Who is the Messiah?
And how will we recognize him when he comes?
Each Shavuot we read the book of Ruth, who famously converted to Judaism and from whom the Messiah (Moshiach) will ultimately descend. The topic of the coming of the Moshiach is a real paradox. On the one hand, belief in the imminent coming of the Moshiach and looking forward to his arrival is one of the Rambam’s 13 fundamental axioms underpinning all of Judaism.1 On the other hand, despite the importance of this belief, anyone who would today announce himself as being the Moshiach would be met with immense scepticism. In fact, this phenomenon has reached the point that the genuine belief that one is the Moshiach is an officially-recognised psychiatric disorder known as Jerusalem Syndrome, with which several hundred people a year are diagnosed. Put simply: we institutionalise people who believe they are the Moshiach!
The roots of this scepticism are easy to understand in light of the various false-Messiah debacles that have beset the Jewish people in the past. Whether it was the famous Bar Kochba or the infamous Shabbasai Tzvi, each time the Jewish people has invested itself in a person held out to be the Moshiach, the fallout has been catastrophic and indelibly felt to this day. Frankly, we have been burned so many times by false Moshiachs that trusting that anyone is the Moshiach is, for many people, a bridge too far.
Clearly, there must be some way for the Jewish people to work out who is the real Messiah and who is not. There are numerous descriptions of the Moshiach, his future achievements and the times before and after his appearance in the Tanach and the Oral Torah, including very many mystical books. There is also a substantial amount of legend and lore surrounding these issues. As a result, there is a very wide range of opinions (some well-founded and some completely unfounded) about what the Moshiach is required to do and what life will be like when he comes. It is obviously not possible to review all of these opinions in this article. However, arguably the most well-known approach to the criteria the Moshiach is required to fulfil is codified by the Rambam.2
The Rambam writes:
“The Moshiach King will arise and restore the sovereignty of the House of David to its previous status as it was during [David’s] original rule, build the [Beis] HaMikdash and gather in the Diaspora of Israel. Additionally, during his days, all the [Torah’s] laws will be re-implemented as they were previously: people will bring offerings and Shemita, and Yovel years will be practised according to all of their rules specified in the Torah.”
The first point to make is that the Moshiach is required to descend from the House of David. Davidic lineage, like all lineage in Judaism, is established paternally, and therefore the Moshiach is required to be a direct male-to-male descendant of David. The requirement for Davidic descent originates from Hashem’s promise to David that his royal dynasty and right to the throne would extend forever.3
While this general description provides some of the details of the requirements, the Rambam codifies that there are in fact two stages to belief that a particular individual is the Moshiach – (1) presumption that an individual is the Moshiach; and (2) complete confirmation thereof:
“And if a king from the House of David shall arise, learned in Torah and engaged in mitzvos like his forefather, David, according to [both] the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, and further he:
- Compels all of Israel to walk in [the ways of the Torah]…
- Fights wars of God (to restore Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel and implement Torah law)
then [such a person] is presumed (although not confirmed) to be the Moshiach.
If he does this and is successful and he:
- defeats all of the nations that surround him;
- rebuilds the [Beis] HaMikdash in its correct place; and
- gathers in the Diaspora of Israel
then he is certainly the Moshiach.
However, if he is not successful in achieving all of these things or he is killed, then it is known that this person is not the one the Torah promised and he is like all the other proper and upstanding kings of the House of David who died.”
This pithy – although daunting – list is everything the Moshiach is required to achieve. However, this short list is sufficient to have excluded from contention both Jesus and Shabsai Tzvi, neither of whom achieved any of the above. Bar Kochba, however, did achieve the first two requirements, which is why the Sages of his time presumed him to be the Moshiach.
What is especially noteworthy is what the Moshiach is not required to do. Specifically, the Rambam codifies that the Moshiach is not required to perform any miracles or resurrect the dead.
“Do not think that the Moshiach King is required to perform [miraculous] signs or wonders or to create new physical phenomena or to resurrect the dead or those types of things that silly people say. This is not the case for [we see that] Rabbi Akiva who was one of the greatest Sages of the Sages of the Mishna was a supporter of King Bar Kochba, and he said about him (Bar Kochba) that he was the Moshiach and he and all the Sages of his generation believed that he (Bar Kochba) was the Moshiach until he was killed for iniquities. When he was killed, it was known that he was not the Moshiach. However, the Sages never asked him to perform a (miraculous) sign or wonder.”
In addition to having an extraordinarily natural description of the Moshiach, the Rambam’s description of the times leading up to the appearance of the Moshiach and the times after his appearance are equally free of miracles. In describing these times, the Rambam writes:
“One should not consider that during the days of the Moshiach any of the laws of the nature will end or that there will be some new natural law. Rather, the world will carry on as it always has… and all such [miraculous and unnatural] things written concerning the Moshiach [in the Tanach and Oral Torah] (such as ‘The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie with the kid’4) are parables and allegories.
“The Sages have said, ‘The only difference between today and the days of the Moshiach is that [Bnei Yisroel will not be subject to] subjugation to [foreign] sovereignty.’”
Further, in dealing with the many prophecies and statements of the Sages concerning specific events and indications that one is experiencing the times leading up to the Moshiach, the Rambam essentially considers the specifics to be no more than speculation:
“It appears from a basic reading of the words of the Prophets that at the start of the days of the Moshiach there will be the War of Gog and Magog, and that before the War of Gog and Magog, a prophet will arise for Israel to straighten them and to prepare their hearts… and to bring peace to the world. There are also some Sages who say that before the coming of the Moshiach King, Eliyahu will come. However, nobody knows how any of these things or things similar to them will actually be until they happen, because [the clear understanding of] these matters were sealed from the Prophets and the Sages have no [definitive] tradition concerning these issues…”
However, in concluding his discussion, the Rambam delivers a most surprising, yet superlatively important, point concerning the details of these times. Despite the prominence of Moshiach in all aspects of Torah and Judaism, our ignorance of the particulars of what the Moshiach and his times will be like is of no real importance at all to us in any practical terms, and knowledge thereof does not make one a better Jew or servant of God.
“In any event, neither the sequence of these things nor their details are fundamental to Judaism and one should never busy oneself with the Haggados (non-halachic sections of the Talmud) or spend much time with the Midrashim regarding these issues… and one should not focus on them, because they do not bring one to either love or awe [of Hashem]. Similarly, one should not attempt to determine the end [of days]… rather one should [merely] look forward [to the arrival of the Moshiach] and believe in the general concept as we explained.”
Put differently, the Rambam writes in his Igeres Teiman:
“You should know that it is inconceivable that any man would ever know the true End of Days.”
In fact, undue attention and focus on these issues may be exceptionally damaging and dangerous, and is viewed particularly negatively by the Sages of the Talmud. Specifically, we are told:
“What is the meaning of: ‘It will speak of the End and not deceive’5? Said Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmeni: the bones of those who calculate the end should bloat, because people say (when one of the incorrectly calculated days arrives without the arrival of Moshiach): “Since the (calculated) End has been reached and he (the Moshiach) has not come, (this means) he will never come.”6
“Rabbi Yossi says: ‘One who sets a time for the End has no portion in the World to Come.”7
Besides the despair arising from the Moshiach not arriving at a date set by various people attempting to calculate the End of Days, such calculations have contributed directly to the unwarranted belief in charlatans and false Messiahs who have conveniently arisen at or near these set dates. The most dramatic example of this was the infamous Shabsai Tzvi, who revealed himself soon after the Cossack massacres of the Jews in 1648 and 1649. For years prior to that, Kabbalists has been predicting that the End of Days would occur in 1648.
Although we may not know what kind of times to anticipate and what the Moshiach will be like, it is nevertheless central to Judaism to look forward to the coming of the Moshiach in general. It is said that the Chofetz Chaim, z”l, took this to heart to the extent that he had a bag packed and at the ready at all times in case the Moshiach was suddenly to arrive. May it be God’s will that the conditions conducive to the emergence of the Moshiach arise with such speed.
Reprinted from Jewish Life magazine, www.jewishlife.co.za, download the free Jewish Life app on iOS and Android
1. These axioms comprise the central tenets of Judaism and include such things as belief in the existence and unity of Hashem, His giving of the Torah to the Bnei Yisroel, and the fact that the Torah we have will never be substituted with another.
2. See chapters 11 and 12 of Hilchos Melochim
3. As recorded in II Shmuel chapter 7
4. Yeshayahu 11:6 and 11:7
5. Chabakuk 2:3
6. Sanhedrin 97b
7. Derech Eretz, Perek haYotzei, Halacha 13