Dönmeh, a derogatory term meaning "apostate," refers to a group of secret Sabbatean crypto-Jews of the Near East who were originally followers of the seventeenth century Jewish Messiah Sabbatai Zevi. Their own word for themselves is Ma'aminim (Believers). They are also called Selânikli (persons from Salonika) or Sabbateans.
The Dönmeh emerged in the late seventeenth century, after Sabbatai Zevi, who had a wide following among the Jews, shocked the Jewish world by outwardly converting to Islam while imprisoned by the Ottoman government in 1666. Some of his followers quickly interpreted his conversion as a mystical act which would transform the world. Sabbatai himself soon began teaching a fusion of Islamic and Jewish ideas, attracting both Muslims and some his own Jewish followers. Dönmeh teachings took on a life of their own after Sabbatai's death and the movement evolved into several factions.
From the nineteenth century onward, the largest group of Dönmeh existed in what is today Turkey and Greece, especially in the city of Salonika. There, they lived outwardly as Muslims, but inwardly as Jews of the Sabbatean persuasion, much as the Marranos of Spain once lived outwardly as Christians but secretly as Jews. The Donmeh were reportedly influential in the Young Turk movement which ultimately toppled the Ottoman Empire, and many moved from Greece to Turkey in subsequent population exchanges.
Dönmeh adherents today are found primarily in Turkey, especially in Istanbul, Edirne, and İzmir (Smyrna). Few of the Dönmeh admit to their identity, but estimates of their numbers range from 15,000 to 100,000 or more.
Sabbatai Zevi's claim to be the Jewish Messiah met with unprecedented success in the mid seventeenth century, affecting a large percentage of the Jews of both the Ottoman Empire (including the Holy Land) and Europe. At the height of Sabbatai's popularity Sultan Mehmed IV ordered that he be brought to Adrianople. There, facing possible execution, he declared himself a Muslim, saying: “God has made me an Ishmaelite; He commanded, and it was done.” The sultan rewarded him with the honorable title of Effendi and appointed him as the royal doorkeeper with a substantial salary.
Sabbatai's conversion was devastating for most of his followers but many of his adherents still upheld him as the Messiah. Some of these understood his seeming apostasy as a messianic act of tikkun, the Kabbalistic formula of cosmic restoration, an act of self-denial by which the whole world would be returned to God. Sabbatai's most important supporters, the prophet Nathan of Gaza and Sabbatai's secretary Primo, both promoted this idea. In many Jewish communities, Sabbataeanism thus refused to die, despite rabbinical bans and excommunications.
For his own part, Sabbatai himself seems to have continued to encourage faith in his messianic role. In 1668, he announced he had received a new revelation, and he reportedly published a mystical tract claiming that his purpose in converting to Islam was to bring Muslims to Judaism. To the sultan, however, he apparently said just the opposite. Thus, Sabbatai was allowed to carry out his ministry among his former followers and to preach in their synagogues. His ministry indeed brought a number of Muslims to accept his kabbalistic teachings, while also bringing Jews to a new type of Islam. Thus, the Judeo–Turkish sect later known as the Dönmeh was born.
The Turkish government eventually saw Sabbatai as duplicitous, and he was banished to Istanbul, and later to the village of Dulcigno (today called Ulcinj) in Montenegro, where he died in 1676.
While outwardly Muslim, the Turkish Sabbateans secretly remained close to Jewish beliefs. To protect their former Muslim members from the charge of apostasy, they practiced overtly Jewish rituals, such as infant circumcision, covertly. They recognized Sabbatai Zevi as the Jewish Messiah, observed various ceremonies with similarities in Judaism, and sometimes prayed in Hebrew, as well as in the Spanish-Jewish dialect of Ladino. They also observed rituals celebrating important events in Sabbatai Zevi's life, and interpreted his conversion to Islam in a kabbalistic manner, as a supreme example of tikkun, an act of healing the cosmic vessels of light broken at the beginning of creation, ultimately repairing not only mankind and the universe, but even God himself.
Several branches of the Dönmeh evolved over the next century. The first and main branch was the Ismirli, formed in İzmir, Turkey (Smyrna), the center of Sabbatai's ministry, around the time of Sabbatai's own conversion. The second was the Jakubi, founded by Jacob Querido, one of Sabbatai's brothers-in-law, who claimed to have incarnated Sabbatai's spirit. After leading his disciples on a pilgrimage to Mecca, he died in Alexandria on his way back, and was succeeded by his son, Berechiah. Also known as Osman Baba, Berechia reportedly led his group down a more antinomian path, and may have encouraged conversions to Christianity as well as Islam. His group in turn taught Jacob Frank, founder of the Frankists, who famously led his European followers in the eighteenth century in eastern Europe to accept Christian baptism. Finally, there were the Lechli, mostly Jews of Polish descent who lived in exile in Salonika and Constantinople. Because of the underground nature of the Dönmeh movement, few details are known about their activities, with the exception of the Frankists, who became notorious.
By the end of the nineteenth century the Turkish Dönmeh community remained outwardly indistinguishable from Muslims, but secretly considers themselves to be Jews, though without associating with other Jews, whom they refer to as koferim (infidels). Many of these Dönmeh were evidently descendants of Spanish exiles. Their prayers were said partly in Hebrew and partly in Ladino. They lived in sets of contiguous houses, sometimes secretly connected, and for each block of houses there was a secret meeting-place for communal prayers. The men carried two sets of names: A secret religious one, and a secular one for purposes of commerce and other public activities. They were careful to visit the local mosque and observe the fast of Ramadan, as well as carrying out the Islamic duty of Haj (pilgrimage) to Mecca. However, until the twentieth century, few intermarried with Turks.
Many of the Dönmeh of this period were well-to-do, and reportedly generous with any unfortunate members of their community. Not observant of the Jewish Sabbath rules, they often served other Jews on the Sabbath, lighting their fires and cooking their food. Highly literate, they were often employed as scribes or accountants in the bazaars and in low-level government positions. Many others owned barber shops.
At this point the Dönmeh were divided into three sub-sects, the Ismirlis or direct followers of Shabbetai Zevi, the Jakubis, and the Kuniosos, or followers of Osman Baba. Each group had its own cemetery, although both wedding and funeral rites were normally held in secret.
Like both Jews and Muslims, the Dönmeh (Ma'aminim) stress the unity of God, but they affirm that Shabbetai Zevi was the promised Messiah of the Jews. Adherents are commanded to live inwardly as Sabbatean Jews but outwardly as Muslims. Adultery and fornication are strictly forbidden, and absolute secrecy of identity is to be maintained. Various lists of commandments for Ma'aminim have been published including the following:
In the early twentieth century, the Turkish Dönmeh reportedly played an important role on the Young Turk movement, the band of modernist revolutionaries who brought down the Ottoman Empire. At the time of a required population exchange between Greece and Turkey, some among the Salonika Dönmeh sought to be recognized as non-Muslims to avoid being forced to leave Salonika.
After the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the Dönmeh strongly supported the Republican, pro-Western reforms of Atatürk that tried to restrict the power of the religious establishment and to modernize the society. In particular, members of the Dönmeh were instrumental in establishing trade, education, industry, and culture in the emerging Republic of Turkey, partially due to the prominence of immigrants from Salonika in the early Republic years. Işık University and Terakki schools were originally founded by the Dönmeh community in Salonika in the last quarter of the nineteenth century but ceased their association with the Dönmeh after their move to Istanbul.
The Dönmeh originally married within their own community only, at least in theory, but mixed marriage and assimilation began in earnest at the end of the nineteenth century. By the end of the twentieth century, the Dönmeh were fully integrated into the Turkish society, and the intermarriage restriction has been largely ignored, since the 1960s, in most branches of the movement.
Few of the Dönmeh in Turkey admit to their association with the tradition, in accord with their religious commandments. An exception is publisher Ilgaz Zorlu, who founded Zvi Publishers in 2000 and sought recognition as a Jew, but a Beth Din (rabbinical court) refused to recognize his Jewishness without a formal conversion. He claimed to have converted in Israel and then filed a lawsuit to change his religion from Islam to Judaism in his registry records. A Turkish court then ruled in his favor.
Since the publication of the book Şebeke "Network" by the socialist writer Yalçın Küçük in 2002, a new wave of conspiracy theories against the Dönmeh have emerged. The Dönmeh are thus suspected of having created a network linked to "International Jewry," secretly manipulating the consecutive governments in Turkey.
Estimates of the number of Dönmeh adherents vary, ranging from 15,000 to 100,000 and sometimes many more.
A group calling itself Donmeh West, founded in California in 1983, by Reb Yakov Leib, and consisting mainly of an internet community, considers itself a "Neo-Sabbatian collective." It draws on Sabbatai Zevi's teachings to form a syncretistic movement which also draws heavily on Sufism, Judaism, and other faiths. Donmeh West does have direct historical ties to the Donmeh community in Turkey.
All links retrieved October 13, 2017.
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