Who is the Moshiach ben Yosef?


CLAIM: The Rabbis believe in two messiahs, one exalted and one suffering. It’s not two messiahs one exalted and one suffering, but one messiah, first time suffering the second time exalted.


Missionaries associate this claim with a well-known teaching in the Talmud[1]. “Rabbi Alexandri said Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi opposed two verses. One verse says, ‘with the clouds of heaven, one like a son of man came.[2]’ In another verse it says, ‘lowly and riding on an ass.[3]’ If they merit ‘with the clouds of heaven’ if not ‘lowly and riding on an ass.’”[4] Frydland makes the association of this passage to Moshiach ben Yosef in his famous work, ‘What the Rabbis Know about the Messiah’. There he says, “Rabbi Yehoshua Bar Levi, referring to the Zechariah scripture, said that if Israel is not worthy, then the Messiah will come in humility riding upon an ass. This is Messiah Ben Yosef – the Suffering Messiah.[5]” He is not the only missionary to wrongly make such an association. This passage has no direct information about Moshiach ben Yosef, or a suffering messiah, as it is not about him at all (which will be shown later.) Misnaming ‘Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’ is not his only mistake here.


In order to understand this passage in the Talmud, we need to understand who Moshiach ben Yosef is and where he fits into Rabbinic/Biblical eschatology. To get to this we need to find out three things:

  1. What does the Tenach say about who is ‘messiah’?
  2. What do the Rabbis mean by ‘messiah’?
  3. Where do the Rabbis get their idea of more then one Messiah?


As to the Tenach, the facts about the ‘Messiah’ will be surprising. One of the top Biblical scholars J. H. Charlesworth states:

“The term, ‘the Messiah’ simply does not appear in the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament). The last group of scholars to acknowledge this fact were conservative Christians, and now the very conservative New Testament specialist [the late] Professor George Eldon Ladd states, without qualification, that ‘the simple term “the Messiah” does not occur in the Old Testament at all.’ Of course, the title ‘the Anointed One’[6] denotes in the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament) a prophet, a priest, and especially a king.”[7]


From here we see that Biblically a person is ‘a messiah’ if he is doing some G-d ordained function: prophet, priest or king, but it does not refer to a single special person who is expected to arrive at some future date. This, of course, leads to a question. We use the term ‘Messiah’ and more or less, everyone has an understanding about that term. At the least, it refers to a person who will appear at the ‘end-times’. Where do we get this association with that term?


To understand this we need to look at some of the ‘end-times’ prophecies of the Tenach. While much of the arguments with missionaries deal with passages that are unclear as to when or to whom they apply, there are passages in the Tenach that announce that they are dealing with a specific period called  ‘the end of days’.[8] Some of them mention particular characters that seem to have a role to play in this future period:[9]


One of the most well known passages that is explicit about being an end-times prophecy is Isaiah 2:2-4. Verse 4 is one of the most well known verses in the Tenach.


2 And it shall come to pass in the end of days, that the mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established as the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.

3 And many peoples shall go and say: ‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the G-d of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

4 And He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.


Here we see an announcement of the end of days with a few specifics of that time. These issues mentioned will help us to find more passages dealing with this time period. Let’s see what will happen then:

  1. People will gather in Jerusalem to worship HaShem (verse 2-3)
  2. War will end (verse 4)
  3. The nations will be judged (verse 4)[10]


In Isaiah 11 we see an expansion of these themes. Just as above we have: people gathering in Jerusalem in verse12, the end of war in verse 6-8, and the judgment of nations in 2-5.


1 And there shall come forth a shoot out of the stock of Jesse, and a twig shall grow forth out of his roots.

2 And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD.

3 And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD; and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither decide after the hearing of his ears;

4 But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the land; and he shall smite the land with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.

5 And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.

6 And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.

7 And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

8 And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the basilisk’s den.

9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.

10 And it shall come to pass in that day, that the root of Jesse, that standeth for an ensign of the peoples, unto him shall the nations seek; and his resting-place shall be glorious.

11 And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord will set His hand again the second time to recover the remnant of His people, that shall remain from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea.

12 And He will set up an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the dispersed of Israel, and gather together the scattered of Judah from the four corners of the earth.

13 The envy also of Ephraim shall depart, and they that harass Judah shall be cut off; Ephraim shall not envy Judah, and Judah shall not vex Ephraim.

14 And they shall fly down upon the shoulder of the Philistines on the west; together shall they spoil the children of the east; they shall put forth their hand upon Edom and Moab; and the children of Ammon shall obey them.

15 And the LORD will utterly destroy the tongue of the Egyptian sea; and with His scorching wind will He shake His hand over the River, and will smite it into seven streams, and cause men to march over dry-shod.

16 And there shall be a highway for the remnant of His people, that shall remain from Assyria, like as there was for Israel in the day that he came up out of the land of Egypt.



Besides the repetition of what is in Isaiah 2, this passage adds a few new points that add to our picture of the end-times:

  1. There will be a leader, from the tribe of Judah who will also be the judge. (1 and 10)
  2. Ephraim (the Northern kingdom of Israel) and Judah (the Southern Kingdom) will no longer contend with each other. (13)
  3. The Jewish people will be gathered from exile. (12, 16)


In Ezekiel 37 we find more about this reconciliation of Judah and Ephraim, with some more information about this ingathering period:


15. And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying:

16. ‘And thou, son of man, take thee one stick, and write upon it: For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions; then take another stick, and write upon it: For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and of all the house of Israel his companions;

17 and join them for thee one to another into one stick, that they may become one in thy hand.

18 And when the children of thy people shall speak unto thee, saying: Wilt thou not tell us what thou meanest by these?

19 say into them: Thus saith the Lord G-D: Behold, I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel his companions; and I will put them unto him together with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they shall be one in My hand.

20 And the sticks whereon thou writest shall be in thy hand before their eyes.

21 And say unto them: Thus saith the Lord G-D: Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, whither they are gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land;

22 and I will make them one nation in the land, upon the mountains of Israel, and one king shall be king to them all; and they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all;

23 neither shall they defile themselves any more with their idols, nor with their detestable things, nor with any of their transgressions; but I will save them out of all their dwelling-places, wherein they have sinned, and will cleanse them; so shall they be My people, and I will be their G-d.

24 And My servant David shall be king over them, and they all shall have one shepherd; they shall also walk in Mine ordinances, and observe My statutes, and do them.

25 And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob My servant, wherein your fathers dwelt; and they shall dwell therein, they, and their children, and their children’s children, forever; and David My servant shall be their prince forever.

26 Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them—it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will establish them, and multiply them, and will set My sanctuary in the midst of them for ever.

27 My dwelling-place also shall be over them; and I will be their G-d, and they shall be My people.

28 And the nations shall know that I am the LORD that sanctify Israel, when My sanctuary shall be in the midst of them for ever.’


In addition to the same old themes, we see the following new ones added to our picture of the end times:

  1. Ephraim and Judah will be joined together with Judah as the lead. (16-19)
  2. This leader will be David’s descendant. He is called the king, prince and leader of that time. (24-25)
  3. There will be a sanctuary (temple). (28)


What is interesting about this passage in Ezekiel is that Ephraim and Judah are on the same level, but that Judah would lead. This indicates that both Ephraim and Judah would have leaders. But the one from Judah (i.e. the Davidic one) would be the sole leader. What happens to the leader of Ephraim?


Now if we look at Ezekiel 40-48 we see more information about that Temple and another important figure in that time. There we learn about the priesthood, and verse 44:27 refers to a single priest.


The final end-times prophecy[11] we will look at is Malachi 3, which adds another piece of information.


23 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD.

24 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers; lest I come and smite the land with utter destruction.


To summarize what we have seen in the end-times prophecies: There will be a Davidic king/leader, a Priest, and the prophet Elijah.


Sometime during the late second temple period we see that these people are referred to as ‘Messiahs’. We find this in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1QS (Rule of the Community) we read (IX 11) ‘until the prophet comes and the messiahs of Aaron and Israel.’ Here we see the three figures mentioned above: the prophet, the priest of Aaron and the leader of Israel. Here are three messianic type characters in the end of days, in the Biblical text and in the Dead Sea Scrolls.


There are two things I have found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. One is that the priestly ‘messiah’ seems to have the superior position. The second is that there is no mention of the House of Israel, i.e. the Northern tribes referred to as Ephraim in the Tenach. This is not so serious as the truth is that there is a limited amount of material in the Dead Sea Scrolls. But it is important. One factor seems to be missing. What about ‘Ephraim’ and her leader?[12]


To understand what the Rabbis have taught about the major figures that will have a role in end time’s story we need to look at a few verses in Zechariah 2:


1 And I lifted up mine eyes, and saw, and behold four horns.

2 And I said unto the angel that spoke with me: ‘What are these?’ And he said unto me: ‘These are the horns which have scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem.’

3 And the LORD showed me four craftsmen.

4 Then said I: ‘What come these to do?’ And he spoke, saying: ‘These—the horns which scattered Judah, so that no man did lift up his head—these then are come to frighten them, to cast down the horns of the nations, which lifted up their horn against the land of Judah to scatter it.’

5 And I lifted up mine eyes, and saw, and behold a man with a measuring line in his hand.

6 Then said I: ‘Whither goest thou?’ And he said unto me: ‘To measure Jerusalem, to see what is the breadth thereof, and what is the length thereof.’

7 And, behold, the angel that spoke with me went forth, and another angel went out to meet him, 8 and said unto him: ‘Run, speak to this young man, saying: ‘Jerusalem shall be inhabited without walls for the multitude of men and cattle therein.

9 For I, saith the LORD, will be unto her a wall of fire round about, and I will be the glory in the midst of her.

10 Ho, ho, flee then from the land of the north, saith the LORD; for I have spread you abroad as the four winds of the heaven, saith the LORD.

11 Ho, Zion, escape, thou that dwellest with the daughter of Babylon.’

12 For thus saith the LORD of hosts who sent me after glory unto the nations which spoiled you: ‘Surely, he that toucheth you toucheth the apple of his eye.

13 For, behold, I will shake My hand over them, and they shall be a spoil to those that served them’; and ye shall know that the LORD of hosts hath sent me.


These verses seem to be talking about the end times. Jerusalem is filled again with people (8) and verse 10 indicates the ingathering which we have seen the Tenach places in the end-times. But look at 1-4; we see that there are 4 horns, which represent the enemies of the Jewish people, who sent them into exile. Opposed to them are four craftsmen, who cut them down. These four seem to be important figures in the end-times. Who are they? Here is what the Rabbis teach[13]: “ ‘And the LORD showed me four craftsmen.’ Who are these four craftsmen? Rav Chunah the son of Bizna said in the name of Rebbi Shimon, ‘These are Moshiach ben Dovid, Moshiach ben Yosef, Elijah and the Righteous Priest.’ “ The four of the Rabbis are the three people mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls plus the leader of Ephraim.


So what is the job of this fourth person? One hint is in the prophet Ovadiah:


17 But in mount Zion there shall be those that escape, and it shall be holy; and the house of Jacob shall possess their possessions.

18 And the house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau for stubble, and they shall kindle in them, and devour them; and there shall not be any remaining of the house of Esau; for the LORD hath spoken.

19 And they of the South shall possess the mount of Esau, and they of the Lowland the Philistines; and they shall possess the field of Ephraim, and the field of Samaria; and Benjamin shall possess Gilead.

20 And the captivity of this host of the children of Israel, that are among the Canaanites, even unto Zarephath, and the captivity of Jerusalem, that is in Sepharad, shall possess the cities of the South.

21 And saviours shall come up on mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau; and the kingdom shall be the LORD’S.


He we see, from verse 18, that the House of Joseph (including its leader) has a military role in the end-times drama. Verse 21 indicates that this is a joint effort. From this we see that the time when the Moshiach ben Yosef comes ends with a period of peace. This would indicate the period we have seen above when there is world peace, a renewal of the Davidic kingdom, etc. Let me summarize the Rabbinic writings[14] with regards to Moshiach ben Yosef:


There will be a period of about seven years of terrible famines and other troubles. The land of Israel will at that time be under Non-Jewish control, and a leader of the tribe of Ephraim, will arise to lead militarily against these nations who control Jerusalem. He will be successful, but after his initial victory he will die in battle. This will cause a great mourning and many will lose faith. At that time (still within the seven years) the Moshiach Ben David will be revealed, he shall finish the battle. After which, he will resurrect all the dead, starting with the Moshiach Ben Yosef. Both of them will go up to Mount Zion to fulfill the prophecy in Ovadiah verse 21: "And the saviors (plural - both Messiahs) shall go up onto Mount Tzion and judge Mount Esav, and the kingdom will be for Hashem." There is the fulfillment of ALL the major prophesies like an end to war and a world at peace with the Jewish people in a restored Jerusalem with the third Temple.


The following points summarize this issue and are agreed to in all the Midrashim that deal with the Moshiach ben Yosef and the Moshiach ben Dovid.

  1. They are two different people from two different tribal families.
  2. They live at the same time. 
  3. Moshiach ben Yosef never takes the throne nor is he entitled to.
  4. Moshiach ben Yosef is a warrior (Moshiach ben Dovid would also appear to be)
  5. Moshiach ben Yosef will be killed in BATTLE[15] and will be the first to be raised from the dead by Moshiach ben Dovid.
  6. The period of time from when Moshiach ben Yosef first comes into prominence until he is resurrected after the Moshiach ben Dovid comes to his throne is very short, the longest period is under two years.
  7. The basic chronology of events is that there is a seven-year period. It starts with continually problems, it starts to improve and then in the sixth year it gets worse again. In the seventh year there are great wars in which the Moshiach ben Yosef is first successful and then he is killed in that later part of the year. Many Jewish people will become depressed and fall away.  At the end of the seven years Moshiach ben Dovid comes and finishes the job and there comes the resurrection of the dead.


There is one more aspect with regards to Moshiach ben Yosef that appears in Rabbinic literature that we need to address, and then we can return to the passage in the Talmud which opened up this paper and see how far off they are. In the work, Emunah V’Deos by Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, after a discussion of the end-times[16] he makes the following comment:


If we do not repent, the events of Ben Joseph will come to pass. But if we repent, they will not, and Messiah ben David will appear to us suddenly.[17]


To understand this issue and how it could be, we need to understand something simple about Biblical prophecy. People usually think (based on Deuteronomy 18) that a false prophet says something will occur and it does not. Here is what appears in Deuteronomy 18:


21 And if thou say in thy heart: ‘How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken?’

22 When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken; the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously, thou shalt not be afraid of him.


But there is a problem. Let’s look at the book of Jonah. In chapter 1 we see that Jonah is commanded by G-d to bring a message:


1.      NOW THE WORD of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying:

2.      ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim against it; for their wickedness is come up before Me.’


In chapter 3 we see the message:


1 And the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the second time, saying:

2  ‘Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and make unto it the proclamation that I bid thee.’

3 So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city, of three days’ journey.

4 And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he proclaimed, and said: ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.’


So the message of Jonah was that Ninevah had only 40 days left. But that is not what happened:


5 And the people of Nineveh believed G-d; and they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.

6 And the tidings reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.

7 And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying: ‘Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing; let them not feed, nor drink water;

8 but let them be covered with sackcloth, both man and beast, and let them cry mightily unto G-d; yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.

9 Who knoweth whether G-d will not turn and repent, and turn away from His fierce anger, that we perish not?’

10 And G-d saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and G-d repented of the evil, which He said He would do unto them; and He did it not.


So is Jonah a false prophet??? What he said did not come to pass. The key is verse 10: When G-d sees that people repent; there is no need for the bad decree. With every prophecy of doom, there is an understood condition: If you repent then it is not going to happen. This principle is explicit in the Tenach. We read in Jeremiah 28:


7 Nevertheless hear thou now this word that I speak in thine ears, and in the ears of all the people:

8 The prophets that have been before me and before thee of old prophesied against many countries, and against great kingdoms, of war, and of evil, and of pestilence.

9 The prophet that prophesieth of peace, when the word of the prophet shall come to pass, then shall the prophet be known, that the LORD hath truly sent him.’


Here we see that although many prophecies of disaster have been sent it is only those prophecies of peace that must occur. Only through a positive philosophy can they know a true prophet. For that reason Jonah was NOT a false prophet. His prophecy of disaster had an understood condition that, IF they repent, then it will not have to come, but if not then it will. ONLY if he had predicted that there would be a peaceful result, then its non-occurrence would be a sign of his being a false prophet. From this we see that there can be two possibilities for the end-times. One will occur if they repent and the other if they do not. That is what Rabbi Saadiah Gaon was referring to.


With this we can return to the passage from the Rabbis quoted at the beginning. This passage refers to the principle we have just stated, and is a reference to Moshiach ben Dovid, and the two ways in which HE can come! Before this above passage[18] we find the following passage:


Rabbi Eliezer said, ‘If Israel repents they will be redeemed, and if not they will not be.” Rabbi Yehoshua said to him, “If they don’t repent they will not be redeemed? But the Holy One Blessed is He will raise up for them a King who will make decrees over them like Haman and they will repent and return to the good.”


As Rabbi Saadiah Gaon points out[19] this teaching refers to the wars and disasters that would occur before the coming of Moshiach ben Yosef. But if they do repent then there is no need for all of that. If we look at the Tenach we see two types of prophecies dealing with the end-times period. One tells of wars, like Ezekiel 38 and Zechariah 12. But others are silent, mentioning neither war, nor any other series of events. Based on the Biblical principle we saw from the books of Jonah and Jeremiah, we see that G-d’s message of war is a conditional one that can be mitigated by repentance. This is the message of the Talmud. Let’s see the passages in context. First Daniel 7:


13 I saw in the night visions, and, behold, there came with the clouds of heaven one like unto a son of man, and he came even to the Ancient of days, and he was brought near before Him.

14 And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.


Here we see the end-times, but in a miraculous way. But in Zechariah 9, the same results are given in another format:


9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, thy king cometh unto thee, he is triumphant, and victorious, lowly, and riding upon an ass, even upon a colt the foal of an ass.

10 And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace unto the nations; and his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.


Here the results are the same, but the protagonist is described as coming in a more humbling manner. Bringing all these Biblical verses and principles we now have the teaching of the Rabbis:


“Rabbi Alexandri said Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi opposed two verses. One verse says, ‘with the clouds of heaven one like a son of man came.’ In another verse it says, ‘lowly and riding on an ass.’ If they merit ‘with the clouds of heaven’ if not ‘lowly and riding on an ass.’”


If the Jewish people will repent, then the horrible things described will not come and the end-times will be inaugurated in a wondrous way. If not, then there will be wars and humility.


© Moshe Shulman 2003 http://www.judaismsanswer.com

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

[1]   Sanhedrin 98b

[2]   Daniel 7:13

[3]   Zechariah 9:7

[4]   It should be noted that this is not necessarily a contradiction, since it is possible for a person to be BOTH humble, and make a wondrous entry. See my article 'What is Midrash?' for a discussion of how the Rabbis use verses.

[5]   Page 51-52.

[6]   This is the translation into English of the Hebrew ‘HaMoshiach’, ‘the Messiah’.

[7]   ‘From Messianology to Christology: problems and prospects.’ By J. H. Charlesworth. Page 11 in the book ‘The Messiah’ edited by Charlesworth.

[8]    It is not my intention of going through all of them, and not even all of the end-times prophecies that relate to the ‘Messiah’, the ‘Messiahs’.  That is a whole study in itself. I will only bring here a few passages that tell us about those characters who are to play a key role during the end-times period.

[9]   All translation are from the JPS.

[10]   It is interesting to note that the verse mentions someone as doing the judging, but not who this is. We shall see in the next passage who this is.

[11]   This is far from exhaustive. I have limited the verses to those which lead us to the identification of the main characters of the end-times.

[12]   In the work of the prophet Ovadiah we see the importance of the house of Joseph.

[13]   Tractate Sukkah 52b.

[14]     Primary Sources:

  1. Pesikta Zetrusa (parshas Balak);
  2. Midrashim on Moshiach from the Otzar HaMidrashim (OH) pages 390-395;
  3. Sefer Zerubabal OH page 160;
  4. Rabbenu Saadia Goan in Emunah VaDeos book 8 from chapter 5;
  5. Responsa from Rabbenu Hai Goan OH page 387.
  6. In additions to the sources previously mentioned I can bring the following partial sources: Succah 52a, Sanhedrin 97a, Midrash Shir HaShirim 2.14, Derech Eretz Zuta 10.


[15]   This is subject to how the end-times drama will enfold. See the discussion below for how this works.

[16]    Part 8 chapters 4 and 5 are the primary sources for this.

[17]    This quote is directly from ‘The Messiah Texts’ by Raphael Patai, page 317. I have taken it from there because this work is a favorite of missionaries who quote it extensively, even with it’s many failures. There he translates part of Rabbi Saadiah Gaon’s work.

[18]   Sanhedrin 97b.

[19]   Op. cit. Chapter 4