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The Rise and Fall of Shabbetai Zvi
<> Storming Heaven - The Perils of Jewish Messianism, by Arthur Hertzberg>
Luria's apocalyptic kabbalah did not bring the Messiah, but it succeeded in creating a climate of messianic expectation that would engulf much of the Jewish world less than a century later, when a kabbalist from Smyrna (Ismir) in the Ottoman Empire declared himself the Messiah. His career as "the anointed one" began when his prophet, Nathan of Gaza, broadcast a letter announcing that "our Messiah is come to life in the city of Ismir and his name is Shabbetai Zvi. Soon he will show forth his Kingdom to all and will take the royal crown from the Sultan and place it on his own head."
The two men had met in 1665 while Shabbetai was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Suffering from alternating bouts of ecstatic delusions and debilitating depressions, Shabbetai Zvi sought out a fellow kabbalist, Nathan of Gaza, a reputed healer. But instead of bringing peace to Shabbetai Zvi's troubled soul, Nathan convinced the man from Smyrna that he truly was the long-awaited redeemer of Israel. Declaring himself to be the "anointed of the God of Jacob," the redeemer of Israel, Shabbetai Zvi proclaimed June 18, 1666 as the date of the redemption, and promised that, on that date, he would end the long, bitter exile of the Jews by leading them back to the Promised Land. His solution followed the classic Jewish script of redemption: the Messiah (played by Shabbetai Zvi) would restore the Jews to God's favor, and they would be returned to Zion. At least half of the Jews of Europe and the Near East, from bankers and merchants to scholars and beggars, packed their bags and prepared for their imminent ascent to the Promised Land.
When June 18, 1666 arrived, the would-be messiah was locked in a Turkish prison and charged with treason. The sultan offered him a choice: death or conversion to Islam. Shabbetai Zvi chose to convert and took the name Aziz Mehmed Effendi. He was given the honorary title "Keeper of the Palace Gates" and granted a royal pension. Nathan of Gaza defended Shabbetai Zvi's decision, explaining that his master had descended through the "forty-nine gates of impurity" in order to recover the holy sparks trapped in the klippot, which were now concentrated in Islam. Only the Messiah Shabbetai Zvi, argued Nathan, could perform the formidable task of repairing the world and effect universal redemption. The belief that Shabbetai Zvi was the Messiah lasted underground among professing Jews, including eminent rabbis, for at least another century. But the miracles did not come. Life for the Jews remained unchanged, and so the dream shattered.
A hundred years after the death of Shabbetai Zvi, a new messianic pretender, Jacob Frank, appeared in Poland. He proclaimed that the "end of days" would be realized in a world in which the commandments of the Bible were no longer operative. This was not a new idea; in the Talmud, Rabbi Joseph declared that the commandments would be void at the time of the redemption (Niddah 61b). But Jacob Frank went further, making abolition of the "law" into a preamble to the redemption. He and his followers went so far as to engage in orgies and incest in order to begin the Messianic era, a time in which all that was forbidden would supposedly be permitted. Condemned by the leading rabbis of his day, Frank sought refuge in Catholicism. As in the case of the Shabbateans (the followers of Shabbetai Zvi), some of Frank's disciples continued to believe that he would reappear as the Messiah, but, of course, he did not. Once again, false messianism took its toll in lost hopes and despair.