December 9, 2000
Every morning, as the sun rose out of the Macedonian hills, seven men would gather by the city gate of Thessalonica and peer down the road, waiting and watching. They weren't always the same seven men. Over nearly three centuries, as one would drop out another would take his place. Almost up to the beginning of World War I, all the time while Macedonia was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, the vigil was kept. The seven were Jews in a Turkish world. And they were watching for the Messiah.
Why Macedonia? And among the Turks? The answer begins on July 23, 1626, in Smyrna, Turkey, with the birth of Sabbatai Zevi. It soon became obvious to his father, a commission agent for British and Dutch interests, that young Sabtai was unlike others his age. All that interested him was his religion. It was decided to send him to study with two well-known rabbis of the city, Rabbi de Alba and Rabbi Escapa. From them he learned about the Torah and the Talmud. But increasingly his interest turned to the Kabbalah, the strictly oral traditional doctrines covering the creation of men and angels. Meditating for hours on these doctrines he became convinced that he was the promised Messiah and proclaimed himself as such in 1648. Needless to say this did not go down at all well with the rabbinical establishment and Sabbatai was soon fleeing north to Macedonia. His reputation had preceded him to Thessalonika and he was welcomed in the city by ecstatic crowds of Jews and Christians. Wild celebrations continued for two weeks. Orthodox rabbis were said to have sent assassins to rid themselves of this odd rebel who canceled all prohibitions, breaking the dietary laws and letting women lead the prayers. Unfazed, Sabbatai supposedly converted the would-be killers to his cause. But it became obvious that this target had better keep moving. He was off to Cairo next, where he settled for awhile, marrying Sarah, another charismatic fugitive with a background as peculiar as his own. Also a Jew, she had been orphaned in Poland by Cossacks then raised by nuns, moved first to Amsterdam, and on to Leghorn, Italy. Announcing herself as the intended bride of the new Messiah, she joined him in Cairo, where they were married.
On the first day of 1666, believed by many of different faiths to be the date prophesied for the coming of the Savior, his followers once again lost themselves in the throes of religious frenzy. His movement spread rapidly, to Venice, Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, and other cities in North Africa and Europe. But it couldn't last. Within the year he was summoned to Constantinople and placed under arrest by Turkish authorities. Given a choice, he did not have what it took to be a martyr. On September 16th, he converted to Islam. While many followers turned away, disillusioned, others imitated his example. Most of them, originally from Spain, formed a colony in Macedonia, where they become less and less Spanish, eventually speaking only the Turkish language. Muslims and fellow Jews shunned them, but even after Sabbatai's exile and death in Albania in 1676, they remained steadfast through the decades, often bickering among themselves, but sending their representatives out at every sunrise to wait and watch.
For Classical 91.5 and 90-point-3, this is David Minor
Goodwin, Jason - Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire (New York, Henry Holt, 1999)
"Sabbatai Sebi" (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910)
URL OF THE MONTH
Time to grab a cab and explore. Not New York, Paris, or London, but somewhere a bit more exotic. How about Greece? Thessalonika to be exact, and the Jewish world of Sabbatai Zevi. You'll need to look for a taxi stand labeled Greek Taxi
You'll visit the city where the self-proclaimed Jewish Messiah (who died a Muslim) came to prominence. In a series of screens, the many waves of conquest that swept over the area through the centuries will be pointed out, as well as the origins of the Jewish community there (they left Spain the same month and year Columbus sailed). Your cab ride will cover it all, and just for the cost of a few drachmas. No tipping necessary. You can also link to other Greek city tours from the site.
The Game's Afoot !
© 2000 David Minor / Eagles Byte