What is Mashiach?


We have now reached the final stage of this series – the climax of history, and its very purpose: Redemption, the term we use to refer to the messianic era.

If one looks up the word “redemption” in a dictionary (or if one looks at all the times the Bible uses the equivalent Hebrew term גאולה), this research will reveal a few related meanings. The term can refer to release or salvation from danger, or to recovering or buying back property that had been lost or sold, paying a debt, or fulfilling a promise. And it can also mean improving something or changing it for the better.

When used in conversations about Torah, the term usually refers to the messianic era ¬– that future time predicted by the prophets when the world will reach a state of perfection. In this context, Redemption refers to the nation of Israel as a whole, or even to all of humanity.

When I discuss this topic with people, I often notice two interesting phenomena. First, when I ask people what they think is supposed to happen when the Mashiach comes, I usually get a collection of vague and undeveloped answers: usually, someone mentions a shofar blowing, something about an old man riding a white donkey, everyone flying to Israel on wings of eagles, and other such things. I can identify the sources of some of these ideas in biblical verses or rabbinic descriptions. Others are misunderstandings, but I know where they come from, and still other things I commonly hear don’t seem to be based on any genuine Torah sources that I’m aware of. But the one thing that most of the comments have in common is that they add up to a fantasy, a fairy-tale-like story.

The second thing I have noticed is that most people, including a large percentage of the observant Jews I know, don’t seem to really believe the Mashiach is going to come – at least not in the foreseeable future. They may pay lip service to the idea and sing songs about it, but once you press them on the matter, it becomes clear that they don’t really think it’s going to happen, at least not in their lifetimes.

I find this very troubling for a number of reasons – most importantly because – as I said at the beginning – this is the purpose of everything, the reason the Torah was given, and the purpose of all history! And if even observant Jews don’t really believe it’s ever going to happen, how are we supposed to bring it about?

I think, though, that this issue is connected to the earlier phenomenon I mentioned – the fact that when most Orthodox Jews speak about the Mashiach, they don’t understand what the term means or what our sources say on the matter.  So that’s what we’re going to talk about in this video.

Most people, including a large percentage of the observant Jews I know, don’t seem to really believe the Mashiach is going to come. They may pay lip service to the idea and sing songs about it, but once you press them on the matter, it becomes clear that they don’t really think it’s going to happen, at least not in their lifetimes.

This topic of Mashiach and the messianic era is far too complex for a single video – one could fill many bookshelves with all the source material, and the analyses and interpretations that have been developed around this topic are nearly endless. For now, we shall need to suffice with a very brief synopsis.

At least as much as in other areas of halakha and Jewish thought, there is an enormous amount of dispute regarding these matters. Rambam writes (Hilkhot Melakhim Umilkhamot 12:2), that even though believing in, and waiting for, the coming of the Mashiach is one of the most important requirements of the Torah, nevertheless: “No person will know how [these things] will happen until they happen…. But in any case, neither the precise sequence of what will happen [when the messiah comes] nor the details of those events are an essential principle of the law.”  Apparently, it is possible to believe in and wait for the coming of the Messiah, even if we don’t understand exactly what that means.

Rambam’s disclaimer notwithstanding, I still think it’s worthwhile to sketch out the main contours of the debate on this fundamental issue.

One primary disagreement is about the nature of the messianic era. Some rabbinic authorities (see, for example, Radak on Isaiah 11:6 and Ramban on Bereishit 2:9 and Devarim 30:6) believe that the messianic era will be distinguished from contemporary reality by fundamental changes in the laws of nature, and possibly also human nature – exemplified, for example, in Isaiah’s famous prophecy that, “The wolf will live with the sheep…and a lion will eat straw like cattle” (11:5).

Others, though (most prominently Rambam; see Hilkhot Melakhim Umilkhamot 12:1) interpret prophecies like that metaphorically, and insist that nothing supernatural will happen – the world will remain essentially as it is today, but human society will progress historically to a stage of perfection.

A related disagreement has to do with how the messiah is expected to arrive. Some authorities believe that the transformation from the current reality to the messianic world of redemption will occur supernaturally, and quite possibly instantaneously. It seems that this view was held by some Talmudic sages, as well as some medieval and later authorities (for one example, see Rashi and Tosafot on Sukkah 41a, s.v. “i nami”).

However, other Talmudic sages and medieval authorities (again, led by Rambam, Hilkhot Melakhim Umilkhamot 11:3) insist that the process will be completely natural, brought about through human effort. According to this approach, redemption – which involves a historical transformation of the world order – cannot possibly be instantaneous; it must happen incrementally, in stages.

These disagreements are highly relevant to several contemporary disputes, most significantly in relation to Zionism and the State of Israel, but this discussion is beyond the scope of this short article.  For more on that, see this video series of three classes I gave online to my students from Midreshet Torah V’avoda in 2020. (Because of the COVID-19 pandemic their year in Israel was cut short and we needed to finish the year on Zoom, thus facilitating the recording).

There are other discussions and disputes as well, but I think this is enough for our purpose of acknowledging the significant amount of disagreement regarding the idea of the Mashiach and the messianic era.

Other debates involve the relationship between the coming of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead. While a somewhat common misconception equates or conflates the two events, most Jewish sources are clear about the idea that these are two separate events that are expected to happen at different times, perhaps separated even by centuries (See Sanhedrin 99a). This distinction is particularly important for those, like Rambam, who insist that the messianic era does not involve supernatural miracles or changes to the laws of nature. When it comes to the later stage of resurrection, even they must acknowledge that at this later stage, the world will change beyond recognition.

Beyond this, it’s also not clear what’s supposed to happen after the dead return to life. Most authorities (such as Ramban, Shaar HaGemul) view this as the end of history and the final goal of creation; after this, we will live eternally in the World to Come, which they understand as a physical existence, albeit completely unlike the world as we know it today. However, Rambam (Ma’amar Techiat Ha-Metim) has a different opinion. In his view, all the dead will be resurrected and will live for a long time but will then die again at the end of their second lifetimes. After that, all physical existence will come to an end, and our future eternal life will be only in the spiritual world.

With all this disagreement, we can probably agree with Rambam’s comment, cited above, that “no person will know how [these things] will be until they happen”. But therefore, we need to ask what this concept is supposed to mean to us, and why it is even relevant to speak about it.

Rambam does point out (Hilkhot Melakhim Umilkhamot 11:1, 12:2) that there are certain basic aspects of the messianic era that are clear from the prophecies and accepted by all. These include:

  • the return of the people of Israel from exile to the land of Israel,
  • the rebuilding of the Temple,
  • universal recognition of the one true God, and
  • total abandonment of war and the peaceful coexistence of all humans.

Even without knowing the details, such a world certainly seems worth hoping, waiting, and striving for!

More than that, though, based on everything we’ve discussed in these videos, it should now be clear that the coming of the Mashiach is not some distant, abstract concept. It’s the culmination, and the entire purpose, of the creation of the world, the revelation of the Torah, and the Am Levadad’s historic project.

The hope that this vision provided kept our people alive and brought us through the most excruciatingly difficult moments of our exile, and it can also give meaning and purpose to each of us as individuals.

In our next and final video, “Conclusions: Where do we Go from Here?”, we’ll discuss how history may be a lot closer to this triumphant conclusion than we think, and what all of this means to you and me in our personal lives.

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