Reb Yakov Leib HaKohain, Founder & Spiritual Director

It is commonly held (usually on the basis of "conventional wisdom" and hearsay rather than historical scholarship) that Sabbatai Zevi's "conversion" to Islam was an act of cowardice that betrayed the Jewish people. However, this raises four questions:

  1. Was he, as we are expected to believe, unaware of the reason for which the Sultan of Turkey had summoned him for an audience? That is, to force him into apostasy.

  2. Was there any significance to the highly-suggestive title bestowed upon him by the Sultan following his conversion -- i.e., that of Kapici Bashi, or "Keeper of the Gate?" Or are we to believe, as most historians including Scholem imply, that the title was purely honorary and without significance?

  3. Why, following Sabbatai's Shahada, did the Sultan permit him to continue functioning as a Jew in the very Messianic activities for which he had supposedly threatened to punish him with death -- after a period of time, exiling him to Dulcigno for his Jewish-Messianic posturing, but nonetheless tacitly permitting him to continue in it even after that?

  4. What form of Islam, if any, did Sabbatai practice after his presumed "conversion" to it? Scholem and others are strangely quiet on this point, but our Chaver, Professor Avraham Elqayam (a noted Sabbatian scholar in his own right) has recently informed us all that after making Shahada to Islam, Sabbatai actively practiced Shi'i Bektashi Sufi, which was somewhat strange since the Sultan himself (on whose continuing good favor Sabbatai's life presumably depended) was a member of the opposing Sunni sect.

In what follows, I propose to show -- on the basis of historical facts rather than commonly held beliefs -- that this "conversion" was not an act of cowardice, but in fact one of the mystical ma'asim zarim (strange actions) that he and Nathan of Gaza believed the Messiah was destined to perform, based on their reading of the Kabbalah. Such an explanation suggests that the collapse of Sabbatai Zevi's world-wide movement, and almost of Judaism itself, resulted not so much from what Sabbatai did as from the inability of the Jewish people to understand and accept it. In other words, it was not Sabbatai Zevi who "betrayed" the Jewish people, but they who misunderstood and, therefore, abandoned him.

As we know from the historical record, the Sultan of Turkey bestowed the royal title, Kapici Bashi ("Keeper of the Gate") upon Sabbatai Zevi following his Shahada (conversion) to Islam; however, I propose to show that he did so with the full knowledge that such a title, bestowed upon such a widely-acclaimed Holy Man (possibly even the "Mahdi," or Messiah, of Islam itself), would have significant symbolic meaning to the Bektashi Sufi of the Ottoman Empire, and did so for that very reason. The significance of this is that it strongly suggests that the Sultan acknowledged, at least tacitly, the divine mission of Sabbatai Zevi and was prepared to use it for his own purposes -- and this took place within the context of the following historical events:

  1. The Ottoman Empire was collapsing at the time of Sabbatai Zevi, and the Shi'i Bektashi Sufi took this opportunity to infiltrate and dominate its administrative infrastructure, thereby achieving a kind of bloodless, administrative coup.

  2. Like their Shi'i brothers, the Ismailis, the Bektashi referred to their Imam as "The Gate of God."

  3. Prior to Shahada, interaction between Sabbatai Zevi and the Bektashi is unknown; but following his conversion (and receipt of the royal title, "Keeper of the Gate"), he establishes contact with them and begins engaging frequently in their Sufi rituals. (Source: Prof. Avraham Elqayam)

  4. The figure of al-Khadir, the "Green Man," plays a prominent role in Islamic mysticism, most likely originating from Jewish legends, and is associated with the Muslim Mahdi in the same way that Elijah is associated with the Jewish Messiah. (Source: Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam and Prof. Elqayam)

  5. According to ancient Jewish prophecy, the Messiah will enter Jerusalem riding a white horse, led by a descendant of Ishmael (i.e., an Arab) who holds the horse's bridle. Although Muslim custom strictly forbade a Jew of the time from riding on a horse, Sabbatai Zevi demands and is given permission by the Sultan to ride in state to their meeting on a white stallion. In addition, he wears a "green mantle," already associated in Islam with al-Khadir and the "new age" of the Mahdi. (Source: Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah)

  6. Upon his conversion to Islam, Sabbatai is given the Arabic name, Aziz Mehemet (i.e., "Power of Muhammad") and is appointed to the honorary royal office of Kapici Bashi, or "Keeper of the Gate," a title strikingly similar to that of the Imam in Sufi, "Gate of God." (Ibid, Gershom Scholem)

  7. Although nominally a Muslim, Sabbatai openly continues his messianic posturing as a Jew under the very nose of the Sultan of Turkey who had only recently threatened to execute him for doing the same, but now seems to turn a blind eye to it. However, for some reason (possibly that Sabbatai had failed in his undercover mission to the Bektashi) the Sultan can no longer seem to ignore Sabbatai's activities, but rather than executing him as one would expect, banishes him to Dulcigno where Sabbatai continues in his Jewish-Messianic activities. (ibid, Scholem)

  8. Following his Shahada, not only did Sabbatai refrain from actively practicing nominal Islam -- openly remaining both a Jew and a Jewish Messianic figure -- but he never became a "missionary" for Islam to his fellow Jews as some contemporary, fundamentalist Muslims would like to believe. This is all the more interesting since conventional wisdom holds that Sabbatai converted to Islam because the Sultan threatened him with death if he did not do so; but had that been so, it seems strange that the Sultan did not execute Sabbatai for reneging on his alleged vow to be a good Muslim -- particularly in light of the fact that the punishment by Islamic law for a convert who later separates himself from Islam (as Sabbatai did) is death.

In the next section, I'll discuss how these historical data seem to corroborate my hypothesis that the Shahada of Sabbatai Zevi may have been a prearranged event between him and the Sultan of Turkey in which both men saw it as a means to an end -- in the case of the Sultan, political, and in the case of Sabbatai, religious -- and which, in any case, seems to suggest that the Sultan, at least tacitly, may have accepted much of Sabbatai Zevi's messianic claims, particularly as they related to Islamic prophesies of the Mahdi among Shi'ite Muslims such as the Bektashi who appear to have been posing a threat to the Sultan's rule at the time.

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"I am the city of knowledge and 'Ali is its gate'. Let those who want to acquire knowledge approach the city by its proper gate." -- Islamic Hadith (Sayings attributed to Muhammad)

So what can we conclude regarding our hypothesis that the Sultan of Turkey may have bestowed the royal title of Kapici Bashi ("Keeper of the Gate") on Sabbatai Zevi following his "conversion" to Islam because he, the Sultan, understood it to be connotatively similar to the title "Gate of God" used by the Shi'i Muslims (of whom the Bektashi Sufis were a part) to refer to their Imam, whom they considered part of a Trinity including Allah and Muhammad? Namely, we can conclude:

  • Being Shi'ite Muslims and Imamis, the Bektashis understood the Imam to be the "Gate of God" and dispenser of His Noor, or Divine Light. For example, the Imam Ja'afar as-Sadiq (of whom the Bektashi could not help but have been aware, if not necessarily followers) proclaimed: "We are the Gate of God, His evidence, the guarantors of His creatures, the Keepers of His secret and the depositories of His knowledge." (Da'a'im 1:72) Thus, the Bektashi might have made a connotative connection between the title "Keeper of the Gate," as bestowed upon Sabbatai by the Sultan of Turkey, and that of "Gate of God" as used by the Shi'i Imams. In support of this, Gibb and Kramers write, "In their secret doctrines [the Bektashya] are Shi'ites, acknowledging the twelve imams . . The center of their worship is [as in Ismailism] 'Ali [the first Imam, or "Gate of God"]; they unite [as do the Ismailis] 'Ali with Allah and Muhammad as a trinity." (Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, p. 61)

  • The Bektasiyya had a long history of involvement in Jewish Kabbalah that would have predisposed them -- at least in the Sultan's mind and possibly that of Sabbatai himself -- to accepting the latter, a Kabbalistic avatar, as the "Keeper" of the Imam's "Gate of God." For example, Professor Farhad Daftary writes, "Several extremist movements with Shi'i tendencies appeared in Persia . . . . [and] in particular the Hurufi movement [of] Fadl Allah Astarabadi who was born in 740/1339 into an Imami family . . . The Hurufis, with their strong cabalistic-Gnostic tendencies . . . spread to Anatolia [which] soon became the main stronghold of Hurufism, and the Hurufi doctrines were adopted there by several Sufi orders, especially by the Bektashiyya. Subsequently, the Hurufis disappeared in Persia, but their [cabalistic] doctrines have continued to be upheld by the Bektashi dervishes of Turkey." (The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines, p.455)

There is some evidence of collusion between the Sultan and Sabbatai (possibly arranged by Nathan) on the issue of the latter's presumably "forced" conversion to Islam -- at least in the sense that Sabbatai may have known it was for that reason he was being called to an audience with the Sultan. For example, Sabbatai wears a "green mantle" (symbolic of the Qur'anic messianic figure Al-Khadir, the "Green Man," and also, in Scholem's words, of Sabbatai's own "mystical intentions") and says to his followers as he departs for the Sultan:

"Behold what I have done; I am going to the king [girt] with a miserable and green belt, and I am much distressed by this." (Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, page 674)

thus strongly suggesting that he was aware of his forthcoming conversion. Of the "green mantle" worn by Sabbatai, Gershom Scholem writes:

"The choice of color is not explained, although Muslim influence may be assumed. In Muslim tradition green is the symbolic color of Paradise [as well as of Al-Khadir]; the green robe would thus signify the robe of Paradise, and the garment of the new age" (Ibid, p. 242)

again strongly suggesting that Sabbatai knew in advance that he would be called upon by the Sultan to convert to Islam, and that this was part of his own messianic scheme of things.

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These considerations are far more than academic. They point to the possibility that -- contrary to the judgment of popular belief -- Sabbatai's conversion to Islam was neither unexpected by him nor an "act of cowardice," but an anticipated (and possibly arranged) event in his unfolding messianic scenario (much like the crucifixion of Jesus), the "reward" for which would be his symbolic appointment by the Sultan as "Kapici Bashi," or "Keeper of the Gate [of God?]." This would have served Sabbatai's messianic ambition to "retrieve the fallen sparks from among the Gentiles," while also serving the Sultan's political need, as a Sunni Muslim, to curb the growing influence of the Shi'ite Bektashis to whom he sent Sabbatai armed with his highly-suggestive royal title. If so, it was an event that backfired -- just as it did when Jesus proclaimed to his Jewish disciples, "Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life" and, as a result, "Many of his [Jewish] disciples left him and stopped going with him" (John 5:53-66).

Thus, it may not have been that Sabbatai Zevi "betrayed" the Jewish people, as commonly believed, but that the Jewish people did not understand what he had done -- and, therefore, the Ruach HaMashiach ("Soul of the Messiah"), peeking its head out of the womb that Sabbatai had become, saw that "this generation was not worthy to receive it" and -- as the Talmud tells us it would under such a circumstance -- withdrew until another time when it would be. Even, perhaps, our own.

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The Hurufis, with their strong cabalistic-Gnostic tendencies, adopted the batini ta'wil and stressed the hidden meaning of the letters (haruf) whence the name of the sect." (Prof. Daftary, The Ismailis, p. 455.)

From this and other sources, it appears that the Hurufi Sufis, and the Bektashiya after them, probably adopted the theosophical teachings of Kabbalah (most likely from Merkabah, which is the oldest form of Jewish mysticism, and from the Sefer Yetzirah) and the interpretation of the "hidden meanings" of scripture through Gematria and letter magic, such as that which formed the basis of Abraham Abulafia's "ecstatic Kabbalah." In this regard, the Islamic scholar, Moojan Momen, writes:

"[Harufism] claimed to be able to reveal the true inner meaning of the Qur'an and the religious observances of Islam. This interpretation (ta'wil) involves an elaboration of the mystical significance of [dreams], numbers, letters, and the parts of the body." (An Introduction to Shi'i Islam, p. 100.)

Also in this regard, it is interesting to note that Abulafia died in 1291 and Fadl Allah, founder of the Hurufis (from whom the Bektashis eventually evolved) was born less than 50 years later in 1339. Abulafia stressed the practice of reciting the mystical names of God in order to achieve states of ecstasy, a practice now common among the Bektashis. In addition, whole sections of the Zohar are devoted to a mystical interpretation of "the parts of the body" as is the remarkable treatise, Shiur Komah.

However, more important than these particulars is the fact that such a grounding in Jewish Kabbalah would most likely predispose the Bektashiya to Sabbatai Zevi, since he was being universally acclaimed at the time as a "Madhi" who embodied the Shi'ite Noor, or "Divine Light" of God/Allah.

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"Yakov Leib has revealed very deep insight by his conception of Sabbatai Sevi as 'The Gate of God'". -- Prof. Avraham Elqayam

Elsewhere, our friend and Donmeh-West Chaver, Prof. Avraham Elqayam (a leading scholar of Jewish mysticism), has pointed out that Sabbatai Zevi had little if any known contacts with the Shi'i Bektashi Sufis prior to his conversion before the sultan; however AFTER his conversion, he had numerous contacts with them -- and, in fact, the so-called "Second," R. Baruchiah, became a Bektashi and was buried in their graveyard.

It strikes me as improbable that the Sultan of Turkey was oblivious to the symbolic and connotative meaning the Bektashi (who were, of course, connected to the Ismailis) would have attached to the title "Keeper of the Gate" that he conferred upon Sabbatai, even though he himself may not have seen in it the same religious significance as they. Now, scholars are quick to point out that this title was largely honorific and not terribly theological in meaning. For example, Professor Dror Ze'evi, professor of Middle eastern studies at Ben Gurion University in Israel, writes:

"As far as I know the Kapici Bashi is indeed "keeper of the Gate" (or to be more accurate: "Head Keeper of the Gate"). Originally this was a small guard force in the palace, and I think that by the seventeenth century it became an honorific which did not carry any specific duties in the palace. I do not know of any theological significance attached to the title, apart from the fact that all servants of the sultan, by their proximity to him, were somewhat revered and respected. Since the palace itself was a simile for paradise, and the gate was usually referred to as 'the threshold of happiness', the Gate Keepers may be likened to the angels watching the entrance to paradise. Although I know this was a popular metaphor, I don't think it was ever articulated to this degree. There was never, to the best of my knowledge, any serious attempt to develop this metaphor to such an extent, and the Ottomans were usually much too practical to attach deep theological significance to what they saw as a very worldly affair." (Correspondence with Prof. Boaz Huss)

Although what Prof. Ze'evi writes about the title of Kapaci Bashi may certainly have been true prior to its having been bestowed on Sabbatai Zevi, that does not mean it was also so during and after. It must be remembered that Sabbatai Zevi was no ordinary public figure at the time, but a widely acclaimed Jewish "Mhadi" who was causing world-wide messianic fervor among Jews, Christians and Muslims. For example, Gershom Scholem writes:

"Unexpected propagandists [for Sabbatai Zevi] appeared on the scene: for example, several [Bektashi] dervishes prophesied the fall of the Turkish empire and the return of the kingdom of the Jews [through him]....This particular detail seems to be confirmed by a letter sent to Amsterdam in July, 1666. R. Tobias Kohen also reports that there were Muslims who believed in Sabbatai and that the Turkish authorities were alarmed at this." (Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, Princeton University Press, 1978, pp. 631-632)

Thus, the issue here is not the literal denotative meaning of Kapici Bashi, but the connotative message it would convey at that time, to those people concerning a specific mystagogue, Sabbatai Zevi, whom the entire Jewish world, and much of the Muslim, was literally going into hysterics over as the Messiah. For example, Rabbi Leib ben Ozer, a witness at the time, wrote:

"And [Sabbatai Zevi's Messianic advent] is one of the greatest occurrences, clearly supernatural . . . It happened in many places, in Izmir and in Constantinople and in Adrianople and in Salonika, that prophets [proclaiming Sabbatai Zevi the Messiah] arose in hundreds and thousands, women and men, boys and girls, and even little children; all of them prophesied in the holy tongue and in the language of the Zohar as well, and none of them knew a letter of Hebrew and all the less so of the language of the Zohar. And this is how it would be: they would fall to the ground like someone struck with epilepsy, foam would come from their mouths, and they would have convulsions and speak secrets of the Kabbalah in the holy tongue concerning many matters, and what they said, each in his own way was this: The reign of Shabtai Zvi, or lord, our king, our messiah, has been revealed in heaven and Earth and he has received the crown of kingship from Heaven . . . And wherever you went you heard nothing but that Mr. So-and-So had become a prophet and that Miss So-and-So had become a prophetess; and here there was a company of prophets, some prophesying in one way and others in another, but the sum of the matter was always that Shabtai Zvi was the messiah and our righteous redeemer." (Quoted in The Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights, Professor Harris Lenowitz, Oxford University Press, 1998.)

It is one thing, therefore, for the Sultan to confer the title "Keeper of the Gate" on a family relative or court favorite, for example, but quite another for him to confer it on a widely-acclaimed, messianic personality such as Sabbatai Zevi -- particularly when, as even Prof. Ze'evi points out, "The [Sultan's] palace...was [seen by Muslims of the Ottoman Empire as] a simile for paradise, and the gate [to it] was usually referred to as 'the threshold of happiness', [therefore] the 'Gate Keepers' [Kapici Bashi] may be likened to the angels watching the entrance to paradise."

I think it critically important to remember that it was in this context of messianic fervor -- a fervor that had spilled over into the Christian and Islamic worlds -- and this connotative relationship in the minds of Muslims between the Sultan's "palace," its "gate" and the "keeper" of that gate as an "angel watching over paradise" -- that the Sultan of Turkey bestowed the suggestive title of Kapici Bashi on Sabbatai Zevi following his conversion to Islam.

This leads us to the question: What was the nature of the relationship between the Sultan of Turkey and the Bektashi Sufis at that time? And could he, the Sultan, possibly have seen Sabbatai Zevi -- armed by him with virtually the identical title as that of the Shi'i Ismaili Imams -- as a tool by which he could control the Bektashi who were, as we have pointed out earlier, posing a political threat to his rule? After all, as Scholem points out, the Ottoman rulers were highly aware of Sabbatai's powerful impact not only on the Jews of their realm, but also its Muslims. If so, this could account for the curious fact that the Sultan permitted Sabbatai to continue in his role as the Jewish Messiah, even after he "exiled" him to Dulcigno (where there were and remain to this day, many Bektashi Sufi) and where he continued to openly receive his Jewish Ma'aminim ("Believers"). His own brother, we are told, marveled that Sabbatai was not executed by the Sultan but held in good regard by him, instead, even up to his death.

To summarize, although Kapici Bashi was an honorary title commonly given by the Sultan to special individuals, it undoubtedly had very different connotations when given to a man such as Sabbatai Sevi, whom the Sultan seems to have grudgingly viewed with religious awe, at least according to some accounts. Moreover, Kapici Bashi, "Keeper of the Gate," was also the title of several Sufi Imams, and it is more than likely that this would not have been missed by the Bektashi Sufis, whom the Sultan considered a threat at the time, and with whom Sabbatai began associating after receiving that same title from him.

And finally, it should also be noted that Sabbatai, according to his contemporary Rabbi Leib ben Ozer, was particularly prone to singing Psalm 118 -- 'Here is the Gate of Righteousness that the righteous may enter' -- when he was in states of extreme mystical ecstasy, punctuating it with the exclamation, in Hebrew, 'I shall rise! I shall rise!'"

| Sabbatai Zevi | Jacob Frank | Reb Yakov Leib HaKohain |
| A Critical Re-Assessment of Sabbatai Zevi |
| Reb Yakov Leib HaKohain's Professions of a Holy Sinner |
| The Zohar |
| Knowing the Unknowable |
| A Brief Note on Enlightenment |
| A Neo-Sabbatian Discourse on the Son of God |
| A Primer of "Yalhakian" Neo-Sabbatian Kabbalah |
| Participating in the Continuing Incarnation of God |
| Sabbatai Zevi's 'God of the Faith' | Evolution of the Ego |
| Two Torahs of Kabbalah: Torah D'Atziluth & Torah D'Beriah |
| On the Limits of Antinomianism | The Transformation of God |
| Commentary on the 13th Century "Treatise on the Left Emanation" |
| A Selection of Neo-Sabbatian Quotations Culled from Various Sources |
| Commentaries on Rabbi Azriel of Gerona's 12th Century Text, "Explanation of the Ten Sefirot" |
| Kabbalistic Genetics of the Holy Seed & Reclaiming the Lost Sheep of the House of Israel |
| A Commentary on the Book of Job | Kabbalah and the Interpretation of Dreams |
| To Die for the People: A Kabbalistic Reinterpretation of the Crucifixion of Jesus |
| The Shemot Shel Katzar Tikkunim: Revealing the Concealed Names of God |
| The Christian Myth of Melchizedek vs. Hereditary Jewish Priesthood |
| The Apocrypha of Jacob Frank | The Tikkun of Raising Animals |
| Appointment in Smyrna: A Neo-Sabbatian Odyssey |
| Sabbatai Zevi and the Mystery of the Red Heifer |
| The Kabbalah of the Hindu Mantra "OM" |
| The Mystery of the Middle Column |
| The Hidden Structures of Water |
| Exegesis on the Rod of Aaron |
| Book of Silence |
| Ten Sefirot of Jewish Kabbalah | Sufi Lion of Bektashi Islam |
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