Messiah in the Jewish Liturgy
It is important for our Jewish friends and relatives to realize that concern with the coming of the Messiah is not a Jewish-Christian fixation” of some kind. On the contrary, the coming of the Messiah used to be—and still ought to be—the central theme of our Jewish faith and expectation.
Thus, the Jewish sage Maimonides (1135-1204 A. D.), seeking to epitomize the Jewish faith in his Thirteen Principles1 stated, “I firmly believe in the coming of the Messiah; and though he may tarry, I daily wait for his coming.”
Although the centrality of faith in the Messiah/Redeemer may be demonstrated from many Jewish liturgical sources, the following quotations may be considered representative. Scripture passages upon which these prayers are based are indicated in parentheses. All quotations are from the Daily Prayer Book.2
From the Amidah (Shemoneh Esreh) of the regular daily service:
Blessed art thou, Lord our God and God of our fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob; great, mighty and revered God, sublime God, who bestowest lovingkindness, and art Master of all things; who rememberest the good deeds of our fathers, and who wilt graciously bring a redeemer to their children’s children for the sake of thy name.
O King, Supporter, Savior and Shield! Blessed art thou, O Lord, Shield of Abraham.
Thou, O Lord, art mighty forever; thou revivest the dead; thou art powerful to save.
Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned; pardon us, our King, for we have transgressed; for thou dost pardon and forgive.
Look upon our affliction…redeem us speedily for thy name’s sake, for thou art a mighty Redeemer.
Sound the great Shofar for our freedom; lift up the banner to bring our exiles together, and assemble us from the four corners of the earth. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who gatherest the dispersed of thy people Israel. (Cf. Isaiah 11:12; 27:13; 43:5; 49:12; and Zechariah 8:7; 9:14.)
Return in mercy to thy city Jerusalem and dwell in it, as thou hast promised; rebuild it soon, in our days, as an everlasting structure, and speedily establish in it the throne of David. Blessed art thou, O Lord, Builder of Jerusalem.
Speedily cause the offspring of thy servant David to flourish, and let his glory be exalted with thy help, for we hope for thy deliverance all day. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who causest salvation to flourish.
Be pleased, Lord our God, with thy people Israel and with their prayer; restore the worship of thy most holy sanctuary; accept Israel’s offerings and prayer with gracious love. May the worship of thy people Israel be ever pleasing to thee.
From the Amidah of the New Moon Service:
Our God and God of our fathers, may the remembrance of us…of Messiah the son of David thy servant, of Jerusalem thy holy city, and of all thy people the house of Israel, ascend and come and be accepted before thee.…
From the Morning Service for Rosh Hashanah:
Now O Lord, grant honor to thy people, glory to those who revere thee, hope to those who seek thee, free speech to those who yearn for thee, joy to thy land and gladness to thy city, rising strength to David thy servant, a shining light to the son of Jesse, thy chosen one, speedily and in our days.
If then the messianic idea was once so prominent in Jewish liturgy and thought, what happened? Why is it that so few of our Jewish people today have any kind of meaningful faith in a commitment to the coming of the Messiah? I would submit the following three reasons:
Lack of knowledge concerning the Scriptures and the traditional liturgy: Even those Jewish people who attend synagogue regularly either hear the liturgy and recite it in a language they do not understand, or use a watered-down modern version of the liturgy which largely omits statements concerning the coming of the Messiah. It is a great tragedy that not one Jewish person in a thousand has extensive knowledge of, or commitment to, the Hebrew Scriptures.
The humanistic circle (author’s term): Under the influence of Reform Judaism and religious pluralism, Jewish liturgy has accommodated itself for some time to the thoughts, ideas and preferences of “the average Jew.” This amounts to the dilution of scriptural ideas in the liturgy to accommodate the congregants’ low level of knowledge and faith. In turn, the diluted liturgy works to perpetuate the low level of knowledge and belief vis a vis the Scriptures.
A desire for universalism and pluralism: Since the beginnings of the Reform Movement in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there has been an attempt on the part of Jewish leaders to eliminate from the liturgy those aspects of the Jewish faith that would serve to underscore the separate identity and aspirations of the Jewish people.
In the 19th century there arose an intoxicated optimism that the Jewish people would at last gain the respect and equality they desired in Europe if only they would demonstrate their willingness to “be like everyone else.” This idea resulted in such changes as the omission of references to a Jewish national homeland (then but a hope) and to a Messiah who would come as the fulfillment of God’s promises to the Jewish people. Although modern Reform Judaism has somewhat modified this reactionary accommodationism, the effects of that mentality continue to make themselves felt in the Reform synagogue liturgy. As a case in point, take any Reform siddur (prayer book) and try to find references to the Messiah. He’s not there!
What, then, should the response be to all of this? Certainly a return to a liturgy that is true to the Scriptures would be a step in the right direction. But ultimately, the liturgy is not enough. There is only one adequate touchstone for our faith and life. That is the Scriptures.
In Isaiah 8 and 9, the prophet considers three sources of guidance and truth, and rejects two out of the three:
We are not to follow the crowd: “Say ye not, A confederacy to all them to whom this people shall say, A confederacy; neither fear ye their fear, nor be afraid” (Isaiah 8:12).
We are not to seek occult advice: “And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto those who are mediums, and unto wizards that peep, and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God?…” (Isaiah 8:19).
We are to consult the Scriptures: “To the law and to the story; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20).
Of the three, Isaiah vehemently rejected the first two and passionately affirmed the third, that is, the Word of God. The Scriptures, and only the Scriptures, should be our basis of truth.
In Isaiah 9:1-7, we have God’s view of what ought to be central to our Jewish faith. The answer is simple, although it is one which many of my people have abandoned or ignored. The answer is the Messiah. He alone is the center of the Jewish hope and the center of the Jewish Scriptures, and he alone deserves to be the center of every person’s life, Jew or Gentile.
- Shlosha Asar Ikarim, also called the Ani Maamin, Principle 12.
- Translated and Annotated with an Introduction by Philip Birnbaum, Hebrew Publishing Company, New York, 1949.