The Messianic Idea in Judaism
Belief in the eventual coming of the mashiach is a basic and fundamental part of traditional Judaism. It is part of Rambam's 13 Principles of Faith, the minimum requirements of Jewish belief. In the Shemoneh Esrei prayer, recited three times daily, we pray for all of the elements of the coming of the mashiach: ingathering of the exiles; restoration of the religious courts of justice; an end of wickedness, sin and heresy; reward to the righteous; rebuilding of Jerusalem; restoration of the line of King David; and restoration of Temple service.
Modern scholars suggest that the messianic concept was introduced later in the history of Judaism, during the age of the prophets. They note that the messianic concept is not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible).
However, traditional Judaism maintains that the messianic idea has always been a part of Judaism. The mashiach is not mentioned explicitly in the Torah, because the Torah was written in terms that all people could understand, and the abstract concept of a distant, spiritual, future reward was beyond the comprehension of some people. However, the Torah contains several references to "the End of Days" (acharit ha-yamim), which is the time of the mashiach; thus, the concept of mashiach was known in the most ancient times.
The term "mashiach" literally means "the anointed one," and refers to the ancient practice of anointing kings with oil when they took the throne. The mashiach is the one who will be anointed as king in the End of Days.
The word "mashiach" does not mean "savior." The notion of an innocent, divine or semi-divine being who will sacrifice himself to save us from the consequences of our own sins is a purely Christian concept that has no basis in Jewish thought. Unfortunately, this Christian concept has become so deeply ingrained in the English word "messiah" that this English word can no longer be used to refer to the Jewish concept. The word "mashiach" will be used throughout this page.
Some gentiles have told me that the term "mashiach" is related to the Hebrew term "moshiah" (savior) because they sound similar, but the similarity is not as strong as it appears to one unfamiliar with Hebrew. The Hebrew word "mashiach" comes from the root Mem-Shin-Chet, which means to paint, smear, or annoint. The word "moshiah" comes from the root Yod-Shin-Ayin, which means to help or save. The only letter these roots have in common is Shin, the most common letter in the Hebrew language. The "m" sound at the beginning of the word moshiah (savior) is a common prefix used to turn a verb into a noun. For example, the verb tzavah (to command) becomes mitzvah (commandment). Saying that "mashiach" is related to "moshiah" is a bit like saying that ring is related to surfing because they both end in "ing."
The mashiach will be a great political leader descended from King David (Jeremiah 23:5). The mashiach is often referred to as "mashiach ben David" (mashiach, son of David). He will be well-versed in Jewish law, and observant of its commandments (Isaiah 11:2-5). He will be a charismatic leader, inspiring others to follow his example. He will be a great military leader, who will win battles for Israel. He will be a great judge, who makes righteous decisions (Jeremiah 33:15). But above all, he will be a human being, not a god, demi-god or other supernatural being.
It has been said that in every generation, a person is born with the potential to be the mashiach. If the time is right for the messianic age within that person's lifetime, then that person will be the mashiach. But if that person dies before he completes the mission of the mashiach, then that person is not the mashiach.
When Will the Mashiach Come?
There are a wide variety of opinions on the subject of when the mashiach will come. Some of Judaism's greatest minds have cursed those who try to predict the time of the mashiach's coming, because errors in such predictions could cause people to lose faith in the messianic idea or in Judaism itself. This actually happened in the 17th century, when Shabbatai Tzvi claimed to be the mashiach. When Tzvi converted to Islam under threat of death, many Jews converted with him. Nevertheless, this prohibition has not stopped anyone from speculating about the time when the mashiach will come.
Although some scholars believed that G-d has set aside a specific date for the coming of the mashiach, most authority suggests that the conduct of mankind will determine the time of the mashiach's coming. In general, it is believed that the mashiach will come in a time when he is most needed (because the world is so sinful), or in a time when he is most deserved (because the world is so good). For example, each of the following has been suggested as the time when the mashiach will come:
* if Israel repented a single day;
* if Israel observed a single Shabbat properly;
* if Israel observed two Shabbats in a row properly;
* in a generation that is totally innocent or totally guilty;
* in a generation that loses hope;
* in a generation where children are totally disrespectful towards their parents and elders.