The 17th-century personality is very well-known, although this story is not. His name was Shabbetai Zevi, and he is known as The False Messiah. Here's his biography followed by a very strange story told by the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem. 

Biography: Shabbetai Zevi (1626-1676)

The mystic Shabbetai Zevi was born in Smyrna in Asia Minor in 1626 and was ordained as a rabbi when he was 18. During adolescence he began to study the Kabbalah (mystical teachings), to compose songs (he was very gifted musically), and to speak of a redemption that would be effected by mystical means.

When Shabbetai Zevi proclaimed himself the Messiah in 1654, the rabbis of Smyrna banished him and he became a wanderer, advocating the abolition of God's commandments. He traveled in a persistent melancholic state to Greece, Thrace, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Cairo. During his visit to the Holy Land, he made the acquaintance of the charismatic rabbi Nathan of Gaza who claimed to have had a vision of Shabbetai Zevi as Messiah. Nathan of Gaza became his prophet, spreading the messianic tidings throughout the Jewish world, and making promises of miracles that would soon take place.

Nathan of Gaza began to circulate letters in Italy, Holland, Germany and Poland announcing the Messiah. Hysteria crisscrossed country after country, as hundreds of letters flooded the Jewish world. In delirious expectation, many Jews began to sell off their property and to prepare for the trip to the Holy Land. News of the Jewish Messiah spread to Christian circles as well, with pamphlets appearing in English, Dutch, German and Italian.

The Turkish authorities grew suspicious of Shabbetai’s eccentric behavior and bold proclamations, and by the divisiveness his presence caused among the Jews of the Ottoman Empire. He was arrested and tried in the presence of the Sultan and given the choice of immediate death or conversion to Islam. He chose Islam and was given a royal pension for the remainder of his life. He died suddenly on September 17, 1676 on the Day of Atonement at the age of 50.

Although, in general, a shameful silence fell upon Shabbetai Zevi’s movement, small secret circles of his followers persisted throughout the Mediterranean area and in Europe for some hundred years. The reverberations of his activities significantly influenced the development of various Christian and Jewish religious movements.

Shabbetai's stay in Constantinople in 1658 (by Prof. Gershom Scholem)

Shabbetai was undoubtedly a well-educated and competent, though in no way outstanding scholar. His intellectual capacities were well-developed but by no means extraordinary. He was not intellectually creative or original, and he was completely devoid of literary talent... His emotional life, however, was intense and stormy. He had a gift for music and loved music and song. But even apart from his musical gifts, Shabbetai must have possessed a very real personal charm. This is attested by all witnesses. The Christian writers who lived in Turkey speak of his wonderful power in gaining the hearts of men.

In spite of his charm, however, Shabbetai did not succeed in establishing around himself a permanent circle of obedient followers and companions, obviously because of his psychopathological traits. In Salonika, he invited the most prominent rabbis to a banquet, he erected a bridal canopy, had a Torah scroll brought in, and performed the marriage ceremony between himself and the Torah.... This kind of behavior was to be repeated more than once, and we may well understand the reaction of the rabbis: they considered him mad.

His rovings continued until 1658, when he arrived in Constantinople. His stay there lasted about eight months and ended with a scandal.... Shabbetai, it appears, arrived in Constantinople well-provided with means, was well received by the scholars, and generally moved in better circles. Again he underwent periods of depression and illumination, and he acquired some notoriety by his "strange actions" which, however, were attributed at first to mere folly.

JHOM - Fish - Messiah

As time went on his behavior became more bizarre and provocative. One day he bought a very large fish, dressed it up like a baby, and put it into a cradle. The rabbis who heard of this incident were much amazed and saddened at the mental derangement [bouleversement de la cervelle] of such a scholar. However, it was not the incident of the fish that led to his later persecution by the rabbis.

For the time being, Shabbetai's queerness was simply attributed to mental illness. He himself explained his last performance in terms of astrological symbolism. The redemption of Israel — which appears to have occupied him at the time — would take place under the sign of Pisces. The idea can be found in earlier Jewish tradition, but for Shabbetai the cradle evidently symbolized the slow growth toward the fullness of Israel's redemption; the fish in the cradle served as a grotesque illustration of rabbinic sayings to that effect.

When the rabbis realized "that some new sect, which might confuse minds, was fermenting in his brain, they did not act like the rabbis of Salonika who expelled him, but dispatched an officer of the rabbinic court who gave him forty stripes, and forbade his company to all Jews on pain of penalty," that is, they excommunicated him....

[Based on certain testimonies, we can assume that when] Shabbetai was in Constantinople in the ear 1658, the strange act of celebrating the three pilgrim festivals all in one weeks must have occurred. This was strong stuff indeed and far more provocative than the incident with the fish, which could, if necessary, be dismissed a puerile and harmless folly. This time, resolute punitive action was required of the rabbinic court.

The provocation displayed some of the most characteristic features of Shabbetai's strange behavior pattern, for throughout his career he exhibited a predilection for shifting dates, changing fixed times, and moving Sabbaths and holy days to other days. The celebration of the festivals in one week was merely the first installment in a long series of similar ceremonies reported by the most diverse sources. Half a year before his death, he again celebrated the feasts of Tabernacles and Pentecost in one week, in his place of exile, Dulcigno.


From: Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah by Gershom Scholem. Translated by R.J. Zwi Werblowsky. Bollingen Series XCIII. © Princeton University Press, 1973. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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