What Is The Sabbatarianism Movement?

By situating Sabbatarianism within its social and historical context, Matt Goldish situates the Sabbatarians within the world of early modernity, making its history accessible to scholars and students alike. Both supporters and opponents of Sabbatarianism offer opportunities for historians to explore social, religious, and cultural dynamics in this time. Attention has focused on Sabbatai Zevi himself, and the movements that coalesced around him in 1665 and 1666, and would go on to manifest themselves in radical proselytizing and underground congregations over decades, even centuries, after his own.

The fact remains that Sabbatai Zevi was the best-known Jewish convert to Islam, and this is what has also become known by the term Sabbatean. In Jewish history, for the two centuries following Zevis death in 1676, many Jews, including some Jewish scholars, who were appalled at Zevis personal conversion to Islam, nonetheless held on to the belief that Zevi was still the real Jewish Messiah. These same Jews fell into the sectarian Sabbatarian category, which originated when many Sabbatarians refused to acknowledge that Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676)s supposed apostasy may have been an indication that their faith was in reality a delusion.

By the nineteenth century, Jewish Sabbateans had been reduced to a few hidden groups of followers, fearing discovery of their beliefs, deemed entirely heretical and contrary to Rabbinic Judaism. Only wealthy Sabbateans from Bohemia and Moravia could be said to have been moved toward modernity by their heretical beliefs, but those believers were concentrated in only a few families, barely enough to trigger a mass movement. They were bitterly opposed, and ultimately forced into concealing their beliefs, by methodical opposition from nearly every leading Rabbi, who was determined to eradicate the Kabbalistically-derived, anti-traditional Sabbatai Zevi doctrines and its hold on the Jewish masses. Jewish historians say that it is difficult to describe the sense of shock and national trauma that occurred when masses of Jews around the world learned that a man as well known as Sabbatai Zevi had formally abandoned the belief to Islam.

It could indeed be said that the Sabbatai movement was struggling to determine a new concept of what it meant to be Jewish–even after his conversion, Sabbatai Zevi seemed to consider himself still Jewish, and so did those among his followers who continued to believe in him. Nor does Prof. Gershom Scholems denial that Sabbatarianism represented the first major impetus among the Diaspora Jewish population to break from mainstream Judaism without abandoning its Jewishness. Reading the works of Prof. Gershom Scholem, a noted scholar of Jewish mysticism, one realizes that the Hasidim did not simply emerge, but had the spiritual basis of an earlier major larger movement called Sabbateanism.

The founder of Hasidism, Baal Shem Tov, came in an age when the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe were reeling from bewilderment and frustration, especially caused by two Jewish false Messiahs, Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676) and Jakob Frank (1726-1791). Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676) was the founder of the Sabbatarian movement, the followers of which later became known as the donmeh converts, or crypt-Jews. Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676) solemnly declared the author of the masonic relic to be a heretic in Sabbatarianism, worthy of hemesis (excommunication).

Sabbatai stressed several times that he was beyond Jewish law, breaking the holiest of practices, and violating the Sabbath. To the Jews who did not endorse him, Sabbatai was insulting, if only because it brought their religion closer to Christianity. The chief figure in Lvovs Great Excommunication was Rabbi Yaakov Emden (Yaavetz), who condemned Sabbatai–and others like them–the most.

As has been pointed out, their mythology came out of the Lurianic cabal, but Sabbatai Zevi and Nathan of Gaza (who was, as Scholem has shown, the true prophet and leader of the Sabbatean movement) used it in new, revolutionary ways — to express and justify a profound, ancient, elemental urge in human beings to idolize themselves, to become gods. Nathan of Gaza, a scholar who was closest to Sabbatai Zevi, and who led Zevi to disclose his messiahship, and who became in turn his prophet, never followed Nathan of Gaza to Islam, but remained a Jew, though he was excommunicated from his Jewish brothers. Just as with the practice of excommunication, which is still practiced today, the founders and leaders ideologies survived and underwent metamorphosis, and were later introduced once more in the Sabbatean sect Donme, still active in Turkey – the very same location in which the initial Sabbatean movement was formed.

It was not content to be this, and wanted to form a new, refined, highly intensive Sabbatean theology, mostly based around an arsenal of mystic, militant symbols, which were all about destruction and nihilism. While the Sabbateans originally saw themselves entirely as Jewish, though with a belief in the failed seventeenth-century Messiah from Turkey who came in the form of Shabbtai Zevi, Frank developed the notion that Frank and his followers were the real Israel, and that all others were descended from a mixed multitude, who according to the Book of Exodus, who had gone along with the Children of Israel as they left Egypt. Sabbatarians are a variety of Jewish followers, disciples, and believers of Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676), a Sephardic Jewish rabbi and Kabbalist who was proclaimed the Jewish Messiah in 1666 by Nathan of Gaza.

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