Anointing and “The Anointed One” (Messiah)
When was anointing done in Biblical times? Is it still practiced today?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
Anointing is a form of consecrating a sacred person or item, and initiating it in its special function. In the Torah it was done to the Tabernacle (Exodus 30:26-30), to High Priests (as well as all the Priests when the Tabernacle was first dedicated), and occasionally to kings.
The earliest instance of anointing in the Torah is the stone which Jacob anointed to dedicate as an altar (Genesis 28:18). He did so when he was fleeing his brother Esau, after he awoke from his dream in which he saw a ladder ascending to Heaven. According to the Sages, that episode occurred on Mount Moriah (Talmud Hullin 91b), and thus, Jacob’s act was the earliest consecration of the place which would ultimately house the holy Temple.
Throughout the generations, a special anointing oil was used to consecrate kings and High Priests. God instructed Moses to produce this anointing oil, which consisted of olive oil mixed with certain spices in the proper proportions (Exodus 30:22-33). It was used at the time to anoint the Tabernacle and its utensils (such as the ark, altars and menorah), and to anoint Aaron and his sons. The Talmud states that the original oil produced in the desert, though only 12 logs (=~1 gallon), miraculously lasted for all of Israel’s history and exists in its full quantity today (Horiyot 11b).
There are several recorded instances in the Torah in which kings were anointed. Samuel the Prophet anointed both Saul (I Samuel 10:1) and David (I Samuel 16:13), Zaddok the Priest anointed Solomon (I Kings 1:39), Yehoyada the Priest anointed Yo’ash (after Atalayah killed out the rest of the royal family; II Kings 11:12), and finally, the people anointed Jehoahaz, one of the last kings of Judah (II Kings 23:30).
The Talmud (Horiyot 11b) explains that whereas all High Priests were anointed, a king was only anointed if he began a new dynasty or if there was some controversy surrounding his appointment. This is why, as we saw above, only a few kings were anointed throughout history. (Some controversy or instability existed at the time all the kings listed were anointed, such as King Solomon, who was opposed by his brother Adonijah.)
In addition, there was also a special “Priest anointed for war” (“mishuach milchama”) – who was anointed for the specific role of speaking to the troops before they went out to battle, both to encourage them and to excuse certain classes of people who were exempt from fighting. (See Deut. 20:1-9, Talmud Sotah 42a, Horiyot 12b.)
The special anointing oil which Moses prepared was hidden away by King Josiah towards the end of the First Temple era – when he hid the Ark of the Covenant and a number of other sacred items, knowing that the Temple was soon to be destroyed. From that point new High Priests were “anointed” simply by wearing the 8 garments of the High Priest and beginning to serve. (The later King Jehoahaz was likewise only anointed with persimmon oil (Talmud Horiyot 12a).)
In the End of Days when the Temple is rebuilt, the oil will be revealed from its hiding place – together with the Ark and other items – and both the future High Priest and the Messiah, the future king of Israel, will be anointed with it.
It should be noted that since oil was typically used to anoint people to greatness, the Torah occasionally uses the term to anoint (“mashach”) where it simply means to appoint to high position, without the use of oil (see e.g. I Kings 19:16,19 regarding Elijah’s appointment of Elisha as his successor, and Isaiah 61:1).
Likewise, the Torah occasionally uses the term “the anointed one” = “mashiach” / “messiah” to refer to any person appointed to carry out an important task. People sometimes mistake this word to refer to the Messiah proper, but the word is not limited to that definition. It simply means “the appointed one,” and very often from the context is clearly referring to someone else. See for example Isaiah 45:1 regarding Cyrus, Lamentations 4:20 regarding Josiah, and Psalms 105:15 regarding all of Israel.