The Arty Semite

Eating and Drinking with Shabbetai Zvi

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share
Perkamentus Antiquarian Bookblog

Leyb ben Oyzer’s “Description of Shabbetai Zevi” (Bashraybung fun Shabetai Tsvi) is a fascinating Yiddish text, apparently never wholly translated into English, but available in a sparkling new translation into French by Nathan Weinstock, published in November 2011 by Les éditions Honoré Champion. “Description of Shabbetai Zevi” first appeared in 1718 in Amsterdam, where its author held various responsibilities at the Ashkenazi synagogue.

Ben Oyzer says he interviewed contemporaries of the notorious False Messiah who died in 1676, people who “ate and drank with him,” to understand the staggering historical deception. Its depth of human aspiration and disappointment, ranging from elation to shame, made this text especially compelling to poets, such as Haim Nachman Bialik, who owned the original manuscript for a time, and passed it along to Zalman Shazar, poet and third President of Israel. Shazar’s posthumously published 1978 edition inspired scholar Chava Turniansky to write that “Description of Shabbetai Zevi” ranks as the “first known historical prose narrative written in Yiddish” (previous such narratives survive only in verse).

Weinstock notes that in his 1973 study, “Sabbatai Zevi, the Mystical Messiah,” still available from Princeton University Press Gershom Scholem slates ben Oyzer’s inaccuracies, yet nonetheless cites him dozens of times. With bitter disillusionment, ben Oyzer recounts how he waited forty years after the False Messiah’s disappearance before concluding that his Messianic movement was the “Devil’s work.”

Ben Oyzer depicts the young Shabbetai Zevi as a prodigious biblical scholar, with odd quirks such as marrying two women, but refusing to sleep with them. Ada Rapoport-Albert’s “Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbatai Zevi, 1666-1816” that came out in March 2011 from the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, elucidated these relationships.

Shabbetai Zevi once reputedly cured a man who had fallen off a building by giving him a miraculous piece of sugar. Yet in 1666, when the Turkish grand vizier gave him the choice of being shot with “twenty or thirty poisoned arrows” or converting to Islam, The False Messiah chose the latter option. Most, if not all, of his thousands of followers “died of shame” at this development, and in Turkey, ben Oyzer reports, Jews were taunted with a local word, “puçt” meaning a “homosexual or debauched boy.” More lastingly hurtful, the False Messiah’s legacy sparked ben Oyzer’s hard-won skepticism about any future Messianic claimant, ideally complementing David Halperin’s 2007 collection, “Sabbatai Zevi: Testimonies to a Fallen Messiah,” also from Littman.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Zalman Shazar, Shabbetai Zevi, Chava Turniansky, Nathan Weinstock, Haim Nachman Bialik

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.