Sabbatai Zevi was born in Smyrna, on the ninth of Av (August 1626). Significantly, that is the date of the Jewish annual fast that commemorates the destruction of the two temples. According to ancient rabbinic tradition, the date of the destruction of the Second Temple (the ninth of Av) was to be the birth date of the Messiah – altogether a very fortunate date of birth for anyone who plans a messianic career.
Surprisingly, or not, Zevi died on September 17, 1676 in Ulcinj, to where he was exiled by the Turks, on the Day of Atonement – the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, dedicated to repentance in preparation for the day of judgment.
Indeed, Zevi’s turbulent personality and stormy life correspond with the fateful dates that marked the beginning and the end of his life.
Like most young Jews of his day, he studied Talmud (the discussion of Jewish law and ethics), yet at the age of 18 he abandoned it and delved into Kabbalah. Instead of studying the more popular and at the time “modern” Safed Kabbalists like Isaac Luria, Zevi devoted himself to the Zohar, and to the books of Peli’ah and Quanah from the 14th century. Those two works were a peculiar combination of mystical devotion with occasional radical critiques of halakhic laws and methods. As we know, Zevi will broke altogether with these laws and preached redemption through sin.
By the time he married his first wife, at the age of 20, Zevi’s behavior began to arouse suspicion as he divorced after not having consummated his marriage only to remarry and divorce again for the same reason.
These events fit well into the fatal bipolar cycle of his life. He flourished with ecstatic elevation and feelings of mission and responsibility, and then withdrew with miserable downfalls of severe depression, accompanied by self-mortification and ascetic practices like self-burial, and bathing in the sea in the midst of winter.