Short Introduction to The Messiah by Dr Azila Reisenberger

Short Introduction to The Messiah by Dr Azila Reisenberger


The word Messiah, which in Hebrew is pronounced Ma’shi’a’ch, stems like all Hebrew words from a three-letter root. Its root is M. SH. CH. which means ‘anointed’. According to Jewish tradition people who were chosen by God to speak on God’s behalf or were sent to fulfil God’s mission on earth were anointed with oil, which today we would call perfume or essence oil. The first time we hear about ‘anointing’ in the Bible is in Exodus 29, when Moses anoints his brother Aaron as the High Priest. After that we know that Kings and special messengers were anointed.

But the concept of the Messiah, per se, appears in Judaism when we discuss eschatological time. Judaism proposes that at the ‘end of days’ a person will appear who will redeem the world and transform it into a better place. As the Jewish religion has been a patriarchal tradition, for thousands of years the expectation has been that the Messiah will be a man not a woman, though in modern times many spiritual people try to contest this notion.

Maimonides (1136–1204), the famous Jewish philosopher who wrote down 13 basic ‘pillars’ upon which Judaism rests, wrote the following:

‘I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may be delayed, nonetheless I wait daily for his coming’.

This is Pillar 12 of the 13 that, according to Maimonides, Jewish believers should declare every day.

As King David, the son of Jesse, was the beloved king, tradition has it that the Messiah will come from Davidic stock. The Messiah’s genealogy and his character are described in a few places in the Bible, the most well known being Isaiah 11:1-5 and Isaiah 52.

However, some sages maintain that there will be two Messiahs. The first will be from the House of Ephraim (i.e. from Joseph) and will be the more worldly Messiah who prepares us for the coming of the second Messiah, who is expected to descend from David and who will be the spiritual Messiah.

According to tradition, the Messiah will arrive on a donkey, the significance being that a horse symbolises power and war while a donkey symbolises humility. In modern times there are many traditions that are associated with the Messiah, which vary in different Jewish denominations. Messianic expectations are much more important within the Chasidic movement, which give a lot of attention to spirituality. One of the Chasidic streams, the Lubavitches, which has a synagogue in Cape Town (Cha’Ba’D) emphasises, more than others, the imminent arrival of the Messiah. Their slogan is: ‘We want Ma’shi’a’ch now’. Some of the other denominations do not approve of such over-zealous expectations; and instead pay much more attention to cognitive aspects of the religion.

Last but not least is the basic notion that the Messiah will arrive after much pain and suffering in the world, much like the birth of a child after much travail. This notion explains the strong messianic expectations at the time of Jesus, when the Romans, who ruled over the holy land inflicted such pain and suffering on the population. It also explains the zealous belief in the imminent arrival of the Messiah after the Holocaust.