Nistoros of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai


The following Midrash is one that has been quoted to ‘prove’ that the Ancient Rabbis believed that Isaiah 53 was about the suffering of the Messiah (ben Dovid.)

"...the Holy One will reveal to them Messiah,  the son of David, whom Israel will desire to stone, saying, "thou speakest  falsely; already is the Messiah slain, and there is none other Messiah to  stand up, and so they will despise him, as it is written, "Despised and  forlorn of men; but he will turn and hide himself from them, according to the  words, "Like one hiding his face from us." Mysteries of Rabbi Shim'on Ben  Yohaia Jellinek, Beth ha-Midrash {1855}, part  iii.p.80


Before getting into the details of this Midrash we need to preface the discussion with a related issue. Is this an 'accepted' Rabbinic source? The answer to this is: No and Maybe.


What I mean is this. This Midrash is not one of the Midrashim that can be considered 'canon', like the Midrash Rabbah, which is accepted as authoritative, and is widely quoted in Rabbinic works. We do find that many of the minor, ‘non-canon' Midrashim are cited in Rabbinic sources. For example a similar composition called Midrash Zerabavel is. For that reason Midrash Zerabavel has a claim to being considered ‘authoritative’. This particular Midrash is not cited in any Rabbinic work that I have seen. It lacks any claim to Rabbinic ‘authority’.


This particular Midrash is of unknown authorship, but appears to be of a late date (not earlier then 9th century since it appears to have used Saadiah Gaon as a source.) These are just a few of the many reasons to just ignore it.

When read as a whole, this Midrash has similarities to a number of Midrashim that are generally accepted. There is a whole genre of Midrashim (like Midrash Zerabavel) which describe a Rabbinic eschatology and End-times chronology. This one does the same and in general is in agreement with the accepted Rabbinic view in these sources. A discussion of this appears in my article on Moshiach ben Yosef.

The main points in the Rabbinic eschatology are:


1.                          There is a major war, which is won by a leader who is descended from the tribe of Ephraim (Yosef) and is referred to as Moshiach ben Yosef.

2.                          He builds the temple and appears to initiate the Messianic age, when he is killed.

3.                          This causes mourning and depression among the Jewish people.

4.                          Many are forced to flee to the desert.

5.                          Moshiach ben Dovid then appears (some place him among those in the desert.)

6.                          He then triumphs (and according to some resurrects Moshiach ben Yosef) and the Messianic age begins.



This is the basic story of this Midrash. It is the same as appears in Midrash Zerabavel and also a Letter from Rabbi Hai Gaon, and numerous minor Midrashic sources. For this reason the content of this Midrash, regardless of its authorship, cannot be totally dismissed, even if it has no claim to being authoritative.

When evaluating a verse used in any Midrash, we need to discern if it is meant literally (pshat) or not. In my article  I discuss the nature of Rabbinic commentary. What we see is that many times the Rabbis use a verse out of context to 'support' some theological truth or other facts. One example I quoted is from Brochos 57b where a verse from Isaiah 53 is quoted to support the fact that when a sick person's sexual desires start to return it is a sign that the illness has passed. No one would contend that the Rabbis were trying to say that the passage of Isaiah 53 was revealed in order to relate this medical information. (In that article I deal with more examples of this and some of the reasons for this methodology.) Because of this, we need to examine any claims about specific verses based on Midrashic use, to see whether the Midrash was meant as a literal exegesis or not.

In this case it is very easy to decide from the context whether the quote from Isaiah is literal or not. There are two techniques that show it is not meant to reveal a Rabbinic belief on the literal meaning of Isaiah.


  1. By a comparison to how this Midrash uses Zachariah 12:10.
  2. By a comparing what this Midrash says about Moshiach ben Dovid and if it conforms at all to the suffering servant of Isaiah 53.


This Midrash (and also Midrash Zerabavel and the letter of Rabbi Hai Gaon) quote Zechariah 12:10 in reference to the death of Moshiach ben Yosef. They further quote or describe what appears in the next verses of Zechariah as descriptive of the reaction to the death of Moshiach ben Yosef. One need only look into the Rabbinic commentators who specialize in literal commentary to see that they also ascribe Zechariah 12:10 and the verses following to the death of Moshiach ben Yosef and the reaction to it. However, neither in the other Midrashim nor in the literal commentators do we see this verse of Isaiah used to indicate the initial suspicion and rejection of Moshiach ben Dovid. Even when this idea is mentioned as in Midrash Zerabavel, this verse is not mentioned. This indicates that this Midrash is using that Isaiah verse in a non-literal manner.

Even more, if we read this Midrash, and how it describes Moshiach ben Dovid, there is no relationship to any of the verses of Isaiah. In this Midrash he is initially rejected then shortly afterwards he is accepted and has a swift victory and glorious (non-suffering) career. Quite unlike the Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53, and inconsistent with the suffering that is described of the servant of Isaiah 53.

To conclude, this passage can no more be used to 'prove' that the Rabbis considered Isaiah 53 as applying to Moshiach ben Dovid, then to use Brochos 57b to 'prove' that the Rabbis considered Isaiah 53 a primer on Medicine.

© Moshe Shulman 2008

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