In Jewish messianic tradition and eschatology, the term came to refer to a future Jewish King from the Davidic line, who will be "anointed" with holy anointing oil and rule the Jewish people during the Messianic Age. In Standard Hebrew, The Messiah is often referred to as מלך המשיח, Méleḫ ha-Mašíaḥ (in the Tiberian vocalization pronounced Méleḵ hamMāšîªḥ), literally meaning "the Anointed King."
Today, the various Jewish denominations have sharp disagreements about the nature of the Messiah and the Messianic Age, with some groups holding that the Messiah will be a person and other groups holding that the Messiah is a representation of the Messianic Age itself.
Traditional thought and current Orthodox thought has mainly held that the Messiah will be an anointed one (messiah), descended from his father through the Davidic line of King David, who will gather the Jews back into the Land of Israel and usher in an era of peace.
Other denominations, such as Reform Judaism, perceive a Messianic Age when the world will be at peace, but do not agree that there will be a Messiah as the leader of this era.
"The Talmud nowhere indicates a belief in a superhuman Deliverer as the Messiah." Rather, the Talmud mentions Moshiach and the Era of Moshiach as a period of freedom and peace, which will be the time of ultimate goodness for the Jews, and for all mankind. However, there are statements in the Talmud which describe a truly supernatural Era as well. These two concepts - involving a natural era of goodness, and a supernatural one which is beyond nature - can be understood to happen in two separate phases.
The first period will bring the world to complete perfection. Specifically included among the events of this first period are the returning of Jews to Israel and the building of the Third Temple (although this is supernatural, since it is primarily built by God). Moshiach will be the one to lead the world to that era, and will continue being the world's leader during that era.
The second period will include a supernatural existence - that is, one extending beyond anything currently imaginable. As explained in numerous texts, one of the distinctive features of this second period is that the entirety of mankind will "know God" in a physical and "visual" sense. The Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin, contains a long discussion of the events leading to the coming of the Messiah, for example:
R. Johanan said: When you see a generation ever dwindling, hope for him [the Messiah], as it is written, And the afflicted people thou wilt save. R. Johanan said: When thou seest a generation overwhelmed by many troubles as by a river, await him, as it is written, when the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him; which is followed by, And the Redeemer shall come to Zion.
R. Johanan also said: The son of David will come only in a generation that is either altogether righteous or altogether wicked. 'in a generation that is altogether righteous,' — as it is written, Thy people also shall be all righteous: they shall inherit the land for ever. 'Or altogether wicked,' — as it is written, And he saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor;31 and it is [elsewhere] written, For mine own sake, even for mine own sake, will I do it.
Throughout Jewish history Jews have compared these passages (and others) to contemporary events in search of signs of the Messiah's imminent arrival, continuing into present times. Some , have suggested that the devastation among Jews wrought by the Holocaust may represent a sign of hope for the Messiah's present imminent arrival.
The Talmud tells many stories about the Messiah, some of which represent famous Talmudic rabbis as receiving personal visitations from Elijah the Prophet and the Messiah. For example:
- R. Joshua b. Levi met Elijah standing by the entrance of R. Simeon b. Yohai's tomb. He asked him: 'Have I a portion in the world to come?' He replied, 'if this Master desires it.' R. Joshua b. Levi said, 'I saw two, but heard the voice of a third.' He then asked him, 'When will the Messiah come?' — 'Go and ask him himself,' was his reply. 'Where is he sitting?' — 'At the entrance.' And by what sign may I recognise him?' — 'He is sitting among the poor lepers: all of them untie [them] all at once, and rebandage them together, whereas he unties and rebandages each separately, [before treating the next], thinking, should I be wanted, [it being time for my appearance as the Messiah] I must not be delayed [through having to bandage a number of sores].' So he went to him and greeted him, saying, 'peace upon thee, Master and Teacher.' 'peace upon thee, O son of Levi,' he replied. 'When wilt thou come Master?' asked he, 'To-day', was his answer. On his returning to Elijah, the latter enquired, 'What did he say to thee?' — 'peace Upon thee, O son of Levi,' he answered. Thereupon he [Elijah] observed, 'He thereby assured thee and thy father of [a portion in] the world to come.' 'He spoke falsely to me,' he rejoined, 'stating that he would come to-day, but has not.' He [Elijah] answered him, 'This is what he said to thee, To-day, if ye will hear his voice.'
Orthodox Judaism maintain that Jews are obliged to accept the 13 Principles of Faith as formulated by Maimonides in his introduction to Chapter Helek of the Mishna. One of these principles refers to the belief in the coming of the messiah. The 13 principles were reformulated as a formulaic incantation, starting in each case with the words Ani Maamin (I believe). Number 12 is the main principle relating to Mashiach. The Text is as follows:
Ani Maamin B'emunah Sh'leimah B'viyat Hamashiach. V'af al pi sheyitmahmehah im kol zeh achake lo b'chol yom sheyavo.
In English: I believe with full faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he tarries, with all that, I await his arrival with every day.
Hasidic Jews tend to have a particularly strong and passionate belief in the immediacy of the Messiah's coming, and a Kabbalistic belief that their personal devotion and actions have spiritual properties that can hasten the arrival. Because of a Hasidic tradition that the Baal Shem Tov, Hasidic Judaism's founder, was descended from King David, members of Hasidic communities are sometimes inclined to regard their dynastic rebbes who are descended from him as potential candidates for Messiah. Many Jews, especially Hasidim, adhere to the belief that there is a Messiah living in each generation who would readily redeem the world should mankind warrant it. However, fewer are likely to name a candidate.
Emet Ve-Emunah, the Conservative movement's statement of principles, states the following:
Since no one can say for certain what will happen in the Messianic era each of us is free to fashion personal speculation. Some of us accept these speculations are literally true, while others understand them as elaborate metaphors... For the world community we dream of an age when warfare will be abolished, when justice and compassion will be axioms of all, as it is said in Isaiah 11: "...the land shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." For our people, we dream of the ingathering of all Jews to Zion where we can again be masters of our own destiny and express our distinctive genius in every area of our national life. We affirm Isaiah's prophecy (2:3) that "...Torah shall come forth from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
We do not know when the Messiah will come, nor whether he will be a charismatic human figure or is a symbol of the redemption of humankind from the evils of the world. Through the doctrine of a Messianic figure, Judaism teaches us that every individual human being must live as if he or she, individually, has the responsibility to bring about the messianic age. Beyond that, we echo the words of Maimonides based on the prophet Habakkuk (2:3) that though he may tarry, yet do we wait for him each day.
Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism generally do not accept the idea that there will be a messiah. Some believe that there may be some sort of "messianic age" (the World to Come) in the sense of a "utopia," which all Jews are obligated to work towards (thus the tradition of Tikkun olam).
In 1976, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the official body of American Reform rabbis, authored "Reform Judaism: A Centenary Perspective". While not an official statement of principles, it is meant to describe the spiritual state of modern Reform Judaism. In regard to the messianic era, it states:
Previous generations of Reform Jews had unbound confidence in humanity's potential for good. We have lived through terrible tragedy and been compelled to reappropriate our tradition's realism about the human capacity for evil. Yet our people has always refused to despair. The survivors of the Holocaust, being granted life, seized it, nurtured it, and, rising above catastrophe, showed humankind that the human spirit is indomitable. The State of Israel, established and maintained by the Jewish will to live, demonstrates what a united people can accomplish in history. The existence of the Jew is an argument against despair; Jewish survival is warrant for human hope. We remain God's witness that history is not meaningless. We affirm that with God's help people are not powerless to affect their destiny. We dedicate ourselves, as did the generations of Jews who went before us, to work and wait for that day when "They shall not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
One Jewish understanding of the messiah is based on the writings of Maimonides, (also known as Rambam). His views on the messiah are discussed in his Mishneh Torah, his 14 volume compendium of Jewish law, in the section Hilkhot Melakhim Umilchamoteihem, chapter 11. Maimonides writes:
"The anointed King is destined to stand up and restore the Davidic Kingdom to its antiquity, to the first sovereignty. He will build the Temple in Jerusalem and gather the strayed ones of Israel together. All laws will return in his days as they were before: Sacrificial offerings are offered and the Sabbatical years and Jubilees are kept, according to all its precepts that are mentioned in the Torah. Whoever does not believe in him, or whoever does not wait for his coming, not only does he defy the other prophets, but also the Torah and Moses our teacher. For the Torah testifies about him, thus: "And the Lord Your God will return your returned ones and will show you mercy and will return and gather you... If your strayed one shall be at the edge of Heaven... And He shall bring you" etc.(Deuteronomy 30:3-5)."
"These words that are explicitly stated in the Torah, encompass and include all the words spoken by all the prophets. In the section of Torah referring to Bala'am, too, it is stated, and there he prophesied about the two anointed ones: The first anointed one is David, who saved Israel from all their oppressors; and the last anointed one will stand up from among his descendants and saves Israel in the end. This is what he says (Numbers 24:17-18): "I see him but not now" - this is David; "I behold him but not near" - this is the Anointed King. "A star has shot forth from Jacob" - this is David; "And a brand will rise up from Israel" - this is the Anointed King. "And he will smash the edges of Moab" - This is David, as it states: "...And he struck Moab and measured them by rope" (II Samuel 8:2); "And he will uproot all Children of Seth" - this is the Anointed King, of whom it is stated: "And his reign shall be from sea to sea" (Zechariah 9:10). "And Edom shall be possessed" - this is David, thus: "And Edom became David's as slaves etc." (II Samuel 8:6); "And Se'ir shall be possessed by its enemy" - this is the Anointed King, thus: "And saviors shall go up Mount Zion to judge Mount Esau, and the Kingdom shall be the Lord's" (Obadiah 1:21)."
"And by the Towns of Refuge it states: "And if the Lord your God will widen up your territory... you shall add on for you another three towns" etc. (Deuteronomy 19:8-9). Now this thing never happened; and the Holy One does not command in vain. But as for the words of the prophets, this matter needs no proof, as all their books are full with this issue."
"Do not imagine that the anointed King must perform miracles and signs and create new things in the world or resurrect the dead and so on. The matter is not so: For Rabbi Akiva was a great scholar of the sages of the Mishnah, and he was the assistant-warrior of the king Bar Kokhba, and claimed that he was the anointed king. He and all the Sages of his generation deemed him the anointed king, until he was killed by sins; only since he was killed, they knew that he was not. The Sages asked him neither a miracle nor a sign..."
"And if a king shall stand up from among the House of David, studying Torah and indulging in commandments like his father David, according to the written and oral Torah, and he will coerce all Israel to follow it and to strengthen its weak points, and will fight Hashem's [God's] wars, this one is to be treated as if he were the anointed one. If he succeeded and built a Holy Temple in its proper place and gathered the strayed ones of Israel together, this is indeed the anointed one for certain, and he will mend the entire world to worship the Lord together, as it is stated: "For then I shall turn for the nations a clear tongue, to call all in the Name of the Lord and to worship Him with one shoulder (Zephaniah 3:9)."
"But if he did not succeed until now, or if he was killed, it becomes known that he is not this one of whom the Torah had promised us, and he is indeed like all proper and wholesome kings of the House of David who died. The Holy One, Blessed Be He, only set him up to try the public by him, thus: "Some of the wise men will stumble in clarifying these words, and in elucidating and interpreting when the time of the end will be, for it is not yet the designated time." (Daniel 11:35)."
In Judaism, Jesus is not considered to be the Messiah. According to Maimonides:
"As for Jesus of Nazareth, who claimed to be the Anointed One and was condemned by the Sanhedrin. Daniel had already prophesied about him, thus: 'And the children of your people's rebels shall raise themselves to set up prophecy and will stumble.' (Ibid. 14) Can there be a bigger stumbling block than this? All the Prophets said that the Anointed One saves Israel and rescues them, gathers their strayed ones and strengthens their mitzvot whereas this one caused the loss of Israel by sword, and to scatter their remnant and humiliate them, and to change the Torah and to cause most of the world to erroneously worship a god besides the Lord. But the human mind has no power to reach the thoughts of the Creator, for his thoughts and ways are unlike ours. All these matters of Yeshu of Nazareth and of Muhammad who stood up after him are only intended to pave the way for the Anointed King, and to mend the entire world to worship God together, thus: 'For then I shall turn a clear tongue to the nations to call all in the Name of the Lord and to worship him with one shoulder.'"
"How is this? The entire world had become filled with the issues of the Anointed One and of the Torah and the Laws, and these issues had spread out unto faraway islands and among many nations uncircumcised in the heart, and they discuss these issues and the Torah's laws. These say: These Laws were true but are already defunct in these days, and do not rule for the following generations; whereas the other ones say: There are secret layers in them and they are not to be treated literally, and the Messiah had come and revealed their secret meanings. But when the Anointed King will truly rise and succeed and will be raised and uplifted, they all immediately turn about and know that their fathers inherited falsehood, and their prophets and ancestors led them astray."