Shabtai Tzvi

After the Jews of Eastern Europe were ravaged in the worst massacre since the destruction of the Second Temple, a charismatic mystic, Shabtai Tzvi, claimed he was the new savior of the Jewish people. While his followers eagerly awaited redemption, his opponents feared the dangers of having blind faith in a false messiah. 

  • Review
  • Discussion
  • Activities
  • Reflection
  • Further Learning
  1. What set the stage for the success of the Sabbatean movement in the 17th century?
    • Chmielnicki Massacres
    • Lurianic Kabbalism
    • Chmielnicki Massacres AND Lurianic Kabbalism
    • The movement arose solely because of Shabtai Tzvi’s charisma
  2. Which one of these strange practices is NOT attributed to Shabtai Tzvi?
    • Attempting to get the sun to stop midday in front of followers
    • Marrying a Torah scroll in a public celebration
    • Publicly pronouncing a name of God only allowed to be said by the Holy Priest on Yom Kippur
    • Going to a nearby sea and attempting to walk on water
  3. Shabtai Tzvi was suffering from depression. Who did he turn to for help?
    • Rabbi Jacob Sasportas
    • Nathan of Gaza
    • The Ottoman Sultan
    • Rabbi David Ha-Layvee Seegal
  4. Why did the Turkish authorities arrest Shabtai Tzvi when he arrived in Constantinople?
    • They wanted all of his followers to immediately convert to Islam.
    • They heard that his plan was to depose the Ottoman Sultan.
    • They were wary and concerned about his eccentric behaviors.
    • They wanted to reward him by placing him in the “Tower of Strength.”
  5. What was the hidden sect of Jews who converted to Islam along with Shabtai Tzvi called?
    • Marranos
    • Donmeh
    • Aziz Mehmet Effendi
    • Messianic Jews
  1. As the video mentions, many people believed that Rabbi Isaac Luria’s teachings about Kabbalah set the stage for the coming of the Messiah. It was said about Rabbi Isaac Luria that he had the unique power to look at a person and determine if they had lived a previous life or were a new soul. One of the beliefs of Kabbalah is in gilgul, or reincarnation, as spoken about in the Zohar, a foundational work of Kabbalah, which has sections about gilgul. Do you believe in reincarnation, or do you believe each soul is on Earth one time?
  2. The video speaks about Shabtai Tzvi’s eccentric tendencies and says they were likely due to a combination of depression and mania. Others, including this article, definitively label Shabtai Tzvi as having manic depression. Other historic figures who have been described as having mental illness include Charles IV, Abraham Lincoln, and Ludwig van Beethoven. However, the conversation around mental illness only began in the late 1800s and the stigma around mental health is still something society is navigating. Do you think it’s appropriate or even possible to diagnose historical figures retroactively, or is it inappropriate or even impossible to do so?
  3. The video states that Shabtai Tzvi was an embarrassing stain on the Jews, and this article calls his influence “one of the most painful self-inflicted wounds that the Jewish People brought upon itself.” Is the reaction to Shabtai Tzvi so strong because of the number of followers he was able to influence, or because he ultimately left Judaism and converted to Islam?
  4. Many rabbinic leaders were upset about Shabtai Tzvi’s influence. They excommunicated him from their communities and passionately wrote letters and gave speeches so that he would lose followers. However, the video described how Shabtai Tzvi initially rejected the idea that he was the Messiah. It was only after Nathan of Gaza convinced him, that Shabtai Tzvi accepted the notion. Who is primarily responsible for the growth of the Shabbetain movement: Nathan of Gaza who persuaded Shabtai Tzvi, or Shabtai Tzvi who gained so many followers throughout the following years?
  5. Rabbi David ha-Levy Seegal, or the Taz, is most famous for his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch. It is even now standard to publish his work in every edition of the Shulchan Aruch! He personally visited Shabtai Tzvi to determine if he was a true or false messiah but felt unable to make a final determination. Considering that the video stated how Shabtai Tzvi’s story became an embarrassing stain on the Jews, does the Taz’s interaction with Shabtai Tzvi taint his legacy? Should he be faulted for not being able to identify a false messiah, or should he be commended for admitting his uncertainty?
  6. The debates around Shabtai Tzvi were polarizing among rabbinic leaders. One famous example was the Emden-Eybeschutz affair. Rabbi Jacob Emden accused Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz, a chief rabbi of three communities, of being a Sabbatean. The debates escalated and it was eventually reviewed by the Senate of Hamburg and the Court of Denmark. Why was Shabtai Tzvi so persuasive, and how did he get so many religious leaders believing in his ideas? Was the insistence of rabbinic leaders (like Rabbi Jacob Emden’s efforts) in identifying and eradicating Sabbatean influence a necessary step in preserving traditional Judaism, or should they have focused their attention on other topics?
  1. Use a ready-made lesson plan about Shabtai Tzvi HERE.
  2. Learners should read this article about the Donmeh community in Turkey. They should then create a list of 5-10 interview questions they would want to ask community members about their practices, customs, beliefs, and hopes for the future. Here is a guide on how to write strong interview questions.
  3. The city of Tzfat in Israel is known as the center of Kabbalah. Learners should create a travel brochure, highlighting the history of the city. They may use websites like Tripadvisor or Time Out to learn more about where tourists can visit.
  4. The video describes how the Chmielnicki Massacres and Lurianic Messianism set the stage for the success of Shabtai Tzvi. However, understanding cause and effect is not only understanding what happened but also why that happened. Learners should fill out a graphic organizer to analyze why these two events caused the Sabbatean movement.
  5. Play our Kahoot about Shabtai Tzvi!
  1. According to George Robinson, one of the key tenets of Lurianic Kabbalah is that humans can repair the world, or tikkun olam. According to this belief, the word tikkun means that every time a human performs a mitzvah (positive deed), they are taking a holy spark from this world and elevating it to the upper world. Conversely, if a human sins, a holy spark is pushed below. This means that every act a person does has cosmic significance. Robinson wrote, “Under Luria’s terms, the Jewish people should be seen as a fighting army under siege. No days off, no respite, a hard battle to live by the Commandments to repair the world… It also reanimates the daily routine of observing the mitzvot, giving them a new and more intense significance than ever before.” Does the idea of every action having cosmic significance inspire you or overwhelm you?
  2. Shabtai Tzvi is described in the video as being a charismatic leader. Charisma has been studied since Plato but is a difficult trait to even identify. This article talks about why people are charismatic and how others can learn to become more charismatic. Think of the charismatic people you have met in your life. What traits did they have? Are there upsides and downsides to charismatic personalities?
  3. The Messiah is an ambiguous and highly-debated term among Jewish scholars. One belief is that the Messiah will be a warrior. Another belief is that they will be an accomplished Torah scholar. Another idea mentioned in the Talmud is even that they will start off life as a beggar. What are your beliefs about the Messiah and how the Jews will know when they arrive?
  4. This video focuses on Shabtai Tzvi and his false claims, but he is not the only false messiah throughout Jewish history. Relatedly, one hundred years later, Jacob Frank even claimed to be the reincarnation of Shabtai Tzvi. Some claim that at the height of his movement, he gained 50,000 followers! While it is unlikely that we will be faced with numerous false messiahs in our lifetimes, there are people who may be impostors or lying about their true intentions or capabilities. This article gives suggestions on how to tell if someone is lying to you. How do you determine if you can trust someone? Do you generally trust what other people are saying, or do you tend to be skeptical about taking others at their word?

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