Almost 400 years later, we still feel the devastating effects of the false Mashiach whose actions rocked the world
“I want to be a great chacham, a Rav who teaches Torah to many people,” I told Ima today.
She wanted to know where I got that idea from. “It’s a wonderful idea,” she hurried to reassure me. “But what made you think of it now?”
I know why she was wondering that. Because I’m six years old and I’m usually more interested in playing with my friends than learning. But in cheder today, my friend Moshe was telling us about a bochur named Shabtai Tzvi who has just become a chacham — and he is only 20 years old! That made me think it would be very special to become a chacham too.
I’m going to learn really well and get semichah as young as I can — maybe not when I’m 20, like Shabtai Tzvi, but at least when I’m 30…
My older brother Elchanan came home very excited today.
“I joined a new study group!” he announced at the supper table.
Abba looked pleased, and asked him what he was studying.
“We’re learning seforim of Kabbalah with the great chacham, Shabtai Tzvi,” Elchanan said.
Abba stopped smiling. “Shabtai Tzvi? I’ve heard about him. They say he’s a genius — and a good speaker, very charismatic. But I’ve also heard that he has some strange habits. Tell me, Elchanan,” he asked my brother. “Is it true that he fasts for weeks at a time? That he sometimes isolates himself for a long time, going into the forest and being alone there for many weeks?”
I was fascinated to hear all of this — I’d never heard of a chacham doing these things.
“It’s true, Abba. It’s because he is so holy,” Elchanan explained. “He toivels in the mikveh many times a day and they say he is also a miracle worker, he can make nissim happen. When you study with him, you can feel the holiness! He truly is something special.”
Elchanan was making me wish that I was old enough to join him. And yet, when I looked at Abba, I saw that he was frowning.
My brother Elchanan has been learning Kabbalah under Shabtai Tzvi for nearly two years now. He often comes home and tells me excitedly about how great Shabtai Tzvi is. He even told me that he and many of his friends actually believe that Shabtai Tzvi is Mashiach! Can you imagine?
But when I asked Abba about it, he got very upset, and he said that our Rabbanim do not agree with this idea, and I shouldn’t believe it. Later, he told Elchanan that he doesn’t want him to continue going to Shabtai Tzvi’s study groups.
I don’t think Elchanan will stop going, though. He likes them too much.
We have been hearing terrible reports recently, about horrible things happening to the Jews in Europe. Apparently, a big rasha named Chmielnicki is leading a huge group of evil people called the Cossacks, and they are murdering Jews in terrible, cruel ways. And this is the year that many people thought Mashiach would come, based on a hint in the Torah. Instead, it seems like the galus is only getting worse!
Elchanan is certain that his hero, Shabtai Tzvi, is Mashiach. I wish it were true, but I know that Abba does not believe it. I’m not sure who to listen to myself! I always listen to Abba, but if only… if only Elchanan was right this time! Wouldn’t it be amazing if Mashiach would come, end all the suffering, and bring us to Eretz Yisrael where we belong?
Elchanan came home today very shaken up.
“The chacham Shabtai Tzvi almost drowned!” he said, his voice trembling. Apparently, Shabtai Tzvi had been swimming in the Mediterranean, when he nearly lost his life. He was saved only by a neis.
“Isn’t that a proof that Hashem is protecting him for a reason?” Elchanan asked Abba.
“Miracle stories don’t prove anything,” Abba said sharply.
But some of the stories that Elchanan was saying sounded very much like proofs to me…
After all, could a regular person kill wild animals and poisonous serpents with his bare hands? Definitely not. And according to Elchanan, Shabtai Tzvi could do that — he often told his followers about the stories and encounters that he experienced.
Surely he must be very great in order to do those things.
My brother Elchanan has left home.
I’m writing these words with tears flowing from my eyes. I miss him so much. I know that Abba and Elchanan have been fighting a lot recently, mostly about his mentor Shabtai Tzvi, but to me, Elchanan’s just my big brother who I love and admire. And what do I, an 11-year-old boy, know about this man who claims to be Mashiach? I just want my brother to live at home with us again.
But instead, he’s so far away…
Let me start at the beginning: Recently, the Rabbanim of the community stood up against Shabtai Tzvi. They said that he was wrong in the things he was doing, and that his claims to have ruach hakodesh and special visions of being Mashiach were false. They put him in cheirem and banned him from the city for seven whole years!
Many people, including Elchanan, didn’t want to listen to that. They still thought Shabtai Tzvi was right, and doing everything out of holiness and because he is really Mashiach. So Elchanan has left to accompany Shabtai Tzvi on his exile, and many others are helping him by sending him money and other things.
What will happen over the next seven years? When will I see Elchanan again?
We hear a lot of stories about Shabtai Tzvi, even though he left town five years ago. Apparently, he has been traveling to many communities, speaking about his visions and telling people that he is Mashiach! Often, the Rabbanim ban him from the city when he says that. But he just seems to keep on going, fueled by the support of the people who believe in him. People, I guess, like my brother Elchanan, who we haven’t seen or heard from in so long…
What incredible news I have to share!
My brother Elchanan came back!
He returned together with Shabtai Tzvi, now that the seven-year ban is over. When he knocked on the door, I recognized him right away — but it took him a few moments to recognize me! I guess an 18-year-old does look very different from an 11-year-old, which was how old I was when he left.
Some people were excited that Shabtai Tzvi had returned. Others were annoyed — they felt like we were better off in Smryna without him. I just want to enjoy having Elchanan here with us again.
Elchanan is married! Since he returned to Smyrna, he has settled down, is learning seriously, and finally got married and began his own family. I’m relieved; at 22, I’m definitely old enough to get married myself, but I didn’t want to hurt my older brother by getting married before him. I’m happy, also, that he’s not planning to join Shabtai Tzvi on his latest adventure — Shabtai Tzvi is planning to go to Jerusalem.
It’s an arduous journey, but more than that, I just didn’t want Elchanan to leave us again.
So much has happened since I wrote last.
Three years ago, Elchanan had just married, and Shabtai Tzvi had left Smyrna to go to Jerusalem.
Now, I’m married too, and both Elchanan and I have sweet little baby boys! It’s hard to believe that we are both fathers.
But in even bigger news — it seems that Shabtai Tzvi’s wild visions and fantasies were — can I actually write these words — the truth!
Here’s what happened: in Jerusalem, Shabtai Tzvi met with a great talmid chacham known as Natan Ha’azati (which means Natan of Gaza — he came from Gaza; he was studying Kabbalah in a yeshivah in Jerusalem). This man, Natan, saw that Shabtai Tzvi was, indeed, Mashiach — and this past Shavuos, he announced the news publicly. Mashiach has arrived!
In order to let everyone know, Natan has sent letters all over the world, and has sent groups of people to spread the word. I heard that some of these people have reached Smyrna. I would love to hear firsthand what Jerusalem looks like now.
Last time I wrote, I was so excited. Now, I’m a little confused.
Apparently, not everyone agrees that Shabtai Tzvi is Mashiach, even though Natan and others in Jerusalem have declared him to be. Yesterday, Abba reminded me that Shabtai Tzvi still behaves in very strange ways, and they’re not all in accordance with halachah. So how could he be Mashiach?
Elchanan, though, claims that it’s just a test for us — to see if we still believe in him. How do I know the truth?
You know how when you make a small snowball and roll it down a hill, as it rolls it grows and grows?
The Shabtai Tzvi situation has literally snowballed — taking on a life of its own, growing bigger and faster and stronger. It’s unstoppable. The news has spread all over the world. People are selling their homes and renting ships to travel to the Holy Land. In Amsterdam, I have heard, there are no more ships for business, because the Jews have rented EVERY SINGLE ONE in order to bring their families and possessions to Jerusalem to greet Mashiach!
There is so much excitement in the air, and yet also, so much unrest. Although many Rabbanim seem to agree that Shabtai Tzvi is Mashiach, there are others who don’t. Rabbi Jacob Sasportas of Amsterdam is the strongest opponent — I’ve heard that he’s written hundreds of letters to Rabbanim around the world, begging them to help him stand up against Shabtai Tzvi!
What do I believe?
It’s hard to tell. I still think Shabtai Tzvi’s behavior is very strange. Especially the new minhagim he has introduced — like telling us to say Bircas Kohanim every Shabbos, even though we’re in chutz l’Aretz! He says it’s because we’re on our way out of galus and it’s time to start preparing for the time when the Kohanim will give this brachah every day !
On the other hand, maybe he truly is Mashiach. So many people believe it’s true.
And part of me thinks that whatever the truth is, it’s getting so many Jews to do teshuvah and come close to Hashem… How bad can that be?
My brother Elchanan has sold his house. Abba thinks he’s crazy. As for me, I’m still not sure…
I’ll wait to see what unfolds.
Shabtai Tzvi is back in Turkey, this time with an enormous entourage and much fame and acclaim. How strange to think that just a few short years ago, he was rejected and banned from the city!
Now, tourists flock from all over the world to meet him. Jews travel from all over just for the privilege of greeting Mashiach. Abba’s business is booming, but I see that he’s not happy. He thinks this is all a terrible mistake!
In the meantime, though, Turkey is doing well because tourists and visitors bring in so much money — the Sultan must be happy!
Strange things have been happening. And, of course, they all revolve around Shabtai Tzvi.
First, he married a young girl from Poland who was known to be mentally unwell — he claimed that she was destined to marry Mashiach and was really very holy.
Then he began doing aveiros, saying that Hashem allows him to. He even ate treife food in public, making a brachah of his own invention: “Baruch Atah… mattir issurim” — Blessed is Hashem who has permitted the forbidden.
And then he abolished the fasts of Shivah Asar B’Tammuz and Tishah B’Av. He claimed that there’s no need to fast anymore, since he, Mashiach, has come!
By now, the Rabbanim have all come to oppose him. They say that no one can change the Torah, not even Mashiach, so he must be a charlatan, a fake. It’s a terrible letdown for so many people who believed in him. Many still think he’s Mashiach, and are clinging onto hope…
Apparently, even the Sultan has become wary of Shabtai Tzvi and his stories. He has had Shabtai Tzvi arrested and placed under house arrest in a castle in Gallipoli. However, Shabtai Tzvi continues to live like royalty, receiving visitors and enjoying luxury and comfort. He claims this is a temporary setback before Mashiach can arrive.
The conflict between those who believe in him and those who don’t is ripping communities apart. How much longer can this go on?
I can’t believe the words I have to write.
It’s a tragedy, a catastrophe, a disaster of epic proportions.
Shabtai Tzvi, the man who so many believed to be Mashiach himself — has converted to Islam.
What happened was that the Sultan became concerned about Shabtai Tzvi’s behavior. It was a threat to the rule of the government. It seemed to him that Shabtai Tzvi was planning to take over the crown. He had Shabtai Tzvi brought to the royal court and questioned him. Shabtai Tzvi denied that he was Mashiach, and promised to be loyal to the Sultan. But that wasn’t enough. The Sultan threatened to kill him if he did not become a Muslim. And Shabtai Tzvi agreed to convert!
The news sent shock waves throughout the Jewish world. No one could possibly believe that this was part of the test of Mashiach (although Natan is still trying to convince people that it is). Everyone realizes now that Shabtai Tzvi isn’t Mashiach, and that he never was.
It’s truly devastating, shattering the hopes and dreams of hundreds of thousands of Jews who desperately believed that this was truly the end to our long, bitter galus.
What will happen now? So many people sold their homes, lost their livelihoods. The Jews have become laughingstocks for believing in a delusional madman claiming to be Mashiach. The tragedy will be felt for years and years to come…
There is only one thing left for me to do: renew my commitment that I made on the very first page of this diary. To study harder than ever and become great in Torah, in order to bring chizuk to Jews who have lost all hope. The losses are enormous, but maybe I can make a small difference and bring people close to Hashem again.
Aftershocks and Ripple Effects
Even when it became clear that Shabtai Tzvi was an impostor, the tragedy was not over. The impact of this episode on the Jewish people all around the world was so great that the aftereffects can still be felt to this day.
One major change: in the past, learning Kabbalah had been accepted even among regular people. But now, seeing the dangerous effects that result when studied by the wrong people, Kabbalah became something that only a few, very great people would learn. (This is actually why nusach Ashkenaz changed parts of davening, taking out the parts that were from Kabbalah, and it is the reason behind the differences in the davening for people who daven nusach Ashkenaz and nusach Sefard.)
Another sad consequence of the Shabtai Tzvi disaster was that Jews across Europe became hopeless about the coming of Mashiach. They felt like their hopes had been raised sky-high, only to shatter into a million pieces. Many people lost trust in their Rabbanim, feeling upset that so many Rabbanim had accepted Shabtai Tzvi at first, or hadn’t stood up strongly against him earlier on. And because of that, unfortunately, many Jews were drawn after movements that emerged later, like Reform and other ideologies that were not Torah-true lifestyles. Sadly, many people lost their connection to Yiddishkeit — and we are still suffering from that to this day.
Timeline of events
1626: Shabtai Tzvi is born in Smyrna, Turkey.
1646: Shabtai Tzvi receives semichah at age 20. He gathers a following, teaching them Kabbalah.
1648-49: Gezeiros Tach v’Tat: Cossacks massacre Jews across Europe
1648: Rabbanim become concerned over his strange behavior and visions. Shabtai Tzvi publicized that he was Mashiach.
1650: Shabtai Tzvi nearly drowns, and is miraculously saved. This, and other stories he tells, brings him new popularity.
1651: Shabtai Tzvi is banned from Smyrna.
1651-58: Shabtai Tzvi wanders through Greece, Albania, and Turkey, gathering followers but also thrown out of many communities.
1658: The ban expires; Shabtai Tzvi returns to Smyrna.
1662: Shabtai Tzvi leaves for Jerusalem.
1663: Arrival in Jerusalem; meeting Natan of Gaza.
1665: Natan proclaims Shabtai Tzvi is Mashiach, and spreads this worldwide. Many people, including great Rabbanim, believe him.
1666: Shabtai Tzvi cancels the fasts of Shivah Asar B’Tammuz and Tishah B’Av, and does many other aveiros publicly. The Rabbanim realize he is not Mashiach.
1666: The Sultan has Shabtai Tzvi arrested, and he is given the choice to be killed or convert.
1666: Shabtai Tzvi’s shocking choice to convert to Islam is the final straw; the Jews are left broken and devastated.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 922)
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