Mashiach: The Messiah
The idea of mashiach (messiah) is an ancient one in Judaism
The Jewish idea of mashiach is a great human leader like King David, not a savior
There is much speculation about when the mashiach will come
The Bible identifies several tasks that the mashiach will accomplish
Jews do not believe in Jesus because he did not accomplish these tasks
I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the mashiach, and
though he may tarry, still I await him every day.
- Principle 12 of Rambam's
13 Principles of Faith
The Messianic Idea in Judaism
Belief in the eventual coming of the mashiach is a basic and fundamental part
of traditional Judaism. It is part of Rambam's
13 Principles of Faith, the minimum requirements of
Jewish belief. 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 religious courts of justice; an
end of wickedness, sin and heresy; reward to the righteous; rebuilding of
Jerusalem; restoration of the line of King David; and restoration of
Modern scholars suggest that the messianic concept was introduced later in the
history of Judaism, during the age of the prophets. They note that the
messianic concept is not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the
Torah (the first five books of the Bible).
However, traditional Judaism maintains that the messianic idea has always been
a part of Judaism. The mashiach is not mentioned explicitly in the Torah,
because the Torah was written in terms that all people could understand, and
the abstract concept of a distant, spiritual, future reward was beyond the
comprehension of some people. However, the Torah contains several references to
"the End of Days" (acharit ha-yamim), which is 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 End of Days.
The word "mashiach" does not mean "savior." The notion of an innocent, divine
or semi-divine 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
Jewish thought. Unfortunately, this Christian concept has become so deeply
ingrained in the English word "messiah" that this English word can no longer be
used to refer to the Jewish concept. The word "mashiach" will be used
throughout this page.
Some gentiles have told me that the term "mashiach" is related to the Hebrew
term "moshiah" (savior) because they sound similar, but the similarity is not
as strong as it appears to one unfamiliar with Hebrew. The Hebrew word
"mashiach" comes from the root
Mem-Shin-Chet, which means to paint, smear, or
annoint. The word "moshiah" comes from the root Yod-Shin-Ayin, which means to
help or save. The only letter these roots have in common is Shin, the most
common letter in the Hebrew language. The "m" sound at the beginning of the
word moshiah (savior) is a common prefix used to turn a verb into a noun. For
example, the verb tzavah (to command) becomes mitzvah (commandment). Saying
that "mashiach" is related to "moshiah" is a bit like saying that ring is
related to surfing because they both end in "ing."
The mashiach will be a great political leader descended from King David
(Jeremiah 23:5). The mashiach is often referred to as "mashiach ben David"
(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 leader, who will win
battles for Israel. He will be a great judge, who
makes righteous decisions (Jeremiah 33:15). But above all, he will be a 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
When Will the Mashiach Come?
There are a wide variety of opinions on the subject of when the mashiach will
come. Some of Judaism's 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 Judaism itself. This actually
happened in the 17th century, when Shabbatai 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 anyone from speculating
about the time when the mashiach will come.
Although some scholars believed that G-d has set
aside a specific date for the coming of the mashiach, most authority suggests
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 sinful), 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:
- if Israel repented a single day;
- if Israel observed a single Shabbat
- if Israel observed two Shabbats in a row properly;
- in a generation that is totally innocent or totally guilty;
- in a generation that loses hope;
- in a generation where children are totally disrespectful towards their
parents and elders;
What Will the Mashiach Do?
Before the time of the mashiach, there shall be war and suffering (Ezekiel 38:16)
The mashiach will bring about the political and spiritual redemption of the
Jewish people by bringing us back to
Israel and restoring Jerusalem (Isaiah 11:11-12;
Jeremiah 23:8; 30:3; Hosea 3:4-5). He will establish a 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 re-establish its worship (Jeremiah
33:18). He will restore the religious court system of Israel and establish
Jewish law as the law of the land (Jeremiah 33:15).
Olam Ha-Ba: The Messianic Age
The world after the messiah comes is often referred to in Jewish literature as
Olam Ha-Ba (oh-LAHM hah-BAH), the World to Come. This term can cause some
confusion, because it is also used to refer to a spiritual
afterlife. In English, we commonly use the
term "messianic age" to refer specifically to the time of the messiah.
Olam Ha-Ba 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 11:6-11:9). Others, however, say that these statements are merely an
allegory for peace and prosperity.
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). The law of the Jubilee will be reinstated.
In the Olam Ha-Ba, the whole world will recognize the Jewish
G-d as the only true G-d, and the Jewish religion as
the only true religion (Isaiah 2:3; 11:10; Micah 4:2-3; Zechariah 14:9). There
will be no murder, robbery, competition or jealousy. There will be no sin
(Zephaniah 3:13). Sacrifices will continue to
be brought in the Temple, but these will be
limited to thanksgiving offerings, because there
will be no further need for expiatory offerings.
Some gentiles have tried to put an ugly spin on this theology, claiming that
Jews plan to force people to convert to our religion, perhaps based on their
own religion's history of doing exactly the same thing. That is not at all how
Jews understand the messianic age. We believe that in that future time,
everyone will simply know what the truth is, in the same way that we know that
2+2=4, and there will no longer be any reason to argue about it. It is much
like a situation I witnessed at work once: two computer programmers were
arguing loudly and at length about whether it was possible for a user to input
data at a certain point in a program. Finally someone pressed a key and they
all saw that nothing happened. Now they knew the truth, end of argument. When
mashiach comes, theological truths will be equally obvious to mankind, and
there will be no reason to argue about it.
What About Jesus?
Jews do not believe that Jesus was the mashiach. Assuming that he existed, and
assuming that the Christian scriptures are accurate in describing him (both
matters that are debatable), he simply did not fulfill the mission of the
mashiach as it is described in the biblical passages cited above. Jesus did not
do any of the things that the scriptures said the messiah would do.
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 Kokhba (son of a star), and he was a charismatic, brilliant, but
brutal warlord. Rabbi Akiba, one of the greatest
scholars in Jewish history, believed that Bar Kokhba was the mashiach. Bar
Kokhba 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. Ultimately, however, the
Roman Empire crushed his revolt and killed Bar Kokhba. After his death, all
acknowledged that he was not the 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 Kokhba, Shabbatai Tzvi, Jesus, and many others too numerous to
name. Leo Rosten reports some very entertaining accounts under the entry for
Joys of Yiddish. But all of these people died without fulfilling the
mission of the mashiach; therefore, none of them were the mashiach. The
mashiach and the Olam Ha-Ba lie in the future, not in the past.
Biblical Passages Referring to the Mashiach
The following passages in the Jewish
scriptures are the ones that Jews consider to be messianic in nature or
relating to the end of days. These are the ones that we rely upon in developing
our messianic concept:
- Isaiah 2, 11, 42; 59:20
- Jeremiah 23, 30, 33; 48:47; 49:39
- Ezekiel 38:16
- Hosea 3:4-3:5
- Micah 4
- Zephaniah 3:9
- Zechariah 14:9
- Daniel 10:14
If you want to know how Jews interpret the passages that Christians consider to
be messianic, see Jews for Judaism, a
counter-missionary organization not associated with this website, especially
their article about
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