The idea that a human being–the Messiah–will help usher in the redemption of the Jewish people has roots in the Bible. However, Jewish sources have not, as a general rule, focused attention on the specific personal qualities of the Messiah. Images of the Messiah as humble or as a child are juxtaposed with images of a victorious and wise ruler–perhaps contrasting Israel’s current, unredeemed state and the prophetic vision of the future. In recent times, some Jews have “democratized” the concept of the Messiah, seeing the process of, or the preparation for, redemption in the actions of regular people.
A Child Who Grows Up to Rule in Peace
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government is upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called “wonderful counselor of the mighty God, of the everlasting Father, of the Prince of peace.”
Judge and Descendant of King David
And there shall come forth a rod from the stock of Jesse [King David’s father], 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.
How great was the strength of Ben Koziva [a.k.a. Bar Kokhba–the leader of the 132-135 CE Judean revolt against Rome]? He would intercept the stones shot by Roman catapults with one of his knees, heave them back, and thus slay ever so many Roman soldiers. When R. Akiba beheld Ben Koziva, he exclaimed, ” ‘A star (kokhav) has risen out of Jacob [Numbers 24:17]’–Koziva has risen out of Jacob! He is the king Messiah.”
— Lamentations Rabbah 2:2 §4
Bar Koziva ruled for two and a half years, and then said to the rabbis, “I am the Messiah.” They answered, “It is written that the Messiah can judge by smell (based on Isaiah 11:3); let us see whether he [Bar Koziva] can do so.” When they saw that he could not judge by smell, they killed him.
–Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 93b
The Messiah’s Arrival Depends Upon the People Israel
R. Alexandri said, R. Joshua contrasted two verses: It is written, “And behold, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 7:13), and another verse says, “[behold, your king comes to you…] humble and riding on an ass” (Zechariah 9:7). If Israel merits it, [he will come] “with the clouds of heaven”; if not, [he will be] “humble and riding on an ass.”
–Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a
The Messiah as a Blighted Beggar
R. Joshua ben Levi [asked Elijah, the prophet who it is said will be the harbinger of the messianic age] “When will the Messiah come?” “Go and ask him himself.” “Where is he sitting?” “At the gates of Rome.” “What will identify him?” “He is sitting among the poor lepers; while all of them untie all [their bandages] at once, and rebandage them together, he unties and rebandages each separately, [before treating the next], saying ‘I might be needed, so I must not be delayed.’ ”
–Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a
The Despised but Beautiful Messiah
I turned and someone touched me. I saw a man, despicable and crippled…and he said to me, “Do not fear, you were brought here so I could see you…This is Rome, where I am bound in prison until my end comes.”
When I heard this, I hid my face; then I turned back to peek, and hid my face yet again from fear. “Why are you afraid?” “I have heard rumors. You are the Messiah.” He then appeared to me as an incomparably beautiful youth.
[An angel explained to me,] “Menachem the son of Amiel will come suddenly in the month of Nisan and stand at the Arbel valley. All of the sages of Israel will come out to him, and the son of Amiel will say to them, ‘I am the Messiah whom God has sent as good tidings to save you from your enemies.’ And the sages will despise him, just as you [initially] despised him and did not believe him. His fury will burn, and he will dress himself in vengeance and come to the gates of Jerusalem with Elijah the prophet and resurrect Nehemiah ben Hushiel who was killed, and then they will believe in Menachem ben Amiel.”
–The pseudonymous Sefer Zerubavel, c. 7th century, published in Jellinek, Bet haMidrash.
All the righteous have been heads of academies on earth, and have become disciples of the heavenly academy, and the Messiah visits all these academies and puts his seal on the Torah that comes from the mouths of the teachers.
–Zohar Bereishit 1, 4b
A Successful Philosopher/King/General
If a king from the House of David studies Torah, busies himself with the commandments like David did, observes the laws of the written and the oral law, convinces Israel to walk in the way of the Torah and to repair its breaches, and fights the battles of the Lord, it may be assumed that he is the Messiah. If he succeeds at these things, rebuilds the Temple on its site, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is beyond all doubt the Messiah…But if he does not succeed fully, or is slain, it is obvious that he is not the Messiah promised in the Torah.
–Maimonides, Laws of Kings 11:3-4 (uncensored version)
There is No Messiah, Just a Messianic Age
The 1885 Pittsburgh Platform [stating the principles of Reform Judaism] rejected the traditional Jewish hope for an heir of King David to arise when the world was ready to acknowledge that heir as the one anointed (the original meaning of mashiach, anglicized into “Messiah”). In the Avot, the first [blessing] of the Amidah [a central prayer in Jewish liturgy], Reformers changed the prayerbook’s hope for a go-el, a redeemer, to geulah, redemption…
–Commentary on the Pittsburgh Platform, www.ccarnet.org
The Messiah Could Be Anyone
The thing I love most about being Jewish is waiting for the Messiah! That is what I love the most…waiting, waiting, like so much of life…we Jews are waiting for the Messiah…I love that the book is still open on the question of the identity of Moshiach [messiah]…Eleanor Roosevelt, George Balanchine, Martin Luther King, Nadine Gordimer, Fred Rogers, Richard Pryor, Cruz Irizarry, the woman who takes care of my kids when I’m working, the UPS man who’s so nice about carrying in the boxes and setting them down wherever you need, the sexy guys from the cable company…it’s like a big Halloween party, life is a costume party in which anyone may come forward from behind the masks and reveal themselves as Moshiach.
—Deb Margolin, performance artist, “Oh Wholly Night” and Other Jewish Solecisms, 1996
Waiting for Us, Among Those Who Need Healing
Instead of bringing about the onset of redemption, messiah will herald its completion. The actual work of redeeming the world is turned to us in history, and is done by all of us, day by day. Messiah has been waiting in the wings, as it were, since the very beginning of history, ready to come forth when the time is right. According to one legend, he sits among the lepers at the gates of Rome–today we would be likely to find him in an AIDS hospice–tending to their wounds. Only when redemption is about to be completed will messiah be allowed to arrive. Rather than messiah redeeming us, we redeem messiah.
–Rabbi Arthur Green, Seek My Face, Speak My Name
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Pronounced: buh-RAY-SHEET, Origin: Hebrew, literally, “in the beginning,” it’s the Hebrew name for Genesis, the first book of the Torah.
Pronounced: nee-SAHN, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish month, usually coinciding with March-April.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.