Rabbi Moshe Al Sheich and Isaiah 53

Rabbi Moshe Al Sheich is one of the most commonly quoted (misquoted) Rabbis by the missionaries with regard to Isaiah 53. They actually know very little of what he wrote in his commentary except for a short half sentence I will quote below.

What is interesting is that those quoting him know less of who he was then of what he wrote[1]. The Al Sheich (or the Holy Al Sheich as he is sometimes called) was one of the most important Rabbis in Sefad in the 16th century and was among the group that surrounded the great Kabbalist Isaac Luria (the Holy Ari). In Sefad, the Ari was like the Rebbe, their spiritual leader. Rabbi Yosef Karo[2] was the Rabbi who decided questions of Jewish law. The Al Sheich was the Maggid who delivered sermons[3]. As we shall see the format and content of his commentary is very much like one of his sermons, and was in no way written to relate the literal meaning of the text.

*

The following quote is the one we find given by missionaries when they try to claim that the Al Sheich taught that Isaiah 53 was teaching about the Messiah:

Our Rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the Messiah, and we shall ourselves also adhere to the same view.[4]

This seems to close the argument here as to how he is going to explain Isaiah 53. It seems pretty categorical, and hard to claim that he does not teach that Isaiah is only about the Messiah. BUT, there is more to the story, which anyone who had actually taken the time to read the source in full would have known. Here is how the author continues[5]:

Our Rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the Messiah, and we shall ourselves also adhere to the same view: for the Messiah is of course David, who, as is well known, was ‘anointed’, and there is a verse in which the prophet, speaking in the name of the Lord, says expressly, ‘My servant David shall be king over them’[6]. The expression my servant, therefore, can be justly referred to David….[7] [Emphasis mine]

It seems there is more to this commentary[8] then the short quote of the missionaries would indicate. In fact, from this extended quote we see two things:
1. The missionaries quoting this are being less than honest when they quote this passage. Those who have the Driver/Neubauer book are guilty of distorting the meaning of the text.
2. The Al Sheich is not approaching this as a literal commentary, but as a non-literal sermon. We cannot use what he says, no matter how interesting it is, to draw conclusions as to what the Rabbis think Isaiah 53 means.

Another proof (if we need it) that he is abandoning the literal meaning is that he quotes a famous Midrash and gives an interesting explanation:

Our Rabbis say that of all the suffering which entered into the world, one third was for David and the fathers[9], one for the generation in exile[10], and one for the King Messiah[11].

This is similar to a Midrash in Midrash Tehillim that appears in a number of sources[12]. He then goes on to explain what the meaning of this text is and this will give us an insight into what he is going to try and explain here:

If we examine the meaning of this saying, we shall see that there are punishments for iniquity, and also punishments of love, the later being endured by the righteous for the wickedness of his own generation. Now those who do not know how far the reward of the righteous really extends feel surprised at this… God declares in these verses (i.e. Isaiah 53) how far the merits of those who thus suffer for the sins of their own age extend their effects….[13]

From this we see a few things:
1. We are dealing with a commentary not based on the context and literal meaning, but based around some theological principle, like any other sermon would be.
2. We also see clearly that he understands the basic theme of Isaiah 53 as the suffering of the righteous and not about any specific person(s).

These are confirmed by an examination of the full text. He has divided the passage Isaiah 52:13-53:12 into three parts: 52:13-53:1; 53:2-8; and 53:9-12. I will now go through each and bring out the main points of each of the sections,

*

The above quotes appear in the beginning of his comments on verse 52:13 and provide an introduction to the first verse 52:13. Let’s continue and examine the commentary on the first verse. He starts off quoting from the famous Midrash Tanchuma dealing with the exalted status of the Messiah[14]. He follows this with a discussion as to how great the Messiah is[15].

The next verse, 52:14, is understood as telling us why the Messiah is exalted to such an extent, as he explains:

From what source, however, does he[16] merit all this[17]? Is it not because, ‘as many were astonished at thee (i.e. Israel) in the two desolations [of the Temple]…[18]

Here we see that part of the verse is understood as relating to the rejection of Israel and the effect of this. This is certainly an interesting twist as the Al Sheich has already mentioned that the Messiah does suffer together with the righteous, and that suffering appears to be the point of the first part. Here he is again showing the Midrashic nature of this commentary.

As I have previously mentioned in an article on the suffering of Moshiach ben Dovid, the soul of the Messiah suffers now in some spiritual world which according to the Zohar[19] has the same effect as the suffering of the righteous in this world. As part of the Kabbalistic community of Sefad, he would also maintain such a belief.

We then go to verse 52:15 where he explains that it is saying that the nations are surprised at the actions of the Messiah when he defeats them in battle, something they had never heard about. Obviously the victories and success of Israel under the Messiah at the end of times, does not fit with what the nations have expected.

Finally we see in verse 53:1 the following:

The sum of the whole is that he obtained this honor for himself owing to his merits in enduring for Israel (as has been said) chastisements of love[20].

This verse returns to the theme of the suffering of the Messiah. Except for a slight mention of Israel’s suffering, these four verses are about the Messiah and are used to explain the greatness of the Messiah.

*

The second part, 53:2-8 is explained as being about the suffering of the righteous (excluding the Messiah[21]) as he says:

From the fact of the rabbis expounding the previous verses of the Messiah, it may be seen that these speak of the righteous who endure in the present world the chastisements of love; and therefore I maintain that up to this point we have had the words of God announcing the greatness of the Messiah…[22]

True to his word he explains the verses with regards to the suffering of the righteous. In his discussion of verse 4 he specifically mentions Rabbi Eluzar the son of Rabbi Shimon and how his sufferings were those of love. This clearly shows that when he is explaining the suffering of the Messiah and that of the righteous he has in mind the Zohar:

“In Gan Eden (heaven) there is one hall; it is called the ‘hall of the sick’ (ill). When the Messiah goes into this hall, he calls all the sicknesses, all the pains, and all the sufferings of Israel that they should come upon him. If he wouldn’t take them off Israel and put them on himself no man would be able to bear the sufferings of Israel, as it say ‘our sicknesses he bore'[23]. And just like that is Rabbi Eluzar in the Land…[24]

Here we see the source and purpose of this second section, to explain the suffering of the righteous, like Rabbi Eluzar.

*

He expounds the final verses, applying them to Moshe. This is in accord with what we have seen in a previous article on Isaiah 53 and the Talmud and Midrashim. Here is what he says:

Our Rabbis, I see, have in two places expounded verse 12 of Moses our master… I think myself that properly these refer to him.[25]

There is no need to go into this at length. He seems to be simply following what appears in the Talmud and Midrash and expanding accordingly.

*

From the above it seems clear that he is explaining Isaiah 53, in the context of the Midrash dealing with suffering. He divides Isaiah 53 into three to correspond to the three divisions of the Midrash. The first part of the Midrash (David and the fathers) is 53:9-12 – Moshe. The second part (generation in exile) is 53:2-8 – the righteous of Israel. The third part (for the King Messiah) is 52:13-53:1 – the Messiah.

What we have learned from this analysis is this:

1. He does not explain all of Isaiah 53 as referring to the Messiah, only the first 4 verses. Even there the key issue is the exaltation of the Messiah, although he also mentions Israel’s rejection by the nations in verse 52:14.
2. He divides Isaiah in three parts to correspond to, and to explain the Midrash. None of these parts corresponds to any natural division of the text. Isaiah 53 is used to explain the Midrash and not the other way around.
3. He understands that Isaiah 53 as a whole is about how the righteous suffer ‘sufferings of love’ and not anything specific about or exclusive to the Messiah.
4. It is clearly false to claim that he says all of Isaiah 53 is about the messiah, or that he says it has anything to do with the death of the Messiah. Those who claim this have either not read the commentary completely or are lying.
5. It is a distortion of fact to claim that he explains Isaiah 53 as being about the Messiah as opposed to being about the righteous in general..
6. He seems to understand the suffering of the Messiah and the righteous in the context of the Zohar, which means that the suffering of the Messiah is not of a physical nature.

I think it is very clear that those who use this text as some type of support for the Christian doctrine of the suffering/death of the Messiah, or as a proof that a Rabbi contended Isaiah 53 was about the Messiah are distorting the facts.

© Moshe Shulman 2014 http://www.judaismsanswer.com
For more information, questions answered, or help with missionaries you can reach Moshe Shulman at [email protected]

[1] In general this is the case with any of the Rabbis or supposed Rabbis that we see quoted to support their views.
[2] He is the author of the Shulchan Aruch.
[3] There were also other great people there like Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz author of the prayer Lecha Dodi Rabbi Elazar Ezkari author of the moralistic work called ‘Hareidim’ and Rabbi Moshe Kordevero who was the spiritual leader before the Ari.
[4] This is found in volume 3 of Dr. Michael Brown’s answering Jewish Objections to Jesus page 49. It comes from Driver and Neubauer, ‘The Suffering Servant of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters page 258.
[5] I will be using the translation of Driver and Neubauer even though they make errors in the translation of the text.
[6] Ezekiel 37:24
[7] Driver Neubauer page 258
[8] It should be noted that this statement is said with regards to Isaiah 52:13, and from what we shall see, applies only to that verse/
[9] Abraham Isaac and Jacob and possibly in the context of what he says on verses 53:9-12 refers to Moses also.
[10] In Hebrew it says: the generation that has decrees against it. This can be a reference to the suffering of the righteous which is the theme of 53:2-9.
[11] Driver Neubauer page 259
[12] These are mentioned in my article on Isaiah 53 and the Talmud and Midrash. It should be noted that the version here does not agree with any of those in the sources, although the general idea is the same.
[13] Driver Neubauer page 259
[14] He explains this Midrash as I did in my article on Isaiah 53 and the Talmud and Midrash.
[15] He delves into some Kabbalistic ideas which I do not wish to discuss here as they don’t relate to the issue of who Isaiah 53 is about.
[16] The Messiah
[17] This exalted status.
[18] Driver Neubauer page 262
[19] We see this association with the Zohar in verse 53:4.
[20] Driver Neubauer page 263
[21] I once had a discussion with Dr Michael Brown on this issue, and after showing him what the Al Sheich really says he concurred.
[22] Driver Neubauer page 263-264
[23] Isaiah 53:4
[24] Zohar II 212a
[25] Driver Neubauer page 269-270

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