1666
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.

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.

YOSEF KAPLAN


Reading

Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi. The Mystical Messiah 1626-1676 (Princeton 1973).
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).