The Messiah in Jewish Tradition

The Roots of Messianic Belief

The term "mashiach" in Hebrew, which comes to be "messiah" in English, derives from the root meaning "anoint," an ancient ritual signifying God's approval of a priest or king appointed to office. One who was anointed was duly qualified to serve in the office of priest or king (see, for example, Exodus 28:40, 41). Kings were anointed with olive oil drizzled over the head, as Samuel anointed both Saul and David. Curiously, the TaNaKH (Hebrew Scripture) records that the prophet Elijah anointed Hezael, the king of Aram (I Kings 19:15, 16). While Saul was the first king of Israel, his reign was curtailed because of his mental health and failure to obey God; his dynasty ended with him. David, the son of Jesse, was the second king of Israel, and in anointing him, the prophet Samuel anointed a dynasty that tradition held was meant to rule Israel for all time. In fact, David was a highly successful king, endowed with spiritual qualities and charisma, who enlarged and secured the borders of Israel, increased her prosperity, and reigned over a time marked by peace and confidence. This period of peace, security, and prosperity was short-lived. The end of David's reign was blighted by rebellions on the part of his sons. David was succeeded by his son Solomon, revered for his wisdom, but lacking in administrative skills. Solomon overtaxed the population and employed conscripted labor to build the Temple, his palace, and a number of other major projects around the country. As a result, the economy faltered and morale plummeted. Solomon's reign ended in civil war and the nation split into two nations: the Northern Kingdom of Israel with its capital in Samaria, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem. In looking backward, people viewed the "good old days" of King David favorably and identified his reign as the height of Israel's history, a time to which they longed to return: a time when Israel was unified, secure, and at peace with her neighbors. Out of this longing to return to the time of David came the hope and dream of one who would arise from the line of David to unify the kingdom and usher in an era of peace and prosperity. David became the paradigm of the ideal and longed-for Jewish ruler.

Joseph Klausner traces the messianic ideal to Moses, the first deliverer of Israel, who possessed the two vital characteristics of the messiah: political prowess and spiritual acumen. Moses, however revered in Jewish tradition, cannot be confirmed as an historical figure.

Samson Levey believed that the messiah idea crystallized during Assyrian crisis of 721 B.C.E., the first major threat of annihilation faced by the Jewish people. The Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the surrounding Judean countryside, as well. Jerusalem was under siege. People sought divine intervention. They turned to King Hezekiah whom they saw as God's messenger, a saintly king sitting on the throne of David who had rid the country of idolatry, purged it of offensive religious practices, and purified and reinstated Jewish practices. As the biblical historian comments, "And he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, according to all that David his father had done" (II Chronicles 29:2). Under the circumstances, the people looked back in their history for a model for the messiah and found David. In this way, according to Levey, David became the paradigm of the messiah.

The Babylonian threat of 586 B.C.E. inspired people to envision a military savior like King David. The military dream was enmeshed with spiritual longings. The prophet Isaiah expressed the longing this way:

And there shall come forth a rod from the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow from his roots; And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord; And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord; and he shall not judge by what his eyes see, nor decide by what his ears hear. But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and decide with equity for the humble of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked. And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins. The wolf also shall live with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper's den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, who shall stand for a banner of the people; to it shall the nations seek; and his resting place shall be glorious. And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people, who shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Patros, and from Kush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea. And he shall set up a banner for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth. [Isaiah 9:6ff and 11:1-12: 1]

The Davidic dynasty came to be seen as a tangible symbol of God's eternal protection of Israel.

The Hellenistic Period

In the late Hellenistic Period, added to the military and spiritual speculation was a layer of apocalyptic speculation. The messiah-figure took on larger-than-life features, a quasi-savior in the mold of Hezekiah. Hillel, a great sage who lived in the first century before the Common Era, said: "There will be no future messiah for Israel, since he was already fulfilled in the days of Hezekiah." On his deathbed, Yochanan ben Zakkai is reported to have said: "Prepare the throne for Hezekiah, King of Judah, who is coming."

By the first century of the Common Era, the Jewish people had seen a great many movements come and go, and with them, a great many disappointments. Roman oppression had reached an apex and rather than turn to complete despair, the hopes for a redeemer were ratchet Ed up to yet another level. In the last rebellion against Rome, Jewish troops were led by the general Simeon bar Kochba, on whom all hopes were pinned. Rabbi Akiba, the religious leader of his generation declared, "This is our King-Messiah." The rebellion was a demoralizing failure and thousands of Jews died. Yet even in the aftermath of this crushing defeat, the Jews did not give in to despair, but rather postponed expectation for fulfillment to an eschatological future that only God could determine. We must be patient, the Rabbi taught, and not try to force God's hand.

The Talmudic Period

Behind the Talmud is the firm belief that, in time, God will bring a messiah to Israel who will restore the nation to independence and dignity, sovereign in their own land, the Land of Israel, and usher in an era of peace and prosperity. In the meantime, all Israel is commanded to live in accordance with God's Torah and prepare for the coming days of the messiah. The Rabbis taught that if all Israel fails to keep two consecutive shabbatot (sabbaths) then God will be compelled to bring the messiah for the world will have fallen to such a depraved level that God will need to intervene. Conversely, if all Israel keeps two consecutive shabbatot, then God will send the messiah.

While the Sages speculated at some length concerning when the messiah would come and under what conditions, they concluded that all is in God's hands and the job of Jews is to repent and perform good deeds:

Rab said: All the predestined dates [for redemption] have passed, and the matter depends only on repentance and good deeds. But Samuel maintained: It is sufficient for a mourner to keep his [period of] mourning. This matter is disputed by Tannaim; R. Eliezer said: If Israel repent, they will be redeemed; if not, they will not be redeemed. R. Joshua said to him, If they do not repent will they not be redeemed! But the Holy One, blessed be God, will set up a king over them, whose decrees shall be as cruel as Haman's, whereby Israel shall engage in repentance, and God will thus bring them back to the right path. Another baraita taught: R. Eliezer said: If Israel repent, they will be redeemed, as it is written: Return, you backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings [Jeremiah 3:22]. R. Joshua said to him, But is it not written, you have sold yourselves for nought; and you shall be redeemed without money [Isaiah 52:3]? You have sold yourselves for nought, for idolatry; and you shall be redeemed without money, without repentance and good deeds. R. Eliezer retorted to R. Joshua, But is it not written, Return unto Me, and I will return until you [Malachi 3:7]? R. Joshua rejoined, But is it not written, For I am master over you; and I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion [Jeremiah 3:14]? R. Eliezer replied, But it is written, In returning and rest shall you be saved [Isaiah 30:15]. R. Joshua replied, But is it not written, Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel, and his Holy One to him whom man despises, to him whom the nations abhor, to a servant of rulers, Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship [Isaiah 49:7]. R. Eliezer countered, But is it not written, If you will return, O Israel, says the Lord, return unto Me [Jeremiah 4:1]? R. Joshua answered, But it is elsewhere written, And I heard the man clothed in linen, which was upon the waters of the river, when he held up his right hand and his left hand unto heaven, and swore by him that lives forever that it shall be for a time, times and a half; and when he shall have accomplished to scatter the power of the holy people, all these things shall be finished [Daniel 12:7]. At this R. Eliezer remained silent... [Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 97b]

The Kabbalah, the Middle Ages, and False Messiahs

The Kabbalists were dedicated to a theology which taught that Jews can assume an active stance in bringing the messiah by correcting the cosmic evil in the world through human action. In a sense, their perspective relegates God to a passive role in the universe while elevating Israel to an active one.

Oppression and persecution in the Middle Ages brought messianic speculation to a fever pitch. Many believed final stages of mystical process of Tikkun had been reached in 1648; the Cossack massacres of Polish Jews interpreted as "birth pangs" of messiah. Christian speculation that Jews would be returned to their homeland in 1666 fueled Jewish messianic speculation during the seventeenth century. Perhaps it is not surprising that during this period, a number of false messiahs arose, feeding on the hopes of people whose lives were in danger and disarray.

Shabbetai Tzvi, who lived in Turkey during the seventeenth century, was the most famous of a rash of false messiahs. He drew on the widespread influence of Jewish mysticism (particularly Lurianic Kabbalah) which set out to bring the messiah through the observance of mitzvot, rather than wait for the messiah to come. Shabbetai Tzvi claimed to be the messiah, having been born on the 9th of Av (which tradition holds will be the messiah's birthday). he was a manic-depressive who claimed to hear a voice telling him he was Israel's savior. His disciple and publicist, Nathan of Gaza, undoubtedly exerted an inordinate influence on him. From the time Shabbetai Tzvi pronounced the tetragrammaton (the ineffable name of God) publicly and claimed to be the messiah, his followers virtually worshiped him. Tzvi whipped a good segment of the Jewish population into a messianic frenzy, and his reach exceeded the borders of Turkey. The Vizier of Turkey imprisoned him in 1665 to prevent him from sailing to Eretz Yisrael in 1666 for the "final glory" of the messiah. He was given a choice of conversion to Islam or death. He chose to convert and many of his followers saw this as a sign of God's secret plans becoming revealed. Following his model, they too converted, and continued to follow and worship him in secret. The Shabbatean movement persisted into the eighteenth century.

Jacob Frank, in the eighteenth century, was another false messiah; he initially called himself the "prophet" of Shabbetai and later declared himself the messiah. Whereas previous messianic movements had held that when the messiah would come, many laws would be suspended, Frank went a step further: He promoted abrogation of Jewish law in order to bring the messiah. He encouraged followers to break virtually all the commandments and presided over notorious sex orgies. In the end, he converted to Christianity. False messiahs tap into the reserve of longing which fills people's souls during times of oppression; they invariably bring more suffering in their wake, as the travesty of Jacob Frank illustrates. Shabbetai Tzvi, Jacob Frank, and others of their ilk further demonstrate the inherent danger in identifying a single human being as the messiah and investing unquestioning authority in him.

The Rise of Hasidism

Many scholars believe that Hasidism arose in the aftermath of these failed messianic movements, promoting once again the Kabbalistic idea that individuals can bring the messiah through their actions, specifically through the observance of mitzvot. Hence Hasidic groups emphasize the observance of mitzvot, as many as possible. Their rabbis, whom they call rebbes, have often held a quasi-messianic status in their communities. There are those in the Lubavitch community, for example, who revere their late rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, as the messiah. While they are in the minority, and most followers of Lubavitch reject this belief, the fact that some have not only adopted it, but a small subset worships Rabbi Schneerson as God is a fascinating development and again illustrative of the intrinsic danger of messianic figures.

Beliefs about the Messiah and the Messianic Age in the Modern Period

In the modern period, Jews have reexamined the traditional notion of the messiah. While some Jews continue to hope and pray for a personal messiah, many believe in the coming of a messianic age, a time of peace and prosperity for all people on earth, fulfilling God's plan for humanity. While some believe that God will bring the messiah through some cataclysmic event or series of events, a great many Jews rather see the ideal of the messiah as a directional signpost for their lives. For some, it is a fervent belief in a time that will come to pass; for others, the messianic age represents a goal toward which we orient our lives and hopes, for it informs us how to live our lives. Our prayers are oriented toward the messianic age, the coming of a time of peace and tranquility, with the full expectation that our prayers will inform our actions day in and day out.

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