Shabbetai Zevi Declares Himself the Messiah

May 31, 1665

Shabbetai Zevi was born on August 1, 1626 in Smyrna (Izmir), Turkey.   A gifted scholar, he showed signs of mental instability early in his life, causing unpredictable mood swings from extreme depression to euphoria. During his bouts of mania, he was prone to violate Jewish law by stating the name of God aloud, an action that was taken very seriously by his community.  It was during these episodes that Zevi first began to refer to himself as the messiah.  Known for being mentally ill, little attention was paid to these “revelations.” Nonetheless, he was eventually banished from his hometown of Symrna for his repeated violations of Jewish law.

Zevi spent the next several years of his life wandering throughout the Ottoman heartland of Turkey and Greece, and studying Jewish mysticism in hopes of curing his mental illness. He finally settled in Jerusalem in 1662. In 1663 he was sent as an emissary to Cairo.  After living in Egypt and marrying for the third time, he went to Gaza upon hearing of a man who could give individuals the mystical formulas that their souls required.  The man, who known as Nathan of Gaza, did not help Zevi to find spiritual peace.  Instead, the man convinced Zevi that he was indeed the Messiah.  Zevi accepted this and declared himself the messiah on the 17th of Sivan (May 31).

Following his announcement, Zevi travelled to Syria and to Turkey, attracting many supporters, including many prominent religious leaders of the time.  His influence exceeded the borders of the Sephardi world; many Ashkenazi Jews in Europe, devastated by violence, poverty, and disease, become enthralled with his messianic vision.  In 1666, he was arrested by Ottoman officials while on his way to Istanbul.  Upon his arrest, he was given the choice to die or convert to Islam. He chose conversion.

His conversion has a devastating effect on his many followers. Most returned to traditional Judaism, but others continued to look to self-proclaimed messiahs as saviors for Jewish suffering, and as a prelude for return to the Land of Israel.

The picture shows an illustration of Shabbetai Zevi in 1665 from the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia.