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New York - Modern-Day Remnants of Shabsai Tzvi Followers

Published on: May 8, 2009 12:24 PM
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some claim this to be the photo of Shabsai TzviNew York - At the end of Cheshvan 5764 (November 2003) Muslim suicide bombers carried out truck-bomb attacks at two prominent botei knesses in Istanbul. A terrorist organization called the Great Eastern Islamic Raiders’ Front claimed responsibility for the attacks.

The antisemitic press release the organization issued to the world media afterwards, included the claim that “the Jews have been bringing corruption and moral depravity into Turkey ever since they converted to Islam in the days of Shabsai Tzvi.”

Even now that several years have gone by since the bombing attacks, the harsh remarks go even beyond provocative articles in the Muslim press and sometimes make their way into the urban landscape in the form of graffiti.

Although in the Jewish world Sabbateanism faded within a few generations and then died out, within Islam the Sabbateans demonstrated much greater staying power. Among all the remnants of Sabbateanism, the most degenerate group of all, a cult called Donmeh made up of Jews who converted to Islam, lasted the longest and lives on even to this day in Turkey.

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The present article on the enigmatic cult is taken largely from a chapter of Meshichei Hasheker Umisnagdeihem, now scheduled to be released in a new edition. The book was written by Rav Binyomin Shlomo Hamburger, head of Machon Moreshet Ashkenaz, who has spent much of the last 20 years researching false messiahs since the first edition of his work.

The cult’s founder was the last father-in-law of Shabsai Tzvi, who was named Yosef Philosoph, and who remained faithful to the false messiah even after his conversion to Islam and his fall from grace in the eyes of his followers. At the end of his lifetime he joined Shabsai Tzvi when the latter was banished to a castle in Dulcigno in present-day Montenegro.

Shabsai Tzvi’s death should have put his terrible lie to rest, but the Philosoph family fought to lionize him by disseminating wondrous stories claiming that Shabsai Tzvi had been resurrected from the dead, and describing miraculous deeds he had supposedly performed. Following “prophecies” by Sabbatean seers in which the spirit of Shabsai Tzvi supposedly appeared to them and instructed them to convert to Islam, in Salonica 200-300 families converted in 5403 (1743).

Jewish in origin but outwardly Islamic — and inwardly Sabbatean to the core — once the cult formed power struggles began over the question of who would be the heir to the messianic throne following Shabsai Tzvi’s demise. These struggles were built around “kabbalistic” disputes over the essence of the Moshiach. Their inability to reach a consensus led to a schism, causing the Donmeh cult to split into three branches: Jakubi, Karakashi and Kapangi. These three bitter rival groups were joined by a group of families known as Lechli, i.e. Ashkenazi, a collection of Sabbateans from Poland, Hungary, Moldavia and Wallachia (a region in southern Romania), who immigrated to Turkey to join their fellow believers, the Sabbateans.

Outwardly members of the Donmeh cult closely adhere to Islam, but in secret many of their customs and rituals retain hints of Sabbateanism and Judaism. Their veiled Judaism focuses on their twisted version of Kabbalah and the “inner workings” of the Torah as opposed to the halachic Judaism passed down through the generations. To remove all suspicions among Muslim Turks, they fulfill the five tenets of Islam and even agreed to adapt marriage, divorce, burial and other practices to Sharia law. They learned to stop observing Shabbos and Jewish holidays in public, to eat non-kosher foods and to transgress numerous other Torah commandments. They built mosques to demonstrate their devotion to Islam, but within, they took advantage of the opportunity to bond among themselves while remaining apart from true Islam.

Turkish authorities took note of their isolation from Muslims, placed them under suspicion and interrogated them. One ruler even sought to wipe them out. But most considered them Muslims to a certain extent, though not devout Muslims. Muslim extremists treated them with hostility and as betrayers of pure Islam. In Salonica their Jewish neighbors considered them outright heretics and whenever they were spotted in botei knesses based on their manner of greeting or their narrow, flat-heeled shoes the Jews would drive them out.

Because of the need to hide their identity, Donmeh children grow up wholly unaware of the cult’s existence, its ways and its Jewish origins. Only when they reach adolescence are they introduced to it and secretly taught its beliefs and rituals, and then they come to understand the whispering and other odd behavior they noticed in their parents over the years, and realize why they were treated with disdain by Muslims. Some celebrate a rite of passage akin to a bar mitzvah, held in the presence of communal elders, whereas others wait until the wedding day to reveal to the bride and groom the tenets of Sabbateanism, swearing them to secrecy. From that point on they are allowed to join the secret congregation.

A small number of learned adherents are given “holy” books after swearing to conceal them “to avert disaster.” Revealing their secrets is tantamount to treason and is punishable by death. According to one of their teachings, “It is not a sin to kill a believer in Shabsai Tzvi who reveals the secrets of his religion. Despise this traitor. He should even be killed if he endangers Shabsai Tzvi believers.”

This belief is joined by another of their tenets: “G-d prohibits the believers from drinking intoxicating beverages.” They are even more stringent in their avoidance of alcohol than the Muslims who instilled the prohibition in them, based on fears of “nichnas yayin, yotzo sod.” According to reports they have indeed put to death those who have uncovered their secrets. They always held prayers under lock and key in the apartments and basements of prominent members, even out of sight of most Donmeh.

Because of their highly secretive nature, estimates of their numbers, both past and present, are sketchy. Some place them in the mere hundreds, whereas others claim over 3,000 still exist. According to other estimates there are as many as 30,000 Donmeh adherents, in addition to similar numbers that have assimilated. Some Donmeh place the figure as high as 100,000. As part of their scare tactics, radical Muslims in Turkey claim they number several hundred thousand.

Today Donmeh are found in Turkey, the Balkans, Israel and the US. Their descendants include one of the heads of the Conservative Movement in England and a reform rabbi in London. Some claim there is a secret Donmeh house of worship in Lugano, Switzerland.



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Read Comments (22)  —  Post Yours »

1

 May 08, 2009 at 11:30 AM Anonymous Says:

PLEASE NOCOMMETS

2

 May 08, 2009 at 11:35 AM scholar Says:

Shabtei Zvi died nearly 350 years ago. At his height, most all Jews from Poland to Yemen believed he was the Moshiach. Wild rumors circulated in Europe such as the return of the 10 tribes with armies, and other miracles. A great number of Jews believed the rumors. Kabbalah scholars used gematria to "prove" that Shabtai Zvi was the messiah. There was a great Tshuva movement at the time, with people giving up their jobs, a return to intense learning and physical mortifications such as self-whipping and rolling around in the snow. A minority of rabbis were opposed to the movement but most Jews believed. In the end, Shabtai Zvi was imprisoned by the Turks and offered a choice of death by torture or conversion to Islam. He converted. Many Jews followed him. A great feeling of sadness returned to the Jewish world as the truth of Shabtai Zvi became known.

3

 May 08, 2009 at 11:52 AM Anonymous Says:

Are they related to aseres hashvotim? And maybe Obama belongs to this sect that's the secrecy around his religion(like not attending prayer breakfast) because he's not a true muslem?

4

 May 08, 2009 at 11:56 AM Charlie Hall Says:

I'm not sure this article presents an accurate portrayal of the Donmeh. None other than Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) was educated in a Donmeh school and might have even been from a Donmeh family (evidence is unclear). His beliefs and practices certainly are not consistent with this portrayal.

5

 May 08, 2009 at 11:43 AM Anonymous Says:

can we do a article on the conversos in new mexico and south america with whole villages following customs what about the stone with the ten commandments found in new mexico dating at least 1500 years

6

 May 08, 2009 at 01:06 PM Avrohom Abba Says:

In Nokdim, Israel, there is a large group of geirim who used to be Christians in Peru, South America. Their leader told them all to convert just like he became a Jew. Today, they all are shomer Torah and mitzvos and they all doven every day in the Orthodox shul. Most people even in Israel don't even know about them. I saw them and met there while visiting my relatives. It is amazing! They actually look like South American Indians and each one has an amazing storuy. This all began about 25 years ago.

7

 May 08, 2009 at 01:03 PM Moshe Says:

Reply to #5  
Anonymous Says:

can we do a article on the conversos in new mexico and south america with whole villages following customs what about the stone with the ten commandments found in new mexico dating at least 1500 years

Now we have meshichists

8

 May 08, 2009 at 01:21 PM More Comedy? Says:

This is just what I needed -- a good laugh !!! I have never ever seen a story about these people anywhere and I am very well read. This is just more shtus. But if tidbits are true who can be surprised. Are we not the most amazing Nation in the world? Even meshugas like these don't even go away !!! Just what we need. More Yiddishe meshugas !!! Gut Shabbos Yidden !

9

 May 08, 2009 at 01:53 PM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #8  
More Comedy? Says:

This is just what I needed -- a good laugh !!! I have never ever seen a story about these people anywhere and I am very well read. This is just more shtus. But if tidbits are true who can be surprised. Are we not the most amazing Nation in the world? Even meshugas like these don't even go away !!! Just what we need. More Yiddishe meshugas !!! Gut Shabbos Yidden !

You are an idiot. Read more.

10

 May 08, 2009 at 02:18 PM APY Says:

They believe as Christians, pretend as Muslims, behave like Morons in Spain, but are Jews.

11

 May 08, 2009 at 02:17 PM Chaim L Says:

This is the most fascinating article I've read in quite a while.
Thank you.

12

 May 08, 2009 at 02:05 PM SimchaB Says:

I remember reading a story about them about 15 years ago in the New York Slimes. By the way if they don't snap out of it who knows where the radical meshichistim (elohistim) from Lubavich will wind up.

13

 May 08, 2009 at 02:24 PM z Says:

Reply to #8  
More Comedy? Says:

This is just what I needed -- a good laugh !!! I have never ever seen a story about these people anywhere and I am very well read. This is just more shtus. But if tidbits are true who can be surprised. Are we not the most amazing Nation in the world? Even meshugas like these don't even go away !!! Just what we need. More Yiddishe meshugas !!! Gut Shabbos Yidden !

Apparently you're not as well read as you think you are. I've known about them for quite a while and I don't even consider myself that well read eithe.

14

 May 08, 2009 at 04:33 PM bigwheeel Says:

Reply to #10  
APY Says:

They believe as Christians, pretend as Muslims, behave like Morons in Spain, but are Jews.

...You [probably] meant "Moors" or "Marranos". I don't know about the first. But the latter definition is sure not a nice one. It's what the spaniards called the "conversos", or converted Jews. Its literal meaning is "pigs"!!!

15

 May 08, 2009 at 04:28 PM bigwheeel Says:

Reply to #8  
More Comedy? Says:

This is just what I needed -- a good laugh !!! I have never ever seen a story about these people anywhere and I am very well read. This is just more shtus. But if tidbits are true who can be surprised. Are we not the most amazing Nation in the world? Even meshugas like these don't even go away !!! Just what we need. More Yiddishe meshugas !!! Gut Shabbos Yidden !

...Then you are not that well read...!!! A curious, well read person wants to read and hear about new things in life he might have missed...Gut Shabbessss....!!! On another level, it appears you're afraid of something!!!!........

16

 May 08, 2009 at 05:02 PM Anonymous Says:

There are errors and gaps in this article. The first thing is that the first Jews to become Muslims did so at the request of Shabtai, yimach shmo, in 1671. They were to "assist him" in recovering the sparks for the Geulah. This was while he was located in prison at Migdal Oz in Edirne. However, his own "conversion" is something of a mystery, because he did not recite the Muslim statement of faith, only took a turban, and then resorted to keeping the Torah shortly thereafter, which would have been considered punishable by death. In any event, other Jews converted in 1682 after the expected time of the Geulah according to their calculations. This happened in Salonika after Shabtai had died and some non-converts believed that his sould resided in his brother-in-law, the 20 year old Yaakov Querido Filosof, the son of Yosef FIlosof and brother of Shabtai's last wife.

As is often the case among Yidden, the two groups did not get along and I assume they considered each other to be heretics. But this wasn't the end of the story Some 25 years later some followers of the late leader of the first group (known as Izmirlis) decided that that leader, Baruchia Russo who used the name Osman Baba (who was already dead) had been the incarnation of Shabtai. So many of his relatives and friends broke from the Izmirlis and became known as radicals called Konyosos. The second group is known as Yakovlis.

One of the subjects of disagreement among them all was what extent of Islam they needed to observe to help bring the "Geulah". The Izmirlis wanted to observe just the minimum, and the Yakovlis wanted the maximum. The Konyosos ended up somewhere in the middle. And of course this all revolved around who would be the final Messiah. It isn't so clear that any of them believe that Shabtai will actually come back. It seems he was only one in a chain.

In any case, all the groups had leaders thereafter, such as Mustafa Moshe Celebi, Hasan Celebi, Moshe Mustafa Effendi Aga, Yehuda Levi Tuva, Meir Mehmet Aga, etc. There are probably close to 100,000 in Turkey today (not only Istanbul but even as far away as Kosovo Serbia), half of whom are assimilated, and including some Karaites among them whose ancestors joined also a couple of hundred years ago. Each group has at least one "yeshiva" and leaders who are young and who are called ogans or chachams. The name ogan probably derives from the word gaon.


17

 May 08, 2009 at 05:23 PM fact vs fiction Says:

Reply to #12  
SimchaB Says:

I remember reading a story about them about 15 years ago in the New York Slimes. By the way if they don't snap out of it who knows where the radical meshichistim (elohistim) from Lubavich will wind up.

Sir, I am a Lubavitcher, I' ve been to many Lubavitch communities around the world, and nowhere have I seen or heard of anyone who espouses the word you put in parentheses. This is a pure fantasy. Are there people who believe that the Rebbe is/could be Moshiach? Yes. But this thing "elo....." is completely made up. Maybe you found one in a mental asylum somewhere?

Realizing that there is a limit to how much they can defame Lubavitch based on the Moshiach issue, the haters have added the "elo..." lie.

18

 May 09, 2009 at 11:43 PM heshy Says:

Reply to #17  
fact vs fiction Says:

Sir, I am a Lubavitcher, I' ve been to many Lubavitch communities around the world, and nowhere have I seen or heard of anyone who espouses the word you put in parentheses. This is a pure fantasy. Are there people who believe that the Rebbe is/could be Moshiach? Yes. But this thing "elo....." is completely made up. Maybe you found one in a mental asylum somewhere?

Realizing that there is a limit to how much they can defame Lubavitch based on the Moshiach issue, the haters have added the "elo..." lie.

The group you refer to is also known as "Boreinuniks".There is such a synagogue in Milwaukee.

19

 May 10, 2009 at 12:43 AM Milhouse Says:

Reply to #18  
heshy Says:

The group you refer to is also known as "Boreinuniks".There is such a synagogue in Milwaukee.

There is no such group. It simply doesn't exist. There is no synagogue in Milwaukee, just one meshuggener.

20

 May 10, 2009 at 07:06 AM Anonymous Says:

The meshuggener has or had a shul but no one in that shul of mostly elderly and disadvantaged Russian immigrants understands his "theology".

21

 May 10, 2009 at 01:53 AM Anonymous Says:

We Jews have been burned so badly through the centuries by anti-Semites and sinas chinum and divisiveness from within. I sometimes fear that IY"H when the real Moshiach does appear, there will be so many dissenting opinions that many Jews won't accept him. Maybe that's why we're still in Golus - as a people, we aren't ready to believe.

22

 May 19, 2009 at 02:33 PM Anonymous Says:

The Vilna Gaon and his contemporaries were right about their haromim based upon all of the above.

23

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