“Shabbetai Tzvi” – The name associated with one of the most painful, self-inflicted wounds that the Jewish People brought upon itself, but one that can be understood in the context of the accumulated suffering of the Jews over centuries in Europe, climaxed by the recent genocidal pogroms and massacres perpetrated by Bogdan Chmielnicki, May his name be erased, in Poland, White Russia and the Ukraine, is that of Shabbetai Tzvi. His “sin,” probably self-delusional; that is, he probably believed it himself, was that he was the long-awaited and foretold-by-the Prophets Mashiach (the Messiah), descendant of David.
He was not the first individual of this type, but he was by far the most “successful.” This “success” can be attributed in large measure to his “Prophet,” Nathan of Gaza, who was the guiding spirit of the Movement. Shabbetai Tzvi was born in Asia Minor, to Mordechai of Smyrna, in 1626, and died in 1676, at the age of fifty. Nathan of Gaza was born in the middle of the 1640’s and died in 1680, at the age of about thirty-five.
The alleged “Messiah” was a Sephardi and his “Prophet” was anAshkenazi. Shabbetai was a handsome young man, with a pleasant voice, and a charismatic personality. He spent much time in study of the secrets of the “Kabbalah,” Jewish Mysticism. Supporters spoke of periods when his face shone with a “Great Illumination.” The “Prophet” was an ascetic, probably also self-delusional, also immersed in “Mysticism,” which can be dangerous to one’s mental and emotional health, as we see in connection with the Four Scholars who “Entered the Pardes (Mystical Orchard).” Nathan claimed to have seen a vision of the heavenly court, and of having received a message from G-d concerning the “Messiah.”
News of the arrival of the Messiah spread like wildfire among Jewish communities throughout Europe and the Middle East. In his “court,” especially at times of the “Great Illumination,” he promised revenge against the gentiles; particularly against the murderous mobs of Poland and Lithuania. He pronounced the Four-Letter Name of G-d as it is written, ate forbidden foods, and desecrated the Shabbos. He would engage in licentiousness, in defiance of and revolt against Jewish Law.
The ascendance of the Shabbatean Movement occurred when Jews in both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic parts of the Jewish World were experiencing suffering that they associated with the “birthpangs of the Messiah,” and this fanned the flames that drove the spread of the spiritual mass delusion.
Enemies of the Jews watched in great curiosity and some trepidation as the Jewish national frenzy reached levels not seen in the world since the time of Bar-Kochba, whom many great rabbis initially believed was the Messiah. But the air came out of the balloon in 1666 when, threatened with great harm by the Sultan, Shabbetai himself converted to Islam.
World Jewry was shaken to its core. Most communities did all they could to suppress any vestige of the Shabbatean Movement. Certain individuals took the lead in this endeavor; Rabbi Yaakov Emden engaged in violent criticism of Rabbi Yonasan Eybeschutz when he found an amulet that the great scholar had written, which he interpreted as being Shabbatean. Eybeschutz brought powerful forces to his defense such as the Vilna Gaon, but the conflict caused great additional damage to the Jewish People in its attempt to recover from the disaster. On an even greater level, the conflict between Chassidus, a spiritual mass movement founded by the Baal Shem Tov, that arose after the Shabbetai Tzvi debacle, which emphasized the study of “Kabbalah,” Jewish Mysticism, that had played such a large role in the disaster, and the “Mitnagdim,” “Those who Oppose,” led by the great Gaon of Vilna, began and lasted for hundreds of years, with lessening intensity, even till today.