The Rambam on Isaiah 53


Claim: The Rambam (Maimonides) strongly disagree with Rashi and maintained the ancient belief that Isaiah 53 refers to the Messiah.


This must rate as one of the most blatant examples of dishonesty by the missionaries.[1] Here is what Jews for Jesus says:


However, many other rabbinic sages during this same period and later—including Maimonides—realized the inconsistencies of Rashi's views and would not abandon the original messianic interpretations.[2]


Another source says:


However, Rashi’s views sparked fierce debate with the great rabbi Maimonides strongly opposing Rashi’s claims.[3]


What makes this claim so absurd and beyond the bounds of honest discourse is that these people appear clueless as to who the Rambam was and what kind of works he wrote. The Rambam, unlike Rashi, was NOT a commentator on the Tenach. He is best known for his three major works: First is his commentary on the Mishnah. The Second is a work on Jewish law called Mishnah Torah. The Third is work on philosophy and theology called Moreh Navuchim (Guide to the Perplexed). Besides these three there are a number of his letters, some answering legal questions and some to different communities dealing with issues of religious importance.


One of the most famous of his letters is called ‘Iggeres Teiman’, or the Letter to Yemen. This letter was sent to Yemen in response to two events that were occurring there. First, the Muslim ruler there was involved in forcing Jews there to convert to Islam.[4] The Second was that a man had appeared in Yemen who people claimed was the Messiah, and the Rambam was asked about it. It is in this letter that the passage quoted by missionaries appears[5]:


“The Messiah is not a person concerning whom it may be predicted that he will be the son of so and so, or of the family of so and so. On the contrary, he will be unknown before his coming, but he will prove by means of miracles and wonders that he is the true Messiah. In allusion to his mysterious lineage, God says: Behold a man whose name is the Shoot, and who shall shoot up [Zech. 6:12]. Similarly Isaiah, referring to his arrival, implies that neither his father nor mother, nor his kith and kin will be known, for he will grow, by his favor, like a sapling, like a root out of arid ground [Isa. 53:2].”[6]


The last line of that passage is what is usually quoted by the missionaries. In the same letter we read the following (which is not usually quoted by the missionaries):


“They (the kings) will neither defame nor calumniate him, for the miracles he will perform will frighten them into complete silence. Isaiah refers to the submission of the kings to him in the verse: Kings shall be silenced because of him [Isa. 52:15].” [7]


From these two passages it would seem that the missionary claim has some basis to it. Here are two verses, apparently in context, tying the Messiah together with Isaiah 53. However there are problems with this. A little further in the letter to Yemen he talks about some claims made by the followers of this false Messiah:


“Therefore they replied[8] ‘This man here, one of the descendants of David, whom we know to be pious and virtuous, this man whom we knew to be a leper at night, arose the following morning healthy and sound.’ They believed that leprosy was one of the characteristics of the Messiah[9], to which they found an allusion in the verse: plagued, smitten, and afflicted by God [Isa. 53:4], that is by leprosy. The sages explained to them that this interpretation was incorrect, and that he lacked even one of the traits of the Messiah, let alone all of them.”[10]


We see that in one place the Rambam ties Isaiah 53 to the Messiah and in another denies this association. How do we reconcile these two passages? There are a few possibilities. But first we need to see how the Rambam describes the Messiah and his coming in some of his other writings. In his work Mishnah Torah in the Laws of Kings, he deals with the subject of the Messiah. This is the most authoritative source for his view on the subject. In his Mishnah Torah he says:


11:4. “If a king will arise from the House of David who occupies himself with the study of the Torah and the performance of the Mitzvos like David his ancestor, in accordance with the Written Law and the Oral Law; and if he will compel all of Israel to follow (the Torah) and strengthen its observance; and if he will fight the wars of G-d; than he is assumed to be the Messiah. If he does these things and is successful, and he builds the Temple on its place, and gathers in the exiles of Israel, then he is definitely the Messiah.” [11]


In the older Versions of the Mishnah Torah, which were untouched by the censors, the following is added[12]:


"If he did not succeed to this extent or he was killed[13], then we know that he is certainly not the one promised by the Torah. He is like all the kings of the house of David who were honorable and upright who died. G-d did not cause him to arise except to test the people, as it says, "Some of the wise will stumble, in order to purify them until the end, because it is not yet the time.” [Daniel 11:35][14]


Here we see clearly that he is not to die unsuccessfully. There is another source of information on the Messiah in the Rambam. In his commentary on the Mishnah he has an introduction to the 10th chapter of Sanhedrin. There he discusses in detail the 13 fundamentals of Judaism. One of them is the belief in the coming of the Messiah. After discussing his success and how the age of his rule will look like he says:


“And the Messiah will die and his sons will rule in his place. The prophet has already explained about his death, ‘he will not be weakened, nor will he be crushed until he brings justice to the land.’ [Isa 42:4] And his kingship will last for a very long time, and the length of the lives of men will likewise be lengthened...”[15]


Here we see clearly that the Messiah will not suffer or die prematurely but shall live until he has set up his earthly kingdom, and afterwards for a long period of time. This means that the Rambam cannot believe that Isaiah 53 is about the Messiah, because his Messiah is not to suffer or die. Therefore, we need to search for some answer to these contradictions. There are four possibilities.


The first possibility is that the Rambam is following the ideas of the Targum (as I discussed in my article). There we see that the verses of exaltation are ascribed to the Messiah and the suffering to Israel.


It is also possible that, since the verses he ascribes to the Messiah are all from chapter 52, he separates chapter 52:13 - 15 from chapter 53. He assigns the former to the Messiah and the later to Israel.


Another possibility is that the Rambam believes that all of Isaiah is about Israel. The suffering in Isaiah 53 refers to the suffering of Israel in the exile. However 52:13 – 15 applies to the redemption of Israel from exile. The verses of exaltation can easily be applied to the Messiah, since as Israel becomes exalted, so will the Messiah.


While these three are possible there are serious problems with them. They assume that when the Rambam is quoting Isaiah 53, it in some way reflects his own view. However this would place him in contradiction with things he writes in other places. In the letter to Yemen he has said: “he will prove by means of miracles and wonders that he is the true Messiah.” And also: “for the miracles he will perform will frighten them into complete silence…” But here is what he says in Mishnah Torah in the Laws of Kings:


11:3 “One should not think that the King Messiah is required to perform signs and wonders, or create new things in this world, or to raise the dead, or other things like that. This is not the case, for we see that Rabbi Akiva was a great scholar from among the scholars of the Mishnah, and he carried the garments of Bar Kozibah. And he said that he was the King Messiah. And it appeared to him and all the Sages of his generation that he was the King Messiah until he was killed because of sins. When he was killed, they understood that he was not (the Messiah). And the sages did not ask of him that he should perform either a sign or a wonder.”


In the letter to Yemen, the Messiah has to perform miracles, but in the Mishnah Torah, his most authoritative source, he denies that the Messiah has to performs signs or wonders. In fact the Rambam brings a clear proof of the view that miracles are not required from Rabbi Akiva who did not require miracles.


In the letter to Yemen he had said: “The Messiah is not a person concerning whom it may be predicted that he will be the son of so and so, or of the family of so and so.” But we saw earlier from Mishnah Torah: “11:4. If a king will arise from the House of David…” Here his family is known.


However if we remember that the letter to Yemen itself was only written to warn against a false Messianic pretender, and to discredit him, it is not unlikely that he was using verses that this person was claiming applied to himself, and showing that it did the exact opposite. We see this is the case with regards to the claim made that this false Messiah was a leper, based on a verse in Isaiah 53. In this case, the Letter to Yemen tells us nothing about what the Rambam believed about Isaiah 53 at all.


From the other sources quoted (and one instance of Isaiah 53 in the letter itself) it is clear that he does not associate Isaiah 53 with the Messiah. The verses in the letter were being used polemically and not as a commentary or to tell us what their meaning is.


Therefore we see that the Rambam did not ‘strongly’ disagree with Rashi or anything of the sort. The missionary claims are false. We have another case of misinformation, misunderstanding and distortion from the missionaries.


© Moshe Shulman 2010

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


[1]  The following are a number of the sites which make the claim that the Rambam supported the idea that Isaiah 53 was about the Messiah: (About one of my earlier versions about Isaiah 53)




[4]  This occurred in Muslim Spain where the Rambam was born, and he ended up fleeing to Egypt where the Sultan was more liberal in his treatment of Jews.

[5]  The English is taken from the translation of Abraham Halkin in “Crisis And Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides” JPS 1985. I have used this rather then my own translation from the Hebrew because this translation was done directly from the Arabic original.

[6]  Halkin op cit page 125

[7]  Ibid

[8]  Those supporters of the false Messiah from Yemen.

[9]  A reference to Sanhedrin 98b.

[10]  Halkin, op cit page 128.

[11]  The translations from the Mishnah Torah are all mine.

[12]  There is a reference to Jesus here which caused the whole passage to be censored.

[13]  Since being killed, before he could accomplish what is required seems the same as not succeeding, the words ‘or he is killed’ seem extra. The reason for them is simple. The Rambam says about this person that he is still considered to be righteous and honorable. We might think that having been killed, as opposed to dying of old age, would indicate HaShem’s displeasure, or his being a sinner, and unworthy. The Rambam is indicating that we should not think that.

[14]  The text is from the text which does not appear in the standard editions because it has been censored.

[15]  Translation mine.