ACCORDING TO Jewish theology, the Messiah is yet to come. But throughout Jewish history, several candidates have claimed for themselves, or had it claimed by their followers, that they were indeed the Messiah. The list continues right down to Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, the leader of the Lubavitch sect, a visit to whose Brooklyn headquarters was de rigueur for any aspiring presidential hopeful.
Of all the false messiahs, none was more astonishingly successful or ultimately tragic than Sabbatai Sevi. Born in Izmir, Turkey, when the Thirty Years War was devastating Europe, Sevi evoked a frenzied response from segments of the Jewish people. As a young man, he studied cabbala, and subjected himself to bouts of asceticism which accentuated his temperamental instability. Two brief, unconsummated marriages ended in divorce.
The impetus for Sevi to proclaim himself the redeemer of Israel was one of the worst massacres in Jewish history - in Poland between 1648 and 1655. Expelled by the rabbis of Izmir, he left for Salonika, where he declared his messiahship in a ceremony of marriage with the holy law. He was cheered by crowds wherever he travelled. In Egypt, he met and married Sarah, a beautiful but deranged Polish survivor. She signed her letters "The lady Queen Rebekah, daughter of Moses", but was known by detractors as "the adulterous Ashkenazi harlot".
Sevi met the youth who was to become his chief prophet, fundraiser and publicist in April 1665. Nathan of Gaza reassured Sabbatai, whenever depression overwhelmed him, that he was indeed the Messiah. In letters to diaspora communities, Nathan exulted that his master would depose the Sultan, restore the lost tribes and usher in the time of redemption. Mass hysteria spread throughout the Jewish world. Credulous Jews gathered at seaports, awaiting the signal to leave for the Promised Land.
Sevi sailed for Istanbul in 1666. On stepping ashore, he was arrested. He held court in prison, regally greeting thousands of pilgrims, until the exasperated Sultan gave him a stark choice: conversion to Islam or …