Secret muslim jews await their messiah: Shabbetai Tzvi, by Gad Nassi

At daybreak an octogenarian cautiously approaches the shore of the Bosphorus. He stays only a short time, bending toward the sea, murmuring, then rubbing his face glancing at the sky for the
first light of day. He leaves furtively; no one really knows why he has come. The language he uses is incomprehensible to almost all the nine million people who live in Istanbul; not even his grand-children understand it. His deepest secret is the meaning of his utterance : Sabbetay Sevi, asperamos a ti (Shabbetai Tzvi, we wait for you).

He is, in fact, one of the last to practice the 300-year-old tradition of a crypto-community of Jewish ancestry. His prayer in Ladino (1) expresses the messianic longing for a redeemer of
the House of Israel.

Jewish messianic fervor is not a relic from past centuries : Witness the happenings this spring around the 90th birthday of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who, according
to some of his followers, will soon reveal himself as the messiah. One week before the birthday, 800 sympathizers from the intellectual, political and religious community of Washington, D.C., gathered for dinner to praise and honor the man who is known simply as the Rebbe. On the day itself - April 14 (11 Nisan) - 10,000 followers filled Yad Eliyahu Stadium in Tel Aviv; in Crown Heights, where the revered sage lives surrounded by 15,000 followers, emotional pandemonium swept through the community as children took the streets and sang - "We want Moshiach now!"

In Turkey, a small, secretive remnant of several thousand people survives from another time of messianic anticipation - followers of Shabbetai Tzvi, the seventeenth century Jewish mystic who declared himself the messiah and ended up converting to Islam.

To some Jews he became the false messiah; to others, called D˘nme (apostates) by Turks and Ma'aminim (true believers) by themselves, Shabbetai Tzvi lies on, the unrecognized messiah who
will one day return.

The messianic movement initiated by Shabbetai Tzvi swept across the world from England to Persia, from the Netherlands to Morocco and from Germany to Yemen. Staid Jewish businessmen sold their homes and possessions and prepared for the journey to Jerusalem redeemed. It was the most widespread messianic movement in Jewish history. So deep was its mark and so striking its
consequences that centuries could not erase them.

Shabbetai Tzvi was born in Smyrna (Izmir), Turkey, in 1626, probably on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, Tisha b'Av, the day in 586 B.C.E. the Babylonians destroyed the Solomonic Temple, the day in 70 C.E. the Romans destroyed the Second Temple. According to a midrash, the messiah would be born on that day.

Versed in the kabbalah, the esoteric and mystical teachings of Judaism, Shabbetai Tzvi led a life of seclusion and piety in his early adolescence. During this period came the first manifestations of a severe psychic disturbance. Shabbetai Tzvi was agitated by sexual temptations. He began to suffer from alternating episodes of depression and exaltation. Nevertheless, handsome and endowed with a musical voice, he attracted many admirers. An eye witness reported that he acquired the reputation of an inspired man. At the age of 18, Shabbetai Tzvi was ordained a chacham, a title designating him as a rabbi.

Young scholars his age collected around him, studying Talmudic and mystical lore. Like him, they took ritual baths in the seaand they accompanied him in the fields outside the city, where they devoted themselves to the mysteries of the Torah (2).

Between ages 20 and 24, Shabbetai Tzvi was twice married.Neither marriage was consummated; both ended in divorce. When, in 1648, news reached Turkey of the massacre of more than 100,000
Jews in the Ukraine led by the Cossack Bogdan Chmielnitzki, a belief grew in Shabbetai Tzvi's heart that he was chosen to be the savior of his afflicted people. During periods of exaltation he would behave extravagantly, doings things that were prohibited by rabbinical law or custom. Boldly non conformist, he even pronounced the ineffable name of God, Yahweh, the name Jews utter only in prayer and even then only as Adonai, never as the Lord's personal name that was pronounced only once a year on the Day of Atonement by the hight priest in the Holy of Holies. Considered by many a lunatic, Shabbetai Tzvi initially evoked a certain compassion in the rabbis of Smyrna, but later they banished him from his native town.

For several years Shabbetai Tzvi wandered, reaching Salonica in Greece and then Constantinople (Istanbul). In both places he gained sympathizers but was eventually expelled from these cities
as well. In Salonica, he celebrated a nuptial ceremony with the Torah under the canopy. In Constantinople, in a frenzy of piety, he celebrated in one week the festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot to atone for all sins ever committed by Israel during festival times. Throughout his career, Shabbetai Tzvi exhibited a predilection for shifting dates, changing fixed times and moving Sabbaths and holy days.

After returning to Smyrna for a while, Shabbetai Tzvi decided to visit the Holy Land, reaching Jerusalem via Rhodes and Cairo. He visited holy graves, prayed near the tombs of the patriarchs in
Hebron and devoted himself to ascetic practices. Members of the Jewish community, although astounded by his stange character, nevertheless flocked to him. He gained their esteem after
successfully raising financial aid on a visit to Cairo for the impoverished Jewish community of the Holy Land.

In 1664, during a second visit to Cairo lasting two years, Shabbetai Tzvi married Sarah, a Polish-born orphan in her 20s. Sarah's parents had perished in the Chielnitzki massacres.

Reputedly promiscuous, she wandered through Europe, arriving at the port of Leghorn, Italy, where she claimed she was destined to marry the messiah. When Shabbetai Tzvi heard this, he sent
messengers to Leghorn to bring her to Cairo. The wedding ceremony was held with great pomp. His marriage was interpreted as an emulation of the prophet Hosea, who had married a whore under divine inspiration. Whore or not, Shabbetai Tzvi's union with Sarah coincided with a relatively stable period in his psychic life, a time when he realized his madness and searched for a cure.

A meeting between Shabbetai tzvi and Nathan of Gaza was a turning point in Shabbetai Tzvi's mission. Nathan, a young but renowned kabbalist, engaged in mystical practices and ascetic disciplines.

As a devoted kabbalist, he was on the lookout for the messiah, whose imminent coming was then a prevailing belief. He knew of Shabbetai Tzvi's pretentions. Shabbetai Tzvi, for his part, had heard of Nathan as a man of God, able to disclose the hidden parts of people's souls. And so it came about that Shabbetai Tzvi, searching for a healer for himself, arrived in Gaza to visit Nathan, the physician of souls.

Shortly before Shabbetai Tzvi's arrival, Nathan experienced an ecstatic vision that revealed to him that Shabbetai Tzvi was the expected messiah. So when Shabbetai Tzvi came to Nathan seeking a cure, Nathan told him that his agonies were not symptoms ofdiseased soul but the signs of his soul's high rank, which didnot need any tikun (repair). While they were celebrating on theeve of Shavuot, Nathan fell into a trance and anounced thatShabbetai Tzvi was the messiah. Nathan even produced anapocryphal text in which Shabbetai Tzvi's appearance as theredeemer of his nation was supposedly prophesied.

On the 17th of Sivan (May 31, 1665) in Gaza, Shabbetai Tzvi proclaimed himself messiah. He appointed 12 "apostles" to represent the 12 tribes. Riding around on horseback in majestic state, Shabbetai Tzvi came to Jerusalem where he circled the walls seven times.

Nathan proclaimed the need for mass repentance to hasten the coming of Redemption. Letters went out to communities in North Africa, Asia and Europe. In one of these letters Nathan wrote :

"The time of redemption has come ... Shabbetai Tzvi has the power to justify the great sinner, even Jesus (3) ... he will take the crown of the Turkish king, without war, and will make the sultan his servant ... he will proceed to the river Sambatyon to bring back the lost tribes".

Rumors reached Europe about the appearance of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, said to be marching under the command of a prophetic and saintly man about whom all sorts of miraculous stories were

In Palestine, messianic news traveled like wildfire, encountering strong opposition from outstandings rabbis of Jerusalem, who banished Shabbetai Tzvi from the city. Heading north, Shabbetai Tzvi traveled through Safed in the Galilee and Aleppo in Syria to Smyrna, where Jews had long forgotten the ban placed on him for his earlier bizarre behavior and, his fame having preceded him, welcomed him to his birthplace and the king-mesiah. Hundreds of people accompanied him wherever he went, causing a tumult among the people of Smyrna. On December 12, 1665, he smashed the locked doors of the synagogue that was the headquarters of his opponents and, once inside, called men and women alike to read the Torah and distributed kingdoms of the earth among his supporters, forcing them to pronounce the forbidden name of God.

Then Shabbetai Tzvi went up to the ark, took out a scroll and, after singing "Meliselda", an old Castilian erotic love song, proclaimed himself the messiah of Israel, fixing the date of the redemption for June 18th, 1666. He announced that in a short time he would seize the crown of the Ottoman sultan and reestablish the Kingdom of Israel.On December 30, 1665, Shabbetai Tzvi left Smyrna by ship for Istanbul with a group of followers.

Considering Shabbetai Tzvi in open rebellion against the sultan, Turkish authorities arrested and imprisoned him when the ship arrived at the Dardanelles. Tension mounted among Jews as well
as among Muslims. An eye witness in Constantinople reported :

"Seven to eight hundred women were prophesying for several months in the Galata quarter of Constantinople, acting as if possessed and imitating the enthusiastic behavior of such as have received the spirit. Several women had to be bound and beaten in order to drive out the spirit of folly that had turned their brains and caused them to rave and indulge in disorderly behavior".

The enthusiastic messianic anticipation among communities in Europe, Asia and North Africa was not very different. Almost all these comunities had suffered humiliation and oppression within
recent times. The grievous memory of the expulsion from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497 was still alive; marranos, or secreJews, fleeing the atrocities of the Inquisition, wandered through Europe, hoping to return freely to Judaism. In Poland and Russia

Jews were subject to mass slaughters. During these times of distress and helplessness, mystical beliefs imbued almost allexisting Jewish comunities. Faith in messianic redemption becamea way to survive. Jewish communities from all over sentdelegations to Turkey to meet Shabbetai Tzvi.

On September 16, 1666, sumoned before the Imperial Court in Adrinople (now Edirne), Shabbetai Tzvi was ordered to choose death or conversion to islam. A former Jew, Mustapha Hayatizade,
physician to Sultan Mehmet IV, convinced Shabbetai Tzvi to accept Islam. Shabbetai Tzvi adopted the name Aziz Mehmed Efendi.

To cope with the cruel reality of Shabbetai Tzvi's apostasy, his believers had to choose between forsaking k!
abandoned him. For the faithful, however, a new, mystical theosophical interpretation emerged to legitimate Shabbetai Tzvi's apostasy. Shabbetai Tzvi's task as a Muslim was to gather the "holy sparks" that were dispersed among the gentiles - a necessary step toward redemption. Only the messiah could fulfill this mission, so the explanation went, and to do so he must hide his identity and act within the heart of the enemy. This explanation appeared plausible to those who still believed in the messianic mission of Shabbetai Tzvi because it fit into the prevalent Lurianic view of kabbalah.

After converting to Islam, Shabbetai Tzvi lived in Adrianople in Turkey and sometimes in Constantinople. Leading a double life, he outwardly performed the duties of Islam while continuing
secretly to observe Jewish rituals. After denunciation by some Jews and Muslims of his two-faced behavior and his libertine sexual practices, Shabbetai Tzvi was exiled in 1673 to Dulcigno
(Ulcini) at the southern end of the Dalmatian coast, in Albania, where he died, in his fifties, on the Day of Atonement, September 17, 1676. A letter in his own handwriting, written toward the end of his life, asks friends from the nearby community of Berat to send him a prayer book for the New Year and the Day of Atonement.

From the time of his conversion until Shabbetai Tzvi was expelled to Albania, 200 families followed in his footsteps and ostensibly embraced Islam. Shabbatean beliefs continued to spread within the Jewish world; a second mass conversion to islam by followers of Shabbetai Tzvi took place after his death in 1683 in Salonica, earlier proclaimed by Shabbetai Tzvi as a holy city.

Faith in Shabbetai Tzvi as messiah, his apostasy and the mass conversions that followed opened a breach in the Jewish world; the first steps were taken toward formation of a cryptoªcommunity. The Turks began to call these ostensible converts to islam "D˘nme", a popular Turkish term for apostate, meaning literally "the one who has turned". Implying renegate, variable and even unreliable, it is a confusing and deprecatory term.

Traditional Jews used the epiphet minim (heretics) to castigate the Shabbateans. The Shabbateans, in turn, called themselves "believers", ma'aminim in hebrew. They never adopted D˘nme to
refer to themselves. With the years, ma'aminim went out of use and the secret Shabbateans simply referred to themselves as "us" or "we" (D˘nme is the name most widely known).

The D˘nme found many convert, disguised or secret supporters outside the Shabbatean sect itself, so that D˘nme beliefs pervaded Jewish communities, penetrated religious life and
influenced spiritual inclinations and attitudes. Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, reports that "there is full proof that a fair number of men of great Talmudic learning and even officiating rabbis joined Shabbatean groups and found it possible to live in a state of high tension between outward orthodoxy and inward antinomianism" (4).

Salonica became the spiritual center of the D˘nme community. TheD˘nme community knew flourishing days, experienced deep communal dissensions and created its own legacy. Despite the vicissitudes of history, it continued to exist for more than three centuries and renants of its survive today.

The D˘nme are voluntary converts, a phenomenon without precedent in Jewish history. They practice Islam publicly but adhere to a heretical Jewish theosophy : Shabbetai Tzvi replaced the Ten
Commandments with a new religious order based on 18 precepts, Las Incommendensas, as the D˘nme call them. Las Incommendensas include the Ten Commandments but the formulation of the prohibition of adultery is ambiguous, resembling a suggestion of prudence. Other commandments regulate relations between the believers in Shabbetai Tzvi and Turks and Jews.

Secretly carrying out their rituals in hidden synagogues, the D˘nme married only among themselves. Today, only the Karakash, one small group of three to four thousand D˘nme, continue in the traditional ways and does not marry out. The remaining 40,000 to 60,000 D˘nme who retain some memory of their heritage have ceased all observance and restrictions on marriage.

One of the D˘nme's distinctive rituals was the Festival of the Lamb, celebrated in spring on the night between the 21st and 22nd of Adar. It is unlikely that even the Karakash continue to practice this festival. As practiced in former times, at least two married couples and often many more participated in the ceremony. The meat of that spring's newly born lambs was eaten for the first time that year. After the meal, the lights were extinguished and couples made love without distinguishing between their partners. Children born from this encounter were considerd sacred. This kind of festival celebrates the new year and also is linked to the creation of the universe. It has its roots in
pagan beliefs and orgiastic rituals known from other ancient cultures of the Middle east, such as the Iranian Noruz and the Roman Saturnalia. Spring festivals were the expression of the rebirth of nature after winter, the spring equinox being interpretd as the wedding of the sky with the earth. The analogy between this practice and messianic rebirth after the days of the apocalypse is clear : the existing order will be abolished and instinctive needs can be freely enjoyed.

Although the D˘nme maintain their traditions, they have not made a complete brak with Judaism. For more than 200 years, they have not brought their disputes to Turkish courts. As knowledge of Talmud decreased among them, they consulted rabbis to settle controversial cases. As long as the D˘nme lived in Salonica, preservation of their Jewish character was feasible because of their proximity and steady contact with its large, bustling Jewish population. Many members of the D˘nme community in Salonica were among Turkey's reform leaders - the Young Turks - and members of an influential reform organization known as the Committee for Progress and Union. In 1909, the revolution of the Young Turks overthrew the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II. The first administration that then came to power, laying the foundation of the future Turkish republic, included three D˘nme ministers - Nuzhet Faik, Mustafa Arif and Mehmet Javid.

At the time of the revolution, few D˘nme lived in Turkey; the center of community - about 16,000 strong - was in Salonica. There they remained until after the Turko-Greek war, when a treaty in 1924 provided for an exchange of populations. During the period of amnesty before exchange, members of the sect, whishing avoid their transfer to Turkey, asked the rabbis of Salonica to permit them to return to Judaism. Their application was rejected by the rabbis because children who were the fruit ofthe Festival of the Lamb were mamzerim, conceived from anadulterous relationship, according to halachah (Jewish religiouslaw). The D˘nme left for Turkey.

The rabbis' ruling saved the D˘nme from extermination during theHolocaust. From March 14, 1943, until August 7 of the same year, the Nazis filled 19 railroad convoys with the Jews of Salonica, shipping them off the death camps in Poland. By the end of August, 43,850 Jews - 95 percent of the Jewish population of Greece - had been exterminated at Auschwitz and Birkenau.

When the D˘nme community departed from Turkey in 1924 they found their new home less hospitable than Salonica. Their Jewish links and their peculiar lifestyle made them vulnerable prey for Turkish fundamentalists and extremists, who accused the D˘nme of hypocrisy and perfidy. Not being officially defined as a community, the D˘nme were unequipped to defend themselves.

Becoming more and more inhibited, they had to choose betwween remaining a secret, self-contained community or total assimilation and disappearance. During World War II, the D˘nme community was recognized as a separate entity by the Turkish government. As the government struggled to meet the country's financial needs, it issued a wealth tax, knows as varlik vergisi. While Muslims citizens were taxed at 5 percent of their income or capital, non-Muslims
citizens were forced to pay much higher assessments. The D˘nme were given their own category, they had to pay 10 percent of income and the capital letter D was maked by their names.

Throughout this century, as D˘nme have entered Turkish society - often at the highest levels - they still struggled with ambiguity about their Jewish, Shabbatean and Turkish allegiances. A child
in the D˘nme community does not receive any clear guidance about the community or its Jewish connections. The child only learns at puberty that he or she belongs to a separate community. Only
on the wedding day has the D˘nme son or daughter the right to know all the community's sedrets anbout their faith in their messiah, Shabbetai Tzvi, and to become fully acquainted with their rituals.

To this day the few thousand Karakash - orthodox Shabbateans - live mostly in their own neighborhood in Istanbul with their own synagogue, steadfastly maintaining their faith. No outsider can enter their homes. Inbreeding has taken its physical toll, producing distinctive deformities such as disproportionally large heads and puny bodies. A D˘nme cemetery is located on the Asiatic side of the Bosphorus; the mosque in Istanbul from which funerals leave for this cemetery is popularly kown as the "Jewish mosque". Rumors say that the D˘nme possess a library and some
personal relics from Shabbetai tzvi - his ring, his caftan and his slippers.

These Karakash D˘nme are the last Shabbateans, the surviving descendants of those children of Israel who once found themselves swept up in one of the strange, dramatic events of Jewish history. It is only a few who will remember the ancient promise, "Shabbetai Tzvi we wait for you" still intoned as morning light first brightens the sky on the shore of the Bosphorus.

(1) Ladino is the liturgical language used in Spain and elsewhere by Sephardic Jews. The everyday language spoken by sephardim is called Judeo-Spanish.

(2) Shabbetai Tzvi and Nathan felt an empathy for Jesus. According to Shabbatean belief, the soul of the messiah had been reincarnated 18 times from Adam onward, including, probably, Jesus. Reportedly Shabbetai Tzvi once exclaimed : "What has Jesus done that you ill-treated him thus? I shall see to it that he will be counted among the prophets"?(3) Thomas Coenen, Ydele verwachtinge der Joden (Amsterdam,1699).

(4) Coenen, 35-36.

(5) Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah (New York and Scarborough, Ontario: Dutton, 1978).

The founder of Morit, an association for the preservation of Turkish Jewry's heriatge, Dr. Gad Nassi is an Israeli psychiatrist and author. He currently leads a research team investigating Middle Eastern dimensions of the Jewish mystical heritage.

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- Copyright © 1992 Moïse Rahmani - Institut Sépharade Européen