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Note: Most Sabbateans during and after Sabbatai Zevi were Jews and practiced only Judaism, whereas the Donmeh officially practice/d Islam and are not regarded as Jews.

Sabbateans (Sabbatians) is a complex general term that refers to a variety of followers of, disciples and believers in Sabbatai Zevi (1626 - 1676), a Jewish rabbi who was proclaimed to be the Jewish Messiah in 1665 by Nathan of Gaza. Vast numbers of Jews in the Jewish diaspora accepted his claims, even after he became a Jewish apostate with his conversion to Islam in 1666. Sabbatai Zevi's followers, both during his "Messiahship" and after his conversion to Islam, are known as Sabbateans. They can be grouped into three: "Maaminim"(belivers), "Haberim"(associates), and "Ba'ale Milhamah"(warriors)[1].

Sabbateans who remained Jews


Sabbatai Zevi "enthroned" as the Jewish Messiah, from Tikkun, Amsterdam, 1666.

In Jewish history during the two centuries after Zevi's death in 1676, many Jews (including some Jewish scholars) who were horrified by Zevi's personal conversion to Islam nevertheless clung to the belief that Zevi was still the true Jewish Messiah. They constituted the largest number of Sabbateans during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were vigorously opposed and were eventually forced into hiding their beliefs by the methodical opposition of almost all the leading rabbis who were determined to root out Zevi's kabbalistically derived anti-traditional teachings and his influence upon the Jewish masses. By the nineteenth century Jewish Sabbateans had been reduced to small groups of hidden followers who feared being discovered for their beliefs that were deemed to be entirely heretical and antithetical to classical Judaism (particularly since the head of the movement, Zevi, had become an openly practicing Muslim for the last ten years of his life until the time of his mysterious and premature death at the age of fifty.)

When the founder of Hasidic Judaism, Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), emerged and made his teachings and influence felt through his own disciples, many rabbinical opponents of Hasidism were suspicious that he and his Hasidim were a class of Sabbateans. Some historians[who?] have written that many Sabbateans became followers of Hasidism, which unlike Zevi's movement, followed Halakha (Jewish law) and eventually opponents of Hasidism were convinced that the Hasidim were not Sabbateans.

Sabbatai Zevi's conversion to Islam

Jewish historians have stated that it is hard to describe the national sense of shock and trauma that set in when the masses of Jews all over the world learned that someone as famous as Sabbatai Zevi had officially abandoned his faith for Islam. However, the fact remains that Zevi is the most famous Jew to have become a Muslim, which is also what the term Sabbatean has come to denote. Many within Zevi's inner circle followed him into Islam, including his wife Sarah and most of his closest relatives and friends. Nathan of Gaza, the scholar closest to Zevi, who had caused Zevi to reveal his Messiahship and in turn became his prophet, never followed his master into Islam but remained a Jew, albeit excommunicated by his Jewish brethren.

It was a Jew by the name of Nehemiah ha-Kohen who had pretended to embrace Islam to get an audience with the kaymakam ("governor") and who then betrayed the treasonable desires of Sabbatai to take over as a global leader and thus become a rival to the Turkish Sultan. He in turn informed the Sultan, Mehmed IV. At the command of Mehmed, Sabbatai was taken from Abydos to Adrianople, where the sultan's physician, a former Jew, advised him to convert to Islam. Sabbatai realized the danger of the situation and adopted the physician's advice. On the following day (September 16, 1666), being brought before the sultan, he cast off his Jewish garb and put a Turkish turban on his head; and thus his conversion to Islam was accomplished. The sultan was much pleased, and rewarded Sabbatai by conferring on him the title (Mahmed) Effendi, and appointing him as his doorkeeper with a high salary. Sarah and a number of Sabbatai's followers also went over to Islam. To complete his acceptance of Islam, Sabbatai was ordered to take an additional wife, a harem. Some days after his conversion he wrote to Smyrna: "God has made me an Ishmaelite; He commanded, and it was done. The ninth day of my regeneration." It is widely believed that he then had some connection with the Bektashi Sufi order.

Bektashi – Donmeh Similarities

Ties between Sabbatean Kabbalah and esoteric Sufi Islam go back to the days of Sabbatai Zevi[2]. This is based on contention that Sevi’s exile to the Balkans brought him into close contact with Bektashism. Bektashi Sufists strongly influenced Sabbatean behaviour and produces evidence of Bektashi worship at Sevi’s grave . That there existed a strong connection between the Bektashi of Salonica and the largest Donme community that lived there has been established by Rosanes. The Donme of Salonica found common ground with the Bektashi who shared many characteristics of Sabbateanism, or as Schwartz would have it, strongly influenced Donme practice . Some unique similarities between Donme and Bektashi practice including alleged deliberate violation of kashrut/halal, alleged group sex, ecstatic singing, mystical interpretations and belief in an occult reading of Torah/Qur'an, as well as the practice of collective cooked meals. There was also emphasis on the equality of women and openness to all the monotheistic faiths with a strong heterodox and almost anarchist nature as well as a unique multi-religious outlook, viewing all the monotheistic religions as one. There has been little evidence of anti-Semitism in Albanian history and few instances of collaboration with the Nazis to kill their Jews. Sevi became anti-nomian under Bektashi influence and was protected by the Bektashis after his conversion, who sent him to Albania where they were most powerful.The strong affinity between the groups seems evident and one might agree that Sabbateanism and Bektashiism were inspired by similar circumstances, responding to the thirst for liberalism and the surging need to find cross-denominational paradigms to complement the Empire’s imperialism and express the collective identity volving amongst its citizens. Bektashiism was an Ottoman phenomenon with most of its rituals and prayers based on poems and songs in the Turkish language and in this respect it testifies to the assertion that various religious structures were emerging tailored to the requirements of imperial Ottomanism.

The Donmeh

Inside the Ottoman Empire, those followers of Zevi who had converted to Islam but secretly continued Jewish observance became known as the Donmeh (dönme is Turkish for a "religious convert.")

Sabbatean-related controversies in Jewish history

The Emden-Eybeschutz controversy

The Emden-Eybeschutz controversy was a serious rabbinical disputation with wider political ramifications in Europe that followed the accusations by Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776) who was a fierce opponent of the Sabbateans, against Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz (1690-1764) whom he accused of being a secret Sabbatean.

The Emden-Eybeschutz controversy arose concerning the amulets which Emden suspected Eybeschutz of issuing. It was alleged that these amulets recognized the Messianic claims of Sabbatai Zevi. Emden then accused Eybeschutz of heresy. Emden was known for his attacks directed against the adherents, or those he supposed to be adherents, of Sabbatai Zevi. In Emden's eyes, Eybeschutz was a convicted Sabbatean. The controversy lasted several years, continuing even after Eybeschutz's death.

Emden's assertion of heresy was chiefly based on the interpretation of some amulets prepared by Eybeschutz, in which Emden professed to see Sabbatean allusions. Hostilities began before Eybeschutz left Prague; when Eybeschutz was named chief rabbi of the three communities of Altona, Hamburg, and Wansbeck (1751), the controversy reached the stage of intense and bitter antagonism. Emden maintained that he was at first prevented by threats from publishing anything against Eybeschutz. He solemnly declared in his synagogue the writer of the amulets to be a Sabbathean heretic and deserving of cherem (excommunication).

The majority of the rabbis in Poland, Moravia, and Bohemia, as well as the leaders of the Three Communities, supported Eybeschutz: the accusation was "utterly incredible" - in 1725, Eybeschutz was among the Prague rabbis who excommunicated the Sabbatean sect. (Others suggest that the rabbis issued this ruling because they feared the repercussions if their leading figure was found to be a Sabbatean).

The controversy was a momentous incident in Jewish history of the period, involving both Rabbi Yechezkel Landau and the Vilna Gaon, and may be credited with having crushed the lingering belief in Sabbatai current even in some Orthodox circles. In 1760 the quarrel broke out once more when some Sabbatean elements were discovered among the students of Eybeschutz' yeshivah. At the same time his younger son, Wolf, presented himself as a Sabbatean prophet, with the result that the yeshivah was closed.

Sabbateans and early Hasidism

Some scholars see seeds of the Hasidic movement within the Sabbatean movement.[3] When Hasidism began to spread its influence, a serious schism evolved between the Hasidic and non-Hasidic Jews. The Hasidim dubbed any Jews who rejected the Hasidic movement as misnagdim ("opponents").

Critics of Hasidic Judaism expressed concern that Hasidism might become a messianic sect as had occurred among the followers of both Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank. However, The Baal Shem Tov the founder of Hasidism came at a time when the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe were reeling in bewilderment and disappointment engendered by the two Jewish false messiahs Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676) and Jacob Frank (1726-1791) in particular.

Sabbateans and modern secularism

Some scholars have noted that the Sabbatean movement in general fostered and connected well with the principles of modern secularism.[4] Related to this is the drive of the Donmeh in Turkey for secularizing their society just as European Jews promoted the values of Age of Enlightenment and its Jewish equivalent the haskalah.

Disillusioned Jewish Sabbateans


Former followers of Shabbatai do penance for their support of him.

Sabbatai's conversion to Islam was extremely disheartening for the world's Jewish communities. Prominent rabbis who were believers in and followers of Sabbatai were prostrated with shame. Among the masses of the people the greatest confusion reigned. In addition to the misery and disappointment from within, Muslims and Christians jeered at and scorned the credulous and duped Jews. The Sultan even planned to exterminate all the adult Jews in his empire and to decree that all Jewish children should be brought up in Islam, also that fifty prominent rabbis should be executed; only the contrary advice of some of his counselors and of the sultan's mother prevented these calamities. In spite of Sabbatai's apostasy, many of his adherents still tenaciously clung to him, claiming that his conversion was a part of the Messianic scheme. This belief was further upheld and strengthened by the likes of Nathan of Gaza and Samuel Primo, who were interested in maintaining the movement. In many communities the solemn Jewish fast days Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av were still observed as joyous feast-days in spite of bans and excommunications.

Rabbis who opposed the Sabbateans

Joseph Escapa

Rabbi Joseph Escapa (1572-1662) was especially known for having been the teacher of Zevi and for having afterward excommunicated him.

Aaron Lapapa

Rabbi Aaron Lapapa (1590-1674) was the rabbi at Smyrna in 1665, when Zevi's movement was at its height there. He was one of the few rabbis who had the courage to oppose the false prophet and excommunicate him. Zevi and his adherents retorted by deposing him and forcing him to leave the city, and his office was given to his colleague, Hayyim Benveniste, at that time one of Sabbetai's followers. After Sabbetai's conversion to Islam, Lapapa seems to have been reinstated.

Jacob Hagis

Rabbi Jacob Hagis (1620-1674) was one of Zevi's chief opponents, who put him under the ban. About 1673 Hagiz went to Constantinople to publish his Lehem ha-Panim, but he died there before this was accomplished. This book, as well as many others of his, was lost.

Moses Hagiz

Rabbi Moses Hagiz (1671- c. 1750) was born in Jerusalem and waged a campaign against Sabbatian emissaries during 1725-1726.

Jacob ben Aaron Sasportas

Rabbi Jacob ben Aaron Sasportas (1610-1698) was one of the most violent opponents of the Sabbatean movement. He wrote many letters to various communities in Europe, Asia, and Africa, exhorting them to unmask the impostors and to warn the people against them. He wrote a number of works, such as Toledot Ya'akob (1652), an index of Biblical passages found in the haggadah of the Jerusalem Talmud, similar to Aaron Pesaro's Toledot Aharon, which relates to the Babylonian Talmud only; Ohel Ya'ako (1737) that were polemical correspondence against Zevi and his followers.

David Nieto

Rabbi David Nieto (1654-1728) was the haham of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community in London. He waged war untiringly on the Sabbateans, which he regarded as dangerous to the best interests of Judaism, and in this connection wrote his Esh Dat (London, 1715) against Nehemiah Hayyun (who supported Zevi).

Tzvi Ashkenazi

Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi (1656-1718) known as the Chacham Tzvi, for some time rabbi of Amsterdam, was a resolute opponent of the followers of Zevi. In Salonica he also witnessed the impact of the Sabbatai Zevi movement on the community, and this experience became a determining factor in his whole career. His son Jacob Emden served as rabbi in Emden and followed in his father's footsteps in combating the Sabbattean movement.

Jacob Emden

Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776) was Talmudic scholar and leading opponent of the Sabbatians. He is best known as the opponent of Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz whom he accused of being a Sabbatean during the The Emden-Eybeschütz Controversy.

Naphtali Cohen

Rabbi Naphtali Cohen (1649-1718) was kabbalist who was tricked into giving an approbation to a book by the Sabbatean Nehemiah Hayyun. Provided with this and with other recommendations secured in the same way, Hayyun traveled throughout Moravia and Silesia, propagating everywhere his Sabbatean teachings. Cohen soon discovered his mistake, and endeavored, without success, to recover his approbation, although he did not as yet realize the full import of the book. It was in 1713, while Cohen was staying at Breslau (where he acted as a rabbi until 1716), that Haham Tzvi Ashkenazi of Amsterdam informed him of its tenets. Cohen thereupon acted rigorously. He launched a ban against the author and his book, and became one of the most zealous supporters of Haham Tzvi in his campaign against Hayyun.

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