What do the Rabbis say about Isaiah 53?
Who is Isaiah 53 speaking about? Our ancient commentators with one accord noted that the context clearly speaks of God’s Anointed One, the Messiah.
Rambam (Maimonides) in a letter to Yemen (12th c.) wrote
What is to be the manner of Messiah’s advent, and where will be the place of his appearance? . . . And Isaiah speaks similarly of the time when he will appear, without his father or mother of family being known, He came up as a sucker before him, and as a root out of the dry earth, etc. But the unique phenomenon attending his manifestation is, that all the kings of the earth will be thrown into terror at the fame of him — their kingdoms will be in consternation, and they themselves will be devising whether to oppose him with arms, or to adopt some different course, confessing, in fact, their inability to contend with him or ignore his presence, and so confounded at the wonders which they will see him work, that they will lay their hands upon their mouth; in the words of Isaiah, when describing the manner in which the kings will hearken to him, At him kings will shut their mouth; for that which had not been told them have they seen, and that which they had not heard they have perceived.
The Aramaic translation of Isaiah 53, ascribed to Rabbi Jonathan ben Uzziel, a disciple of Hillel, begins with the simple and worthy words:
Behold my servant Messiah shall prosper; he shall be high, and increase, and be exceeding strong: as the house of Israel looked to him through many days, because their countenance was darkened among the peoples, and their complexion beyond the sons of men. (Targum Jonathan on Isaiah 53, ad Iocum)
We find the same interpretation in the Babylonian Talmud:
The Messiah — what is his name?…The Rabbis say, the leprous one; those of the house of Rabbi say, the sick one, as it is said, “Surely he hath borne our sicknesses.” (Sanhedrin 98b)
In Mysteries of Rabbi Shim’on ben Yohai (midrash) we find:
And Armilaus will join battle with Messiah, the son of Ephraim, in the East gate . . .; and Messiah, the son of Ephraim, will die there, and Israel will mourn for him. And afterwards 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 non other Messiah to stand up (after him): 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.”
Even the Zohar II, 212a (medieval) states
There is in the Garden of Eden a palace named the Palace of the Sons of Sickness. This palace the Messiah enters, and He summons every pain and every chastisement of Israel. All of these come and rest upon Him. And had He not thus lightened them upon Himself, there had been no man able to bear Israel’s chastisements for the transgressions of the law; as it is written, “Surely our sicknesses he has carried.”
Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman) (13th c.) stated:
The right view respecting this Parashah is to suppose that by the phrase “my servant” the whole of Israel is meant. . . .As a different opinion, however, is adopted by the Midrash, which refers it to the Messiah, it is necessary for us to explain it in conformity with the view there maintained. The prophet says, The Messiah, the son of David of whom the text speaks, will never be conquered or perish by the hands of his enemies. And, in fact the text teaches this clearly. . . .
And by his stripes we were healed — because the stripes by which he is vexed and distressed will heal us; God will pardon us for his righteousness, and we shall be healed both from our own transgressions and from the iniquities of our fathers.
In the Midrash Rabbah, is an explanation of Ruth 2:14:
He is speaking of the King Messiah: “Come hither” draw near to the throne “and dip thy morsel in the vinegar,” this refers to the chastisements, as it is said, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities.”
In the Midrash Tanhuma, parasha Toldot, it says:
“Who art thou, O great mountain?” (Zechariah 4:7) This refers to the King Messiah. And why does he call him the “great mountain?” Because he is greater than the patriarchs, as it is said, “My servant shall be high, and lifted up, and lofty exceedingly.” He will be higher than Abraham who said, “I raise high my hand unto the Lord” (Gen. 14:22), lifted up above Moses, to whom it is said, “Lift it up into thy bosom” (Numbers 11:12), loftier than the ministering angels, of whom it is written, “Their wheels were lofty and terrible” (Ezekiel 1:18). And out of whom does he come forth? Out of David.
Yalkut ii: 571 (13th c.) says:
Who art thou, O great mountain (Zech. iv. 7.) This refers to the King Messiah. And why does he call him “the great mountain?” Because he is greater than the patriarchs, as it is said, “My servant shall be high, and lifted up, and lofty exceedingly” — he will be higher than Abraham, . . . lifted up above Moses, . . . loftier than the ministering angels.
Yalkut ii. 620 (13th c.), in regard to Psalm 2:6
I.e., I have drawn him out of the chastisements…The chastisements are divided into three parts: one for David and the fathers, one for our own generation, and one for the King Messiah; and this is that which is written, “He was wounded for our transgressions,” etc.
Rabbi Elijah de Vidas (16th c.) wrote:
Since the Messiah bears our iniquities which produce the effect of His being bruised, it follows that whoso will not admit that the Messiah thus suffers for our iniquities, must endure and suffer for them himself.
The musaf (additional) service for the Day of Atonement, Philips machzor (20th c.)
Our righteous anointed is departed from us: horror hath seized us, and we have non to justify us. He hath borne the yoke of our iniquities, and our transgression, and is wounded because of our transgression. He beareth our sins on his shoulder, that he may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by his wound, at the time that the Eternal will create him (the Messiah) as a new creature. O bring him up from the circle of the earth. Raise him up from Seir, to assemble us the second time on Mount Lebanon, by the hand of Yinnon.
Rabbi Moshe Kohen ibn Crispin, a 15th-century rabbi in Spain, explains:
“This passage, the commentators explain, speaks of the captivity of Israel, although the singular number is used in it throughout. Others have supposed it to mean the just in this present world, who are crushed and oppressed now… but these too, for the same reason, by altering the number, distort the verses from their natural meaning. And then it seemed to me that…having forsaken the knowledge of our Teachers, and inclined “after the stubbornness of their own hearts,” and of their own opinion, I am pleased to interpret it, in accordance with the teaching of our Rabbis, of the King Messiah.”
Rabbi Moshe Alsheikh, Rabbi of Safed, late 16th century, points out this fact saying:
I may remark, then, that our Rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the King Messiah.
Rabbi Sh’lomoh Astruc (14th c.)
My servant shall prosper, or be truly intelligent, because by intelligence man is really man — it is intelligence which makes a man what he is. And the prophet calls the King Messiah my servant, speaking as one who sent him. Or he may call the whole people my servant, as he says above my people (lii. 6): when he speaks of the people, the King Messiah is included in it; and when he speaks of the King Messiah, the people is comprehended with him. What he says then is, that my servant the King Messiah will prosper.
Much to the point is the commentary of the great Jewish educator, Herz Homberg (1749-1841), who says:
According to the opinion of Rashi and Ibn Ezra, it relates to Israel at the end of their captivity. But if so, what can be the meaning of the passage, “He was wounded for our transgressions”? Who was wounded? Who are the transgressors? Who carried out the sickness and bare the pain? The fact is that it refers to the King Messiah.
One of our greatest Jewish religious poets, Eliezer HaKalir, paraphrased this chapter in the 9th century into rhyme and metric poetry. It is recited in the Yom Kippur prayer of Kether:
Messiah, our righteousness, hath turned from us: we are in terror and there is none to justify us! Our Iniquities and the yoke of our transgressions He did bear for Hewas wounded for our transgressions: He carries our sins upon His shoulders, that we may find forgiveness for our iniquities and by His stripes we are healed. O eternal One the time is come to make a new creation: from the vault of heaven bring Him up, out of Seir draw Him forth, that He may make His voice heard to us in Lebanon, a second time by the hand of Yinnon.
Below are remarks from The Karaite Yefeth ben Ali (10th c.)
As to myself, I am inclined, with Benjamin of Nehawend, to regard it as alluding to the Messiah, and as opening with a description of his condition in exile, from the time of his birth to his accession to the throne: for the prophet begins by speaking of his being seated in a position of great honour, and then goes back to relate all that will happen to him during the captivity. He thus gives us to understand two things: In the first instance, that the Messiah will only reach his highest degree of honour after long and severe trials; and secondly, that these trials will be sent upon him as a kind of sign, so that, if he finds himself under the yoke of misfortunes whilst remaining pure in his actions, he may know that he is the desired one….
By the words “surely he hath carried our sicknesses,” they mean that the pains and sickness which he fell into were merited by them, but that he bore them instead. . . . And here I think it necessary to pause for a few moments, in order to explain why God caused these sicknesses to attach themselves to the Messiah for the sake of Israel. . . . The nation deserved from God greater punishment than that which actually came upon them, but not being strong enough to bear it. . . God appoints his servant to carry their sins, and by doing so lighten their punishment in order that Israel might not be completely exterminated.
“And the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all.” The prophet does not by avon mean iniquity, but punishment for iniquity, as in the passage, “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23).
Lekach Tov (11th c. midrash) says:
“And let his [Israel’s] kingdom be exalted,” in the days of the Messiah, of whom it is said, “Behold my servant shall prosper; he will be high and exalted, and lofty exceedingly.”
These are a few of the ancient interpretations attributing this chapter to the suffering and exalted Messiah.
Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1105) and some of the later rabbis, though, began to interpret the passage as referring to Israel. They knew that the older interpretations referred it to Messiah. However, Rashi lived at a time when a degenerate medieval distortion of Christianity was practiced. He wanted to preserve the Jewish people from accepting such a faith and, although his intentions were sincere, other prominent Jewish rabbis and leaders realized the inconsistencies of Rashi’s interpretation. They presented a threefold objection to his innovation. First, they showed the consensus of ancient opinion. Secondly, they pointed out that the text is in the singular. Thirdly, they noted verse eight. This verse presented an insurmountable difficulty to those who interpreted this passage as referring to Israel. It reads:
He was taken from prison and from judgment; and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgressions of my people was he stricken.
Were the Jewish people, God forbid, ever cut off out of the land of the living? No! In Jeremiah 31:35-37, God promised that we will exist forever. We are proud that Am Yisrael Chai–“The people of Israel are much alive.” Likewise, it is impossible to say that Israel suffered for the transgressions of “my people,” which clearly means Isaiah’s people. Surely Isaiah’s people are not the Gentiles, but the Jews.
The words of the prophet Isaiah are words of hope. We have a glorious future and an abundant present if we appropriate the salvation made possible by the One who “was wounded through our transgressions and bruised through our iniquities.”
Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high.
14 As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men:
15 So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider.
53:1 Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?
2 For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
8 He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
9 And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
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