Gad Nassi

Shabbetaism And The Ottoman Mystical Tradition

Posted on February 26, 2012
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In the 17th century all Jewish communities believed in the coming of the Messiah, and this provided the cornerstone for the entire Shabbatean movement. Its birth, development, and collapse within the bounds of. the Ottoman Empire, however, should not be seen as purely coincidental. There can be no doubt that the movement was influenced by local conditions, which Were responsible for the shape it took on. As the movement developed, its connection with the Ottoman environment and the influences upon it became more and more obvious.

Pic 01"Shabbetai Zevi. the False Messiah." is the inscription on an 18th century copper engraving from Germany in which the "Messiah" is seen wearing a Muslim turban. His apostasy astounded his followers, and disillusioned most of them. A minority, nevertheless, sought a theological justification for his conversion.The following paper will attempt to analyze the basic principles of Shabbatean mystical thought as compared with Ottoman thought and mystical weltanschaung.

Ottoman mysticism developed within the Shi'ite population of Anatolia, where it was most popular. Turkomanic groups, which still believed in pre-Islamic traditions, remained under the influence of the Shi'ite movement due to their geographic proximity and cultural associations with Iran. The Shi'ites in Anatolia are composed of groups called the Kizilbash and the Alevi. Institutionalization of Ottoman mysticism led to the rise of the Bektashi movement in the 13th century. Various streams of mystical belief grew up in Anagolia, each with its own distinguishing activities, all of them similar and providing continuity of thought. Beliefs popular among the Shi'ite population constituted the source of the mystical movement in Anatolia, where it found backing and encouragement.

Belief in the coming of the Messiah in Islam was deeply rooted due to the Shi'ite influence, for they believed that some of their leaders would one day return to earth as Messiahs.

In Islam, belief in the coming of the Messiah was influenced by Judaism as well as by Christianity - especially by the Messianism of Jesus. In Islam, as in Christianity, it is believed that the soul of the Messiah rises to heaven and can return to earth in another body. This was also thought to be true about Shabbetai Zvi, whose soul was said to have risen to heaven after his apostasy. It is also known that both Shabbetai Zvi and his prophet, Nathan of Gaza, felt a special affinity to the,phenomenon of Jesus. The Shabbateans believed that the soul of the Messiah had been reincarnated 18 times, from Adam onward, and they also believed that his soul would one day return to earth as the Messiah.

In Islam, it is believed that the dates of future events can be discovered by giving numerical values to the letters of the Koran. This system, the gematria, exists in Judaism as well; the dates 1648-1666, both of which are associated with the Messianism of Shabbetai Zvi, were determined by this principle. The need for and belief in the Coming of the Messiah on the part of the people of Anatolia became stronger during times of pressure by its rulers; leaders of revolts were considered Messiahs, people with superhuman qualities. It is well known that belief in the messianism of Shabbetai Zvi grew up, as well, in the midst of harsh persecution and severe pressures. The belief was born that Shabbetai Zvi would bring redemption to the Jewish People and to all of humankind, and justice and justice and wellbeing on earth.

In Ottoman mysticism, it is believed that persecution and the Koran have two meanings: the external, the obvious, or "zahiri", and the internal, the secret, or "batini". Similarly,

Shabbetai Zvi assigned two meanings to the Tora: first, the Tora of creation - the surface meaning, and second - the spiritual Torah - the theory of nobility. Both Ottoman mysticism and Shabbateanism considered achievement of the hidden meaning the ultimate mystical realization.

The basic religious duties in Islam, such as prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca were not included in the Bektashic theory. Moreover, the Bektashis did certain things which were contrary to Islam, turning these into tradition.  For example - women participated in Bektashi rituals; whisky and spirits were permitted, as well as musical instruments. The Bektashi movement declared that all religious beliefs should be eliminated, and that a new order based on the principle of human egalitarianism should be established.

It is known that Shabbetai Zvi violated the basic tenets of Judaism. He expressed the explicit name of the Lord. He altered the order and meaning of the Jewish festivals, and at the same time brought a new Tora with 18 commandments. There is testimony that Shabbetai Zvi organized joint prayers for men and women as well as parties and banquets at which he danced with women. The Shabbateans went on with this tradition.

According to one description, the candle which lit secret Baktashi rites and prayers would go out at a certain point and the entire ceremony would turn into an orgy. Rumors to this effect spread in Turkey where the rituals - called "mum söndü âlemi" - took place. Even today the terms "kizilbash" Or "alevi" are used to describe those who commit incest. Liberal tendencies among the Shabbateans with respect to male-female relations were given expression on the Festival of the Lamb. On this holiday, which took place in the springtime, the meat of the lamb was eaten for the first time that season at a party in which two married couples participated. At a certain point lights were extinguished and the couples would apparently make love with each other's partners. Osman Baba, one of the leaders of the Shabbatean movement, recommended and supported elimination of rules of morality and favored allowing sexual relations between members of the immediate family.

Pic 02Seler Shimush (Book of Use) (1758-62).
Jacob Emden (1697-1776) of Allona, Germany, an outstanding rabbi, bitterly opposed Shabbateanism and its offshoots. His most famous disputation was with Jonathan Eybeshutz (1690/5-1765), well known kabbalist and scholar, whom Emden suspected was a secret Shabbatean. The dispute split the Ashkernazi Jewish public into two camps Suspicions concerning Eybeshutz increased when Shabbatean elements were discerned among his students and his son Wolf appeared as a Shabbatean prophet. The caricature depicts a Christian-Jewish Frankist from Emden's book: Seler Shimush (Book of Use) (1758-62).
The principle of takia, according to which a man is permitted to adopt another belief as a camouflage for his true beliefs, in order to save himself, exists in the Shi'ite faith and was adopted by the Shabbateans as well. The latter were Muslims for all intents and purposes, while in secret they held their special prayers, spoke Ladino, and had Hebrew names.

We know that Shabbetai Zvi, after his conversion, met and became friendly with a member of the Bektashi sect in Istanbul by the name of Mahmud Niazi. He was a guest at the monastery of Niazi, and it is very, possible that he even participated in Bektashi rites. Mahmud Niazi was exiled to Rhodes in the year 1673 and to Limnos in 1677, because his beliefs were contrary to Islam and to the political order, just as it was for Shabbetai Zvi.

When Shabbetai Zvi proclaimed himself Messiah, between the years 1665 and 1667, he caused an outburst - not only in Istanbul but in Izmir as well - which influenced the Jewish and non-Jewish populations alike. In Istanbul, several dervishes declared that the Ottoman government had come to its end; as a result one of them was imprisoned. When Shabbateanism spread through Saloniki, a number of Greeks and Muslims adopted  it as their religion.

We know that in the earliest annals of  Shabbbateanism, the movement adopted the liturgy of the dervishes in the Turkish language in Hebrew writing. Terms such as "dervish", "aga", and "baba" - used by the Bektashi leaders - were likewise taken on by the Shabbateans. The Shabbatean cemetery in Salonika borders on the cemetery and monastery of the Bektashi sect. In later years, the Shabbateans supported various liberal and reform movements, in which they were, moreover, extremely active.

Pic 03"...The wolf shall live with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down beside the kid...".
Ben Mûsa'yim sen firavun...
pir sultan ölür dirilir
Haci Bektas Veli
A firman published in the early 17th century by Sultan Ahmad I stated that "Kazalbashists, foreign emissaries and Jews shall not be permitted to purchase slaves". The purpose of this firman was to prevent slaves from adopting any religion other than Islam. The fact that Jews were treated equally vis à vis the Muslim population is in itself worthy of our attention, and this may perhaps be the first sign of the common destiny of Bektashists and Shabbateans.

All of the characteristics common to Bektashists and Shabateans covered in this work served as somewhat of a basis for the existence of Shabbateanism within the Ottoman population, and as evidence of the common destiny of the two movements. Like the Shabbateans, the Bektashists were considered an anomaly, and this is how they were treated, as "eccentric children" within the Ottoman populace.

Shabbataeanism existed for some 300 years, despite all the changes wrought by history. The history of the Bektashi movement, which was longer, ended with the publication of the Republic's Constitution. Despite the fact that the Bektashi Movement and Shabbateanism were no longer part of the historical scene, they will remain forever a colorful and meaningful facet of Turkish history.

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