Numerous sources speak of two different messiahs who will come to redeem the Jewish people – Mashiah ben David and Mashiah ben Yosef. Who exactly are these two redeemers, and what unique roles will each fill in the process of our national redemption?
Mashiah ben David
The identity of Mashiah ben David goes back to our patriarch Yaakov, who, just prior to his death, informed his children of their descendants’ final redemption.[i] He foresaw that Mashiah will descend from the tribe of Yehuda – specifically, from the royal family of King David[ii] – and for this reason, Mashiah is commonly referred to as “Mashiah ben David” (“the Messiah, the son of David”). Likewise, the prophets occasionally referred to Mashiah as “avdi David” (“My servant David”[iii]), by the name of his illustrious ancestor.
The term “Mashiah” literally means “the anointed one,” and thus describes Mashiah’s designation for the role of redeemer. Some explain the term as indicating that the prophet Eliyahu will anoint the Mashiah ben David with the special oil that was used to anoint the Judean kings during the First Commonwealth, endowing him with the divine, spiritual status of Israel’s redeemer. (The oil has been hidden some time before the First Temple’s destruction.)
An Illustrious Pedigree
The lofty neshama (soul) of Mashiah was originally brought into this world by Yehuda – one of Yaakov’s righteous sons – and Tamar, a granddaughter of Noah. Their specific spiritual qualities were necessary to overcome the efforts of Satan, who “stood guard” over Mashiah’s soul, to prevent his birth, as he will cause Satan’s eternal downfall[iv] .
King David’s great-grandfather, Boaz, led the Jewish Nation during the times of the Shofetim (Judges). He later married the righteous convert, Ruth, who bore him a son named Oved. The Sages describe Oved as a man of piety and devotion to Hashem, who was rewarded with an exceptionally long life, which spanned four hundred years.[v] His son Yishai was a pure sadik who did not commit any sins during his lifetime. The seventh of Yishai’s eight sons, David, was a man of exceptional character and religious conviction. He was a disciple of the prophet Shemuel and even achieved a prophetic stature of his own, a level of ru’ah hakodesh (prophetic insight) with which he composed the book of Tehillim (Psalms)[vi]. The Sages list David with the avot (patriarchs) as the only people over whom the evil inclination exerted no control, and they rank him among the seven greatest sadikim who ever lived[vii]. He was thus chosen to establish the Israelite monarchy that would continue eternally through his descendants[viii].
Where is Mashiah Today?
The Midrash[ix] relates that when the Second Temple was destroyed (70 CE), Mashiah ben David was born in the town of Bet Lehem – the birthplace of King David – but a powerful storm lifted the infant and brought him to Gan Eden.[x] When the time for the final redemption arrives, Mashiah ben David will be sent forth from Gan Eden to gather the Jews from exile and rebuild the temple.
Other sources, however, indicate that Mashiah ben David is with us here in this world. The Midrash compares Mashiah to Moshe Rabbenu, who grew up in Pharaoh’s palace and was eventually chosen to redeem the Jews from the Egyptian exile[xi]. Mashiah, too, lives among us and will one day be assigned his role to lead Am Yisrael to redemption. Furthermore, several stories are told of sadikim who met Mashiah. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi met Mashiah at the gates of the city of Rome and inquired into the date of his arrival.[xii] The Hida (1724-1806) identified a certain child who had died during infancy as Mashiah, who was taken from the world due to the nation’s unworthiness.[xiii] And Rabbi Aharon Rokeach, the previous Belzer Rebbe, reportedly said that his grandfather had twice seen Mashiah.[xiv]
How can we reconcile these accounts with the tradition that Mashiah awaits in Gan Eden?
The commentaries explain[xv] that in each generation, a person descended from King David is born with an element of Mashiah ben David’s soul. When the Jews will be worthy of redemption, the complete neshama (soul) of Mashiah will descend from Gan Eden and enter this individual. He will then receive prophecy revealing to him his status as Mashiah and commanding him to go redeem the Jewish nation. Some say that this person is born each year on Tisha Be’av, just like the “original” Mashiah born at the time of the Temple’s destruction.[xvi]
This also explains the Talmudic tradition assigning five different names for Mashiah[xvii]. These names likely refer to different people born in different generations, who had the potential to become Mashiah.[xviii] Thus for example, Rabbi Haim Ibn Attar (the Or Hahayim Hakadosh, 1696-1743) could have been Mashiah, as recorded in many sefarim, had the people been worthy, and he himself specifies the name “Haim” as the name for Mashiah in his Torah commentary.[xix]
The Extraordinary Spiritual Qualities of Mashiah Ben David
“The divine spirit of Gd will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and intelligence, of leadership and strength, of knowledge and fear of Gd. Not with the view of his eyes or hearing of his ears will he rule and judge, but rather with the smell of ‘fear of Gd’ will he discern the truth…with words alone he will smite the evildoers and the whispering of his lips will destroy the wicked… (Yeshaya 11:2-4)
The commentaries[xx] explain that Mashiah will be endowed with divine wisdom that will surpass even that of King Solomon – the wisest of all men. He will achieve unparalleled piety and proficiency in Torah, as well as a level of prophecy that will render him greater than the highest angels. All nations of the world will tremble when even uttering Mashiah’s name. As the Rambam writes, “Mashiah ben David will be spiritually distinguished and more powerful than any previous Jewish King.”[xxi]
Mashiah ben David will reach the greatest heights of spiritual achievement when Eliyahu the Prophet anoints him with the special anointing oil.
Mashiah ben Yosef
The emergence of Mashiah ben David will be preceded by Mashiah ben Yosef, a descendant of Yosef Hassadik[xxii] who will lay the groundwork for redemption by waging a decisive battle against the descendants of Esav. This triumph will mark the fulfillment of Yizhak’s blessing to Yaakov, “heve gevir le’ahecha” (“you shall dominate your brother” – Beresheet 27:29). Yaakov transferred this blessing specifically to Yosef, endowing him with the strength to subdue Esav’s descendants.[xxiii]
Tradition teaches that Mashiah ben Yosef will be killed[xxiv] in battle as he wages his war against Esav. His death will serve to atone for the sin of King Yeravam, from the tribe of Yosef, who built houses of idolatry in Eress Yisrael, leading countless Jews astray.[xxv] This tragedy will cause many Jews to despair and lose hope, until the arrival of Mashiah ben David and the prophet Eliyahu, who will resurrect Mashiah ben Yosef and complete the redemptive process.[xxvi] Mashiah ben David will then assume the mantle of leadership, with Mashiah ben Yosef as his viceroy.[xxvii]
According to Kabbalistic teaching[xxviii], the death of Mashiah ben Yosef can be averted through the Jews’ prayers for his success. Indeed, many siddurim instruct that while one recites the beracha of “boneh Yerushalayim” in the amida prayer, he should have in mind that no harm should befall Mashiah ben Yosef.
Interestingly enough, the Midrash identifies the prophet Yona as the original Mashiah ben Yosef.[xxix] Yona initially hesitated to fulfill Gd’s command to urge the city of Nineveh to repent. The reason, the Midrash explains, is that Yona thought the eventual emergence of the cruel nations of Gog U’magog would be from the descendents of Nineveh, and these nations would cause his death before Israel’s final redemption. He therefore did not wish to lead them to repentance and allow them to accrue merit.[xxx]
The Kabbalists write[xxxi] that in every generation, a spark from the soul of Mashiah ben Yosef descends into the greatest sage of the time. Once the Jews are deemed worthy, that sage will be sent forth to subdue the nations in preparation for Mashiah ben David’s arrival. Indeed, the Arizal (Rav Yishak Luria, 1534-1572) is said to have had the soul of Mashiah ben Yosef[xxxii], and many have identified the great kabbalist Rabbi Shamshon of Ostripol, zs”l (1600-1648), as the Mashiah ben Yosef of his generation. Rabbi Shamshon was brutally murdered by the Cossacks during the Poland massacres of 1648-1649. It is told that the Chozeh of Lublin, a famous Hassidic master, often prayed that Rabbi Shamshon’s tragic death should atone for the sin of King Yeravam, so that the eventual Mashiah ben Yosef could survive the battles against Esav.[xxxiii]
Confirming a Messianic Claim
A number of different figures have arisen throughout Jewish history making Messianic claims, some even performing supernatural wonders to prove their stature, only to be revealed later as false messiahs. Among the famous examples are Shimon bar Kochba, who led a revolt against the Roman Empire in120 CE, and the legendary sinner Shabbtai Svi. These unfortunate incidents leave us wondering how we will confirm the authenticity of the true Mashiah upon his arrival.
Our sages answer that the real Messiah’s authenticity will be confirmed in retrospect. After he succeeds in subduing the enemy nations, returning the Jews to Eress Yisrael and leading them to repentance, we will know with certainty that he is the true Mashiah. At first, he will indeed be met with skepticism and opposition, but once he completes his mission, his Messianic stature will be confirmed and acknowledged.[xxxiv] This process is among the features that uniquely distinguishes Jewish Messianic belief. Our faith in the Messiah will be grounded in incontrovertible facts and undeniably miraculous events which will be witnessed by the entire world. This stands in stark contrast to those faiths which are based on blind Messianic faith without proof.
Fortunate are we, the true Chosen Nation of Hashem, who are led by righteous leaders who show us the path of truth, and who have been promised the ultimate good with the final redemption, may it come speedily in our days, Amen!
Next Issue: Predicted Dates for Mashiah’s Arrival
[i]Parashat Vayehi 49:10.
[ii]Rambam, Hilchot Melachim, 11.
[iii] Yehezkel 37:24.
[iv] Or Hahayim, Parashat Vayehi.
[v]Midrash Rabba, Parashat Vayehi 96:4 (see commentaries).
[vi] Megillah 14a (see Rashi)
[vii] Baba Batra 17a
[viii] See Shmuel 1:17:12 (and Yalkut Shemuel there).
[ix] Midrash Eicha 1:51.
[x] Maharsha, Sanhedrin 98b.
[xi] Shemot Rabba 1:26
[xii] Sanhedrin 98a.
[xiii]A Legacy of Leaders, page 80.
[xiv] Orot U’Netivot, vol. 3, p.237.
[xv] Ossrot Aharit Hayamim, vol. 2, pp. 35-38.
[xvi] Peri Sadik, Parashat Devarim 13.
[xvii] Sanhedrin 98b
[xix] Or Hahayim, Devarim 15:7.
[xx] Ossrot Aharit Hayamim, pp. 66-67.
[xxi]Rambam’s commentary to the Mishna, Sanhedrin, chapter 10.
[xxii] Sukka 52a.
[xxiii] Baba Batra 123b (see Maharsha).
[xxiv] Sukka 52a.
[xxv] Zohar, Parashat Ki Tesse 276b.
[xxvi] Ossrot Aharit Hayamim, pp. 168-170.
[xxvii] Yehezkel 37:17-25. (See also Rabbi Michel Silber’s Bayam Derech ,Parashat Vayigash, p. 255.)
[xxviii] Shivchi Ha’Ari, p. 119.
[xxix] Tanna Debe Eliyahu 18.
[xxx] Asara Ma’amarot, p. 287.
[xxxi] Ben Yehoyada, Sanhedrin 38b.
[xxxii] Shivchi Ha’Ari, page 119.
[xxxiii] Divre Emet, Parashat Vayesse.
[xxxiv] Osserot Aharit Hayamim, pp.136-140.