The year is 1666, the setting Adrianople in the Ottoman Empire – modern day Turkey. A middle aged preacher named Sabbatai Zevi, held captive since his arrival there, mulls over a difficult choice. Tomorrow he will be brought before the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet IV and be told to make a choice, a Monty Hall problem if ever there was one – though in his case there is no ‘behind one door there is a car, behind the other two doors, goats’ option. If only there were goats. Every door, it seems had a ravenous tiger behind it- well figuratively. For close to a decade Zevi, a rogue Kabbalist rabbi, has been claiming to be the true son of God, and messiah. It is his proselytizing which has got him into this mess. Tomorrow he must choose instant execution, a trial by arrows or the turban. Before we speak a little on how he chose, first we should tell the tale which brought him here.
Sabbatai Zevi was born in Smyrna, Ottoman Empire in late July or early August 1626. He was born to a Sephardic Jewish family; meaning his ancestors had been given a similar Monty Hall problem in Spain or Portugal, following the Alhambra decree of 1492. The Christian rulers, having finally ousted the Umayyad Muslims, then turned to the region’s Jewish citizens and offered them the chance to 1. Convert to Christianity and stay, 2. Remain Jewish but abandon their belongings and leave immediately or 3. Be executed. Sabbatai’s ancestors chose to remain Jewish, and moved to the other end of the Mediterranean.
Sabbatai was intensely religious, studying to become a Rabbi. In his studies he discovered a series of mystic Jewish texts called the Kabballah – you may recall this was the sect Madonna became enamored with in the early 2000s. While, by and large Jewish in their tenor, these texts were heretical as they claimed to give the practitioner a direct line to God. In 1648 Sabbatai claimed he had spoken with God, and God revealed he was Sabbatai’s true father. He had been born to lead the Jewish people back to the Holy Lands, thus bringing about the end of days, and eternal life hereafter. When it became clear to the Rabbinate of Smyrna that this charismatic young heretic was getting a following they sent him packing. Ultimately this would not stop him.
Over the next few years the charismatic Zevi gathered a large following among the Jews of Europe and the Middle East, known as the Sabbateans. Sabbatai was hardly the first claimant for the title Jewish messiah in history, and would not be the last. He did however have some backing in Christendom, for their own, eschatological reasons. As Zevi was building his following, increasing numbers of Christians – often referred to as Millenarians, believed the world was about to come to an end. The victory of Puritanism in the English Civil War- Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army deposing and executing Charles I in 1649 had been a sign. The next sign would be when the 10 lost tribes of Israel returned to the Holy Land. These Christians did not believe Sabbatai was the messiah, but thought his success would bring on the return of their messiah – so they got in behind him. Both groups believed 1666 would be the year it all happened.
On Jewish New Year 1665, Sabbatai Zevi made a public statement, surrounded by his followers. The messiah was ready to start the revolution. He would travel to Constantinople
“riding on a lion, with a seven headed dragon in its jaws”
His second in charge Nathan of Gaza upped the ante, stating Sabbatai would place the Sultan’s crown on his own head. Well…. Little did he know how prophetic that statement would be. The Ottomans caught wind of the speech, and kept a close watch for his arrival. On arrival Sabbatai Zevi was arrested. It seemed initially he would simply be left to rot in jail, but a few months after he was jailed, Sabbatai was caught trying to order a hit on a rival Jewish messiah from within prison. The Vizier of Adrianople, the Sultan’s top administrator in the city, had him brought before himself. This is when Zevi was given his choice.
Door one, the Vizier ceases all messing around with him, Sabbatai would be impaled. This, by the way is effectively what happens if he makes no choice at all.
Behind door two? Well, Sabbatai claims to be the messiah, and to have supernatural powers. Tomorrow he can prove it to the Sultan. Zevi is to stand before a company of archers while they empty their quivers into him. A son of God can surely stop all the arrows in mid air right?
Door three, since Sabbatai has shown such interest in the Sultan’s headwear, he will find one of the Sultan’s turbans laid out for him on a table. Put on the Sultan’s ‘crown’ accepting if you do you will be renouncing your claims to divinity, and your Jewish faith. In doing so you will be converting to Islam.
Well, maybe this option is more car than goat- or raging tiger. The turban comes with a fancy house, a big salary, and a job with very few duties.
Before you scroll down, dear reader- first, what would you choose? In Zevi’s place are your beliefs worth dying for? Second how do you think he chose?
Short answer, Sabbatai Zevi was no martyr, he picked up the turban, adjusted it to make sure it wasn’t crooked, then went into the next room to say hello to Sultan Mehmet IV, his new boss.
Now there is a coda worth mentioning, as it relates to something in next week’s blog. I will explain it in that episode, but for now I mention it in passing. What happened to the Sabbateans? Surely there were mass suicides, riots, disavowals of the Messiah? Actually a large number of the followers also converted to Islam, adopting the name ‘the Donmeh’. Sects of donmeh are still around today.
Next week let’s talk UFOs – Simone