National Redemption

The blessings that conclude the Amidah's center section emphasize God's redemption of Israel.

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Reprinted with permission from the CLAL Rabbinic Community Online

The language of the Amidah as a whole draws heavily on biblical language, and the section that concludes the center section of the weekday Amidah is no exception. Nevertheless, the representation of Israel's eschatological future diverges from any earlier precedent or any other contemporary model. While the emphasis on God's primary and virtually solitary role as redeemer accords with other developments in Jewish contemplation during the first centuries of the common era, the de-emphasis of the role of the Davidic Messiah places the Amidah in a class by itself. 

Blessings 10-15 constitute a scenario for national redemption. It commences with the great shofar's blast of freedom, announcing the ingathering of the exiles (10), and continues with the restoration of divine rule through righteous leaders (11), the meting out of appropriate deserts to the righteous and the wicked (12 and 13), the rebuilding of Jerusalem (14), and the return of the Davidic line (15). Since the motifs are all biblical, the distinctive contribution made by this liturgy to the idea of national redemption lies in the particular linguistic formulation, in the sequence of events, and in the uncompromising emphasis on divine involvement, all of which converge to make the point that God alone is the redeemer as opposed to any human redeemer. 

land of israelLinguistically, these blessings weave threads of verses from Isaiah, Micah, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Malachi, and Psalms into a liturgical tapestry. There is hardly a word not pronounced by the prophets. Therefore, it has been suggested that by reformulating their prophecies into requests, "It is as if the Deity were reminded of his promise and asked to fulfill it."

The eschatological sequence of the Amidah does not match any antecedent or contemporary scenario. It is not dictated by any single biblical text nor paralleled by any other post-biblical scenario or, for that matter, any other rabbinic liturgical formulation of eschatology. Unlike so many other extrabiblical eschatological scenarios, the Amidah is free of apocalyptic elements, whether utopian or catastrophic, symptomatic of which is the absence of any reference to the book of Daniel. Its sobriety verges on the Maimonidean. But even Maimonides had to reverse the order of the Amidah in order to come up with a messiah who can "restore the kingdom of David ... rebuild the Temple, and gather the dispersed of Israel.

"Blessings 14 and 15, which make mention of David, read as follows:

14. And to Jerusalem, Your city, return in mercy, and dwell in it as You have spoken; rebuild it forever soon in our days and speedily establish in it the throne of David. Blessed are You, O Lord, who rebuilds Jerusalem.

15. Speedily cause the sprout of Your servant, David, to flourish and let his horn be exalted by Your salvation, for we wait for Your salvation daily. Blessed are You, O Lord, who causes the horn of salvation to flourish.

Note the absence of the term "Messiah," and the minimal role of the "Sprout of David," despite its pregnant biblical antecedents. Of those antecedents, the closest is that of Zechariah 3:8, which employs both the term "sprout" and the term "servant." Zechariah, however, prophesies that the "sprout" (6:12) will rebuild the Temple. Even Jeremiah has the "sprout" reigning and executing justice in the land, a function that is in line with its use as a royal title.

As for the Amidah, "the Sprout of David Your servant," appears without any reference to name or to ruling function. He does not rule, teach, determine pedigrees, conduct wars, resurrect the dead, judge, or mark an age of travail. Appearing only after God has reassembled the dispersed (blessing 10), restored His rule through righteous leaders (blessing 11), meted out the appropriate deserts to the righteous and the wicked (blessing 12 and 13), and rebuilt Jerusalem (blessing 14), it is clear that the Messiah lacks a specific role in the events ushering in the rule of God. His appearance marks the culmination of the process, not its initiation.

Stranger still is the location of the blessing for the Davidic line. It should have immediately succeeded the blessing for the restoration of political autonomy (blessing 11) or have been integrated into it. By coming four blessings later, the advent of the Davidic scion is so disjoined from the hope for the restoration of political autonomy, it is as if it were a separate agendum. Even stranger is the paradox of some versions that have both blessings speak of human agency only to have such agency undermined by a subsequent reference to divine agency. This counterstatement, as it were, appears in the third strophe of each blessing.

In blessing 11 it goes as follows:

1. Restore our judges as in former times and our counselors as in the beginning.

2. Remove from us sorrow and anguish.

3. Reign over us You alone [O Lord].

And in blessing 15 it goes as follows:

1. Cause to flourish the shoot of your servant David.

2. May his horn be exalted by Your salvation.

3. For it is to Your salvation that we have hoped for every day.

In both cases, what is granted to the human role in the first strophe is transferred to the divine role in the third. However rulership and salvation may be mediated through human agency, they remain divine prerogatives.

By highlighting near the beginning of the eschatological scenario God's exclusive rule (blessing 11), the appearance of the Davidic scion (blessing 15) at the end turns out to be more a manifestation of divine power than an expression of acute messianism. Indeed, as blessing 11 underscores our hope for divine rule alone despite the presence of biblical-type rulers as in Isaiah 1:26 ("I will restore your judges as in former times and your counselors as in the beginning"), so blessing 15 underscores our hope in divine salvation despite the presence of the scion of David. It is thus less a messianic liturgy than a divinely orchestrated redemptive drama on the order of the Exodus.

The minimizing of the Davidic role in the Amidah is reminiscent of the minimizing of the Mosaic role in the Passover Haggadah. By minimizing the role of the human redeemer, both tannaitic-based narratives of redemption (i.e., from the first two centuries CE) highlight that of the divine.

The Amidah thus corresponds to a tendency of rabbinic literature of downplaying the significance of Davidic rule. With regard to the Mishnah (the primary document of Rabbinic literature), there is not even a mention of a Davidic messiah. The Tosefta (a companion volume to the Mishnah), for its part, denies the blessing of David a distinct status by incorporating it into the blessing on the building of Jerusalem. As such, the Palestinian version of the Amidah lacks a separate blessing on David, whereas two of the three versions of blessing 14 and one of the Havinenu abridgements make no mention of David at all either in conjunction with the rebuilding of Jerusalem or with the restoration of the Temple. Indeed, a Palestinian amora (talmudic sage) says explicitly that the Temple will be rebuilt before the appearance of the Davidic monarchy, while the talmudic explanation for the sequence between blessing 14 and 15 simply states: "Once Jerusalem is built, David comes." None of these sources grant the Davidic house any role in precipitating the redemption.

The key player, indeed virtually the only player, is God. The motif of God as redeemer as opposed to a human redeemer appears in the Midrash (rabbinic interpretations of Scripture) to underscore the permanence of divine redemption as opposed to the temporary nature of human redemption. Redemptions by temporal beings are temporary.

In contrast to the transient redemptions by human beings, blessing 14 states that God's rebuilding of Jerusalem will last forever ('olam). The point is made explicit in the Midrash: "In the future, I will rebuild her and not destroy her forever (le'olam)." This contrasts starkly with the biblical and sometimes postbiblical ideal of Davidic rule forever. Such a contrast is made all the more poignant by positioning blessing 14 on Jerusalem immediately before blessing 15 on the Sprout of David. It is clear, therefore, that God alone is the redeemer and the restorer of Israel's fortunes. In the same vein, R. Hillel's statement, "Israel has no Messiah," was taken by Rashi to mean: "The Holy One, blessed be He, will reign by Himself and redeem them on His own."

In this emphasis upon exclusive divine redemption, the vision of the Amidah harks back to that of the prophets Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Joel, Malachi, and Daniel, and conforms to that of the Mishnah. Like the Mishnah, the Amidah presents redemption as a restorative enterprise. Blessing 10 seeks the return of the dispersed, blessing 11 the restoration of leadership models of yore, blessing 14 the return of God to Jerusalem, and blessing 15 the restoration of the Davidic line (as blessing 17 seeks the restoration of the cult to the Temple and the return of the divine presence to Zion).

In sum, the Amidah, like the Mishnah and the Haggadah, reflects a tannaitic view on redemption that draws upon both prophetic language and perspective in order to present a restorative vision that minimizes human agency while maximizing divine agency.

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Dr. Reuven Kimelman

Reuven Kimelman is a Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University.