WITH the advent of the seventeenth century, the Kabbalistic vanguard was taken up by figures such as Rabbi Manoel Dias Soeiro (1604-1657). Better known as Menasseh ben Israel, this Western Iberian mystic was descended from Jews who had fled the Portuguese Inquisition the previous century and is widely known as the inventor of the Hebrew printing press.

Although Menasseh had been born on the Portuguese island of Madeira, when he was just six years’ old his family relocated to Amsterdam shortly after the announcement of the Twelve Years’ Truce between the Habsburg rulers of Spain and the Southern Netherlands and the Dutch Republic. Many Sephardic Jews arrived in Holland to take advantage of the commercial advantages, and Menasseh soon excelled as both a rabbi and a printer. His work was not entirely passive, however, and he corrected many Hebrew texts prior to their going to press and for this he became a renowned editor.

In 1638 Menasseh went to Brazil, where his native Portuguese gave him an immediate advantage. Going into business with two Portuguese-Jewish brothers, Isaac and Abraham Pereyra (1644-1699), the Rabbi received help to take over a small Jewish academy. Shortly afterwards, Menasseh met another Marrano traveller who was convinced that the South American Indians of the Andes were descendants of the Ten Tribes of Israel. The fact that Jews were scattered around the world, he argued, even in the most remote of places, was a sign that the Jewish saviour was imminent. The traveller in question was Antonio de Montezinos, and so enthusiastic did he become about this messianic theory that Menasseh decided to move to London and inform other Jews about the urgency of their world-mission.

The Jews of England had been expelled by King Edward I (1239-1307) as early as 1290, on account of money-lending and widespread coin-clipping, but Menasseh was determined to obtain permission to settle in London with a larger group of Portuguese Sephardim. In the wake of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, which violently overthrew the Catholic Church in England and Wales, the island was far more susceptible to the notion of the Jews and their messianic destiny. They were, after all, the ‘People of the Book’.

In 1651, when Menasseh’s Hope of Israel was translated into English, it came with a dedication to the Parliament and the Council of State. It was the brutal parliamentarian dictator, Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), who, in December 1655, finally permitted Menasseh – as well as those Marrano families which had been living in England under assumed names since 1492 – to live in England openly and without molestation. Cromwell, himself a mere ‘commoner’ in a country that had only recently committed an act of regicide against the English monarch, Charles I (1600-1649), did not have the power to revoke Edward I’s royal edict of expulsion. In 1658, therefore, he gave the Jewish community leader, Antonio Fernandez Cavajal (1590-1659), a verbal assurance that he and his people would be protected. This, in defiance of his former recommendations to the Council that Jews should only be permitted to attain the status of ordinary aliens. Given that Edward I’s edict remains on the statute books, Cromwell’s rather vague assurances still hold true today.

In the wake of this controversial decision, Jewish finance and religion was permitted to grow and prosper, with the first synagogue having already been founded in 1657 at London’s Creechurch Lane by Marranos from Spain and Portugal. Meanwhile, the first Ashkenazi synagogue was established in 1690 and the famous Great Synagogue of London opened its doors in 1722. It was eventually destroyed in a German bombing raid in 1941.

Menasseh himself, meanwhile, continued to promote the idea of Jewish messianism and his English hosts were thrilled at the idea that a saviour might even appear in their midst. Many English Christians, of course, had deep millenarian beliefs, but there were many who remained opposed to the presence of a Sephardic community with strong financial interests and it was in reply to his critics that Menasseh produced his Vindiciae judaeorum (1656).

Lest we forget, amid all this politicking, Menasseh was also a Kabbalist and his more mystical and religious works included De termino vitae (1639), De Creatione Problemata (1635), De Resurrectione Mortuorum (1636), De la Fragilidad Humana (1642) and Nishmat Hayyim (1651). The latter, a treatise dealing with the reincarnation of souls, suggests that he studied Kabbalah alongside Abraham Cohen de Herrera (1570-1635). Herrera was a disciple of Isaac Luria, which demonstrates that the mystical Kabbalah tradition that had arisen in Safed was beginning to move westwards and seep into the European-Jewish consciousness.

Interestingly, Menasseh’s 1651 work also discusses the Dibbuk. A figure in Jewish folklore, this creature is an evil spirit which

enters into a living person, cleaves to his soul, causes mental illness, talks through his mouth, and represents a separate and alien personality [1].

Given the rise of what has since become known as British Israelism, something which actually began to take shape a full century before Menasseh and his Jewish compatriots even began arriving in London, the shared obsession with the legendary ten lost Tribes of Israel – be they in England, South America or elsewhere – meant that the strengthening links between the British and their new Jewish friends began to seem like a match made in heaven. In the modern world, this relationship continues with the powerful Bank of England that the Portuguese Marranos helped to establish at the very close of the seventeenth century.

* * *

The example of Menasseh ben Israel and his relatively cordial relationship with the fanatical Protestant hierarchy of seventeenth-century England, illustrates how Jews were beginning to think very seriously about the more practical implications of messianism. As Abraham Cohen explains:

Whereas other peoples of antiquity placed their Golden Age in the dim and remote past, the Jews relegated it to the future. The prophets of Israel repeatedly allude to ‘the latter days,’ still unborn, as the period when the national greatness would reach its zenith. This hope took a firm grip of the popular mind and grew not only in intensity but, as time proceeded, likewise in the marvels which its realization would bring to the world. The glorious future centred around the person of a Mashiach, ‘an anointed one,’ who would be deputed by God to inaugurate this new and wonderful era. [2]

Much of this fascination stems from the Talmud, in which there are hundreds of allusions to the appearance of such a figure. Although the teachings of this holy text speculate about the possible identity of any prospective messiah, particularly in light of the fact that Josephus has recorded the arrival of many such figures in the wake of the Temple’s destruction and that the question of authenticity in matters pertaining to identification is absolutely crucial, there is universal agreement that such an event will be marked by a period of great uncertainty and instability in the Jewish world.

Rather than manifest in the guise of someone who is altogether superhuman, in the fashion that we invariably associate with Jesus Christ, the Talmud is fairly certain that the Jewish messiah will be an ordinary human being. The messianic dimension, of course, brings Judaism into direct conflict with Christianity and whilst the latter posits a messianic vision which operates as a form of redemption on the spiritual level, the Jewish idea – based on many of the same scriptures, naturally – is that it must apply to the external, material sphere. Indeed, Judaism relies on the manifestation of a messiah within the heart of an unredeemed world. The fact that so much of Jewish history is bound up with the exile, means that for a restoration to take place a more ‘hands-on’ approach is required. One source even views Judaism’s great obsession with the messianic as a triumph of anti-existentialism:

Little wonder that overtones of Messianism have accompanied the modern Jewish readiness for irrevocable action in the concrete realm, when it is set out on the utopian return to Zion. It is a readiness which no longer allows itself to be fed on hopes. [3]

Messianism is not confined to the domain of scripture, however, and within the Kabbalistic tradition assumes a more mystical and esoteric form. Whilst the Sefer ha-Zohar grounds itself upon the Talmudic view that redemption is more about the fulfilment of messianic revelation, for later mystics Jewish history is considered to have no real direction both in and of itself. The entire notion of redemption is not based on a collective teleology that has in mind some kind of final objective, but surrounds the interior cultivation of the individual. Even as far back as the twelfth century, Kabbalists were adamant that by escaping turbulent times and, thus, history itself, true redemption becomes a distinct possibility. As we have seen with Lurianic Kabbalah, for example, not only is it possible for mankind to assist in the process of divine repair through Tikkun ha-Olam, but it is imperative for the Jewish mystic to make a personal ascent towards the very origins of Creation. In some ways, therefore, messianism is less important to the Kabbalist in the sense that he follows the inward path that takes him back to the very foundations. For the Kabbalist, the appearance of a messiah must be seen in a much wider context. Not as redemption itself, but as the very beginning of a corrective process that repairs the damage that took place at the moment of Creation. The sense of duty that each Kabbalist feels towards this idea links him with something that actually transcends history.

* * *

Given that Jesus of Nazareth is so well known, there is no reason to dwell on the events of his life here, suffice it to say that he was almost universally rejected by the Jews of the first century. Christ was no exception, however, and down the centuries there have been countless false ‘messiahs’ appearing among the Jews. As we saw with the case of Akiba ben Yosef, a Tannaitic sage who was executed in the wake of the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132-136 CE for promoting the idea that Shimon bar Kosiva was the long-awaited ‘messiah,’ even the most prominent Jewish leaders have been taken in by such claims.

In eighth-century Persia, which perhaps seems like an unlikely setting for the appearance of a Jewish messiah, there have been no less than three such figures: Abu Isa, an illiterate tailor who became a prophet and defeated an approaching Muslim army with nothing more than a myrtle branch; Yudghan, who raged against anthropomorphism and viewed the Talmud as an allegory for messianism itself; and Serene, a former Christian who began by announcing that he was the reincarnation of Moses and then, after promoting himself to ‘messiah,’ was duly arrested by Caliph Yazid bin Abd al-Malik (687-724) and handed over to the Jews for punishment. Other claimants appeared in France (1087), Córdoba (1117) and Morocco (1127), whilst one of the more popular ‘messiahs’ was a Persian called David Alroy. Known to his followers as David the Shepherd, when he announced in 1160 that he was indeed the ‘Annointed One’ many Jews were more than ready to believe him on account of his promise to liberate them from the yoke of Islamic slavery and heavy taxation. Despite trying to raise an army in Mosul and Baghdad, David was eventually murdered in his sleep and those who had offered him their support were persecuted thereafter.

The link between Jewish suffering and messianism was no more apparent than during the Christian inquisitions of Spain and Portugal. David Reubeni (1490-1535/1541), who tried to persuade the young Portuguese king, João III (1502-1557), to agree to the formation of an alliance of Jews and Christians against the Muslims, insisted that he was descended from a late Jewish sultan in whose kingdom there were around 300,000 ‘Israelites’ willing to join the anti-Islamic cause. After a period of several months, however, it became clear that Reubeni was a confidence trickster and he was dismissed from Portugal. João himself, after all, had persecuted the Marranos and it was thought that Reubeni was merely stalling for time. It was trickery of this kind which later led him to claim that he was the ‘messiah,’ but when he made an attempt to convince Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) to allow Jews to join him in a campaign against the Ottoman Empire, he was imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition in Badajoz where he is thought to have died. As for his messianic pretensions, Reubeni performed no miracles in public but the claim that he was descended from the line of David was apparently enough to provide the calculated impression that he was indeed the long-awaited Redeemer. Reubeni also had links with the Safed community of Vital and Luria and taught Kabbalah along the shores of the Mediterranean.

Another Judeo-Portuguese pseudo-messiah active at the same time was Solomon Molcho (1500-1532), also known as Diogo Pires, who was born a ‘New Christian’ among Marrano parents who had been forced to convert. Molcho soon converted to Judaism, circumcised himself to impress the aforementioned Reubeni and travelled with him to Turkey. Another student of Kabbalah, Molcho met Joseph Caro – an inspiration for Isaac Luria – and preached throughout Italy and the Ottoman Empire. In 1529, after publishing a collection of his sermons under the title Sefer ha-Mefo’ar, he announced that the messianic kingdom would commence in the year 1540. He also made a habit of telling people that he was of the ‘Shield of David,’ that Reubeni was his prophet and God had chosen him to be the ‘messiah’ ever since the moment of circumcision. Molcho had even experienced a series of profound mystical visions in which he had witnessed an old man with a long, white beard summoning him to Jerusalem and then been struck in the chest by a large iron ball fired from a catapult. Healed by God on account of the prayers of a mysterious woman, Molcho sees a detachment of warrior-Gentiles attacking a group of black and white doves and the secrets of this are revealed to him by a stranger. Back on the earthly plane, in Italy, Molcho’s claims angered Jewish scholars like Jacob Mantino ben Samuel (d. 1549) and he was arrested at the same time as Reubeni and ordered to convert to Catholicism. When he refused, he was burned at the stake.

* * *

Perhaps the most remarkable case of all – apart from the Jewish mystic who is still recognised as the Christian messiah – is that of Sabbatai Sevi (1626-1676). Born into a Romaniote trading family at Smyrna in the Ottoman Empire and raised as a devout Jew with a particular penchant for both Kabbala and the teachings of the Talmud, Sevi had been immensely influenced by the writings of Isaac Luria in the previous century and was fascinated by the more mystical aspects of his religion:

At this time, the fire of the Lurianic Kabbalah, with its assurance of the repair of the universe and the messiah soon to come if only true support and belief could be won, continued to warm Jewish communities around the world. It was transmitted through an elite and made palpable for a broad public. In the mid-seventeenth century, Jewish communities throughout the world trembled on the brink of a strange future. [4]

Another prime influence was Manasseh ben Israel who, as we have already seen, was at the very forefront of the Anglo-Jewish obsession with millenarianism. The two men were contemporaries, after all, and it is thought that Sevi’s father had business ties with English merchants and that some of Menasseh’s ideas were gradually beginning to probe their way into Anatolia.

According to rabbinical calculations, the Sefer ha-Zohar indicated that the Messiah would appear in 1648, when Sevi was twenty-two years of age, so when the year finally arrived the young man began informing his fellow Jews – many of whom already followed his remarkably precocious and original teachings – that he himself was the ‘Annointed One’. Whilst the task of pronouncing the Tetragrammaton, i.e. the name of God in the form of four Hebrew letters (YHWH), was confined to high priests Sevi defied this sacred tradition by conducting this ritual himself. As a result of this brazen act of defiance, he and his followers were excommunicated (cherem). In 1651, as Sevi continued to declare himself the ‘messiah,’ the theocratic rebels were asked to leave Smyrna altogether. Despite disappearing for a period of seven years, in 1658 Sevi turned up in the city of Constantinople and met a certain preacher by the name of Abraham Yachini (1611-1682). It was Yachini who subsequently tried to validate Sevi’s messianic credibility by making reference to an old manuscript in which the date of the Redeemer’s birth matched that of Sevi himself.

Relocating to Salonica, in what is now modern-day Thessaloniki, Sevi and his disciples carefully positioned themselves at the very heart of a thriving Kabbalistic community and, before long, were banished from the city by Head Rabbi Hiyya Abraham Di Boton (1575-1649). It is unclear as to Sevi’s precise movements after this latest expulsion, but it is thought that he travelled to some of the major cities in the Eastern Meditteranean. Between 1660 and 1662 he was in Cairo, where he won the financial support of a wealthy coin-minter called Raphael Joseph Halabi. In 1663, Sevi went to Jerusalem and managed to attract an increasing number of followers as a result of his great piety. Whilst there, he heard the tale of a former Polish orphan and prostitute called Sarah who was now living in Italy. It was her firm belief that she would eventually marry the ‘messiah’ and when Sevi heard this story he had her brought to him and the two were married at Halabi’s house in Cairo. Whilst many Jews naturally questioned Sevi’s decision to choose an ‘unchaste woman,’ he claimed that the marriage was revealed to him in a dream and that it was comparable to the story of the eighth-century BCE prophet, Hosea, who had also taken a ‘whore’ to be his wife.

Returning to Jerusalem, Sevi was passing along the northern coast of Palestine when he met Nathan Benjamin ben Elisha Hayyim ha’Levi Ashkenazi (1643-1680), also known as Nathan of Gaza. It would prove to be one of the most formative and significant events in Sevi’s life and Nathan went on to become his most trusted spiritual lieutenant. Before long, Nathan was portraying himself as the risen Elijah and declaring that 1666 would mark the year when the ‘messiah,’ Sabbatai Sevi himself, would mount a lion and lead the scattered Ten Tribes of Israel back to the Holy Land. After pressure from the most powerful rabbis in Jerusalem, who threatened him with further excommunication, Sevi took the decision to settle in his native Smyrna and managed to oust the existing high priest.

News that the Jewish ‘messiah’ had arrived soon reached Western Europe and many Jews began travelling east to Anatolia to feast their eyes upon Sevi himself. The fact that so many had endured such great suffering, particularly under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of Zynoviy Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1595-1657), meant that people were desperate for a glimmer of hope and this made it easier for Sevi to convince people that he was actually who he said he was. Dramatic changes to the Jewish liturgy followed, with laws and obligations either relaxed or vastly simplified.

When the year 1666 finally arrived, Sevi declared that he would travel to Constantinople and steal the Sultan’s crown. The Grand Vizier, however, Köprülüzade Fazıl Ahmed Pasha (1635-1676), got wind of the plan and had Sevi arrested as soon as he arrived in the city and he was thrown into prison. As Nathan continued to rally support among native Turks for his master’s claims of divinity, Sevi continued to transgress Jewish tradition by consuming fat from a lamb that had been killed in celebration of Passover and telling those who witnessed the act that God had simply abolished the old law. At the same time, Jews around the world were preparing for a ‘new exodus’ and Sevi’s portrait began appearing in synagogues everywhere.

Sabbateanism did not go unchallenged, of course, and there were many leading rabbis who came out in opposition. These included Joseph Escapa (1572-1662), his former teacher; Aaron Lapapa (1590-1674), one of the few who had the courage to oppose him at Smyrna in 1665 when Sevi was more popular than ever; and Jacob Hagis (1620-1674), who confronted the ‘messiah’ in Constantinople. Even in the wake of Sevi’s death, when the Sabbatean phenomenon refused to go away, there were people who vigorously opposed it. There was Jacob ben Aaron Sasportas (1610-1698), a Talmudic scholar who sought to demonstrate the falsity of the Sabbatean movement through the use of scripture; David Nieto (1654-1728), an expert on Torah and leading figure in London’s thriving Sephardic community; Tzvi Ashkenazi (1656-1718), Rabbi of Amsterdam; Jacob Emden (1697-1776), another Talmudist opposed to the persistent spread of Sevi’s ideas in the century following his death; and Naphtali Cohen (1649-1718) who, despite mistakenly endorsing a Sabbatean text later went to Amsterdam to join Tzvi Ashkenazi’s war against the movement.

Before long, Sevi’s outrageous behaviour got the better of him and when he was visited in prison by two Judeo-Polish scholars and informed that a prophet had appeared among them and announced the coming of the messiah, Sevi – who, despite being a prisoner, led a very privileged lifestyle – demanded that he be brought to him immediately. The prophet in question was Nehemiah ha-Kohen (d. 1690), and it is thought that Sevi secretly intended to murder his rival. When ha-Kohen arrived in Gallipoli, where Sevi was now being held, the two men found themselves in bitter disagreement and the visitor was fortunate to escape with his life. Arriving in Constantinople, ha-Kohen informed the provincial governor of Sevi’s ultimate objectives and when Sultan Mehmed IV (1642-1693) heard about these messianic pretensions the Jewish mystic was given three choices: (i) be subjected to a hail of arrows and, if none of them were to hit the mark, his divinity would be proven; (ii) face impalement; or (iii) convert to Islam.

On September 16th, 1666, to the bemusement of his devout followers around the world, Sevi announced his decision to become a Muslim and exchanged his traditional Jewish attire for a turban. Satisfied with this humiliating outcome, the Turkish Sultan rewarded Sevi by appointing him as his new gatekeeper and around 300 Sabbatean families also followed the example of their ‘messiah’ and converted to Islam. Despite becoming a laughing-stock amongst Christians and Muslims alike, Sevi claimed that God had told him to become an Ishmaelite and Nathan of Gaza, loyal as ever, began reinventing the Sabbatean message by encouraging others to convert to Islam and follow their example. One desperate means of accounting for Sevi’s cowardly act of apostasy was to insist that what they were doing was merely a convenient method of converting Muslims to Judaism.

Eventually, the Sultan became so fed up with Sevi that he was sent back to Constantinople. Once there, the crestfallen ‘messiah’ soon began reverting to Judaism and for this he was sent to a small village in what is now Montenegro. On September 17th, 1676, he died in exile. Although Sabbatei Sevi’s life ended in disgrace and isolation, his Sephardic followers – known today as the Dönme – continue to uphold the Sabbatean ideal and there is rumoured to be around 100,000 adherents of the Crypto-Jewish sect in Turkey alone. Whilst efforts have been made to integrate the Dönme back into the wider Jewish community, their antinomian beliefs remain a stumbling block and the olive branch from their more orthodox counterparts has been rejected on numerous occasions.

Similar to the role of the hidden al-Mahdi figure within the ‘Twelver’ school of Shi’a Islam, Sabbatai Sevi has now become ‘occulted’ in the sense that his return is thought to be imminent:

By around 1678-9 the Sabbatians were beginning to agree on a new doctrine, which was that Sabbatai was not really dead but rather occulted from human view. According to a Sabbatian notebook written by a disciple of Hayyim Mal’akh, who was himself a followed of Samuel Primo, the doctrine of occultation was revealed to Nathan by a celestial maggid: ‘AMIRAH was exalted and hidden, body and soul, on the Day of Atonement, at the time of ne’ilah. Whoever thinks that he died like all men and his spirit returned to God commits a grave sin. This was revealed by the holy R. Nathan to R. Samuel Primo, R. Samuel Gandoor, and the group of his close friends. [5]

For scholars of Hebrew spirituality, Sevi is perhaps the crème de la crème of Jewish mysticism and remains something of an enigma. Gershom Scholem, who has produced a masterly thousand-page volume on the subject, concludes that the sheer endurance of the Sabbatean legend is a mark of its triumph. Indeed, whilst Sevi’s own actions were highly questionable the mythological dimension that has been constructed in the wake of his death has been remarkable. Meanwhile, despite what many consider to have been a life of limitless subterfuge and expediency, we may ask whether it was

not a great opportunity missed, rather than a big lie? A victory of the hostile powers rather than the collapse of a vain thing? […] The legend of the great actor and imposter, and the legend of the elect whose mission ended in failure, together form the legend of Sabbatai Sevi as it lives in the memory of the Jewish people. [6]

* * *

Another important and significant figure within the domain of Jewish messianism is Jacob Frank (1726-1791). Himself a Sabbatean, Frank was born exactly half a century after Sevi’s death and just four years after Jewish leaders in his native eastern Poland had tried to stamp out the continuing influence of the movement’s ‘heretical’ founder. When he was still a very small child, Frank’s parents moved from the town of Korołówka to the Carpathian city of Czernowitz. With a Jewish population in excess of 30%, Sabbatean ideas were deeply entrenched in the area and Frank’s father was himself a follower of Sevi’s teachings.

As a young man, Frank became a merchant in precious stones and often travelled to the Sabbatean strongholds of Salonica and Smyrna. In his mid-twenties he became associated with Berechiah Russo, also known in Turkish as Osman Baba, who the Dönme believed to be the latest reincarnation of Sevi’s soul. By 1755, Frank had amassed his own small group of disciples but was forced to leave the Ukrainian region of Podolia the following year after his Sabbatean practices caused outrage and were considered by the local Jewish court to have been immoral and indecent. Many of these practices were based on forms of sexual transgression. Eventually, Frank and his followers were excommunicated and Jews were urged to expose their activities whenever and wherever they could.

The fact that Frank rejected the teachings of the Talmud in favour of the Sefer ha-Zohar, however, a source that did not in any way threaten the fundamental trinitarianism of Christian doctrine, led the country’s Catholic hierarchy to come out in support of their freedom to worship. In 1757, the Bishop of Kamianets-Podilskyi even took the side of the Frankists in their dispute with the more traditional Jewish scholars who were highlighting their rejection of the Talmud. Incredibly, the Catholic Church authorities in Poland oversaw the burning of 10,000 volumes of the Talmud itself and the renegade Frankists were vindicated.

Following the unexpected success of their religious tussle with the Jewish hierarchy, Frank went to the village of Iwany and announced that he was the spiritual heir to both Sabbatai Sevi and Osman Baba. In 1759, Frank proposed that both he and his supporters convert to Catholicism in the way that Sevi had converted to Islam before him. This, he argued, was merely a temporary phase and that it would be followed by the revelation of a new religion, or state of ‘knowledge’ (das). Given what Nathan of Gaza had said during the previous century in relation to the alleged Sabbatean strategy to convert Muslims from within, many Catholics were naturally suspicious of Frank’s motives. Nonetheless, in September that year he was baptised into the Polish Church with none other than the King of Poland, Augustus III (1696-1763), acting as his godfather. Over the course of the next thirty years, around 26,000 Jews took the sacrament and entered the Catholic fold.

Like Sevi, Frank’s theology was loosely based on Lurianic Kabbalah and to this he added a few creative flourishes of his own. Ignoring the ten sefirot, five configurations (partzufim) and Four Worlds, all of which are essential to Luria’s teachings, Frank’s inimitable mythology involves a process of ‘doubling’ that resembles certain features of Marcionite Gnosticism. Frank even had his own double, known as the Big Brother, whilst those in his inner circle were known as the Brothers and Sisters. This is repeated in the court of the Big Brother, which is also comprised of opposed benign and evil demiurges. What this means, therefore, is that each kindly character – such as a Maiden, for example – has its quintessentially evil equivalent within the same realm. Furthermore, each of

the beings in Frank’s universe are actually in touch with Frank and his court. Far above both spheres dwells the ineffable True God, whose match is the God of this lower world. Natural affairs – the weather, illness, the lives of animals, and the like – are controlled by appointees of this lower God, a concept that emerged during the beginnings of Jewish mystical texts, remained present in the practice of magic, and is now reinserted in this theology. Every detail of our world is doubled in that upper world, and there are signs within our world that indicate that this is so. Nothing here is only what it seems; the surface holds its duplicate or triplicate. [7]

By departing from Kabbalah in this way, Frank had taken the original Sabbatean heresy and further detached it from the Judaic mainstream in a display of calculated nihilism. In many ways, it was a complete overthrow of Hebrew tradition and for many Jews represented a crisis of the first order.

In 1760, just one year after his baptism, Frank was arrested in Warsaw for heresy and forcibly confined to the monastery of Częstochowa, home to the revered Black Madonna icon. After thirteen long years, during which Frank had managed to convey his thoughts to his disciples in a series of religious sermons, he was released by Russian statesman Aleksandr Ilyich Bibikov (1729-1774) when Poland itself was partitioned. During his internment, Eva Frank (1754-1816) – his propagandising daughter – had risen to become the mystical leader of the Frankish cult itself. In 1770, when Eva was barely sixteen years of age, her father’s disciples announced that she was the sacred Shekhinah (‘dwelling’), or female manifestation of God.

Jacob Frank was released in 1772 and went to live in the Moravian town of Brno, where he set up ‘court’ and commanded his own private army. Now living under Russian rule and having become the messianic figurehead for more than 500,000 worshippers, among Frank’s distinguished visitors was Czar Paul I (1754-1801). Eva, meanwhile, surrounded by her father’s adoring disciples, many of whom were very wealthy, was living in the lap of luxury and accompanying him on frequent trips to Vienna to meet important figures in the Hapsburg dynasty such as Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790) and Maria Theresa (1717-1780). Although the Royals initially saw Frank as a man who was capable of spreading the Christian message among the Jews, they later became suspicious and he was asked to stay away from Austria altogether. From there, Jacob and Eva went to Offenbach in Germany and the former became a rich nobleman until his death in 1791. Eva tried to keep her father’s sect alive, even through the turmoil that marked the frantic Napoleonic Wars of the early-nineteenth century, but despite securing an 1813 audience with Czar Alexander I (1777-1825) the Frankist influence soon began to wane and when the funds dried up she fell into debt.

Although Frank never claimed that he was the ‘messiah’ per se, it remain a fact that by identifying himself with both Sevi and Baba – two manifestations of the same soul – he was undoubtedly making that very claim and

was correctly understood by his disciples to imply that he personally was the living God once again incarnated on earth. [8]

* * *

Finally, whilst the Sabbatean heresy was undoubtedly a major event within the Jewish world, it would be foolish to assume that mysticism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was confined to figures such as Sevi and Frank. Indeed, one such example is that of Alexander Süsskind (d. 1794) of Grodno, a Lithuanian Jew who wrote the popular Yesod we-Shoresh ha-‘Abodah (‘The Foundation and Root of Divine Worship’). The book concerns an overview of Jewish prayer and divine service, although his Kabbalistic interests also led him to take a keen interest in the mystical aspects of ritual. Other works focussed on martyrdom, prayer, meditation, Jerusalem and the Temple.

Another crucial Kabbalist is the renowned philosopher, Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746). Born in the Italian town of Padua, Luzzatto developed a keen interest in Talmudic scholarship and the interrelated disciplines of both science and Alchemy. Living at a time when Sevi’s ideas were still prevalent, meant that the Jewish hierarchy was constantly on the lookout for transgressive behaviour and when Luzzatto made the bold claim that his prolific writings had been revealed to him in Aramaic by a celestial entity known as a maggid and that he was also the reincarnation of Moses,he was forced to leave Italy. His works, which include lengthy discussions concerning various sacred texts, also examine the nature of God, redemption, messianism, faith, ethics, wisdom, logic, rationalism and the Kabbalah. In a letter to a famous Kabbalist called Rabbi Benjamin ben Eliezar ha-Kohen Vitale (1651-1730), Luzzatto revealed that the Lord had told him in a prophecy that his correspondent was the

chief of the tribes of Israel. The Lord has granted you the merit of having your fame extended to the ends of the earth. And yet you have no special disciples. All is from the Lord, whether great or little things. Since one does not praise a man too much to his face, I can only tell you the main things, those that are essential if you are to acknowledge the truth of that which I tell. [9]

Luzatto went on to inform Vitale that he had fallen into a trance, during which the maggid had revealed the descent of the Ein Sof into the ‘World of Action’. At the close of his letter, Luzzatto made an allusion to a ‘secret’ that the maggid insisted he must not share. It is thought that this is a veiled reference to his own messianic proclivities.

In 1775, as he travelled north-west to Amsterdam, Rabbi Lazzatto first sought refuge in Germany but was forced to sign a document in which he admitted that his claims about the maggid were false. Subsequently, and notwithstanding this forced confession, immediately prior to continuing on his way to the Netherlands most of Luzzatto’s books were burned. Once there, however, he continued in his studies and even took up a role as a professional diamond-cutter. Inspired by Spanish poetry and Italian drama, Luzzatto later turned his hand to incorporating mystical concepts within the realms of culture.


1. Scholem, Gershom; Kabbalah: A Definitive History of the Evolution, Ideas, Leading Figures and Extraordinary Influence of Jewish Mysticism, op.cit., p.349.

2. Cohen, A.; Everyman’s Talmud, op.cit., p.346.

3. Scholem, Gershom; The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (Schoken Books, 1995), pp.35-6.

4. Lenowitz, Harris; The Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights (Oxford University Press, 1998), p.149.

5. Freely, John; The Lost Messiah: The Astonishing Story of the Sabbatai Sevi Who Emerged from the Mystical Cult of the Kabbalah (Viking, 2001), p.209.

6. Scholem, Gershom; Sabbatei Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1677, op.cit., p.929.

7. Lenowitz, Harris; The Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights, op.cit., p.173.

8. Scholem, Gershom; The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality, op.cit., p.124.

9. Jacobs, Louis; Jewish Mystical Testimonies, op.cit., pp.142-3.

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