12.Shabbatai Zvi and Abraham Miguel Cardozo - How Much Similar, How Much Different - Felicia Waldman


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The life and fate of Shabbatai Zvi

Shabbatai Zvi was born in 1626 in Smyrna (today Izmir, Turkey) on the 9th day of

the Jewish month of Av. This is important because “Teisha be Av” is a tragic date in Jewish history: according to tradition both the First and the Second Temple fell on this day, as did Bar Kochba’s fortress Betar. Nevertheless, Zvi started as a prom-ising Talmudic scholar. He was in fact a student of Lurianic Kabbalah and it was precisely Lurianic ideas that led him to believe in the imminence of national re-demption. He had a strong personality but his behavior was strange, to say the least, which has made many scholars wonder whether he was actually mentally sane. For instance, he was expelled from Salonika by its rabbis for having staged a wedding service with himself as bridegroom and the Torah as bride. However, he was still OK until he found himself a prophet in the person of Nathan of Gaza, an important kabbalist himself, who encouraged Zvi to proclaim himself the new Messiah. That is why in 1665 Shabbatai Zvi named the year 1666 the millennium and announced the opening of a new cosmic era in which a completely new Torah would apply, which meant that the traditional rules (and especially restrictions!) were no longer applicable.


To the Jewish communities throughout the world, who had been waiting for such good news for 1600 years, the announcement sounded appealing: Redemption would start on the 15th day of the month of Sivan (June 18, 1666). On the

background of the problems faced by Jews at the time (particularly in Poland, after the Cossack massacres of 1648-49) this heresy caught on, not only in his native Turkey and in the Near East but also in Europe. Well fed with legendary inputs, reports about Shabbatai reached cities like Amsterdam, Venice and Livorno where rabbis and businessmen alike hurried to acknowledge the King of Israel. Moreover, millenarian Christians in Germany, England and Holland who awaited the second coming of Jesus in the year 1666 encouraged this as well.

Zvi indeed wanted to reach the land of Israel in order to rebuild the Temple and restore Jewish domination over Palestine, but the wonderful adventure was brought to an abrupt end on September 15, 1666 when he was taken to the Sul-tan, who decided to imprison him in Constantinople for fear of a Jewish uprising. As Gershom Scholem puts it, “given the choice of death or apostasy, [he] prudently chose the latter, setting a turban on his head to signify his conversion to Islam, for which he was rewarded with the honorary title ‘Keeper of the Palace Gates’ and a pension of 150 piasters a day”1. Of course, many of his disciples followed

immedi-ately. Other Jews followed too, accepting the explanation that conversion was a necessary evil. Underground movements tried to preserve this heretic tradition. Shabbatai’s followers continued their hidden life in the Turkish sect of the Don-meh, and to this day there are converts who pose as Muslims while secretly practic-ing Judaism, just as Zvi continued to preach his messianic message to the Jews un-der his new public Islamic identity, between 1666 and 1672.

In 1673, he was re-arrested by the Turkish authorities and exiled to Ulcinj, a townlet with no history of Jewish life whatsoever located in Montenegro. He died in 1676, but the location of his burial place remains unknown (which of course fed his followers imagination with the idea that he did not die, but was taken to God like Moses!). Some researchers think he is buried in Ulcinj itself, others place his grave in Berat, Albania. After researching the various theories, in 2001 architect Ivan Ceresnjes came to the conclusion that Shabbatai Zvi’s burial place is in a turbe (a Muslim one-storeyed mausoleum) in the courtyard of a house in Ulcinj. Painted green, the colour found all over the former Ottoman Empire, this turbe is regarded by the locals as the burial place of the illustrious Jewish convert to Islam –

1. Quoted in Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of


batai Zvi. Mr. Qazim Mani, who was 80 in 2001, was the custodian of this turbe, which is infrequently visited but regarded as a holy place for Muslims!2

Two outlooks can be found in the Kabbalah that might explain Zvi’s conduct (of course, always considering he knew what he was doing). As a kabbalist he must have been aware of the existence of a book called Sefer ha-Temuna (Book on Ap-pearance or Book on Image, referring to the letters’ image seen as the mystical ap-pearance of the divine), published in Catalonia in 1250. Unlike previous kabbalis-tic writings, this work speaks of the aspects of a succession of creations. Each aspect is governed by one of the seven subordinated Sefirot, because God’s creative power becomes manifest in each Sefira and in a cosmic unit decisively formed by it, called

Shemita. Starting from the prescription related to the Sabbatical and the Jubilee

year in Deuteronomy 15, this conception states that each Shemita brings about an-other attribute of the divine, as the dominant power in the corresponding creation process. Only in the final succession of the seven3 Shemitot that make up the great

Jubilee year of the worlds will God’s entire creative power become manifest. This view is based on the conception that Torah’s absolute being becomes more and more relative, and reveals itself differently in each Shemita. In each such period the text will read something completely different, for in any of them the divine wisdom of the original Torah is represented under another aspect.

In an attempt to explain the current state of facts, the book’s author shows that, just like in the succession of the Sefirot, the first three Shemitot are a period of grace, a period of rigor or judgment and a period of mercy, mankind being now in the second. So, in the first period, when creature and Creator were in a happy relation-ship, the Torah contained no interdictions, but only statements. In the period in which we live the Torah has taken the form we know today, adjusting itself to the circumstances. Evidently, the next period, that of mercy, will mark the return to purer forms and harmony. Regarded from this perspective, the current form of the Torah is accepted as final for this eon, with the amendment that it may have an entirely different face in other eons.

On the other hand, some mystics conclude that the limitation of our live can only be the result of an absence, of an imperfection. In order to account for the current state of the world, something must be missing from the Torah. For in-stance, a letter from the present form of the Torah must be incomplete. As each letter is a concentration of divine energy, any letter rendered in an incomplete form

2. Newsletter 16, Winter 2004, of the Center for Jewish Art, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, available on-line at http://www.hum.huji.ac.il/cja/NL16/NL-16-7.htm.


will prevent the manifestation of the light and of the hidden forces. The blame was finally laid on letter shin, which, some kabbalists said, should have not three arms, as it has in the current writing, but four4. Other, more radical, kabbalists decided

that we are, in fact, dealing with a total occultation. To account for such a state of the world a letter must have completely disappeared from the alphabet. However, we must not despair – all the necessary pre-requisites for an optimist attitude are there. Although invisible to us, the 23rd letter of the true alphabet will become

ac-cessible by revelation in the next Shemita. This absence may additionally account for the negative aspects of the Torah – its presence will help turning them into affirmations.

Evidently, from the religious authority’s point of view the conception regarding the existence in the Torah of certain occulted parts, which will once become visi-ble, provides too large a space of maneuver because it actually justifies any devia-tion and even heresy. In these circumstances, it becomes understandable why Shab-batai Zvi took this step astray in 1665. Considering that redemption makes it pos-sible to uproot the old law and set up a new Shemita, it may be that he actually tried to force God’s hand by declaring himself the Messiah. Starting from an older theory, first expressed by the author of the Tikunei Zohar5, regarding the existence

of two different aspects of the Torah, ‘Torah de-Beria’ (Torah in the stage of crea-tion)6 and ‘Torah de-Atzilut’ (Torah in the stage of emanation)7, Zvi’s adepts

con-sidered in their turn that the new spiritual Torah, brought by him on earth, re-placed the Torah of the stage of creation. This way they tore away Torah’s mystical contents from the text’s significance and indirectly from the symbols of the tradi-tional Judaic lifestyle, setting them in contradiction and thus giving birth to a mys-tical nihilism taken almost to the absurd: “the suspension of the Torah is its fulfill-ment”.

As for the apostasy, a kabbalistic thesis developed around the end of the 13th

century claimed that the knowledge of the structure of the demonic was the most profound form of Kabbalah, the most recondite. The adepts of this line wrote long

4. The theory is based on the fact that the Talmud recommends the impression of both forms of letter shin on the leather straps fixed on the forehead with the phylacteries (Tefilin).

5. According to Gershom Scholem, Cabala si simbolistica ei, Humanitas, Bucharest 1996. 6. Mentioned in Proverbs 8:22 (“The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his

works of old”) as the one shown to us by God in creation

7. Mentioned in Psalms 19:8 (“The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the com-mandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes”) as being untouched and still sealed in its divine nature. It is this non-created, emanation-related feature of the Torah that validates the mystical thesis concerning its identity with God.


lists of evil angels and described the relationships between the demonic and the divine. This tradition, whose representative was, among others, Moses de Leon, held that it was a religious duty to know, and pursue knowledge of, the demonic world so that one would not be immersed in it. Only by knowing the evil and dis-tinguishing it from the good can one keep it away and truly worship God. Unlike in the case of ecstatic mysticism, where the mystical experience takes place in the mystic’s inner self and does not affect the divine realm, in theosophical and theur-gical Kabbalah the effect of the mystic’s action on the non-human realms is deep. In the theosophical paradigm, the Divine is not a simple entity, but a system of divine powers, and the mystic’s entry into this realm influences the relationships between these divine powers. In the theurgical paradigm, this interaction involves a struggle with the demonic realm. Although seemingly different, the demonic and the divine share a common anthropomorphic structure. The Sefirot are prototypes for both realms. Therefore the mystic’s intervention aims either at inducing har-mony in the Divine world or at combating some aspect of the demonic world.

We must also recall that Zvi was knowledgeable in Lurianic Kabbalah. To Lu-ria, if the Tikkun Olam has a positive aspect, related to the restoration of the right-ful connection between the things in their true unity, the process has a negative aspect as well, for which he uses the term Berur (textually “selection”). Berur is the separation and elimination of the demonic forces, of the other side (Sitra Ahra). According to the Lurianic theory of the ritual, Torah is intended to constantly pro-voke a rejection and progressive elimination of the Sitra Ahra, which is now mixed up in all things and threatens to destroy them from the inside. That is why the

Ka-vanah ritual warns against the dangers and gaps the mystic can come across on his

way. From this perspective, the end of the Morning Prayer, when the initiate would throw himself to the ground, constituted an enterprise that could have en-dangered his life. After having reached the peak of his fervor and after feeling in-cluded in the divine name that he had “united”, the mystic had to jump into the

Sitra Ahra to free the holy sparks imprisoned in the klippot. “Only the perfect Tzad-dik can fulfill this meditation, because, for his merits, he is worthy of descending and undertaking those selections in the Klippot, the realms of the “other side”, even against their will. Otherwise, when he puts his soul at stake and sends it down there, in the Klippot, he may not only be unable to bring out the souls fallen there but he may also loose his own soul to those realms”8.

It thus becomes obvious why so many people believed Zvi was in fact continuing

8. Gershom Scholem, Cabala si simbolistica ei, idem, p.151, quoting from Chaim Vital’s Sha’ar ha-Kavanot.


his mission when he converted to Islam. Although this was the end of the adventure, “Sabbateanism” nevertheless proposed innovative and challenging kabbalistic concep-tions, not at all uninteresting, starting from its very paradoxical nature and internal contradiction and ending with the survival unto this day of the Donmeh, unlike, for instance, the Frankists.

Where does Abraham Miguel Cardozo come in

By just one year Zvi’s junior, Cardozo was born in Spain in 1627, into a Marrano family, and therefore officially a Christian. He left Spain at the age of 21, settled in Venice where he converted back to Judaism, and ended by studying Kabbalah in Egypt (or so he claimed in his writings). By 1663 he was, it seems, the physician of Osman Pasha and Rejeb Bey in Tripoli. In 1673, following their death during a lo-cal revolution, Cardozo fled to Tunis, which he had to leave one year later after being expelled at the request of the local Jews, who did not favor his messianic re-putation. In 1675 he was again forced to move, from Leghorn (Livorno), where he had tried to settle, and ended up in Izmir. Here his family was decimated by the plague and in 1680 he was expelled once more, this time to Constantinople. Be-tween 1681, when he was excommunicated again, and 1706, when he was stabbed to death by his nephew, Cardozo wandered from Rodosto to the Dardanelles and from Adrianople to Alexandria, trying unsuccessfully to reach Palestine and even-tually losing the rest of his family to the plague.

If Zvi’s torment had consisted in a long search for his own personal God, Car-dozo’s consisted in a self-understanding journey that brought him back to his Jewish roots. Nevertheless, despite his decisive choice of Judaism, Cardozo’s split back-ground always provided him with a double vision and a special capacity to see both sides of an issue, but also with knowledge of Christianity that more or less willingly influenced his view of Judaism. As M. Goldish remarks9, “a converso, whether he or

she continued to live as a Catholic or reverted to Judaism, could never escape the effects of a Catholic upbringing”. Like other conversos, Cardozo used Christian ideas to combat Christian notions but even the fact that he did it in full awareness did not prevent the criticism of contemporary rabbis like Jacob Sasportas, for instance.

9. Matt D. Goldish, “Patterns in Converso Messianism”, in Matt D. Goldish and Richard H. Popkin (eds.), Millenarianism and Messianism in the Early Modern European Culture, volume 1, Jewish Messianism in the Early Modern World, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, p. 42.


Naturally, it was precisely his duplicitous identity that made Cardozo understand Zvi’s apostasy so well. Also, it was into this personal experience that he translated the belief that there will be a discrepancy between the way the Messiah will be on the inside and will look on the outside, which led him to believe the Messiah would be a Marrano like himself. In fact, as Moshe Idel underlines10, this came

against the background of the crucial role played by the Marranos – and especially by those who converted back to Judaism – in the reception – sometimes to the point of annulment – of some ideas of the Sabbatean messianic message.

Unlike Zvi, who eventually became a man of action under Nathan of Gaza’s in-fluence, Cardozo remained a man of thought. Like Zvi, he was a learnt scholar of the Jewish tradition of which he made extensive use to prove his points. For instance he wrote quite extensively on the interpretation on the two messianic figures of the Jewish tradition: the Davidic Messiah, who descended from holiness to impurity and whom he thus identified with Zvi, who had converted from Judaism to Islam, and the Ephraimite Messiah, who rose from impurity to holiness and whom he thus identified with himself11. It is therefore obvious how his conviction evolved from

truly believing in Zvi’s messianism to considering himself in a way equal to Zvi, and why he ended by thinking he was the true Messiah (ironically, his own death was to confirm his claim, as he was “pierced” just like in the prediction concerning the Ephraimite Messiah). In fact, as David J. Halperin underlines12, Cardozo knew

there was something messianic about his destiny long before he had heard of Zvi and he probably came to the conclusion that they were the two sides of the same Messianic figure before realizing what a weak human being Zvi had been. Quite extraordinarily, his disappointment with Zvi did not come from the latter’s apos-tasy, but from his view of God. Cardozo was convinced that the Messiah’s apostasy was a fulfillment of God’s commandment and that a new aspect of the Torah had been revealed. This, of course, must have had to do with the fact that he saw in this ultimate act a justification of the earlier Marrano conversions. He expressed this view as early as 1668, when he wrote: “the Torah as it now exists will not exist in the Messianic age”13, naturally as a result of the tikkun, in conformity with previous

kabbalistic thought. However, contrary to the provisions of Lurianic Kabbalah,

10. Moshe Idel, Messianic Mystics, Yale University Press, New Haven-London, 1998, p. 183. 11. Elliott Wolfson, Preface, in David J. Halperin (ed.), Abraham Miguel Cardozo, Selected Writings,

Paulist Press, New York, Mahwah, NJ, 2001, p. xiii. 12. David J. Halperin, idem, p. xxx.

13. Quoted in Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism, Schocken Books, New York, 1995, p. 65.


Cardozo believed that “the mystical abundance of power resident in the Messiah himself brings the process of healing salvation to its conclusion”14. Just like Zvi he

was an adept of the theory of the shemitot, thinking that the salvation process mani-fested itself in the giving of the Torah in different stages, in keeping with the needs of the various generations, and he made a clear distinction between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, firmly believing that the crisis of the former affected the forms of the latter (tradition). If Zvi chose to violate the law at the height of his reli-gious experience, Cardozo was of the opinion that in the messianic age the law would no longer be necessary. Taken to the extreme, this view was translated into the abrogation, among other things, of the sexual taboos. As a result, Zvi praised He who permitted the forbidden, and Cardozo took several wives.

Though he never belonged to the inner circle of the Sabbateans, and in fact never met Zvi himself or had any written contact with him, even if he rushed to publish an early letter in defense of his Messiahship in 1668 (mentioned above) and then the most famous Epistle to the Judges of Izmir in 166915, Cardozo came to be

regarded as the third major figure of the movement because of his contribution to its ideology, and as its most important theologian (besides Nathan of Gaza, of course). Just like Zvi, he was in search of his own personal God (and in fact he wrote over sixty treatises on his findings), but unlike Zvi, who took action, with him this turned into a lifetime obsession, probably because he conceived it in terms of his Marrano background, in which his true identity had been concealed, an outlook that he transferred upon God, whose essential identity thus had to be revealed for the mending of the world (tikkun olam) to take place. Therefore, he took upon him-self to complete the task that Zvi had failed fulfilling.

Cardozo resembled Shabbatai Zvi, in that he placed no value except on “the God of his belief” and “took pains until he seated the King on his throne,” but he had a somewhat different view on the abstraction and theological expression of their common outlook16. He thought he shared with Zvi the task of discovering the

mys-tery of divinity and as such he felt the need to write the treatise Raza

de-Mehei-manuta [The Secret of Faith] and, as Yehuda Liebes has endeavored to prove, claim

that this had been Shabbatai Zvi’s creation. He really thought he was entitled to clarify Zvi’s intentions, to the point of believing he understood them better than Zvi himself.

14. Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism, p. 66.

15. David J. Halperin, Abraham Miguel Cardozo, Selected Writings, p. 55.

16. Yehuda Liebes, Studies in Jewish Myth and Jewish Messianism, State University of New York Press, Albany 1993, p. 104.


There is however, one matter on which he totally disagreed with Zvi. Zvi had sworn all his followers to secrecy in regard to the Mystery of the Godhead that he had discovered and was convinced that any revelation entailed distortion. Cardozo made his life’s aim to share his view on the divine with everyone else.

If Zvi remained on the record as a somewhat exalted figure, on the verge of madness, for his acts, Cardozo had his own share of special fame for his conversa-tions with the dead. His by now proven use of ghosts in his tikkunim is strange to say the least, especially since in 1669 he would swear to the opposite in front of the judges of Izmir. Most of his writings were based on his tormented revelatory vi-sions (and, even more strangely, on the dreams of the women in his household, which he would only interpret17), where one can identify certain kabbalistic ideas

also shared by Zvi, like for instance the importance of the demonic.

Like Zvi, Cardozo believed that the divine sparks of holiness and good, which fell at the time of the Adamic sin into the Sitra Ahra, the impure realm of the

Kli-pot (the husks that entrap the sparks, representing the evil) had to be gathered back

to their source for the process of redemption to be complete. In his view it was up to the Redeemer to accomplish the ultimate task: to descend through the gates of impurity into the realm of the Klipot and to rescue the divine sparks still impris-oned there. As Gershom Scholem puts it, “as soon as this task is performed the Kingdom of Evil will collapse of itself, for its existence is made possible only by the divine sparks in its midst. The Messiah is constrained to commit “strange acts”

(ma'asim zarim; a concept hereafter to occupy a central place in Sabbatean

theol-ogy), of which his apostasy is the most startling; all of these, however, are necessary for the fulfillment of his mission”18.

Just like Zvi, who convinced so many of his messianic powers, Cardozo per-suaded his disciples that they did not even need to perform specific rites, for his own merits ensured their success. To realize the extent to which this went, suffice it to recall that among the maggidim, spirit-guides – mostly dead saints – he used as assistants to him or his disciples in the spiritual world was Isaac Luria himself, whom he summoned and dismissed at his sole discretion. It is also important to mention that he shared Zvi’s (and not only his) preoccupation with astrology, though he favored the moon rather than Saturn (Shabbatai in Hebrew).

Moreover, besides ideas, and notions, and views, Cardozo and Zvi came close to sharing a wife! As David Halperin amusingly puts it, Zvi’s young widow Esther

17. Matt Goldish, The Sabbatean Prophets, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts London 2004, p. 100.


“emerges from our sources as a smart, ambitious and resourceful lady with a talent for making Messiahs the men in her life or where this failed for making the men in her life into Messiahs”19: after her first husband’s death and a failed attempt to

transfer the messianic fervor unto Zvi’s eight year old son (who had the bad taste to follow his father’s example and die) she tried to marry Cardozo, seeing in him a new messianic prey. He postponed a final decision for fear of Messiah’s imminent return, and to his later regret she soon turned her attention to another victim: her own brother.

But that was not all. Another interesting life episode which Zvi and Cardozo seem to have shared was their own prophecy about their respective sons: both an-nounced that they would have a male child, who would not live, an event which Matt Goldish relates to the Prophecy of the Child, in which a son is born to a rab-bi, who speaks from the womb, warns of the coming of the Messiah and dies, but also to the Christian interpretation of Isaiah 9:520, which is explainable in the case

of Cardozo but less obvious in the case of Zvi (apparently this happened at the height of the movement, in Izmir).

Again in a similar pattern with Zvi, Cardozo announced a new Redemption (on Passover, April 22, 1682), which failed to materialize, but his fate was different. He was not faced with death or conversion but “only” excommunication. More-over, soon afterwards he witnessed from a distance the mass conversion to Islam of many Jews in Salonika led by Esther Zvi’s family (in an act which Gershom Scho-lem calls “voluntary Marranism”21), which he could not understand: he had found

Zvi’s apostasy to be a necessary act, meant to redeem the others, not to be followed or imitated. To him, the return to the Adamic state was not possible until the Re-deemer had come back from the Sitra Ahra after having gathered, and thus re-leased, the holy sparks.

As such one can see that there are similarities as much as there are differences between the two mystics but to a certain extent they obviously shared more than ideas and outlooks: they shared a vivid imagination, an obvious exaltation and even episodes of life.

19. David J. Halperin, Abraham Miguel Cardozo, Selected Writings, p. 72.

20. “For a child is born unto us, A son is given unto us, And the government is upon his shoulder, And his name is called Pele-joez-el-gibbor-Abi-ad-sar-shalom”, quoted in Matt Goldish, The Sabbatean Prophets, p. 100.





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