Society for Crypto Judaic Studies
A Messianic Epiphany: The Conversion
of the Dönme Sabbateans
by Lillooet Nördlinger M c Donnell
From HaLapid, Spring 2008
In 1683 approximately three hundred Jewish families voluntarily converted to Islam. This voluntary mass conversion took place in the Ottoman city of Salonika and was the largest conversion of its kind. There are several explanations as to why this conversion took place. The main reason stems from the fact that this group of Jews was also part of the Sabbatean messianic movement, which had sprung out of the widespread belief among Jews that Sabbatai Zvi was the long awaited Jewish messiah who would bring redemption for the Jews. In 1666, only a few years prior to this event, Zvi had astounded his followers by publicly abandoning his ancestral Jewish faith and converting to Islam. This was to be a great turning point for the movement. After this event, a significant number of followers continued to believe in his messianic divinity. And among these believers, several hundred decided to follow in the footsteps of their messiah and convert to Isla.m. two hundred loyalists and families)converted with Zvi in Edirne in 1666 and approximately three hundred families converted seventeen years later in Salonika .
How did it come to be that a group of Jewish Sabbateans followed the footsteps of their Messiah and converted to Islam? Did the general socio-political atmosphere of the Ottoman Empire play a direct role in influencing the decision of these Sabbateans to convert to Islam? And what correlation, if any, exists between the converso (also known as marranos and/or crypto-Jews) communities of the Ottoman Empire and the Sabbatean apostates to Islam? Although the socio-political climate of any country is bound to influence and shape the events of any group living within its borders, the influence of Ottoman society seems to have played a secondary role in the decision of the Sabbateans to convert to Islam. As we shall see, the factors which influenced the spread of the Sabbatean movement and the subsequent conversion of some its members to Islam, originate from within Ottoman Jewish society.
Many Jews, after escaping the horrors and pogroms of war ravaged Eastern Europe, had found refuge in Western Europe and the Ottoman Empire . A s a result of their experiences, their religious sentiments had intensified and messianic expectations were prevalent among them. Other relatively new residents to Western Europe and the Ottoman Empire included Converso communities, which were those exiled Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula , who, due to their forced conversion to Christianity during the Inquisition of the fifteenth century, also held high messianic expectations. After leaving the Iberian Peninsula, many Conversos would revert back to Judaism but because of their experiences of forced conversion, Converso communities still had a difficult time integrating into the more “traditional” Jewish communities of Europe and the Ottoman Empire . It cannot be simply a matter of coincidence that this group, figured not only in Sabbatai Zvi's childhood and adolescence but they also played a central role in the spread and continuation of the Sabbatean movement.
It is conceivable that other factors, such as the fact that Christian messianic trends were known to the Jewish communities in Europe, the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere and the occurrence of relatively minor environmental disasters in Anatolia may have also contributed to an increase in messianic expectations among Jewish communities of this period.
The general predisposition of the times and the specific messianic expectations of the Converso community, allowed them not only to accept the divinity of Zvi's mission but also to identify with his motives for apostasy and accept his navigation between Jewish/Sabbatean and Muslim identity. They saw him as the harbinger of the messianic era and also as a redeemer of their own dualistic past. This understanding of the duality in Zvi's messianic role, which stemmed from Converso interpretations, permitted a significant group of Sabbateans, many of whom were themselves of Converso descent, to continue their belief in Zvi's divinity well after his apostasy. Thus in this way some two hundred loyalist families converted to Islam in 1666. And subsequently in 1683 three of Zvi's rather extremist successors, gathered three hundred Sabbatean families, converted to Islam and created the Dönme sect. This sect was centered in Salonika . For them, there were other factors, such as a need for communal independence from traditional Jewish leadership and community structures, and a gain in economic tax breaks and environmental disasters (which were interpreted as signs of the beginning of the messianic era), which motivated them to convert to Islam. Although these factors were important incentives for Sabbateans to convert, the development of the Sabbatean movement and its continuation in the form of the Dönme sect would not have been possible without the influence and susceptibility of the people who allowed the initial groundwork for this movement to take root, i.e. the Conversos .
However, before exploring the rationale behind this conversion, let us begin with the historical context of the movement and the events surrounding Sabbatai Zvi.
The Ottoman Context
In general, the seventeenth century is known as the beginning of the Ottoman dénouement. Their expansionist period had come to an end and the Ottoman central-state system was breaking down. Weakening Ottoman military capabilities and lack of effective central governmental control made the Empire vulnerable to two factors: external military incursions and internal popular rebellions.
During the period of the rise of the Sabbatean movement the Ottoman Empire was under the reign of a puppet sultan Mehmet IV (1648-1687), who had become sultan at the young age of six and was thus vulnerable to the ambitions of others. As a result his grand vizier, Köprülü Mehmet Pasha (1578-1661) (grand vizier from 1656-1661), played a very prominent role. In fact, the Grand Vizier had complete freedom in decision making. The main goal of the Grand Vizier was to restore peace and order to Istanbul and to end the Venetian blockade of the Straits of the Dardenelles. During his regime, Köprülü Mehmet Pasha managed to suppress the mystic orders, which were considered a threat to the political stability of Istanbul , as well as other revolts in both Anatolia and elsewhere and thus extinguish the prevailing spirit of rebellion and disorder which had come to dominant the character of the general populous. When Köprülü Mehmet Pasha died in 1661, he was succeeded by his son Fadil Ahmed Pasha (1635-1676), who was Grand Vizier from 1661 until 1676, and was known for following in his father's footsteps. The significant events which took place under the regime of Fadil Ahmed Pasha were the war with the Hapsburgs and the subsequent Treaty of Vasvár (1661-1664) (although neither side actually won this war, the fact that the Ottomans did not gain command of the routes leading to Vienna, was considered a major victory by the Europeans and a sign of the weakening of the Empire) and the conquest of Crete (1669) which was followed by peace with the Venetians.
Concurrently during this period, the overall trade of the Ottoman Empire was also experiencing changes. Due mainly to French, English and Dutch involvement competition had become tough for Ottoman trade exploits in the Mediterranean . Moreover, goods were now being shipped directly from their source of origin, i.e. India , the Indies, Persia , and so on, via the Atlantic route, thus completely bypassing the Mediterranean ports in Ottoman Empire . Also the Ottoman Empire had shifted towards exporting raw materials and importing manufactured goods. All in all there was a general decline in trade revenue.
The socio-political climate of the mid-seventeenth century in the Ottoman Empire can thus be characterized by a weakened central government with deteriorating administrative and military capabilities, a declining economy and a disgruntled populous prone to rebellion and thus a threat to the various attempts at re-establishing the strength of the once all-powerful central government. In light of these circumstances, it is perhaps no wonder that the Ottomans reacted in the way that they did towards the Jewish messianic aspirant Sabbatai Zvi.
Sabbatai Zvi and the Rise of the Sabbatean Movement
Sabbatai Zvi was born in the Ottoman city of Izmir on the sixteenth of July 1626, or according to the Jewish calendar Tisha b'Av 5386. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, while the rest of the Empire suffered from an economic and political crisis, Izmir prospered as a result of it becoming the centre for trade between the Ottoman Empire and Europe and the Mediterranean . As mentioned earlier, the war between the Venetian Republic and the Ottoman Empire made water access to Istanbul difficult and therefore the centre for trade moved to the port in Izmir . The Zvis, along with many of the city's other inhabitants, profited from this mercantile boom.
The majority of the Jewish residents in Izmir , (not to mention Salonika, Aleppo and elsewhere) were of Sephardic Converso descent. That is, they were the descendents of those Jews who, after being expelled from Spain in 1492, Italy 1493 and Portugal in 1497, had immigrated to the Ottoman Empire , with some arriving as late as the seventeenth century. There were also Jews of non-Sephardic descent living in the city. Sabbatai Zvi's family for example was Romaniot. That is they were descendents of Jews who had lived in the Balkans and Anatolia from the time of the Byzantine Empire onwards and were usually Greek speaking. However, despite Sabbatai Zvi's Romaniot background, he attended Sephardic yeshivot and spoke Spanish. Sabbatai Zvi showed no interest in the mercantile business and instead preferred to spend most of his time studying. It is said that by the age of fifteen he mastered the study of both the Tanakh and the Talmud and was known as a learned scholar in his community. It is also known that he studied Isaac Luria's Zohar .
In 1648 Sabbatai Zvi attracted a group of young followers and spoke to them of the original essence of God, of the infinite and of man as the essential link between God and the universe. His followers claimed to have witnessed divine characteristics in him and some of them began to call him the Messiah although at the time Sabbatai Zvi neither denied nor confirmed this claim. Incidentally, 1648 was the year predicted by Kabbalists that the messiah would arrive and one wonders to what extent Zvi's followers believed this prediction.
In 1652 Sabbatai Zvi's followers would become more adamant about their claim and when he pronounced the ineffable name of God, while reading in the synagogue from the Torah, they rallied around him and made their proclamation public. After this incident the local rabbinical authorities banned Zvi from Izmir .
After Zvi's exile from Izmir , he spent several years travelling. He visited Salonika , Greece , Western Europe and the Middle East . In Europe he came into contact with Christian Millenarianism. And it was there that he met his wife, Sarah. Sabbatai Zvi had been married and divorced two times prior his marriage to Sarah, however the marriages had never been consummated. Zvi's wife Sarah was raised in a convent after her parents were murdered in the Chmelnitzky Persecutions (1648-1649). At age sixteen she ran-away, rather than become a nun, and was adopted by a wealthy Jewish merchant. She spent her life as a courtesan before meeting and marrying Sabbatai Zvi. Because of Sarah's rather unusual origins and upbringing, her subsequent matrimony with Zvi was considered by his followers to be an additional indication of Zvi's Messianic role.
In Palestine , Zvi associated himself with mystic Kabbalists and one of them in particular, Nathan of Gaza (1644-80). Born Abraham Nathan ben Elisha Hayyim Ashkenazi in Jerusalem , Nathan of Gaza was a well-known scholar, and it he was who proclaimed Sabbatai Zvi to be the Messiah and himself to be his prophet. Nathan of Gaza also managed to persuade his circle of friends and associates that Zvi was the long awaited messiah and that the messianic era had arrived.
Although the Jewish population of Palestine was small, because of the spiritual importance associated with the Biblical land of Israel its religious leaders were influential throughout the Diaspora. The movement gathered quite a lot of momentum once Nathan of Gaza and his supporters began to spread the word about their belief in Zvi as Messiah. Due to the growing attraction to the idea of Zvi as messiah, people began to believe in Zvi even before they knew about his theology or were aware of his personal character. Zvi's tenets included an abolition of halakhic rules, including those regulating dietary laws and those condoning certain sexual practices. And he was known to be a manic-depressive.
The Nature of Messianic Beliefs
and their Prevalence in the Diaspora
The questions that now arise are: what is the nature of messianic belief and what historical circumstances allowed these messianic sentiments to take root in society?
In traditional Judaeo-Christian societies, social disaster may often be interpreted as a prelude to the coming of the messianic period. Following a disaster, such as an epidemic, famine, revolution or war, people are vulnerable; traditional norms have been undermined, social networks have been disrupted and people often feel confused about what has befallen them and are in need of an explanation. Messianic expectations allow deep despair to give way to great hope. They can provide a substitute system of norms and a surrogate community. Under such circumstances, the spreading of messianic fervour throughout such a susceptible population, may be compared to the spreading of a contagious disease. If a small but consequential component of the population becomes infected, the majority also soon succumbs.
The messianic phenomenon common to both the Jewish and Christian tradition involves the reclaiming of some imagined ideal of the primordial past and projecting it onto some unspecified point in the future. This era is to be ushered in by some legendary leader of a certain lineage. In the Jewish tradition and Messianic Christianity (or Millenarianism) this person is to be descended from the line of King David. His arrival is to be heralded by a messenger, (a prophet). A period of suffering will most likely take place before the messianic era can prevail. Christian millenarianism also promoted belief in the necessity of the gathering of all of the ten lost tribes of Israel and the expected conversion of the Jews to Christianity once the messianic age began. Interestingly, it was this belief which allowed the Millenarians to attribute a special place for Conversos in the Messianic age, which in turn made Conversos more willing to exchange intellectual ideas with Christian intellectuals and accept some of their messianic notions.
Messianic ideas were widely circulated among the Jews of the Diaspora during the seventeenth century. The two main dates, during which it was widely believed that the Messiah would reveal himself to the world, were 1648 (5408), as suggested by the Kabbalists, and 1666, as suggested by a group of Christian mystics. According to both the traditions, each of these years was to herald the beginning of the messianic era.
The rise in religious sentiments among the Jewish refugees of Eastern Europe was one factor that contributed to the circulation of messianic ideas in the Diaspora. Beginning in 1648 the Jewish communities of Poland were completely decimated during the fighting between Poles and Jews versus Cossacks and Tartars. Nearly 300 000 Jews were massacred in what are known as the Chmelnitzky Persecutions (1648-1649), while thousands of others were sold into slavery throughout the Ottoman Empire. Those lucky enough to escape fled to places such as Germany , Holland , Italy , the Balkans, Anatolia , Egypt , Palestine and even North America . As this war was ending the Ukrainian Rebellions (1648-1667) started and caused further destruction. From 1655-1660 there was also a war between Poland and Sweden . In both instances Jews were subject to further oppression.
Thus from 1648 until 1667, there was almost a continuous flow of Eastern European Jewish refugees. The plight of these Jewish refugees became a cause and concern for the Jewish Diaspora and the sense of empathy was great. These refugees had experienced atrocities and had seen the near total decimation of their communities, producing profound sentiments of despair, resulting in intensification of religious sentiments.
As religious belief intensified so did messianic expectations. Many refugees became convinced that the disasters they had suffered were a precursor for the dawning of the messianic era and many believed that the previously predicted year of 1648 was to be the year the messiah's arrival. The mass belief in this date by these refugees and their sympathizers would later converge nicely, and generate momentum for, the Sabbatean movement because it was the first year that Sabbatai Zvi's initial followers declared him to be the Messiah.
As was briefly mentioned, . Conversos were Jews of the Iberian Peninsula who, due to pressure from the Catholic authorities, converted either voluntarily or by force to Catholicism beginning in the years 1391 and 1492. Those who refused to convert were expelled from Spain and many fled to Portugal . At which point a national Inquisition was set up in Spain in order to root out those Conversos who continued to practice Judaism in secret. The asylum provided by Portugal did not last long. In 1497 the Jews of Portugal were also forcibly converted to Christianity. Many of these converts became “good Catholics” within one or two generations. While others, who are known as crypto-Jews , conducted themselves as Catholics while maintaining a tradition of Jewish identity. This Jewish identity was often defined by way of negating Iberian Christian beliefs. Whether they were devout Catholics or crypto-Jews , Conversos were excluded from Iberian society and treated as inferiour in comparison to “old” Christian inhabitants of the Peninsula . This was because Iberian Catholic society never considered the Conversos to be full members of society due to their “heretical” origins. Special laws were devised (the “Purity of Blood” statutes) which stated that it was not one's faith that determined the extent of one's social and legal rights, but rather one's ethnic origins. These laws were in complete contradiction with traditional Christian laws, which accorded the same rights to “old” and “new” Christians alike. The “Purity of Blood” laws prevented Conversos and Moriscos (the descendents of Spanish Muslims who had converted to Catholicism) from obtaining office in government, religious and military institutions, and universities. The worry was that these new Christians still held ties to their ancestral religions and were therefore seen as a threat to Spain 's integrity and its messianic mission. However, despite this exclusion from Iberian Catholic society and their own negation of Christian principles, Conversos had been raised as Catholics in a strongly Catholic environment. And this upbringing affected all aspects of their lives whether they liked it or not. As one author put it, the first generation of Conversos were not ordinary Catholics and when many of them returned to Judaism, they were not ordinary Jews.
After their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula, many Conversos found refuge in Western Europe and the Ottoman Empire during the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Once away from the Iberian Peninsula some remained Catholic, while others identified with their Jewish roots and felt a strong sense of guilt about their Catholic past. However, because of their mixed Jewish and Catholic background the rabbinical authorities did not know whether to accept them back into the Jewish fold or to exclude them completely. As a result Conversos found themselves alienated from rabbinical Judaism and its traditional congregations.
In consequence of being on the margins of both Iberian Catholic and traditional Jewish society, Converso identity took on new dimensions. An identity that placed as much importance on place of origin (i.e. the Iberian Peninsula ) and the experience of conversion as it did on Jewish ancestry. They even formed an elitist attitude about their ancestral experience and called themselves Naçao (Nation) as a way of both emphasizing the unique position of their heritage and creating a place for themselves in Jewish and European society. Their constant juxtaposition between Jewish and Iberian Catholic society, not only isolated them from both societies which in turn allowed for new dimensions in collective Converso identity to emerge, but it also caused them to hold strong messianic beliefs. Their alienation from Jewish and Catholic authorities also made Conversos more flexible when it came to defining who qualified as the messiah. Two tendencies can be discerned in Converso messianism. The first involves a willingness to entertain a variety of messianic scenarios and the second involves their emphasis on the special role of Conversos in the messianic process. Even before the advent of the Sabbatean Messianic movement, Conversos had been involved in a number of messianic movements of both Jewish and Christian traditions. There were a large number of Conversos involved in the Franciscan spiritualist movement of the early sixteenth century, for example. In Portugal in 1542 Luis Dias of Setúbal, a poor tailor and Converso , was burned at the stake for declaring himself at first as a prophet and then later as the messiah. Conversos were also involved in the messianic movement surrounding the lost Portuguese king Dom Sebastian, which began in the late sixteenth century. Just prior to the advent of the Sabbatean Movement, a Converso group in Mexico believed that one of their members would give birth to the Messiah, who would bring redemption and relieve the oppressed Conversos . The high tendency of Conversos towards messianic aspirations can perhaps be explained by the fact that their social position caused them great psychological strain. And the coming of a messiah would not only relieve this pressure but with it would come an age of redemption, where their contradictory past would be forgiven. Also much of Catholic theology was apocalyptic in nature and had to do with the Second Coming of the Messiah. And although many Conversos were dialectically opposed to Jesus, they were still concerned with the messianic idea. It was this natural inclination towards messianic movements and their high messianic expectations, which allowed Conversos to play a central role in the spread of the Sabbatean movement.
Another factor that allowed Conversos to play a greater role in the development of the Sabbatean movement was that they were widely dispersed geographically but closely connected in terms of belief and historical past. The rabbinical writings and juridical decisions of each community were also widely distributed. Therefore other congregations knew the religious activity of any one congregation. It is interesting to note that in cities where Converso communities formed the dominant Jewish congregation, Sabbatean beliefs were also high and well based. Conversos made up the largest and wealthiest congregation in the Jewish community of Izmir for example— Izmir being Zvi's hometown and the source of his religious education. Zvi counted among his childhood friends many Conversos and in fact when he carved up the world for messianic dominion, out of the twenty-five kings he named to rule the world, eleven were of Converso origin. These same friends would also play important roles in leading the Sabbatean movement after Zvi's death. Besides Izmir , the cities of Salonika, Istanbul , Aleppo , and Hamburg to name a few, also had strong Converso communities and there was also a firm placement of Sabbatean believers in these cities. The strong communal ties between Converso communities also allowed Christian messianic expectations to be known.
After the Thirty Years War in Europe (1618-1648) messianic beliefs were also prevalent among Europeans and Christian theologians intensified their interests in Judaism and strengthened their ties with Jewish thinkers, for example Manasseh Ben Israel and Abraham Miguel Cardosa. Millenarians spoke about the return of the lost ten tribes and the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel and they made it known that Conversos , whom they considered as Jews who had converted to Christianity, had a special role in the Messianic era. In this way Conversos were more prone to enter into discussions with Millenarians and thus some of the Millenarian aspirations begin to infiltrate Jewish scholarly thinking, for example the return of the lost ten tribes became a concern. The strong communal ties, which existed between the various Converso communities, allowed for these ideas to be dispersed throughout Jewish communities of Western Europe and the Ottoman Empire .
The Conversion of Sabbatai Zvi
At the beginning of 1666 Zvi set sail for Istanbul from Izmir . Once there, it was rumoured that he planned to remove the crown from the Sultan, assume rule over the Empire and finally inaugurate the messianic era. Turkish authorities did not let things get very far. Zvi was at first imprisoned and then later he was brought before the Sultan and the divan in Edirne and given the choice between death and conversion to Islam. Zvi chose the later and on September 16, 1666 he publicly renounced his ancestral faith and became a Muslim. By this time a group of loyal followers had settled around him and also converted to Islam. Zvi was considered to be an important convert by the Turks and was expected to proselytise in the name of Islam. Although outwardly he did perform this duty, he also remained true to his own religious tenets (which were a combination of Jewish and Sabbatean religious rites). In 1672 Zvi was excommunicated from Istanbul after being accused of denying Islam. He was banished to the Fortress of Duleigo, in Albania where he died in 1676.
After Zvi's apostasy, of those Sabbateans who chose to honour the legitimacy and divinity of his mission rather than deny it, called themselves believers, ma'aminim , as opposed to deniers, kofrim . Some two hundred families, including several known scholars and rabbis, mainly from the Balkans, Izmir and Bursa , converted along with their Messiah to Islam in 1666. It was at this point that Zvi laid out the eighteen Sabbatean "commandments". These eighteen tenets included an abolition of the sexual practices sanctioned by the Torah; a prohibition against forcibly converting any Sabbatean to Islam; a prohibition against intermarriage with non-Sabbateans; and a regulation of dual identity and how to lead a dual life to name a few. These converts held themselves in high regard in comparison to other ma'aminim because they believed that they had answered the even higher calling by following their leader on his quest to redeem the world.
Despite the apostasy of a select group of close followers in 1666, not all ma'aminim in other Sabbatean centres converted to Islam. In 1683, once the core group of apostates had moved to Salonika under the leadership of three respected rabbis, Joseph Filosof and Solomon Florentin of Salonika and Solomon Ailon, another wave of conversion took place. Extreme tendencies took precedence among this group. Jochebed, who was Zvi's fourth wife and widow, and also the daughter of Josef Filosof, proclaimed her brother, Jacob Querido, to be the mystical vessel for the soul of Sabbatai Zvi. He presented himself as Jacob Zvi and campaigned energetically for the mass conversion of Jews to Islam. In 1683 it is estimated that between two to three hundred Sabbatean families in Salonika converted to Islam. Other smaller groups in Edirne , Istanbul and elsewhere, followed suit and most migrated to join the group in Salonika . As late as the second half of the eighteenth century a group of Polish Sabbateans came to join the group in Salonika . Besides the Poles there were a number of Turkish and Greek families, (of non-Jewish descent) that also joined the Dönme sect. It was from this point that the apostates accepted the eighteen commandments as binding and organized themselves as a separate group and became known as the Dönme sect. ( Dönme means convert or apostate in Turkish.) Like their Messiah, these converts maintained a dual identity; externally they conducted themselves as Muslims; internally they maintained Sabbatean-Jewish customs.
Zvi's conversion was unexpected and surprisingly it did not lead to a total collapse in the movement or in the messianic expectations of Sabbateans. Numerous interpretations were used to explain this unprecedented event. Some believers denied that he apostatized at all. "…What really happened, they say, is that the sultan hugged and kissed him as soon as he saw him. Some excused his conversion as an act of saving Ottoman Jewry. Abraham Cuenque of Hebron 1690 reported that Zvi was advised to convert to Islam because if he refused Ottoman Jewish communities would be in grave danger. New interpretations were made of ancient writings and texts. Rabbi Joseph HaLevi of Livorno reports that some Loyalists believed that the Messiah must descend into the demonic realms of “Gentile-dom” in order to rescue the sparks of holiness that (according to Lurianic Kabbalah) are held captive there. Abraham Miguel Cardoza (1627-1706), a former Converso who had returned to Judaism and was part of Zvi's inner circle, argued that all Jews, including the Messiah himself, in consequence of their sins before being redeemed from exile, were destined to become Conversos in one form or another. By placing great importance, indeed necessity, on the Converso condition in the messianic process, this theory appealed to many Sabbateans of Converso background. As a “ Converso messiah” Sabbatai Zvi's conversion justified their own experience and allowed them to continue their messianic beliefs. However Cardoza also argued that apostasy was specific to the messiah because only he stood beyond good and evil and was not intended to serve as an example for all Sabbatean adherents. More radical Sabbatean theologians believed that the true believer was seen to be one who did not reveal his true beliefs and practices and that all believers must descend into the evil realm in order to conquer evil from within and hasten salvation. The arrival of the messiah had made the violation of the Torah not only acceptable but a requirement in order to mark the beginning of the messianic era.
As these antinomian ideas (i.e. the idea that people who are divine are no longer subject to the codes of mortals) gained precedence among Sabbatean adherents, persecution by Jewish authorities increased. As the persecutions increased, the Sabbatean believers became more clandestine and separated themselves from the traditional Jewish fold. The barriers erected between themselves and traditional Jewish society thus protected them from persecution and against the refutations of non-believers and also allowed them to develop an elitist view of themselves in comparison to non-Sabbateans. They began to see themselves as an elite and holy group whose special relationship with the spiritual realm made it their duty to deny the commandments of the Torah. And they believed that dire punishment awaited those rabbis and scholars who not only denied Zvi's divinity but who tried to dissuade them as followers.
The persecution inflicted on the Sabbatean communities by Jewish authorities stemmed not only from the fear of antinomian ideas but also from the fact that the Sabbateans no longer paid heed to traditional Jewish authorities, they followed their own leaders. Sabbatean leaders did not mesh with the pre-existing leadership structure of the Jewish community. This was mainly because Sabbatean doctrine diverged greatly from traditional Jewish teachings and therefore Sabbateans had different goals to maintain. It should be noted that in the Ottoman Empire each Jewish community, kehillah , had its own autonomy. And each community was composed of different congregations, kehalim , which were organized usually according to shared origin and traditions. Each congregation maintained its own tax registry but the Jewish community, of any given city paid taxes as a whole. The community was also governed by a common set of laws, which regulated halakhic , social and economic matters. The leaders of the community collected the tax, decided community policy and regulated religious law and meted out punishments. By converting to Islam, the Sabbatean community would thus be released of the Jewish hierarchy of authority and be able to freely to practice the religious tenets of Sabbatai Zvi without constant interference and surveillance.
As discussed earlier, by the late seventeenth century, Salonika had became the centre for Sabbatean followers. During the early part of that century the city had still been relatively prosperous. However by the early mid seventeenth century the economy was beginning to ail. And after 1670, its economy was ruined and many of its merchants and bankers, many of whom were Jewish and Sabbatean, were forced into manual work. It has been suggested that perhaps one of the reasons such a large number of Sabbateans in Salonika, even some who were not of Jewish origin, agreed to convert to Islam is due to the economic situation of the area. The notion of apostatizing out of Judaism was not such a rare phenomenon when a community was under severe economic duress. Even as late as 1840, eighty poor Jewish families are known to have converted to Protestantism, and another 200 were preparing to the same, in order to avoid paying taxes to the Jewish millet authority.
As Jewish residents of Salonika , the Sabbateans were forced to pay a high meat tax to the Jewish millet authority for Kosher meat and the dhimmi tax to all non-Muslim residents of the Empire. By converting to Islam not only did Sabbateans avoid paying the Kosher meat tax, which was irrelevant to them since they did not abide halakhic dietary laws, but they were also exempt from paying dhimmi tax. Considering the difficult economic situation, these economic advantages would have been significant incentives for many Sabbateans to convert out of Judaism.
Another, perhaps minor factor, which may have had some influence on Sabbatean conversion to Islam is that in Salonika in 1683, pestilence, earthquakes, and fires in Istanbul, Izmir, Edirne, and Salonika were interpreted as signs of Zvi's imminent return. And some followers may have believed that Zvi wanted his followers to convert along with him and that conversion to Islam would guarantee their place in the new Messianic age.
It has been said that every era has its Messiah and despite their apparent external spontaneity, messianic movements are really but an outgrowth of pre-existing beliefs and expectations. In other words, a messiah usually emerges when the social circumstances demand it. This seems to have been the case with Sabbatai Zvi. Sabbatai Zvi proclaimed his messianic aspirations at a time when the strength of the Ottoman Empire was deteriorating and thus sensitive to anything which could destabilize its attempts at re-establishing its central authority. Sabbatai Zvi and the momentum generated by the Sabbatean movement were undoubtedly perceived as a minor threat which could explode into something greater. In order to contain this threat, or rather extinguish it, Sabbatai Zvi was given the choice between death or Islam. He embraced the latter and incorporated his conversion to Islam into his Sabbatean beliefs. The conversion of the movement's leader to Islam did not mean the end of Sabbatean followers, in fact a significant group of them followed in Zvi's footsteps. This was due to the fact that the large influx of refugees from Eastern Europe and the Iberian Peninsula into the Ottoman Empire were prone to high propensity to messianic expectations. Given the social upheavals experienced by these groups, and that their leader secretly continued Sabbatean practices, it is perhaps understandable that many chose to remain Sabbatean believers. Conversos seem to have played a special role in the spreading and continuation of the Sabbatean movement. Members of the Converso community of Izmir were directly and indirectly involved in the Sabbatean movement from its outset, and because of their strong communal networks across the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe , they were able to aid in its spread among their communities and throughout the Diaspora. The character of Converso history also allowed many of its members to play prominent role in the continuation of this movement. It must be remembered that Converso messianic expectations were neither wholly Jewish nor were they wholly Catholic, but were but instead a mixture of the two and placed special significance on the Converso condition, i.e. the condition of forced apostasy. Thus, the fact that Zvi converted to Islam, only helped to strengthen Converso empathy for the movement; whereas many other Sabbateans could not identify so readily with Zvi's conversion. The feeling of alienation as experienced by the Conversos also contributed to their stronger need for a redeemer and perhaps this is why the majority of Sabbatean centres were established in areas where the Converso community was also strong. These same communities also played a role in the continuation of the Sabbatean movement after the conversion of Zvi, either through the justification of Zvi's conversion (e.g. the thinking of Rabbi Cardoza), or through leadership of Sabbatean believers (such as Rabbi Filosof). There was indeed an interesting correlation between the Converso communities and the spread and continuation of the Sabbatean movement; however they were not the only factor that lead to the conversion of nearly five hundred families of Sabbatean followers. The first group of Sabbateans did so mainly out of belief in the need to follow their messiah in order to bring redemption. The second group converted seventeen years after Zvi's own conversion and after the core group of apostates moved to Salonika . The Sabbateans, who were already living in Salonika , were drawn to join the main group of apostatized Sabbateans and convert to Islam. Certainly the persecutions suffered by Sabbateans in various Jewish communities contributed to Sabbatean leadership's perceived need to be free from the Jewish Millet authority structure. Consequently, this perceived need was also transferred to the Salonikan Sabbateans believers. Another important consideration is the fact that the Salonikan economy was in near ruin and the Jews were levied higher taxes. These economic pressures further contributed to the momentum to convert to Islam. Lastly, the environmental disasters which occurred in certain areas of Anatolia and elsewhere were perceived as imminent signs of the return of the Messiah and the dawn of the age of Redemption. These disasters most likely only added reason to decisions which had been made.
Although nearly five hundred Jewish families converted to Islam during this period, they were strong Sabbatean believers. And thus, it was not so much that they were converting to Islam for the sake of Islam but rather for sake of their own Sabbatean religious convictions. The religion to which they converted was by no means the religion to which they were devoted. They converted to Islam in order to continue to practicing their Sabbatean beliefs. This need to continue practicing Sabbatean beliefs through conversion out of Judaism is seen similarly with Sabbatean groups in Europe who convert to Christianity in the eighteenth century. Another observation, as exemplified by both the Conversos and the Dönme, is that exclusion breeds exclusion. Once one group starts to feel alienated and isolated from the group of which it was originally a part, the alienated group will develop a counter exclusionary character. This alienation was seen at first between traditional Jewish communities and the Conversos, then later with the Sabbatean communities. It was again seen between ma'aminim (the believers) and apostatised Sabbateans, the latter viewing themselves as the elite of the two. Subsequently, alienation and its consequences were seen once the Dönme was established and divisions occurred in its ranks.
When one considers that the Jewish Diaspora was infused with high messianic expectations, it is understandable that the Sabbatean movement gained many adherents. With the mass base of support provided by the Converso communities, the social and economic factors for a successful movement were in place. The conversion of Sabbatai Zvi is historically interpreted as voluntary. However, one is left wondering whether this was really so. Despite the fact that Zvi embraced his decision to convert, ultimately he was left with no choice. Had he not converted he would have certainly been put to death. And in spite of his open public commitment to Islam, he maintained his Sabbatean beliefs and practices in private and incorporated them as best he could into his new circumstances. His continued duality was known and in fact was the reason for his banishment to Albania , near the end of his life. Thus, one can argue that the voluntary group conversion of the Sabbateans to Islam was based on the enforced individual conversion of Sabbatai Zvi.
To this day, there are approximately 25 000 Turks of Sabbatean origin. Most have assimilated and identify themselves as secular Turkish nationals. Their Sabbatean origins are not forgotten, but are still hidden as many descendents are reluctant to openly discuss or identify themselves with their origins. As they continue to inter-marry with the general Turkish population, a practice not carried out until the establishment of the modern state of Turkey in 1923, this community continues to distance itself from its historical and ancestral roots. No longer Jewish, barely Sabbatean, and not religiously Muslim, with the advent of modern Turkey it seems that conversion of the Dönme Sabbateans out of Judaism led their descendents to grasp onto to a secular and national identity of the modern state.
Stanford J. Shaw, The History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey , 2 vols., vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1976), 275.
"Köprülü 256a," in The Encyclopedia of Islam , ed. H.A.R. Gibb et al. (Leiden: E.J.Brill, 1960)
Jacob Barnai, "The Development of Community Organizational Structures: The Case of Izmir ," in Jews, Turks, Ottomans: A Shared History, 15th through 20thCentury , ed. Avigdor Levy ( Syracuse : Syracuse UP, 2002), 37.
Bülent Ozdemir, "The Jews of Salonica and the Reforms," in Turkish-Jewish Encounters , ed. Mehmet Tütünü ( Haarlem : SOTA, 2001), 107.
Matt Goldish, The Sabbatean Prophets ( Cambridge , Mass. : Harvard UP, (2004), 2.
Harry C. Schnur, Mystic Rebels (New York: The Beechhurst Press, 1978), 164.
Ibid., 176, 78.
Stephen Sharot, Messianism, Mysticism and Magic: A Sociological Analysis of Jewish Religious Movements (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 91.
Stephen Sharot, "Jewish Millenarianism: A Comparison of Medieval Communities," Comparative Study of Society and History 22, no. 394-415 (1980): 401.
Abraham Galanté, Nouveaux Documents Sur Sabbataï Sevi (Istanbul: Société Anonyme de Papeterie et d'Imprimerie, 1935), 10.
Schnur, Mystic Rebels , 163.
Goldish, The Sabbatean Prophets, 45.
Sharot, Messianism, Mysticism and Magic: A Sociological Analysis of Jewish Religious Movements , 107.
Yosef Kaplan, "Political Concepts in the World of the Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam During the Seventeenth Century: The Problem of Exclusion and the Boundaries of Self-Identity.," in Menasseh Ben Israel and His World , ed. Yosef Kaplan and et al. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1989), 61.
Matt Goldish, "Patterns in Converso Messianism," in Jewish Messianism in the Early Modern World , ed. Matt Goldish and Richard Popkin ( Dordrecht : Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001), 46, 47, 51.
Jacob Barnai, "The Spread of the Sabbatean Movement in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries," in Communication in the Jewish Diaspora: The Pre-Modern World , ed. Sophia Meache (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996), 315.
Sharot, Messianism, Mysticism and Magic: A Sociological Analysis of Jewish Religious Movements , 102.
Jacob Barnai, "Transferring Religious Alliance ," Jewish History 7, no. 2 (1993): 121.
Barnai, "The Spread of the Sabbatean Movement in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries," 315.
Sharot, Messianism, Mysticism and Magic: A Sociological Analysis of Jewish Religious Movements , 102.
Goldish, The Sabbatean Prophets , 48.
Sabbatai Zvi 8:115-129," "in Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1972), 117.
Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Ideas on Jewish Spirituality (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), 147.
Itzhak BenZvi, The Exiled and the Redeemed (Jerusalem: Yad Itzak Ben-Zvi Publications, 1976), 139.
Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Ideas on Jewish Spirituality , 147.
BenZvi, The Exiled and the Redeemed ,137.
Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Ideas on Jewish Spirituality , 149, 50.
Leyla Neyzi, "Remembering to Forget: Sabbateanism, National Identity, and Subjectivity in Turkey ," Comparative Study of Society and History 44, no. 1 (2002): 275.
Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Ideas on Jewish Spirituality , 61.
"Sabbatai Zvi," 125.
Jacob Barnai, "Messianism and Leadership: The Sabbatean Movement and the Leadership of Jewish Communities in the Ottoman Empire ," in Ottoman and Turkish Jewry: Community and Leadership , ed. Aron Rodrigue (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1992), 178.
"Sabbatai Zvi," 125.
Avrum Ehrlich, "Sabbatean Messianism as Proto-Secularism," in Turkish-Jewish Encounters , ed. Mehmet Tütünë ( Haarlem : SOTA, 2001), 289.
Minna Rozen, "Individual and Community in Jewish Society," in The Jews of the Ottoman Empire , ed. Avigdor Levy (Princeton, N.J.: Darwin Press, 1994), 217.
Ehrlich, "Sabbatean Messianism as Proto-Secularism," 289.
Sharot, "Jewish Millenarianism: A Comparison of Medieval Communities," 324.
Neyzi, "Remembering to Forget: Sabbateanism, National Identity, and Subjectivity in Turkey ," 147.