The Messianic Idea in Judaism

 Dr Jaafar Hadi Hassan


Belief in the Messiah who, according to Jewish tradition, will appear at the end of time is one of the thirteen articles of faith that a strict religious Jew should subscribe to. Although the Messiah is not mentioned by name in the Jewish scriptures, he is alluded to in some verses which have been interpreted as messianic. For example the verse in Gen. 49:10 which says “Until Shiloh come” in which Shiloh is taken to refer to the Messiah and so on. The discussion about and commentary on the Messianic idea have over the centuries been most detailed and extensive. 

A great number of books and articles by both Jewish and non-Jewish scholars have been written extensively on the subject over the centuries and in these writings the characteristics, description, traits and conditions and other issues related to the person of the Messiah have all been discussed at great length. There is an agreement among scholars that one of the main requirements of the Jewish Messiah is that he should be a direct descendent of King David.

There are many other characteristics that he should possess. Among them are that he should be a prophet, warrior, judge, king and a teacher of the Torah. His physical and spiritual power should be great so that in the final days he would be able to bring complete redemption to the Jewish people together with eternal peace, material prosperity and ethical perfection to the world. Free of sin and full of wisdom, kindness and piety, humble and lowly in all his words and saintly, pure in all his ways, he will vanquish foes and liberate the Jews and will take them to Palestine from where he will rule the world.

Another essential requirement of the Jewish Messiah, according to Jewish tradition, is that he should have been born on the day of the destruction of the Jewish Temple which is 9th of Ab according to the Jewish calendar.

However, prior to the Advent of the Messiah there should occur what are called “the birth pangs” of the Messiah or “Messianic travails” which are also considered to be an essential part of the very idea of the redemption.

Another Jewish tradition which is related to the idea of the Messiah is that he would be preceded by another “minor” Messiah who is called Messiah ben Joseph (son of Joseph) from the tribe of Ephraim. This first Messiah is expected to arrive at the start of the Messianic era to fight the enemies of the Jews and to die at the very gates of Jerusalem. His campaigns would, however, pave the way for the final Messiah who would be a descendent of the House of David as we mentioned before

One of the signs which should occur before the advent of the Messiah is the appearance of the prophet Elijah (who according to Jewish tradition is still alive). It is anticipated that the prophet Elijah, as herald of the Messiah, would one day come before the Son of David and announce his coming from the top of Mount Carmel. One of the functions of Elijah would be to anoint the Messiah with a special oil, because he is, according to the Talmud, not only a prophet but also a priest.

And because of the influence of the Messianic idea on the Jewish people, particularly after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, there were many attempts by Jews, rabbis, mystics and others to find out about the time of the Messiah’s advent despite the warning of the Talmud against it which says: "May the bones of the calculators of the end rot”   and the well known statement of Rabbi Helbo that the Israelites make four vows one of which is that they are adjured not to press for the end These attempts were a constant feature of the Jewish culture from early times. Dozens of dates have been proposed as the dates of the beginning of the redemption. Even though one date after another passed without any significant happening, the explanation given was that the Jews were not sufficiently righteous to accept the Messiah, and yet another new date was set.

The most common and the earliest way to attempt to find out the probable date was to decipher those dates given in the book of Daniel particularly in the seventh and ninth chapters. These chapters have long puzzled Biblical scholars and commentators. Already as early as the first century AD men were already engaged in trying to determine the date of the Messianic advent.

The second method was to determine from scriptural passages (other than those of the book of Daniel) phrases and words, especially those alluding to the future and redolent of promises, the length of the Messianic age and to fix upon a certain important moment in the history of the people as a starting point from which to reckon this age. Many such terminia quo were fixed upon by calculation through the ages.

The third method was to turn to the earlier exiles, both the Egyptian and the Babylonian and from their duration and attendant circumstances to learn the secret of the third exile (which is supposed to end when the Messiah appears).

Another method used and employed by adventists in their calculations was Gematria (the interpretation of a word according to the numerical value of its letters) and to the related pseudo-science, Notarikon (taking each letter of a word as the initial of some other word = acrostics). Under the influence of the Kabbalah this type of interpretation became highly

developed and elaborated. According to those influenced by the Kabbalah the 22 fundamental (Hebrew) letters are God appointed and He established, combined, weighed and changed them and through them he formed all things which existed and were destined to exist.

Astrology was also another method of Messianic calculation. It too was well grounded in the Jewish tradition despite the prohibition of some major rabbis against using such methods. 

Some of these methods resulted in particular years being fixed for the appearance of the Messiah but they passed by with nothing happening and various explanations were later given for the non-appearance of the Messiah. 1096 was one of these years in which the Jews expected the coming of the Messiah but the year passed and in fact the Jews experienced so much trouble at the hands of the Crusaders during this appointed time that people began to justify the non-appearance of the Messiah by saying that the very disaster was “the birth throes” of the Messiah. Some Jews resorted to what is called practical Kabbalah. The most famous of these people was Joseph Della Reina who lived in the 15th century in the town of Safad in Palestine. According to the story, he undertook with some of his students to effect the coming of the Messiah by means of practical Kabbalah (and magic). They proceeded to the grave of Simon bin Yohai (who lived in 2nd century and was venerated by the Kabbalists) and engaged in the rite of letter magic and other mystic practices. It is said that when their efforts failed Della Reina went to Sidon where he turned apostate.

In Jewish folklore many stories have developed around this deed of Della Reina. Most of these stories portrayed him as a bad person who was cursed because of his deed. Some of these stories say that he allied himself with Satan and some say that he allied himself with the mythological Lillith, the rebellious wife of Adam. It is said that the famous Kabbalist Isaac Luria recognized the soul of Della Reina in a black dog’s body, which he had become as a punishment for him.

Other Jews resorted to committing many sins in order to bring about the advent of the Messiah. This behaviour was based on a saying in the Talmud that the Messiah will appear only in a world that is entirely innocent or entirely guilty and since it was difficult, as they said, to attain complete innocence they turned to complete wrongdoing.

The year 1530-31 was another date fixed for the coming of the Messiah by rabbi Abraham b. Elizer Levi (d.1530) who was a leading figure in Istanbul and Jerusalem who preached that the Ottoman expansion was a sign of the downfall of Christianity and would usher in the final redemption which he fixed for the year mentioned above.

In his epistle to the Falashas (the Ethiopian Jews) in the year 1525 rabbi Abraham contended: “It appears that in the year 5284 (1524) the redemption had begun, even though it has not yet become manifest where it has taken place. My heart tells me that the children of the tribe of Reuben and some others from the remaining tribes have started out and moved from their place to other areas in that year and that through them a number of their brethren have already been redeemed”. The emotional reaction of the masses was both deep and widespread. Many individuals actually began making preparations to join the hosts of exiles going to Palestine. Even a famous rabbi like David ibn Abi Zimra was impressed.

In the early 1570s there was a wave of Messianic excitement which affected certain circles of the Jews especially those of Italy and Palestine. Various rabbis especially Italian ones had calculated the year 1575 to be the certain date of redemption. At about the same time, Rabbi Isaac Luria, who arrived in Safad in Palestine around 1570 was venerated in his kabalistic circle not only as author of the famous Luranic doctrines of exile and redemption, but also as the Messiah himself. When Luria died having failed to manifest himself as the Messiah, his student, Rabbi Hayyim Vital, inherited at least part of his mantle. In the following period there was also a large production of literature concerning the messianic advent in the Jewish world. Various rabbis were occupied with calculations and thoughts concerning the appearance of the Messiah. Prominent among them was Rabbi Menessah ben Israel of Amsterdam in the seventeenth century who wrote a famous treatise entitled “The Hope of Israel” about the imminent arrival of the Messiah.

A legend is recounted that various Hassidic rabbis tried to force the coming of the Messiah by deciding during their life times that they would refuse to enter heaven after their death unless the Messiah would come. Since in the Hassidic world view, merits must without fail get their reward, such a refusal on the part of a “great saint” they believe causes an intolerable disruption in the heavenly order of things, which must instantly be remedied by letting the Messiah commence his mission. But this pious blackmail, too, was doomed to failure. “Those in heaven” managed to play a trick on the souls of the saints and entice them to enter heaven against their will. In modern times some of the Jews resorted to Zionism as they connected the appearance of the Messiah with the emigration to Palestine.

These are some of the stories which are mentioned in connection with the speculation about the appearance of the Messiah presented here as examples of how much the idea of messianism has influenced the Jewish people. As for the age of the Messiah, its description in the Jewish tradition is a utopian age in which there will be no evil because the morals of the people become very strong. According to Maimonides there “will be neither famine nor war nor envy nor strife, for there will be an abundance of worldly goods. The whole world will be occupied solely with knowledge of God. Therefore the children of Israel will be great sages; they will know hidden things and attain an understanding of their Creator to the extent of human capability, as it is said: "For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of God as water covers the sea” (Isa.11:9) Although the idea of messianism undoubtedly afforded great spiritual comfort to the Jews especially during their persecution, it also brought many catastrophes to them. Many false Messiahs appeared and the Jews suffered spiritually as well as politically and materially.