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Shabbatai Zvi : A False Jewish Messiah and the Founder of the Donmeh Sect*


Dr Jaafar Hadi Hassan

 Shabbatai Zvi is the most famous false messiah in modern Jewish history.  He was born in 1626 in Smyrna (modern Izmir) in Turkey and was one of three brothers.  He was described as handsome and clever.  His father, who was a merchant, wanted him to become a rabbi and when he was old enough he began to study religion with some rabbis in his home town.  While he was studying the normal prescribed books, he was also attracted to the Kabbalah (Jewish esoteric knowledge).  He delved into this subject until he became well versed in it.  When he was about twenty years old he graduated as a rabbi, after which he began to teach some students who subsequently became his disciples and admirers.  Shabbatai would tell them sometimes about his sadness and anger over the Chmielniky massacre against the Jews in the Ukraine which had happened in 1648 and would also tell them about his determination to revenge it.

After a while Shabbatai began to hint to his disciples that he might be the saviour of the Jews and their redeemer (Shabbatai was born on 9th of Ab, in the Jewish calendar which was the same day on which the Jewish messiah was supposed to be born).  Later he began to tell them secretly that he would be the Jewish messiah and would save the Jews.  In the meantime he contracted a marriage but did not consummate it for months and when his wife’s family asked for a divorce he agreed to it.  Some time later he contracted another marriage but did not consummate this either and this marriage also ended in divorce.  Meanwhile his claim to be the future Jewish messiah had reached the rabbis of the town of Izmir and had enraged them.  They decided to summon him and interrogate him, but he refused to attend the meeting.  Because of the trouble he was facing with the rabbis, he decided to leave on tour and go to Greece where there were Jewish communities.  In these places he also gave hints that he was the Messiah.  After some time he returned to his home town Izmir.

Shabbatai was known to suffer from periods of depression followed by an extreme state of elation during which he danced and sang in front of his students and friends. He was also known to have a beautiful voice.  When his brothers became aware of his states of depression which used to last for weeks, they suggested he travel to Palestine and go to Jerusalem which might alleviate his problem.  Shabbatai agreed and he left his home town with some money provided by his brothers.  He did not go directly to Palestine but took the route to Egypt.  No one knows the reason for his decision but while he was there he was told about an official in charge of the finances of the country and leader of the Jewish community called Rafael Joseph Chalabi, who was interested in Jewish religion and especially in the Kabbalah and had gathered together a group of rabbis in his palace.  Shabbatai visited him and Rafael offered to let him stay in his palace with the rest of the group. There he stayed for some time and was treated with respect by both the group and Rafael.  He then decided to travel to Palestine with Jerusalem as his destination.  After his arrival there he began to study the Kabbalah with well known rabbis but he also used to go on his own to visit the graves of some famous rabbis at night. 

It is not known how long Shabbatai stayed there before the Jewish community asked him to go to Egypt as a messenger for them to beg Rafael, whom Shabbatai knew and had stayed with, for financial help as the community was in dire need of money to pay for their heavy taxes.  Shabbatai agreed to go and to help the community of Jerusalem. 

While Shabbatai was there he heard about a woman of Polish origin, living in Italy, whose name was Sarah who mixed with men and told fortunes and predicted the future.  More importantly she used to say she would get married to the Jewish messiah.  Shabbatai then sent a message to her offering to marry her.  She immediately accepted his offer and went to Egypt where the marriage took place with extravagant celebrations in the palace of Rafael Chalabi.  When Shabbatai was asked how he could marry such a loose woman, he replied by saying that he followed the example of the prophet Hosea who was ordered in the Scriptures to marry a whore.

While Shabbatai was in Egypt he also heard from the rabbis in the palace about a rabbi living in Gaza called Nathan of Gaza.  This rabbi, as the rumours said, treated the “sick souls” of people and minds.  As Shabbatai was struggling with the problem of depression, he thought it would be good for him to meet this rabbi.  So he travelled to see him and when Nathan first saw Shabbatai he immediately bowed to him and showed him great respect.  They talked together for many hours, and then Nathan informed him that he was the messiah and what he suffered was the suffering of the Messiah and was, in fact, a sign of his messiahship.  Then Nathan, while he was with his students, produced what looked like a leaf of an old book which supposed to be from 12th century in which it said Shabbatai Zvi who would be born in 1626 would be the redeemer of the Jews and the messiah.  On another occasion, while Nathan was celebrating a feast with his companions he began to sing and dance frantically and then lay on the floor for some time apparently without breathing.  The people around him thought that he was dead and put a piece of white cloth over his face.  Then he suddenly uttered a sentence saying that Shabbatai Zvi was his messiah and his beloved and he then told those around him that Shabbatai was the messiah.

This was in 1665.  Then Nathan spread the news and he began to try to convince people that Shabbatai was indeed the messiah.  People started to descend on Gaza to see the messiah and day after day the crowd multiplied and people had to sleep in the streets as there was not enough room in the houses.  When Shabbatai decided to go to Jerusalem a number of people, including some rabbis, accompanied him.  In Jerusalem he was well received by the people and one day he put on a green garment, mounted a horse and rode round Mount Zion seven times.  During this time, he was behaving like a messiah, according to Jewish tradition, for example, he uttered the name Yahweh and ate food which is prohibited in Jewish Law and he asked the people around him to eat it too.  Shabbatai’s behaviour and the support which he had from the people angered the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem as well as the rest of the rabbis in the city.  Consequently, they issued a decree of excommunication against him and had it publicised.

So Shabbatai decided to go to Turkey.  He first went to Syria and from there planned to travel on to Turkey.  When he arrived in Damascus he was received by many people who celebrated his arrival.  Even some rabbis received him cordially and some even believed in him.  In the meantime, Nathan was sending letters to the Jewish communities in the Middle East and Europe urging them to believe in Shabbatai Zvi and promising them redemption.  Shabbatai then went to Aleppo and in this city people celebrated his arrival and many came to him to be in his presence and to have his blessing.  People also began to prophesy and fall down unconscious and while in this state announced the mission of Shabbatai.  He stayed in Aleppo for more than a month before deciding to leave for Istanbul.  The Jews in Aleppo begged him to stay longer but he told them that he was in a hurry to fulfil his mission.  Many people accompanied him on the way to protect him and his entourage.  They told of thousands of beings coming from heaven at night and disappearing during the day.

When he arrived in Turkey, Shabbatai did not go directly to Istanbul but instead went to his home town Izmir.  The news had already reached the people there and on his arrival they received him with great celebrations.  The rabbis there kept silent because of Shabbatai’s popularity and because anyone who dared to criticise Shabbatai was attacked and so consequently some of these rabbis left the town as they were frightened of their own people. The Jewish population of the town was in a festive mood and Shabbatai was always surrounded by people.  He had a bodyguard and a scribe to write his letters to the Jewish communities and hundreds of people went with him whenever he went to the synagogue.  People would clear the way in front of him when he went to visit someone or to the synagogue and he had assistants who carried a few things of his such as a comb.  The Jewish community in Izmir began to call him “king” and they engraved the word “king” on the birmah of the temple (where the Bible is read).  He also began to sign his name as Shabbatai, the King, and Messiah in the letters he used to send.

Meanwhile, there were rumours that the lost tribes of Israel had appeared in Morocco and numbered hundreds of thousands and also in the Arabian Peninsula where they had occupied Mecca, demanding that the Sultan give them Palestine in return for handing over this city.  There were also rumours circulating of the appearance of the Prophet Elijah who, according to Jewish tradition, was still alive.   Both these two events are thought to be signs of the immanent appearance of the messiah and so many people believed these rumours. 

During this time many people came to visit Shabbatai from abroad and meet with him.  There were some demonstrations, too, at this time by Jews in several places outside Turkey to celebrate the appearance of the messiah and in some of them, for example Poland, they carried Shabbatai’s picture.  The demonstrations caused friction between Christians and Jews.  Some governments like those of the Yemen and Morocco banned the demonstrations.  Furthermore, people began to torture themselves in different ways as a sign of repentance.  Some buried themselves up to the neck, others fasted for a long period of time while some injured themselves with thorns and so on.  Also, there were many people who prophesied after they had fallen unconscious and uttered words announcing that Shabbatai Zvi was the messiah.

After a few months in Izmir, Shabbatai decided to go to Istanbul presumably to take the power from the Sultan.  He travelled by sea and was accompanied by a group of his followers.  The ship was delayed by rough seas and his followers were worried asking each other “geldi mi?” (Has he arrived?).  But there was a surprise awaiting Shabbatai there.  As soon as he arrived at the port he found a group of soldiers waiting to arrest him.  This was a great shock to the group with him as he was then taken to a small prison which was assigned to criminals.  He stayed in this prison for a while until the Jewish community in the city intervened on his behalf with the authorities to have him moved to a better place.  Then the government moved him to the fortress of Gallipoli where there was a prison for political prisoners.  Here Shabbatai was comfortable and his wife Sarah had her own section.  People began to visit him in their hundreds and even some prominent people who believed him began to visit him too and offer him money.  In this prison Shabbatai had his scribe with him who wrote letters on his behalf and in one of his letters Shabbatai instituted the 9th of the month of Ab as a feast day rather than a solemn one of fasting as it is usually kept by the Jews and he prescribed some homilies and texts from the Bible to be read on this occasion.  Shabbatai also instituted his birthday celebrations.  In connection with this he wrote a circular letter to his followers detailing the manner in which his followers should behave on this occasion.  It was an elaborate way of celebrating his birthday.  Another change he brought about in the prison was that he began to sign his letters with the phrase “I am your Lord Shabbatai Zvi”.

People continued to come to pay homage to Shabbatai in increasing numbers and so, as a direct result, prices for passage by ship and the prices of commodities sold in the area around the prison also increased.  In the meantime, the Prophet Nathan continued to send letters to Shabbatai’s followers telling them that the redemption was near and that his imprisonment was part of the mission. 

While he was in the prison, a Polish rabbi came to visit him whose name was Nehemiah Cohen.  This rabbi, it is said, used to prophesy and Shabbatai heard about that and sent for him but it seems that the rabbi came to Shabbatai to argue with him about some aspects and signs of the messiah  according to Jewish beliefs.  As soon as he arrived he began to discuss these aspects with him.  He argued with Shabbatai that he could not be the messiah because there should have been another messiah (minor one) before him called the Messiah ben Joseph who would have to have been killed in battle before the appearance of the last messiah.  In reply to him Shabbatai stated that the Messiah ben Joseph had appeared and had been killed in 1648 during the massacre of Jews in the Ukraine and Poland during the rebellion of Baghdan Chmielinsky.

But Nehemiah Cohen was not convinced and continued to argue with him for three days.  Shabbatai’s followers became angry about this when they learned of it and Nehemiah, scared of them, told the guards at the prison that he had converted to Islam.  He did this to protect himself from attack by Shabbatai’s followers.  Nehemiah decided to tell the authorities that Shabbatai was a false messiah, an impostor and a deceiver who was encouraging people to rebel against the government and should therefore be punished.  When he told this to the authorities, Shabbatai was taken by the army from the prison together with some rabbis to accompany him as Shabbatai requested.  When they were on their way to the Sultan’s palace he told them he was scared and did not know what to do.  In the palace a council, consisting of the governor of the city, the vizier, the Imam of the Palace Prayers,  the Mufti, The Sultan’s physician and the Sultan who was sitting on the upper floor to see but not to be seen, were awaiting Shabbatai.

When Shabbatai arrived, the council began to interrogate him and accused him of pretending to be the messiah in order to seize part of the empire (by which they meant Palestine).  It is said that the Sultan suggested that Shabbatai should stand against a wall and be hit by arrows to test his claim and that if he was the true messiah then the arrows would not harm him.  Shabbatai was confused as to what to do, so the physician of the Sultan who was a Jewish convert to Islam whispered to him that it would be better for him to convert to Islam to save himself from death.  Shabbatai immediately agreed and told the council that he had for a long time been thinking of converting to Islam and would like to do so and they accepted this and performed the procedure and the rites necessary for his conversion. So he was taken to have a bath, was given new clothes and made to wear a turban, given the name Muhammad Aziz Effendi and was also given the honorary title “Keeper of the Gates of the Palace”.

Shabbatai’s followers were shocked when they heard of what had happened and had different reactions to it.  Some of them left Judaism altogether and some rejected Shabbatai and abandoned their belief in his messiahship but others continued to believe in him despite what had happened and the prophet Nathan announced to his followers that converting to Islam was part of the process of the Messiahship and that they needed to convert to Islam as Shabbatai had.  Shabbatai then began another phase of his activity which was to convince his followers to convert to Islam and even asked people who came to visit him to do so likewise. In the synagogue itself he used to preach Islam and convinced people to convert.  But he forbad them to marry Muslims.  This is one of the 18 beliefs which he laid down for his followers.  The Turks began to call those of his followers who proclaimed Islam “Donmeh” which literally means “turning” ie because they turned from Judaism to Islam.

The Donmeh followers who converted to Islam began to pray like Muslims in the mosques and secretly like Jews in hidden synagogues.  They also began to use two names, one Jewish which they used with Jews and another Muslim one used in public.  Shabbatai continued his activities in Turkey and after a few years the Turkish authorities accused him of trying to convert Muslims to Judaism and decided to deport him to Albania to a town called Uslinj.  Here too some of his followers began to visit him and pay homage to him.  In the meantime, his wife Sarah died and a short while after her death he married another woman, a daughter of a well known rabbi from Salonika who was one of his followers.  Shabbatai lived here for a few rather quiet years and died in 1676 and was buried there on the seashore as he requested.


A few years after his death, hundreds of his followers who had not converted to Islam announced their conversion and some years after that his followers became divided into two groups and finally, not many years later, the movement divided itself into three separate sub-sects as they remain to this day.


The members of the Donmeh Sect are estimated to be about one hundred thousand and most of them  live in Turkey today. Since the beginning of the twentieth century they have begun to play an important economic and political role in the country.  Many of them also became high ranking officers in the army.  Some of them became ministers like Muhammad Jawid Bek who was Minister of Finance on three occasions at the beginning of the last century and Ismail Jem who became foreign minister in the nineties of the last century and Tansu Chelar who became Prime Minister in the same period.


The Donmeh are active nowadays in business and in education and they have a big university which has many faculties for different subjects.  They are also very active in the economy and in the media too.  The Donmeh nowadays would prefer to be called Saloniki rather than Donmeh as they think that the latter name now has pejorative connotations but in fact they still continue to be known as Donmeh.


*I have published a book (in Arabic) on the Donmeh Sect which has been reprinted three times.


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