Kabbalah, a term which means “received” as related to tradition, has developed in stages from ancient Judaism to the present. Kabbalism underwent a radical change within medieval Judaism, with a mystical and secretive bent, based upon new revelations and understanding of the Bible, Talmud, and tradition. The gist of medieval kabbalism is that God is concealed within ten sefirot (emanations), sort of outer coverings, which are illusory manifestations of the Godhead. The sefirot are divided between the three upper and the seven lower ones: crown, wisdom, and understanding (upper); mercy, justice, beauty, victory, majesty, foundation, and Shekhinah or Malkhut (lower). These are symbols of attributes or personalities of God, which also exist within humans; hence, “man was made in the image of God.” Shekinah is the touchstone for the lower world, an intermediary emanation which, of all the sefirot, is most accessible to human beings. Sefirot do not detract from the Infinite Oneness of God (Ein Sof), but only serve to reveal his characteristics, and their sefirotic interactions. For example, Wisdom (father) impregnates Understanding (mother) and she gives birth to the lower sefirot. Tiferet is male and has an off-and-on love relationship with Malchut, who is female. The whole schema of the sefirot in their ideal state is held in equilibrium, so, for example, the counterparts Justice and Mercy temper each other to prevent excessive judgment or excessive mercy.
In the 16th century in Safed, Israel, there formed a circle of kabbalists, who expounded upon mystical traditions that were largely based upon the Zohar, a compilation of writings assembled and revealed by Moses de Leon in the late 13th century. Moses Cordovero was the leader of the Safed community beginning 1630, and he expanded on kabbalism in the areas of Creation and the Godhead. He introduced his theology and the history of the sefirot through his extensive writings. After his death, Isaac Luria (known as HaAri, the Lion), who was born in Safed, moved to Egypt in childhood and returned to Safed in 1670. There he was recognized as the de facto spiritual head, whose mind flowed incessantly with kabbalistic thoughts that were recorded by Hayyim Vital, also a member of the circle. Luria propelled Kabbalah from primarily an individual endeavor designed to get closer to God, to the realm of Israel’s calling to restore the cosmos through theurgic action.
According to Luria’s teachings, in order for God to create, he had to withdraw to make room for the creation. This tsimsum (contraction) resulted in an overage of effulgence flowing downward from the upper sefirot, where sparks of light caused a breaking of divine vessels. In turn, these vessels scattered into shards and hid the divine light under their broken pieces (kelipot). As a result, the sefirot fell into disharmony, no longer in a state of homeostasis. Evil seeped in or was released through the brokenness. God was rent and in need of rescue to effectuate tikkun olam. According to Luria and his disciples, this restoration required aggressive action rather than simply waiting for it to happen. The kelipot had to be removed so that the sparks of light would rise and return to their proper pre-shattered state. In this grand work, Jews were called to do this service by observing the commandments, or halakhah, by doing mitzvot and refraining from evil.
The Shekinah, from the time of the Spanish Expulsion in 1492, was in exile and consequently so were Jews, for what happens in the upper world is mirrored in the lower world, and vice versa. In order to complete the restoration of God’s harmony and thus ours, Safed kabbalists engaged in bizarre conduct to purge the kelipot so that the trapped divine lights might rise and return to their appropriate places within the sefirotic structure. The Safed ascetics’ strange behavior included glossolalia, extreme fasting, automatic speech and handwriting, self-flagellation, rolling in the snow naked, and physically enacting a meeting with the Shekinah by wandering through real and imagined cemeteries and burial plots in Safed while wearing white and calling to the “beloved” Shekinah Sabbath bride.
By the late 17th century Lurianic Kabbalah and its teachings spread throughout the Jewish world. This is the background that surrounds the emergence of Sabbatai Tzvi and his kabbalist-prophet supporter, Nathan of Gaza.
Sabbateanism and its meteoric rise and demise was a 17th century mystery until the 20th century scholar Gershom Scholem discovered Jewry’s widespread embrace of Sabbatai Tzvi as the long-awaited Messiah. The movement centered on Tzvi, who claimed to be the Messiah despite intentionally and repeatedly breaking Jewish law, and ultimately converting to Islam. He was supported in his antinomian antics by Nathan of Gaza, who through prophetical utterings and kabbalistic theology explained and confirmed Tzvi’s messiahship. Because of a massive cover-up by Jewish leaders embarrassed over a majority of world Jewry embracing a pseudo-messiah who converted to Islam, it took this astute historian, in detective mode three-hundred years after the fact, to make the discovery. Scholem concluded that the rise of Sabbateanism was directly linked to a form of Lurianic Kabbalah, which combined messianism and tikkun olam. He pointed to the root of the movement,
not in political or social factors but in the slowly germinating influence of . . . Lurianic Cabbala, whose doctrines and symbols had penetrated deeply into the soul of 17th-century Jewry, preparing it both intellectually and spiritually for the advent of a Messiah.
Scholem’s student Moshe Idel strongly questioned the thesis that Lurianism was sufficiently disseminated by the middle 17th century to impact the masses. Moreover, Lurianic Kabbalah, he contended, was too complex to study alone, even if its writings were in the hands of the many. Instead, he suggested that the primary blame for the massive embrace of the pseudo-messiahship of Tzvi could be derived from further study of the historical and social background of the times, which included massacres of 1648–49, when 300,000 Jews were slaughtered by Cossack bands led by Bogdan Chmielnicki in Ukraine. Such community persecutions and devastations surrounding this era contributed to triggering the Jewish dream and anticipation of redemption, leaving the people receptive to Tzvi and his claims.
Matt Goldish, in his work on Sabbatai Tzvi, points to “Sabbatean prophets” as “an exceptionally potent and broad influence” facilitating the intensification of the movement that led more than half the Jewish world to a frenzied hope in this false Messiah. It is the intent of this paper to suggest that, in fact, the primary culprit was a fatal admixture of factors that targeted Tzvi as the promised Jewish Messiah. Hence, Scholem (kabbalah), Idel (historical and social background), and Goldish (prophecy) taken together identify three underlying causes that coalesced to form a “messianic storm.”
After a sketch of the life of Sabbatai Tzvi, this paper highlights Nathan of Gaza’s prophetic and kabbalistic roles and suggests that his unique application of these offices resulted in a conflagration of messianic fervor surrounding the claims of Tzvi and his enlarging circle. Hence, along with the historical and social trajectory outlined by Idel, Nathan’s kabbalistic creativity and application consistent with Tzvi’s behavior, coupled with Nathan’s prophetic words, imagery, and ecstasy, kindled a fire among the rabbinic sages. This in turn commingled with Nathan’s prophetic writings and utterances triggering the mass of laity to intense messianic agitation. Hence, a confluence of kabbalism and prophecy, along with the background of the times, worked together to ignite an apocalyptic messianic firestorm, which rapidly spread through the Jews of Ottoman lands and European communities.
The Sabbatean movement surged onto the scene with waves of intra-sefirotic imbalance preconditioned by the alluring expectation that the time of Exile was coming to a close and the time of Redemption was nearing its climax. It continued in the throes of heightened ecstasy, enhanced by a superimposition of Nathan’s creative Lurianic additives, which converged with prophecy, to ultimately birth a spiritual catastrophe, which had enduring negative impact on world Jewry.
This movement exacerbated the rupture within Israel, which still struggles with the breach to this day, while experiencing a proliferation of mysticism and new age realities. Kabbalistic and mystical personages within Israel, whether intentionally or unconsciously, seek to clear the underbrush, liberate the light, and thereby restore civility to a severely broken world. In essence, the whole scenario unfolded through progressive waves: (1) Nathan’s Lurianic Kabbalah and prophecies impacted kabbalist elites; (2) Nathan’s prophetic utterings overflowed downward to the laity; (3) together these produced unconditional support for a law-breaking pseudo-messiah who ultimately imaged “redemption through sin.”
Sabbatai Tzvi and His Bizarre Antics
Sabbatai Tzvi was born in Izmir, Turkey, in 1626 into an upper middle-class family of Spanish origin. He lived mainly within the Ottoman territories. A devout educated Jew who subscribed to traditional Judaism in his earlier years, he exhibited increasingly erratic and bizarre behavior in his later years. Because of his strange actions of pronouncing the ineffable name YHVH, marrying a Torah, and dressing a fish as a baby, along with a number of radical antinomian practices, he was placed under the harem (ban) in Jerusalem, Smyrna, and other places in the 1640s and 50s. This did not stop him from continuing to periodically identify as the Messiah beginning in 1648, and then withdrawing because of doubts, but ultimately peaking in his bold vision and action in 1665. Propelled by mania, he sought the crown from the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV in 1666 in order to establish the Messianic Kingdom. In Tzvi’s hallucinatory delusion-of-grandeur state, he believed the Sultan was to be his subservient assistant. Instead, Tzvi’s misconceived bold move resulted in imprisonment and an ultimatum of death or conversion to Islam. Tzvi chose conversion, and was instructed in Islamic tenets, studied the Qur’an, and prayed in a mosque, all under the watchful eye of the Sultan’s command. Yet, he continued to study kabbalism, observed some wayward form of halakhah, and engaged in Hebrew prayers, all while maintaining erratic behavior, his messianic mission, reportedly immoral praxis, and creating new festivals and abolishing others, in the mode of his previous antinomianism. These activities he continued until his death on Yom Kippur, 1676.
When Tzvi chose conversion it would be expected that his messianic claim and backing would have ended. However, it was Nathan of Gaza, the promoter of his messiahship, who kept the messianic hope alive through explaining the divine agency in human affairs that Tzvi, as Messiah, was operating under, to effectuate restoration of God in the upper world. This consequently would have had the effect of restoring man in the lower world. Tzvi conjoined a radical form of Lurianic kabbalism with ecstatic prophecy, resulting in a new messianism. Because Nathan was a highly recognized halakhic authority, well-respected prophet, and dayan of renown, his claims were not easily dismissed.
Nathan of Gaza
Abraham Nathan ben Elisha Hayyim Ashkenazi (1643–1680) was born in Jerusalem; his father was a rabbinic scholar who focused on raising money throughout Europe to relieve the suffering of poor Jews in Jerusalem. His mother was from a well-to-do family from Gaza. Nathan was well educated in Jewish writings and formally studied kabbalism of the Lurianic variety in his youth. He was a strict halakhist of the old school, paying obeisance to the sages of the past and connecting them to his present.
When Nathan was a young man in yeshiva in Jerusalem, he met Sabbatai Tzvi and was so impressed that he decided to make his life’s calling supportive of Tzvi’s messianic pathway. In fact it appears as if Nathan focused his prophetic calling and Lurianic exegesis toward that end, at risk to his reputation, to do whatever was required to convince world Jewry that Tzvi was the Messiah. At times he had to convince Tzvi himself when he was in a period of doubt. Perhaps, under the influence of Tzvi’s hyper-charisma, and the strong sweet body odor Tzvi reportedly emitted, Nathan actually believed Tzvi to be Messiah. A few key occurrences demonstrate Nathan’s Lurianic-prophetic capacity to influence others to elevate Tzvi to the messianic office.
In the late winter of 1665 Nathan experienced a prophetic vision during a prolonged fast before Purim. During that vision, Nathan contended that he was isolated in a room where the identity of the Messiah was revealed to be Sabbatai Tzvi; he contended that he could not disclose this revelation until Tzvi revealed it, which occurred a couple months later in Gaza. Several versions of the vision were circulated. Nathan contended that he locked himself in a room (where sages were on the outside), engaged in self-mortification, and recited penitential prayers when the spirit “came over me, my hair stood on end and my knees shook and I beheld the Merkavah (Ezekiel’s chariot),” an early mystical practice of achieving prophetic and visionary heights developed through contact with the divine sefirot. For twenty-four hours he was in the grips of the vision and “with the utmost clarity my heart perceived toward whom the prophecy was directed. . . .” It was Sabbatai Tzvi! Nathan maintained he knew the identification of the messiah and that his vision was true by the signs that Isaac Luria had taught. “[F]or he has revealed profound mysteries in the Torah and not one thing faileth of all that he has taught.”
It is noteworthy that Nathan’s prophecy purports to bear the confirmation mark of Lurianic signs. His radical preparations, including deprivations of sleep and food, may harken back to the teachings of Abraham Abulafia (a 13th century prophetic-kabbalist), which contained instructions to the mystic on how to enter the prophetic realm. Prophecy here is buttressed by Kabbalah, so that it is the combination that purportedly launches this early revelation to Nathan, first disseminated among leading rabbis and those steeped in Kabbalah.
Rabbi Moses Pinheiro questioned Nathan about the prophetic incident when he encountered him in Livorno. According to Pinheiro, Nathan maintained that during the vision he saw Tzvi’s face and images of a man and pillar of fire, during which time other souls spoke to him. According to Nathan, he was given wisdom from all the books of Luria, and though he would not reveal the soul with whom he spoke, the implication was that it was Isaac Luria. Further, during the vision, Nathan was given a date for the coming of Messiah Tzvi: “In one year and a few months you will reveal and . . . see the Kingdom of the House of David.”
A Forged Writing
In the spring of 1665 Nathan purportedly found a prophetic writing in an earthen vessel, dubbed “The Vision of Abraham” supposedly penned by R. Abraham, a great sage who lived in seclusion for 40 years in Florence circa 1200. Couched in prophetic, apocalyptic, theurgic, and traditional motifs it read in part:
Behold a son will be born to Mordecai Sevi in the year 5386  and he will be called Sabbatai Sevi. He will subdue the great dragon [the Devil] and take away the strength of the piercing serpent [the one who appeared in the Garden] and the strength of the crooked serpent [subsequent demonic allurement], and he will be the true messiah. He will go forth to war without hands. His kingdom will be forevermore and there is no redeemer for Israel besides him. Stand upon thy feet and hear the power of this man, although he be poor and lean. . . .
When he is six, the Shekinah [the tenth sefirah] which has revealed herself to us, will appear to him in a dream as a flame, and cause a burn on his private parts [allusion to sexual aspects of Lurianic kabbalism where the Shekhinah is perhaps marking Tzvi as a facilitator of tikkun olam, or perhaps Tzvi is the Shekinah]. Then dreams will sorely trouble him, but he shall not tell anybody. And the sons of whoredom will accost him so as to cause him to stumble, and they will smite him but he will not hearken to them.
This prophetic piece was, in fact, a forgery determined to be by the hand of Nathan of Gaza himself.
Pseudepigraphic literature has been employed throughout Jewish history, usually in an attempt to enhance credibility, or as confirmation of a contemporary author’s beliefs. These seem to be the motives of Nathan. Perhaps his conviction that Tzvi was truly the messiah was so great that he was willing to manufacture a false written prophecy, risking his reputation on what turned out to be a spurious enterprise. Although “The Vision of Abraham” is couched in a traditional form with biblical and medieval motifs, it is also clear that it contains a healthy bit of Lurianism, which supports the messiahship of Tzvi. Some of the facts may have been manufactured, including cryptic sexual allusions to Tzvi’s phallus in connection with the Shekhinah. Other portions of the writing are couched in general apocalyptic vision typology, which is found in references in the book of Daniel. Certainly, some facts were known to Nathan; for example, Tzvi’s name, date of birth, and father’s name. Thus, the “Vision of Abraham” writing he purportedly found in a cave, but never produced, contradicted its purported 12–13th century dating.
Letter to Raphael Chelebi
In early September 1665, six months before Tzvi’s apostasy, Nathan was experiencing “high elation,” receiving “revelations from celestial angels or saints (maggidim),” hearing “heavenly voices,” and emoting “unbounded enthusiasm.” In that month, Nathan wrote a lengthy letter to Raphael Joseph Chelebi, head of the Egyptian Jewish community, which represented Tzvi as Messiah; it was distributed throughout the Jewish world. The letter contained kabbalistic, prophetical, and messianic components. That combination, coupled with Nathan’s positive reputation, and a preconditioning by woeful events and persecutions throughout Jewish communities, as well as universal expectations of the soon-coming Messiah, appears to be the formula for widespread acceptance and anticipation. One of the concerns among the Jewish world was that Tzvi was changing liturgical structures, eating forbidden parts of animals, and effectuating personal changes to the “times and the seasons,” by for example, eliminating or recharacterizing certain traditional fast days. For the most part, Tzvi was also caught failing to respect classic Lurianic exegetical understanding, including Luria’s strict teachings requiring absolute adherence to halakhah for theurgic reconstitution, fusion, and ultimately tikkun olam. Luria believed that even the prayers should be directed with kavanah (intention) for restoration of sefirotic emanations, thereby facilitating, accelerating, and restoring stasis within the Godhead and the world below.
Nathan, in his Chelebi letter, justified halakhic deviations and maintained that in this messianic era, the rules were changed or at least suspended and Tzvi was uncovering and gathering the supernal lights by removing the kelipot to clear the way for the messianic light of upper-world restoration and lower world redemption. Therefore, intentional prayer was not necessary; in fact, it could be harmful by interfering with intrinsic and “automatic workings.” As Nathan explained, during the Sabbath, harmony between Shekinah and her male counterpart, Tiferet, happens intrinsically. Thus, in the new age, under Tzvi, we have different ground rules that do not require intentionality; Tzvi’s actions were removing the dross to restore the light, progressively. From Nathan’s perspective, in contrast to Luria, the work of tikkun olam was too great for even the Jewish masses to complete; rather, it was for the Messiah Tzvi to descend to the utter limits of darkness and sin, and thereby remove the final broken vessels that are impeding the light, so that restoration would be effectuated. Isaiah 53 was cited: “Adonai has visited the iniquity on him,” in application to Tzvi as Messiah Redeemer, “the one upon whom the Lord has laid the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:4–6).
Then there is the prophetic portion of the Chelebi letter, which Goldish addresses in some depth. Here, Nathan invokes a number of visions from the prophetic books. He seeks to “disclose the course of events” and invokes traditional scenery akin to apocalyptic selections from the book of Daniel where Tzvi will “return from the [mythical] river Sambatyon [with his mate, the daughter of Moses] mounted on a celestial lion; his bridle will be a seven-headed serpent and ‘fire out of his mouth [will] devour.’” Additionally, Nathan intertwines biblical end-time sequences with contemporary events. “At this sight all the nations and all the kings shall bow before him to the ground,” which speaks of justice; yet, the writing also invokes the grace that Tzvi had the power to even absolve Jesus. Here we see Lurianic sefirotic emanations at work, some pushing the envelope of normative Lurianic expressions and interpretations, by concentrating the work of tikkun olam in one personage —Sabbatai Tzvi.
On Shavuot at the Tikkun Leil, where it is customary to study all night with a group, Rabbi Nathan was visited by a maggid, a heavenly beneficent angelic personage, or perhaps a transmigrated soul or reincarnated being, when a great sleep walk came upon him. While in a catatonic-like state, Nathan recited the tractate Ketubot by heart. He leaped and danced and shed his clothing down to his undergarments, jumped and fell flat on the ground and remained there as a “dead man,” before his aides draped a cloth over him, also believing him to be dead. Then a voice was heard emanating from below the cloth; when uncovered, Nathan’s lips were not moving. Nonetheless his aides reported hearing a very low voice saying, “Take care concerning my beloved son, my Messiah Sabbatai Tzvi” and “Take care concerning my beloved son, Nathan the Prophet.”
Nathan’s “ecstatic possession” harkens to the biblical past by reference to the Tikkun Leil study, Mishnaic recitations (Ketubot), and dancing and disrobing (2 Sam 6:14–16). The escapades, imagery, and theatrics Nathan displayed are consistent with some of the kabbalists of past, particularly Abraham Abulafia, the founder of ecstatic kabbalism. They were not unlike experiences of Joseph Caro who was led at times by a maggid who spoke with a heavenly voice. It is also noteworthy that those present “heard” a fragrant odor, which Tzvi was known to emit. This may have been a way of identifying Tzvi with that sweet scent, and tying it to the prophetic possession and the Lurianic-style maggid who spoke through Nathan, prophesying plainly, “Shabbatai Tzvi is the Messiah.” Here we have in one vision the accompaniment of an appeal to past biblical events, Lurianic Kabbalah, and a targeted prophecy naming the Messiah. Each of these reinforced the credibility of the event and converged to highlight the identification of Tzvi as Messiah.
Spread of Lay Prophecy
From Safed to Aleppo, to Izmir, Greece, and other Ottoman locations there was an outbreak of prophecy by the laity inspired by a wild streak of mimesis. The pattern was similar. Visionary lay prophets would convulse or faint and move into a mysterious state as dead, prophesy that Sabbatai Tzvi was Messiah, and awaken to not remember what occurred. Momentum gained as scores, hundreds, and up to waves of a thousand visionaries would repeat the reenactment. Some would add detail, for example, that he would take the people to Israel, or would supply added value with apocalyptic imagery. Women, men, youths, maidens, and children prophesied in throngs throughout Smyrna, Constantinople, Adrianople, and Salonika, all heralding Tzvi as the Messiah.
This activity rapidly overflowed beyond the Ottoman Empire into Western European enclaves. It spread, in part, through a form of consensual validation, just as people cross against a red light because others are doing it. The more it spread, the more massive it grew. It is doubtful that the esotericisms of Lurianic Kabbalah alone could have moved the masses, who were not equipped to study or even understand such abstruse theurgic writings, much less apply them to Tzvi. It was not an intellectual movement at the time the prophetic element was unleashed. Though many certainly had heard of Isaac Luria and his reputation for kabbalistic brilliance, it was the spark of Nathan that lit the torch for the spread of a prophetic wildfire. Both kabbalism and prophecy emerged in tandem from Nathan, and initially spread to the rabbinic elite. Lurianic Kabbalah, with radical Nathanic theological additives, fueled other kabbalists, who in turn energized the laity to prophesy in mass, in the format of Nathan of Gaza, who had mimicked, in part, Joseph Caro’s maggid visitations and Abraham Abulafia’s ecstatic kabbalism, and entered into prophetic histrionic states.
At the same time, in the Ottoman areas, the Sufis, religious Islamic enthusiasts, were conducting dervishes, inducing trances and prophesying fervently. In Europe there were the Quakers, who fell into shaking, trembling and prophetic pronouncements. Spanish beata laity, primarily women, known to the conversos and probably Nathan and his followers, were also involved in visions, possessions, trances, and enraptured prophetic utterances. The phenomenon was not confined to Jews:
Some of the Christian groups seized on the words of the Jewish prophet Joel:
So it will be afterward,
I will pour out My Ruach on all flesh:
your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Also on the male and the female servants
will I pour out My spirit in those days. (Joel 3:1–2 TLV)
Men, women, and children of all ages, educated and illiterate, would spin and twirl, convulse, and fall into epileptic-type fits, shrieking and singing and uttering, somersaulting and self-flagellating in hysterical prophecy, while engaging in glossolalia. Much of these Christian and Sufi prophetic displays were activated through fastings and mortifications, with the goal of seeking healings or expressing jubilation because of prophecies touching on local and universal portents. This format was repeated during the Sabbatean prophetic mania sweeping world Jewry and proclaiming Tzvi as Messiah. Through a relatively short period of months world Jewry by word of mouth and letter was aware, with the majority believing. Many relied upon the “surety” that the footsteps of the Messiah were upon them, and sold their possessions, stopped growing and storing produce, and even engaged in long fasts to ultimate great detriment, and the shanda of the Jewish ages.
There has been some work on the underlying psychological profile and motives that might drive a person to self-proclaim as messiah. Harrison Lenowitz insists that such an act involves a “ritual dance” with actors of messiah’s followers and the larger community playing their roles, and eventually ends with the community turning against the central messianic figure. The Jewish community and the larger society are partners in the ritual dance of destruction; they come together to destroy the messiah, then move apart to resume their old positions in the status quo. Lenowitz insists that the messiahs know the fate of previous messiahs and are aware of their end. Although Lenowitz does not characterize it as a death wish, perhaps it comes close to a desire for martyrdom.
Modern studies have suggested that Sabbatai Tzvi’s erratic and bizarre antics were evidence of a bipolar mental disease, which manifests itself through symptoms of alternating episodes of mania and depression. This explains well the bouts that were reported concerning him. Some of the exalted states may have been linked to narcissism: an exaltation of self-importance; seeking excessive admiration; preoccupation with fantasies about messiahship; and a superiority complex, arrogance, and haughtiness. Histrionic personality disorder (HPD) may also fit diagnostic criteria for Tzvi’s pervasive pattern of excessive displays of self-dramatization, exaggerated emotional displays and actions, and may have been influenced in part by his need for Nathan’s support. Perhaps each of the pseudo-messiahs had a different penchant, driven by a mental illness or a personality disorder.
There has not been any comprehensive scholarly study in the area of the supporters or forerunners of Jewish pseudo-messiahs. In the Shia Islamic world, the Da’i (forerunner) was a sort of public relations person who pointed to the Islamic Messiah (Mahdi). It was not uncommon for that Da’i, upon the Mahdi’s death or disappearance, to succeed to the Mahdi position, perhaps interim, until the previous Mahdi returned from the place where he was in hiding.
With the facts and narratives concerning Nathan and his personality profile, it may be possible to adduce the condition that engendered his obsession supporting and encouraging Tzvi’s claim to the exalted position. Three criteria place Nathan firmly in the Cluster B Antisocial Personality Disorder category as described in DSM–5: (1) deceitfulness, evidenced by chronic lying for personal reasons, for example forging the pseudepigraphic document and perpetuating that lie; (2) impulsivity as evidenced by his erratic behavior, particularly when prophesying; and (3) lack of remorse as evidenced by re-engineering Lurianic Kabbalah doctrine to rationalize Tzvi’s messiahship even after he converted to Islam. The diagnosis does not excuse Nathan’s behavior and deception, nor does it exonerate him for the psychological damage he did to world Jewry, the extent of which we will never be able to measure.
Conclusion and Take-Aways
The Sabbatean movement arose and spread throughout worldwide Jewry, reaching an apogee in 1666; and then essentially waned and died along with its “messiah,” except for a few cultic sub- groupings, particularly the rather insignificant number of Dönmeh, mainly concentrated in Turkey today. This article has suggested a triad of salient factors that led to widespread self- deception, and a tragic conclusion. Any fewer than these three—historicism, kabbalism, prophetism—would have been inadequate to produce the contagion of the messianic outbreak that pointed to Tzvi. The backdrop to the heretical acceptance was the historical events that included the Spanish expulsion, Chmielnicki massacres, and the great historical deception perpetrated by Rabbi Nathan, Sabbatai Tzvi, and their accomplices. The historical trajectory pre-conditioned world Jewry to a heightened awareness and anticipation of a coming Messiah. Lurianic Kabbalah and its free-wheeling interpretation and justification by Nathan of Gaza expanded the interest in Kabbalah by distributing it to respected high-profile rabbis and scholars. Finally, Nathan, a well-respected traditional halakhic Jew, inflamed the movement and lent credence to it.
Thus, Nathan’s prophecies, utterings, and antics, accelerated by his creative neo-Lurianic justifications of Tzvi’s behavior, fueled the launch. His notion of messianic redemption through sin, combined with popular reception of his prophetic endeavors, resonated with the idea of tikkun olam, a restoration of the broken relationship between God and man, by removing the shards that were covering the supernal light of God.
Historians tie together threads, trends, trajectories, causes, and consequences of historical events to make sense of the past and present and to seek a prognosis of the future. At least four movements may have been influenced, in part, by Tzvi’s descent into Islam and the utter disgrace in the aftermath of Tzvi’s heresy: Hasidism, Haskalah, Reform Judaism, and Zionism.
In contrast with the Sabbatean movement, which burst onto the scene as an out-of-control fiasco, Hasidic Judaism arose as a more quiescent form of messianism in the early 18th century. Instead of focusing on one coming Messiah, it turned to the local Zadok, the head of the spiritual community, who possessed practical kabbalistic knowledge and prophetic powers but with less appeal to Nathanian and Sabbatean extremism. Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment movement (1770–1880), reacted in part to apocalyptic Sabbateanism by opening up Jewish communities to the world, highlighting interest in the surrounding culture, and adopting educational reforms, while preserving Jewish cohesiveness. Reform Judaism, which emerged in the early 19th century, may be traced to the waning and demise of Sabbateanism, which was not fond of fixed halakhic enterprise; a number of Sabbateans found a home in the liberal reform branch of Judaism. Finally, Zionism, which led to Israel statehood, transferred the thought of a messianic personage to Israel as a place that would prepare the Jewish people for Israel as a messianic salvific refuge.
Pro-Sabbateans cited and applied portions of Isaiah 53 as evidence and support for Tzvi being the Messiah. Thus, they embraced Isaiah 53 as applicable to a Jewish personage, which is consistent with the New Testament’s application of Isaiah 53 to Yeshua of Nazareth.
In the 11th century, the great Talmudic and biblical exegete, Rashi, denied that Isaiah 53 spoke of the Messiah, but rather applied it to Israel as the Suffering One. However, in his Commentary on the Talmud, he did recognize that portions of Isaiah 53 applied to the Messiah, which garners more talking points for the recognition of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Jewish exegetes and disciples of their “messiahs” are apt to apply Isaiah servant passages, including chapter 53, to them. In fact, in the book of Acts, Rabban Gamliel I, the apostle Paul’s former teacher, is confronted with the question of what to do with the followers of Yeshua. He advises that they should be let alone, for if the movement is of God, no one will be able to put a stop to its spread. In contradistinction, no messianic movement that named a messiah flourished, except the followers of Yeshua. Sabbateanism eventually dwindled to a very small number of believers who morphed into converts called the Dönmeh, who scattered and became insignificant. In contrast, Gamliel’s caution was realized in Yeshua, for the movement grew, and a wing of it morphed into Christianity, while another wing has resuscitated from a long hibernation, where it is active today in the United States, Israel, and to an extent in the uttermost parts of the world, where Jewish people are embracing Yeshua as the Messiah.
Nathan’s theological construction supported antinomianism, which in his theological world justified Tzvi descending into the depths of sin to the point of converting to Islam, a faith wholly incompatible with Judaism. According to Nathan, the shells had to be removed in order to release the trapped light. However, in contrast, Yeshua released the Light for all who embraced him and he did it without descending into sin or violating Jewish law. In fact, he said anyone who breaks the law or causes one to break the law will be least in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:17–19).
Nathan was a type of forerunner, who led the way in prophetically pointing to Tzvi as the Messiah and justifying it even after Tzvi apostatized. This contrasts with Yohanan the Immerser, who recognized that Yeshua was Messiah when he said “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The Tanakh provides the test for false prophets (Deut 18:22). Nathan met that test, for what he prophesied about Tzvi did not come to pass.
When spiritual exaltation reaches a point where it detracts from the real personage who lived, died, and rose again, it is a danger sign. Tzvi and his forerunner Nathan deviated wildly from halakhah, embracing a kabbalistic thrust that, though part of Jewish tradition, is not equal to Jewish canon. This is a disqualifier that resulted in a tragedy whereby the people, learned and unlearned, were deceived; they succumbed to a “strong delusion that they should believe a lie” (2 Thess 2:11) to the detriment of worldwide Jewry.
Rabbi Elliot Klayman is a past president of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, current Executive Director of Messianic Literature Outreach, and editor of its publication, The Messianic Outreach. He is also Chief Operations Officer of Messianic Jewish Theological Institute, and a former editor of Kesher. He teaches in various schools and forums and has published widely on a variety of Jewish history topics. Elliot holds an MA in Jewish History from The Ohio State University, as well as two law degrees, and resides in San Diego with Joyce, his wife of 49 years.
1 See, e.g., “Moses received (kibel) the Torah at Sinai . . .” Pirkei Avot, 1:1.
2 A dispute exists as to the provenance of the work, with kabbalists dating it to the 2nd century, authored by Shimon bar Yohai; and modern scholars dating it to the 13th century, with at least parts authored by Moses de Leon.
3 Other members of the circle included Jacob Berav, who sought to reintroduce the ordination process; Joseph Caro, who assembled the Shulchan Arukh; and Shlomo Alkabetz, who authored the Shabbat liturgical piece, Lecha Dodi.
4 Lekha Dodi (“Come my Bride”), written by Solomon Alkabetz, captures this kabbalistic imagery.
5 For a more expansive treatment of Kabbalah see Joseph Dan, Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Lawrence Fine, “Kabbalistic Sources” in Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts, ed. Barry Holtz (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), 304–59; The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, Kabbalah (413–14); Luria, Yitshaq (455–56); Sefirot (660–61).
6 Sabbatian Heresy: Writings on Mysticism, Messianism, and the Origins of Jewish Modernity, ed. Pawel Maciejko (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2017), xi, xiii–xiv, xvi–xvii.
7 Moshe Idel, “One from a Town, Two from a Clan – The Diffusion of Lurianic Kabbala and Sabbateanism: A Re-Examination, “Jewish History 7, no.2 (1993):79.
8 Mati Meged, “Sabbatai Zevi, by Gershom Scholem,” Judaism (February 1960), https:/w
9 Idel, “One from a Town,” 89–90. Additionally, books on Kabbalah were rare and expensive, 90.
10 Idel, “One from a Town,” 96–97; Matt Plen, “Who was Shabbetai Tzvi?” My Jewish Learning, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/shabbetai-zevi/.
11 Matt Goldish, The Sabbatean Prophets (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).
12 Of course, there were many other factors, not the least of which were Nathan’s “evangelistic” outreach, his positive reputation as a halakhist, his charismatic attractiveness, and his ability to convince his peers of the veracity of his claims.
13 Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken, 1974), 32. Nathan presented new interpretations of Lurianic Kabbalah without renouncing the classic ones.
14 See e.g., Jonathan Garb, “The Upsurge of Mysticism as a Jewish and Global Phenomenon” in The Chosen Will Become Herds: Studies in Twentieth-Century Kabbalah (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 100–122.
15 Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism and other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (New York: Schocken, 1941), 78-141.
16 Goldish, 1–7.
17 Sabbatian Heresy, xiv–xv.
18 One element of this new messianism was a Messiah who would accomplish the work of Tikkun Olam without adhering to mitzvot, but rather acting proleptically by living now as in the messianic age where traditional halakhah was allegedly no longer in effect.
19 Goldish, 59.
20 Nathan was influenced by Abulafia, who also instructed on concentration on combining words from the Torah, in order to produce a prophetic vision, Goldish, 61.
21 Goldish, 57–63.
22 Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, trans. R.J. Zwi Werblowsky (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), 224–26; Goldish, 71–76.
23 Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 224.
24 Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 267.
25 Noam Lev El, “The Epistle of Nathan of Gaza to Raphael Joseph and the Issue of the Lurianic Prayer Intention,” . Another opinion is that anti-nomianism was not for the masses but only for the Messiah; therefore, it was for Tzvi alone to descend into the depths of the dark regions and thereby effectuate redemption. According to this, Scholem was right regarding redemption through sin, but the descent was only the Messiah. This parallels Jesus who, according to the gospels, took the sin of humankind upon himself, suffered, and died as a substitutionary offering for the sins of humanity and redeemed those who believed in his death and resurrection. Except for the resurrection, this tracks with Tzvi.
26 Isaiah 53 and selected verses are cited widely by Christians and even within the New Testament itself as referring to Jesus of Nazareth. Matt 8:17; Mark 5:28; Luke 22:37; John 12:38; Acts 8:32; Rom 10:16; 1 Pet 2:24.
27 The Sambatyon was a mythical river alluded to in various writings that were messianic. This river, which flowed so strongly that it threw boulders, rested on the Sabbath.
28 Goldish, 77.
29 Goldish, 79.
30 Goldish, 119, 139.
31 Goldish, 117.
32 Goldish, 110–12, 115–16.
33 Goldish, 118–29.
34 Jacob Rader Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Source Book: 315–1791 (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1999), 297–98.
35 Harrison Lenowitz, The Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 5.
36 Goldish, 3; Sabbatian Heresy, xiii.
37 American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition [DSM–5] (Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association, 2013), 301.50 (F60.4).
38 Elijah is seen as a forerunner of Messiah (Mal 3:23–24); and John the Baptist, a forerunner of Jesus (Matt 3:11; John 3:30); Rabbi Akiva, a forerunner of Bar Kokhba; and Abu Issa, a forerunner of himself. See Matthew V. Novenson, “Messiahs and their Messengers,” Svensk Teologisk Kvartalskrift (95:1, 2019): 3–16.
39 DSM–5, nos. A2–3, 7 (F60.2): 2–3, 7.
40 The Dönmeh were founded in Salonika in the late 17th century, and in the late 20th century adherents numbered 15,000. Encyclopedia Britannica, Dönme, https:/w
41 Goldish, 137; Some Menachem Schneerson followers apply some servant Isaiah 53 passages to him as well. Jacques B. Doukhan, “The Mysterious Identity of the Suffering Servant: The Riddle of Isaiah 53,” Shabbat Shalom (Autumn, 2003): 25.
42 See Sanhedrin 98a; Midrash Rabbah Ruth 6. Zohar II, 212a; Pesikta Rabatai, Piska 36:142.
43 Matthew 8:14–17; John 12:37–41; Luke 22:35–38; 1 Peter 2:19–25; Acts 8:26–35; Romans 10:11–21.
44 Rashi Commentary on Bible, Isaiah 53:3–4.
45 “He is even stricken himself as is written ‘And He was pierced because of our transgressions () and our sicknesses he carried’” () (Rashi comment on b. Sanhedrin 98a).
46 Isaiah 53’s suffering servant passages have been applied to Menachem Mendel Schneerson by his disciples. David Berger, The Rebbe, the Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008), 23.
47 Acts 5:38–39. This is the same Rabban Gamliel who discipled the Apostle Paul, Acts 22:3.