I lift up my eyes to the mountains –
where does my help come from?
My help comes from Yahuweh,
the Maker of heaven and earth…
Yahuweh will keep you from all harm –
he will watch over your life;
Yahuweh will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.
I’ve greeted each day in the same way, from as far back as I can remember; beloved David’s song to the Ascents. It reminds me of who I am, and of what I am, since I am that I am, and no-one, save Yahuweh Himself, can take that away from me, whether they be Jew, Christian or Moslem. I’m laughed at by some, insulted by others, followed by a few, and threatened unto death by many – but in my heart of hearts, I remain Shabbetai Tzevi, born on Tisha B’av, the holy day of mourning, in sixteen twenty-six: scholar, mystic, free-thinker and the True Messiah of all Yisrael – whshhhh.
My family were Romaniotes, a Jewish community from the Patras region of Greece. My father, a humble man, was a poultry trader, who, during the war between Turkey and Venice, became the Smyrna agent for an English trading house. Smyrna was a great metropolitan city, and the centre of Levantine business, where the East met the West, with both becoming filthy rich. My father, not coincidentally, prospered, too. As a young Jewish man, I was instructed in the Talmud, under the beady beady eye of Rabbi Joseph Escapa. However, the intricacies of the halakha – the Jewish law – passed me by: too many damned commandments. I was intrigued, though, and drawn to the esoteric mysteries of Kabbalah, and to the balancing necessity of a certain kind of asceticism. Thanks to my father’s trade links, I also learned of events in far-off England, where a bewigged fruit-loop ruled the roost, claiming Divine Authority for his murderous actions. His equally fruit-loopy subjects claimed Divine Authority, too, and thus it was a kind of madness palled across the entire rain-sodden land, with pseudo-messiahs popping up here and there, like weeds in an unkempt garden. Whatever the brain-sick English knew, it had more to do with the prevailing damp than with Divine Authority. Of this I was certain – o yes, o yes.
According to the Zohar, the founding text of all Kabbalistic thought, the year sixteen forty-eight would bring about Yisrael’s redemption, when the true prophet of Yahuweh finally appeared: the indisputable messenger of God. And so it was that I, Shabbetai Tzevi, at the tender age of twenty-two, gathered several followers about me, and declared myself the one and only Messiah; a declaration vouchsafed via heavenly visions, astonishing miracles, and by me pronouncing the Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew name of God, which only the High Priest in the Temple at Hierusalem was supposed to do on the Day of Atonement. This act alone proved I was who I knew myself to be. Needless to say, the local rabbinic leaders were horrified, since to them it appeared quite blasphemous, and from that point on, they kept a watchful eye on my behaviour. For three years, I kept as low a profile as I could, leading a quiet, pious life, and for the most part, I was left to my own devices. However, in sixteen fifty-one or thereabouts, following an ecstatic indiscretion; an outpouring beyond my control, the Smyrna rabbinate decided enough was enough. I was placed under cherem – excommunication, whipped, and banished from the town.
For three years, together with certain of my followers, I journeyed from place to place. In Salonica, I studied the mystical texts, and discovered new secrets hidden within, but it was hard, and my moods swung from high to low in the blinking of a vulture’s eye. Sometimes, I flew across the heavens, at one with the mal’akh; the angels of God – whshhhh: at other times, I was dragged down deep, to the gaping mouth of Sheol itself; the land of forgetfulness. It wasn’t until I reached Constantinople in sixteen fifty-eight, that my path finally became diamond-clear – so sharp, so sharp.
At Constantinople, I met a certain Jewish preacher and Kabbalist, one Abraham ha-Yakini. He had, in his possession, a prophetic document of the greatest import, which confirmed my Messiahship in no uncertain terms. Entitled ‘The Great Wisdom of Solomon’, it stated , “A son will be born in the Hebrew year 5386 to Mordecai Zevi; and he will be called Shabbetai. He will humble the great dragon; … he, the true Messiah, will sit upon My throne”. Naturally, my detractors, including the local rabbis, accused Abraham of forgery, and claimed he was insane to boot – but I knew better; of course I did, for I was what I was, and that was a fact – yes indeed. With this document in my grasp, I returned to Salonica, and claimed the city in the name of Yahuweh and Holy Yisrael. So far, so bold.
As the anointed one, I gathered hundreds of new followers about me. I staged great theatrical events, mesmerising in their power, as if the entire world was in my grasp and at my disposal. A magician, with naught but the confirmed truth up his sleeve. On one particular occasion, much to the consternation of some, I joined together in mystical marriage the Kabbalah and the Torah, via the one and only One Without End: myself. A union of esoteric and exoteric, in a profound festival of love. However, that didn’t go down well with Salonica’s rabbinate, and before I had time to savour my achievement, to say boo to an ibis, I found myself whipped (again), banished from the city, courtesy of Rabbi Hiyya Abraham Di Boton, and back on the road once more, with only the most faithful of my followers in tow. We journeyed to Alexandria and Athens, to the heart of God’s Heart – Hierusalem herself, before reaching Cairo in sixteen sixty, where, finally, I found necessary succour.
Cairo was under Ottoman governance, and its mint-master and tax-farmer was Raphael Joseph Halabi, a fellow-Jew. He held great sway in the city, and was rich beyond my craziest dreams. Despite his material wealth, though, he lived an ascetic life. He fasted, bathed in cold water, and scourged his own body as penance for unspecified sins. He used his money to support dirt-poor Kabbalists and scholars of the Talmud, so I made an especial point of cultivating his friendship, and of persuading him to my cause. In time, he became a firm supporter and promoter of my Messiahship, just as I intended and hoped. Method to the madness, then. For two years, everything was perfect, and I kept my council as best I could. No outlandish indiscretions; no miracles; no magic tricks. To be honest, I needed a break, and Raphael’s generosity set me up well and truly.
In sixteen sixty-three, I returned to the mother city of Hierusalem, determined to emulate Raphael’s asceticism, as a way of proving my piety, and thereby attracting even more adherents to the cause. Like the mint-master himself, I fasted, took cold baths, and scourged my flesh. I sang psalms at night, in a booming, rich voice; so powerful it could be heard above the roof tops of the city. I wanted all to understand that my devotion to Yahuweh was absolute. I also sang Spanish love songs, to which I ascribed Kabbalistic interpretations. This drew crowds of amazed admirers, men and women alike, with much swooning in the streets. And when I wasn’t singing to the Lord, I was praying and weeping at the gravesides of the pious, be they Jew, Christian or Moslem. O yes, I covered all the options, all the faiths, both sexes, and even the city’s children, by distributing sweetmeats to them in public. How magnificently beneficent I was – tralala tralala!
As if all of this wasn’t enough to confirm I was who I said I was, I saved the Jewish community from suffering unspeakable punishment beneath the lash of Ottoman rule. The Turks were insistent that tax was owed to them; money the community didn’t have. So I was dispatched to Cairo, to ask for Raphael’s help. Given his role as tax-farmer for the Government, he employed both his prestige and his wealth to placate and pay off the Turks. Proof-positive I was the long-awaited Messiah, Saviour of His people, Yahuweh’s Chosen One!
During my time in Cairo, I heard reports of a wondrous, young, Jewish orphan girl named Sarah. Her story was a sad one, but it filled me with hope and blood-thumping desire. Between sixteen forty-eight and sixteen fifty-seven, there’d been a savage war in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; the Khmelnytsky Uprising. When the Cossacks decided to rebel against their masters, the civilian population suffered great losses, especially the Catholic clergy and the Jews. Tens of thousands slaughtered, simply because they leased fixed assets, such as lands, mills, breweries; or special rights, such as the right to collect customs, duties, and so on – a lucrative practice, but hardly a crime. Sarah’s entire family was butchered during the early years of the conflict, but she was rescued by Christians, and placed in a convent. Six years old at the time, she miraculously escaped ten years later, and made her way to Amsterdam. Hail Yahuweh! A few years on, she travelled to Livorno, and was considered a great beauty, especially by the many men who threw their hats into her ring – and paid for the privilege. Reports suggested she was little more than a common prostitute, but there was nothing common about her, or her visionary notion of becoming the bride of the Messiah. As the Messiah in question, I determined to bring Sarah to me, since I’d also received visions concerning the woman I was heaven-bound to fall in love with: an unchaste creature, thereby uniting sacred and profane. If Yahuweh wished it, who was I to demur? After all, if it was good enough for Hosea, it was good enough for me.
I sent messengers to Sarah, and she agreed to come to Cairo. Within a short while, we were married, in a moving ceremony at Raphael’s house. Such a celebration we shared, and it soon became clear that my new consort was a fine thing, indeed. She was physically beguiling, and more than a little wild, all of which entranced potential supporters. She was also attentive to my every need, and flamboyantly, exuberantly expressive in the process. O yes, I was the Chosen One in so many delicious ways. She made me realize that the delights of the flesh were as crucial to Yahuweh, as the delights of the heart and mind. Saving His people from the claws of the Great Dragon required even more than the Kabbalah, the Talmud, and the Holy Scriptures put together. Such a mighty task also required total libertinism, although I was careful not to say as much in front of my pious host. Things were looking up.
In sixteen sixty-five, with Sarah by my side, and accompanied by many of my followers, I began the return journey to Hierusalem. With Raphael’s financial and political assistance, I felt as if I was flying high, whizzing through the heavens, proud and erect. On the way, we stopped in the city of Gaza, and there I encountered the man who changed the future course of my Messiahship: Nathan Benjamin Levi – Ghazzati: my very own Elijah.
Like myself, Nathan was a Kabbalist master of great renown, who, at the age of twenty, was visited by holy angels, in a vision which lasted twenty-four hours. Prior to my arrival, he’d received another vision, on the evening of the Feast of Weeks – Shavu ‘ot, when he became possessed by the prophetic spirit of a maggid; a divine preacher. At the very moment of his transformation, he danced like a madman, and emitted a strange odour; the scent of the Garden of Eden. It was Nathan, above all others, who finally convinced me I was the long-awaited Messiah, since – despite everything I knew – I suffered such black doubtings from time to time. He urged me to proclaim myself to the entire world as the true Saviour, which I did in May, sixteen sixty-five. According to Ghazzati, the new Messianic age would begin the following year, in a bloodless conquest, with me leading the Ten Lost Tribes of Yisrael back to the Holy Land, riding on a lion, with a seven-headed dragon in its mighty jaws.
Needless to say, the Hierusalem rabbinate was not impressed. My followers were threatened with cherem, and everything I said or did was suspiciously scrutinised. Perhaps the mother city wasn’t the ideal place to enact my plans, after all. So, I gathered everyone together, and set off for my native Smyrna. When I finally arrived, in the Autumn of sixteen sixty-five, my declaration was made in the synagogue, with much fanfare and celebration. Amidst shouts of “Long live our King, our Messiah”, and with the blowing of horns and the clattering of percussion, I was pronounced AMIRAH: Adoneinu Malkeinu Yarum Hodo – “Our Lord and King, his Majesty be exalted”. Henceforward, Smyrna was the new sacred city; my sacred city. Home sweet home.
With my power finally confirmed, I deposed rabbi Aaron Lapapa, and appointed Chaim Beneviste in his place. Having been previously excommunicated from Smyrna, I determined to recreate the city in my own image. With my popularity increasing by the day, the tale of Shabbetai Tzevi spread across Europe. Centres of my Messianic movement were formed in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. Strange to relate, but the dim-witted bearers of the news were Christians, all of whom were amazed at events in Smyrna. The first secretary of England’s Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, wrote to the great Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza: “All the world here is talking of a rumour of the return of the Israelites… to their own country. Should the news be confirmed, it may bring about a revolution…”. O yes, things were looking up, and I flew with the mal’akh every night. Prominent rabbis from across the diaspora became my loyal adherents, no doubt encouraged by several reports of miraculous events, such as occurred in Scotland, where a ship had appeared with silken sails and ropes, manned by sailors who spoke Hebrew, with the ship’s flag bearing the inscription ‘The Twelve Tribes of Israel’. By sixteen sixty-six, Jewish communities across the continents were preparing to emigrate to my new kingdom. Salvation was at hand, and I sang praises to Yahuweh for His blessings!
Several of my followers decided that now was the time to abolish certain ritual observances, since the age of the Messiah no longer warranted such tedious obligations. My secretary, Samuel Primo, issued a circular to all fellow Jews: “The first-begotten Son of God, Shabbetai Tzevi, Messiah and Redeemer of the people of Israel, to all the sons of Israel, Peace! Since ye have been deemed worthy to behold the great day and the fulfilment of God’s word by the Prophets, your lament and sorrow must be changed into joy, and your fasting into merriment; for ye shall weep no more. Rejoice with song and melody, and change the day formerly spent in sadness and sorrow into a day of jubilee, because I have appeared”. Naturally, I considered Samuel’s words were more than apt, since gloomy introspection was a thing of the past; it was time to celebrate. Unfortunately, the circular provoked vehement outrage throughout the communities, even those which supported the movement. Such a radical innovation was regarded as blasphemous beyond acceptance, and prominent scholars voiced their opposition in no uncertain terms; a situation made worse when loyalists threatened to kill dissenters. All in all, it might have been better if Simon had chosen his words more carefully – o yes.
At the start of sixteen sixty-six, I departed once again for Constantinople, in an attempt to calm the situation, and also because city officials insisted. It was one thing for the Jewish community to be divided; quite another thing if such divisions interfered with the business of governing Smyrna. Besides, Ghazzati had prophesied that once I was in Constantinople, the sultan’s crown would be placed on my head. It was my holy destiny. Yahuweh be praised!
The grand vizier, Ahmed Koprulu, had gotten wind of Ghazzati’s prophecy, however, and he ordered my arrest on arrival, thus making plain the Turkish Sultanate’s power, and quelling doubts among observers of the imperial court. For two months, I languished in the city’s prison, although I was well-treated by my captors, and news of the miraculous deeds I performed while incarcerated were spread far and wide by my followers. I still flew with the angels.
Eventually, I was moved to the state prison at Abydos – Migdal Oz, the Tower of Strength. Along with several of my friends, I arrived on the day preceding Passover. In deliberate violation of Jewish Law, I slew a paschal lamb for myself, and ate it with its fat. After all, why not, since blessed be God who hath restored that which was forbidden? Surrounded by supporters, with Sarah at my side, and showered with money from across the diaspora, I thrived – not free, yet free as a bird, I was kept informed of events in Europe, Asia and Africa, and it became clear that I still retained my grip on the imaginations of fellow Jews. The dark mouth of Sheol was nowhere to be seen. Across the civilized world, my followers prepared for a new exodus. My initials were posted in the synagogues. My picture was printed in prayer books together with that of King David, along with my kabbalistic formulas and penances. Believers and unbelievers alike said prayers for me on Saturdays, Mondays and Thursdays: “Bless our Lord and King, the holy and righteous Shabbetai Tzevi, the Messiah of the God of Jacob”. Whshhhh… I declared the fasts of Shivah Asar b’Tammuz – the fall of Hierusalem, and Tisha B’av – the holy day of mourning and my birthday, would henceforward be feast days, and, such was my audaciousness, I even considered making Yom Kippur a day of joyful celebration. Until… Nehemiah ha-Kohen stuck his filthy, Polish nose in.
A former disciple, he’d previously prophesied the coming of the Messiah, and so I ordered him to appear before me, anticipating his validation. We spoke at length, and disagreed on everything. I made it clear I was who I said I was. He told me flatly I was not. I informed him of my contract with God, and of my dormant plans for the sultan’s crown. He went straightway to Constantinople, and informed the sultan’s kaymakam – his governor, who then informed the sultan himself. He also denounced me as a practitioner of immorality and heresy. It wasn’t too long before I was summoned to Adrianople, so I gathered my supporters about me, and marched in procession, suitably attired in the grandest of robes, singing hymns to the eternal glory of Yahuweh. At Adrianople, the sultan’s physician, a former Jew, presented me with three equally disagreeable choices: a trial by ordeal. The archers of the court would use me as a target. If heaven deflected the arrows, I’d be adjudged genuine. If I refused the trial, I’d be impaled. However, if I wished to avoid the choice entirely, I could renounce my claim and my faith, and affirm myself to be a true Moslem. That way, I could live. Given one day to make my decision, I went away, and prayed to God for guidance.
That night, as Sheol beckoned, I spoke inwardly with Yahuweh. He explained it was my unavoidable task to continue on the Messianic path, guided by Him at all times, yet hidden from all save my true believers. In other words, or so my inner voice informed me, I should seemingly convert to Islam, while secretly converting Moslems to the true faith. That would be a holy thing. I had no choice in the matter. On September the sixteenth, sixteen sixty-six, I was brought before the sultan, who demanded I make my choice. Rather than reply, I cast off my Jewish robes, and placed a turban on my head. God had made me an Ishmaelite. He’d commanded, and it was done. The sultan was delighted, and he conferred on me the title Mahmed Effendi. He also appointed me as his trusted doorkeeper, with a suitably commensurate salary. Sarah, and almost three hundred families among my followers – all of whom knew my secret design – also converted to Islam – the better to convert all Mohammedans to Yahuweh’s cause. So, so…
My seeming conversion didn’t go down at all well with my followers across the diaspora. Fellow-Jews, Christians and Moslems alike denounced me for a fraud; a man who’d do anything, to save his own neck. I forgave them all, naturally, for how could they know what I knew? Not that my forgiveness mattered, since their minds were made up. Ghazzati and Samuel continued to provide support and encouragement, which eased the burden somewhat. It wasn’t an easy task, playing one side against another, and I found myself embarrassed on more than one occasion. In March, sixteen sixty-eight, I was filled with the Holy Spirit at Passover, and received a glorious revelation. I immediately published a new work, filled with mystical signs and prophecies, which re-stated my Messiahship, and my intention to convert Moslems to the cause. When the sultan queried my words, I persuaded him I was trying to convert Jews to Islam. It did the trick, but only for a time. Truth to tell, I did bring over a number of Ishmaelites to my kabbalistic views, but that wasn’t such a hard thing, given their Sufi backgrounds. In the end, though, the Turks just grew tired of my double-dealing, especially after I was heard singing psalms with my closest friends. I lost my doorkeeper’s salary, and was finally banished by the grand vizier to Dulcigno: the gates of Sheol writ large.
And here I remain, forgotten by the world. Shabbetai Tzevi, one-time Messiah, and now an apostate living in a God-forsaken town filled with Jews… Yahuweh’s sense of humour defies understanding – my understanding, at least. I did my best; I really did, but clearly my best wasn’t good enough. Perhaps I should have tried to dodge the arrows; that way my bravery would have been proven beyond doubt, along with my self-belief. The down side, of course, is that I’d be long-dead. The strange thing is this: what’s done is done, the past is past. That’s not what bothers me, haunts me. What if – and even to express my fear brings me out in a cold sweat… What if, at some future point in time, my life is turned into a figment of a writer’s over-active imagination? What if my words and deeds and struggles and triumphs and sufferings become little more than a mast for a slow-witted author to pin his or her own colours to? What then? Will I be immortalized as a fool, a madman, a fraud, a freak, a clown, a brainsick cripple? Will the truth, my truth, remain hidden for all time, as people laugh at me, shake their heads in disbelieving pity, gasp with mock outrage at my antics? I have no answers, but every now and then I seem to hear the whispered words of future generations: cynical, dumb, angry and unforgiving. Weasel words, scorpion words, viper words: words that make me gag.
It’s early in the day. Sarah is dying. She lies on the bed, white with fever, shrunken to the bone. When she passes, I’ll weep for sorrow. Through the open door, I can see the sun just peeping over the mountains. Another dawn beckons. My morning prayer, beloved David’s Song to the Ascents, turns to ash in my mouth. Instead, all that issues forth is alien, puffed and stale. I try to strangle it in my throat, this spidery bile, but out it pours…
And now, the end is near,
And so I face the final curtain.
My friend, I’ll say it clear,
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain.
I’ve lived a life that’s full,
I’ve travelled each and ev’ry highway,
And more, much more than this, I did it my way…
Except, in the end, I didn’t.
Give me death, O Lord. Eternal darkness and never-ending silence. It’s the least You can do, after all.