Sabbateanism and the Converso Experience

By David Gonzalez Guajardo

            In the events leading up to the outbreak of Sabbateanism, conversos came to the forefront of Jewish history. This group suffered much persecution and struggled with multiple religious identities before and after the Spanish expulsion. The common view regarding Sabbateanism among scholars is that the movement’s antinomian perspectives come from a misinterpretation of kabbalistic ideas in relation to redemption and exile. Gershom Scholem made this theory known as he focused on the concept of the Galut in kabbalistic thinking.

            In this paper, I will investigate how Sabbatean theology, mostly developed by Nathan of Gaza and Avraam Cardozo originated in the converso experience. The following question must be addressed in relation to this issue: How did messianic and apocalyptic trends in Sabbateanism develop into antagonism toward Torah, the deification of their messianic figure and a sinful attitude toward traditional morality? These ideas can be traced back to the amalgamation of different beliefs and the loss of a traditional Jewish worldview by the conversos who became supporters of Sabbatai Tzevi.

            According to Jacob Barnai, “only recently have scholars begun to ponder such other potential influences on Sabbatai Tzevi as Christian and converso messianism.”[1] So far Scholem’s premise that conversos were only one of the many groups that accepted Sabbateanism has been the overarching view.[2] Many developments took place leading up to the Sabbatean spiritual revolution of the seventeenth century including: Christian interest in Judaism, the return of Portuguese crypto-Jews to Judaism in different parts of Europe, and the interest of kabbalah by the masses. Important cities like Izmir, Istanbul, Salonika, Livorno, Amsterdam, and Venice thrived as centers of learning in the Jewish world of that time. Many conversos were predisposed toward messianism due to their experiences:

conversos could not identify completely with either Christianity or Judaism and were not deeply rooted in the messianic traditions of either faith…The latter tendency sometimes even manifested itself in a belief that the Messiah will be a converso-a matter of no small importance for understanding the background of post-apostasy.[3]

Converso Involvement in the Sabbatean Movement
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The followers of Sabbatai Tzevi were diverse and comprised of members of different Jewish communities all over Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean region. The Sephardic communities which backed his claims were made up of many former crypto-Jews. The ones who embraced Sabbateanism within the Ottoman Empire did not only accept Tzevi’s claim to be the promised Messiah, but supported an anti-establishment response to Jewish religion.. In his book Messianic Mystics, Moshe Idel explains that:

“the very fact of the transformation of Sabbatai’s self-perception as the Messiah and Nathan’s belief and prophecy into a comprehensive movement requires both sociological and historical study.“[4]

When Sabbatai Tzevi started his messianic activity and proclaimed himself the Messiah in 1665-1666, he was able to build an army of activists, intellectuals, and prominent figures in the Portuguese converso community of Smyrna.[5] His magical-kabbalistic model took hold of the psyche of his supporters due to “…a distinct rise in the importance of the revelation component of kabbalistic literature (becoming a popular immediately following the expulsion).[6] Both David Ruderman and Moshe Idel believe Christian messianic expectations in the Italian Renaissance influenced the movement as well.

 Messianic fervor after the expulsion

            The Jews who fled Spain after the expulsion had experienced a life either as forced converts or under constant persecution. This had a lasting impact on generations of exiles. Yosef Kaplan elaborates on the trauma faced by these people:

The cruelty of the inquisition that spread its terror through the “New Christian” population of the Iberian peninsula, and the ordinances of the limpieza de sangre, made it impossible even for those who wished to do so to become indistinguishably integrated into Christian society. It was these factors which constituted the crypto-Jewish community as an isolated and persecuted social group. Flight from Spain and Portugal made it possible for them to be rid of the badge of shame which, over a couple of centuries, had been the heritage of the “New Christian”.[7]

There are some modern scholars such as Gershom Scholem who are inclined to view the emergence of Lurianic kabbalah as a way to deal with the trauma of the expulsion from Spain and Portugal.[8] Many conversos were involved in messianic activities before, during and after Shabbatai Tzevi’s declared himself Messiah. In the 1520’s David Reubeni and Solomon Molkho appeared on the scene; as former conversos they caused a messianic stir among Jews from Italy and beyond. It is also reported that “Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel, a foremost scholar and courtier of the expulsion generation, wrote no less than four books dedicated to messianic questions and calculations.” [9] Another figure was Rabbi Abraham ben Eliezer ha-Levi, a mystic, who taught apocalyptic ideas throughout Europe and the Ottoman empire.

The footsteps of the Messiah in Kabbalistic thought

            The messianic expectations of the medieval period came about as messianism and prophecy were merged into one.  The popularization of kabbalistic experiences such as Avraham Abulafia’s ecstatic revelations gave rise to the acceptance of his personal visions as fact. It is commonly believed that Sabbatai Tzevi studied Lurianic kabbalah; Moshe Idel contends this idea showing that Abulafian Kabbalah seems to have had a greater impact on Tzevi.[10] Abulafia and Tzevi shared messianic aspirations, they also experienced prophetic revelations and confronted Gentile rulers as well. Moshe Idel also downplays the messianic trends of the Safed mystics explaining that Karo hardly mentions messianism in his writings and Cordovero and Alqabetz were concerned with generalities rather than with specific eschatological ideas.[11] It is also important to note the developments in prophetic kabbalah in the years leading up to the expulsion. The goal of the mystic in these circles was to attain a spiritual experience on par with that of the biblical prophets, Tzevi and his prophets were able to capitalize on these kabbalistic concepts claiming the same stature as the biblical figures. Some of the mystical views were Gnostic in nature and involved what Gershom Scholem called “Metaphysical anti-Judaism.” Many mystics and magicians saw the world in bondage to the God of the philosophers who held the hidden God captive in the material world, needing a savior to bring light to this problem.[12]

Millenarianism and Apocalyptic Trends in 17th Century Europe

            During this period, Christians in England, Portugal, France and Sweden were interested in Jewish apocalyptic perspectives, particularly after the Jewish community of Amsterdam, (made up mostly of former conversos), spearheaded literature which was influential to their messianic  hopes. One of these books was Manasseh ben Israel’s Esperanca de Israel, focused on the ten lost tribes, which in my opinion got both Jewish and Christian audiences excited about the end times.[13] Soon after its publication, many of the individuals who sponsored the project became fearless supporters of Sabbatei Tzevi.[14] There were Christian kabbalists like Viterbus, he was very influential:

“…(he) played a role in sixteenth-century mystical and apocalyptic Christian spirituality. His bridging of Christian mysticism, Jewish and Christian kabbalah, the study of Hebrew, Renaissance culture, and ecclesiastic authority, point up the intersection between the various spiritual vectors of the early sixteenth century.”[15]

Another Christian mystic was Serrarious, who believed that Sabbatai Tzevi was a precursor of the coming Messiah.[16] At the same time this was taking place, Jesus was being “rehabilitated” by Christians, as a messianic figure who was part of the greater Jewish world.  Matt Goldish uncovers the impact of this trend stating: “It is hard to say whether the known mediators between the Christian world and early Sabbateanism…(were former conversos)…certainly the valuation of Jesus would been an attractive element to certain conversos.”[17]

Torah of Atzilut, Redemption, and Exile

            Kabbalistic mystics developed an important concept that built a foundation for Sabbatai Tzevi claims to thrive among his followers. The concept of “The Torah of Atzilut” served as a catalyst which over-spiritualized messianic expectation and allowed Sabbateans to re-energize Jewish experience away from observance:

.. Instead of reading the word of God in the form of the Torah of Moses as it has come down to us, we shall receive the gift of reading it as the Torah of Azilut which the Messiah one day will teach us.[18]

Sabbateans also saw the Galuth as ending with the advent of the Messiah, ushering in a type of messianic liberty which would allow for a new Torah to take effect.[19] They considered the Messiah to be a Moses-like leader who would lead his people out of exile into the world of redemption, not only guiding them but offering a new set of commandments.[20] Yosef Kaplan in his book From Christianity to Judaism speaks of how Sabbatai Tzevi’s supporters connected their crypto-Jewish experience with the final redemption by claiming that the exile would come to an end by the desecration of Torah. Idolatry must take place by Jews among the nations in the hope of God sending his deliverance soon after this has taken place. [21]

Nihilism, Antinomian Doctrines and Christian influences

            Sabbateanism and Christianity had similar beginnings. Both had a charismatic messianic figure, they rebelled against the Jewish establishment of their time period and exhibited antinomian tendencies.[22] After much turmoil, many conversos became nihilists or skeptics choosing either syncretism or becoming critical of traditional Judaism.[23]

According to Moshe Idel:

The presence of significant numbers of former conversos in many centers of Jewish population paved the way for a positive response to Sabbatean nihilistic and antinomian doctrines. These doctrines struck a deep chord within those religiously tormented people, sometimes unsatisfied or in many cases also more strongly uneasy with the painful process of acceptance of rabbinic Judaism.[24]

Avram Cardoso, one of Tzevi’s most ardent supporters, believed that by permitting what is forbidden the Messiah will revolutionize the Jewish world.[25] The messianic narrative developed by Shabbatai Tzevi’s followers was made up of foreign views, cultic practices and heretical ideas which former conversos, who may have already been sympathetic to antinomian perspectives, were willing to follow. [26]

            Sabbatai Tzevi inherited kabbalistic ideas from the Zohar that according to some scholars were already filled with Christian influences.[27] Nathan of Gaza expounded one of these views proclaiming Tzevi as the Messiah, to the point of claiming that he was so united with God that they had become the same person.[28] Scholem considered these views problematic:

One cannot overlook the abyss which yawns between the figure of the Messiah who died for his cause upon the Cross and his figure who became apostate and played his role in disguise. Nonetheless, like the former, this ambiguous and treacherous twilight figure also exercised a seductive fascination.[29]

Their King Messiah had a new Torah and according to Cardoso, he should be worshiped as an incarnation of God. All these ideas seemed to be Christian influences coming from a crypto-Jewish outlook.[30]

Averah Lishemah (Sin for a Holy Purpose)

            Sabbateans developed the concept of matir asurim (allowing the forbidden) which meant that “…the violation of the Torah is now its true fulfillment.”[31] Even individuals such as Haym Luzzatto felt that the Sitra Ahra (the other side) was involved in creating these false beliefs among Sabbateans, due to their lack of caution in delving into the mysteries of kabbalah. He also believed that the concepts of holiness and impurity had been confused by their poor understanding of mysticism.[32] To many, Sabbateanism not only led people astray but also was fixated on undermining Jewish morality and ethical conduct.[33] With concepts such as “the greater is a sin for a holy purpose than a mitzvah which is not for a holy purpose” (a kabbalistic idea) the Sabbateans and their supporters were able to justify anything. By incorporating the principle of averah lishemah (transgression for a holy purpose) they believed that through apostasy the Messiah would subdue the husks and carry out tikkunim in preparation for redemption.

Primary Sources: Deification and Vicarious Marranism

            I will now analyze the following documents which exhibit the connection with converso thinking, including one of Nathan of Gaza’s most influential works. His epistle written in 1673 states the following:

…He (Metatron) is founded by all of the five configurations and thereby the lower matter is purified, achieving a sublime state as it becomes the body and the cloth to this wondrous light, and this is why it has been said that “My name is within him, because in the moment when the light of life is revealing, divinity is unto him, as we say that all the vessels of the world of Emanation are total divinity, because the “light of life” has been clothed in them.[34]

In this letter, Nathan of Gaza explained that “the ultimate difference between the Messiah and everyone else is that the former receives a special doctrine of the Godhead (being himself the hidden God manifested)…”[35] This thinking is similar to claims made in the New Testament by Jesus and his followers. Nathan’s assertions which are similar to Christian ones, cross the line from theological speculation to outright heresy by giving divine qualities to humans they consider to be God-like. These concepts are foreign to traditional Judaism, which is why they ultimately undermined Jewish institutions to make their case. In the same letter Nathan goes to great lengths to convey having had special revelations, aggrandizing himself as someone who witnessed the merkabah of Ezekiel. He calls himself a prophet like the others (the biblical ones), claiming to have used Lurianic practices to reveal Tzevi’s true identity. In his Treatise on the Dragons he describes Tzevi as a powerful messianic figure who fights the battles of the Lord:

“All these things were revealed only to proclaim the greatness of our lord (Shabbatai Zevi), may his glory, be exalted, (and to show) how he will annul the power of the Serpent which is rooted in strong supernal roots which incessantly enticed him…But at the time of his illumination Shabbatai Zevi again subdued the Serpent…for he has sunk deep in the midst of the husks…[36]

Early apocalyptical Midrashim, as well in Gematria they connect the word nahash to the word Mashiakh in Hebrew. Other kabbalistic sources as well described the Messiah as a snake, this holy snake will destroy the impure snake (Islam) and the crooked snake (Christianity).[37] In the end, Nathan’s delusion is a convoluted one which uses religious language similar to its Christian counterpart. It is inconclusive if Nathan of Gaza was directly influenced by Christianity, what is clear is that the readers of his letters were familiar with these concepts from a Christian perspective. Scholem felt that Nathan was able to get his outlandish ideas out, due to his reputation as a mystic and having created many respected literary works beforehand.[38]

            Avram Cardoso, having a Spanish converso background received a Catholic education from at the University of Salamanca. His mixture of Jewish and Christians ideas is shown when he describes the Messiah as one going through the converso experience like himself. Matt Goldish describes how this was a common phenomena “…converso messianists had a long history of placing themselves in important positions among the expected messiah’s retinue and of expecting a Messiah who would himself be a converso.”[39] Cardozo not only thought that the Messiah would undergo his same trials, he saw himself as Messiah ben Joseph supporting Sabbatai Tzevi in his redemptive work.[40] Cardoso writes “It is ordained that the king Messiah don the garments of a converso and so go unrecognized by his fellow Jews. In a word, it is ordained that he become a converso like me.”[41] An example of this thinking is his Epistle to the Judges of Izmir in which he responds to the accusations of the Jewish authorities of Izmir toward Tzevi. By portraying Tzevi’s betrayal of Judaism to Islam as a virtuous act, Cardoso invents a creative way to deal with the problem. He sees Tzevi as “…the helpless Messiah who hands himself over to demons” must do this for redemptive purposes.[42] The development of this concept shows that Cardoso had embraced the Gnostic idea of the Messiah being imprisoned in impurity and evil.[43]

He goes as far as to attack other Jews that do not agree with his point of view to justify his ideas:

“There is yet another condition that must be satisfied. The Messiah must in one way or another have the power to act contrary to the commandments. He must be able forcibly to resist the Jews’ efforts to injure or kill him when he does the acts that have brought down upon him their insult and curse. This in spite of the fact they are supported by the Torah itself, which they see him violating.”[44]

This segment of his letter to the Judges of Izmir sounds like a New Testament diatribe against all Jews. As we can see, his negative attitude toward fellow Jews who deny the messiahship of Tzevi must come from his Catholic anti-Jewish upbringing, although he denies any love towards Christian ideas throughout his career.

            In Avram Cardoso’s other treatise Magen Abraham, he discusses how the law is no longer necessary, since he particularly had a special disdain for Jewish-Islamic monotheism. To him “Muslims and Jews-with the partial exception of the kabbalists-fall into error of insisting that there is no God except the being that the philosophers call the First cause.”[45] This is another way anti-Judaism creeps into his letters, as he demonstrates ignorance of Jewish concepts and tries to divide between Jewish mysticism and from Jewish law (something conversos did during their time living as Christians in Spain and Portugal). His perspective in any other circumstances would have been ignored or mocked, but after the expulsion the former conversos and their supporters in communities throughout the Ottoman empire took his difficult concepts seriously.

Scholarly Counter Argument to my Premise

            Both Moshe Idel would disagree with the perspective presented in this paper since he felt that the exiles were not interested kabbalistic-messianic ideas but wanted to rebuild their communities instead. They were focused on re-creating their institutions and educational initiatives to keep cohesion among their members rather than pursuing apocalyptic scenarios.[46] Moshe Idel reason for disagreeing  with my premise comes from his view that “there are no solid historical links (which) are known and probable (between Christianity and Sabbateanism).”[47] On the other hand, Yoseph Kaplan views their converso background as the reason for Tzevi’s success since they had lived in secrecy and struggled with binding themselves to the commandments of Torah.[48]

Scholem writes the following:

For the span of one generation, during the forty years after the expulsion of Spain…we find a deep Messianic excitement as intense as before the eruption of the Sabbatean movement, and this thing is understandable as an immediate reaction to the expulsion of Spain…It is easy to understand the entire religious literature of the first generation after the expulsion from Spain is replete with this issue, being in its entirety an actual hope for a close redemption.[49]

Although he makes this statement he does not connect the trauma of exile with fervent messianism which gave rise to Sabbateanism. At the same time his book Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Scholem describes how there are no similarities or influences coming from Christian sources into Sabbateanism, especially as Christianity is despised by Tzevi’s followers.[50] The Sabbatean movement demanded undermining Halakhah and focusing on faith instead, something very Christian that Scholem is not willing to accept. The resemblance according to him came from shared messianic hopes and the same mentality and expectations. [51]


            In conclusion, early kabbalistic texts spoke of individual redemption instead of communal deliverance. Tzevi and his followers took major ideas in kabbalistic thought and transformed them into a program of national salvation. This was accomplished among Sephardic circles due to their familiarity with Christian concepts and hopes of a messianic era ushered in to provide meaning to their distressing experiences. The former conversos were also limited in their knowledge of traditional Judaism and were looking for spiritual alternatives, to them the rabbis were incapable of addressing their struggle with being in constant exile.[52] Scholem conveys that the Sabbatean option became an opportunity for creative expectation and renewal:

“This new Judaism has in principle already completed the inner break with the Jewish tradition even where it continues to draw sustenance from it, and it has confirmed that break by symbolic acts and rituals.”[53]

Matt Goldish shows how in the eyes of the converso, Tzevi represented their experience and plight, being able to identify with what they experienced. Tzevi not only considered faith more important than religious practice but chose conversion to Islam as a way to honor God among the Gentiles, something some conversos found heroic. [54]

            As the Jews of Italy, Amsterdam, and Smyrna had constant interaction with one another,[55] the movement grew in leaps and bounds. Once there was a fall-out due to Tzevi’s apostasy their popular expression of faith in him went underground becoming a sect.[56] After antinomian doctrines were accepted, incorporating deistic and rationalistic ideas,[57] the movement pushed the boundaries “of what beliefs are possible or impossible within the framework of Judaism”[58] creating a strong following. Although the kabbalistic literature supporting Sabbateanism was antagonistic toward Christianity it did incorporate many of its concepts.[59] The conversos adopted mystical ideas from Christianity and reframed them in a Jewish paradigm. This took place as the Sephardic communities made up of exiles were facing many other challenges:

“The prestige accorded to kabbalah and its adepts through this mystical flowering helped fuel an already emerging crisis in the traditional authority structure of Judaism. In the seventeenth century the cracks in the foundation of rabbinic authority would widen to the limits of its viability, under the impact of Sabbateanism on the one hand, and rationalist skepticism on the other.”[60]

As the findings of this paper show, the conversos were led to a path of fanaticism and delusion due to many sociological issues and the implications of their mixed heritage. All these factors must be taken into account to be able to assess the impact of Sabbateanim during this time period. Especially as the very complex subject of false messianism resurfaces in Jewish circles in every other generation.

[1]  Barnai, Christian Messianism and Portuguese Marranos, 119-126.

[2]  Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 485.

[3]  Ibid. 485.

[4]  Idel Messianic Mystics,181.

[5]  Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 101-102.

[6]  Idel, Messianic Mystics,144.

[7] Kaplan, From Christianity to Judaism , 378.

[8] Idel, Messianic Mystics,176.

[9] Goldish, The Sabbatean Prophets , 42-43.

[10] Idel, Messianic Mystics, 185.

[11] Ibid. 163.

[12] Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism, 102.

[13]  Barnai, Christian Messianism and the Portuguese Marranos, 120.

[14]  Ibid.121.

[15]  Idel, Messianic Mystics, 135.

[16]  Katz & Israel,  Sceptics, Millenarians and Jews, 167.

[17]  Goldish, The Sabbatean Prophets , 86-87.

[18]  Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism , 76-77.

[19]  Scholem, Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 312.

[20]  Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism , 53.

[21] Kaplan, From Christianity to Judaism , 212-213.

[22] Scholem, Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 307.

[23] Kaplan, From Christianity to Judaism , 212-213.

[24] Idel, Messianic Mystics, 184.

[25] Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism, 75.

[26] Goldish, The Sabbatean Prophets, 49.

[27]  Barnai, Christian Messianism and the Portuguese Marranos, 121.

[28]  Idel, Messianic Mystics, 202.

[29]  Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism , 62.

[30]  Halperin, David Joel Abraham Miguel Cardozo,  68.

[31]  Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism,110.

[32]  Tishby, Messianic Mysticism: Moses Hayim Luzzatto and the Padua School, 230-231.

[33]  Ibid. 248

[34] Idel, Messianic Mystics,  202.

[35] Ibid. 197.

[36]Patai, Messiah Texts, 33-34.

[37]Tishby, Messianic Mysticism, 236.

[38]  Scholem,  Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 296.

[39]  Goldish, The Sabbatean Prophets, 101.

[40]  Scholem, Shabetai Tsevi, 771-773.

[41]  Scholem, Messianic Idea, 95.

[42]  Scholem, Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 308-309.

[43]  Ibid. 299-230.

[44]  Halperin, Abraham Miguel Cardozo,  137.

[45]   Ibid. 66.

[46]  Idel, Messianic Mystics,134-135.

[47]  Ibid.181.

[48]  Kaplan,From Christianity to Judaism , 380.

[49]  Ibid. 152.

[50]  Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 307-308

[51]  Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism xvi Foreword.

[52]  Idel, Messianic Mystics, 152.

[53]  Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism , 77.

[54]  Goldish, The Sabbatean Prophets, 49.

[55]  Barnai, Christian Messianism and the Portugurdr Marranos, 122.

[56]  Scholem, Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 302.

[57]  Kaplan, From Christianity to Judaism , 380-381.

[58]  Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism, xv Foreword.

[59]  Idel, Messianic Mystics, 128.

[60]  Goldish, The Sabbatean Prophets, 50.



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