Who is the Messiah?

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Sabbatai Zvi

was born in Smyrna, Turkey in 1626. He lived only 50 years but his life made a huge impact on the Jewish community of his day because he and his followers believed that he was the Moshiach (Messiah), the Anointed. Both of these words mean “smeared”, as in the Latin unguere, to smear and in the Greek translation, khriein which also means “to smear”. Christ means smeared. This is so because the ancient Jewish kings were smeared with oil upon assuming the throne.

Sabbatai Zvi studied the Talmud and the Zohar as a boy and also read the works of the cabbalists. He was evidently physically appealing, had great powers of persuasion and already in his youth gained a good sized following. He divorced his two wives and became an ascetic, which is not usually a Jewish way of living.

When Zvi was 22 years old, in the year 1648, several events impressed him so much that he concluded the Moshiach was about to arrive. First, the Zohar appeared to say that 1648 would be the year of the Moshiach. Furthermore, Christians thought that their book of Revelations indicated the arrival of the Messiah in 1666. In addition, 1648 was also the year in which the Thirty Years' War ended. Even more impressive for Jews was the horrible massacre of Russian Jews by the Ukrainian killers under the leadership of Chmielnicki (Evidently, the Ukrainian tradition of persecuting and killing Jews did not begin in World War II but was then already three hundred years old).

Hearing of these atrocities, Sabbatai Zvi proclaimed that these horrors were “the birthpangs of the Moshiach” . Thereupon Zvi publicly pronounced the Name of God, which had heretofore been considered a sacrilege. The Name was called Shem Hamphorash and Martin Luther wrote a whole tract about this issue, which I translated from the medieval German (If you want to read that diatribe, go to the library and get my book The Jew In Christian Theology. The entire book by Luther is in the appendix).

Upon pronouncing The Name without consequences, Zvi declared himself the Moshiach and was so regarded by his followers. Zvi was unable to convince very many in his hometown or in the great Jewish community of Salonika of his mission, but when he came to Istanbul (Constantinople) he was well received and supported by local rabbis and scholars. He then went to Israel, at the time under Turkish occupation, and later to Cairo in Egypt. On returning to Israel he met Nathan of Gaza, who regarded himself the prophet Elijah.

Zvi stayed in Jerusalem until the local rabbis asked him to leave for fear of the Turkish authorities. Zvi returned to his native Smyrna and was this time well received by the Jewish community, who thought him to be the Moshiach. In 1665 he was publicly acclaimed as the Moshiach, as a great celebration was held by the Jews of Smyrna and many others who had come there to see the deliverer. Zvi now believed his own propaganda and issued decrees voiding Jewish laws.

As his popularity increased, Zvi made more and more claims and finally pronounced that he would lead the whole Jewish people back to Israel and there establish a Jewish kingdom and govern the whole world.

Upon his arrival in Istanbul with his followers, the Turks arrested Zvi and imprisoned him. He was given the choice of death or conversion to Islam. He chose conversion. Meanwhile, his followers continued to believe that he was the Moshiach and found numerous excuses why his imprisonment and apostasy were not real. Even while in prison, Sabbatai Zvi received delegations from many countries who told him of the suffering of the Jews. These were of course people desperate to find a way out of their miserable lives. Therefore they were unwilling to admit that Zvi was an impostor. Even after the death of Sabbatai Zvi there were Jews who continued to believe he had been the Moshiach and would return. His followers continued to preach his doctrines all over Europe and some predicted his immediate resurrection.

Desperate people will believe anything. Even that Sabbatai Zvi was the Moshiach. Of course the Moshiach came after all. One of his many names was Theodor Herzl. He was an assimilated Hungarian journalist who founded the Zionist Congress in 1897. Nothing about him was “supernatural” nor did his followers look upon him as The Moshiach. The reason was, of course, that the Jews who returned to Israel were themselves the Moshiach without knowing it.

Sabbatians, as the followers of Sabbatai Zvi were called, continued to believe in his coming even after most of them had adopted Islam as their religion. As late as the 1930’s there were Sabbatians in Salonika. That great Jewish community was entirely destroyed by the Albanian Moslems, who fought together with the Nazis in World War II and were sent to Salonika by Hitler to kill the Salonika Jews. These are the same Albanians for whom NATO destroyed Yugoslavia and for whom Jews are now testifying against Slobodan Milosovich, the former president of Yugoslavia, who dared to defend his country against Osama bin Laden and his Albanian followers.

The deeds of the Albanian Moslems do not deserve Jewish support. Their words are self serving lies. We Jews seem to have no memory. So consider the old Latin proverb: Bonis (malis) exemplis, magis impetramus, quam bonis verbis. A good or bad example makes a greater impression than good words.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Grandparents:  A New Look at the Supporting Generation (with Dr. Ursula A., Falk, 2002), & Man's Ascent to Reason (2002).

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