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December 12: The False Messiah

Lawrence Bush
December 12, 2009
Shabtai_TzviOn this day in 1665, Shabtai Zvi, who was widely embraced as the messiah by Jews worldwide, led followers into a synagogue in his hometown of Ismir, Turkey, where rabbinical authorities had threatened him with excommunication. He ran a heretical Torah service (calling women to read as well as men and pronouncing God’s forbidden name, yud-hey-vov-hey, over and over) and then set the date for redemption as June 18, 1666. Instead, Shabtai Zvi would soon be arrested by the Turkish sultan; in 1666 he converted to Islam to avert execution. Some of his followers followed him into Islam, giving rise to the Donmeh, the “secret Jews” of Turkey, who to this day are subjected to persecution and the fantasies of conspiracy theorists. “All the calculated dates of redemption have passed, and now the matter depends on repentance and good deeds.” —Exodus Rabbah 5:19

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.