Who is Mashiach?

Today is Tisha b’Av, a fast day commemorating a number of historical tragedies for the Jewish people, most notably the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem. It is famously said that on the very day that the Temple was destroyed, Mashiach was born. This statement is not to be taken literally since the Temple was last destroyed nearly two millennia ago and Mashiach has still not come. Some believe it means that Mashiach—whoever he is—will be born on the ninth of Av. That, too, is problematic since, for example, the false messiah Shabbatai Tzvi was born on the ninth of Av and this was one point that people used to “prove” he was Mashiach. Another, more likely, possibility is that Mashiach will first be revealed on Tisha b’Av. The most straight-forward explanation is simply that on the very day the Temple was destroyed, God brought into existence the soul that would one day rebuild the Temple. The destruction of the Temple was not at all permanent, and when it was destroyed, the seeds of its eventual reconstruction were planted.

So, who is Mashiach? What else do we know about him from our authentic ancient sources? These are immensely important questions because many of the false messianic movements in history (from Jesus to Bar Kochva to Shabbatai Tzvi and to the modern day) emerged out of ignorance of who Mashiach is supposed to be. Had more people been aware of the qualifications required to be Mashiach, perhaps fewer would have been duped into such movements. A look through our ancient sources reveals a great deal of information regarding the identity of Mashiach, his purpose, and what we should expect from his life’s work.

Mashiach’s Tasks

The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) clearly lays out the duties of Mashiach in his law code, the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Melakhim, Ch. 11):

The Messianic King will arise in the future and restore the Davidic Kingdom to its former state and original sovereignty. He will build the Sanctuary and gather the dispersed of Israel. All the laws will be re-instituted in his days as they had been originally: sacrifices will be offered, and the Sabbatical years and Jubilee years will be observed fully as ordained by the Torah.

The Rambam goes on to bring sources from the Tanakh to explain this. He points out that one should not “think that the Messianic King will have to perform signs and wonders and bring about novel things in the world, or resurrect the dead, and other such things.” Being a miracle-worker is not a prerequisite for being the messiah. Rather, Mashiach must complete the tasks clearly set down by the prophets: restore the Kingdom of Israel with the Davidic dynasty in place, rebuild the Temple, and bring back all the exiled Jews to Israel.

If the messianic pretender does not fulfil these tasks—regardless of how righteous, charismatic, wise, or great he is—he is not the messiah. While there could be a brief period of the messiah’s “concealment”, there is no precedent for a “second coming” in some indefinite future. The messiah must come once and get it done the first time. This immediately eliminates from contention candidates like Jesus or Shabbatai Tzvi (or, lehavdil, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, as much as we would have all liked him to be).

Aside from the above key tasks, it is assumed that Mashiach will bring peace to the whole world. However, others hold that Mashiach is only required to bring peace to Israel in relation to the world, meaning that Israel’s subjugation will finally end. The Rambam discusses this as well (in chapter 12). Of course, the entire world will eventually reach an era of global peace and unity, but this might take more time, possibly passed the lifespan of Mashiach himself.

The Midrash states that Mashiach must re-establish the Sanhedrin (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah 429). Here we also read that Mashiach will teach the world a “new Torah”. Another Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 98:9) interestingly suggests that Mashiach will add 30 mitzvot. The same passage says he will be more preoccupied with teaching Torah to the non-Jews than to the Jews (who, presumably, already know the Torah). Another Midrash adds that Mashiach will have the ability to convincingly debate anyone in order to wake them up to the truth (Yalkut Shimoni, Bamidbar 776). He will also be a writer, and “his staff will be his quill” (Tikkunei Zohar 43a). Just as Moses split a physical sea with his staff, Mashiach will split the “sea of wisdom” with his pen!

As explored recently, the Tikkunei Zohar says Mashiach is a musician, and will teach the world a “four-fold” song. This is partly based on the Talmud which states how Mashiach must be a musician or singer, like David before him (Sanhedrin 94a). In fact, so important is the trait of being a musician that the Talmud states that King Hezekiah had the potential to be the messiah, but was ultimately not chosen because he was not musical enough!

The Suffering Servant

Many sources speak of Mashiach suffering terribly on behalf of Israel, taking their sins upon himself, and thus purifying them like a korban. While this might sound like a Christian belief, it is in fact a fundamental Jewish one (which the Christians, initially being Jews in Israel, naturally adopted). It is first expressed by the prophet Isaiah: “And he was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his stripes we were healed…” (53:5) It is further expounded upon throughout the Midrash, in texts like Pesikta Rabbati and Yalkut Shimoni, the Ramchal’s Ma’amar HeGeulah, and even in the Talmud (Sukkah 52a):

“And the land shall mourn, every family apart; the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart.” [Zechariah 12:2] …What is the cause of the mourning? Rabbi Dosa and the Rabbis differ on the point. One explained the cause is the slaying of Mashiach ben Yosef, and the other explained the cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination. It is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Mashiach ben Yosef, since that agrees with the Scriptural verse, “And they shall look upon me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for his only son…” [Zechariah 12:8] but according to him who explains the cause to be the slaying of the Evil Inclination, is this an occasion for mourning? Is it not rather an occasion for rejoicing? Why then should they weep?

Rabbi Yehudah expounded: “In the time to come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring the Evil Inclination and slay it in the presence of the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous it will have the appearance of a towering hill, and to the wicked it will have the appearance of a hair thread. Both the former and the latter will weep; the righteous will weep saying, ‘How were we able to overcome such a towering hill?!’ The wicked also will weep saying, ‘How is it that we were unable to conquer this hair thread?!’”

… Our Rabbis taught: The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to Mashiach ben David (May he reveal himself speedily in our days!) “Ask of me anything, and I will give it to you,” as it is said, “I will tell of the decree… this day have I begotten you, ask of me and I will give the nations for your inheritance.” [Psalms 2:7-8] But when [Mashiach ben David] will see that Mashiach ben Yosef will be slain, he will say to Him, “Master of the Universe, I ask of You only the gift of life.” God will answer him: “As to life, your father David has already prophesied this concerning you, as it is said, ‘He asked life of You; You gave it to him…’” [Psalms 21:5]

The Talmud connects the death of Mashiach ben Yosef with the death of Evil itself (more on this below). The people will weep both for the death of the messiah (also alluded to in Megillat Eichah, Lamentations 4:20, which is read on the eve of Tisha b’Av), as well as the death of the Evil Inclination which they were heretofore unable to conquer. Then Mashiach ben David will pray to God for Mashiach ben Yosef to return to life, and God will grant the request.

This is one ancient Jewish source for the concept of Mashiach’s death destroying evil, and his subsequent resurrection (followed by the eventual resurrection of all the righteous dead). This teaching was corrupted by the ancient architects of Christianity. Jesus’ death, of course, brought no end to evil whatsoever (in many ways, it only brought more death and destruction by inspiring events like the crusades and inquisitions), nor was it followed by the prophesied resurrection of all the righteous dead. The Temple was not restored (it was, on the contrary, destroyed!) and the exile did not end, but only intensified.

One, Two, Three, or Four Messiahs?

The passages above distinguish between a “Mashiach ben Yosef” and a “Mashiach ben David”. While Mashiach is usually described as a singular figure in the Tanakh and the bulk of Rabbinic literature, there is sometimes discussion of two messiahs, and occasionally even more. This is based on a couple of verses in the Tanakh: “And saviours shall come upon Mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau; and the kingdom shall be God’s.” (Ovadiah 1:21) Here we see the prophet Ovadiah speak of saviours in the plural. The prophet Micah, meanwhile, declared “…Then shall we raise against him seven shepherds, and eight princes of men.” (Micah 5:4) The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 14:1) comments:

There is a great debate with regards to how many messiahs there will be. Some say there will be seven, as it is said “then shall we raise against him seven shepherds…” And some say there will be eight, as it is said, “and eight princes of men.” And it is neither of these, but actually four, as it is said, “And the Lord showed me four craftsmen…” (Zechariah 2:3)

And David came to explain who these four craftsmen are [in Psalms 60:9 and 108:9, where God declares: “Gilead is mine, Menashe is mine; Ephraim also is the defence of my head; Judah is my sceptre”]: “Gilead is mine” refers to Elijah, who is from the land of Gilead; “Menashe is mine” refers to the messiah who comes from the tribe of Menashe… “Ephraim is the defence of my head” refers to the Warrior Messiah who comes from Ephraim… “Judah is my sceptre” refers to the Great Redeemer, who is a descendant of David.

The Midrash concludes that there will be four messianic figures. The Talmud agrees, and says that four figures will come at the End of Days: “Mashiach ben David, Mashiach ben Yosef, Eliyahu, and the Righteous Priest” (Sukkah 52b). These clearly parallel the four of the Midrash above (“Mashiach ben Yosef” being “Ephraim”, who was the son of Joseph), except that the Sages of the Talmud have “Righteous Priest” instead of the messiah from Menashe. They are probably referring to the same person.

Having said that, there are those that maintain there must only be one messiah, and these four figures are really just different phases of his life. First, he appears as Eliyahu, the great teacher who comes “before the great and terrible Day of God and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers…” (Malachi 3:23-24) Then, when the great battles at the End of Days begin, he becomes the “Warrior Messiah”, Mashiach ben Yosef. He ultimately succumbs to his wounds, before being resurrected as Mashiach ben David, and sitting on the re-established royal throne. Finally, he also takes on the role of a “righteous priest” who serves in the rebuilt Temple.

More commonly, the Sages speak of Eliyahu as a separate figure who comes before Mashiach to prepare the way. Interestingly, one little-known mystical text called Nistarot d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says that if Israel is worthy, then Mashiach ben David will come; if Israel is not worthy, then Mashiach ben Yosef will come. Whatever the case, there appears to be one messiah after all.

The letter aleph is made up of two yuds and a vav.

This is also hinted to in Megaleh Amukot (Rabbi Nathan Nata Shapira, 1585-1633). In Chapter 159, he explains that the letter aleph symbolizes the two messiahs: As is known, an aleph is made up of two yuds and a vav. The upper yud represents Mashiach ben David while the lower yud represents Mashiach ben Yosef. The vav in between alludes to the fact that they will come sometime in the 6th millennium. “Aleph” literally means a “thousand”, and the gematria of “Mashiach ben Yosef” (משיח בן יוסף) and “Mashiach ben David” (משיח בן דויד) sum up to exactly 1000. At the same time, aleph is the first letter and has a value of one, implying a singular messiah. Megaleh Amukot points out that Mashiach is like Moses before him, who contained aspects of both Mashiach ben Yosef and Mashiach ben David within him (see Chapter 252).

The idea of a messiah with aspects of both David and Yosef may have originated in a Biblical ambiguity. We read that “David was the son of an Ephraimite man, from Beit Lechem of Judah, and his name was Jesse…” (I Samuel 17:12) The verse suggests that King David himself was not ancestrally a Judahite, but an Ephraimite who was born in the territory of Judah! Yet, we know from the Biblical genealogies that David was certainly a Judahite. Therefore, this verse may be secretly alluding to the fact that Mashiach stems from both David and Yosef (who was the father of Ephraim).

Mashiach’s Birthplace

It is generally assumed that Mashiach should be born in Beit Lechem (“Bethlehem”), based on the prophecy of Micah 5:1:

But you, Beit Lechem Ephrathah, which are little to be among the thousands of Judah, out of you shall one come forth unto Me that is to be a ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of old, from ancient days.

Note again how the prophet connects Beit Lechem with both the tribes of Judah and Ephraim, once more alluding to David and Yosef together. Still, the Prophet does not specifically state that Mashiach must physically be born there. Rather, it could simply mean that Mashiach will be a direct descendant of King David, who was born in Beit Lechem Ephrathah. Indeed, the original Biblical town of Beit Lechem Ephrathah doesn’t actually exist anymore, so we cannot expect Mashiach to be born there today.

On the contrary, the Midrash suggests that Mashiach will not be from Israel. For example, Shemot Rabbah 1:26 states: “The daughter of Pharaoh raised [Moses] who was to bring retribution upon her father. So, too, King Messiah, who will bring retribution upon Edom, dwells with them in their country.” The Midrash implies that Mashiach hails from Edom. This is supported by the famous Talmudic passage where Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi meets Mashiach sitting at the gates of “the City”, ie. Rome. In the past, we’ve explored the possible identity of “Edom” in our days. Some believe it refers to New York/America, while other insist it refers to Moscow/Russia, which has an especially strong connection to the colour red (ie. Edom).

Regardless of which country he is born in, mystical sources agree that Mashiach will not be born into a holy environment, but quite the opposite. If he were born into a kosher home, the “evil forces” of Creation (the Sitra Achra) would constantly hound him, and prevent him from reaching adulthood and fulfilling his mission. Thus, he must be born in a “concealed” environment where those forces wouldn’t even bother looking, and later become a ba’al teshuva when he is ready to face them. (For a deeper discussion of this, see Rabbi Menachem Azariah de Fano’s Ma’amar HaItim, siman 19.)

Having said that, while Mashiach is a ba’al teshuva and may have been born into sin, he must have maintained his sexual purity throughout, for that is a key prerequisite of the messiah. This is especially true regarding Mashiach ben Yosef, the prototype of whom is the Biblical Joseph, the epitome of sexual purity. It is important to note that “sexual purity”, while certainly connoting chastity and monogamy, does not mean celibacy! In fact, the wife of Mashiach has a big role to play.

The Zohar (I, 145b) states that rectifying the world will require “a woman like Eve, and a man like Adam, who will outwit the Evil Serpent…” This is because, ultimately, Mashiach’s role is to lead mankind back into a “Garden of Eden” state. It was the Serpent that caused man to be banished from the Garden, and it will be Mashiach who brings man back inside. As pointed out in the past, this is one reason why the gematria of “Serpent” (נחש) and “Mashiach” (משיח) are equal (358), and why Mashiach is sometimes symbolized by a snake, or a man grasping a snake. Thus, Mashiach and his wife together must rectify the original mistake of Adam and Eve by outwitting the Serpent in classic measure-for-measure fashion.

How Old is Mashiach?

How old should we expect Mashiach to be when he comes? Is he an old man, or a young warrior? To answer this question, we must first remember that the prototypes of Mashiach are Moses (the first redeemer), David and Joseph. Much of what we draw about Mashiach’s life stems from these three figures. When it comes to Mashiach’s age, we must similarly look to the lives of the three prototypes for clues.

Moses was 80 years old at the time of the Exodus, and went on to lead the people for forty years. David was 30 years old when he became king, and reigned for forty years. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a) states that Mashiach will also reign for forty years. Joseph, too, was 30 years old when he became the de-facto ruler of Egypt. From these we might derive that Mashiach may come as an 80-year old, like Moses, or as a 30-year old, like David and Joseph.

Another possibility is that Mashiach comes as a 20-year old. This is because the Midrash states that Adam was created as a 20-year old, and as discussed in the past, Mashiach shares a soul with Adam and rectifies his sin. Twenty is also the age, according to the Torah, when a person becomes a full adult and when, according to Kabbalah, one finally attains all levels of their soul. According to one opinion, Moses was 20-years old when he first escaped Egypt, and began his preparations for becoming the Redeemer. It could be that Mashiach himself becomes aware of his mission as a 20-year old, but is only revealed to the world at some later age.

What is Mashiach’s Name?

Possibly the most enigmatic question: what is Mashiach’s name? So mysterious is this question that the Talmud (Pesachim 54a) states it was determined and concealed before God even created the universe! Nonetheless, the Midrash gives seven names for Mashiach: “Rav Huna said: the Messiah is called by seven names and they are: Yinon, Tzidkenu, Tzemach, Menachem, David, Shiloh, Elijah.” (Midrash Mishlei, Buber ed., pg. 87)

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98b) suggests a number of possible names for Mashiach, too, including “Menachem” (מנחם), “Shiloh” (שילה), “Yinon” (ינון), and “Chananiah” (חנניה). Note how the initials of these four names spell “Mashiach” (משיח)! At the end of the passage, the Talmud appears to reject these names, and concludes that Mashiach is simply known as “the Leper Scholar”. The Talmud explains how Mashiach is stricken with leprosy (this is part of his necessary suffering, based on Isaiah 53:4), and is entirely bandaged up. His face, too, is covered, shrouding Mashiach’s identity in secrecy. So secret is his identity that even the various Heavenly forces and spiritual beings do not know who he is. One Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah 499) presents this Heavenly mystery, and offers an answer which encapsulates both Mashiach’s identity and his greatest task:

מהו באורך נראה? זה אורו של משיח שנאמר וירא אלהים את האור כי טוב, מלמד שצפה הקב״ה בדורו של משיח ובמעשיו קודם שנברא העולם וגנזו למשיח ולדורו תחת כסא הכבוד שלו. אמר שטן לפני הקב”ה: רבש”ע אור שנגנז תחת כסא הכבוד שלך למי? א”ל: למי שהוא עתיד להחזירך ולהכלימך בבשת פנים. א”ל: רבש”ע, הראהו לי! א”ל: בא וראה אותו. וכיוון שראה אותו נזדעזע ונפל על פניו, אמר: בודאי זהו משיח שעתיד להפיל לי ולכל שרי עובדי אלילים בגיהנם שנאמר: בלע המות לנצח ומחה ה’ אלהים דמעה מעל כל פנים. באותה שעה התרגשו העו”א, אמרו לפניו: רבש”ע מי הוא זה שאנו נופלים בידו מה שמו ומה טיבו? א”ל הקב”ה: אפרים משיח צדקי שמו

What is the meaning of “In Your light we will see light” [Psalms 36:10]? This is the light of Mashiach, as it is said, “And God saw the light that it was good” [Genesis 1:4]. This is to teach that the Holy One, blessed be He, gazed into the future generation of Mashiach and his deeds before He even created the universe, and He hid [the light] for Mashiach and his generation under His Throne of Glory.

Said Satan before the Holy One, blessed be He: “Master of the Universe, for whom is the light that is hidden under Your Throne of Glory?” He replied: “It is for the one who is destined to return you and shame you.” [Satan] said: “Master of the Universe, show him to me!” He replied: “Come and see him.”

When [Satan] saw him, he shuddered and fell upon his face. He said: “Of course! This is Mashiach, who is destined to take me—along with all the Heavenly princes of the idol worshippers—down to Gehinnom, as it is said, “He will swallow up death for ever; and God will wipe away the tears from all faces…” [Isaiah 25:8]

At that moment, the [Heavenly princes of the] idol worshippers said excitedly: “Master of the Universe, who is this in whose hands we fall? What is his name and what is his nature?” Said to them the Holy One, blessed be He: “His name is Ephraim, My righteous messiah.”

This identification is partly based on Jeremiah 31, which describes the End of Days and the Ingathering of the Exiles. There, God states, “I have been a Father for Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.” Several verses later, we read, “Ephraim is My darling son; a child that is dandled, for as often as I speak of him, I do earnestly remember him still. Therefore, My innards yearn for him; I will surely have compassion upon him, said God.” On the surface level, Jeremiah is speaking about the wayward Kingdom of Ephraim, upon which God will have compassion and restore to greatness. On a deeper level, the verses allude to Mashiach, and the “compassion” that God will have on him following the great suffering that he will endure. (For a fuller explanation of this, see Pesikta Rabbati 37.)

When Should We Expect Him?

As discussed in the past, we are already into the “eve of the cosmic Sabbath”, the final period of preparation for the Great Sabbath, the seventh and final millennium. We have also explored how, based on certain mystical sources, we are already past the half-way point of the “Footsteps of the Messiah”. At this point, it all depends on our own merits. After all, Jewish tradition holds that there is a potential messiah living in each generation, in case the time is ripe for Redemption.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) states that for Mashiach to come, things have to be either really good, or really bad—where there is no longer any hope left. The Talmud explains that this is the meaning of the two apparently contradictory phrases regarding Mashiach’s arrival in Scripture: In Daniel 7:13 we read that “There came with the clouds of heaven, one like the son of man…” whereas in Zechariah 9:9 we read that Mashiach comes “lowly and riding upon a donkey…” Which is it? The Talmud says it depends on us: if the generation is meritorious, Mashiach will come upon clouds; if the generation is wicked, then he will come upon a donkey.

The same page of Talmud goes on to state that the Persian King Shapur (who often liked to debate with the Sages) scoffed at the idea of a messiah on a lowly donkey. He suggested he would send Mashiach his best horse. The Sages replied that Mashiach’s donkey is no ordinary donkey, but a vehicle of “a hundred [or a thousand] colours”. Maybe we can take from this that, in our present day, we shouldn’t expect a messiah coming on a donkey at all, for our modes of transportation have changed.

The mention of a Persian horse in the Talmud above is not coincidental, for across Jewish texts there is discussion of how Persia will be deeply involved in the events of the End of Days. In fact, the great Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught: “When you see a Persian horse tied up in the Land of Israel, expect the Footsteps of the Messiah.” (Eichah Rabbah 1:44) In other words, when Persia is “tied up” militarily in Israel, one may expect the End of Days to be near. Needless to say, today’s Persia is the number one financier and supplier of terror against Israel.

Finally, as previously mentioned some hold that Mashiach will first reveal himself on Tisha b’Av, while others say in the month of Nissan (since this is when Moses, the first redeemer, appeared). The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 11a) records an opinion that Mashiach will come in the month of Tishrei, while other sources suggest the month of Cheshvan. Of course, it could be at any moment, as we read in the Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith (famously reformulated in the first person “Ani ma’amin…”) that the twelfth principle is to expect the messiah’s arrival every single day. Whenever it is, let us pray that it will be very soon.

‘Going Up To The Third Temple’ by Ofer Yom Tov