Magazine article The Spectator

The Light That Failed

Magazine article The Spectator

The Light That Failed

Article excerpt

The light that failed

THE LOST MESSIAH by John Freely Viking, L20, pp. 286, ISBN 0670886750

In 1666, a year that saw millenarian anxiety reach fever pitch across the Christian world, letters passed between Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society, and Bishop John Wilkins, one of its founder members. Amidst gossip about the latest rumours of scientific interest to them are references to a Jewish Messiah, Sabbatai Sevi, said to be blazing a messianic trail across the Ottoman empire. When the year's triple 6 turned peacefully into 1667, and the luminaries of budding Western empiricism turned to more serious study, so Sabbatai Sevi drifted from view and memory, as he did amongst the Jewish community, for reasons that will become clear.

Sabbatai was born in Ottoman Izmir, on 9 Ab in the Hebrew year 5386 (1 August, 1626), a festival day in which the Jews commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples. It is a day upon which, according to a midrash, or rabbinic tradition, the Messiah is to be born. All reports confirm that Sabbatai was one of the brightest children the rabbis of Izmir had ever tutored, but in his late teens, he taught himself kabbalah, and the wunderkind became enfant terrible. Devoting himself, according to later detractors, to the study of the unclean names of God (meaning practising black magic), he would curse ceremony and publicly flout the rules of Jewish ritual - from eating non-kosher food to speaking the Tetragrammaton, the unutterable name, YWHW. In 1650, already hated and feared by the rabbinate, a voice told him that he was the Messiah. He declared, `There is no God beside me', and was finally banished.

So began years of peregrination, which took him to Salonika, until he was expelled by the large Jewish community there, through Greece, into Istanbul, and on to Rhodes, Cairo and Jerusalem. On his return from Jerusalem to Cairo in 1663 Sabbatai the Messiah met his Prophet, Nathan of Gaza, a young and brilliant kabbalist, who would proclaim Sabbatai's mission to the Jewish world. By 1665, Sabbatai had followers as far afield as the Spanish Indies and the Yemen preparing to sell up and come to live in Jerusalem in preparation for the Second Coming. In 1666, when Sabbatai had been incarcerated in Gallipoli, Jewish communities in the Ottoman empire, Persia, Italy, Poland, Germany, Holland and France sent delegations or letters of homage to him. From his gilded prison, dressed in the finest silks his followers could afford, he conferred titles upon them (his brothers were appointed King of Turkey and Emperor of Rome, while others he recognised as reincarnations of the kings of ancient Judah) and issued apocalyptic pronouncements. In 1676, as Jewish unrest grew across the empire, Vani Effendi, the Ottoman Grand Vizier, offered Sabbatai a choice. He could convert, or prove his calling by being `stripped naked, and set as a mark to ... dextrous archers, but that if his flesh and skin were proof, like Armour, then he [Vani Effendi] would believe him to be the Messiah'. Sabbatai apostasised.

Israel today is host to a particular, localised psychological illness called the `Jerusalem syndrome'. Yearly, between two and three dozen (mostly) men, both Jewish and Christian, are admitted into psychiatric care convinced that they are the Messiah. …

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