Mystery in History

Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah

by Gershom Scholem, translated by R.J. Werblowsky
Princeton, 1040, 15 plates pp., $25.00

I: A Jewish Messiah

I must begin this review with an apology. Being unable to read Hebrew and Aramaic, I have no firsthand knowledge of the main sources of professor Scholem’s book; indeed what little acquaintance I have with Jewish religious thought comes almost entirely from his other works, supported by some reading of the inadequate and mostly incomplete English and Latin translations of a few Cabalistic writings. My only excuses for writing this review are that nearly all other historians of European thought are in the same boat and that I hope I may be able at least to encourage others to read this immensely important and fascinating book. Some encouragement may be necessary, since a book a thousand pages long is daunting, and its subject is not widely known. I shall not therefore attempt to criticize it—to do so would be presumptuous and silly; and I shall concentrate on those aspects which are of particular interest to the historian of Christianity.

This book is a translation of Scholem’s Hebrew work on Sabbatai Sevi, the Jewish mystic who in 1665 proclaimed himself the Messiah. It was published in 1957, but it has been considerably expanded because since then important new sources have come to light, in particular documents from the archives of a secret group of Sabbatai’s followers who had survived at Salonika into the 1920s, documents which were not discovered until 1960. Professor Werblowsky’s translation reads excellently, and, since the author has revised the whole of it, we may trust its accuracy. It must have been a colossal task, and the translator deserves the gratitude of the scholarly world. The original book, as Scholem tells us in his preface, had begun as a projected history of the whole course of the Sabbatian movement; but, to his surprise, he found such a wealth of unexplored or misinterpreted material on Sabbatai’s life and the movement during his lifetime that he was obliged to limit himself to a period bounded by Sabbatai’s death in 1676, or rather by that of his prophet, Nathan of Gaza in 1680, and it is here that the book ends.

Scholem tells us, however, that he hopes to “be able to complete at a later time a sequel covering the history of Sabbatianism in its various forms after the death of Sabbatai Sevi—its conflicts, its metamorphoses, and its reverberations.” Until the realization of this project, which I very much hope will be sooner than later, we can get some idea of the further developments of the movement from the collection of Scholem’s essays entitles The Messianic Idea in Judaism (1971) and from the later chapters of his classic Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Some knowledge of these developments is necessary in order to see the true historical importance of Sabbatianism, though the story told in the present book is indeed in itself important and surprising enough. This story I must now very briefly summarize so that the reader may know what I am talking about.

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.