Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, is the date on the Jewish calendar on which both the first and second Temples were destroyed. It was treated as a fast day and a day of mourning in rabbinical culture. Although rabbinical Judaism was not centered around the Temple, which no longer existed after 70 CE, and although the prophetic tradition out of which rabbinical Judaism emerged was critical of the sacrificial rites of the Temple, the destruction of the Temple was nonetheless treated by the rabbis as a major catastrophe. This was the context in which the belief gradually took hold that the Messiah, who was seen as a heavenly figure, had been born on Tisha B’Av.
Jacob Neusner, on page 94 of Messiah In Context, notes that the Yerushalmi – the version of the Talmud that was compiled in the land of Israel – seeks to substantiate the claim that “the Messiah was born on the day the Temple was destroyed”. The Yerushalmi was completed around 400 CE and incorporated material dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries CE. Neusner, who has written extensively on the subject of the origins of rabbinic Judaism, believes that it was during this period that the concept of “the Messiah” began to assume a prominent position in rabbinical thought. In the Mishnah, a key rabbinical text compiled around 200 CE, there were a few brief references to “the days of the Messiah” or “the footprints of the Messiah”, but no great importance was attached to this theme. As Neusner puts it on page 30:
For the philosophers of the Mishnah the Messiah figure presents no rich resource of myth or symbol. The Messiah forms part of the inherited, but essentially undifferentiated, background of factual materials. The figure is neither to be neglected nor to be exploited.
But in the Yerushalmi, notes Neusner on page 93, “we find a clear effort to identify the person of the Messiah and to confront the claim that a specific, named individual had been, or would be, the Messiah.” That individual was Simon bar Kochba, whose Messianic status was denied by the Yerushalmi.
In another of his books, The Four Stages Of Rabbinic Judaism, Neusner further developed this same contrast between the treatment of the theme of “the Messiah” in the Mishnah and in the Yerushalmi, the Talmud of the Land of Israel. Neusner states on page 195:
In the Talmud of the Land of Israel by contrast we find a fully exposed doctrine of not only a Messiah, but the Messiah: who he is, how we will know him, what we must do to bring him.
According to the authors of the Yerushalmi, the Messiah would be a Torah scholar like themselves and would come when the Jewish people fully accepted the laws of God. This view was expressed in such statements as, “If Israel repents for one day, forthwith the son of David will come”, and “If Israel would keep a single Sabbath in the proper way, forthwith the son of David will come.” In the meanwhile the Messiah was thought to reside in heaven, and in time quite an elaborate picture was developed in rabbinical literature as to precisely what he was doing there.
Why was the Messianic ideal integrated into rabbinic thought during the 3rd and 4th centuries CE? It is often forgotten that the immediate cause of the revolt led by Simon bar Kochba was the decision of the Roman Caesar Hadrian to outlaw circumcision and other Jewish religious practices in 132 CE. It was in large part for this reason that the majority of rabbis, led by Akiva, supported the revolt. The ban on circumcision actually remained a permanent feature of Roman law, but it was amended by Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius, to permit circumcision of sons of Jewish parents. The Romans thus abandoned Hadrian’s program of eliminating Judaism altogether, while at the same time effectively preventing the further spread of Judaism within the Roman empire. The surviving rabbis in the land of Israel, whose Jewish population still numbered some 750,000 in the wake of the revolt, were permitted by the Romans to act as judges in civil cases which could be adjudicated under Jewish law. With Roman approval, the rabbinical courts thus became the sole remnant of Jewish legal and political authority, and this situation, taken together with the memory of the failure of the two massive revolts against Rome, inclined the rabbis to shun anything which smacked of Messianic agitation. They did not actually repudiate the Messianic ideal, in the name of which so many had died, but they kept it at arm’s length, focusing instead on the details of Jewish law.
Rabbinic authority in the land of Israel under Roman rule reached its height around 200 CE, the time of the compilation of the Mishnah. The head of the rabbinic Sanhedrin at that time, Judah “the Prince”, enjoyed great personal prestige and was treated by the Romans with some of the deference usually accorded to heads of state. But the 3rd century CE was a period of civil war and economic decline throughout the Roman empire, and this trend was reflected in increasing unrest in the land of Israel. Michael Avi-Yonah in The Jews of Palestine sees the 3rd century as a period of declining rabbinic authority and growing Messianic agitation conducted by popular preachers and even a few rabbis. On page 131 he describes the following prophecy from this time: “According to Rabbi Levi the Messiah from the House of Joseph will, after rebuilding the Temple, march upon Rome and conquer it as Joshua conquered Jericho.” Then, early in the 4th century CE, the Roman Caesar Constantine converted to Christianity. As Avi-Yonah notes on page 165, Constantine was personally hostile to Judaism and his letters are filled with such phrases as “the lawless Jews”, “the perjured Jews” and “the impure ones”. He initiated a program, which was continued by his successors, of building Christian churches in the land of Israel and trying to stimulate Christian settlement there. This was followed in 339 CE by a series of decrees by Constantius II banning intermarriage and other contacts between Christians and Jews. This was the first comprehensive anti-Jewish legislation in the Roman empire since the days of Hadrian and inaugurated a period of growing anti-Jewish activity on the part of the Christian Caesars and Christian church which continued right down to the time of the rise of Islam in the 7th century CE.
These were the circumstances which led to the integration of the Messianic ideal into rabbinic thought as reflected in the Yerushalmi. But the version of the Messianic ideal which was developed by the rabbis differed significantly from the traditional one. As Neusner notes on page 201 of yet another of his books, Judaism in Society, the Yerushalmi “treats the messianic hope as something gradual, to be worked toward, not a sudden cataclysmic event.” The way to bring the Messiah was to observe Jewish law, and of course the ultimate authorities on the observance of Jewish law were the rabbis themselves. However, there remained a huge gap in rabbinic thought between the gradual, mundane process which was supposed to bring the Messiah and the advent of the Messiah himself. As Greenstone puts it on page 107 of The Messiah Idea In Jewish History, with reference to the Talmudic period: “Unconsciously, and perhaps against the wish of the teachers, the person of the Messiah was surrounded with a halo of Divine and supernatural qualities, and the age of his coming was associated with marvellous deeds and supermundane beings.” The gap between Messianic process and Messianic result in rabbinic thought reflected the unpleasant fact that observance of Jewish law, no matter how perfect, could not actually bring into being a Jewish army capable of gaining control of the land of Israel and establishing a Jewish state. Unwilling to give up the Messianic ideal yet unable to implement it, the rabbis therefore adopted the doctrine of a natural process giving rise to a supernatural result.
The rabbinical Messiah was the Messiah of a defeated people. He was born on the very day of their defeat to show that the root of the future victory would be found in the ruins of the past defeat. That root, the rabbis believed, was fidelity to Jewish law. From a rabbincal standpoint, the only possible reason why an all-powerful God would permit the Jewish people to be defeated is because the Jewish people had sinned. This view, which was rooted in the teachings of the prophets, made it necessary for the rabbis to adopt a stance of continually scolding the Jewish people and holding up its alleged faults for all to see. Christianity was in many ways but an extension and amplification of this way of looking at the Jewish people, a way that was fundamentally unjust from the start. I am sure that a statistical study, if it could be undertaken, would show that the Jews of ancient times sinned less, not more, than their neighbors. But the rabbis harped on the sins of the Jews because that was the one way they could envisage eventually winning. If the Temple was destroyed because of the sins of the Jews, then the Temple could be restored by conforming to God’s intent. Implicit in this doctrine was the somewhat novel idea that the Jewish people could induce God to send the Messiah. The traditional view was that the Messiah would come in conformance with God’s inscrutable will and not a moment sooner or later. The Talmudic sages did not directly challenge this view, but they essentially abandoned it in favor of a different view, one which placed the Jewish people at the center of a cosmic struggle that would end in victory and the restoration of the Jewish nation in the land of Israel.
In this way the concept of “the Messiah” became a kind of mediating term linking the natural and supernatural aspects of the process which was to bring about the ultimate victory of the Jewish people. Joseph Dan in The Ancient Jewish Mysticism shows that “the Messiah” was not the only mediating term of this kind. During the Talmudic period, there also flourished a genre of Jewish religious literature known as “literature of the chariot”. Certain rabbis, and Akiva in particular, were pictured as riding an imaginary chariot to heaven, where they were said to encounter various gigantic supernatural beings in God’s heavenly court. These beings were described as allies of the Jewish people whom God would unleash upon the world when the time was right. That time would come when the Jewish people was deserving of it, and this in turn depended upon the efforts of the rabbis to convince the Jewish people to observe God’s laws. Needless to say, rabbinical thought defined the rabbis themselves as the key to Jewish success. This view was set forth in one such “mystical” work, “Prince of the Torah”, where the rabbinical leadership is addressed by God, on page 152 of Dan’s book, as follows:
You will be known as those who aid the community, you will be referred to as those who help mankind; the determination of the months will come from you and the proclamation of the leap years from your storehouse of wisdom. Through you leaders will be anointed and by your mouths the heads of the courts proclaimed. You will establish the exilarchs, the judges of the cities with your authority, for the welfare of the world will come from you, and there will be none who will dispute it.
This was an idealized description of the role which the rabbis actually sought to play during the Talmudic period, a role which defined them as the saviors not only of the Jewish community but of the entire world.
In time the various supernatural beings situated in heaven in the “literature of the chariot” tended to coalesce into one such being, “the Messiah” himself. And this composite Messiah was pictured as a kind of collective entity whose soul was linked to the souls of the entire Jewish people. He lived in heaven but felt the sufferings of the Jewish people on earth and eagerly awaited the day when he would be allowed to lead them to victory. Eventually correct observance of Jewish law came to be seen as a way, not merely of bringing the Messiah, but of actually elevating him to his full stature. This view persisted right down to modern times and was especially pronounced in the writings of the early Hasidim of the 18th century. Gershom Scholem on page 199 of The Messianic Idea in Judaism cites Nachum of Chernobyl as follows:
Everybody in Israel has to restore and to prepare that part of the structure of the Messiah which belongs to his own soul…for the Messiah will be a complete structure composed of all the souls of Israel which are six hundred thousand as they were contained within Adam before the fall. Therefore everyone in Israel should prepare that part corresponding to his part in the soul of the Messiah which belongs to his own soul until the whole structure will be restored and established and then there will be a permanent and universal yihud, realization of unity.
And Ben Zion Bokser, on page 243 of The Jewish Mystical Tradition, cites a similar statement by Nachman of Bratslav:
Each person will bring to fruition his own messianic element, ascending from level to level, in slow stages, until God’s kingship will become fully manifest; and this state corresponds to what we mean by the coming of the messiah.
In this view, every action of every Jewish individual was also an action in a cosmic drama whereby the Jewish people, under the proper leadership, would gradually elevate the Messiah in heaven to the point where he would be able to carry out his mission on earth.
To call this version of the Messianic ideal unrealistic would be to understate the case. To be sure, there were a few rabbinical thinkers who took a different approach. The most important was Maimonides, who said that the Messiah would establish a Jewish kingdom in the land of Israel but otherwise life would continue as before, only more prosperous and spiritual. The resurrection of the dead and other wonders would only come later and would not be a feature of the Messianic age. Greenstone on page 146 of The Messiah Idea In Jewish History calls the writings of Maimonides on this subject “the first rational picture of the Messianic age that had appeared for many centuries”. But as shown by the characteristics of the Messianic age described by Abravanel at the end of the 15th century, the teachings of Maimonides on this point were not widely accepted. The dominant view in rabbinical circles right down to modern times was that of the Messiah as a supernatural being and his advent as a supernatural event, which could however be hastened and even caused by the correct performance of religious ritual. Moreover, starting with the “literature of the chariot” and continuing with Kabbalah, there gradually emerged in Jewish tradition what amounted to an image of the supernatural Messiah, one which emphasized his gigantic stature, compassionate nature and heavenly activities.
Just what was the value of the rabbinical version of the Messianic ideal in terms of actually bringing about the restoration of Jewish rule in the land of Israel? It could be argued that it kept hope alive, but the hope which it preserved was a forlorn one. All the same, a forlorn hope was better than no hope at all. And in the fullness of time, the Messianic dream did in fact come true. It turned out that what was born on Tisha B’Av was an unyielding refusal to accept any defeat, no matter how devastating, as final. What was called “the Messiah” in rabbinical literature was ultimately but a code word for this refusal. The secular Zionists who brought the state of Israel into being well understood this, even if many rabbis did not. Those who still yearn for a supernatural Messiah are missing the point of their own tradition, whose real goal was not the advent of a specific individual but the redemption of “all the souls of Israel”..