Sabbatai Zevi in 1665

Dönmeh (Turkish: dönme) refers to a group of crypto-Jews in the Ottoman Empire and present-day Turkey who openly affiliated with Islam and secretly practiced a form of Judaism called Sabbateanism. The group originated during and soon after the era of Sabbatai Zevi, a 17th-century Jewish kabbalist who claimed to be the Messiah and was eventually forced by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV to become a Muslim. After Zevi's conversion, a number of Jews followed him into Islam and became the Dönmeh. Since the 20th century, many Dönmeh have intermarried with other groups and most have assimilated into Turkish society. Although a few still consider themselves Jews, the Dönmeh are not officially recognized as such by Jewish authorities.[1]



The Turkish word dönme is from the verbal root dön- which means 'to turn', i.e., "to convert," but in a pejorative sense. They are also called Selânikli "person from Thessaloniki" or avdetî "religious convert" (Arabic: عودة‘awdah 'return'). Members of the group refer to themselves simply as "the Believers" in Hebrew (Hebrew: המאמיניםham-Ma'minim),[2]


New Mosque, built by Donmeh community of Salonica during the Ottoman period

Despite their conversion to Islam, the Sabbateans secretly remained close to Judaism and continued to practice Jewish rituals covertly. They recognized Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676) as the Jewish Messiah, observed certain rituals with similarities to those in Judaism, and prayed in Hebrew and later in Ladino. They also observed rituals celebrating important events in Zevi's life. They interpreted Zevi's conversion in a Kabbalistic way.

There are several branches of Dönmehs. The first was the Ismirli, formed in İzmir, Turkey (Smyrna). The second were the Jakubi, founded by Jacob Querido (ca. 1650-1690), the nephew of Zevi's wife. Querido claimed to be Zevi's reincarnation and a messiah in his own right. Berechiah Russo, also known as Osman Baba, founded the Karakashi. Missionaries from the Karakashi were active in Poland in the first part of the 18th century and taught Jacob Frank (1726–1791), who in turn founded the "Frankists", another a non-dönmeh Sabbatian group in eastern Europe. Yet another group, the Lechli, of Polish descent, lived in exile in Salonika (modern Thessaloniki, Greece) and Constantinople.

The dönmeh played an enormous role on the Young Turk movement, a group of modernist revolutionaries who brought down the Ottoman Empire.[3] At the time of the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923, some among the Salonika Dönmeh tried to be recognized as non-Muslims to avoid being forced to leave Salonika. After the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1922-1923, the dönmeh strongly supported the Republican, pro-Western reforms of Atatürk that tried to restrict the power of the religious establishment and to modernize society. In particular, the Dönmeh were instrumental in establishing trade, industry and culture in the emerging Republic of Turkey, which is partially due to the prominence of Rumeli immigrants in general and of Thessaloniki in particular in the early Republic years.

Although the dönmeh theoretically practiced endogamy and thus married only within their own community, mixed-marriage and assimilation began at the end of 19th century. As of the end of 20th century, the dönmeh had integrated fully into Turkish society, and the intermarriage restriction has been largely ignored since the 1960s, except by the Karakashi branch.

An interesting case is the one of Ilgaz Zorlu, a dönmeh publisher who founded Zvi Publishers in 2000 and sought recognition as a Jew, but a Beth Din refused to recognize his Jewishness without a full conversion. He claimed to have converted in Israel and then filed a lawsuit for changing his religion from Islam to Judaism in his registry records and ID. The court voted in his favor. His acts are seen as controversial by many[who?], particularly due to his cooperation with Muslims like Mehmed Şevket Eygi.

Işık University, which is the part of the Feyziye Schools Foundation (Turkish: Feyziye Mektepleri Vakfi, FMV), and Terakki schools were founded originally by the Dönmeh community in Thessaloniki in the last quarter of the 19th century and continued their activities in Istanbul after Greeks captured the city on 9 November 1912.

Notable people of Dönmeh descent

Mehmet Karakaşzade Rüştü incident

In 1924, Mehmet Karakaşzade Rüştü, who was with Karakash branch, revealed information about Dönmehs, branches and wife-swapping rituals to Vakit newspaper. He also accused Donmehs of lack of patriotism and not having been assimilated into. Discussions spread into other newspapers including the ones owned by Dönmeh groups. Ahmet Emin Yalman, in the newspaper Vatan he owned, accepted the existence of such groups but claimed that those groups were not following their traditions any more. Then Karakaşzade Rüştü petitioned TBMM, requesting the abolition of some Dönmehs' ongoing immigration from Macedonia by population exchange. [4]

Neo-Sabbatean revival

Recently there has been what some are calling a "revival" of Neo-Sabbatean Kabbalah, led by the 75-year old kabbalist and founder of Donmeh West, Reb Yakov Leib HaKohain.[5] As evidence of this revival the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv recently published an interview with Leib on the Neo-Sabbatean movement.[5][6] In addition, Ma'ariv is translating the Neo-Sabbatean writings of Reb Yakov Leib and publishing them as a series of feature articles in their spirituality section. The first of these, "Redemption Through Sin," has already been published.[7][8]

Donmeh West and its founding by Reb Yakov Leib HaKohain are noted and discussed by Prof. Matt Goldish in the introduction to his book, The Sabbatean Prophets, published by Harvard University Press,[9] as well as by Prof. Wendelin von Winckelstein in his study, Die Odyssee des Aristoteles, where he writes “Eine nachfolgeorganisation existiert heute noch unter dem namen Donmeh West” (“Today a successor organization [to that of Sabbatai Zevi’s original Donmeh] still exists under the name of Donmeh West").[10]

See also


  1. ^ Ekim'de din değiştirme davası açacak, Hurriet.com.tr
  2. ^ Waiting for the Messiah
  3. ^ Kirsch, Adam (15 February 2010). "The Other Secret Jews". The New Republic. Archived from the original on 5 December 2010. http://www.webcitation.org/5ukCn6F22. Retrieved 5 December 2010. 
  4. ^ "THE HISTORY OF NAMING THE OTTOMAN/TURKISH SABBATIANS", by CENGIZ SISMAN, in Studies on Istanbul and Beyond ed. by Robert G. Ousterhout, Phila:Upenn Press, 2007
  5. ^ a b קבל חטא חטא "קבל חטא חטא". Nrg.co.il. http://www.nrg.co.il/online/55/ART1/746/327.html קבל חטא חטא. Retrieved 2010-10-08. 
  7. ^ "מעריב nrg - יופיו של החטא - פותחים ראש - 'ניו אייג". Nrg.co.il. http://www.nrg.co.il/online/15/ART1/725/678.html. Retrieved 2008-11-23. 
  8. ^ "Professions of a Holy Sinner". Donmeh West. http://www.donmeh-west.com/holysinner.shtml. Retrieved 2008-11-23. 
  9. ^ Goldish, Matt. The Sabbatean Prophets. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004. ISBN 9780674012912
  10. ^ http://books.google.com/books?id=HHJUW4UlTLsC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Die+Odyssee+des+Aristoteles&source=bl&ots=eMnGurQFVl&sig=txCELfBkeKtuAvUNWMQ5rckNFsM&hl=en&ei=O6_zTNLXH4OosQPNmPG_Cw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=8&sqi=2&ved=0CD8Q6AEwBw#v=onepage&q&f=false Die Odyssee des Aristoteles], Wendelin von Winckelstein. Google books

Further reading

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