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The False Messiah


Shabbtai Zvi on the Throne

Shabbtai Zvi on the Throne, copperplate in the “Prayer Book for Night and for Day” by Nathan of Gaza, Amsterdam, 1666. The engraving shows Shabbtai sitting on a throne, with angels supporting a divine crown above his head with the inscription "Crown of Zvi." In the lower section of the engraving, the twelve tribes of Israel study the Torah with the Messiah.
© Universiteit Amsterdam, Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana

Shabbtai Zvi (1626–1676) proclaimed himself Messiah in the Ottoman Empire in the seventeenth century. As the news spread through the Jewish world, it caused jubilant celebrations of a kind never seen before.
Even the books of the Biblical prophets fuel the hope that redemption by the Messiah is imminent. This idea of the End of Days pervades Jewish history down to the present. It was especially important in phases of adversity and persecution—and thus also in a time when thousands of Jews fell victim to pogroms in the Ukraine.

In 1654 Shabbtai Zvi was banished from his hometown of Smyrna (Izmir today) as a young scholar, accused of not adhering to the religious laws. For twelve years he roamed from town to town in the Eastern Mediterranean, proclaiming himself the Messiah, who would abolish the law and re-erect the Kingdom of David. Many Jewish communities found his interpretations suspect, yet he also won over followers who believed him to be the promised savior.

In 1664 he met Nathan Ashkenazi, a Kabbalah scholar from the city of Gaza. In a vision Nathan recognized Shabbtai Zvi to be the one who heals the world by the hand of man (Hebr. Tikkun Olam). From then on he acted as his prophet and saw to the spread of the Sabbatianic movement, which found followers as far away as Amsterdam and Hamburg.

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The peddler Glikl bas Juda Leib on her father's departure for Palestine.

In many towns Jews sold their possessions and prepared to move to Palestine with Shabbtai Zvi.

In 1665 Shabbtai moved on to Constantinople, where he was arrested, supposedly for endangering the public order and peace. The sultan gave him a choice between death or conversion to Islam. Shabbtai chose conversion, becoming a Moslem in 1666. To many Jewish communities, his decision was a profound shock.

Shabbtai Zvi's arrival in Constantinople

Shabbtai Zvi's arrival in Constantinople: The false Messiah can be seen on the right, surrounded by followers. In fact, his arrival was by no means triumphant—he was arrested at sea. Copperplate engraving, Germany, 17th c.
© The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

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