Who is the Messiah?

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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."

--Isaiah 9:5

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.

--Isaiah 11:1-4

King David

Great Warrior

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

Skilled Judge

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."

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.