Tracing The Antinomian Trajectory Within Sabbatean Messianism

Antinomianism has been defined as the “subversion of a religious or moral code.” 1 On a superficial level, this may be perceived as motivated only by a rebellious attitude towards author­ity. Yet what might outwardly appear as subversive behavior may truly be an inner desire to affirm religious truth as the protagonists define it, or as they interpret a particular religious tradition. Unintentional factors may also motivate antinomian behavior, such as the psychological state of the individual or group involved. Jewish texts throughout the ages have offered theoretical defini­tions of antinomianism, whereas messianic movements such as Sabbateanism have put forth the practical reality. Sabbateanism and its offshoots in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries provide the full spectrum of antinomian actions in relation to mes­sianism and range from moderate to radical extremism. A definite progression in development as well as in awareness of this behavior, which begins with Shabbetai Zevi prior to his conversion to Islam, continues with him and his followers after the apostasy. In the eighteenth century antinomianism reaches an explosive extreme with the Sabbatean, Jacob Frank. Although some within the move­ment lack a certain depth in many areas-in the reasons for participating in the movement, in the theology, and in the level of commitment, particularly within the branches of the radical side- the majority participate with an intense involvement. Therefore, the major motivation behind the antinomianism of the Sabbatean movement cannot be explained merely by the desire to be noncon­formist, but other internal and external factors must be considered as well.2

In the medieval period, prior to the rise of Shabbetai Zevi in the seventeenth century, the seeds of antinomianism were being sown in Jewish mystical works. According to Isaiah Tishby in Mishnat Ha-Zohar, the anonymous author of the later strata of the Zohar, the Ra’ya Mehemna and the Tikkunei ha-Zohar, expressed antino­mian ideas, although they were neither overtly negative nor inchoate. Even in terms of the changes in the law in the messianic era, the antinomian elements in these works were a little ambigu­ous and not fully developed. It is Tishby’s view, however, that the author of the Ra’ya Mehemna had an anti-Talmudic disposition that ultimately signified an antagonism towards rabbinic religious authority of his day.3

These works emphasized through various typologies, a superi­ority of a supernal or more spiritual Torah called Torah de-Atziluth, over an earthly Torah of Halakhah, termed Torah de-Beriah. The former Torah is pre-existent, without limitations, and is superior to the latter. The theology maintains that, because of the sin of man, the supernal Torah could not appear in this world without a cover­ing. The mystical writings view the earthly Torah as a necessary protective garment for the supernal Torah within the historical world, and only in the messianic era will the latter’s essence be revealed in full. Because of the implied hierarchy between the two Torot, a danger arose in diminishing the importance of the Torah of creation. Tishby confirms that other mystical works of the thir­teenth and fourteenth centuries, such as the Sefer ha-Peliah and the Sefer ha-Kanah, also have an antinomian bent.

Shabbetai Zevi, who was born in 1626 in Smyrna, was educat­ed as a youth not only in Talmud but also in these kabbalistic works, and therefore he had been acquainted with and influenced by their underlying antinomian notions. Zevi and his movement brought the anti-halakhic elements of these texts to the forefront. Scholem suggests that Zevi had been carrying within himself ideas he drew from the reading of the Peliah and Qanah, and that, through him, the quiet antinomianism of the texts was amplified. Commenting on the opinion of Gershom Scholem, David Biale suggests that Jewish mysticism had appropriated and transformed Gnostic ideas into an acceptable orthodoxy, however the underlying antinomian and nihilistic strains came to full fruition in the Sabbatean move­ment which had adopted these ideas.4

In his lengthy treatise on Zevi, Gershom Scholem explains that the latter’s actions had been “blind and haphazard” in the period prior to his apostasy, however afterward they were determined and directed by a mature ideology that can be described as “the para­doxical character of holy deeds through sinning.”5 Zevi’s vision revealed itself in many transformations, exemplified by alterations (in 1658) such as that of the traditional daily morning prayer, changing “loosening of them that are bound [asurim]” to “loosen­ing of all bonds [issurim]” implying a kind of anarchic freedom.

Scholem does not credit Zevi with enough intellectual acumen to have created the developed system of changes to the law that characterized the later Sabbatean movement. Zevi is portrayed by Scholem more as a victim of his psychological turmoil which, dur­ing a manic phase, led to his strange acts, and which Zevi himself considers part of a mystical world beyond comprehension. At first it was only Zevi who performed unusual acts, yet, when more author­ity was bestowed upon him, these acts were seen by some within the movement as basic to their theology and practice. Eventually, the melancholia that Zevi experienced was interpreted as a necessary part of the messianic journey.

During the early period of Zevi’s development towards a full messianic declaration, he engaged himself in a variety of deviations from traditional law. As testified in one of the letters by a disciple, Israel Hazzan, the main act performed by Zevi that went contrary to rabbinic tradition was the uttering of the Ineffable Name of God, i.e., the tetragrammaton.6 Zevi was forced to leave Smyrna because of his messianic claims and deeds and wandered through many places including Jerusalem, Constantinople, Salonika, and Egypt. Opposition arose in many cities and recordings were made of Zevi’s acts. Emannuel Frances of Leghorn, a poet and enemy of the Sabbatean movement, compiled reports in 1667 from various sources about the life of Zevi. He describes Zevi’s acts in one of his poems;

Is he the Lord’s anointed or a traitor, A Wicked sinner and a fornicator? In public he the Sabbath desecrates, And of the synagogue he breaks the gates. To pronounce the Name Ineffable he dares, And with profanity he impiously swears. Forbidden women he embraces; As first the one, and then the other he caresses. The foolish people, gaping as spellbound, Affirm: this is a mystery profound.7


A foe of Zevi, Frances depicts some of Zevi’s antinomian actions, which are confirmed by other sources. In one of the more detailed accounts, which is difficult to verify completely, Zevi and some fol­lowers were greatly disappointed when Zevi tried unsuccessfully to make the sun stand still at midday. As a result of this failed miracle, some haughty comments from Zevi, and his engagement in kabbal­istic practices, the leaders of Smyrna deported him. Outside Smyrna, Zevi continued to perform bizarre deeds. On one occasion in Constantinople, he created a visual representation of a rabbinic tradition. According to Jewish tradition, the idea of redemption would take place under the sign of Pisces. Zevi illustrated this idea by purchasing a large fish, dressing it up as a baby, and placing it in a cradle. He provided astrological explanations for this act, explain­ing that Israel’s time of redemption would occur during the age of Pisces, with the cradle symbolizing Israel in its premature stage of growth toward complete redemption.8

The rabbis at the time of Zevi’s manifestations attributed his behavior to mental illness, and Scholem agrees that most of Zevi’s strange acts were done at times when Zevi was in a “manic” phase. Zevi was diagnosed by Scholem as a manic depressive, which involves symptoms of self-aggrandizement and delusion, as well as hostility towards conformity. Scholem does not think that Zevi’s manifestations were seen by most people as proof of his messi­ahship, as Jewish tradition expected a messiah who would explain and not deviate from the law.9 Stephen Sharot notes that most of Zevi’s followers in the year 1666 were not aware of Zevi’s personal­ity or of his propensity to melancholia, and those who were close to him explained his random antinomian acts as integral to the messianic role.10

David J. Halperin portrays Zevi (as well as his followers) as more consciously aware and in control of his deeds. Halperin does not subscribe to Scholem’s victim explanation but sees Zevi as con­sciously aware that his actions have significance, which he attrib­utes to the idea that Zevi had tapped into the Metatron myth.11 The idea of Metatron was developed in the Babylonian Talmud to explain Exodus chapter 24, verse one, where God refers to himself as “Lord” in the third person rather than as to “me” in the first person. The rabbis of the Talmud explain that this “Lord” is Metatron, whose name is like his master’s name, because his name is in him. However, they warn not to confuse Metatron with God. The Hekhalot literature12 further develops the Metatron idea, trans­forming and elevating men, particularly Enoch, to a divine status. His promotion includes the receiving of a robe, a crown and a new name. The myth takes on further features in the later strata of the Zohar, where Metatron and the demon king Samael are combined into one figure, therefore he is seen as embodying both good and evil. Furthermore, the Zohar is aware of the fact that Metatron has the same numerical value as God’s name, Shaddai. Therefore if Metatron is linked to divinity, and Zevi is identified with Metatron, Zevi has divine authority over the law.

Sharot explains that antinomianism tends to be a part of religions whose creed allows for an identification or interaction with the divine, because divinity implies control of the moral sys-tem.13 Halperin thinks that Zevi was well aware of the Metatron idea through the Zoharic and Hekhalot traditions, as well as through the Sefer Zerubabel.14 Halperin states of Zevi, “In his actions before the apostasy he showed himself to be grandiose, erratic, given to despotic cruelty, and to arbitrary tampering with hallowed tradi­tions.” 15 He insists that the followers of Zevi, even prior to the apos­tasy, were aware of his tendency to perform bizarre acts in which he did not fear abolishing tradition. The “despotic cruelty” to which Halperin refers is illustrated by a couple of events. Zevi is said to have justified the torture on the Sabbath by his followers of a skep­tic in Venice.16 Another event occurred at the Portuguese Synagogue in Smyrna in December of 1665. Although the syna­gogue had locked its doors on the Sabbath to Zevi, he broke his way through the doors with an ax. When he gained entrance, he terror­ized and forced the attendants to pronounce the Name of God. Halperin sees this forced entrance as reminiscent of the Metatron myth as it appears in the Hekhalot literature. Halperin further elab­orates that Zevi embodied not only the divine aspect of the Metatron myth, but also the evil aspect, which revealed itself fully in his willful acts prior to his apostasy and helped to explain the rea­son for his conversion to Islam. Halperin states, “His high handed violation of Jewish religious norms, on this and countless other occasions call attention to what is perhaps Sabbatai’s most strong­ly Metatron-like feature: his unabashed representation of himself as one who is in significant part, a being of evil.” 17

Abraham Cardoso, a supporter of Zevi and a former Marrano, reinforces the Metatron link by referring to Zevi’s repetition of the Metatron motif in his discussions, wherein he proclaimed himself “the administrator of the upper and lower realms, raised higher than Metatron.” 18 This statement, which Zevi was claimed to have stated one hundred times, at least shows Zevi’s awareness of the concept. Elliot Wolfson agrees with Halperin, stating that many Sabbatean documents clearly refer to Zevi as the Metatron manifes­tation in the earthly realm.19 Sharot disagrees with such conscious intentionality and awareness prior to the apostasy and explains that, during the peak of the movement, Zevi’s strange acts were not known to most of his followers but were transformed into a central element only after his conversion.20 Zevi’s erratic behavior can be understood when at one point he regretted his behavior on the Sabbath and announced that the following Sabbath would be a day of fasting for atonement. However, during the middle of the day he changed his mind and started feasting. This kind of inconsistency strengthens Scholem’s idea that Zevi had mental instability (and little self-awareness), which would result in alternating periods of antinomianism and conservativism.

In 1658, when Zevi was in Constantinople, he continued to change tradition by altering traditional dates, a pattern that would continue throughout his life. Thus he celebrated the three festivals of pilgrimage (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot) in one week, in order to atone for Israel’s sins, which were committed during all previous festivals. At this time, Zevi also began using the new benediction “to permit that which has hitherto been forbidden” which he con­tinued to use thereafter. Towards the end of his life, he again celebrated Sukkot and Shavuot in one week. This shifting of dates was just the beginning of his tendency to alter the calendar, which included changing the Sabbath to Monday or the officially sanc­tioned Day of Atonement to another day. Halperin believes the shifting of dates was Zevi’s intentional way of proving that he had authority over the calendar.21

An increase in antinomian behavior and a greater self-realiza-tion came on the seventeenth of Sivan (1665) in Gaza, when, with the encouragement of Nathan his Prophet and propagator Zevi proclaimed himself as messiah. At an earlier time, in 1648, he had also announced his messiahship to a close circle, as this was the redemptive date predicted in the Zohar, however, he was not taken seriously by most authorities. From the time that Zevi recognized himself as the messiah, he became aware that time took on a new significance. Scholem claims that Zevi never really understood Jewish festivals in terms of their historical, i.e., biblical founda­tions, but viewed them always from a kabbalistic perspective. In addition, rabbinic and biblical holidays were not distinguished in his mind, and therefore all were subject to change.22

At the time of his messianic pronouncement, Zevi’s strange acts increased intensely. Followers were encouraged to partake in ascetic practices such as fasting, which led to some deaths from prolonged lack of food. Some repented because they were adherents to Zevi’s message and others as a general means of hastening redemption. Extreme acts of repentance included fasts that endured a week, ritual bathing, rolling naked in the snow, inflicting the body with thorns, and pouring boiling water upon naked bodies.23 Traditional fast days were turned into feasts, because anything commemorating the destruction of the Temple or Israel’s exilic sit­uation needed to come to an end. The Fast of the seventeenth of Tammuz was turned into a feast day and was celebrated as a day of rejoicing in Gaza and Hebron. This fast was abolished, because Zevi believed that the ingathering of the exile would commence and that the Shekhinah had been revealed.24 The fast of the tenth of Teveth and the ninth of Av were also abolished.

Although in 1665 a minority followed Zevi’s instructions, by the summer of 1666 for example, the majority celebrated fast days as feasts, even though many leaders in Jerusalem refused to abolish the tradition. The particular abolition of the ninth of Av, which was also Zevi’s birthday, marked the peak of the movement in the East.25 Zevi probably was aware of the indication in rabbinic literature of the reversal of fasts into holidays of feasting that would take place in the days of the messiah, which he was progressively beginning to realize were at hand.

With the increase in antinomian behavior, rabbinic authorities began attempts to suppress the movement. While in Palestine, Zevi had informed Nathan that he had the authority to transgress the law using the talmudic idea of a unique dispensation, which described the temporary cessation of ordinances. Scholem does not think that Zevi’s explanation for his transgressions had the same kind of depth that was eventually revealed by Nathan. Opposition arose in Jerusalem, particularly because Zevi had caused his own people to eat forbidden fat while proclaiming his customary bless­ing, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who permittest that which is forbidden.” 26 Because the eating of forbidden fat was in the same list of prohibitions as many sexual prohibitions such as incest or forni­cation, this implied that these prohibitions were also reversed. Rabbinic opposition had arisen, particularly by the Dutch Rabbi Jacob Sasportas, who considered Sabbatean innovations to be rooted in evil. Sasportas foresaw a schism within Judaism that eventually did take place after the apostasy. As a result of the antin­omian behavior, Zevi was expelled from Jerusalem in 1665.

Zevi returned to Smyrna where he continued his anti-tradi-tional behavior. He attended synagogue each morning and partook in ascetic practices that seemed rather benign and did not cause controversy at first. However, during the week of Chanukah he entered the synagogue dressed in royal garb and stirred up the peo­ple through ecstatic singing. He was reported to have returned to his odd behavior such as pronouncing the Ineffable Name and eat­ing forbidden fats which, according to Scholem, were all recogniz­able as related to his states of his “illumination.”

Nathan, however, gave kabbalistic significance (drawn from Lurianic Kabbalah) to Zevi’s illness, although the interpretations were not widely known in 1666. His explanation was that the mes-siah’s soul had gone to the same place where the sparks had gone after the primordial breaking of the vessels that contained God’s essence. In this place, Zevi was tortured by serpents, and only when in his “manic” phase could he overcome them.27 Zevi continued to do uncustomary acts, such as reading in the synagogue from a printed copy of the Torah rather than from a scroll and calling up women and laypeople rather than priests and Levites to the reading of the law. Similar actions had been done in Jerusalem, where Zevi had commanded a priestly blessing to be performed at the after­noon prayer by non-priestly Israelites. On one Sabbath, the name of the Turkish Sultan in the prayer for the rulers of the nation was replaced by a prayer for Shabbetai Zevi as the new messianic ruler. Its transformation is as follows:

He who giveth salvation unto kings…whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom… may he bless, preserve, guard, exalt ever more our Lord and our Messiah, the Anointed of the God of Jacob, the Celestial Lion and Celestial Stag, the Messiah of Righteousness, the King of Kings, the sultan Sabbatai Sevi. May the supreme king preserve him and grant him life… . 28


Although Zevi’s transgressions of the law caused him to be expelled from various places, including Smyrna, Salonika and Constantinople, in a short time, he became honored, from Cairo to Hamburg to Salonika, from Morocco to Yemen, and from Poland to Persia, with believers calling him “Our Lord and King.”

By 1666 Jews in the Diaspora became increasingly aware of Zevi’s innovations to the law. Those in Europe were informed that rabbinic authority had been superseded by a new messianic one. Those who were considered “infidels” (against Zevi) were persecuted, some even being given over to Turkish authorities and imprisoned.

Amsterdam was quite open to change, and in its Portuguese community the Priestly blessing was now recited each Sabbath, where previously it had been a part of the service only on major hol­idays. Believers in Amsterdam and Hamburg established yeshivot for prayer, penitence and charity. Poland in 1666 did not have a notable following. The Balkans abolished the mourning ritual of the ninth of Av and celebrated joyously. Non-Jews also considered the year 1666 significant; it was endowed with much messianic enthu­siasm, as it represented the return of Christ. Therefore the spirit of the age may have created an additional openness within the Jewish people of the Diaspora.

Imprisonment and apostasy only provided further building blocks for the theology of Zevi and his devotees. Turkish authorities thought Zevi to have surpassed his limits, and during his journey from Smyrna to Constantinople he was arrested and imprisoned in a fortress in Gallipoli. Imprisonment reduced the fervor neither in the East nor in the West, as can be seen through many of his follower’s gatherings outside his new home. Even while in prison, where Zevi was treated more like a king than a criminal, he contin­ued his strange rituals. For example, he sacrificed a lamb, which was forbidden outside of Jerusalem. Eventually, however, the sultan summoned Zevi and gave him the choice to apostatize to Islam or face death. Zevi decided to accept the turban and was renamed Mehmet Effendi.

Halperin concludes that Zevi was motivated less by the possi­bility of death than by his self-awareness of the Metatron myth, where, like Metatron, Zevi must enter a foreign godlike world.29 Halperin compares a description from the Hekhalot literature, Third Enoch, with a story written in the 1680s about Zevi’s conver­sion and finds many similarities. In both, a person is transformed and promoted through the reception of a new garment, a new name, and a crown/turban, and by doing so this hero transgresses a central religious prohibition, i.e., to convert or to claim equality with God.

Wolfson agrees with the Metatron link but adds another dimen­sion. He sees the turban as equivalent to the messianic crown, which in kabbalistic terms would be depicted as the corona on the phallus of the divine anthropos. Within the sefirotic realm, restora­tion of the divine or redemption occurs when Malkhut (the bottom sefira) reunites or crowns Yesod. Zevi’s coronation was the external symbol of this mystical process. Therefore both Halperin and Wolfson characterize Zevi’s acceptance of the turban as purposeful for reasons beyond external reality. Zevi does seem convinced that his destiny was to convert, which is explicit in his letter to his fol­lowers after his conversion. He states, “My brothers, know…that the True One, which only I have known for many generations and for which I have toiled, wanted me to enter Islam with all my heart…and to invalidate the Torah of Moses until the end of time.” 30

Yehudah Liebes says that Zevi apostatized out of a sense of duty to God but at that time did not fully comprehend its significance. He mentions that Zevi gave several explanations at various stages ranging from the punishment of Israel to it being a “great mys­tery.” 31 The first explanation, which sees the conversion as a pun­ishment of Israel, is related to the Moslem idea that the Koran has permanently replaced the Torah. Zevi took this idea but altered it from a permanent to a temporary replacement, during which Israel is under chastisement. When this period comes to an end, Israel and its Torah will be reinstated. Zevi also had the notion that he must fulfill both the Law of Truth (Moses) and the Law of kindness (Islam).32 He seemed to change his mind several times about the explanation for the apostasy, a pattern that fits well with his previ­ous behavior. His ambivalent theories led to acts that embodied cus­toms within both Judaism and Islam. For example, stories that described Zevi as sitting both with the Koran and the scroll of the law circulated. In 1667, he reinstituted the mourning of Tisha B’Av, and in 1671 he said that all believers should observe it for an entire week. Zevi seemed to be creating a religion of his own that was nei­ther Jewish nor Muslim, and yet he incorporated many elements from both traditions. Whether or not Zevi was totally aware of the mystical significance of his conversion, Nathan soon endowed it with a profound and a complex spiritual interpretation.

Although imprisonment had not moved believers from their faith, the conversion to Islam did lead to a crisis of faith for some and a division among believers. On September 16, 1666, Zevi received the garments of conversion from the sultan and is nega­tively described by an adversary, Rabbi Joseph Halevi of Livorno: “He threw his cap on the ground, and spat on it. He insulted the Jewish faith and profaned God’s name, in full public view.” 33 Halevi points out the irony in that Zevi’s followers expected him to receive the messianic crown from the sultan, but instead he donned the turban. Many adherents returned to a traditional way of life, admit­ting they had been in error, while others would not relinquish their faith and became divided on their interpretation of the conversion.

Sharot describes the experience of the “faithful” believers as one of “cognitive dissonance” with two contradictory cognitions that need to be reconciled.34 Scholem agrees that, although there were differences among the believers, they were all of the same mind in their desire to explain the discrepancy between an internal and an external reality. Sabbatean doctrine arose out of the neces­sity to explain the gap between the two realities and was developed by those who refused to view the conversion as a failure. Sabbateanism was founded on an apparent paradox, which in turn led to many new paradoxes.

Conflicting elements had already been present in the explana­tion for Zevi’s strange acts prior to the apostasy, but Nathan expand­ed them into a fully elaborated vision. The interpretation claimed that apostasy was necessary to lift the Shekhinah out of exile. Nathan states in one of his letters, “Even though he wore the holy turban, his holiness was not profaned on account of this, for he is holy and every act of Sabbath [Zevi] is holy.” 35 Outward reality was the evil clothing of the good within. The messiah was to descend into the abyss or state of sin in order to struggle against evil; exter­nally this appeared as an entrance into Islam. Isaiah 53:5 was rein­terpreted from “he was wounded for our transgressions” to “he was profaned for our sins.” In other words, for the messiah to atone for the sins of Israel, he needed to become profane through the wear­ing of the evil turban. The doctrine maintained that, although the external world remained the same, the internal one was being renewed. The split among believers, which resulted in moderate and radical factions, arose when during this transitional period where inward and outward reality were not yet in harmony, they tried to interpret their function in relation to the law.

Both moderate and radical groups arose based on their dis­agreement over the need to imitate Zevi’s apostasy. This ultimately affected their view of the significance of the law. The moderates took a negative stance against the imitation of apostasy, as this was the role of the messiah alone. Outwardly, for the moderates, no changes in the law except for small ones, such as that of the ninth of Av, were to be pursued, as long as the Jews remained in exile. For them, redemption was a gradual process where performance of the com­mandments was still a necessary mystical process of Tikkun (repara­tion of the cosmos), and only Zevi was free from the law. Because it was understood that the internal reality was the “true” reality while the external was more of a kind of ruse, some opponents questioned the real commitment of the moderates to their external religious tradition. The moderates could be found in groups in various areas such as Morocco, Germany, Bohemia, Moravia, Italy, Poland, Turkey and the Balkans. The radical counterpart arose in 1683 when sever­al hundred families converted to Islam and could be found mainly in Salonika, southern Poland and parts of Europe. Not all converted, but those who did maintained a couple of contrasting ideas. First of all these believers claimed that all must partake in the redemptive act, which externally manifested itself as apostasy. In other words, Zevi’s descent into impurity was a paradigm they needed to emulate, and therefore they were led to perform strange acts. In order for evil to be destroyed, believers needed to descend and to conquer evil in its abode. The second idea maintained that those who belonged to the messianic world could not sin. Zevi had eradicated the sin of Adam and allowed for the new Torah to be established. They trans­formed sin into something holy, i.e., the adoption of a notion of redemption through sin. Although there were divisions about what this meant, in reality both these ideas meant that the radicals were committed to sin’s redeeming power and that sinning became holy. Actions which seemed outwardly sinful were viewed as internally holy. Some saw it as starving the Kelippot (world of evil) from their sparks of holiness until they died; others saw it as inundating the Kelippot with sparks of holiness until they burst from the pressure. The Torah de-Atzilut was to be secretly observed, while the Torah de-Beriah was to be transgressed. Because antinomianism tends to draw more attention than quiet traditionalism, ultimately the mod­erates were associated by the normative establishment with their more radical brethren.

The moderates did not survive historically, as they were assim­ilated among their traditional Jewish brethren, but although they encountered further divisions themselves, the radicals endured the test of time and lasted for several hundred years after the initial movement. Zevi’s death had come about while he was banished in Albania in 1676, and only his followers had seemed to be concerned with the event. Afterwards, Sabbatean followers could mainly be found in Turkey, Italy and Poland, although there were still believ­ers in other parts of the diaspora.

It is important to note that the center of Sabbatean antinomi­anism arose in Salonika, a home for former Marranos. Not only could the former conversos of Spain and Portugal relate to the external facade of the apostasy, but they might be drawn to a kind of anti-rabbinic religion as the halakhah for them was new and somewhat overwhelming. In addition, according to Sharot, Salonika in the latter half of the seventeenth century was under an economic strain and taxes were high; conversion to Islam meant lessening the taxation burden. Moreover, focusing on a spiritual world that was beyond worldly possessions was attractive to those who were sinking into economic hardships.36 According to Yerushalmi, some of the characteristics of the religion of the Marranos were: “the need for secrecy, absence of Jewish books…and observance, obvious syncretism, and the tendency toward messian-ism.”37 Not only were Marranos known to provide messiah figures themselves, in 1525 they were highly responsive to messianic pre­tenders such as David Reuveni. Because of their experiences of forced conversion and their secret adherence to Jewish tradition, the Marranos were more prepared than most to accept Zevi’s con­version. They could sympathize with his external mask and trust that other processes were at work internally. In addition, they could justify their own past behavior because the messiah himself had to undergo a similar experience. Abraham Cardoso proudly claimed that “it is ordained that the king messiah don the garments of a Marrano and so go unrecognized by his fellow Jews. In a word, it is ordained that he become a Marrano like me.”38 Because Marranos could understand that Zevi was not leaving his faith when he decid­ed to convert, they were prime candidates for the reception of post-conversion theology.

The opponent, Jacob Sasportas, had previously predicted a schism in the religion, which came to fruition in the sect which came to be called the “Doenmeh.” The Doenmeh (Turkish for apos­tate), grew out of the radical sect of Sabbateanism and held to the belief that Zevi’s followers must imitate his conversion. Therefore these Sabbateans, who numbered a few hundred, also converted externally to Islam while remaining Jews internally. They practiced a combination of the Jewish and Muslim traditions, but they also developed their own ceremonies. The early writings of the Doenmeh show that they had “eighteen commandments” that were their rules of behavior. Their rules included a repetition of the Ten Commandments, with some leniency on the fornication law. Within their homes, they kept unrecognizable synagogues (without altars or scrolls) yet they continued to pray Muslim prayers in mosques. One of their prayers reveals their paradoxical attitude towards the law. Part of it states,

I believe with perfect faith that this Torah (of Moses) cannot be exchanged and that there will be no other Torah; only the commandments have been abolished, but the Torah remains binding forever and to all eternities.39


The paradox is explicable by understanding the two kinds of Torah that existed for them. Like other Sabbateans, they believed in two aspects of Torah-Torah de-Beriah plus Torah de-Atziluth, which would only be revealed at the time of redemption. Because redemption was not yet complete, the Torah of Creation still reigned until the second coming of the messiah. The Doenmeh’s belief in the supremacy of the supernal Torah led to exploring many freedoms, with particular emphasis on sexual license. They married only among themselves, avoiding both Jews and Muslims. They were known for their freedom of exchanging wives during sexual intimacy and in this regard many opponents arose, including Abraham Cardoso, who accused the Doenmeh of being “foolish vic­tims of demons.”40 The Beth Din of Thessaloniki, which did not con­sider them Jews, caused them to leave the city for Constantinople, where the majority continued to live.

Within the first fifty years, the Doenmeh split into two groups-the Izmirlis and the Jacobites-the latter of which was established by the brother of Zevi’s second wife. In 1700, the Izmirlis were split again when Barukhia Russo was proclaimed as a new incarnation of Zevi. Under Russo the sect known as the Konyosos, became even more radical in terms of sexual freedoms. Some of its members made many missionary journeys to Poland, Austria and Germany. Scholem claims that the Doenmeh were still recognizable as a sect even into the 1900s. Barukhia’s influence led to a new movement in Poland, led by Jacob Frank, which was marked by extreme libertine behavior. Barukhia, who among other things, justified the abolition of the incest prohibition by the rise of the Torah de-Atziluth over the Torah de-Beriah, influenced the new Frankist movement (a label actually developed later).

Jacob Frank was born in Podolia in 1726 and was acquainted with Sabbateanism from his youth. In the 1750s he developed a radical branch of the Doenmeh but replaced Islam with Catholicism. Frank now declared himself the next reincarnation of Zevi but went beyond even what Zevi or Nathan could have pre­dicted. He claimed “I have come to abolish all laws and religions and bring life to the world…Do not believe that only the Jews have to be saved, God forbid, all mankind has to.” 41 The Frankists had a list of statements of belief that included anti-halakhic principles. For example, one stated that “the Talmud which is full of unparal­leled blasphemies against God, should and must be rejected.”42 Unlike Zevi, Jacob Frank did not need a manic phase to inspire his antinomian behavior, as it permeated his entire theology.

Antinomianism, along with millenarianism and divinization of man, were all central elements of the Frankist religion. Scholem states that Frank avoids some of the more abstract concepts of Sabbateanism, such as Kelippot, Beriah and Atziluth, and focuses more on “exoteric” ideas such as “the Good God,” “the Big Brother” and “the Virgin.”43 For Frank, even though the spiritual Torah de-Aztiluth is the ideal one, it is unattainable, consequently nihilism is the solution so that eventually the “Good God” can manifest him­self in this world. Frank openly declared war on tradition, a policy that manifested itself in ecstatic singing and orgiastic ritual. Like Zevi thinking after his conversion, Frank’s doctrine underwent fur­ther elaboration, where the messiah first needed to descend into the abyss (Rome). Frank believed that the world was created by an evil entity and that the laws of this world did not come from the true God. Therefore part of redemption meant a negation of these laws as expressed in all religions and morality, i.e., nihilism. However, sinful acts which were viewed as holy needed to be done in a secretive manner. Christianity was seen as the garb that could mask their inner process of redemption. He states:

This much I tell you: Christ as you know, said that he had come to redeem the world from the hands of the devil, but I have come to redeem it from all the laws and customs that have ever existed. It is my task to annihilate all this so that the Good God can reveal Himself.44


Some scholars, such as Ben Zion Wacholder, conclude that Frank’s antinomianism was only temporary-lasting until Edom was defeated-whereupon Israel would return to performing the commandments. He says that although antinomianism did eventu­ally become central to the Frankist movement, in its initial stage, as implied by Frank’s disciples in a Hebrew-Zoharic letter, “…it had been a mere stratagem to please the Christians.” Therefore, although Frank rejects the main tenet of Judaism, as expressed in his interpretation of Psalm 119:126, “It is time to do for the Lord; Destroy the Torah!” it is a means to an end; apostasy is necessary for the arrival of the messiah. Some followers believed in the necessity to renounce Judaism, while others felt they needed only a “spiritu­al” conversion, i.e., they partook in some concepts of Christianity.45 Many would only convert on certain conditions, such as the contin­ual maintenance of a Jewish identity. They were not granted their wishes and, after a dispute, Frank and five hundred followers from Podolia were baptized, although most followers in other parts of Poland were not. Sharot suggests that not all were ready to imitate Frank, as this meant a schism with the Jewish community. Even though many desired a less strict observance, Frankism did not provide complete freedom, since acts could only be performed in concealment. Scholem thinks that Frank’s ideas were not rational but part of a mythological fantasy and that through him the worst elements of Sabbateanism were brought to their greatest potential.

Unlike Wacholder, most scholars see antinomianism as a goal of Frankism. They perceive Frank to be an example of a strong per­sonality who seeks personal gain from his beliefs. Jacob Allerhand explains that the inhabitants of Podolia and East Galicia could eas­ily “fall prey to a pathological fanatic” because of conditions of extreme poverty, Gentile animosity, and religious confusion.46  Sharot would agree that the disintegrating social climate as well as “the absence of religious leadership made these areas [Poland] par­ticularly receptive to the religious teachings of charismatic lead-ers.”47 These faithful followers, like those of Zevi, continued to fol­low him and to worship him as God incarnate, even after his arrest in 1760. However, after his death in 1791, a Frankist sect with the intensity and complexity of the earlier Sabbateans did not emerge. Many among those who returned to traditional ways became part of the secular or reform movement. Those who had been baptized were still recognizable for several generations, however most even­tually could not be distinguished from other Christians in Poland.

From the beginning of Shabbetai Zevi’s messianic claims in Smyrna to the post-conversion events, rabbinic opposition arose in various places. From 1674 to 1680, Abraham Cardoso was the main leader in Smyrna, and his response could be placed in the moderate camp. Even though the moderates seemed rather unchallenging to their mainstream Jewish counterparts, they did display some oppo­sition, which is exemplified in the letters between Abraham Cardoso and his brother Isaac. Abraham Cardoso was a prolific writer for the Sabbatean movement in the form of letters and tracts, which, after Nathan in importance, helped spread the ideology. Although both Abraham and Isaac came from the same “converso” background, they approached Sabbateanism from opposing viewpoints.

Isaac lived in Verona, Italy, and he had witnessed disorder in his town during the abolition of the ninth of Av in 1666. Abraham had been in Leghorn, Egypt, and finally in Tripoli during 1666 to 1668, where he and his brother Isaac disputed through a series of letters. It appears that Abraham wrote Isaac before the conversion in 1666. His letters did not contain much information on Zevi’s antinomian acts, and when Abraham had composed the letters he had already become fully observant. In line with the moderate faction’s theolo­gy, Abraham viewed the conversion as necessary only for the messi­ah and fought against those who sought to imitate him. Abraham expressed to his brother that Zevi’s earlier changes in the law were necessary for a certain period of time and that in the messianic age the Torah will be changed.48 He stated, “The Torah as it now exists will not exist in the messianic age.” 49 Isaac Cardoso, however, refused to believe in the temporality of the law of Moses and insist­ed that Israel must always observe its precepts. Isaac was willing to concede that only for a limited amount of time a prophet can vio­late a law, but he must return to observance thereafter.50 Nevertheless, Isaac was adamant against the turning of fasts into days of feasting. This disapproval is revealed both in his letters and works that criticize Zevi who is described as:

…elated by the acclamations of the ignorant masses, thought that he was permitted to do many things. He transgressed a number of precepts of the Law, violated the Sabbath, uttered the ineffable Name of God, offered sacrifices outside the Temple and the Holy Land, profaned the fasts insti­tuted by our ancestors, and converted into a festival the celebrated fast of the month of July which was instituted in memory of the overthrow of Jerusalem by Titus and was wont to be observed by wailing, grief and tears, because he was born on that day. His pupils and followers immersed themselves in banquets. While others sat, praying and beating their breasts, affected by the fast… they gave themselves to meals and banquets; while others were overwhelmed by hunger and thirst, showed their bitterness, they danced and joyously played their instruments….51

Isaac Cardoso’s words represent the sentiment and cynicism of the opposition. In the early days of the movement, as well as after the apostasy, rabbinic leaders were hostile to Zevi and his chal­lenges to established ritual. They observed that Zevi’s antinomian actions were not in conformity with the standard rabbinic prereq­uisites for the messiah. However, the rabbinate in the late medieval period was not a unified establishment, and this contributed to their lack of success against revolutionary movements. As well, religious authority continued to be under attack from various groups, including those exiled from Iberia and the conversos.

Safed and Jerusalem were cities where rabbinic authority attempted to centralize itself, particularly under Jacob Hagiz in Jerusalem. Hagiz had been responsible for the ban of excommuni­cation against Zevi. After Jacob Hagiz died without having accomplished his goal to augment and centralize rabbinic authori­ty, his son Moses Hagiz made another attempt. By the time of Moses Hagiz, Sabbateanism had developed into a complex movement. In the eighteenth century, Hagiz was involved in three anti-Sabbatean controversies. He thought Sabbateans should be separate from the Jewish community and compared them with groups such as the Samaritans, Saduccees or Karaites. Hagiz and Isaac Cardoso were just two of many opponents of Sabbateanism that arose because of the threat to traditional religion.

Despite the opposition, Sabbateanism with its various degrees of antinomianism spread swiftly within the Jewish community in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although Gershom Scholem does not believe that persecution or crises led to the quick accept­ance of Shabbetai Zevi, the general mindset of the Jewish people throughout the ages, particularly those who experienced or at least heard of the many expulsions and persecutions, would always be one of messianic longing. The existential state of the Jew in exile is one of a conscious or unconscious sense of powerlessness or insecurity. Naturally, an offer of salvation would be considered seriously, even if it does not totally conform to tradition. Some scholars think that Zevi was able to project his own longing and illness onto the Jewish people, who would then themselves sense the need for a solution. One scholar comments, “Sevi’s extraordinary qualities of body and soul were also essential to the success of the movement, as was his persistence in projecting his desperate inner patienthood to the mass level in search of a cure.” 52 In other words, Zevi’s illness reflect­ed the state of the Jew in Diaspora. Once the masses realized they were in need, the changes that Zevi made in the law became a nec­essary part of the solution to their sense of desperation.

Jewish tradition contains contradictory statements on the nature of the law in the messianic era, and therefore when antino­mianism appears in an historical movement it might not be con­sidered too unusual. Jewish tradition does not have a consensus on the fate of the law in the messianic era, and Jewish texts, particu­larly those with a mystical leaning, provide ammunition for those who would like to see changes or abolitions. Consequently, when opinion is diverse and includes the notion of a “Torah of the mes­sianic age” it becomes difficult to judge whether or not a messian­ic figure or movement is in keeping with tradition. This lack of clar­ity manifested itself within the Sabbatean movement. There were several factions within Sabbateanism where adherence to the law became a central issue that distinguished one from the other, and even within the various Sabbatean branches disharmony existed concerning the extent of antinomianism. The latter was justified through concepts within mystical literature and was further ignit­ed by a charismatic individual. Shabbetai Zevi himself did not place restrictions on the law and this only provided encouragement to his followers after him. Although Sabbateanism at its inception was not so extreme in its anti-halakhic sentiment, it contained the elements that could attract those who would take it to dangerous levels.

Zevi’s initial movement, although short-lived, made an impact that lasted for hundreds of years, because it had deep roots that had begun in the Jewish mystical texts which then intertwined with his­torical reality. However, those who rode on the tail of Zevi’s accom­plishments did not have the same depth as those who originally inspired and wrote interpretations for his antinomian acts. Zevi and his followers were not simply a group of anti-establishment heretics but were committed to their ideology. Although they often went against halakhic authority, they sought to explain their behavior on the basis of authoritative traditional texts. They believed that they were participating in a mystical reparation process, even though their opponents viewed it otherwise. However, there is an acute dif­ference between those such as the Marranos, who had a deep and serious connection to the ideology, and others who merely used it for their own self-interest as did many of the Frankists. Like mem­bers of many messianic movements, some Sabbateans sought to affirm their inner religious truth, whereas others were mainly motivated by personal desire or rebellion. Sabbateanism fizzled out with Jacob Frank, because he was more of a charlatan who exploit­ed the principles of the movement for his own benefit. After his death, Frank’s daughter Eva could barely carry on a legacy that was so superficial.

The anti-traditional spirit of the age proclaimed itself through seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Christian movements such as the Anabaptists, Evangelicals, the Separatists, the Familists, the Ranters, and the Independents in France, England and the Netherlands.53 These groups broke away from the established Church tradition and often developed revolutionary ideas. W.D. Davies affirms in his article, “Reflections on Sabbatai Zevi,” that “the experience of the freedom of the children of God led to antin­omian tendencies.”54 It can be deduced that Sabbateans worldwide were participating in this emerging outlook of freedom. In a world that gradually came to facilitate more intellectual discourse and more ideological freedom, combined with an eternal inner Jewish desire for redemption and justified by mystical texts, the antinomi­an aspects of Sabbateanism did not seem so heretical.


  1. Encyclopedia of Religion, vol.5. 557.
  2. Scholem links the success of the spread of Sabbateanism to the prior widespread dissemination of Lurianic Kabbalah. Moshe Idel disagrees with this view, claiming that Lurianic kabbalah was not propagated among the masses, but only among elite circles. See 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 (Fall 1993): 79-103.
  3. Isaiah Tisbhy, The Wisdom of the Zohar, 3:1112.
  4. Marc Saperstein, Essential Papers on Messianic Movements and Personalities in Jewish History (New York: NYU Press, 1992), 521.
  5. Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Zevi: The Mystical Messiah (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), 163.
  6. Ibid, 148.
  7. Ibid, 404.
  8. Ibid, 161.
  9. Ibid, 166.
  10. Stephen Sharot, Messianism, Mysticism, and Magic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 191.
  11. Halperin, David, J. “Sabbatai Zevi, Metatron, and Mehmed: Myth and History in Seventeenth-Century Judaism” in S. Daniel Breslauer, ed., The Seductiveness of Jewish Myth: Challenge or Response (Albany: SUNY, 1997).
  12. Hekhalot literature is from the late Talmudic period or early medieval. This literature speaks about humans who entered the angelic realm, particularly Enoch,, who ascended to heaven and was transformed into a higher being, a kind of lesser god, and who takes on the divine name.
  13. Sharon, Messianism, Mysticism, and Magic, 127.
  14. Sefer Zerubabel is a seventeenth-century Hebrew apocalypse in which Metatron is equal to the God of the Bible. The prophecies of this book had been used by Nathan, Zevi’s prophet.
  15. Halperin, Sabbatai Zevi, 291.
  16. Ibid, 304 (note 91).
  17. Ibid, 291.
  18. Ibid, 282.
  19. Elliot R. Wolfson, “The Engenderment of Messianic Politics,” in Towards the Millennium, 218.
  20. Sharot, Messianism, Mysticism and Magic, 92.
  21. Halperin, 304.
  22. Scholem, Sabbatai Zevi, 617.
  23. Sharot, 90.
  24. Scholem, Sabbatai Zevi, 237.
  25. Ibid, 631.
  26. Ibid, 242.
  27. Sharot, 98.
  28. Saperstein, 315.
  29. Halperin, 294.
  30. Yehuda Liebes, Studies in Jewish Myth and Jewish Messianism (Albany: SUNY, 1993), 100. Halperin, 274.
  31. Liebes, 113.
  32. Scholem, Sabbatai Zevi, 864.
  33. Halperin, 273.
  34. Sharot, 117.
  35. Wolfson, 226.
  36. Sharot, 128.
  37. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto (New York: Columbia, 1971), 35.
  38. Scholem, Messianic Idea, 95.
  39. Ibid, 157.
  40. Ibid, 165.
  41. Arthur Mandel, The Militant Messiah (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1979), 37.
  42. Jan Doktor, “Jakub Frank, A Jewish Heresiarch and His Messianic Doctrine,” Acta Poloniae Historica 76 (1997): 60.
  43. Scholem, Messianic Idea, 128.
  44. Ibid, 130.
  45. Doktor, Jakub Frank, 71.
  46. Jacob Allerhand, “The Frankist Movement and its Polish Context,” in Proceedings of the Conference on Poles and Jews: Myth and Reality in the Historical Context (New York: Columbia University, 1983), 97.
  47. Sharot, Messianism, Mysticism and Magic, 135.
  48. Yerushalmi, From Spanish Court, 328
  49. Sharot, 124.
  50. Yerushalmi, 334.
  51. Ibid, 345.
  52. R. Hrair Dekmejian, “The Mahdi and the Messiah,” in Religious Resurgence (Syracuse: Syracuse University, 1987), 104.


Deborah Pardo-Kaplan is a Messianic Jew from Montreal, Canada. She graduated in 2001 with an M.A. in Jewish Studies from McGill University, and an M.Sc. in Journalism from Columbia in 2004. This article has been adapted from her mas-ter’s thesis at McGill. She currently works as a freelance writer, living in Boston.