I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the mashiach, and though he may tarry, still I await him every day.
--a popular paraphrase of Principle 12 of Maimonides' 13 Principles of Faith
Belief in the eventual coming of the mashiach is a basic and fundamental part of traditional Judaism. It is part of Maimonides' 13 Principles of Faith, the minimum requirements of Jewish belief, commonly recited daily as brought above. In the Shemoneh Esrei prayer, recited three times daily, we pray for all of the elements of the coming of the mashiach: ingathering of the exiles, restoration of the Torah-based system of justice, an end to the apostates and heretics, reward for the righteous, rebuilding of Jerusalem, restoration of the kingdom of the descendants of King David, and restoration of Temple service.
Many modern scholars suggest that the messianic concept was introduced far after the beginning of the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, during the age of the prophets. They note that the messianic concept is not clearly mentioned anywhere in the Written Torah (the first five books of the Bible).
However, traditional Judaism maintains that the messianic idea has always been a part of the Torah. The mashiach is not mentioned explicitly in the Torah, because the Torah was written in terms that all the people could then understand, and the abstract concept of a distant future reward was then beyond the comprehension of many of the people. However, the Torah contains several references to "the Latter Days" (acharit ha-yamim), which is considered the time of the mashiach; thus, the concept of mashiach was known in the most ancient times.
The term "mashiach" literally means the anointed one, and refers to the ancient practice of anointing kings with oil when they took the throne. The mashiach is the one who will be anointed as king in the Latter Days. He will be the very real king of a very real Torah government in the Land of Israel: not some "spiritual" or "symbolic" king in Israel, as some have mistakenly thought (especially Christians), and certainly not some gifted Jewish spiritual leader outside the Land of Israel, as others have mistakenly thought (including thousands of Jews in our generation as well as the followers of earlier false Jewish "mashiachs" in generations past). It should be mentioned that while it is not forbidden to foolishly believe that one is the mashiach despite that he is not, it is certainly not the sign of a good grasp of the Torah to be mislead as to his nature and role, described more fully below.
The word "mashiach" does not mean "savior". The notion of an innocent, semi-divine (let alone fully divine) human being who will sacrifice himself to save us from the consequences of our own sins is a purely Christian concept that has no basis in normal Jewish thought, though it seems to have been invented or adopted by Jewish apostates in the early Church. Unfortunately, this Christian concept has become so deeply ingrained in the English word "messiah" that this English word should probably no longer be used to refer to the Jewish concept. Thus, we prefer to use the less familiar word "mashiach" throughout this page.
The mashiach will be a great political leader descended by a pure male line from King David (Jeremiah 23,5). The mashiach is often referred to as "mashiach ben David" (The Mashiach, son of David). He will be well-versed in Jewish law, and observant of its commandments (Isaiah 11,2-5). He will be a charismatic leader, inspiring others to follow his example. He will be a great military figure who will win battles for Israel, freeing the Jews of foreign domination and establishing a Torah-based kingdom in Israel. He will be a great judge, who makes righteous decisions (Jeremiah 33,15). But above all, he will be a fully normal human being, not a god, demi-god, or other supernatural being.
It has been said that in every generation, a person is born with the potential to be the mashiach. If the time is right for the messianic age within that person's lifetime, then that person will be the mashiach. But if that person dies before he completes the mission of the mashiach, then that person is not the mashiach; thus, even if one could say that some historial Jewish figure was worthy of being the mashiach, since he did not reestablish a Torah kingdom in Israel, he could not possibly have been the real mashiach we wait for.
There is a wide variety of opinions on the subject of when the mashiach will come. Some of the Jews' greatest minds have cursed those who try to predict the time of the mashiach's coming, because errors in such predictions could cause people to lose faith in the messianic idea or in the Torah itself. This actually happened in the 17th century, when Shabbtai Tzvi claimed to be the mashiach; when Tzvi converted to Islam under threat of death, many Jews converted with him. Nevertheless, this "prohibition" has not stopped anybody from speculating about the time when the mashiach will come (including some who themselves spoke harshly of those who engaged in such vain efforts!).
Although some scholars believed that God has set aside a specific date for the coming of the mashiach, most authorities suggest that the conduct of mankind will determine the time of the mashiach's coming. In general, it is believed that the mashiach will come in a time when he is most needed (because the world is so evil), or in a time when he is most deserved (because the world is so good). For example, each of the following has been suggested as the time when the mashiach will come:
Before the time of the mashiach, there will be war and great suffering (Ezekiel 38,16). Then the mashiach will bring about the political and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people by bringing all Jews outside Israel back to Israel, and restoring Jerusalem (Isaiah 11,11-12; Jeremiah 23,8; 30,3; Hosea 3,4-5). He will establish a Torah government in Israel that will be the center of all world government, both for Jews and Gentiles (Isaiah 2,2-4; 11,10; 42,1). He will rebuild the Temple and reestablish its worship (Jeremiah 33,18). He will restore the religious court system of Israel, if it had not already been reestablished before him, and establish the Torah as the law of the land (Jeremiah 33,15).
The messianic age will be characterized by the peaceful co-existence of all people (Isaiah 2,4). Hatred, intolerance, and war will cease to exist. Some authorities suggest that the laws of nature will change, so that predatory beasts will no longer seek prey and agriculture will bring forth supernatural abundance (Isaiah 11,6-9); others like Maimonides, however, say that these statements are merely an allegory for peace and prosperity. What is agreed on by all is a very optimistic picture of what real people can be like in this real world, the like of which has never been seen before.
All of the Jewish people will return from their exile among the nations to their home in Israel (Isaiah 11,11-12; Jeremiah 23,8; 30,3; Hosea 3,4-5), and the law of the Jubilee as well as the rest of the special agricultural laws in the Torah will be reinstated.
In the messianic age, the whole world will recognize YHWH, the LORD God of Israel, as the only true God, and the Torah will be seen as the only true religion (Isaiah 2,3; 11,10; Micah 4,2-3; Zechariah 14,9). There will be no more murder, robbery, competition, or jealousy.
Jews know that Jesus could not possibly have been the mashiach. Assuming that he existed, and assuming that the Christian scriptures are accurate in describing him (both of which are debatable), he simply did not fulfill the mission of the mashiach as Jews have always understood it. Jesus neither did any of the things described above, nor did he bring about the anticipated messianic age.
On the contrary, another Jew born about a century later came far closer to fulfilling the messianic ideal than Jesus did. His name was Shimeon ben Kosiba, known as Bar Kochba (son of a star), and he was a charismatic, brilliant, and harsh military figure. Among others, Rabbi Akiba, one of the greatest scholars in Jewish history, believed that Bar Kochba was the mashiach. Bar Kochba fought a war against the Roman Empire, catching the Tenth Legion by surprise and retaking Jerusalem. He resumed sacrifices at the site of the Temple and made plans to rebuild the Temple. He established a provisional government and began to issue coins in its name. This is what the Jewish people were looking for in a mashiach; Jesus clearly does not fit into this mold, of course. Ultimately, however, the Roman Empire crushed his revolt and killed Bar Kochba. After his death, all acknowledged that he was not the mashiach (as Jesus' followers should have done with their pretender to be mashiach).
Throughout Jewish history, there have been many people who have claimed to be the mashiach, or whose followers have claimed that they were the mashiach: Shimeon Bar Kochba, Shabbtai Tzvi, Jesus, and many others too numerous to name. Leo Rosten reports some very entertaining accounts under the heading False Messiahs in his book, The Joys of Yiddish. But all of these people died without fulfilling the mission of the mashiach; therefore, none of them was the mashiach. Thus, the mashiach and the messianic age lie in our age or in a future age, not in the past.
In our generation, thousands of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's followers claim that their brilliant Rebbe was the mashiach. But his more sensible students have now, after his death, expressed disappointment that it turned out that the Rebbe just did not fulfill the expectations described above in his lifetime, and admit that we are still waiting for the real mashiach to come.
May the Real Mashiach come soon!
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