Rashi and Isaiah 53


In many of the missionary works we see the claim that Rashi was the first Jewish Rabbi to associate Isaiah 53 with the Jewish people. This claim has been made so many times by missionaries that many assume it to be a fact. Here is one example of this claim`:


“Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1105) and some[1] of the later rabbis, though, began to interpret the passage as referring to Israel. They knew that the older interpretations referred it to Messiah.”[2] [Emphasis mine]


Here we see the claim is made that the ‘older’ interpretations of Isaiah 53 applied the passage exclusively to the Messiah, but only some of the Rabbis from Rashi on introduced a new interpretation that it as Israel. Here is another claim:


“Interestingly, the national interpretation is not found once in the Talmuds, the Targums, or the midrashim (in other words, not once in all the classical, foundational, authoritative Jewish writings).[3] [Emphasis mine]


The view being stated here is that there is not even one source to be found in any of the traditional Jewish authoritative sources from before Rashi, where Isaiah 53 is associated with Israel. That includes the Talmud, the Targum or any Midrash. This means that Rashi commented on Isaiah 53 WITHOUT any support for his view in any earlier Rabbinic sources, as they all maintained that it referred to the Messiah (or possibly someone else, but never about Israel.)


These are strong claims, and if they were true it would certainly seem to indicate that Rashi started some sort of conspiracy.  In fact, such a claim of conspiracy appears to be made in a work called Isaiah’s Messiah, which is ‘excerpted and revised’ from a larger work called ‘The Prophet of Isaiah’ by Victor Buksbazen. Here is part of what he says:


“However at the end of the 11th century A.D., a change took place. Jewish commentators began to assert that Isaiah spoke of Israel, who suffers innocently for the sins of all nations. Christians, following the ancient Jewish tradition, maintained that Isaiah 53 speaks of the Messiah.”[4]


And since the Christians, in their frequent disputes with the Jewish people, used Isaiah 53 as one of their main arguments for the messiahship of Jesus, Jewish people felt impelled to reinterpret this prophecy in such a way as to blunt the Christian arguments. Since then, the question of Isaiah 53 has taken on a heated polemical and emotional character. Another compelling reason to abandon the Messianic interpretation of the controversial passage was that many Jewish people themselves became convinced that a cogent and strong argument exists for the Christian position…. In any case, since A.D. 1096, Jewish interpreters began to teach that Isaiah’s suffering servant was not the Messiah but, rather, persecuted and suffering Israel.”[5]


The chief representative of the non-Messianic, collective interpretation was the 11th century French-Jewish scholar, Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki (1040-1105), best known by his initials as Rashi…. In time the non-Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 practically became an official dogma among most Jewish people.”[6] [Emphasis mine]


So here we see clearly the claim: The Jewish Rabbis KNEW that the true ancient interpretation of Isaiah 53 was that it was talking about the Messiah. However they changed the true interpretation to hide the truth from the Jewish people, and prevent conversion to the ‘truth’. The one who is primarily at ‘fault’ is the 11th century Rabbi called Rashi. And since then all the Jewish people have been hoodwinked by this deception.




In this article we shall prove without any doubt that this is not just a misstatement of fact, but is an outright lie. In some cases this is done by people who know better. They are doing this in order to prove that the Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 was the ‘official’ view of ancient Judaism which, in fact, it was not. In order to show this wrong I will investigate the following two questions/issues:


  1. What is the purpose and nature of Rashi’s commentaries which would include Isaiah?
  2. Did Rashi have any Rabbinic sources or traditions that he based his commentary on? If the answer is yes, what are they?




The truth is that this can be set to rest easily. 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 was known to those who I quoted above and should be known to any modern Christian who wishes 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...[7] [Emphasis mine]


Here we see historical evidence that Jews who were ‘reckoned as wise men’ said Isaiah 53 was about Israel many hundreds of years before Rashi. Some dismiss this because it is not a ‘Rabbinic text’ but that is only an act of self delusion. In historical research a secondary source quoting a view, especially in a neutral setting like this, is always accepted as factual. Celsus didn’t lie, and Origen who quoted him accepted that it was a fact that Jews did have such a belief. Why should we today be asked to believe what Origen and others in those times didn’t?




There is something different about the commentary of Rashi on the Tenach, than the earlier commentaries. While this does not have an effect on the factual situation with regards to the Jewish view of Isaiah 53, it does effect how we are to understand how this view comes about to dominate all later commentators. To understand this, we need to know what makes Rashi’s commentaries different and so special to the Jewish people.


In Judaism the learning of the Torah[8] is of prime importance as it is the source for all the commandments that God has commanded to the Jewish people. It is impossible to fulfill commandments that one does not know. Because of that, we divide the Torah into portions which are read each week. Every individual Jew is required to learn that week’s portion in order to know what God requires. There is an ancient requirement to learn it with the Aramaic translation (Targum) of Onkelos[9]. The purpose of that was so that we could fully understand what is contained in the portion being read. This was later codified in the Jewish legal codes[10]. Originally Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Jewish people, but with time this changed. In order to fulfill this obligation the commentary of Rashi was considered an acceptable substitute[11] for the Targum. This was also codified in Jewish Law as we see in this early code:


 “If one learns the parsha with the commentary of Rashi that is the same as if he read the Targum”[12]


Here we see that Rashi is an alternative to this ancient translation. This certainly tells us something about the high regard Judaism places on his commentary. The reason for this is that the method of his commentary is to follow the context and teach the literal meaning; only rarely would he bring comments that were not related to the literal meaning of the text. Since the purpose of learning the weekly portion is to understand clearly what is meant by the text, his commentary was considered just as good as a translation. All of his commentaries, whether on the Tenach, or the Talmud follow this same method. He built his commentary on explaining the literal meaning of what the text and its author meant.


Historically, his was one of the earliest commentaries to follow this method[13]. However there is more to it than this. There is something else that makes Rashi important. The halachic commentary, Mogan Avraham, explains the law in Shulchan Aruch:


With the commentary of Rashi: Because he is the main commentary; because he is built on the foundations of the talmud.[14]


This is further explained in a commentary on the above Mogan Avraham, called the Machtzos HaShekel:


“The commentary of Rashi is more fundamental than any of the other commentaries because the commentary of Rashi is built on the foundations of the talmud, unlike the other commentaries. In one way Rashi is better than the Targum because the commentary of Rashi explains more than the Targum…”



One of the greatest praises of Rashi’s commentary is found in the Chida[15] in his classic work Shem HaGadolim[16] quoting from an ancient unpublished source:


The head of all the works that were written to explain the literal meaning (pshat) was the work written by the rabbi Our Master Shlomo ben Yitzchok,


From this we see that there are three things about the commentary of Rashi which explains why his works are considered so highly:


1.    He concentrated on the literal meaning of the texts. His commentary is based on the context, as opposed to earlier works, which at times left behind the literal meaning of the text.

2.    Although he concentrated on the literal meaning, his commentaries had a basis in Rabbinic teaching and tradition.

3.    His commentary was superior in that it explained the text clearly, even better then a translation.




With the above in mind we can now begin to examine Rashi’s commentary on Isaiah 53 and understand the basis of it. There are two aspects to consider: Context and Traditional sources.


In another article I have written on the issue of context. I would just like to add a point based on experience discussing with Christians. I hear a phrase used quite often: ‘let Scripture interpret Scripture’. There are two ways of understanding this and I will give an illustration of it. From this illustration we can see what a valid method of letting Scripture interpret itself is and what is not a valid method.


Let’s say we are reading a book and in page 210 we see the sentence: “He went to the store”. We want to know who ‘he’ is and what the ‘store’ is. There are two ways to approach this problem.


The first is to take a lexicon and see how many males are in the book and how many stores and choose out the one that fits for what you think the sentence means[17] or the ones that appear most often. So if we found on page 150 that John went to the grocery store, then by this method we could apply it to what it says on page 210 even though it is over 50 pages and numerous chapters later. It would seem obvious that this method has little chance of being successful. This is the first method of ‘Scripture interpreting Scripture.’ It is what one sees quite often in Christian literature that tries to explain the Biblical text.


On the other hand, there are valid uses for a lexicon and such comparisons. Let me mention three and give examples:


First, when there is a word whose meaning Is not known, or which is not clear what it means in the context of the verse; it is useful to see how it is used in other places. Rashi does this with the word ‘Asham’ in Isaiah 53:10[18]. There he points out based on first Samuel 6.3 that it refers to something a guilty person gives to another.


Another is as a limiter to possible interpretations. In my first article on Isaiah 53 I point out that the word ‘servant’ is such a limiter. It does not tell us who the subject is, but only that this subject must be someone who can be called a servant. We cannot prove who the servant is this way, but we do get a list of possible candidates by seeing other examples of people called God’s servant.


Finally, it can be used to show that a particular interpretation that appears to have a problem is actually not problematic. For example Rashi deals with the issue of how Isaiah 53 is about Israel when the subject is in the singular. In verse 53:3 he points out other places in Isaiah where it is indisputable that Israel is being talked about, and is referred to in the singular.


Again, none of these usages of a lexicon, ‘word study’ or ‘Scripture interpreting Scripture’ proves anything. All it does is show that a particular interpretation does not violate the passage in question. This is quite far from being a proof or telling us what a passage means.


The true way of understanding a passage is to read it in context. So if page 210 is in chapter 17, then we read chapter 17 and see what it says. And if we find a discussion of Sally and Paul and that Paul is asked to go to a hardware store, then it is irrelevant what we find in the lexicon or somewhere else in the book. We KNOW from the context what is meant. This is the only way to truly understand the intent of any author, whether human or Divine. To ignore this in the Bible not only leads to error in interpretation but shows disrespect for God and His word.


This is, in fact, the approach taken by Rashi and other Jewish commentators who approach the text in the same way as Rash did. As I discussed in my articles on Isaiah 53 the context of Isaiah 40 - 66 strongly supports that the servant of Isaiah 53 is Israel. If we look at Isaiah 40 through 66 and ask: Who suffers and is later exalted? The answer is Israel. If we restrict that to the chapter before (52) and the chapter afterwards (54), it is still the same. Rashi, who was interested in conveying the literal meaning, would have read these chapters and come to the same conclusion: Isaiah 53 was about Israel suffering in exile.




As we have seen, Rashi was also cognizant of Jewish traditional teachings, so we need to see how his understanding of the literal meaning fits with that. Before linking his commentary to the Rabbinic sources, it is useful to look at the full passage in Origen where Celsus relates what he was told by the ancient Jewish Rabbis:


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. And in this way he explained the words, "Thy form shall be of no reputation among men;" and then, "They to whom no message was sent respecting him shall see;" and the expression, "A man under suffering.[19] [Emphasis mine]


We can see here much that will later appear in Rashi:

1.    We see the general idea that it refers to the suffering of the nation of Israel as a whole in exile. This we find in the Rashi on Isaiah 52:13 and many later verses in Isaiah 53.

2.    52:14 (Thy form shall be of no reputation among men). Rashi sees the same verse as referencing Israel.

3.    53:1 (They to whom no message was sent respecting him shall see) Rashi sees this message about Israel.

4.    53:3 (A man under suffering) Rashi sees it the same way; a reference to Israel’s suffering.


In each case Rashi has a similar understanding. It is clear that what Celsus heard was a true Jewish tradition and that Rashi was a receiver of this tradition, even if he was not aware of the passage in Origen itself.




I have two articles that provide background material which is important to our understanding of where Rashi found support for his views from Rabbinic tradition. The first is on the Targum of Yonason and the second on Isaiah 53 in the Talmud and Midrash. While not every verse or every comment can be directly sourced to these Rabbinic traditions, the basic outline is there. I will now go through some of the comments of Rashi and show where these sources are.


We need look no further then the very first verse, 52:13 and Rashi on that verse. Rashi[20] states that the verse is about the exaltation of the people Israel, and more specifically the righteous among Israel:


 Behold My servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and he shall be very high.   

Behold My servant shall prosper: Behold, at the end of days, My servant, Jacob, shall prosper [i.e.,] the righteous among him.


We find that there are two sources for this in Rabbinic works. First is from the Midrash Lekach Tov, where we see this verse applied to the exaltation of Israel at the end-times:


‘“And let his (Israel’s) kingdom 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.”’[21]


The association specifically to the righteous is found in the Targum Yonason on 53:2:


“The righteous will grow up before him, yeah, like blooming shoots, and like a tree which sends forth its roots to streams of water will they increase - a holy generation in the land that was in need of him…”


In the next verse (14) we see introduced the suffering of the servant and Rashi is clear that this refers to Israel:


As many wondered about you, "How marred his appearance is from that of a man, and his features from that of people!"

As many wondered: As many peoples wondered about them when they saw them in their humble state, and said to one another, How marred is his [Israel’s] appearance from that of a man! See how their features are darker than those of other people, so, as we see with our eyes.


We find Rashi’s words reflected in the words of the Targum on this verse:


“as the house of Israel looked to him during many days, because their countenance was darkened among the peoples, and their complexion beyond the sons of men,” [Emphasis mine]



In verse 53:2 we see a restatement of what appears in 52:13 as Rashi points out:



And he came up like a sapling before it, and like a root from dry ground, he had neither form nor comeliness; and we saw him that he had no appearance. Now shall we desire him?

And he came up like a sapling before it: This people, before this greatness came to it, was a very humble people, and it came up by itself like a sapling of the saplings of the trees.            


As Rashi uses Israel and the righteous interchangeably we see that the Targum here says the same idea:


“The righteous will grow up before him, yeah, like blooming shoots, and like a tree which sends forth its roots to streams of water will they increase - a holy generation in the land….” [Emphasis mine]


This next verse (3) returns to the suffering of the servant where Rashi has a comment that it is referring to Israel:



Despised and rejected by men, a man of pains and accustomed to illness, and as one who hides his face from us, despised and we held him of no account.

Despised and rejected by men: was he. So is the custom of this prophet: he mentions all Israel as one man, e.g., (44:2), “Fear not, My servant Jacob” ; (44:1) “And now, hearken, Jacob, My servant.” Here too (52:13), “Behold My servant shall prosper,” he said concerning the house of Jacob. יַשְׂכִּיל is an expression of prosperity. Comp. (I Sam. 18:14) “And David was successful (מַשְׂכִּיל) in all his ways.”                        

and as one who hides his face from us: Because of their intense shame and humility, they were as one who hides his face from us, with their faces bound up in concealment, in order that we not see them, like a plagued man who hides his face and is afraid to look.                    


This same idea is reflected in the Targum on this verse:


they will be prostrate and mourning, like a man of pains and like one destined for sicknesses; and as though the presence of the Shekhinah had been withdrawn from us, they will be despised, and esteemed not.” [Emphasis mine]


In this next verse (4) the idea of how the nations considered Israel to be hated by God appears:


Indeed, he bore our illnesses, and our pains-he carried them, yet we accounted him as plagued, smitten by God and oppressed.

yet we accounted him: We thought that he was hated by the Omnipresent, but he was not so, but he was pained because of our transgressions and crushed because of our iniquities.                   


This likewise appears in the Targum:


“although we were accounted stricken, smitten from before the Lord, and afflicted” [Emphasis mine]


In the next few verses Rashi continues to show how Isaiah 53 applies Israel and then he comes to verse 8. Here is discusses Israel going out of exile:


From imprisonment and from judgment he is taken, and his generation who shall tell? For he was cut off from the land of the living; because of the transgression of my people, a plague befell them.

From imprisonment and from judgment he is taken: The prophet reports and says that the heathens (nations [mss., K’li Paz]) will say this at the end of days, when they see that he was taken from the imprisonment that he was imprisoned in their hands and from the judgment of torments that he suffered until now.              

and his generation: The years that passed over him.            

who shall tell?: The tribulations that befell him, for from the beginning, he was cut off and exiled from the land of the living that is the land of Israel for because of the transgression of my people, this plague came to the righteous among them.               


Likewise the Targum sees this as a reference to Israel leaving exile:


“Out of chastisements and punishment he will bring our captives near; the wondrous things done to us in his days who shall be able to tell? For he will cause the dominion of the Gentiles to pass away from the land of Israel….”[Emphasis mine]


We now come to the last three verses, which are very critical as they are what God is saying. Here in verse 10 Rashi points out that the suffering in exile was in order for Israel to repent, and gain atonement:


And the Lord wished to crush him, He made him ill; if his soul makes itself restitution, he shall see children, he shall prolong his days, and God's purpose shall prosper in his hand.

And the Lord wished to crush him, He made him ill: The Holy One, blessed be He, wished to crush him and to cause him to repent; therefore, he made him ill.

If his soul makes itself restitution, etc.: Said the Holy One, blessed be He, “I will see, if his soul will be given and delivered with My holiness to return it to Me as restitution for all that he betrayed Me, I will pay him his recompense, and he will see children, etc.” This word אָשָׁם is an expression of ransom that one gives to the one against when he sinned, amende in O.F., to free from faults, similar to the matter mentioned in the episode of the Philistines (I Sam. 6:3), “Do not send it away empty, but you shall send back with it a guilt offering (אָשָׁם).”              


The Targum likewise sees the suffering of exile as a period of purification and cleansing of sins.:


“But it is the Lord's good pleasure to try and to purify the remnant of his people, so as to cleanse their souls from sin; these shall look on the Kingdom of their Messiah, their sons and their daughters shall be multiplied, they shall prolong their days, and those who perform the Law of the Lord shall prosper in his good pleasure.” [Emphasis mine]


The idea of the suffering of the righteous (Israel) and its association with the asham is also found in the Talmud:


“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.[22]


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.[23]


What Rashi says about the Asham, reflects a similar idea that appears in the Midrash Eliyahu Rabbah:


Why does it say “This is the Law of the Asham”[24]?


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[25] and he looks upon himself as being required every day to bring an Asham for doubtful sin[26], 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’.[27]


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”[28] [29]


In this next verse (11) there is nothing similar to Rashi in other sources, but there is something that the Targum says which appears in many later Rabbinic commentaries which I would like to point out. Here he refers to the gathering of the spoils of the nations, by Israel, in the end times.:


“From the subjection of the nations he will deliver their souls, they shall look upon the punishment of those that hate them, and be satisfied with the spoil of their kings”


Finally in verse 12 Rashi lets us know that the verse is telling us that the rewards Israel gets is based on the suffering they accepted upon themselves.:


Therefore, I will allot him a portion in public, and with the strong he shall share plunder, because he poured out his soul to death, and with transgressors he was counted; and he bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors.

Therefore: Because he did this, I will allot him an inheritance and a lot in public with the Patriarchs.                        


This same idea is found in the Midrash Rabbah on Song of Songs:


“’I have eaten honeycombs with honey.’[30] Because Israel gave their souls over to death in the exile as it says ‘because he bared his soul unto death’[31] 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.”[32]




I think the above shows to anyone who objectively examines this issue that without any doubt Rashi had ample support for his views from earlier Rabbinic traditions, especially the Targum of Yonason. His explanation of the literal meaning fits quite well with various early teachings of the Rabbis. This confirms what I said before about the passage in Origen, that Celsus is accurately relating what was the Jewish view of Isaiah 53 in ancient times[33]. There was nothing ‘new’ about the explanation of Rashi, even though his method of presentation in his commentary was breaking new ground. Regardless of the claims by missionaries, and their bogus conspiracy theories, Rashi is following in the footsteps of the earlier generations.


1.    Frydland is wrong; there was not an older tradition that Rashi was ignoring when he wrote his commentary.

2.    Brown is wrong when he says Rashi’s view is found “not once in all the classical, foundational, authoritative Jewish writings”.

3.    Buksbazen is wrong; the idea that Isaiah 53 is about Israel in exile was not invented by Rashi to counter Christian beliefs. The Rabbis did not feel compelled to abandon their ancient beliefs. Rashi only stated them in a clear way, which seems to make some Christians uncomfortable enough to make false claims about him.


What Rashi said was is and will forever be the true belief in Judaism as to what Isaiah 53’s literal meaning is.



© Moshe Shulman 2014 http://www.judaismsanswer.com

For more information, questions answered, or help with missionaries you can reach Moshe Shulman at outreach@judaismsanswer.com.


[1]    In another article we shall explore how true the word ‘some’ is.

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


[3]   Dr. Michael Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 3 page 41.

[4]    Page 8.

[5]    Page 12-13

[6]    Page 16-17.

[7]  Contra Celsum Book 1 Chapter 55.

[8]    The first five books of the Bible, in Hebrew called the Tenach.

[9]    This was special as it is almost always the literal meaning and his translation reflects Jewish understandings.

[10]    Orach Chaim chapter 285.

[11]    There are views that it is not a substitute but in addition to the Targum.

[12]    Tur Orach Chayim #285, also quoted in Shulchan Aruch 285:2.

[13]    He may even have been the first. I am not aware of any commentary that followed this method before him.

[14]    Orach Chayim 285:3

[15]    Rabbi Chayim Yosef Dovid Azulay the great Sefardic Kabbalist and Halachic Authority.

[16]    This work is a collection of biographical information on the great Rabbis. The entry on Rashi is one of the largest in that work, which reflects the greatness and stature of Rashi in the eyes of the Jewish world.

[17]    While this may sound crazy it is actually what I have seen with some Christians.  For example one fellow whenever discussing a particular passage would take individual verses and quote others which had the same word or idea of the same word in it, with no concern as to the meaning in either passage.

[18]   Look at my analysis of it in my article where I discuss God’s view of Isaiah 53.

[19]  Contra Celsum Book 1 Chapter 55.

[20]   All translations of Rashi and the verse he is commenting on are from the Chabad website: http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/15984#showrashi=true

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

[22]  Isaiah 53:10

[23]  Brachos 5a

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

[25]  i.e. he humbles himself

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

[27]  Isaiah 53:10

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

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

[30]  Song of Songs 5:1

[31]  Isaiah 53:12

[32] Numbers Rabbah 13:2

[33]  While lack of proof is not disproof, it is certainly interesting that no support is given from any ancient Christian sources where they interacted with Jews and found they had a Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53.