The dramatic story of the rise and fall of the self-proclaimed messiah Sabbatai Sevi has usually been presented as a weird anomaly in Jewish history, with no redeeming merit as a lesson. However, as more and more becomes known about it, the case becomes of greater, and more general interest.
Sabbatai Sevi was born in 1626, the son of a Jewish assistant to the Dutch, English and French merchants then living in Smyrna (now Izmir). He was a brilliant student, with an impressive knowledge and understanding of Jewish texts. But then, after periods of fasting followed by moments of ecstasy, he began violating the fundamental principles of Jewish belief and law, something only the messiah was permitted to do. He had heard that the messiah would be named Sabbatai, the Hebrew equivalent of Saturn, and seems to have gone around testing to see whether he was the right Sabbatai. He is supposed, for example, to have uttered the Tetragrammaton, the taboo name of God. The rabbis banished him from Smyrna, and not long afterwards Nathan of Gaza, a kabbalistic scholar who had got to know him, announced that Sabbatai was indeed the expected messiah.
LRB 23 May 2002 | PDF Download