Jump to content


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
(Redirected from Donmeh)

Illustration of Sabbatai Zevi from 1906 (Joods Historisch Museum)

The Dönme (Hebrew: דוֹנְמֶה, romanizedDōnme, Ottoman Turkish: دونمه, Turkish: Dönme) were a group of Sabbatean crypto-Jews in the Ottoman Empire who coercively converted outwardly to Islam, but retained their Jewish faith and Kabbalistic beliefs in secret.[1][2][3][4] The movement was centered mainly in Thessaloniki.[1][4][5] It originated during and soon after the era of Sabbatai Zevi, a 17th-century Sephardic Jewish Rabbi and Kabbalist who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah and eventually feigned conversion to Islam under threat of death from the Sultan Mehmed IV.[3][6] After Zevi's forced conversion to Islam,[1][3][4][6] a number of Sabbatean Jews purportedly converted to Islam and became the Dönme.[1][3][4][7] Some Sabbateans lived on into 21st-century Turkey as descendants of the Dönme.[1]

Dönme gravestones in the Bülbüldere Cemetery in Üsküdar, Istanbul

Today it is unclear how many people still call themselves Dönme although some still live in Teşvikiye in Istanbul. Most are buried in the Bülbüldere Cemetery in Üsküdar where, unusually, their gravestones feature photographs of the deceased.


The Turkish word dönme (apostate)[1][4] derives from the verbal root dön- (Ottoman Turkish: دون) that means "to turn", i.e., "to convert", but in the pejorative sense of "turncoat".

The independent scholar Rıfat Bali [tr] defines the term dönme as follows:

The term Donme is a Turkish gerund meaning 'to turn, revolve or return' and, by extension, "to betray" (i.e., 'go back on') and 'to convert' to another religion. It has come in popular parlance to refer to religious converts in general, and, more specifically, to the seventeenth century followers of the Jewish false messiah Sabbatai Sevi and their descendants, who outwardly converted to Islam but retained their secretive religious practices over the next several centuries, maintaining close communal and blood ties and practicing strict endogamy. While the great majority of the community's members abandoned their practices during the first quarter century, their past identity has continued to haunt them within Turkish society, and the term Dönme itself remains one of opprobrium.[8]

The Dönme were sometimes called Selânikli (person from Thessaloniki) or avdetî (Ottoman Turkish: عودتی, "religious convert"). Members of the group referred to themselves as "the Believers" (Hebrew: המאמינים, romanizedha-Maʾminim),[2][4][9] Ḥaberim "Associates",[4] or Baʿlē Milḥāmā "Warriors",[4] while in the town of Adrianople (now Edirne) they were known as sazanikos, Judaeo-Spanish for "little carps",[4] perhaps about the changing outward nature of the fish[10] or because of the prophecy that Sabbatai Zevi would deliver the Jews under the zodiacal sign of the fish.[4]

The word dönme is also used as a derogatory Turkish word for a transvestite, or someone who is claiming to be someone they are not.


The Yeni Mosque, Thessaloniki, built by the Dönmeh community towards the end of the Ottoman Empire

Despite their supposed conversion to Islam, the Sabbateans secretly remained close to Judaism and continued to practice Jewish rituals covertly.[1][2] They recognized Sabbatai Sevi (1626–1676) as the Jewish messiah, observed certain Jewish commandments with similarities to those in Rabbinic Judaism,[1][2] and prayed in Hebrew and Judaeo-Spanish. They also observed rituals celebrating important events in Sevi's life and interpreted Sevi's conversion in a Kabbalistic way.[1][2]

The Dönme divided into several branches. The first, the İzmirli, was formed in İzmir (Smyrna) and was the original sect, from which two others eventually split. The first schism created the Jacobite (Yakubi) sect, founded by Jacob Querido (ca. 1650–1690), the brother of Sevi's last wife.[10] Querido claimed to be Sevi's reincarnation and a messiah in his own right. The second split from the İzmirli was the result of claims that Berechiah Russo (1695–1740) had inherited a soul known in Turkish as Otman Baba, who was the true reincarnation of Zevi's soul. These allegations gained attention and gave rise to the Karakashi (Karakaşi, Turkish) or Konioso (Ladino), branch, the most numerous and strictest branch of the Dönme.[11]

Missionaries from the Karakashi or Konioso were active in Poland in the first part of the 18th century and taught Jacob Frank (1726–1791), who later claimed to have inherited Russo's soul.[citation needed] Frank went on to create the Frankism, a distinct neo-carpocratian Sabbatean movement in Eastern Europe. Yet another group, the Lechli, Jews of Polish descent, who lived in exile in Thessaloniki and Constantinople.[citation needed]

Some commentators have suggested that several leading members of the Young Turks, an anti-absolutist movement of constitutional monarchist revolutionaries who in 1908 forced the Sultan to grant a constitution, were Dönme.[12] At the time of the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923, some of the Thessaloniki Dönme tried to be recognized as non-Muslims to avoid being forced to leave the city.[citation needed] One of the leaders of the İzmir plot to assassinate President Mustafa Kemal Pasha (Atatürk) in İzmir after the establishment of the Turkish Republic was a Dönme named Mehmed Cavid,[13] a founding member of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) and the former Minister of Finance of the Ottoman Empire.[14][15][16][17] Convicted after a government investigation, Cavid Bey was hanged on 26 August 1926 in Ankara.[18] After the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Atatürk's Turkish nationalist policies, which had left ethnic and religious minorities in the lurch, were accompanied by antisemitic propaganda by nationalist publishers in the 1930s and 1940s.[19]


The 17th-century Dönme ideology revolved primarily around the Eighteen Precepts, a variation on the Ten Commandments in which the prohibition of adultery is explained as more of a precautionary measure than a ban, likely included to explain the antinomian sexual activities of the Sabbateans[citation needed]. The additional commandments are concerned with defining the kinds of interactions that may occur between the Dönme and the Jewish and Muslim communities. The most basic of these rules of interaction was to prefer relations within the sect to those outside it and to avoid marriage with either Jews or Muslims. In spite of this, they maintained ties with Sabbateans who had not converted and even with Jewish rabbis, who secretly settled disputes concerning Jewish law.[11]

As far as ritual was concerned, the Dönme followed both Jewish and Muslim traditions, shifting between them as necessary for integration into Ottoman society.[20] Outwardly Muslims and secretly Sabbatean Jews, the Dönme observed Muslim holidays like Ramadan but also kept Shabbat, practiced brit milah, and celebrated Jewish holidays.[4] Much of Dönme ritual was a combination of various elements of Kabbalah, Sabbateanism, Jewish traditional law and Sufism.[21]

Dönme liturgy evolved as the sect grew and spread. At first, much of their literature was written in Hebrew but, as the group developed, Ladino replaced Hebrew and became not only the vernacular but also the liturgical language. Though the Dönme had divided into several sects, all of them believed that Zevi was the messiah and that he had revealed the true "spiritual Torah"[11] which was superior to the practical earthly Torah. The Dönme celebrated holidays associated with various points in Zevi's life and their history of conversion. Based at least partially on the Kabbalistic understanding of divinity, the Dönme believed that there was a three-way connection between the emanations of the divine, which engendered many conflicts with Muslim and Jewish communities alike. The most notable source of opposition from other contemporary religions was the common practice of exchanging wives between members of the Dönme.[11]

Dönme hierarchy was based on the branch divisions. The İzmirli, made up of the merchant classes and the intelligentsia, topped the hierarchy. Artisans tended to be mostly Karakashi while the lower classes were mostly Yakubi. Each branch had its prayer community, organised into a kahal or congregation.[11] An extensive internal economic network provided support for lower-class Dönme despite ideological differences between the different branches.[22]

After the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948, only a few Dönme families migrated to Israel.[23] In 1994, Ilgaz Zorlu, an accountant who claimed to be of Dönme origin on his mother's side, started publishing articles in history journals in which he revealed his self-proclaimed Dönme identity and presented the Dönme and their beliefs.[24] As the Hakham Bashi of Turkey and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel did not accept the Dönme as Jews without a lengthy conversion to Judaism,[25][26] Zorlu applied to the Istanbul 9th Court of First Instance in July 2000. He requested that his religious affiliation in his Turkish identity card to be changed from "Islam" to "Jew" and won his case. Soon after, the Turkish Beth din accepted him as a Jew.[27]

However, as they are not recognized as Jews by Israel, Dönme are not eligible for the Law of Return.[25] For the Portuguese law of return, the decision to recognize dönme as Jews or not is outsourced to local Jewish communities.[28] The Dönme's situation is similar to that of the Falash Mura.

Anti-semitism and alleged political entanglements[edit]

Turkish antisemitism and the canards upon which it relies are centred on the Dönme.[29] According to historian Marc David Baer, the phenomenon has deep roots in late-Ottoman history, and its legacy of conspiratorial accusations persisted throughout the history of the Turkish Republic and is kept alive there today. Modern antisemitism tends to present Jews as a ubiquitous, homogenous unit acting undercover via diverse global groups in pursuit of global political and economic control via secretive channels. As a crypto-Sabbatean sect, the Dönme always made an easy target for claims about secret, crypto-Jewish political control and social influence, whether charged with setting in motion political upheaval against the status quo, or accused of shaping an oppressive regime's grip on the status quo.[29]

The Dönme history of Sabbatean theological and ritual secrecy grounded in Jewish tradition, coupled with public observance of Islam, make accusations of secret Jewish control convenient, according to Baer.[29] "Secret Jew," then, takes on a double meaning of being both secretly Jewish and Jews who act secretively to exert control; their secret religious identity in the first place is compatible, for conspiracy theorists, with their secretive influence, especially when they cannot be distinguished from ordinary Turkish Muslims who reside everywhere, and, as Baer argues, when the modern antisemite sees the Jew as necessarily "everywhere." The Dönme's manoeuverings were said to have lain at the heart of the Young Turk Revolution and its overthrow of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the dissolution of the Ottoman religious establishment, and the founding of a secular republic. Pro-sultan, religious Muslim political opponents painted these events as a global Jewish and Freemasonic plot carried out by Turkey's Dönme. Islamists put forward a conspiracy theory claiming Atatürk was a Dönme in order to defame him as they have been opposed his reforms, and they created many other conspiracy theories about him.[29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Judaism – The Lurianic Kabbalah: Shabbetaianism". Encyclopædia Britannica. Edinburgh: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 23 January 2020. Rabbi Shabbetai Tzevi of Smyrna (1626–76), who proclaimed himself messiah in 1665. Although the "messiah" was forcibly converted to Islam in 1666 and ended his life in exile 10 years later, he continued to have faithful followers. A sect was thus born and survived, largely thanks to the activity of Nathan of Gaza (c. 1644–90), an unwearying propagandist who justified the actions of Shabbetai Tzevi, including his final apostasy, with theories based on the Lurian doctrine of "repair". Tzevi's actions, according to Nathan, should be understood as the descent of the just into the abyss of the "shells" in order to liberate the captive particles of divine light. The Shabbetaian crisis lasted nearly a century, and some of its aftereffects lasted even longer. It led to the formation of sects whose members were externally converted to Islam—e.g., the Dönmeh (Turkish: "Apostates") of Salonika, whose descendants still live in Turkey—or to Roman Catholicism—e.g., the Polish supporters of Jacob Frank (1726–91), the self-proclaimed messiah and Catholic convert (in Bohemia-Moravia, however, the Frankists outwardly remained Jews). This crisis did not discredit Kabbalah, but it did lead Jewish spiritual authorities to monitor and severely curtail its spread and to use censorship and other acts of repression against anyone—even a person of tested piety and recognized knowledge—who was suspected of Shabbetaian sympathies or messianic pretensions.
  2. ^ a b c d e Gershom Scholem (2017). "Doenmeh". Jewish Virtual Library. American–Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE). Archived from the original on 5 November 2017. DOENMEH (Dönme), sect of adherents of Shabbetai Ẓevi who embraced Islam as a consequence of the failure of the Shabbatean messianic upheaval in the Ottoman Empire. After Shabbetai Ẓevi converted to Islam in September 1666, large numbers of his disciples interpreted his apostasy as a secret mission, deliberately undertaken with a particular mystical purpose in mind. The overwhelming majority of his adherents, who called themselves ma'aminim ("believers"), remained within the Jewish fold. However, even while Shabbetai Ẓevi was alive several leaders of the ma'aminim thought it essential to follow in the footsteps of their messiah and to become Muslims, without, as they saw it, renouncing their Judaism, which they interpreted according to new principles. Until Shabbetai Ẓevi's death in 1676 the sect, which at first was centered largely in Adrianople (Edirne), numbered some 200 families. They came mainly from the Balkans, but there were also adherents from İzmir, Bursa, and other places. There were a few outstanding scholars and kabbalists among them, whose families afterward were accorded a special place among the Doenmeh as descendants of the original community of the sect. Even among the Shabbateans who did not convert to Islam, such as Nathan of Gaza, this sect enjoyed an honorable reputation and an important mission was ascribed to it. Clear evidence of this is preserved in the commentary on Psalms (written c. 1679) of Israel Ḥazzan of Castoria.
    Many of the community became converts as a direct result of Shabbetai Ẓevi's preaching and persuasion. They were outwardly fervent Muslims and privately Shabbatean ma'aminim who practiced a type of messianic Judaism, based as early as the 1670s or 1680s on "the 18 precepts" which were attributed to Shabbetai Ẓevi and accepted by the Doenmeh communities. [...] These precepts contain a parallel version of the Ten Commandments. However, they are distinguished by an extraordinarily ambiguous formulation of the commandment "Thou shalt not commit adultery," which approximates more to a recommendation to take care rather than a prohibition. The additional commandments determine the relationship of the ma'aminim toward the Jews and the Turks. Intermarriage with true Muslims is strictly and emphatically forbidden.
  3. ^ a b c d Kaufmann Kohler; Henry Malter (1906). "Shabbetai Ẓevi". Jewish Encyclopedia. Kopelman Foundation. At the command [of the sultan], Shabbetai was now taken from Abydos to Adrianople, where the sultan's physician, a former Jew, advised Shabbetai to embrace Islam as the only means of saving his life. Shabbetai realized the danger of his situation and adopted the physician's advice. On the following day [...] being brought before the sultan, he cast off his Jewish garb and put a Turkish turban on his head; and thus his conversion to Islam was accomplished. The sultan was much pleased, and rewarded Shabbetai by conferring on him the title (Mahmed) "Effendi" and appointing him as his doorkeeper with a high salary. [...] To complete his acceptance of Mohammedanism, Shabbetai was ordered to take an additional wife, a Mohammedan slave, which order he obeyed. [...] Meanwhile Shabbetai secretly continued his plots, playing a double game. At times he would assume the role of a pious Mohammedan and revile Judaism; at others he would enter into relations with Jews as one of their own faith. Thus in March 1668, he gave out anew that he had been filled with the Holy Spirit at Passover and had received a revelation. He, or one of his followers, published a mystic work addressed to the Jews in which the most fantastic notions were set forth, e.g., that he was the true Redeemer, in spite of his conversion, his object being to bring over thousands of Mohammedans to Judaism. To the sultan he said that his activity among the Jews was to bring them over to Islam. He therefore received permission to associate with his former coreligionists, and even to preach in their synagogues. He thus succeeded in bringing over a number of Mohammedans to his cabalistic views, and, on the other hand, in converting many Jews to Islam, thus forming a Judæo-Turkish sect (Dönmeh), whose followers implicitly believed in him [as the Jewish Messiah). This double-dealing with Jews and Mohammedans, however, could not last very long. Gradually the Turks tired of Shabbetai's schemes. He was deprived of his salary, and banished from Adrianople to Constantinople. In a village near the latter city he was one day surprised while singing psalms in a tent with Jews, whereupon the grand vizier ordered his banishment to Dulcigno, a small place in Albania, where he died in loneliness and obscurity.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Kohler, Kaufmann; Gottheil, Richard (1906). "Dönmeh". Jewish Encyclopedia. Kopelman Foundation. Retrieved 6 October 2020. A sect of crypto-Jews, descendants of the followers of Shabbethai Ẓebi, living today mostly in Salonica, European Turkey: the name (Turkish) signifies "apostates." The members call themselves "Ma'aminim" (Believers), "Ḥaberim" (Associates), or "Ba'ale Milḥamah" (Warriors); but at Adrianople they are known as "Sazanicos" (Little Carps)—a name derived either from the fish-market, near which their first mosque is supposed to have been situated, or because of a prophecy of Shabbethai that the Jews would be delivered under the zodiacal sign of the fish. The Dönmeh are said to have originated with Jacob Ẓebi Querido, who was believed to have been a reincarnation of Shabbethai.
    The community is outwardly Mohammedan (following the example set by Shabbethai); but in secret observes certain Jewish rites, though in no way making common cause with the Jews, whom they call "koferim" (infidels). The Dönmeh are evidently descendants of Spanish exiles. Their prayers, as published by Danon, are partly in Hebrew (which few seem to understand) and partly in Ladino. They live in sets of houses which are contiguous, or which are secretly connected; and for each block of houses there is a secret meeting-place or "kal" ("ḳahal"), where the "payyeṭan" reads the prayers. Their houses are lit by green-shaded lamps to render them less conspicuous. The women wear the "yashmak" (veil); the men have two sets of names: a religious one, which they keep secret, and a secular one for purposes of commercial intercourse. They are assiduous in visiting the mosque and in fasting during Ramadhan, and at intervals they even send one of their number on the "ḥajj" (pilgrimage) to Mecca. But they do not intermarry with the Turks.
    They are all well-to-do, and are prompt to help any unfortunate brother. They smoke openly on the Sabbath day on which day they serve the other Jews, lighting their fires and cooking their food. They work for the Turks when a religious observance prevents other Jews from doing so, and for the Christians on Sunday. They are expert "katibs" or writers, and are employed as such in the bazaars and in the inferior government positions. They have the monopoly of the barber-shops. The Dönmeh are divided into three subsects, which, according to Bendt, are: the Ismirlis, or direct followers of Shabbethai Ẓebi of Smyrna, numbering 2,500; the Ya'ḳubis, or followers of Jacob Querido, brother-in-law of Shabbethai, who number 4,000; and the Kuniosos, or followers of Othman Baba, who lived in the middle of the eighteenth century. The last named sect numbers 3,500. Each subsect has its own cemetery.
  5. ^ Sean McMeekin, The Berlin-Baghdad Express p.75
  6. ^ a b Abraham J. Karp (2017). ""Witnesses to History": Shabbetai Zvi – False Messiah (Judaic Treasures)". Jewish Virtual Library. American–Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE). Archived from the original on 16 October 2017. Born in Smyrna in 1626, he showed early promise as a Talmudic scholar, and even more as a student and devotee of Kabbalah. More pronounced than his scholarship were his strange mystical speculations and religious ecstasies. He traveled to various cities, his strong personality and his alternately ascetic and self-indulgent behavior attracting and repelling rabbis and populace alike. He was expelled from Salonica by its rabbis for having staged a wedding service with himself as bridegroom and the Torah as bride. His erratic behavior continued. For long periods, he was a respected student and teacher of Kabbalah; at other times, he was given to messianic fantasies and bizarre acts. At one point, living in Jerusalem seeking "peace for his soul," he sought out a self-proclaimed "man of God," Nathan of Gaza, who declared Shabbetai Zvi to be the Messiah. Then Shabbetai Zvi began to act the part [...] On September 15, 1666, Shabbetai Zvi, brought before the sultan and given the choice of death or apostasy, prudently chose the latter, setting a turban on his head to signify his conversion to Islam, for which he was rewarded with the honorary title "Keeper of the Palace Gates" and a pension of 150 piasters a day. The apostasy shocked the Jewish world. Leaders and followers alike refused to believe it. Many continued to anticipate a second coming, and faith in false messiahs continued through the eighteenth century. In the vast majority of believers revulsion and remorse set in and there was an active endeavor to erase all evidence, even mention of the pseudo messiah. Pages were removed from communal registers, and documents were destroyed. Few copies of the books that celebrated Shabbetai Zvi survived, and those that did have become rarities much sought after by libraries and collectors.
  7. ^ Türkay S. Nefes (September 2015). "Scrutinizing impacts of conspiracy theories on readers' political views: a rational choice perspective on anti-semitic rhetoric in Turkey". The British Journal of Sociology. 66 (3). Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell: 557–575. doi:10.1111/1468-4446.12137. PMID 26174172.
  8. ^ Rifat N. Balı (2012). Model Citizens of the State: The Jews of Turkey During the Multi-party Period. Lexington Books. p. 18.
  9. ^ "Jewish History / Waiting for the Messiah". Haaretz. 7 May 2009.
  10. ^ a b Maciejko, Pavel (2011). The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement, 1755–1816. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  11. ^ a b c d e Scholem, Gershom (1974). Kabbalah. New York, NY: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Company.
  12. ^ Adam Kirsch (15 February 2010). "The Other Secret Jews". The New Republic. Archived from the original on 5 December 2010. Retrieved 5 December 2010.
  13. ^ Andrew Mango, Atatürk, John Murray, 1999, pp. 448–453
  14. ^ Kieser 2018, p. 215.
  15. ^ Ilgaz Zorlu, Evet, Ben Selânikliyim: Türkiye Sabetaycılığı, Belge Yayınları, 1999, p. 223.
  16. ^ Yusuf Besalel, Osmanlı ve Türk Yahudileri, Gözlem Kitabevi, 1999, p. 210.
  17. ^ Rıfat N. Bali, Musa'nın Evlatları, Cumhuriyet'in Yurttaşları, İletişim Yayınları, 2001, p. 54.
  18. ^ "Javid (Cavid) Bey, Mehmed". Archived from the original on 16 June 2021. Retrieved 8 April 2022.
  19. ^ "The journal İnkılâp and the appeal of antisemitism in interwar Turkey" by Alexandros Lamprou, Middle Eastern Studies, Volume 58, 2022, pp. 32-47
  20. ^ Baer, Marc. (2007). "Globalization, Cosmopolitanism, and the Dönme in Ottoman Salonica and Turkish Istanbul." Journal of World History. 18. no. 2: 141–170. doi: 10.1353/jwh.2007.0009. [1]
  21. ^ Marc Baer, "Dönme (Ma'aminim, Minim, Shabbetaim)," Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Brill Online, 2013. Reference. University of Maryland. 7 March 2013
  22. ^ Weiker, Walter F. (1992). "Ottomans, Turks, and the Jewish Polity: A History of the Jews of Turkey." Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
  23. ^ "Doenmeh". jewishvirtuallibrary.org. Retrieved 31 October 2022.
  24. ^ Bali 2010, p. 37.
  25. ^ a b Yardeni, Dan (18 August 2013). "A Scapegoat For All Seasons: The Dönmes or Crypto-Jews of Turkey by Rifat Bali". eSefarad. Retrieved 31 October 2022.
  26. ^ "Jewish History / Waiting for the Messiah – Haaretz – Israel News". 19 May 2009. Archived from the original on 19 May 2009. Retrieved 31 October 2022.
  27. ^ Bali 2010, p. 42.
  28. ^ "The Rotten Saga of Roman Abramovich's Portuguese Citizenship, and Its Repercussions". Haaretz. Retrieved 31 October 2022.
  29. ^ a b c d Marc David Baer (2013). "An Enemy Old and New: The Dönme, Anti-Semitism, and Conspiracy Theories in the Ottoman Empire and Turkish Republic". Jewish Quarterly Review. 103 (4): 523–555. doi:10.1353/jqr.2013.0033. S2CID 159483845 – via Project MUSE.


Further reading[edit]