Is Moshiach A 2,000 Year Old Man?
At least among Lubavitcher Chassidim, Tisha B’Av is famous not only for being the day the two Batei Mikdash we’re destroyed, but also for being the birthday of Moshiach. The source of this teaching is found in a tale cited in the Midrash as part of a discussion about the name of Moshiach. One of the sages opines his name is Menachem and this story is brought as support to his opinion.
Does this mean that Moshiach is as old as the exile? Are we expecting an old man of close to 2,000 years of age to appear one day and lead us out of galus? Are we to take this tale literally, as the Midrash seems to imply?
Did it really happen?
In the works of Torah giants throughout the ages – particularly those who focused on the subjects of Moshiach and the Redemption – we find different approaches to these stories, as we find with Aggadah in general. A summary of these teachings appears here.
A Rejected Literalist Approach:
One approach would be to take it at face value; namely, that the Moshiach whom we all await was born on the 9th of Menachem Av in the year 3829, he’s named Menachem ben Chizkiyah and remains hidden ever since.
This approach however isn’t accepted, for we find no requirement in Halacha that Moshiach be called Menachem or be born on any particular date or be of any particular age. On the contrary, Halachic sources only identify Moshiach based upon his lineage, his personality and his activities. Indeed, we find no commentators who explain it to be so.
Interestingly, this Midrash came up in the famous “Barcelona Disputation” in which Ramban debated Christian priests and Jewish apostates who tried to prove from the Talmud (!) that their “savior” was a true Moshiach. He cited this chronicle (apparently understanding it literally) in order to prove that Moshiach was born at the time of the churban, implying that their “savior” — born and killed by all accounts before the churban — is not the Moshiach.
But take it with a grain of salt: Ramban makes it clear that “I don’t believe this Midrash … It either is untrue or it has an allegorical interpretation by the sages.”
Don Yitzchak Abarbenel as well, strongly argues against the literalist school; he states that it would be ridiculous to take this story literally and thus explains it metaphorically as we will see further.
An Accepted Literalist Approach:
Before we jump to the metaphorical interpretations of Abarbanel and others, we must present a school of thought that does take it literally. It is a simple and straightforward explanation.
Just because we can’t take it literally, it doesn’t mean we need to explain it metaphorically: A boy by the name of Menachem was indeed born on the 9th of Av; that boy was a potential Moshiach that would redeem the Jews would they be worthy to be redeemed. Unfortunately, this Menachem ultimately passed on without actualizing his potential redemptive powers due to the unworthiness of the Jewish people. In his place came the next potential Moshiach who succeeded him.
“The potential Moshiach” of every generation, is a concept mentioned by many classic commentaries.
The Chasam Sofer writes:
“The very day that the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, one was born who by virtue of his righteousness is fit to be the redeemer. At the proper time, Hashem will reveal Himself to him and send him. Then will dwell upon him the spirit of Moshiach which is hidden and concealed above until his coming.”
– Responsum Chasam Sofer, part 6 Siman 98
The S’dei Chemed writes:
“In every generation there must be one who is worthy [to be Moshiach] in case the Jews are meritorious [and deserve the Redemption] … if they do not merit, he will be like all other [deceased] Tzaddikim with no difference. When one passes on, there must be another in that generation who is worthy [to replace him], like the Talmud says in Kiddushin (72a) “And the sun rises, and the sun sets”…
In every generation, people would make assumptions who the potential Moshiach of their time is; after the churban it was Menachem from the aforementioned tale, after his passing it was Rabbeinu HaKadosh, … following Rebbi – it was the man who spoke to Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi [in Talmud Sanhedrin 98b], following him – it was Rav Nachman . . so too the Arizal’s students wrote that he was Moshiach of his time; all this is obvious.
– S’dei Chemed, sec. Pe’at Hasadeh, order of aleph, Klal 70
Applying this principle of an ever existing potential Moshiach, the Rebbe explains:
“The Halacha is that when the Jews do teshuva, Moshiach will arrive immediately (“miyad”). The ability to do teshuva is not limited to any time, rather every Jew has the possibility of doing teshuva at any given moment, even the very first moment after the churban, as evident from the verse, ‘[Although] I sleep — in exile, — my heart [is always] awake — to return to Hashem.’”
“Logically this warrants that Moshiach must stand by ready from the moment the exile began for the possibility of him being called to fulfill his mission.
“Furthermore, we are required to believe that Moshiach can arrive any day; this too leads us to conclude that a human being worthy of being Moshiach must exist at all times.”
– Likutei Sichos vol. 29 p. 14
This logical approach leaves us with a puzzling question: If the reason Hashem prepares a potential Moshiach is to be ready at any given moment to redeem the Jews if they are worthy, what about when Menachem was born? Who was the potential redeemer then? It would have to take a good number of years for baby Menachem to grow mature enough for redeeming the Jewish nation!
In the Rebbe’s words:
“How can it be said that Moshiach’s arrival and future redemption were able to occur the moment after the churban – while the “redeemer of the Jews” was just a newborn baby?!
“The explanation: Kabbalah teaches that Moshiach symbolizes the “general Yechida of the Jewish people” which is beyond all limitations – including any limitation of time and space…
“…For example: It is brought down in the Midrash that in the beginning of creation, before the sin of “the tree of knowledge,” the heavenly bodies would travel swiftly, this implies that people too, matured very quickly. As it says elsewhere in the Midrash that when a child was born his mother would send him to go bring a knife to cut the umbilical cord.
“How much more so would this apply to the way the world will be conducted at the future Redemption – when the world will reach an even greater level of perfection than there was at the time of creation before the sin…
“…It is thus understood that if at the beginning of creation a child was able to [walk to] go get something, how much more so at the time of the Redemption, and therefore the future Redemption could have come also when the redeemer was but a day-old infant!”
– Hisva’aduyos 5742, vol. 3 p. 1286 pp. 1286-1289
A Metaphorical Approach:
A third approach sees this as a strictly metaphorical legend which never actually took place.
Abarbanel writes as follows:
“The early Sages would talk metaphorically… [what they mean with this tale is to teach] that at the very moment the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed for the sins of the Jewish people, Hashem decreed that he would return to rejoice with His people and bring them his righteous Moshiach to redeem them and avenge [their foes]… Regarding this decree and G-dly plan our Sages said that Moshiach was born at the time of the churban; it does not mean that he was actually born, rather that it came up in Hashem’s thought to make him born at the time of the Geula.”
– Yeshuos Meshicho, Iyun 2 Chapter 1
Maharal of Prague writes along the same lines:
“This birth of Moshiach doesn’t refer to a literal one like any other birth, the sages don’t speak of literal, physical occurrences [in Aggadaic literature] rather in a metaphysical form. What they refer to with “Moshiach’s birth” is that the essential power of Moshiach entered the world; this is since before the destruction of the Mikdash it was not at all possible for Moshiach to arrive in the world, because a complete [and existing] entity cannot come into existence. Only when the Mikdash was destroyed, a new power came to the world, one that previously didn’t exist, so there is now a lacking which is a prerequisite to existence.”
– Netzach Yisrael, Chapter 26
A Combined Approach:
The Rebbe takes a unique approach, which incorporates both of the above approaches, forming a beautiful tapestry. The Rebbe addresses the tale several times in his writings, offering different explanations which even appear to sometimes be contradictory. On one hand, the Rebbe takes it literally, and therefore, as mentioned, seeks an explanation about how it is possible for a day-old child to be Moshiach. In other writings however the Rebbe sees it as a metaphor that was embodied in a literal event, albeit not precisely as described:
“It is more rational to say that when the Midrash says that ‘the redeemer of the Jews was born,’ it is not referring to his physical birth, for then he cannot actually be ‘the redeemer of the Jews,’ rather it is referring to his revelation (which resembles actual birth), so that he is all ready to redeem the Jewish people in actuality.”
The Rebbe then references the cited Maharal’s Netzach Yisrael and the Abarbanel’s Yeshuos Meshicho implying acceptance of their approach yet incorporating it into an event that did transpire literally:
A fully grown man (not a baby) was endowed at the moment of the churban with a power of redemption previously non-existent in our world (similar to the Abarbanel’s explanation that Hashem thought about redeeming the Jews at the time of the churban) and thus, as soon as the churban happened, the Geula became an event that can be brought into actuality (as the Maharal explains).
This approach also strengthens that which is implied in many sources, that the potential Moshiach of each generation isn’t a mysterious unknown man, rather a recognized Jewish leader, as the Rebbe put it, “The leader of the generation is the Moshiach of the generation.”
The source for this being the Talmud’s statement describing Rebbi Yehuda HaNasi — undoubtedly a known figure in Jewish life of the time — as being a possible Moshiach.
Understanding our tale from the Midrash (and similar ones) in a literal way indicates quite clearly however that Moshiach is an unknown figure in some form of hiding — whether a young child or a nondescript pauper standing at the entrance gate of Rome!
If we take the said approach, no contradictions exist: these details imply not that he is unknown, rather that his redemptive powers are unknown and are yet to be exposed when the time is right. All the descriptive details in the tale describe not the physical dimension of the Moshiach, rather his qualities:
The child’s name (Menachem) corresponds to his task and power to comfort the Jews from the pains of exile.
The region of his hometown (Bethlehem of Judea) refers to his origins from the Davidic dynasty which began in that city.
His hometown (Birat Arva – capital of Arabia) points to the fact that he will subdue the kingdom of Yishmael.
His disappearance may be referring to the concealment period that Moshiach may need to undergo after his initial revelation.
To end on a personal note:
The study of this most outstanding and unique Midrash came as part of my writing of “The Boy in Purple” — a dramatized version of this Midrash. As a Lubavitcher Chassid living in a generation the Rebbe called “the last of exile and the first of redemption,” the tale — particularly its final part, when the redeemer disappears — is painfully familiar, heartbreaking, and comforting all at once.
The Rebbe, in his first ma’amar of Basi L’Gani, revealed a sub-story in the Midrash’s description of seven generations from Avraham to Moshe, and introduced a repeat of this seven-generation process ending with ours.
I see the same thing too in this Tisha B’Av Midrash:
Using the Chasam Sofer’s words, “On the very day that the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, one was born who by virtue of his righteousness is fit to be the redeemer. At the proper time, Hashem will reveal Himself to him and send him,” the Rebbe told us that the proper time has come, and we were able to observe for the first time in history how the lost Moshiach returns from the abyss in the image of a Rebbe who has fulfilled the halachic requirements of “b’chezkas Moshiach.”
And then, a repeat: A Moshiach who just became known to us, disappears again.
What the Midrash can teach us is that concealment isn’t the curtain coming down; it’s an invitation for us to go backstage. Moshiach will not descend to our world; he will lift us up to his.
To me, Gimmel Tammuz is the Rebbe’s way to tell us that connecting to the Rebbe inside of us is of paramount importance now. Making the Rebbe outside of us unavailable, forces us to look for him inside. Yemos HaMoshiach means that we stop expecting the Rebbe to come back to our “times,” instead we enter his “times” — the days of Moshiach by “living with Moshiach” in the way the Rebbe showed us.
Although “Menachem, the comforter of my soul, has grown far from me,” I firmly believe that he will be far no more; but Megilas Eicha doesn’t say he will come to us to be close once again; there is another way – we come to him.