Ask the Rabbi: What about the Messiah?

Frank asked: “In the messianic era when mashiakh is here will all the sacrifice be… thanksgiving offerings?”

Before I can answer that, I need to write little bit about Jews and “the Messiah,” or in Hebrew, mashiakh.

There is no explicit mention in the Torah (Five Books of Moses) of a mashiakh. The term appears first in the books of the Prophets as mashiakh ben David, anointed son of David, referring to a king of Israel. Kings of Israel were not “crowned,” instead they had oil poured on their heads (see 1 Samuel 16:1-13).

Later in the prophets, we have more detailed descriptions of a future mashiakh and what this person will be and do:

  1. He will be a descendant of King David.
  2. He will be a political and military ruler over the land of Israel, rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.
  3. He will gather the Jews in Israel (the ingathering of the exiles.)
  4. He will lead them to full observance of Torah.
  5. He will bring peace to the whole world.

Exactly how those things will be accomplished, or when this person will arrive, is a matter of considerable disagreement. Several individuals have been declared, or declared themselves, mashiakh. Two of the most famous led the Jewish nation to disaster: Simon bar Kokhba and Shabbatai Zvi, Such “false messiahs” have been attractive to the Jewish people during periods when our situation was particularly difficult.

“What about Jesus?” Christians might ask. He met only the first of the five criteria above. He was a member of the tribe of Judah, but did not have a political/military rule over Israel, did not bring Diaspora Jews back to the land, did not restore full observance of Torah, and while the world was under the so-called Pax Romana at the time, subjugation of the world under the fist of Rome is not “the lion and the lamb” lying down peacefully together. For Jews, Jesus simply did not fit the description of mashiakh.

Sometimes people confuse the word mashiakh with a similar-sounding Hebrew word, moshiah, meaning “savior.” While the words may sound alike to the ear of an English speaker, they are not even related: mashiakh is from a root mem-shin-chet, which means “to smear or anoint.” Moshiah is derived from the root yud-shin-ayin, which means “to save.” The word mashiakh denotes an anointed king, not a savior.

As scholar Stanley Rosenbaum wrote in 1982, not all Jews, in the past or present, are waiting for a mashiakh. For some of us, it is enough to live a life of Torah in the present and leave the future in God’s hands.

Today, Reform Jews do not expect the coming of a literal mashiakh. Some look forward to a messianic age in which the world will be perfected; the concept is still evolving in Reform circles.

However, in some circles of Orthodoxy, notably the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and Israeli religious Zionists, the concept of mashiakh has seen increasing interest in recent years. One teaching that circulates is that once the mashiakh reigns the only sacrifices that will be offered in the Temple will be sacrifices of thanksgiving, since there will be no more sin (Zephaniah 3:13.) For more information about Chabad concepts on this matter, check out this article.

Personally, I am guided by the words of the great rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who said:  “If you are planting a tree and you hear that Messiah has come, finish planting the tree, then go and inquire.” In other words, there are important mitzvot (sacred duties) to do in this world, some of them rather ordinary and possibly boring. While the thought of mashiakh is very exciting, it is important not to allow it to distract us from the ordinary business of living Torah to the fullest.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

6 thoughts on “Ask the Rabbi: What about the Messiah?”

  1. “For Jews, Jesus simply did not fit the description of mashiakh.” I respect that – but at the same time the first Christians were all Jewish, and there are communities of Messianic Jews today, too. Do you think it is posssible for a Jew to become a believer in Jesus as Messiah, while remaining Jewish? Or are the contradictions so great that their position in Judaism is untenable? (In other words – do you see the Messianic Jews as a viable community within Judaism, or will they eventually have to split off, as the early Christians eventually did?)

    1. That’s an important question, Paul, thanks for asking. Belief in Jesus as God and/or messiah and Judaism are not compatible. I realize that there are people who are Jesus-believers who follow Jewish customs, but that doesn’t make them Jews.

      I don’t think that Messianic Jews will “have to split off” – I think they are by definition beyond the pale of Judaism. That doesn’t make them bad or evil – it just means that by any traditional definition of Judaism, they aren’t Jewish.

      1. Thanks for that forthright answer. But just to clarify further – that would mean that Judaism is more a matter of faith than of ancestry or culture? (I ask because I have often seen definitions of “being Jewish” that are mostly about who your parents are…).

        1. Another excellent question. Yes, the traditional definition of Jewish identity is descent through the mother OR conversion. American Reform Judaism defines it as descent through either parent provided the child is educated as a Jew, or conversion. However, if one chooses to convert out to Christianity or any other faith, then the connection is broken, and without a process to re-connect, that person is not Jewish. So if a person who is born Jewish then chooses Jesus as Lord and Savior, that person is no longer Jewish but Christian. If she were to make a formal statement of submission to Allah, she would be Muslim, not Jewish.
          Now there are Jews who are atheists or agnostics, and I have no difficulty recognizing them as Jewish – but they have not given allegiance to any other system. So it is certainly possible to be a purely secular Jew. But it is not possible to be both Jewish and Christian at the same time.

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