In Search of Followers of the False Messiah

Aubrey Ross is an unusual man with an unusual pastime. He's looking for Jewish Muslims. In Turkey. With the help of the Internet. And he's convinced he has found some.

Orly Halpern
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Orly Halpern

Aubrey Ross is an unusual man with an unusual pastime. He's looking for Jewish Muslims. In Turkey. With the help of the Internet. And he's convinced he has found some.

In a book entitled "The Messiah of Turkey," due to be published this winter by Frank Cass Publishers in Great Britain, Ross reveals that there are a number of key figures in the present government of Turkey who are Sabbateans - i.e., followers of Shabbtai Tzvi, a Jew who, in the 17th century, claimed he was the messiah, God of Israel, and later converted to Islam.

Ross, an Orthodox Jew from London who has lectured on mysticism at Hebrew University in Jerusalem - but has university degrees in economics and the history of political thought, and is an adviser on pensions at the National Health Service in Great Britain - became intrigued by the subject when he was reading the chapter about false messiahs in Gershom Scholem's "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism."

"I was fascinated by a short sentence that said `many of them were still around in 1970,'" he says.

Shabbtai Zvi was born in Izmir, Turkey in 1625 and became a Muslim in the 1660s, Ross explains, when he was challenged by the sultan of Turkey for declaring that his mission as messiah was to take back the land of Israel, then under Ottoman rule. The sultan offered him three alternatives: make a miracle and become the true messiah of the Jews; be killed; or become a Muslim. Shabbtai Tzvi chose the latter.

"Shabbtai Tzvi embraced Islam," he says, "and that would be the end of the story, but he claimed that his embrace was different than Jesus' crucifixion: He was entering the `dark world' to bring life into it. His followers called this the `sacredness of sin' and quoted Isaiah 53: `The messiah will suffer.'"

Adds Ross: "Anyway, most people say the messiah will suffer - leading the Jewish people is not easy!"

After Shabbtai Tzvi's death, he relates, his family and followers moved to Salonika. When Greece took it over in 1924, descendants of that community returned to Turkey.

Underground kabbalist colleges

"I wasn't satisfied with the sentence about many of them being around in 1970," Ross says. "I went to a lady professor of kabbala in London who insisted [the Sabbateans] were a 17th-century phenomenon that faded away in the early part of the 20th century. I said I don't think they did. Then a friend introduced me to Naim Tucsin, a Turkish Muslim professor of politics at London University, who told me he would contact an editor of an Istanbul newspaper who is a Jew and ask him about it. Six months later, I got a phone call from the editor, saying `come to Istanbul.'"

He traveled to Istanbul and stayed at the Pier Palace Hotel. One day, Ross "was taken to the office of a Muslim gentleman. I sat down, was given coffee and he asked me, `What do you know about `tiferet' [glory]?' The significance of the term represents an entire kabbalistic structure in which tiferet is the God of Israel."

Ross, who is also warden of Hendon United Synagogue, one of the largest in London, decided four years ago to write a book about his discoveries. He began learning Turkish and traveled twice to Turkey: "I penetrated the Sabbatean structure. I met with the president of the Sabbatean community. They were at the point of showing me one of their secret synagogues, but got scared."

He explains that "the Sabbateans believe that God is the creator of the world, but has underneath his authority the God of Israel. I discovered there are 50 `ogans' - spiritual leaders - of the Sabbatean movement. They have trained in 12 kabbalistic colleges in Turkey, which are underground. They are experts in the Zohar, in `Sefer Bahir' and `Sefer Yetsira,' prominent kabbalistic works which are accepted and respected by Orthodox Jews, but not revered [to the same extent]. They also know the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets and other writings, but very little or no Talmud as this had been transcended by Shabbtai Tzvi."

According to Ross, the secretive Sabbatean community, with an estimated 20,000 members, is known to security forces in Turkey, but not to the general public. Most of them live in Istanbul in large blocks of luxury flats in the Shishli Jewish quarter - unbeknownst to their neighbors.

"It's like a well-known secret. But the Sabbateans don't want to be exposed. I have been asked by four members of the community not to publish my book. They fear reactions from extreme Islamic elements."

To help substantiate his claims, Ross brought to Israel one of the members of the community who was willing to "come out of the closet" in order to be converted formally by rabbis: "Ilgaz Zorlu is his name. But the rabbis [in Israel] said he can't be converted because he doesn't accept all of the Talmudic law. They accepted that he knows more kabbala than they do. He prays; he practices Conservative Judaism. But, he's not bothered about Talmud so they said he had to do a nine-month conversion."

Meanwhile, Zorlu, a young accountant from Istanbul, has written his own book, which is mostly historical in nature. Entitled "Yes, I am a Salonikan," it has been printed six times.

Ross believes that there are a number of secret Sabbateans who hold key positions of influence in the Turkish parliament, legislature and executive branches of government, including the foreign minister himself. This, he observes, may help explain the close relations that exist today between Israel and Turkey.



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