, we are in a position to identify and name this religious factor. It was none other than Lurianic kabbalism, that is, that form of kabbalah which had developed at Safed, in the Galilee, during the sixteenth century and which dominated Jewish religiosity in the seventeenth century.

The powerful kabbalistic movement that issued from Safed and quickly spread over the Jewish world is an excellent and perhaps unique example of the reciprocity between center and periphery in Jewish history. Safed, which had never before possessed any special status or significance, became a major center of Judaism in the sixteenth century as a result of a steady flow of immigrants from the Diaspora. The principal founders of the new center were Spanish exiles, but they were soon joined by enthusiasts from other communities, until Safed became a kind of miniature distillation of the whole Jewish Diaspora. The creative genius of the Galilean center drew its strength from the Diaspora, and it was thither that its influence radiated back, transforming Jewish spirituality everywhere. The doctrines developed in the schools of Safed apparently embodied some fundamental and universal Jewish quality that transcended all local variations, some kind of quintessential historical experience of Jewry in exile, for otherwise they would hardly have succeeded in opening up a new dimension to the traditional universe of Jewish religiosity. As the kabbalistic movement, highly charged with messianic tension, spread from Safed and conquered the Diaspora, it also laid the foundations for the future discharge of this tension. Here we may have part of the answer to our initial question. The kabbalism of the age was the spiritual heritage common to all Jewish communities; it had provided them with an interpretation of history and with a fund of ideas and practices without which the Sabbatian movement is unthinkable.


Before, however, defining more precisely the specific contribution of Lurianic kabbalism to the spiritual climate of the seventeenth century, a few words are in order about the nature and function of the messianic idea in Jewish history. It cannot be our task to discuss the origin of the messianic idea and its impact on Judaism during the decisive periods of its formation. Our immediate and more limited aim is an understanding of the messianic idea as it affected medieval Judaism, existing as it did in conditions of exile. To this end we must distinguish two main tendencies in which the messianic longing of generations had crystallized. These were the popular-mythological and the philosophical-rationalist traditions. They existed side by side. They often converged and even merged. Nevertheless, we are entitled to treat them as basically distinct.

What, we may ask, did the messianic idea imply for the simple Jew whose hopes were nourished, in addition to the biblical prophecies, by a number of popular and well-known legends and apocalyptic midrashim? Traditional popular messianism was characterized by catastrophe and utopianism, and both elements play an important role in the dynamics of the messianic faith. Both have their roots in biblical prophecy, the one in the vision of the end of days (as in Isaiah), the other in the notion of a day of the Lord (as in Amos). In the system of values as well as in the practical life of the ordinarymedieval Jew, these two tendencies fulfilled different functions, with regard to both his surrounding environment and his own universe of rabbinic tradition.


Excerpted from Sabbatai Sevi by Gershom Scholem. Copyright © 1973 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Table of Contents, pg. ix
  • List of Plates, pg. xv
  • Table of Transliteration, pg. xix
  • Preface, pg. xxi
  • Introduction to The Princetion Classics Edition, pg. xxix
  • 1. The Background of The Sabbatian Movement, pg. 1
  • 2. The Beginnings of Sabbatai Sevi (1626 - 1664), pg. 103
  • 3. The Beginnings of The Movement in Palestine (1665), pg. 199
  • 4. The Movement Up to Sabbatai's Imprisonment in Gallipoli (1665 - 1666), pg. 327
  • 5. The Movement in Europe (1666), pg. 461
  • 6. The Movement in The East and The Center at Gallipoli Until Sabbatai's Apostasy (1666), pg. 603
  • 7. After The Apostasy (1667 - 1668), pg. 687
  • 8. The Last Years of Sabbatai Sevi (1668 - 1676), pg. 821
  • Bibliography, pg. 931
  • Index, pg. 957

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