It’s Christmas time again and and with it, the time for stories. What better stories to tell than real stories? So let’s talk about Messiahs, because isn’t Christmas the celebration of the birth of the Messiah Jesus Christ? Note that Muslims too believe Christ to be the Messiah. However, the Jewish faith denies this claim, and thus, are still waiting for their Messiah. As a result, several Messiah claimants have popped up throughout Jewish history.
Perhaps one of the more interesting period has to be the 17th century. After the fall of Granada and the destruction of the Muslim empires of the Iberian peninsula, the Ottomans became the patrons of the Jews and thousands upon thousands flocked to the protection of the ‘Grand Turk’. It was a bloody age. Catholics in Spain were forcing a misinterpreted version of Christianity down the throats of Jews and Muslims, the Ottomans teamed up with the Protestants to subdue King Charles while the Venetians quietly made off with the loot and got filthy rich. One year in particular frightened and excited Ottoman Jewry – 1666 AD. As the fateful year arrived, millenarian fever gripped the Balkans as the Jewish mystical traditions – firmly based in Salonica – predicted the coming of the Messiah and all sorts of apocalyptic disasters. The Protestants too were in on it. They eagerly awaited the conversion of the Jews while the Jews awaited the conversion of the Protestants at the hand of their Messiah. Rumors were abound that a ship had been sighted off the coast of Scotland with ‘The Twelve Tribes of Israel’ written on the sails, bound to carry the Jewish people to Zion. Understandably, the Ottoman authorities kept an eye on the whole affair but decided to ignore the commotion- unless that is, if any were to talk of deposing the Sultan.
That winter, a Jewish scholar from Izmir headed to Istanbul, intent on killing the Sultan and ushering in the promised Kingdom. Sabbatai Zevi was his name, and he had been going around rabbinical circles for a while, declaring himself the Messiah here and there. Many believed him and his popularity soon soared. The Jewish world went into an uproar at his journey towards Istanbul. All around, Jews were abandoning their shops, selling their homes for pennies and preparing great entourages to make the pilgrimage to Zevi. The fervor was nonetheless greatest in Salonica, where the Jewish residents were preparing for a great pilgrimage that threatened to leave the city bare. Rabbis urged their congregations to purify themselves, and thousands fasted, whipped themselves or jumped into icy baths in the cold Balkan winter to purge themselves of sin. Several buried themselves up to the neck in the dirt and had their faces splashed with frozen water. Christians and Muslims looked on in amusement. When one French consul reprimanded a Jewish boy for his excitement, the boy assured him he had nothing to smile about, for he was shortly to be a slave of the Messiah.
The Ottoman authorities caught wind of the whole affair however, and arrested Zevi en-route to Istanbul. Caught red handed, Zevi denied all of the charges yet they threw him in jail just in case. The fervor did not end. Delegations visited him from as far away as Poland and many reported the miracles he performed; of them – a bright light shining from his presence, a golden crown and a golden robe suddenly appearing on his body etc. Continuing Zevi’s momentum, another man named Nehemiah appeared. He went straight to the imprisoned Zevi, and convinced him that the Messiah actually had a second almost-Messiah who was to be his side kick. Unsurprisingly, Nehemiah claimed to be this side kick. The two fell into fighting however (no doubt Zevi feared Nehemiah stealing his thunder). Nehemiah, clearly furious at Zevi, went straight to the authorities and convinced them – albeit through much exaggeration – how corrupt and impious Zevi was and how he was inciting his congregations. The Sultan quickly resolved to have him executed, but the more sensible judges feared turning him into a martyr. Finally, one of the Sultan’s Physicians (himself a Jewish convert to Islam), gave Zevi the option of converting to Islam. If he ‘repented’ of his ‘sins’, the Sultan was sure to save his head.
To the great astonishment of Ottoman Jewry, Zevi agreed! The Jewish fervor gradually subsided as his once great popularity diminished. Zevi’s congregation found themselves asking how the ‘Messiah’ could leave his own religion. His most fanatical followers however, justified the conversion via mystical means and followed Zevi into Islam. The Messiah would spend the rest of his life traveling the outskirts of Macedonia and the Balkans as he whipped up a new Jewish sect known as the Sabbatian movement. The Jewish community at large soon spurned him and looked on with suspicious eyes at mysticism thereafter, forcing Zevi to keep a low profile wherever he went. Those who had converted to Islam with him became known as the Ma’min and they continued to exercise a degree of influence in the Muslim communities in the Balkans till the late 19th century.
The commotion surrounding Zevi shows a certain anguish of the Jewish people in the 16th and 17th century. Though the Ottomans became their protectors from Catholic Europe, they still longed for a Messiah as they saw their people banished from Iberia – a home above homes. Disaster made them look continually heaven ward for a savior. The Christians and Muslims have their Messiah, yet we too seem despondent when gazing out at the modern world, with its rampant inequality and atrocious violence. Perhaps some of us too wish for a second ‘Messiah’ like figure. And perhaps he, or she will come from among our own ranks – not as a divine god of sorts, but as a regular human being intent on rectifying humanity with compassion. Who knows what the future holds?
Mazower, Mark. Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims, and Jews, 1430-1950. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. 69-71. Print. (awesome book!)