The claim that this imperfect world in which we live will be redeemed by a divinely appointed human being is plausible, from the perspective of the Torah, because it has already happened on a smaller scale. The Israelites were redeemed from slavery in Egypt. The Exodus thus becomes the paradigm for future redemption.
There are different understandings of messianism in the Hebrew Bible, and the Talmud expresses an even wider range of opinion on the phenomenon, including that the Messiah has already come and he’s not returning! Many rabbis were ambivalent about messianic politics, especially after the failed revolt of Bar Kochvah (132–135), and that ambivalence remains a feature of Rabbinic Judaism. But the yearning for the Messiah is often difficult to contain. We’ll discuss a false Messiah, Shabbatai Tzvi (1626–1676), and the most recent messianic candidate, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneersohn of Lubavitch (1902–1994).
The word mashiach, or messiah in English, means “anointed.” (The Greek word Christos means the same thing.) The Torah uses the term to describe human beings who have special roles.
1. The high priest is anointed (see Exod. 29:7).
2. The kings of Israel are anointed (see I Sam. 24:5–8).
3. Cyrus, the Persian king who allows the exiled Judeans to return to Judah, is called mashiach (see Is.
The mashiach of the future will reestablish Jewish political sovereignty in the Land of Israel.
1. All future legitimate kings of Israel will be of Davidic descent (see Is. 11:1).
2. The transparency of justice and the in gathering of the exiles (Is. 11:3–5, 12) are characteristics of the messianic era.
There are conflicting visions of the messianic era and the end of days.
1. Isaiah 11 describes an era of universal peace where the wolf shall dwell with the lamb
2. Other biblical texts are apocalyptic and suggest that the eschaton, or end of days, will involve a bloody battle.
The apocalyptic strain, prominent in Christian texts, was generally avoided in the Mishnah. The Mishnah was edited in the wake of the failed Bar Kochva Revolt (132–135 C.E.) when messianic fervor had led to disaster.
1. The placement of the request for mashiach in the blessings of the Amidah suggests a demotion of the role of the mashiach.
2. In the Passover Haggadah, we relate the Exodus from Egypt. Moses’s role is downplayed, and his name is not featured.
The Gemara offers a wide variety of opinions about the mashiach (b. Sannhedrin 96b–99a).
1. The mashiach has already come and will not be returning.
2. Don’t try to figure out when the mashiach will arrive.
3. I’m not interested in being alive when the mashiach arrives (apocalyptic).
4. The birth pangs of the mashiach will cause social and political upheaval (apocalyptic).
5. The mashiach will arrive only in a generation that is entirely wicked or entirely righteous.
6. Only g’milut chasadim and teshuvah will hasten the arrival of the mashiach (utopian).
7. There are two messiahs, one descended from David and another from Joseph (b. Sukkah 52b).
8. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said, “If you are planting a sapling, and someone tells you the mashiach
has arrived, finish planting the sapling and then greet the mashiach” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan [B] 31).
A. Maimonides interprets Isaiah’s language metaphorically. Nature will not change. “Wolves” refers to those who threaten Israel (see Mishneh Torah, Judg. 12:1).
B. Nachmanides, on the other hand, understands that in the days of the mashiach, nature will change (see his commentary on Lev. 26:6 and Deut. 30:6).
[Courtesy : Professor Shai Cherry]