This Day in Jewish History A False Messiah Converts to Islam

Shabbetai Zvi, an eccentric ex-rabbi who gained a following while traversing Europe and the Middle East, agreed to become Muslim in order to avoid death.

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

On September 16, 1666, Shabbetai Zvi, the Jewish false Messiah who shook European Jewry to its foundations in the 17th century, informed the Turkish sultan of his readiness to convert to Islam. Born in Smyrna (today Izmir) in 1626, Shabbetai had traditional rabbincal training, but distinguished himself as a non-conformist because of his interest in kabbalah and his sometimes outrageous behavior (for example, conducting a wedding ceremony in which he was the groom, and the Torah the bride). By 1648, he had announced that he was the Messiah, something that led to his being placed under herem (excommunication) by the rabbis of Smyrna, an act they followed up by banishing him from the city. But this didn't prevent him from gaining a following, which only grew as he moved around the eastern Mediterranean, including a period in Jerusalem that began in 1663.

It was in Palestine that he met Nathan Benjamin Levi, a.k.a. Nathan of Gaza, who became his chief disciple and spokesman, in which capacity Nathan informed the world in 1665 that the Messianic age was but one year away. At this point, Shabbetai's influence began to spread geometrically across Europe. The continent's Jews were still reeling from the catastrophic period of the Khmelnytsky pogroms, which took tens of thousands of Jewish lives, and the message of the coming redemption fell on fertile ground across France, Germany, the Netherlands and other lands.

Nathan announced as well that Shabbetai was destined to become sultan of the Ottoman Empire, which led to Shabbetai’s arrest when he arrived in Constantinople in 1666. He was given the choice of converting or being executed. He chose to live, and in the presence of Sultan Mehmed IV, Shabbetai put a Turkish turban on his head. Although many of his adherents were devastated by this capitulation, others were convinced that Shabbetai’s apostasy was part of a divine plan to expedite the Messianic age, and remained loyal to him. He, in turn, began to preach different messages to different audiences.

Given permission by the sultan to convert other Jews to Islam, Shabbetai assembled a group of followers who ostensibly became Muslim, but continued to follow his own very peculiar form of Judaism. The new Islamic believers were called the donmeh (“converts,” in Turkish), and their rituals became increasingly bizarre. For his part, Shabbetai was eventually banished by the sultan, apparently in 1673, to the town of Ulcinj (today in Montenegro), where he probably died, or was executed, in 1676. The donmeh have always been a persecuted group in Turkey, so they carried out their activities in great secrecy, but there continue to be crypto-Jews in the country to this day.

Given permission by the sultan to convert other Jews to Islam, Shabbetai assembled a group of followers who ostensibly became Muslim.Credit: Wikicommons

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