Isaiah 53 in the Talmud and Major Midrashim


One of the more absurd claims made by missionaries is that before Rashi the universal Jewish Rabbinic view from the Talmud and the Midrash was that Isaiah 53 was about the Messiah. For example one well known Jewish Christian ‘scholar’ writes:

“Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1105) and some of the later rabbis, though, began to interpret the passage as referring to Israel. They knew that the older interpretations referred it to Messiah.”[1] (Emphasis mine)

One of the goals of this article is to examine that claim to see if it is true[2].


Because of the number of sources I will examine here, this will be one of the longest articles I will be writing. Unfortunately, there is no logical place to split this without losing the impact of what the evidence shows and the importance of the point being made here.


We need to consider a few questions with regards to this claim. Are they claiming that every reference to Isaiah 53 in the pre-Rashi sources has it apply to the Messiah?[3] If this is not their claim, then what do they mean? We will examine the sources and see what they actually show.[4]


Some of the sources will be familiar to those who have seen books and articles by missionaries trying to make this claim, but many of them will be totally new. Some of these unfamiliar sources actually appear in the very popular source used by missionaries: The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 according to the Rabbis by Driver and Neubauer[5]. However some of the sources I will bring here were ignored in that book or were inaccurately quoted there.[6]


The fact is that the Rabbinic contention that Isaiah 53 was about Israel was already a well known and ancient belief by Rashi’s time. This should have been known to any modern Christian who wished to investigate the truth. Origen writing in the mid 3rd century quotes the following from the pagan Celsus:


Now I remember that, on one occasion, at a disputation held with certain Jews, who were reckoned wise men, I quoted these prophecies; to which my Jewish opponent replied, that these predictions bore reference to the whole people, regarded as one individual, and as being in a state of dispersion and suffering, in order that many proselytes might be gained, on account of the dispersion of the Jews among numerous heathen nations[7]. (Emphasis mine)


It should be noted that Celsus is here relating that they were saying exactly what modern Jews say. It was stated during a debate he, a pagan, had with JEWS and not a debate of a Jew with Christians. There was no reason for him to lie or distort the Jewish view.




In this paper we shall examine the sources in the Talmud and the Midrashim where Isaiah 53 is quoted. We will look at the major Rabbinic works with Midrashic teachings that are most often referred to by the later Rabbis in their works. These are the ones that have the widest acceptance, familiarity and authority with Orthodox Jews. They include: Midrash Rabbah, Sifrei, Tanchuma, Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu and Midrash Tehillim. The Yalkut Shimoni is also an authoritative work, but since it is a collection of earlier Midrashim and all the sources in it have been taken from other places, it will not play a prominent place here, although I will cite where things can be found there. The Zohar, although a major Midrash, has an article for itself and is examined there.


It is very common that a Midrash from a major source is repeated in other later sources, and the Midrashim mentioned here are no exceptions. To deal with that fact we shall quote the Midrash only once; from the more original source where it appears and then the other sources will be cited where they bring this same teaching even if the wording is slightly different[8].


Obscure[9] Midrashim which are rarely if ever quoted in Rabbinic sources and other Rabbinic sources that the missionaries bring regarding Isaiah 53 will be covered in a separate article which will also deal with a number of Rabbinic Midrashim that missionaries bring that deal with the issue of the suffering Messiah which they try to relate to Isaiah 53 and the Suffering servant.


The order I will follow in this article is that first I will quote the Midrash and then I will provide an analysis of the Midrash. In this analysis I will concentrate on some or all of the following issues:


1.    What is the purpose of this Midrash? What is it trying to teach us?

2.    Does this interpretation fit the literal meaning of the passage and its context? Was this teaching meant to bring out the meaning of the verse, or was the verse used as a vehicle to bring out a specific teaching?[10]

3.    Does the Midrash tell us anything about how to understand the meaning of the verse?

4.    What does this say about the interpretation of Isaiah 53? Can anyone use it for support of there being a dying Messiah or it being about Israel?


The order of sources is based on importance; first I will bring the Aggadahs in the Talmud and then the Midrash Rabbah, and then the other major Midrashim. There are a total of 21 separate original teachings:


1.    Talmud – 6 passages[11]

2.    Midrash Rabbah – 4 passages[12]

3.    Tanchuma – 1 passage

4.    Sifrei – 2 passages

5.    Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu – 3 passages

6.    Midrash Tehillim  - 2 passages[13]

7.    Minor Midrashim -  4 passages


* * *




The Talmud is the main compendium of the Jewish Law. It is divided into two parts: The legal or halachic part, and the homiletic or Aggadic part. All the Talmudic passages we will bring here are from the Aggadic part. In the Talmud we find six teachings that cite Isaiah 53; four passages that reference Isaiah 53 in the Talmud Bavli[14] and one in the Talmud Yerushalmi[15]. The final one is not explicit in the text of the Talmud but appears in two comments from Rashi and one from Tosephos at the end of tractate Yoma in explanation of the Talmudic text.


The one entry in the Yerushalmi is applied to Rabbi Akiva:


“Rabbi Yonah said, it is written ‘Therefore will I divide him a portion among the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the mighty.[16]’ This is Rabbi Akiva who taught Midrash, Halachos, and Aggados.”[17]


Here the Midrash keys off the previous verse which deals with the servant as a teacher. Rabbi Akiva is the epitome of the Jewish religious teacher. This teaching is to let us know how great Rabbi Akiva is and how great his reward is.


If we look at this teaching we see how Rabbi Yonah is using the verse to bring out the greatness of Rabbi Akiva. We cannot say that he is interpreting Isaiah; he is using a verse to make a point unrelated to the text itself. There are many stories of Rabbi Akiva and his life, and he is acknowledged as one of the greatest of the Rabbis of the Talmud. However it is clear that the verse is being used as a vehicle to teach of Rabbi Akiva’s greatness and not to explain the meaning of the verse in Isaiah. For this reason it tells us nothing about how we are to understand Isaiah 53.


This is the only place that we see this teaching.




The next passage in the Talmud is in tractate Brachos:


“Rava said in the name of Rav Sochrah who said in the name of Rav Huna, ‘Whoever the Holy One Blessed is He desires; he sends suffering as it says, “Yet it pleased the LORD to crush him by disease.[18]


We might think that this applies even if he does not accept them with love. The verse teaches us, “if his soul would offer itself in restitution. (Heb asham)” Just like an Asham requires knowledge, so suffering requires knowledge. And if he does accept them, what is his reward, “he shall see his seed, prolong his days.[19]


This Aggadah teaches us an important lesson: God desires to cause suffering in order that the suffering should be accepted with love. Rather than being negative, they are a positive act and a sign of God’s love. The suffering requires the sufferer to acknowledge the source and intention for them to have any value. And if they are accepted, then the sufferer has a reward.


Here we see the first application of a theme that we will find many places in Rabbinic literature: suffering is sent to the Jewish people in order that they should accept it with love. From that acceptance they receive a reward. The Talmud is applying this passage to those who accept the suffering sent to them by G-d with love. As we saw in my article on Isaiah 53, this view here is very consistent with God’s view and also how Rashi and later commentators understood Isaiah 53.


This can clearly qualify as an example where the Talmud is saying what the literal meaning of the text is. It shows that the idea of Isaiah 53 applying to the suffering of the righteous (Israel) can be shown to be included in the Talmud.


This same passage appears one other time in the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni[20].




The next passage is also from Tractate Brachos. It happens to be the most quoted Talmud teaching, which quotes Isaiah 53, to be mentioned in the later Midrashim:


There are six things that are a good sign for one who is sick (i.e. they indicate he is getting better): …an involuntary seminal emission as is written “he will see seed, he will live a long time.”[21][22]


This is a good example of how the Midrash works when it takes a known fact, i.e. that when a person who is sick begins to have physical desires it indicates that he is getting better, and finds a verse that can be made to show the same idea. This cannot in any way be considered an example of the Talmud interpreting a passage. The Talmud is using the words of a passage to make them conform to a known fact.


This also appears four times in other Midrashim; in Genesis Rabbah[23], Pesikta D’Rav Kahana[24] and twice in the Yalkut Shimoni.[25]




There is a very interesting teaching which is similar to the previous one. Isaiah is not quoted explicitly in the Talmud, but both Rashi and Tosephus understood this as referring to Isaiah 53:10:


A Teacher taught in front of Rav Nachman, “If someone sees an unintentional emission on Yom Kippur his sins are forgiven him.”


(An objection was raised ;) We have learned from a Tanna, “His sins are ordered for him.”


(The Gemara answers: ) What does it mean ‘ordered for him’? (it means: )They are placed in an order to be forgiven.


Rabbi Yishmoel taught: “If one sees an unintentional emission Yom Kippur he should be worried that whole year. If he should live out that year, he is assured that he has a place in the word to come.


Rav Nachman bar Yitzchok said, “He should know that the whole world is in hunger and he is satisfied.”


When Rav Dimi came he said, “He will live long, have much and much will come from him.”[26]


There are two comments by Rashi that are important to this point:


his sins are forgiven him: It is a good sign for him, this is what is meant, “he will see seed, he will live long.”[27]


have much and much will come from him: With children and grandchildren, the sign for this is “he will see seed, he will live long.”[28]


Tosephus also agrees with Rashi’s understanding. Here we see that the verse in Isaiah 53 is understood in a similar way as in Brachos 57b: it is not a prophecy about any specific person, but as a sign of a person’s condition. As I stated before, this cannot be considered as exegesis of Isaiah 53.




The next passage from the Talmud is one of the most interesting. It is the only one in the Talmud which quotes Isaiah 53 which has the format of a regular commentary:


“Rabbi Simlai taught’ why was it that Moses our teacher desired to enter the land of Israel? Did he need to eat of her fruits? Did he need to satisfy himself with the good things of the land?


But this is what Moses said, “There are many mitzvos Israel was commanded with that can only be performed in the land of Israel. I will go to the land and have them performed by me.”


The Holy One Blessed is He said to him, “You did not ask for anything as a reward? I will consider it as if you had performed them. As it says, ‘Therefore will I divide him a portion among the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the mighty; because he bared his soul unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.’[29]


“‘Therefore will I divide him a portion among the many.’ One would think this means only with the later generations and not the earlier ones. The verse tells us, ‘he shall divide the spoil with the mighty.’ This is Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who were strong in Torah and mitzvos.


“’Because he bared his soul unto death.’ Because he gave himself over to death as it says, ‘And if not blot me out….’[30]


“’And was numbered with the transgressors.’ He was numbered with those who died in the desert.


“’He bore the sin of many.’ He caused (God’s) atonement for those who sinned with the Golden Calf.


’Made intercession for the transgressors.’ He prayed for mercy for the sinners of Israel that they should return in repentance.”[31]


Like the Yerushalmi about Rabbi Akiva, this passage tells us about the greatness of Moses. There is one difference that is significant; here the verse is explained in detail and has the appearance of intending us to take it literally. We shall see a number of other Midrashim that similarly associate verses in Isaiah 53 with Moses. This makes it a very difficult teaching to evaluate. None of the later literal commentaries indicate that this view is to be taken as the literal understanding of the text, so it is hard to say that it should be taken literally. On the other hand other Midrashic interpretations follow along similar lines. That makes it hard to dismiss it outright.


This passage appears twice in the Yalkut Shimoni[32].




The last passage from the Talmud Bavli is one that is used very often by missionaries. It is, to say the least, a strange one.


“The Rabbis say ‘the leper by the house of Rebbi’ is his (i.e. the Messiah’s) name as it says, ‘Surely our diseases he did bear, and our pains he carried; whereas we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God, and afflicted.[33]’”[34]


The Hebrew word for plagued ‘negah’ (נגע) is translated here as ‘leper’[35].  There is a pun on this word. While in Isaiah we see that it is usually translated as ‘stricken’, the Talmud uses the alternative Biblical meaning for this teaching. For that reason it is hard to say that Talmud is telling us a literal meaning of this verse, or the passage. However this does not solve what it means and what it is trying to teach us.


To understand this passage let me quote from the work Margulious HaYom a commentary on the Talmud commenting on this passage.


“Look at the Jerusalem Talmud Tractate Chagigah chapter 2 Halacha 1. There we see that Rebbi had a special talmid who taught on the ‘Work of the Chariot’[36], without the approval of Rebbi, and for that he was stricken with leprosy. This talmid who was stricken was called ‘the leper of the house of Rebbi.’ And they said about him, ‘Surely our diseases he did bear’”


Here we see that the person referenced in the Talmud was an historical person and not the ‘Messiah’ that we are waiting for. This adds to our understanding that this teaching is not explaining the verse, but using it to teach a lesson, much like the Yerushalmi about Rabbi Akiva.[37]


I am unaware of any source that ever used this teaching in order to show that the Messiah had to be a leper[38]. This teaching is not brought in any of the other Midrashic sources.




To conclude this section:


1.    In the Talmud we see a number of instances of a verse from Isaiah 53 being used in a teaching.

2.    Brachos 5a is about accepting suffering and seems to be an exegetical comment. It fits with the reading of Isaiah 53 that Israel, or the righteous who suffer are meant.

3.    It is possible that the one in Sotah about Moses is also meant to be taken literally. We shall see a few other sources that apply Isaiah 53 to him.

4.    The one source that applies Isaiah 53 to the Messiah is not a serious candidate for a teaching about the verse that is meant to be understood literally.

5.    The other teachings are likewise not serious candidates for literal interpretations of Isaiah 53.


* * *


Midrash Rabbah



The Midrash Rabbah is a very important major collection of Midrashic teachings. It covers the five books of the Torah and the five Scrolls[39]. Its authority is unquestioned, and it is one of the most referred to collections of Midrashim. Its approach to verses is very much like the Aggadic passages of the Talmud, and as we have seen that means we cannot blindly rely on one of its teachings in order to gain an understanding of what a verse is means.


The first Midrash from the Midrash Rabbah is from Bereishis Rabbah Chapter 20.10. It repeats word for word what appears in the Talmud in Brachos 57b which we mentioned above.




The next is a drash on a verse in the Song of Songs:


“’I have eaten honeycombs with honey.’[40] Because Israel gave their souls over to death in the exile as it says ‘because he bared his soul unto death’[41] and they occupied themselves with Torah which is sweet as honey therefore in the future the Holy One Blessed is He will give them to drink of wine that has been preserved in their grapes from the six days of creation.”[42]


Here we see clearly the ideas that we recognize: Israel suffers in the exile and as a reward for that and their holding fast to God’s Torah they are rewarded[43]. While the verse in the Song of Songs is not mean literally, all of Song of Songs is understood as being an allegory so that it cannot be dismissed. This teaching does indicate that the verse in Isaiah is meant literally.




The next is from Deuteronomy Rabbah from a text published by Lieberman[44]. Here we see related a discussion between G-d and Moshe:


“You said to me, ‘You shall not pass over.’[45]Therefore ’it is all the same so I said….’[46]


After all this I was ‘cut off out of the land of the living.’[47] You decreed on me that I should not enter the land. ‘You shall not pass over.’”[48]


The verse in Job talks about the fact that the righteous and the wicked in the end die fits the idea being taught here. Also the idea that Isaiah 53 can be associated with Moses echoes the Talmud in Sotah. However the format of this Midrash makes it difficult to say that the Midrash is teaching about the meaning of Isaiah 53, although it does reflect some accepted themes. For example it understands being ‘cut off from the land of the living’ as exile and not death, which appears in many of the commentaries.


We do not find it repeated in other sources.




The last is from Ruth. It is one of those quoted many times by missionaries, but NEVER in its full form. Because of its importance let’s first see how the missionaries quote it:


The fifth interpretation [of Ruth 2:14] makes it refer to the Messiah.  Come hither: approach to royal state.  And eat of the BREAD refers to the bread of royalty; AND DIP THY MORSEL IN THE VINEGAR refers to his sufferings, as it is said, But he was wounded because of our transgressions. (Isaiah LIII 5).[49]


However if we see the full text we have a somewhat different understanding:


“’Boaz said to her at the time of eating, come hither….’[50] (Ruth 2:14)

Rabbi Yochanan explained these six phrases as referring to David. …

“Another explanation. ‘Come hither’ is talking about Solomon. …

“Another explanation. ‘Come hither’ is talking about Hezekiah. …

“Another explanation. ‘Come hither’ is talking about Menashah. …

“Another explanation. It is talking about the King Messiah.


’Come hither’ bring me to kingship. 


‘And eat of the bread’ refers to the bread of kingship.


‘And dip your bread in vinegar’ refers to sufferings, as it is said, ‘and he was wounded because of our transgressions’[51].


‘Sit down by the side of the harvesters’ because in the future his kingdom will be taken from him for a short time. As it says, ‘I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem and they will wage war and conquer her.’[52]


‘And he gave her parched grain’ because in the future it will be returned to him as it says, ‘he will strike the land with the rod of his mouth.’[53]


Rabbi Brachia said in the name of Rabbi Levi: ‘The last redeemer will be like the first redeemer. Just like the first redeemer came and after that went away. How long was he away? Three months as it says, ‘they found Moshe and Aharon.’[54] Likewise the last redeemer will come and then go away.


How long will he be away?

Rabbi Tanchuma said in the name of the Rabbis, ‘Forty-five days, as it says, “From the time the continual offering is taken away…Praised is the one who waits….”[55]


What are those extra forty-five days?

Rabbi Yitzchok ben Katzartah said in the name of Rabbi Yonah these are the forty-five days that Israel will pull out grass and eat it, as it says “they will scrap moss from the trees.’[56]


Where will he lead them?

From the land (of Israel) to the desert of Judea as it says, ‘behold I will talk with them and take them into the desert.’[57]


“Another explanation. ‘Come hither’ is talking about Boaz. ….[58]


Looking at the full text of the Midrash one sees immediately that the verses are not used literally. The Midrash is commenting on the verse Ruth 2:14 which states "And Boaz said to her (Ruth) at the mealtime, come here and eat of the bread and dip it in vinegar..." The literal interpretation of the verse is clearly not a reference to the Messiah, or any of the other persons that the Midrash refers it to.


The Midrash in question relates that verse to many of the descendants of King David and to their private sufferings. It refers to: King David; King Solomon; Chezikiah; Menashah; The King Messiah; Boaz. The Midrash is only relating that the lives of the great men of the line of Boaz would be similar in that they will have periods of suffering.


What is interesting is that it clarifies what the sufferings of the Messiah are and for how long. They are for 45 days, and occur in the desert. This supports the view I mentioned in my article on the suffering of Moshiach ben Dovid that it refers to when he flees to the desert with many of the people of Israel, and suffers with them there. What we don’t get from this Midrash is the Christian concept of a King Messiah dying. This Midrash also does not prove that the Rabbis interpreted Isaiah 53 as referring to the Messiah.


We do not find it repeated in other sources.




To conclude this section:


1.    There are various interpretations of Isaiah 53.

2.    Only the one about Israel appears to be exegetical.

3.    The one from Ruth Rabbah which applies it to the Messiah is not exegetical, but it clarifies the Rabbinic belief with regards to the physical suffering of the Messiah: The Messiah flees to the desert and suffers there with the rest of the Jewish people when the final redemption comes.


* * *


Midrash Tanchuma


The Midrash Tanchuma is a Major Midrash on the five books of the Torah. There are two versions of it. This particular Midrashic teaching is one of the most important. It is probably the most quoted Midrash by missionaries, and has also played a part in many Rabbinic commentaries. It is similar to the Targum to Isaiah 52:13 which explains the exalted servant of this verse as the Messiah. There are two versions of the Midrash Tanchuma with slightly different wording. Here is the version found in the standard editions of the Midrash Tanchuma[59]:


"’A song of Ascents. I raise my eyes to the mountains….’[60]


This is what the verse said:  ’Who art thou, O great mountain before Zerabavel to be made a plain?’[61] This refers to Moshiach ben Dovid. And why does he call him `the great mountain? ` Because he greater than the patriarchs, as it is said, `My servant shall be high, and lifted up, and lofty exceedingly.’[62]


He will be higher than Avraham, lifted up more than Yitzchok, and loftier then Yacov. 


He will be higher than Avraham as it says, `I raise high my hands to the LORD. `[63]


Lifted up above Moshe, to whom it is said, ` Lift them up in thy bosom. `[64]


Loftier than the ministering angels, of whom it is written, `Their wheels were lofty and terrible. `[65]


Therefore it says ‘who are you Great Mountain.’


And from whom does he come? From Zerabavel.


Why was his name called ‘Zerabavel’? Because he was born in Bavel. (Babylonia)


And who was he? From Dovid as it says, ‘the son of Shlomoh Rachovim, Aviyah his son until Daliyah and Ananu seven in all.’[66]


What does Ananu mean? This is the Moshiach. …. ” [67]


The verse in Zachariah is not Messianic, but this Midrash takes it that way. Zerabavel is very popular in some of the lesser known Midrashim dealing with the end-times, including one by his name which gives a detailed description of the final war and the events around it.


Although the Midrash as a whole is clearly not mean as a literal commentary on the verses, the reference to Isaiah 52:13 needs to be taken seriously in view that the Targum also understands that the exalted servant there is the Messiah. As the Targum takes the next verse as applying to Israel, if they share sources, the assumption is that the Tanchuma understood it the same way. The most we can say is that the Tanchuma represents a view that, contrary to what the context indicates, the servant in Isaiah 52:13 is the Messiah, while the sufferer is Israel.


The second version of the text appears in Aggados Bereishis[68]. An abridged version of the Tanchuma appears in Yalkut Shimoni[69].


On a side point, in the Ramban’s debate with Pablo Christiani the later mentioned this Midrash and tried to use it to prove that the Messiah was divine. The Abarbenal refers[70] to this in his book and says:


“The apostate brought this Midrash (in his discussion with the Ramban) to show that the Messiah of whom the prophets gave witness is the living God and King of the World. Because he is the one who is greater in quality then the ministering angels. This is something that cannot be said of any person born of a woman, because even Moshe cannot be greater than they are, and he is the one who the Torah gives witness that “There will not arise any prophet in Israel like Moshe”[71], even more than that there will not be anyone greater than the angels. “


Both the Ramban in his disputation and the Abarbenal in his work Yeshuos Meshicho answer this claim. The Ramban explains[72] as follows: First he points out based on the Sifrei on Deuteronomy[73] that in fact Moshe was greater than the angels. Moshe in that Midrash commands the angels to sit, because they are not allowed to stand when he is seated. The Ramban then explains the Midrash Tanchuma in relation to the effect on the world of the proclamation of God by each of the mentioned characters. Abraham only interacted with Nimrod and a small amount of people, Moshe even more, with his standing before Pharaoh and giving the Torah, but the Messiah will be greater in this aspect since he will stand before the Pope and all the kings of the world and proclaim God to all of them.


The Abarbanel in his second point on this Midrash expands on this view of the Ramban (a similar view appears in the Ralbag on Deuteronomy 34:10.) He points out that only in this aspect is the Messiah greater then Moshe, however in the levels of being a prophet he will not be. Nor will he be greater in the level of Torah or any other quality that Moshe was greater than other men (for example his wisdom and humility.) Therefore this Midrash does not contradict the Torah which stated explicitly that Moshe was and will always be greater than any other human, including the Messiah.


In conclusion the most likely understanding is that the Tanchuma, like the Targum are using Isaiah 52:13 for the Messiah and showing how he is going to be exalted and the suffering verses for Israel.



* * *




The Sifrei is a Midrashic commentary on the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy. There are two passages in the Sifrei. The first applies it to Pinchos ben Eluzer[74]:


“’And it will be for him and his descendants an eternal covenant of priesthood.’[75]This refers to the 24 priestly gifts that are given to the Priests.


‘Because he was jealous for G-d and he will atone for the Children of Israel.’[76]


‘Because he bared his soul unto death’[77] (in order) to atone for the Children of Israel. It doesn’t say anything other than that ‘he will atone for the Children of Israel.’ Until now he has not moved, but he is standing there and atones until the dead will be made alive.”[78]


While this Midrash cannot be taken as a literal understanding of Isaiah 53, its understanding of the words in Isaiah 53 is interesting as it conforms to what we have said about it.


This is also found in the Yalkut Shimoni[79].




The next one applies it to Moses in a similar manner as was done in tractate Sotah:


“’He came at the head of the people.’[80]

Another explanation: This teaches us that Moshe will come in at the head of the people, for each and every group; At the head of the group of those who learn Tenach; At the head of the group of those who learn Mishnah; At the head of the group of those who learn Talmud. He will take his reward with each and every one of them. So it says, ‘Therefore will I divide him a portion among the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the mighty[81][82]


A shorter form of this appears in the Yalkut Shimoni[83] and also in the additions from Midrash Yilomdeinu[84].


* * *


Midrash Eliyahu Rabbah


The next major Midrash is called Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu. It is a very interesting collection. Unlike the previous Midrashim it is not organized around any of the books of the Tenach.  There are two parts: Eliyahu Rabbah and Eliyahu Zuta. They comprise teachings in the form of sermons or expositions on a wide variety of religious and theological subjects. It contains many ideas that are fundamental to Judaism and enjoys great popularity.


Here is the first passage:


Why does it say “This is the Law of the Asham”[85]?


So said the Holy One Blessed is He to Israel, “My son, I said to you that I only desire to bless those who have no sins. But I took back my words on this. Even if someone sins one hundred sins, one greater than the other, and he turns away and does tshuvah and he lowers himself to the earth[86] and he looks upon himself as being required every day to bring an Asham for doubtful sin[87], I am with him with compassion. I will accept his tshuvah and give him children that are strong and occupy themselves with Torah and keep the commandments and I will place words of Torah in their mouths forever. As it says, ‘HaShem had pleasure to afflict him with disease; if he would offer his soul for an Asham, he would see his offspring, prolong his days, and that the desire of HaShem would succeed by his hand’.[88]


Another explanation: ‘he would see offspring’ in this world, ‘prolong his days’ in the world to come. Therefore it says, “This is the Law of the Asham”[89] [90]


This Midrash is trying to impress the importance of repentance and humility. It is hard to say that we can draw any implication from this teaching with regards to the literal meaning of Isaiah 53. It does draw conclusions with regards to individuals, which is similar to the ones we have shown Isaiah 53 indicates with regards to the nation. It also does understand the meaning of the verses in similar ways to what we have already explained.




Here is the second passage:


Aharon knew that because of him a great thing occurred to Israel[91] so he bound a belt of iron to his waist and went to all the houses of Israel. Everyone who did not know how to say the Shema, he taught him. Everyone who did not know how to pray he taught him to say the Shema and pray. Anyone who did not know how to learn Torah he taught him. 


It is not just the case with Aharon but any scholar who learns Torah in public to Israel for the sake of heaven and who does not take account of who is rich or poor but teaches Torah to all, and Mishnah to all; HaShem has compassion on him and gives him wisdom, understanding, knowledge and intelligence. And he gives him a portion with the righteous, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. About him the verse says, “From his own toil he shall see and be satisfied; By his knowledge, my righteous servant will bring righteousness to many”[92] [93]


This Midrash is teaching the great importance of teaching Torah to others. There are similarities to other Midrashim we have seen, like the Yerushalmi. But again this is not indicative of the literal meaning of Isaiah 53.




In this last entry from the Eliyahu Rabbah we find Isaiah 53 referenced in the middle of a long passage. I need to quote more from it than I usually would have in order to understand fully what the meaning of the Midrash is. This is a classic example of the style and subject matter of the Eliyahu Rabbah.


When a person honors his father and his mother when he is still young and even more so when he is old it is said about him in our tradition[94] by the Prophet Isaiah “Should you not give bread to the hungry; and the poor who are moaning in your house; if you see a naked one, clothe him, and from your flesh[95] do not hide yourself.”[96]


How? If a person has extra food in his house and he wishes to do charity with it in order to give sustenance to others from his own possessions; what should he do? First he should give support to his father and mother. If he has more he should support his brothers and sisters; if he has more than he should support others in his family; if he has more than he should support those living in the same building as him; If he has more than he should support those living in his neighborhood. He should continue to act in this manner with the rest of the people. Therefore it says after that, “the poor who are moaning to your house”


What is meant by “the poor who are moaning”? When a person eats of his own; his heart is at rest[97], but if he has to eat of what others give him his heart is troubled that he needs to eat from what others give him. Praised are those who follow in the ways of HaShem and they have much food in their house and servants and the members of their house come to them in order to have enjoyment from their table. On such a person the verse says, “Praiseworthy are all those who fear G-d, who go in His ways. When from the work of your hands you eat; praised are you, and it is good with you.”[98]


He becomes like Aharon the High Priest who desired to multiply peace in the world between Israel and their Father in heaven; between a man and his fellow; between a husband and wife.


He becomes like David, King of Israel who desired to multiply charity in Israel.


He becomes like Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai who brought joy to his students. About him it is said, “From his own toil he shall see and be satisfied”[99]


From this we say that the Torah scholars in the generation bear the (punishments for the) sins of the generation in which they live in secret, and no other creature can recognize it of them except the Holy One Blessed is He alone. This is what the verse says, “and their iniquities he did bear”[100]


If there are ten who do this and even more if there is a whole congregation who does this, there is no enemy who can touch them as it says, “Any weapon sharpened against you shall not succeed; any tongue that rises to judge you shall not do evil to you; this is the inheritance of those who serve HaShem and their righteousness (from Me says HaShem.)[101]” …[102]


Here we see a verse in Isaiah 53 associated with the suffering of the righteous that holds back suffering that was to come upon the nation of Israel. This idea seems to agree with other sources we have seen associating Isaiah 53 with the suffering of Israel or the righteous of Israel, and how this eases the suffering of the generation. However, it is hard to say that the Midrash is trying to give a literal understanding of Isaiah 53 in this passage.


None of these three passages from the Eliyahu Rabbah appear in any other Midrashic source.


* * *


Midrash Tehillim


The Midrash on Tehillim, also called Midrash Socher Tov is a very ancient Midrashic collection based on the book of Psalms. It is well accepted and quoted in many sources. There are two passages that I will bring here; one which contains a verse from Isaiah 53 and another which does not. Here is the first:


“I will declare the decree, HaShem said to me, ‘you are My son’”[103] This is related in a decree of the Torah; and a decree of the prophets; and a decree of the writings.


It is written in the decree of the Torah: “Israel is my son, my first born.”[104]


It is written in the decree of the prophets: “Behold my servant will prosper.”[105] And is written afterwards: “Behold my servant who I support, [my chosen one who My soul desires][106]


It is written in the decree of the writings: “HaShem said to my master, sit at my right side.”[107] And it is written: “HaShem said to me, you are My son.” In another verse it is written: “Behold with the clouds of heaven”[108] [109]


This is a very complicated Midrash and the argument is not clear. It is divided into three parts. The context of the first verse is clearly about Israel. The second can be either way, if the understanding follows the Tanchuma and Targum. His final teaching seems to be more Messianic although one can argue about two of the three verses. This makes it difficult to understand what he is trying to say. But if we take the view which seems most likely, that it refers to the Messiah, then it is clear that the verses are not meant literally. Under such an interpretation, what the Midrash is trying to say is that the Messiah has a very close relationship to God.


As to the verse from Isaiah 52, it may be taking a view like the Targum and Tanchuma that 52:13 applies to the Messiah, while the suffering passages do not. The second verse brought from Isaiah implies that nothing will happen to the servant until he has completed his task[110], which implies that the servant, in this case the Messiah, will not suffer, but be successful in all his ways.


My conclusion here has to be that while the verses are not meant literally, there is a strong possibility that this Midrash understood Isaiah 52:13 as the Targum and Tanchuma, as referring to the Messiah and his exalted state.


This appears only one other time in the Yalkut Shimoni[111].




This next Midrash, while not mentioning Isaiah 53, is found in the Midrash on the same Psalm. Its importance can be seen by the number of sources which bring it in one form or another. In the Midrash Tehillim it appears in two places, with the second having a significant addition. Here it is with the additions from the second version in “[ ]”:


Rav Huna said[112], Sufferings are divided into three parts; One was taken by the patriarchs and all generations; one in the generation of forced conversions; one in the generation of the King Messiah.[113]


[What did they do in the generation of forced conversions? They took balls of iron and heated then white hot and placed them under their feet and took their souls from them. They returned and took slivers of wood and placed under their fingernails, and from this they died to sanctify God’s name.[114]]


Since it does not refer to Isaiah 53 and we are already aware of the suffering that will occur in the time of the Messiah, there is nothing about this except that its discussion about the suffering in the exile gives some background to the association of this Midrash and Isaiah 53. 


This Midrash[115] is brought in Midrash Shmuel[116]; Three times in the Yalkut Shimoni[117].


* * *


Important Minor Midrashim


Midrash Lekach Tov:


The Midrash Lekach Tov is a very important collection of Midrashic teachings based on the five books of the Torah. It is very much like a commentary on the Torah[118], but has Midrashim added to the commentary. It was compiled by Rabbi Tovia bar Eliezer based on earlier sources. 


“Let water stream from his buckets”[119]: from the poor who are in Israel. From this they say: ' Be careful with the children of the people of the land[120], because from them the law goes forth.


“And let his seed be on many waters”: the kingdom of Israel is to be over all the kingdoms of the earth,


“May his kingdom be greater than Agag”: from the days of Agag, king of Amalek, the kingdom of Israel began.


“And let his kingdom will be exalted”: in the days of the Messiah, as it says, “Behold my servant shall prosper; he will be high and exalted, and lofty exceedingly.[121][122]


The Midrash is saying: Israel’s kingdom which started in the time of Agag, will be exalted when the Messiah comes; a very common theme in Jewish Midrashim. The words ‘as it says’ indicates a verse being brought to support the idea expressed in this Midrash, which is: Israel will be exalted in the end-times, when the Messiah comes, not any issues about the Messiah[123]. Because of the general nature of this Midrash, we need to say that it is meant literally. This is especially the case since this prophecy of Baalim in the Biblical passage is a prophecy of the end times.




Midrash Tanaaim:


The Midrash Tanaaim is a collection of Midrashim on the book of Deuteronomy taken from the older Midrash HaGadol. It a rarely quoted but it mentions Isaiah 53 and has good sources for what it has.


There are two very similar teachings, both applying Isaiah 53 to Moshe as was done in tractate Sotah and the second entry from the Sifrei. Here is the first:


“’I will go with them and I will do the mitzvos with them in order to get a reward in the future.’ The Holy One Blessed is He said to him, ‘Do not be pained about this, I will write by the prophets that all the mitzvos are given by you. Even if one person from Israel will go and fulfill one of the mitzvos you will have with him a reward in the time to come, as it says, “Therefore will I divide him a portion among the great[124]”’[125]




Here is the second:


“’If I do not go into the land of Israel then I will go with a fallen face without any reward.’ The Holy One Blessed is He said to him, ‘I will give to you a complete reward in the future world more then any one of Israel, as it says, “Therefore will I divide him a portion among the great[126]”’”[127]


I do not think we need to add anything here as the issue of the Isaiah 53 and Moses has been mentioned a number of times already..




Bereishis Rabbosei:


Bereishis Rabbosei is a collection of Midrashim that is based on a larger work of Rabbi Moshe HaDashin which is lost. It only contains Midrashim based on the book of Genesis. Here is the passage:


It was taught: “There are 13 who did not taste of death and they are: … Moshiach … Eliezer the servant of Abraham…


Why Moshiach? Because he lived in a generation of wicked people and he saw his ancestors, the kings of the house of David had worshipped idols and he was disgusted by them and chose out HaShem Blessed is He. He asked for compassion on Israel; he fasted and prayed for them. As it says: “But he was pained for our transgressions [, he was oppressed for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him;] and with his bruises we were healed.”[128]Therefore he was hidden away in order to redeem them in the gathering of the exiles and rejoice with them in the resurrection of the dead.[129]


This teaching seems to be based on a Midrash in Lamentations Rabbah[130]. There it tells how Menachem ben Chezkya[131] was born on the day of the destruction of the temple and was taken alive to heaven to wait until the time the redemption should come[132]. An examination of this Midrash indicates that the verse is not being understood in the context of Isaiah 53. His suffering is more of the nature of psychological suffering and pains while Isaiah 53 indicates that the servant has physical sufferings.


* * *





While it has not been my intention in this article to do so, I think that this selection of Midrashim proves what I have said in other articles with regards to Midrashim. That is: we need to make a distinction between the truth of what the Midrash is trying to teach and the literal meaning of the verses that it uses. That seems quite clear from this selection of Midrashim.


I would like to review all the above sources and see what we can conclude from them. First there are a number that are clearly not meant as exegesis. These include the Yerushalmi that applies Isaiah to Rabbi Akiva, and the Sifrei that applies it to Pinchos ben Eluzer. While their greatness is not in dispute, the Midrash is using the verse from Isaiah 53 out of context to make the point. Then we have the three instances where the verse in Isaiah 53 is used as a sign of physical or spiritual status. These likewise are not meant to be taken literally.


This leaves us with a number of Midrashim that can be divided into three subjects: the Messiah (5 + 1 which does not quote Isaiah 53); Moshe (5) and Israel (6). I will now review these:




Let’s look at the reference where Isaiah 53 is used in a Midrash about the Messiah. The first which comes from the Midrash Tehillim, but appears in a number of other sources with some different wording, is, strictly speaking, unrelated to Isaiah 53, as the original does not mention it at all. So this tells us nothing. Same is with the Talmud’s leper scholar as I pointed out.


The next two are similar. In Ruth Rabbah, we see the verses are not meant literally, and what is more, the suffering there is specified as referring to a specific period. In Bereishis Rabbosei, the verse is used as an explanation as to why the Messiah was taken to heaven alive. It is hard to make a claim that these are trying to use Isaiah 53 literally.


This leaves us with two more sources: Midrash Tanchuma and Midrash Tehillim. In this case we need to take this seriously. It seems to follow the tradition of the Targum, and as we shall see in a later article on the commentary of Rabbi Moshe Al Sheich, he seems to also take it seriously. However, in both the later cases they see the next verse 52:14 and other verses as applying to the suffering of Israel in exile. This would mean that we can only say there is a Rabbinic tradition that Isaiah 52:13 ALONE applies to the Messiah.


As would seem apparent from my articles on Isaiah 53 it is hard to make this work with the context and wording. This does not allow us to claim the Rabbis believed the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 was the Messiah.




Next we have 5 passages in different Midrashim which indicate that Moshe is meant by Isaiah 53. The Talmud explains Isaiah 53:12 and how it can apply to Moshe and three other Midrashim agree.  It is hard to ignore this, but just as with the Messiah, I am not sure how much to make of this.




Finally we have 6 passages in different Midrashim that apply Isaiah 53 to Israel, either in whole or specifically to the righteous. The three entries in Tannah D’Bei Eliyahu probably need to be ignored here, as they are clearly not literal commentaries, but that leaves three others which seem to be meant literally. Two about the suffering of Israel/righteous: Brochos 5a and especially Numbers Rabbah 13.2. One deals with the exaltation of Israel: Midrash Lekach Tov.




From this we need to conclude as follows:


1.    The Rabbis considered in multiple sources the literal meaning of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 as Israel. This confirms what Celcum had been told.

2.    There is a strongly held alternative view that Isaiah 52:13 should be considered about the Messiah.

3.    A weaker case can be made that 53:12 was considered biographical about Moshe.


What we can say for certain is that it was NOT the view of the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash that the servant who suffers in Isaiah 53 was the Messiah. It was not so in all the Midrashim, nor even in the majority.


There is NO instance where we see that the Messiah (ben David) is to die based on Isaiah 53. When we look at the facts, it is clear that the missionary claims with regards to Rabbinic belief are unsubstantiated.


© Moshe Shulman 2014

For more information, questions answered, or help with missionaries you can reach Moshe Shulman at



[1]   Rachmiel Frydland in his paper, ‘The Rabbis' Dilemma: A Look at Isaiah 53’.

[2]  I will discuss Rashi and his views in more detail in another article.

[3]  This seems to be the implication of what they say, but this is obviously false, as we shall soon see.

[4]  Christians and Messianics will quote many times from a work called The Suffering Servant of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters, by Driver and Neubauer. I have pointed out some of the problems in this article: There is another problem which will become clear here and that is that they leave out a lot of sources, and the ones left out are the ones that show their thesis, is wrong. Even without these missing sources, it is clear from the ones they have that there are early sources before Rashi which apply Isaiah 53 to Israel.

[5]  It is interesting that some of those making the claim that all the ancient sources refer Isaiah 53 to the Messiah, use this work, and at the same time ignore the counter examples that actually appear there.

[6]  This is a major shortcoming of that work, among its many shortcomings.

[7]  Contra Celsum Book 1 Chapter 55.

[8]  The one exception is a teaching that appears in both the Talmud and Midrash Rabbah.

[9]  The obscure Midrashim are virtually unknown, and very few people are even aware of them as they do not appear in later works.

[10]  The later would invalidate the passage as a support to any point of view.

[11]  Only 5 are actually explicit passages. The sixth is included because the commentators see the Talmud as appealing to a verse in Isaiah 53.

[12]  One is a repeat from the Talmud

[13]  Only one is about Isaiah 53 directly.

[14]  Babylonian Talmud

[15]  The earlier compiled Palestinian Talmud.

[16]  Isaiah 53:12

[17]  Shakalim Chapter 5 Halacha 1. In my edition it is page 18a, but there is no standard.

[18]  Isaiah 53:10

[19]  Brachos 5a

[20]  Volume 2 #476

[21]  Isaiah 53:10

[22]  Brachos 57b

[23]  Chapter 20 paragraph 10 in the standard edition.

[24]  140a in the Buber edition. This is in the middle of Piska 19.

[25]  Volume 1 beginning #33 and Volume 2 #442.

[26]  Yoma 88a

[27]   Isaiah 53:10

[28]  Ibid

[29]  Isaiah 53:12

[30]  Exodus 32:32

[31]  Sota 14a

[32]  Volume 1 # 816 and Volume 2 # 476.

[33]  Isaiah 53:4

[34]  Sanhedrin 98b

[35]  See Leviticus chapters 13 and 14.

[36]  A Kabbalistic work which was not to be taught publically, which this talmid was doing.

[37]  It may be an answer to the previous passages which take various verses and show they ‘hint’ at various Rabbis as being worthy to be the Messiah. There is a view that opposes such speculation and it may be this teaching reflects that view, making a somewhat humorous poke at this type of speculation to make its point.

[38]  The only possible relationship it may have the Messiah in Rabbinic works, is if we assume the Messiah Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi meets in heaven in Sanhedrin 98a was a leper. However I have yet to find any connection made in works of Aggadah making this connection.

[39]  Esther, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes.

[40]  Song of Songs 5:1

[41]  Isaiah 53:12

[42] Numbers Rabbah 13:2

[43]  This is, in fact, God’s view as I pointed out in my article with that name.

[44]  This is from manuscript 147 in Oxford Library.

[45]  Deuteronomy 3:8

[46]  Job 9:22

[47]  Isaiah 53:8

[48]  Lieberman Devorim Rabbah page 51.

[49]  Driver and Neubauer, p. 36.

[50]  Ruth 2:14

[51]  Isaiah 53:5

[52]  Zachariah 14:2

[53]  Isaiah 11:4

[54]  Exodus 5:20

[55]  Daniel 12:11-12

[56]  Job 30:4

[57]  Hoshea 2:16

[58]  Ruth Rabbah 5:6

[59]  The second version is from the Buber edition which has some slight differences.

[60]  Psalm 121:1

[61]  Zachariah 4:7

[62]  Isaiah 53:12

[63]  Genesis 14:22

[64]  Numbers 11:12

[65]  Ezekiel 1:1

[66]  1 Chronicles 3:10,24

[67]  Midrash Tanchuma page 48b Parshas Toldos #14.

[68]  Chapter 22

[69]  Volume 2 #476 and 571

[70]  Yeshuos Meshicho Investigation 3 Chapter 1 at the beginning.

[71]  Deuteronomy 34:10

[72]  Disputation of the Rambam, Chavel Hebrew edition of the Collected writings of the Ramban Volume 1 page 312 Paragraph 53

[73]  Paragraph 305 in Parshas Nitzavim

[74]  The grandson of Aharon, the brother of Moses/

[75]  Numbers 25:13

[76]  Ibid

[77]  Isaiah 53:12

[78]  Sifrei Parshas Pinchos Paragraph 131.

[79]  Volume 1 #771

[80]  Deuteronomy 33:21

[81]  Isaiah 53:12

[82] Sifrei Parshas Bracha Paragraph 355

[83]  Volume 1 #962

[84]  This appears at the end of Volume 1 of the Yalkut paragraph 55.

[85]  Leviticus 6:2 Asham is usually translated ‘guilt offering’.

[86]  i.e. he humbles himself

[87]  This is a sacrifice brought when one doesn’t know if they sinned accidentally or not.

[88]  Isaiah 53:10

[89]  Leviticus 6:2 Asham is usually translated ‘guilt offering’.

[90]  Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu Rabbah, chapter 6 near the end.

[91]  He caused them to sin with the Golden Calf.

[92]  Isaiah 53:11

[93] Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu Rabbah middle of chapter 13

[94]  This is a phrase indicating something we have learned from the words of the prophets as opposed to being from the Torah itself.

[95]  i.e. your relatives.

[96]  Isaiah 58:7

[97]  The Midrash is here contrasting the satisfaction oen who has his own has as opposed to those who need to rely on others.

[98]  Psalm 128:1-2

[99]  Isaiah 53:11

[100]  Ibid

[101]  Isaiah 54:17

[102]  Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu Rabbah beginning chapter 27.

[103]  Psalm 2:7

[104]  Exodus 4:22

[105]  Isaiah 52:13

[106]  Isaiah 42:1

[107]  Psalm 110:1

[108]  Daniel 7:13

[109]  Midrash Tehillim chapter 2 on verse 2:7 (in Buber edition paragraph 9)

[110]  Many Jewish commentators see those verses in Isaiah 42 as referring to the Messiah and that he will not suffer or die until he has completed his task of setting up the Messianic kingdom.

[111]  Volume 2 #621.

[112]  Different versions of this Midrash relate it in different names and also in slightly different wordings, but the idea is the same. This is the source to the other versions.

[113]  Midrash Tehillim op cit

[114]  This is added in chapter 16 (in Buber paragraph 4) where this appears again.

[115]  In the Midrash Shmuel and also in one of the three examples  in the Yalkut (# 620) adds the words “And this is what is written ‘But he was pained for our transgressions, he was oppressed for our iniquities’ (Isaiah 53:5) Following these words they continue what appears in the Midrash Tehillim. I have left it out as the majority of texts, and the oldest of texts (Midrash Tehillim) do not have them. It should be noted that the Yalkut brings this teaching three times and each time it has a different wording which is sometimes unique to it.

[116]  This is a collection Midrashic teachings based on the book of Samuel/ It is not to be confused with the commentary Midrash Shmuel on Pirkei Avos. This is sometimes called Midrash Socher Tov on Shmuel.

[117]  Volume 2 # 476, 620 and 621 in a slightly different format.

[118]  It is in many ways similar to Rashi as it tends towards the literal meaning much more than earlier Midrashic sources. He lived at the time of Rashi.

[119]  Numbers 24:7

[120]  The word here: עמי הארץ literally means ‘people of the land’, but refers to the ignorant who are considered poor in knowledge.

[121]  Isaiah 52:13

[122]  Midrash Lekach Tov on Numbers 24:7, volume 2 page 257

[123]  There are two linguistic proofs to this interpretation of the use of Isaiah 53 in the Midrash. In the third part the word used וירם (to be greater) is a form of the word in Isaiah 53, ירום (he will be high). Likewise in the fourth part the word in the verse תנשא (will be exalted) is another form of the word נשא (exalted) in the Isaiah 53 verse. The third part is undoubtedly about Israel (i.e. the Kingdom of Israel), so the fourth is also. This shows the close relationship the author was trying to make between the kingdom of Israel and Isaiah 53. The linguistic connection is the ‘proof’ of this.

[124]  Isaiah 53:12

[125]  Page 17

[126]  Isaiah 53:12

[127]  Page 179

[128]  Isaiah 53:5

[129]  Page 96-97 on Genesis 24:34.

[130]  Chapter 2 paragraph 51.

[131]  One of the names of the Messiah in some Rabbinic Midrashim.

[132]  It is interesting to note that in his disputation the Ramban was shown this Midrash and rejected it as being meant literally. He did say that if it were meant literally then it implied the Messiah was over 1000 years old.