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.
Such eccentrities didn’t stop Zevi’s admirers from devoutly following him in his internaitonal journeys, when he converted to Islam and was finally banished by the Turks. In fact, it may be that his peculiar behavioral pattern is what rendered him so charismatic in the first place. Messianism is a mystical idea, and there is no telling in advance how the Messiah would look or behave.
Not only is the figure of the Messiah in Judaism a mystery, it is also doubled. Since the first century B.C E. the Messiah has been split into a Messiah ben Joseph and a Messiah ben David. The Messiah of the house of Joseph is defeated in the battle against the apocalyptic forces of evil, and the Messiah of the house of David triumphs with redemption.
This duality, which seems to have dwelt in Zevi’s own soul, has also been typical of the history of his reception, which has fluctuated, up to this very day, between enthusiastic acceptance and utter condemnation.
Gershom Scholem noted that while Zevi’s actual figure has faded, he has become a mythical figure. We can say that the real Zevi has been replaced by the mythical figure that constantly gains different significance, each time according to eyes of its beholder…
In my next posts, I will follow the various instances of his reception during the centuries: how his figure was vehemently condemned or dismissed as one of history’s jokes, or alternately, to what extent his ideas continued to be a source of inspiration for writers, artists, and intellectuals.