Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

5 Iyar 5769 - Arpil 30, 2009 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Modern-Day Remnants of Shabsai Tzvi Followers

By Chaim Feldman

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.

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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