The Sabbatean movement in Amsterdam
IN 1665 -1666 THE JEWISH WORLD was subjected to a whirlwind of messianism such as it had not known since the Bar Kokhba revolt in 132-135 CE: a major part of the Jewish people throughout the diaspora believed that they were soon to be redeemed with the coronation of Sabbatai Sevi as the messianic king. The prophecies of Nathan of Gaza, the founding theologian of the Sabbatean movement, aroused enthusiasm almost everywhere in the world where there was a Jewish community. Stories of the wonderful personality and deeds of Sabbatai Sevi, the messiah of Smyrnal kindled the imagination of tens of thousands of Jews whose hopes were raised that the end of the sufferings of exile would soon come. Kabbalah in its various systems and schools had spread and become a central part of Jewish theological discourse, giving Sabbateanism, whose founders and leaders were all Kabbalists, a special tone. This came in addition to the mythical and popular traits that nourished Sabbateanism, all of which were the product of a long tradition of messianic belief that had developed within Judaism since Second Temple times, and which ramified and spread during the Middle Ages.
Amsterdam became a major center of messianic fervour for a number of
1 - The city contained a large concentration of Marranos, refugees from the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, who had returned to Judaism in the safe haven of Holland. The messianic theme played a central role in the popular beliefs and Marrano theology that had developed in a number of their circles.
2 - Masses of refugees arrived from Eastern Europe, including Sarab, the woman who was to marry Sabbatai Sevi in Cairo in 1664, who had come to Amsterdam as a young girl in around 1655. Particularly important were the Lithuanian Jews who had fled from the Swedish invasion and who were imbued with the messianic hopes that bad inspired the Jews of Poland and Lithuania since the time of the Chmielnicki pogroms of 1648 - 1649.
3 - The Jews of the city enjoyed a high degree of toleration, which permitted them, more than elsewhere, either in Christian Europe or in Islamic countries, to give free reign to their enthusiasm,
4 - The well developed printing industry among the Jews of Amsterdam made it a world centre for the distribution of Sabbatean Tikkun and prayer-books. The printing houses of Uri Fayvesh ben Aaron Halevi, of Joseph Athias and especially of David de Castro Tartas published editions of prayer-books, books of penitential hymns and Tikkun and confession books with clear references to the imminent redemption, with the date of publication indicated as 'Behold I redeem my people (... )' in which the letters of the word 'redeem' stand for the Hebrew date of (5)426 (i.e., 1666). Some of these books also contain prayers, confessions, and hymns written by Chaham R. Isaac Aboab da Fonseca and the poet R. Solomon de Oliveyra, who was later appointed rabbi of the Sephardi community. Most of the books were printed in Hebrew and intended for the world Jewish book market. Some, however, were printed in Spanish and Portuguese and meant for the Marranos who had returned to Judaism and had not yet learned the Hebrew language. Copper engravings depicting Sabbatai Sevi sitting on his royal throne are also found as the frontispieces of some of these books. In 1669 one of the best known books about the life of Sabbatai Sevi and the messianic upheaval which he aroused was printed in Amsterdam. I refer to the book by Thomas Coenen, the protestant minister of the Dutch community of Smyrnal entitled Ydele verwachtinge der Joden. This book contains pictures of Sabbatai Sevi and of Nathan of Gaza drawn by an eyewitness in Smyrna.
5 - In Amsterdam the Jewish messianic fervour found willing ears among various circles of Christians, especially among the millenarians, who were very interested in the renewal of messianic activity within the Ottoman empire. Petrus Serrarius, a theologian, published Verklaringe over des Propheten Jesaia veertien eerste capittelen in Amsterdam in 1666, a work in which he describes in detail his belief in the return of the Ten Lost Tribes, which was about to be fulfilled with the imminent revelation of the messiah.
However, even in 1666, when belief in Sabbatai Sevi reached its peak, some Arnsterdam Jews did express lack of faith in him and opposed the activity of his followers. The city stock exchange served as a natural place for the promulgation of material condemning the false messiah, and on 3 May 1666, from the pulpit of the synagogue, the Mahamad of the Sephardi community declared a ban against anyone who circulated pamphlets against the hopes of believers in the imminent arrival of the messiah. At the time letters had already been received from Smyrna abolishing the fast of the 10th of Tevet, and reports had been received about the renewal of prophecy. Excitement among the Jews of the city grew steadily. In the summer of 1666 official letters were written to Sabbatai Sevi from the various yeshivot of the Sephardi Jews of Amsterdam. The letter from the Torah Or (Torah Light) yeshiva, signed by Rabbi Isaac Aboab, has not been preserved. In contrast, the Ets Haim collection contains two other original letters which were preserved after the emissaries who had been supposed to deliver them to the messiah returned to Amsterdam, having learnt of Sabbatai Sevi's conversion to Islam: 1 an adulatory letter to Sabbatai Sevi from the members of the Yeshuat Meshiho (the Redemption of His Messiah) yeshiva, signed by most of the property owners and notables of the community, most of them in Spanish or Portuguese; 2 a letter from the Keter Torah (Crown of Torah) yeshiva, signed by, among others, Benjamin Musaphia, Abaron Sarfati, Mosch Raphael d'Aguilar and Abraham Cohen Pimentel.
By the end of 1666 everyone in Amsterdam knew about Sabbatai Sevi's conversion, and the news stunned the community. It should be noted that the Mahamad took a decidedly anti-Sabbatean stand by deciding to ban the Sabbatean book by Moshe ben Gideon Abudiente, Fin de los Días (Gluckstadt 1666), 'because what is said in the aforementioned book is contrary to the truth of our sacred law.' As more and more detailed information was amassed regarding Sabbatai Sevi's conversion and his failure as a messiah, reservations regarding him increased within the Sephardi community of Amsterdam. In contrast to the Ashkenazi Jews, who retained messianic belief for some time, the Sephardim acted with severity in order to extirpate the evil from their midst. Their attitude to Sabbatai Raphael Supino, one of the most daring propagandists for the Sabbatean movement after Sabbatai Sevi's conversion, who arrived in Amsterdam in 1667 on the eve of Yom Kippur, shows more than anything the extreme transformation that had taken place within the Talmud Torah community. On 7 October, the authorities of the city of Amsterdam, under pressure from the Sephardi syndics, signed an order to expel Supino from the city.
Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi. The Mystical Messiah 1626-1676
Y. Kaplan, 'The Attitude of the Leadership of the Portuguese Community in Amsterdam to the Sabbatean Movement, 1665 - 1667", Zion 39 (1974) p. 198 - 216 (in Hebrew).