Tzav: Jewish Messiahs

Any mention of the word “Messiah” is likely to put Jews on edge.  The reason is obvious; in common American usage (although Jews virtually never use that word in English), “Messiah” refers to the person/Divinity referred to by Christians.  Our alleged “failure” to accept their “Messiah” as our “personal savior” led to nearly two millennia of persecution and murder. 

But, “Messiah” is not inherently a Christian word, concept, or even phenomenon.  It is used in Torah and in many other places throughout Jewish scripture.  The fact that we don’t know this is, unfortunately, another example of how the rabbis of old deemphasized and even removed problematic text from our liturgy and study for defensive reasons.  (Two other examples are their removal of the “Ten Commandments” from the daily public liturgy, and of Isaiah Chapter 53 (“the Suffering Servant”) from the Haftorah reading cycle.)  While these actions were perhaps necessary in their time, they have also weakened our connection with our own text and, ironically, left us vulnerable to challenges to our own tradition.  

In this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, Moses consecrates the newly-built Tabernacle and installs Aaron as the High Priest.  He first take the “שמן המשחה” (shemen ha-machiach) – “the anointing oil” – and sprinkles it on the altar and its implements.  Then, he pours some of this anointing oil upon Aaron’s head to “anoint” and consecrate him.  (Leviticus 8:10-12).  From this we learn exactly what “Messiah” (Mashiach) means in Torah – literally, the “anointed one,” not “savior” in the later Christian sense.  Aaron was the first Jewish Messiah!  But he was hardly the last.   

The Kings of Israel were anointed with oil to reign over the Israelite people in their own land.  Each one, in his turn, became literally “the Messiah.”  The Book of Isaiah (45:1) even identifies a non-Jewish King as “G-d’s Messiah.” He was Cyrus, who redeemed the Jews from Babylon, funded their rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, and actually did rule over them in their own land.   (The fact that Jesus was never the anointed political or religious ruler of the Jewish people in their land -- the very meaning of the word “Messiah” in the Jewish Bible -- is one of the reasons Judaism rejected the idea of him being Messiah.) 

The idea of the “Messiah” is such an integral part of Judaism that, traditionally, we explicitly refer to it/him after every meal!  In the Birkak Hamazon, we sing/pray:

The compassionate One! May He make us worthy of the days of Messiah (“HaMashiach”) and the life of the World to Come.  He Who makes great the salvations of His king/is a tower of salvations to His king and does kindness for His Anointed, (“M’shicho”) to David and to his descendants forever.  

This reference in the Grace After Meals is taken from Psalm 18:51 and 2 Samuel 22:51.  The word “Messiah,” referring to various rulers, is also mentioned in the books of Lamentations, Habakkuk, First and Second Samuel, First and Second Chronicles, and Daniel.  None of these books is only “New Testament” scripture; they are all originally, and remain, Jewish scripture.   

If we wish to preserve thousands of years of Jewish tradition for ourselves and our posterity –

If we wish to continue seeking and finding meaning in our Scripture, as Jews have done for millennia –

one of our most important challenges is to begin to realize the great impact that other traditions have had upon Judaism.   Especially now that we, Thank G-d, need no longer fear the Inquisitor’s, the Crusader’s, the Cossack’s, the Nazi’s, or anyone else’s “knock on the door,” we should strive to reclaim our ancient and distinctive traditions – especially the meanings of our own sacred literature.   

Related Images

  • Tzav: Jewish Messiahs



There are currently no comments, be the first to post one.

Comment Form

Only registered users may post comments.

A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb