About Sabbatai Zevi
Born in Izmir (Turkey) in 1626, Sabbatai Zevi was the central figure in a major controversy that impacted not only Western European and Levant Jewry between 1665 and 1666, but also rippled through Christian communities there. Even 2 centuries later, the aftereffects would help spawn dissent and drama among Poland’s Jews and non-Jews alike.
Zevi was the son of an English merchant company agent in Izmir, an Ottoman Empire port rapidly becoming a significant trade centre between Western Europeans and Levant residents. Eschewing his brothers’ path into the family business, he instead studied at a yeshiva under the Izmir rabbi’s tutelage. Despite his aptitude for the Talmud and Jewish law, Zevi found Kabbalah and mysticism far more interesting and enlightening.
By 1648, Zevi’s bizarre, questionable actions – like his refusals to consummate at least two marriages, and his subversion of holy rituals – aroused his teachers’ and the rabbinate’s suspicions. Within 3 years, the rabbinate placed a herem (excommunication order) against Zevi and his growing band of followers on the heels of his increasingly bold pronouncements indicating he thought himself the Jewish messiah, banning them from Izmir.
In 1658, after a journey undocumented by the historical record, Zevi arrived in Istanbul, where he encountered Abraham Yachini, a well-known local Jewish preacher who believed in his messianic claims. Yachini then forged a manuscript as retroactive proof that Zevi had been prophesied as the true Jewish Messiah.
Zevi, armed with the manuscript, then went to Salonika — home to many Kabbalists — and continued to herald himself as the true Messiah. There, he staged yet another bizarre event: a marriage between himself and a Torah. It is no wonder that Salonika’s rabbis then banished him. Next, he reputedly travelled through Alexandria and Athens, then returned to Istanbul and went to Jerusalem before finally settling in Cairo in 1660.
Once again, he found an influential patron: Raphael Joseph Halabi, a wealthy Jewish government official who leveraged his wealth to regularly feed and often house a coterie of about 50 Talmudic and Kabbalist scholars at any given time. Halabi, charmed by Zevi’s claims, soon extended his largesse to him while also trying to convince his other guests of his legitimacy.
Zevi stayed in Cairo until 1663, then returned to Jerusalem. His asceticism, and regular singing of psalms, convinced many Jewish community members of his exceptional reverence and reinforced his messianic claims. He ingratiated himself with them by mourning and praying at the graves of those known for their piety, and by distributing food to children. He further solidified his status by using his connection with Halabi to help the financially-ailing community pay its taxes to the Ottoman government.
He then returned to Cairo, where he married one Sarah, a famous person in her own right. An orphan from the infamous Chmielnicki massacres, she had been the ward of a Christian convert for a decade but escaped to Amsterdam via divine intervention. Sarah then ended up in Livorno as a prostitute, claiming she would eventually wed a Messiah. When word of Sarah reached Zevi, he confirmed that a dream had already predicted such a bride would wed him. Sarah was then brought to him, and they married in Halabi’s home. Their combined notoriety brought Zevi even more fame and followers in Jewish Europe, as their marriage story seemingly paralleled that of the biblical prophet Hosea.
The couple began a return to Jerusalem. Along the way, Zevi met Nathan Benjamin Levi, also known as Nathan of Gaza. He would become Zevi’s most devoted disciple, styling himself the reincarnation of Elijah, the Biblical prophet and harbinger of the Messiah’s return. In 1665, after Nathan pronounced Zevi the Messiah, history repeated itself: Jerusalem’s rabbis became suspicious, threatened his increasing number of adherents with herem, and Zevi fled yet again, returning to Izmir. On Rosh Hashanah, he publicly declared himself the Messiah and took over the community’s leadership. He destroyed any opposition to him, replacing the head rabbi with one of his followers. His fame spread throughout Europe, particularly in Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands. Fantastical reports and mystical stories spread unchecked, readily believed in the wake of Eastern European Jewry’s recent traumas.
Ultimately, the Jewish polity never forced Zevi to make a life-or-death choice about his conduct; it was the Islamic world that did so.
In 1666, Zevi again returned to Istanbul, and was immediately arrested and imprisoned. At first, this did little to stop his followers’ enthusiasm: after bribes were paid, he lived opulently there as well as during his subsequent transfer to Abydos (Egypt). In almost every European synagogue, an almost cult-like devotion emerged as prayers for him were offered. In the Middle East, the fevered devotion of Jews in places like Salé (Morocco) to Zevi led the emir to order the community’s persecution.
Zevi’s downfall truly occurred while imprisoned in Abydos. Nehemiah ha-Kohen, a Jewish prophet, predicted the Messiah’s coming and met Zevi in September 1666. When ha-Kohen returned to his native Istanbul, he feigned his conversion to Islam in order to inform Sultan Mehmed IV’s close associated of Zevi’s ambitions. Zevi was then taken to Adrianople (Edirne, Turkey), and given three choices: to prove his divinity by surviving a volley of arrows; to be executed; or to convert.
Zevi chose the last option. He received a title and position in the Sultan’s court, and his wife and closest adherents — some three hundred families – also converted. In addition, he took a second wife as further proof of his conversion’s integrity.
Zevi’s apostasy shook, if not devastated, the faith of many of his other followers. However, a number of them continued to believe he was the Messiah, based on his subsequent vacillations between Islam and Judaism according to his circumstances. The sultan did not tolerate this, and stripped Zevi of his court role and income. He then banished Zevi to Istanbul, and then to present-day Montenegro, where he apparently returned to Judaism in his last years before dying in September 1676.
Sabbatai Zevi’s death did not signal the end of his influence, however. Sabbatianism led to numerous disputes over the following 4 centuries, including the Frankist and Eybeshuetz-Emden controversies in Poland only a century afterwards. He still has followers today, mostly in Turkey. Statistics on their numbers vary wildly; but they reportedly represent themselves as Muslim in public, while in private they perform Jewish mystical practices hinged on devotion to their messianic leader.
In retrospect, what may be most surprising is the sheer number of Jews – and Christians – who believed Zevi. Certainly, early 17th-century English millenarianism influenced non-Jews to support Zevi: it predicted the date of the Apocalypse as 1666, included the Jews’ redemption and their return to Israel, and foretold the Messiah’s arrival. Still, assertions of Zevi’s charisma also prove equally futile as comprehensive explanations of how he inspired thousands of followers of varying circumstances and backgrounds, often separated by vast, unreachable distances, while never meeting each other – or Zevi himself and his immediate entourage, for that matter.
Zevi, of course, had many opponents, among them Jacob Sasportas, Kitsur Tsitsat Novel Tsevi’s author. Sasportas demanded the rabbinate’s immediate denouncement of Zevi and his followers, especially as his pronouncements became ever more outrageous — such as the conversion of many Talmudic practices like the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet into a day of celebration.
The JPL’s Copy
The JPL’s edition was printed in 1867 in Odessa by Moses Eliezer Beilinson. It is 20 x 14.5 x approximately 1 cm. This complete copy contains 52 leaves (104 pages), all paginated using Arabic numerals on the recto of each page, with the verso page using Hebrew numerals.
The pages are in relatively good condition with little tearing, only a slight amount of foxing along the edges, and no bug damage, but there is a consistent bend in the upper left-hand corner. This is particularly remarkable, as the pages are made of pulp rather than cloth. The binding, however, is in less than ideal condition, which is surprising as it appears to have been rebound, and the new end-pages are folded in between the last two leaves and the remainder of the book. The covers are cardboard, wrapped in brown, stained and faded cloth; on both the front and back, the glue has come away leaving the cloth peeling back along both the edge and spine. A sticker along the spine reveals the handwritten title; beneath it, the cloth has torn to reveal that old newsprint was used for the binding.
On the inside of the book, the binding’s end-pages are purple, although considerably faded. The end-pages at the back reveal that the pages used for the rebinding once belonged to a Babylonian Talmud volume whose title page is partially visible (“Masekhet Rosh ha-Shanah”), and have been cut to fit. This Talmud volume clearly merited the use of a much more ornamented title page than Sasportas’ work, as its ornate frame is still visible along the spine of our copy, and continues across the top of the page (which would have been, in fact, the side of the original work).
At the front, a Hebrew inner stamp reads Otsar ha-Sfarim Rabbi Leibtsenstein (“Rabbi Leibtsenstein’s Book Collection”). The book text itself uses Rashi script, perhaps reflecting Sasportas’ Sephardic roots despite the Ashkenazic publishing imprint. Its title page and page headings use traditional Ashkenazi block script, as do the page numbers on the recto sides of the leaves, and the colophon on the last page.
About The Author
Jacob Sasportas was born in Oran (Algeria) in 1610. Little is known about his life or education before the age of 24, when he became rabbi of Tlemcen, also in Algeria. He then moved on to similar positions in Morocco at Marrakesh, Fes, and Salé. After the Moorish king imprisoned Sasportas from 1646 until 1653, when he escaped to Amsterdam with his family, his reputation became ever more illustrious. He accompanied Menasseh ben Israel to London in 1655, but the outbreak of plague there compelled him to move to Hamburg, where Sasportas began his tenure as rabbi. In the interim, Sasportas accepted the king of Morocco’s request to travel to Spain on his behalf to seek Spanish intervention for the rebels. When he returned, London’s Portuguese Jewish rabbinate invited him to join in 1664. In 1673, he left Hamburg for Amsterdam to become head of the Keter Torah yeshiva. Two years later, he was appointed a dayan (rabbinical court judge) and head of the Livorno yeshiva, before returning to Amsterdam in 1680 as the head of the ‘Ets Hayim yeshiva. From 1693 until his death in 1698, he also served as Amsterdam’s Portuguese Jewish community rabbi.
Sasportas authored 3 works: Toledot Ya’akov (1652), an index of Biblical passages for the Jerusalem Talmud’s haggadah ; Ohel Ya’akov (1737), responsa that his son edited and prefaced ; and Tsitsat Novel Tsevi (1737), again edited by his son. Tsitsat is Sasportas’s polemic against his primary antogonists Sabbetai Zevi and his followers. It was later adapted by Jacob Emden as Kitsur Tsitsat Novel Tsevi during the famous Emden-Eybeschütz controversy of the 1750s. Sasportas also edited Moses ben Maimun Albas’ Hekal ha-Kodesh (1653).
About The Printer
Moses Eliezer Beilinson (born Dubrovno, 1835) was a Hebrew and Yiddish writer, translator and adapter, but is best known as a printer, particularly of the Russian maskilim.
Tsevi la-tsadiḳ (1860), his first authored work, served as both an apologia for Judaism and an attack on Christianity and Karaism. That same year, he also translated Ludwig Philippson’s novel Die Vertreibung der Juden aus Spanien und Portugal into Hebrew as Galut Sefarad. In the 1890s, he went on to write three genealogical histories, including one on his own family. However, Beilinson’s reputation chiefly rests on his Odessa press, established in Odessa in the early 1860s, from which several well-known works emerged.
One was Alei Hadas (1865), a periodical focused on literary and scholarly endeavours. It lasted only 4 issues, but included Beilinson’s correspondence with Philippson about the situation of Russian Jews. From 1862 to 1867, he printed Perez Smolenskin’s first pamphlets, despite the latter’s rejection of Beilinson’s attempts to “correct” his style. He also published Kol Mevasser (1871), Russia’s first Yiddish weekly, and succeeded Moshe Leib Lilienblum as its editor.
In addition, Beilinson’s publishing, editing and translating output spanned a wide range of disciplines: literary and scientific brochures, collections of halakhic matters, and a dictionary of foreign phrases used in Yiddish. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this polymath even adapted Longfellow’s Judas Maccabaeus into a Yiddish Ḥanukkah play. He died in 1908.