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The ninth day of the Jewish month of Av—or Tisha B’av, as it is known in Hebrew—is one of the Jewish year’s two major days of fasting and abstinence (the other being Yom Kippur). The central theme of the Ninth of Av is the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
In the memory of rabbinic tradition, both the first and second iterations of the Beit HaMikdash were razed on this one date hundreds of years apart. Over time, successive catastrophes that befell Jews in the Diaspora, such as the Crusades, the expulsion from Spain, and events related to the Holocaust came to be associated with the date as well. In short, the Ninth of Av has stood since Biblical times as the quintessential day of Jewish communal mourning.
That is, with one minor exception. In one of the more bizarre episodes from the long and varied history of the Jews, a sizable portion of the Jewish population of the Ottoman Empire in the year 1666 observed the Ninth of Av not as a day of fasting and mourning, but of feasting and celebration. How did this come to pass?
The answer revolves around the most famous—and infamous—Jewish messianic character of the medieval period, Shabbatai Zevi. Zevi began to see himself as the long-predicted Jewish messiah around 1648, and revealed this to only a small inner circle in his hometown of Smyrna, in what is now Turkey. Exiled by local rabbinic authorities for his unorthodox claims and behaviors, Zevi departed to Palestine, where a group of Kabbalistic scholars took up his message and formed a movement around him.
In 1665, Zevi publicly declared his messianic identity and mission, instigating a wave of messianic anticipation and fervor that spread to all parts of the Diaspora. Entire Jewish communities across Italy, France, Germany, Netherlands, and throughout the Ottoman Empire readied themselves to be miraculously returned to the Promised Land in 1666. Thought not without fierce opponents, the Sabbatean movement gained such size, power and influence in certain Jewish areas that to oppose it meant excommunication.
Emboldened by this swell of popular support, Zevi’s actions became even more inflammatory. In August 1666, having been imprisoned by the Muslim authorities for sowing political discord, Zevi issued the following edict regarding the Ninth of Av: “And ye shall make it day of great banqueting and rejoicing, with choice food and delicious drinks and many candles and lights, and with many melodies and songs, for it is the birthday of your king Shabbatai Zevi, highest among kings of the earth.”
The move was heavily meaningful for Zevi and his followers. For one, a well-known Talmudic tradition holds that the messiah will eventually be born on the Ninth of Av. Furthermore, since the Ninth of Av represents the start of the Jewish exile, its transformation into a festival signals the advent of the final redemption. Various testimonials verify that the day was indeed observed as a joyous feast in the major Jewish communities of Smyrna and Constantinople, as well as around Palestine and even to some degree in Jerusalem. With little warning, the most sacred and ancient symbol of Jewish national tragedy had been turned on its head.
Incidentally, it was not too long after the Ninth of Av that Zevi’s story took a dramatic turn. In September of 1666, Zevi’s captors offered him the chance to convert to Islam or else be put to death. To the shock and dismay of faithful followers, he chose to accept Islam and live. A small amount of the most devout Sabbateans remained loyal to him even after the conversion, but the vast majority of Jews whose hopes Zevi had ignited and then dashed simply returned to their old lives and traditions.
Zevi’s influence was quickly stamped out and banished to historical memory by his adversaries, but to this day that Ninth of Av in 1666 is a stark reminder of the remarkable power of messianic ideology.
All historical information and analysis cited from: Scholem, Gershom (1973). Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Binyamin Kagedan has an MA in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.