Lost Messiah

Lost Messiah

by John Freely
Rabbi Sabbatai Sevi is one of the most controversial religious figures in all history. In The Lost Messiah, acclaimed author John Freely follows Sevi's trail and the traces of the Jewish cult that grew up around him-one that still inspires belief today. Brilliantly evoking the vanished world of the seventeenth-century Jewish diaspora in the Ottoman Empire, the


Rabbi Sabbatai Sevi is one of the most controversial religious figures in all history. In The Lost Messiah, acclaimed author John Freely follows Sevi's trail and the traces of the Jewish cult that grew up around him-one that still inspires belief today. Brilliantly evoking the vanished world of the seventeenth-century Jewish diaspora in the Ottoman Empire, the narrative moves from Sevi's birthplace in Izmir on the Aegean coast of Turkey, to the ghettos of Venice and Rome, the bazaars of Cairo, and the rabbinical schools of Jerusalem and Safed, all the while placing the exotic story into magnificent context with details of the state of the current Jewish communities in these areas. As Damian Thompson wrote in The Mail on Sunday, "Everything in this book is astonishing."

The result of thirty years of research and travel, The Lost Messiah deftly interweaves the work of respected scholars-including the pioneering writings of Gershom Scholem-along with Freely's own firsthand knowledge of ancient and contemporary Turkey and its environs. From the theoretical and practical background of Sevi's messianic movement and its emergence from the mysticism of the Kabbalah, Freely describes the many early unorthodoxies that turned many in Sevi's community against him and then goes on to provide explanations for how and why Sevi nevertheless acquired an international following that continued to support and believe in him-even after his shocking apostasy and conversion to Islam in the year 1666.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Historian and travel writer Freely retraces the 17th-century rabbi Sabbatai Sevi's steps from his birth in Izmir (in Turkey) to his exile and death in Dulcigno (in northern Albania) in this plodding and workmanlike account-part travelogue, part detective story and part religious history.. Sevi traveled through the Ottoman Empire declaring himself to be the Messiah; he claimed to be born on the Ninth of Ab, the traditional birthdate of the Messiah, and fervently studied the mystical texts of the Kabbalah. Although he gathered some followers, most thought he was a madman and a fool. When he began to declare that fast days should become feast days, that women could read from the Torah and that Jews could pronounce the sacred name of God (YHWH), the rabbis in Istanbul drove him out of the country. Sevi became the target of even greater animosity when he converted to Islam. After his conversion he maintained a syncretistic religious lifestyle, trying to convert his followers to Islam, yet still proclaiming himself the Jewish Messiah. After his death, many of his followers declared that he had not died but that his presence was hidden, and that he would appear again at the end of time. Drawing upon the writings of Gershom Scholem and others, Freely offers a fascinating glimpse into a little-known chapter of Jewish religious history. However, he depends too heavily on secondary source material, encumbering his own writing with lengthy quotations that fail to illuminate Sevi's exciting story. (Feb.) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
An American author with a Ph.D. in physics, Freely (Strolling Through Istanbul) here combines his interest in exploratory travels with his passion for a major historical figure in Jewish history, Sabbatai Sevi (1626-1676). Freely followed Sevi's life path, traveling from the coast of Turkey, where Sevi was born, to Italy, Cairo, and Jerusalem. Known as the "False Messiah," Sevi was a mystical figure in Turkey who came to prominence during a dark period in Jewish history following the Chmielnicki massacres (1648-49), whereby thousands of Jews were murdered. Sevi became a cultlike figure for many Jews, though in time he was exposed as a fraud. Scholars have long studied his life as a symbol of the turmoil and tensions of a key turning point in Jewish history. The magisterial life of Sevi remains the thick study Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah by Gershom Scholem, the pioneering scholar of Jewish mysticism. But Scholem's book remains a daunting one for the everyday reader, while Freely's is an entertaining and informative read. His tale should circulate well in most libraries that boast a diverse religious and New Age book selection.-Paul Kaplan, Lake Villa Dist. Lib., IL Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Physicist turned travel writer Freely (Inside the Seraglio, not reviewed) counts three decades spent tracking down a 17th-century rabbi who became one of the most curious figures in the history of Judaism.

Figuratively walking the length and breadth of the Levant, the author initially neglects to ground his readers, preferring to mete out history piecemeal as he unfolds the story. But the essential facts congeal: hounded from Catholic Spain for a century, murdered in Catholic Poland, Jews from all over Europe found tolerance, security, and even comfort in the seats of power of the Turks’ Ottoman Empire, the mightiest Islamic kingdom ever known. Thus, in Izmir (Smyrna), a charismatic rabbinical student named Sabbatai Sevi proclaimed in 1648 that he had been anointed as Messiah, Redeemer, King of the Jews who would lead them back to the Holy Land. Given to both spiritual visions and unholy depressions, Sevi apparently had a riveting gaze and a melodious singing voice, and seems to have been regarded as something between a rock star and Bonnie Prince Charlie by Jews, Muslims, and gentiles alike. He rapidly gained both fanatic followers and powerful enemies, the latter primarily in the conservative orthodoxy, and no wonder: He constantly tinkered with the liturgy, flip-flopped feast days and fast days, blew away the Torah’s sexual prohibitions, and even encouraged women to peruse the holy writ, forbidden to them by tradition. As an ultimate outrage, Sevi readily embraced the Islamic faith under a sultan’s death threat, then blithely convinced members of his cult, known thereafter by the Turkish word for "turncoats," that it was all part of God’s great plan for him. Remarkably, directdescendants of those Islamic, crypto-Jewish believers, ostracized and persecuted over three centuries, remain in a few distinct Levantine communities to the present day, and the author has visited several.

Lacks critical perspective, but patient readers will be fascinated.

Product Details

Overlook Press, The
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6.32(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.15(d)

Meet the Author

John Freely was born in New York in 1926. At seventeen he joined the navy and served during WWII, later returning to New York where he received a PhD in physics from New York University in 1960. He has lived in New York, Boston, London, Athens, Istanbul, and Venice, and has written more than twenty books, including Inside the Seraglio.

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