The mystical prophet and his Bride of Christ
Austria and Klinikum Coburg, Germany
Sabbatai Zvi (1626-1676), as sketched in 1666 by an eye witness. From Thomas Coenen, “Ydele Verwachtinge der Joden…” Amsterdam, 1669.
In 1648, the year when the exhausted European powers at last ended the Thirty Years’ War, the Orthodox Ukrainian peasants rose against their Catholic Polish overlords and the Cossacks staged murderous pogroms and killed a large number of the local Jews, who were often tax collectors and administrators on behalf of the Poles. A little Jewish girl and her brother survived. The brother made his way to Amsterdam, where he became known as Samuel ben Meir and made a living as a tobacco manufacturer. The girl was taken up by the nuns of a local monastery and presumably was raised to herself become a nun—a Bride of Christ. When in later years she somehow made her way to Holland, she converted back to Judaism but continued to maintain she was the Bride of Christ. This news came to the attention of Sabbatai Zvi, who according to his thousand page biography by Gershom Sholem, reported that he had seen her in a dream.
Sabbatai Zvi is a colorful historical personality who deserves to be better known. He was born in Smyrna in 1626 into a Jewish family. His father was a poultry dealer; and he was brought up to study the Jewish law but became more interested in mysticism. Finally, in 1648, at the age of 22, he announced that he was the Jewish Messiah. This being a time of great troubles for the Jewish communities, his claims were readily accepted by many and he developed a large following. Though married twice before, he divorced his wives because “none of the girls had been ordained by heaven to become his wife.” Sarah obviously was. She was young, beautiful, and stood by him during his long career as a Messiah that took him to various cities, Salonika, Alexandria, Athens, Jerusalem, Cairo, and Constantinople. There, the number of his followers growing greatly, he was arrested by the Sultan, put in jail, and given the choice of being impaled, submitting himself to a trial of being shot by arrows, or becoming a Muslim. He wisely chose the latter option. Later he was banished to a small town in Montenegro and died there. He inspired people throughout Europe and the Mediterranean region for centuries, and by 1900 his followers could still be found in the Ottoman Empire, referred to as Dönmeh.
Throughout his career, Sarah was a dutiful wife. What little is known about her comes from the texts written about her husband. Like Lucretia Borgia’s reputation, hers may have been tarnished by malicious tongues. None of this bothered Sabbatai, who according to a biblical story, as the Messiah was commanded “to take the wife of whoredom as confirmation of his calling.” At any rate, Sarah has undergone a process of rehabilitation in the recent times. She may have taught her husband her native language, because Gershom Sholem reports he was able to speak with Ashkenazi Jews. As far as the records indicate, she herself had no medical problems, while her husband most likely did—her problem was rather how to stand by her brother and her husband, and find her own place in society as a former nun. In the way she finally solved this riddle, she may be compared to Isabella of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, a citizen-saint—“she who invests the regular intervals of citizenship with the ongoing potential for radical singularity.”1 Sabbatai however exhibited wide swings of mood. He climbed to the top of the high tower; then on a different location plunged inappropriately into the Mediterranean Sea. Some authorities believe he was schizophrenic, hence his visions. Others that he had a cyclothymic personality, with alternating episodes of mania and depression. As psychiatry had not yet made its mark on society in the mid-1600s, a medical diagnosis, though of interest to the historian, cannot be made with any degree of certainty. But his story illustrates how often events in history are determined by processes of the mind, many at least bordering on the pathological.
- Julia Reinhard Lupton, Citizen-Saints: Shakespeare and Political Theology, (Chicago: The University of Chicago press, 2005), p. 125
- M.H. Friedländer, Geschichtsbilder aus der nach-talmudischen Zeit bis auf die Gegenwart (1500-1880), (Frankfurt: Populärwissenschaftliche Monatsblätter zur Belehrung über das Judentum für Gebildete aller Konfessionen, 2. Jahrgang 1882, Nr.9), p. 199
- Gershom Sholem, Sabbatai Zwi: Der mystische Messias, (Frankfurt: Suhrcamp, 1992, based on the Hebrew original of 1957 – „Shabtai Zvi weha-tenu ah ha-shabbetha ith bi-jemei chajaw“ – and the English edition of Princeton press 1973)
- M. Brann, Lehrbuch der jüdischen Geschichte für die Oberstufe der österreichischen Mittelstufe bearbeitet, (Wien, Löwith publishers, 1903) volume 4, p. 49
- Talmudic encyclopedia, Eshet ish (married woman), cited after Israel Shahak, Jewish history, Jewish religion, the weight of three thousand years (London: Pluto press, 1994) p. 87
HANSJÖRG ROTHE, MD, was born in Leipzig, Saxony, in the former German Democratic Republic. He attended school at Francke´sche Stiftungen Halle and was a medical student at Martin Luther University Halle, where his medical thesis was on pathobiochemistry. He has practiced as a medical doctor since 1994 in Germany and the UK, and is board certified in internal medicine and nephrology. His research interest is in pharmacogenetics, and he has been involved in a pharmacogenetic project at Brookdale University Hospital & Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York from 2002-2005 with a research fellowship grant from AMGEN. Currently, he conducts clinical work at Klinikum Coburg in Germany and lectures on pharmacogenetics at Danube University Krems in Austria.
Highlighted in Frontispiece Summer 2013 – Volume 5, Issue 3
Summer 2013 | Sections | Moments in History