Cherchez la femme: Shabtai Zvi and wife no. 3

The story of a young woman named Sarah, who, after orphaned by the Chmielnicki massacres, decides her destiny is to marry the messiah.

painting of Jerusalem 311 (photo credit: Yoram Raanan)
painting of Jerusalem 311
(photo credit: Yoram Raanan)
It isn’t easy to be the wife of a messiah, or even of a false messiah. Nevertheless, a young woman named Sarah decided that this was to be her destiny. She was enthralled with the idea of being the messiah’s bride; her ensuing relationship with her husband was complex and enigmatic.
Needless to say, we lack many of the details of her life or about the couple’s relationship. As the result of the Chmielnicki massacres in Poland in 1648, a Jewish girl and her brother were orphaned. What exactly happened to her? Gershom Scholem (Sabbatai Sevi, The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676, Princeton University Press, 1976) lists four different accounts of the life of the survivor of these terrible pogroms: 1. She is miraculously transported to Persia, brought up in a nunnery from the age of six to 16 at which time her father’s ghost appears and communicates with her. His message is, more or less, to wander the earth until she finds and marries the messiah.
2. Her brother somehow ends up in Amsterdam, so Sarah locates and joins him there.
3. She is brought up by a Polish noblewoman who eventually decides that this attractive young woman is a suitable match for her son. The day before the wedding, Sarah’s father appears and instructs her to leave. She then wanders from Poland to Livorno (Leghorn) to Cairo.
4. The fourth account includes a forcible abduction by a nobleman. Then her father’s ghost, who, by now, is very well-traveled, appears; she dons a heavenly coat which is clearly intended to be worn by the messiah’s bride.
WHERE DOES she go after Poland? She definitely arrived in Amsterdam because Rabbi Jacob Sasportas reported meeting her there in 1655. He is not thrilled with her and described her as not being very bright; he didn’t think she was stable, for she claimed she was destined to marry the king messiah.
She was laughed at, but seemed not to heed the ridicule and proceeded to Livorno, Italy. While residing in Livorno, she continued to claim that her destiny was to marry the messiah. She was apparently quite lovely in appearance and according to Scholem, Shabtai Zvi heard about her; perhaps these claims sparked Sevi's imagination.
How did they meet? Was there a matchmaker involved? Did he send for her to come to him in Egypt? We know that he spent two years in Cairo, arriving in or before 1664. Because he divorced her on their seventh anniversary, their wedding date is known, March 31, 1664. Did he have messianic tendencies prior to hearing about or meeting and marrying her? No one truly knows. Immanuel Frances believed that it was her doing and thus she was behind his decision to declare himself as the messiah. (He also called her a witch, but probably was referring to her fortune-telling.) More conflicting reports exist: she was a virgin and she was a harlot.
Nathan of Gaza had announced that the wife of the messiah would be “the Lady Queen Rebekah.” According to Sasportas, in letters that Sarah wrote to her friends, she signed “Queen Rebekah, the Matrona” or Matronita, which is a kabbalistic name for the shechina, the female aspect of the godhead. She was joining herself to the myth of the messianic bride. While in Smyrna and Aleppo, she was prophesying and announcing her husband as the messiah.
In 1671, Zvi temporarily divorced Sarah; according to Nathan, she “was overcome by the power of the serpent” (See Ada Rapoport-Albert, Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbatai Zevi, 1666-1816. Oxford, 2011; quote on p. 178), and unsuccessfully attempted to poison him. Others claim she was licentious following her apostasy; Zvi used this opportunity to replace her with a fourth wife. Essentially, Sarah rose like the phoenix from the destruction of her Polish world to foster the rise of a messiah and for seven years of her life, she fulfilled that dream.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history and dean at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem as well as academic editor of the journal Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental Jewry and on Jewish women.