Linking the Sabbatean Spring Festival with the Hebrew Tekufoth

This article concerns the commonly shared ideology of those Sephardim who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula as well as those who were forced to undergo conversion and remained there or immigrated to other countries The messianic hope for religious and national restoration was for them a commonly held one that would bring an end to the agony of expulsion or conversion they had suffered

The exiled Sephardim had struggled for centuries to preserve their identity while the converts struggled over the conflict between alienation from Judaism and loyalty to it Since the free expression of Jewish identity was a social and commonly held taboo this conflict endured for generations

The messianic hope created a similar phenomenon that arose in the East among the Sabbatean believers who have been living secret lives for the past threeandonehalf centuries and the subject is still taboo and the object of offensive allegations

The effects of this struggle on the souls of these forced converts and Sabbatean believers are complex and controversial But it is clear to me that this struggle became the source and basis for enrichment and creativity in the personal emotional social and cultural sense The Miami conference of SCJS at which I first presented this material has been a meaningful one for me and to some extent constitutes the closing of a circle among the various communities of Sephardi Jewry that was disbanded and became dispersed throughout the world This was a process that began more than five hundred years ago and is still continuing

Sabbatean Messianism was the largest and most momentous messianic movement in Jewish history subsequent to the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kokhba Revolt This movement which swept across the world from England to Persia from Netherlands to Morocco and from Germany to Yemen is well documented and known and is also the topic of many publications Therefore l do not intend to expound upon it I will refer to it by describing a personal reminiscence of my childhood and say a few words in connection with the subject of my paper

It happened during the late 1940s when I was a child On a particular night it was decided that we the children should organize a festive reunion in the cellar of the building in which we lived I know it was spring for the simple reason that the shegoat of our neighbor had given birth and its milk was to be distributed during the reunion; also because the weather in Istanbul was warm enough to afford a reunion in the humid and dark cellar

After having drunk goat milk and entertained ourselves with the traditional Turkishshadow play known as “`aoivat and KaragOz” the time came to go home At this precise moment the organizer of the reunion the oldest among us addressed the Sabbatean children: “You are not allowed to go home until the adults finish their meeting are you?” The children agreed without saying a word expressing themselves only by nodding

In spite of its ambiguous and unexpected character I had the intuition that a certain truth lay beyond this question and that it ought to be tacitly respected

Born and educated in Istanbul I became aware early about a mysterious people who appeared to be Turks with Jewish affinities Their elders spoke Spanish at home and sometimes exchanged a few words in this language with my parents I heard rumors that the approach of Jewish holy days made these “other Turks” tense and they were secretly celebrating them with their own customs Besides these sporadic manifestations they never talked about their Jewish ties and mutual discretion made the subject a taboo

The apostasy of Sabbetai Sevi in 1666 produced deep consternation among the people who saw in him the expected Messiah Instead of admitting that their redeemer was an imposter many of them looked for an explanation of what had happened They maintained that the apostasy was in reality the fulfillment of a mission to lift up the holy sparks which was dispersed even among the gentiles a task which only the Messiah himself could perform to bring redemption So the foundation of a new sect with its own ideology its own commandments its own liturgy and its own organization was laid and by creating its own legacy it would survive for more than three centuries

In fact the Sabbatean community which flourished in Salonica is the only heretical sect in the history of cryptoJewry with so wellestablished precepts and institutions The Ma’minim believers in Hebrew they called themselves were voluntary converts a mass phenomenon without a precedent in Jewish history They were considered as Muslims publicly; Ten Commandments were replaced with a new religious order based on eighteen precepts las Incomendensas as they called it in JudeoSpanish

The definition of adultery in las Incomendensas suggesting prudence rather than a prohibition is ambiguous It is in this context that a peculiar feast the Sabbatean Spring Festival was incorporated into the Sabbatean liturgy Based on its origins and its mode of celebration this feast usually known as the Lamb Festival remains the most puzzling and eccentric holiday of Sabbatean lore

The feast begins at midnight between the 21st and the 22nd’ day of the month of Adar at the supposed occurrence of the spring equinox According to the Sabbatean tradition the spring equinox represents the beginning of the New Year and the creation of the world Only married couples were permitted to participate in the ceremony where the meat of the lamb was eaten for the first time in the year It was required that at least two married couples or a paired number of married couples participate in the ceremony Women wore jewels and their best clothes and served at the banquet At a certain moment lights were extinguished and the couples would make love after exchanging partners

My paper discusses the eventual relationship of this festival with the Jewish belief of Tekufoth (seasons)

Throughout history most pagan religions and cultures considered time as cyclical The condition and fate of mankind were therefore explained through events occurring at specific times Certain days or time periods of sacred significance were celebrated by usually including a particular ritual of sacrifices and meals that at times bordered or led to licentious behavior Among these festivals celebrating the creation process and the renewal of nature are of particular interest They have been celebrated in recorded history for more than five millennia In ancient Mesopotamia Sumerians and Babylonians celebrated the renewal of nature indicated by spring rains as well as by the returning of the rains in autumn Food sacrifices were dedicated to fertility deities after which the participants marked their feasting by ritual ceremonies

In Babylon the Creation epic was read at this occasion to remind the celebrants that order arose out of chaos by means of a struggle between the god of heaven and the goddess of the deep Later a sheep was beheaded its body being thrown into the river and its head taken into the wilderness This ritual symbolized the freeing of the community from the powers of chaos After the populace engaged in carnivallike activities a banquet was held to celebrate the renewal of nature man and society2 Beliefs and rituals connected with seasonal renewals and associated with an encounter of a chaotic and sexual nature between deities have also existed in a variety of cultures They are almost a universal phenomenon which is embedded in the symbolic spiritual legacy and collective memory of the EuroAsian peoples and has played a major role in determining their mystical and religious inclinations and beliefs

Superstitious beliefs connected with the periods of the equinoxes and the solstices have also appeared in Jewish folklore However even if the original myth was forgotten its remnants were preserved in the belief that waters were contaminated by noxious blood whereby it was prohibited to drink water at the time of the Tekufoth Jews believed that a venomous drop of blood falling from heaven at the period of the summer solstice poisoned the waters in streams and rivers They then refrained from drinking water in this period

The Ritual of Abudarham written c 1341 bears the following information: “During seasonal changes it is prohibited to drink the waters of the rivers for a drop a blood falling from the clouds in the sky would swell the body of anyone who drinks from” A Jewish mystical belief is that Lilith’s3 menses are the source of these drops Still another legend is that the constellations Scorpio and Leo or Cancer and Libra engage in a bitter struggle at these four critical moments and their blood stains the waters4

The Hebrew word Tekufa in plural Tekufoth literally meaning “period” or “season” also equinox or solstice referring to the annual seasonal changes The four Tekufoth are the month of Nissan (April) at the spring equinox; the month of Tammuz (July) at the summer solstice; the month of Tishri (September/October) at the autumnal equinox and the month of Teveth (December) at the winter solstice

The Midrash of Psalms reports:

There are four seasons in a year From the season of Nissan to the season of Tammuz days borrow from nights (the sun lights for a longer time) and from Tammuz to Tishri days pay back to nights; from Tishri to Teveth days borrow from nights but from Teveth to Nissan days pay back to nights: which means that Nissan and of Tishri owe nothing to anyone5

An old legend which made its first literary appearance in the twelfth century liturgical book Mahzor Vitry connects this belief with the following biblical events: God turned the waters of Egypt to blood in the spring equinox and from then on at the time of the equinox drops of blood are deposited on the waters; the same occurs at the summer solstice when Moses smote the rock and blood flowed from it; at the autumnal equinox; when Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac blood appeared on his knife; and at the winter solstice when Jephtah sacrificed his daughter in the fulfillment of his vow to God her blood mixed with the waters6 According to one theory the very first Tekufah the spring equinox in the Jewish calendar took place on Adar 22 at the beginning of Wednesday the fourth day of the Jewish week ie Tuesday evening at 6 pm in the first year of the world’s creation7 A book published in Amsterdam in 1636 contains informative and depictive material on the Tekufoth8 Moreover according to another publication beliefs concerning the Tekufoth were probably still extant amongst European Jewry at the end of the nineteenth century9 The enlightened religious authorities saw the beliefs in Tekufoth as a remnant of paganism denounced them and tried to suppress them However these efforts did not prove to be successful9 10 11 and the belief regarding the noxious effect of drinking water drawn at nighttime during the Tekufoth persisted among simple folk until recently

Another peculiar fact in connection with the Sabbatean Lamb Festival is that it is celebrated during the same season as Nevruz which is a millenarian wellestablished and very popular pagan festival in Turkey celebrated essentially by mystical heterodoxies and also having analogical aspects with the former Nevruz means “New Year” in Persian This festival and its variations are widespread among peoples inhabiting the rural areas of the former Ottoman Empire as well as among those ethnically and culturally related to them living elsewhere

The beginning of the New Year in Nevruz is also linked with many biblical themes of deliverance: creation of the world by God when the duration of night is equal to day; the formation out of mud of the first man Adam; the return of Adam and Eve to Paradise by God after He forgave them; Noah after leaving his ark set foot on land; Joseph was saved from the pit; Moses divided the Red Sea to save his people; Jonah was delivered to land by the whale; the stars which were in Aries when God created the Universe were ordered by Him to return to their own zodiac signs12

On the other hand a folk pattern reported by Galante which existed among the Jews of Izmir the native city of Sabbetai Sevi also remembered by people who lived in its vicinity is of interest This is the belief and popular custom concerning the spring equinox known as la Dulse

According to Galante people believed that angels who guard the waters in the world are removed at a precise moment during the spring equinox It was also believed that the devil poisons them during this interval known as laDulse when waters are without guardians People should therefore take precautions in order not to be harmed by drinking water during the night at this moment 13

La Dulse means “jam” in JudeoSpanish Used as an adjective dulse means “sweet” Since the first half of the sixteenth century Nevruz has been traditionally celebrated with great pomp in Manisa a neighboring town of Izmir where a notable Jewish community existed by distributing a sweet paste known as Mesir Paste (of Manisa) Mesir means “feast” in Turkish14 The use of the term la dulse indicating the perilous moment at Tekufoth during the spring equinox is unique to the Jews of Izmir and to its neighboring Jewish communities and the sole reason for using it is because of this sweet paste

There is no doubt that the renewal of nature represented by the Sabbatean Spring Festival also implied themes associated with the creation of man and the world as well as the reappearance of the Messiah according to one belief as the original Adam The extinguishing of lights and the concomitant sexual orgy is a simulacrum of the darkness the eschatological messianic and creational chaos and the free expression of instinctual needs followed by rebirth as conceived in mystical philosophies

According to rumors during the secret rites observed by Alevi populations in Turkey which are accompanied by music and drinking the candles would go out at a certain point and the entire ceremony would turn into an orgy This festivity is popularly known in Turkish as mum sonde alemi meaning “festivity of extinguishing candles” Rumors about this custom spread in Turkey and are even extant today

After his conversion Sevi met and became friendly with a leader of the Ottoman mystical Bektashi order by the name of Mehmet Niyazi He was a guest at his house of worship and participated in Bektashi rituals in Istanbul and perhaps in Edirne as well It is known that in the earliest annals of Sabbateanism the movement adopted the liturgy of dervishes in the Turkish language transliterated into Hebrew characters

In conclusion let us note briefly that Sabbateans shared many common of the spiritual and behavioral characteristics of various Ottoman mystical groups The Sabbateans probably found in the tolerant and even receptive attitude of Ottoman public opinion towards mystical heterodoxies a legitimate foundation for their tenets

The analogy between their syncretistic antinomian and secretive mystical lore also seems to have played a role in establishing rapprochement and a close relationship between them15

It is probably this similarity between Sabbatean lore and Ottoman mysticism that determined the choice the timing and the mode of celebration of the Sabbatean Lamb Festival shaping its peculiar and even unique heretical nature16

  1. Extract from Gad Nassi “Exploring the Pagan Jewish and Ottoman Roots of the Sabbatean Lamb Festival” TurkishJewish Encounters ed Mehmet Ttlttlncti (Haarlem 2001) pp 241260
  2. Fredericksen Linwood “Feast and Festival” Encyclopedia Britannica 7 1973 pp 197202
  3. A female and nocturnal demon in Jewish mythology said to have seduced Adam She symbolized sexual lust and bore demons
  4. Angelo S Rappaport The Folklore of the Jews (London Soncino Press 1937) pp 1104
  5. MauriceRuben Hayoun “Saisons JudaYsme” in Dictionnaire Critique de L’Esoterisme ed Jean Servier (Paris: PUF 1988) pp 11556
  6. Jephtah the Gileadite was one of the many tribal leaders or “judges” of Israel who defended his people from their warring enemies Before going into the battle he made a vow that if God gave him victory he would sacrifice the first thing he saw when he returned home He won the battle and on his way home his daughter and only child came out to meet him with songs and dances to celebrate his victory He told her of his vow and she asked him to give her two months to mourn her fate Finally as the Bible says Jephtah “did with her according to his vow and she knew no man” (Judges 11:39)
  7. Arthur Spier The Comprehensive Hebrew Calendar Its Structure History and One Hu7 ndred Years of Corresponding Dates 56605760 19002000 (New York: Behrman House 1952) p 224
  8. Isaac de Mattatias Aboab Seder Berakhot – Orden de las Bendiciones (Hebrew with Portuguese) trans by Binyamin Senior (Amsterdam: Albert Magnus 686/7)
  9. Moïse Schuhl Superstitions et Coutumes Populaires du Judarsme Contempor”ain (Paris: L Blum 1882) pp 323
  10. Joshua Trachtenberg Jewish Magic and Superstition A Study in Folk Religion (New York: Behrman House 1937) pp 2579
  11. Avigdor Aptowitzer “Isur Shtiath Mayim beSha’ath haTekufah” [Prohibition against Drinking Water during the Period of Seasonal Change] in HaTzofeh (Budapest 1912) II pp 1226; Levi Ginzberg “Arba Tekufoth” [Four Seasons] in HaTzofeh (Budapest 1913) III pp 1846
  12. M Abdulhaltlk cay Turk Ergenekon Bayrarni Nevrfz(Ankara: Turk Killtiirtlnil Ara§tirma Enstittisil 1988) pp 223
  13. Avram Galante Histoire des Juifs de Turquie (Istanbul: Isis 1986) VIII 2112
  14. Originally given out for its medicinal value the distribution of the Mesir Paste later became a wellrooted tradition The Mesir Celebration began to be held in around 1539 and since then every year on March 21st the day of the Nevruz festival the people gather in front of the Sultan Mosque to catch the Mesir Paste wrapped in paper as it is tossed out to them
  15. Gad Nassi “Shabbetaism and the Ottoman Mystical Tradition” in 500 Years in our Heritage 14921992 First International Congress on Turkish Jewry organized by MORIT Beth Hatefusoth TelAviv October 1989 Turkish version of the same paper “Sabetaycihk ve Osmanli Mistik Gelenei” Tarih ve Toplum XVI 75 (Istanbul March 1990) pp 143145
  16. A detailed description of these factors and their comprehensive analysis may be found in Gad Nassi “Exploring the Pagan Jewish and Ottoman Roots of the Sabbatean Lamb Festival” TurkishJewish Encounters ed Mehmet TUtilncll (Haarlem 2001) pp 241260 This investigation elaborates for the first time the links between the Sabbatean Lanab Festival and the belief of Tekufoth

GAD NASSI a psychiatrist and author from Israel spoke on this topic at the SCJS conference in Miami Beach He is founder of MORIT organization to preserve and advance Turkish Jewish Heritage

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *