In this article I want to cover the views of the commentators from the time of Rashi on Isaiah 53. There have been literally dozens of commentaries written since his time, but very few are considered authoritative. For that reason I would like to explain how we should evaluate the works and how serious they are taken . Is there something about the Jewish Messiah?
With regard to authority there are two issues that need to be considered:
First is the type of work we are looking at. Is the work an actual commentary or is it a single verse being quoted in the middle of a discussion. Except for one example, all of the works I will discuss in this article are found in the work by Driver and Neubauer. In that work we find examples of both. In this article I will only deal with those entries that are real commentaries and not stray verses.
Commentaries obviously have more authority and tell us more since they were written to explain the passages. Rabbinic works are filled with stray verses being used with no concern as to their original context or conformity to the literal meaning, and as such would have no weight in our discussion as to what the Rabbis or Judaism contend is the meaning of Isaiah 53.
Besides that we need to consider the nature of the work itself. Some are parts of commentaries on the whole of Isaiah, and some were written more as polemics to counter Christian views on this chapter. While the later would indicate what Jews held, even though written in a polemical manner, it is important to know that they are polemical as they have a lesser claim to objectivity.
Finally, there are different styles of commentary. Some follow Rashi and deal with the text in a literal manner, while there are some that do not. Those that do not explain it according to the literal meaning are of little value in this discussion. One simple test is to ask if the ‘servant’ is always the same person throughout chapter 53. If not, then there is a strong reason to believe that it is not meant literally.
Clearly a selection written by as part of a general commentary on Isaiah, which is written to elucidate the literal meaning has the greatest authority. On the other end, a Midrashic non-literal commentary has the least authority.
The second issue is that of the author himself. Not all Rabbis are of equal weight  in Judaism, nor are all commentators. The view of a Rambam (Maimonides) has more weight than that of Rabbi Schwartz of small town USA. The Driver book is a mixed collection and even contains many commentaries from people who are not Orthodox at all and are therefore not authoritative for Judaism. In general we can give a hierarchy as to their acceptability.
The highest level are those whose works have been considered important enough to be placed in the work called Mikros Gadolos, which is a collection of commentaries on the Biblical text that is in common use with religious Jews. Also of importance are works authored by major Rabbinic authorities that were not included for various reasons. An example of the later would be the Abarbenal, whose commentary is not in the Mikros Gadolos, mostly because of its length, but whose commentaries on Tenach have been accepted universally by Jews.
Below that would be Rabbis whose works are known and can be found mentioned in works mentioning those Rabbis who were always considered significant. The two main works I looked at are Shem HaGadolim by the Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (Chida) and Sefer HaDoros. Anyone who was significant or wrote a book that was important is mentioned in one or both of those works.
Below that are obscure figures or unknown works, who we know little about. Driver in the Preface to his work mentions the sources and authors for all his entries. Many are impossible to know who they were as they were not widely accepted. Therefore we cannot say that what they say is authoritative.
Below that are the Karaite authors, or authors who were not Orthodox who have no authority in Rabbinic Judaism, and whose views carry no weight. For Orthodox Jews to look at them as authoritative is like looking at Karl Marx as an authority in Judaism.
I will be going through all the selections which appear in Driver and Neubauer and presenting them in order from highest authority to lowest . I will try to give a little information about each author (if we have any) in addition to what their view was.
I would like to first examine those Rabbis whose status and authority are indisputable within Jewish tradition and by Orthodox Jews today. When they say something, Orthodox Jews listen. I will first go through those who appear in the Mikros Gadolos and then to the other major Rabbis who wrote commentaries.
Commentaries within the Mikros Gadolos:
- Rabbi Yosef Kara : French exegete who lived at the time of Rashi or slightly before that. He authored a commentary on Nach. He explains Isaiah 53 as referring to Israel.
- Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra : 12th century Spanish Rabbi, author of a commentary on the Tenach and various works on grammar and other subjects. Ibn Ezra explains Isaiah 53 as referring to Israel.
- Rabbi David Kimchi : Also known as the RaDaK, lived in the 13th century and wrote an important commentary on the Tenach and works on grammar. Radak explains Isaiah 53 as referring to Israel.
- Rabbi Yechiel Hillel ben David : 18th century Rabbi and author of the commentaries on the Nach called Metzudos Dovid, and Metzudos Tzion. The former is an explanation of the text and the later deals with issues of grammar and word meaning. He explains Isaiah 53 as referring to Israel.
- Rabbi Meir Leibish Malbim : 19th century Rabbi who wrote a commentary on most of Nach. His commentaries include explanations of the words and their grammar and a simple commentary on the meaning of the text. He explains Isaiah 53 as referring to Israel.
Some may see a conspiracy here; with all these people following lockstep with Rashi, but that can be dispelled by looking at another prophecy which some Christians see as Messianic, Isaiah 42:1-4. Rashi says it refers to Israel as does Ibn Ezra, Rabbi Yosef Kara says it is about Cyrus, and the Radak, Metzudos and the Malbim say it is about Moshiach. These Rabbis did not follow Rashi like puppets. They carefully examined the text and when the literal meaning seemed different to what Rashi said, they were always ready to disagree. That they all agree is a sign that those who are the most learned when they search for the literal meaning can come to only one conclusion: Isaiah 53 is about Israel. We will see that this is the case with the other Rabbis we will examine.
Commentaries Not included in the Mikros Gadolos
Most of the major Rabbis attained that status for their writings on the Talmud or Jewish Law . There are very few major Rabbis with commentaries on Isaiah 53 that are not in the Mikros Gadolos.
- Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman : Rabbi from the 13th century known for his important commentaries on the Talmud and the Torah. He is called the RaMBaN by Jews and Nachmonides by the non-Jewish world. Except for his commentary on the book of Job, we have no commentary on any of the other books of Nach from him. I have written an article in more detail about this already. This passage is a polemical answer, and not a commentary. This commentary was written because in his debate with apostate Pablo Christiani he was challenged with the Midrash Tanchuma that applied Isaiah 52:13 to the Messiah. This was supposed to be a proof that Isaiah 53 was about the Messiah. The Ramban stated that Isaiah 53 was about Israel, but that he could explain it according to the Midrash, and that it does not support the idea that the Messiah dies as the Christians contend. The selection in Driver is that explanation which he subsequently wrote.
- Don Yitzchok Abarbanel : 15th/16th century commentator and political figure in the court of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. He was the author of commentaries on Tenach which have achieved wide acceptance. His commentary on Isaiah 53 starts off polemical and follows the view that it applies to Israel, although he mentions King Josiah as an alternative.
- Rabbi Moshe Al Sheich: 16th century Rabbi from Sefad. I have an article explaining his view where I have shown that his commentary is more of a Midrashic sermon. He explains Isaiah 53 based on a Midrash that refers to the suffering of the righteous.
An examination of these Rabbis shows that we have 8, but only 6 of them can legitimately be called literal commentaries. The other two are Midrashic. The Ramban has a polemical commentary to show that if one takes the Midrashic view that it is the Messiah, it still does not support the Christian view . The final one, by the Al Sheich, is a sermon/Midrashic commentary and is about the suffering of the righteous based on a Midrash that talks about suffering.
MINOR RABBINIC FIGURES:
These minor Rabbis are those mentioned in Driver who I have found mentioned in Orthodox sources of Rabbis like Shem HaGadolim of the Chida or Seder HaDoros. Usually the entry for these Rabbis was about their books alone, although sometimes there is biographical information about these Rabbis in these works. Many of the works were polemical:
- Rabbi Jacob bar Reuben : This is taken from his important polemical work called Wars of the Lord, written in 1170. This work had a lot of influence in later generations when Jews were forced into debates with Christians. This was written against a Christian opponent to defend Judaism. He argues that Isaiah 53 does not apply to Jesus, but that it refers to Israel.
- Rabbi Yeshaya m’Trani : 13th century Rabbi. This is from his commentary on Isaiah where he says Isaiah 53 is about Israel.
- Nizzahon Vetus : According to Dr. David Berger  this is a collection of Polemic arguments from Ashkenaz  dating from the 12th and 13th century. They were collected for use in the forced debates. It argues that Isaiah 53 is about Israel.
- Rabbi Shem Tov ibn Shaprut: 14th century Spanish talmud scholar and philosopher. He, like many other Rabbis in Spain was involved in debates with Christians . This comes from a work written about them. He explains how it applies to Israel.
- Rabbi Moshe Cohen of Tordesilla : 14th century Spanish Rabbi and author of the work Ezer Emunah (Aid to the Faith) which defends Judaism against Christian attacks. It is based on a number of debates he was involved in. He applies this passage to Israel.
- Rabbi Shlomo Astruc : 14th century Spanish rabbi and author of Midrashai HaTorah. Sometimes he is called En Shlomo Astruc. According to the Chida ‘En’ was a title for a great person. His commentary is complex: 52:13 is about the Messiah; 52:14 Israel; 52:15 both, the rest is about Israel’s suffering.
- Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Muhlhausen : 15th century Rabbi. This entry comes from his work Nizzahon which defends Judaism against both Christians and Karaites. The commentary is polemical and contends Isaiah 53 is about Israel.
- Rabbi Avraham Farisol : 16th century Rabbi from Avignon. Author of a polemical work called Shield of Avraham which is a debate with Christians. He explains this passage as a reference to Israel.
- Rabbi Meir Aramah : Wrote a commentary in Isaiah called Urim v’Tummim. This chapter is explained with regards to Israel in exile.
- Rabbi Samuel ben Avraham Laniado : 16th century Rabbi from Aleppo. After a discussion of the various views of different commentators he explains it as describing the suffering of the righteous. He seems to be strongly influenced by the Al Sheich on this as he refers to the same Midrash that the Al Sheich uses in his commentary and explains it in a similar manner.
- Rabbi Naftali ben Asher Altshuler : Early 17th Century Rabbi who authored a commentary on Nevuim and Kesuvim. His commentary on Isaiah 53 is the most complex and confusing one I have seen with various verses applied to the Messiah ben David, Messiah ben Yosef and others to Israel: 52:13 Messiah ben David; 52:14 Israel; 52:15 Messiah ben David; 53:1-2 Israel; 53:3 Messiah ben David and Israel; 53:4-8 Messiah ben Yosef; 53:9 Israel or Messiah ben Yosef; 53:10 Israel (unclear); 53:11-12 Messiah ben David
- Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac de Marini : Rabbi in Padua in the end of the 17th century. He authored a work called Tikkun Olam on Isaiah. He explains it with regards to Israel.
- Rabbi Menasha ben Yisroel : 17th century Rabbi from Amsterdam. He was the author of many works and had his own printing press. This entry is a polemical text where he answers questions about the Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 53 as being Israel.
Of the 13 works mentioned here a full 7 are polemical ones, all of which follow the view that it applies to Israel. Of the others 4 are literal commentaries which also follow the view that the suffering servant is Israel. One of those does associate 52:13, 15 with the Messiah. The last two are Midrashic commentaries, one like the Al Sheich is about the righteous, the other is all over the place with some verses about Israel and others about the Messiah the son of David and others the Messiah the son of Joseph.
In these two sections on the well known Rabbis we see that when they are literal commentaries on Isaiah 53, they support the idea that the suffering servant is Israel.
OBSCURE JEWISH SOURCES:
The Rabbis here are mentioned in Driver, but I could not find any information on them in Orthodox sources, and in some cases in no sources outside of Driver’s Preface.
- Judah ben Balaam : 11th century grammarian and poet. It is speculated he wrote a commentary on the whole Tenach. His commentary delves deeply into the grammar of the chapter. He indicates that it is talking about Jeremiah.
- Eliezer of Beaugenci : French Scholar who also wrote a commentary on Ezekiel and other books. Isaiah 53 is understood in a similar manner as Saadiah Gaon, as he applies it to the prophets.
- Tanchum of Jerusalem : 13th century figure. His commentary is on the grammar, and indicates he sees it as an individual, but there is no identity as to who he means.
- Yosef ben Nathan : 13th century Rabbi from Sens; this has a polemical introduction followed by an explanation showing how it applies to Israel.
- Rabbi Yitzchok Eli Kohen : Early 14th century figure, applies Isaiah 53 to Israel.
- Rabbi David de Rocca Martini : Author of Zechus Adam of unknown date. He explains it as being about Israel.
- Rabbi Saadiah ibn Danan : 15th century Rabbi in Grenada and later Oran. He has an interesting commentary where he explains it as being about King Hezekiah.
- Rabbi Solomon ben Melekh : Author of a Bible commentary called Machlol Yofi. Primarily a commentary on the grammar of the passage, he does mention in one place that the suffering is Israel’s.
- Gershom ben Nathan : 16th century figure. Subject is Israel.
- Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac Levi : 17th century Rabbi from Salonica. This is similar in construction to the commentary of the Al Sheich. 52:13-15 is about the Messiah. From 53:1-12 he talks about Israel (especially 1-2) and also the righteous. He also mentions Moses in verse 12.
- Rabbi Avraham the Proselyte : The entry is from a 17th century Spanish text. Nothing is known of the author. This is a very polemical piece. He spends most of the time showing it is not about Jesus, and then he states that it is about Israel, but does not develop an argument for that position.
- Avraham ben Judah Hazan : Late 16th century Hazan who authored a commentary on the Nevuim and Kesuvim. Isaiah 52:13 he sees as referring to the righteous and the Messiah, and the rest of Isaiah 53 is Israel.
- Rabbi Isaac Lopez : Rabbi in Aleppo in the late 17th early 18th century. It is a highly polemical work. It starts with his answering the Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53, and then he goes on to explain that it is about Israel.
- Rabbi Joshua Segre : Late 18th century author of a polemical work called ‘Ashem Toli’. This entry is highly polemical. He starts with an answer to the Christian view of Isaiah 53, and then he explains it as being about Israel except for verses 52:13 and 15 which he applies to the Messiah.
- Rabbi Joseph Passini : Rabbi in Rome in the mid 19th century. He applies it to King Hezekiah.
For these obscure figures there is more variety. Eight of them see the subject as being Israel alone, four of which are polemical works. Two more see the first verses about the Messiah and the rest Israel. Of the rest one we don’t know who the author means, two are about Hezekiah, one about Jeremiah and one about all the prophets.
From here we do not see any support for the Christian claims.
These are sources that Driver found in manuscript form. None of them say who the author is.
- Anonymous Arabic Translation : Part of an Arabic commentary on Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the Minor Prophets. Isaiah 52:13 is applied to the Messiah, the rest to Israel or the righteous of Israel.
- Anonymous : Manuscript that must be from at least the 16th century as it mentions Abarbenal. He follows explicitly Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Radak and Abarbenal and explains it as being about Israel.
- Anonymous – Fuente Claro : Spanish manuscript of unknown date which explains that Isaiah 53 is about Israel.
- All three are in line with the view that Isaiah 53 applies to the Israel. One applies 52:13 to the Messiah, and the rest to Israel/the righteous.
KARAITES and NON-ORTHODOX:
The following sources are by ‘non-Orthodox’ authors including Karaites. They have no authority but are of some interest. They include three sources often quoted by missionaries, erroneously, as being authoritative for Jews. One is a Karaite and the other two are non-Orthodox Jews.
- Yaphet ben Ali: Karaite contemporary of Saadiah Gaon (early10th century). He gives it a Messianic interpretation. Interestingly he mentions Saadiah Gaon’s view that it applies to all the prophets and specifically Jeremiah . He also mentions that other Karaites apply it to the righteous.
- Jacob ben Reuben : 12th century Karaite. Isaiah 53 is applied to the ‘wise’ (i.e. the righteous).
- Aaron Ben Yosef the Elder : Karaite author of Mivchor Yashirim. He applies Isaiah 53 to the ‘wise’ (i.e. the righteous).
- Moshe Ibn Crispin : As I wrote in my article on Ibn Crispin he was a philosopher who was ‘outside’ of the mainstream Orthodoxy of his time. He actually attacks the Rabbis in a very disrespectful manner in this entry. He interprets it with respect to the Messiah.
- Isaac Troki : 16th century Karaite scholar who wrote the classic apologetic work, Faith Strengthened. He explains Isaiah 53 as referring to Israel.
- Herz Homberg : Late 18th early 19th century Austrian educator. He was a ‘Reformer’ at the forefront of a movement that attempted to interfere with and shut down the Orthodox yeshiva system in Galicia in Austria. He attacks Rashi and other great Rabbis and interprets it as being about the Messiah.
- Samuel David Luzzato : 19th century Italian secular scholar and poet. He applies it to Israel in exile.
By reviewing what we have seen above we can come to a few simple conclusions.
- There is no support for the idea that there are Rabbis of any significance who see the literal meaning of Isaiah 53 as being about Israel.
- If we examine the views here we see overwhelmingly that the suffering servant is seen as Israel in the commentaries that are literal in nature.
- We also see that some sources do follow the Targum/Tanchuma and apply 52:13 to the Messiah. (And sometimes a few more verses also.) But the rest and especially the suffering is about Israel.
- There are a few cases where the righteous are considered the servant, which is an alternative to Israel.
- We see only three Rabbis of any significance that do not agree that the suffering servant is only Israel. But none of them are literal commentaries.
- There is more variation in the writings of the more obscure figures and the non-Orthodox.
- The sources missionaries quote from to support their view are either distorted, or from sources that are non-Orthodox.
: It would seem clear that just as no one would consider taking what Karl Marx says as authoritative with regards to Judaism, likewise views of non-religious or non-‘Orthodox’ Jews should not. Likewise, the views of a Rabbi who was recognized as an authority but a large part of the Jewish people needs to be taken more seriously than an obscure Rabbi who was not taken seriously by his generation or later. That is the basic purpose of this evaluation.
: The Suffering Servant of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters. First published by KTAV under the name of ‘The Fifty Third chapter of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters’ and republished by Wipf and Stock Publishers in 1999. This commentary by the Malbim is actually mentioned in the Preface, and they rejected using it.
: The others will be covered in another article that will explain them alone.
: This is not just the case with commentaries, but also in Jewish legal works.
: There is one selection that does not appear in Driver, the Malbim, because he came after they wrote their book. He is included because he is often found in the Mikros Gadolos.
: Driver XI page 41.
: Driver XII page 43
: Driver XIII page 49
: Driver XLVII page 367
: Driver on page xx of his Preface states specifically that he rejected using the commentary of the Malbim because it was ‘philosophical’. That is incorrect. The Malbim has been added to many of the more modern versions of the Mikros Gadolos because his language is very clear and easy to understand.
: The Rambam, Maimonides, is a good example. He wrote no commentary on any book of the Tenach.
: Driver XX page 78.
: Driver XXIX page 153
: It should be noted that many times in his debate he showed that Midrashim quoted by his opponent did not support the view he was taking. This needs to be looked at in the same manner.
: Driver XIV page 57
: Driver XIX page 75
: Driver XXII page 90
: The Jewish Christian Debate in the High Middle Ages page 17
: Germany/France as opposed to Sefard which would be Spain and North Africa.
: Driver XXIII page 99
: He is the Shem Tov of the famous Shem Tov Hebrew Matthew which he had for his disputations.
: Driver XXIV page 115
: Driver XXV page 129
: Driver XXVIII page 147
: Driver XXXIII page 221
: Driver XXXV page 240
: Driver XL page 295
: Driver XLIII page 318
: Driver XLIV page 324
: Driver page 436
: Driver LII page 550
: Driver XVII page 66
: Driver LIII page 553
: Driver XVIII page 71
: Driver XXVI page137
: Driver XXX page 198
: Driver XXXI page 202
: Driver XXXII page 217
: Driver LV page 561
: Driver XXXVIII page 275
: Driver XXXIX page 290
: Driver XLII page 314
: Driver XLV page 340
: Driver XLVII page 355
: Driver XLIX page 406
: Driver XVI page 64
: Driver XXXIV page 229
: Driver LI pager 429
: Driver VI page 19
: See my article on Saadiah Gaon.
: Driver XV page 61
: Driver XXI page 86
: Driver XXIVa page 115
: Driver XXXVI page 243
: Driver XLVIII page 400
: Driver L page 412
Related Content: For a clear explanation of the Jewish Messiah, check out this article