Born in Smyrna, Turkey, in 1626, Shabbetai Zvi was considered a promising Talmudic scholar who showed strong skills in the study of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). However, he was noted early on for somewhat erratic behavior, such as staging a “wedding” with himself as bridegroom and the Torah as bride (for which he was expelled from Salonica, Greece).
After making his way to Israel, Shabbetai Zvi met his great “prophet,” Nathan of Gaza. In 1665, Shabbetai Zvi “revealed” himself as the long awaited Messiah.
Extremely charismatic, Shabbetai Zvi drew a large following (mainly in Turkey but there were followers as far away as Amsterdam). Having declared himself Messiah, Shabbetai Zvi abolished the fast of the Ninth of Av (commemorating the destruction of the Temples) and announced that he would take back Jerusalem and re-establish the dynasty of King David.
The Land of Israel, at the time, was controlled by the Ottoman Turks, and the Sultan was not happy with Shabbetai Zvi’s declarations. The Sultan arrested Shabbetai Zvi and demanded that he either recant and convert to Islam or die. Shabbetai Zvi chose conversion.
Strangely, there were still Jews who believed that he was the Messiah. They said that Shabbetai Zvi had to enter into the depths of darkness in order to extract the sparks of good. It was only after the Sultan actually had Shabbetai Zvi beheaded that most Jews were finally convinced that he was not the Messiah. Some Jews, sadly, could not be dissuaded from their belief in Shabbetai Zvi , no matter how great the proof.
Unfortunately, many of Shabbetai Zvi’s followers had already given up their money and their homes and had gone into exile to follow him. His betrayal was devastating.