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Shabbtai Zvi, Would-Be Messiah

December 12, 2017

On this date in 1665, Shabbtai Zvi (born 1626), who was widely embraced as the messiah by Jews across Europe and the Middle East, led followers into a synagogue in his hometown of Izmir, Turkey, where rabbinical authorities had threatened him with excommunication. At the synagogue, 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. In early 1666, Shabbtai Zvi would be arrested by the Ottoman sultan, Mehmed IV, and later that year, when offered the choice of impalement, trial by arrows, or conversion to Islam, he chose the latter and was rewarded with a stipend and the honorific title, “Keeper of the Palace Gates.” Still, many of Shabbtai Zvi’s adherents clung to the belief that this, too, was part of the grand messianic plan, and some even 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. Shabbtai Zvi died in 1676.

“All the calculated dates of redemption have passed, and now the matter depends on repentance and good deeds.” —Exodus Rabbah 5:19