This Day in Jewish History

1666: All but One of Shabbetai Zvi's Devotees Get Excommunicated

The rabbis of Constantinople ousted all the followers of the false messiah, except for Nathan of Gaza.

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December 9, 1666, is the date on which the rabbis of Constantinople excommunicated all the followers of Shabbetai Zvi, with the exception of Nathan of Gaza -- the man most responsible for spreading messianic fervor across the Jewish world. A mere year and a half earlier, Nathan, a learned man who was a student of Lurianic kabbala, had had the vision informing him that Shabbetai Zvi (1626-1676) was the agent who would usher the world into the age of redemption. After convincing Shabbetai of the truth of his vision, Nathan, a brilliant spokesman, took on the mission of spreading the word through the Holy Land and Europe.

Abraham Nathan ben Elisha HayyimAshkenazi – only later did he come to be called Nathan of Gaza, mostly by his enemies -- was born in Jerusalem in 1643. His father was Elisha Haim ben Yaakov, a Polish or German Jew who added the surname of "Ashkenazi" to the family name when he settled in Jerusalem. Elisha Haim worked as an emissary of the Jewish population of Jerusalem, raising money for its member in Europe and in Morocco.

Nathan was raised in the holy city, where he studied for his first 20 years with the great Talmudist Jacob Hagiz. Late in 1663, when Samuel Lissabona, a wealthy businessman from Gaza, consulted Hagiz regarding a suitable groom for his daughter, he recommended his star student, Nathan. After marrying Lissabona's daughter, Nathan moved to Gaza, and it was there he began to study Lurianic kabbala.

According to the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem, exposure to kabbala aroused in Nathan "an awakening that had the violence of an explosion." Whereas Nathan had previously been simply brilliant, now he also seemed to be almost possessed by a new spiritual force.

Ecstatic experiences

First in 1663 and then two years later, Nathan had intense mystical visions, which he actually described in writing. In the latter vision, he was witness to the mysteries of creation, and saw an image of an individual whom he later understood was Shabbetai Zvi engraved on a divine chariot. The patriarch Jacob appeared too, and said to Nathan, "Thus saith the Lord, behold your savior cometh, Shabbetai Zvi is his name."

This second incident lasted some 24 hours. During that time, Nathan danced ecstatically and emitted a strange fragrance that was said by some to be the scent of the Garden of Eden. This second experience endowed him with the reputation of a prophet. In fact, Nathan's new status as a visionary and healer reached the ears of Shabbetai Zvi, who was in Egypt on a mission for the Jews of Jerusalem.

Shabbetai Zvi is known to have suffered from emotional difficulties, and was identified by Scholem as manic-depressive. When he heard about Nathan's special talents, he put aside his mission and hastened to Gaza, where he sought "a tikkun [healing] and peace for his soul," according to a contemporary account. Nathan, however, dropped to the ground in respect when he met Shabbetai Zvi.

Following extensive lobbying on Nathan's part, finally, by May 31, 1665, Shabbetai, whose first reaction had been disbelief, was willing to accept the mantle of Messiah. And Nathan took on the task of promoting his message. The two complemented each another – the one confident and articulate, the other unsure of himself and unpredictable.

Nathan announced that the messianic age would begin in 1666, and be heralded by the arrival of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel in the Holy Land, led by the Messiah riding on a lion with a seven-headed dragon in its mouth.

The rest of the story is well-known: Shabbetai Zvi headed to Constantinople in 1666, where, according to Nathan's prophecy, he would place the sultan's crown upon his own head. Instead, he was arrested upon his arrival in the Ottoman capital, and finally, after having been moved to a prison in Adrianople, given the choice of accepting Islam – or being executed. He went with the first option, and his conversion, on September 16, 1666, led most of his disappointed followers to abandon him. Others followed him into apostasy, while keeping alive secretly a new, subversive Jewish sect that turned much of Jewish law on its head.

Nathan, however, maintained his belief in Shabbetai, though he did not himself take on the yoke of Islam. Yet, so high was the esteem in which he was held by the rabbis of Constantinople, that when they placed a mass ban on all the followers of Shabbetai Zvi, they did not include Nathan among those subject to herem. Instead, as Gershom Scholem writes, "they requested the Jewish communities to turn him back wherever he appeared and, above all, to permit no contact between him and the believers."

Nathan of Gaza ended his days still a believer, as he continued traveling from community to community still spreading the word about Shabbetai. He died on January 11, 1680, probably in the city of Uskup, now Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, which is where he was buried. His grave remained a site of pilgrimage for some until it was destroyed during World War II.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen