The Zohar on Isaiah 53



CLAIM: The Zohar says that Isaiah 53 is about the Messiah.[1]


There seems to be a trend in Missionary literature to make appeals to things that are written in Kabbalistic works. The obvious reason is that there are few people who have any idea what appears in them, and what they mean. This makes it easy to make whatever claim the missionary wants to make. The Zohar has become an especial favorite because it’s obtuse and allegorical language makes it easy to take a sentence or two out of context, and make it appear to say whatever the missionary wants even if this claim contradicts what the Zohar says explicitly in other places.


According to Jewish tradition the author of the Zohar was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who lived in the 2nd Century CE.[2] The Zohar is made up of various books. We can talk about them as if they were only three. (Although there is more then that.) The First is the Holy Zohar itself. That is a three-volume Kabbalistic Midrashic commentary on the Torah. (First 5 books of the Tenach.) It has a few sub-divisions in it, some more esoteric then others. Some appear no different then a standard Midrash, but most of it is esoteric in nature. The second book is called Tekunei HaZohar. (The Rectifications of the Zohar.) This is VERY esoteric and involves Kabbalistic discussions and understandings of many of the Biblical commandments. It is based on discussions of the first word in the Torah. It has 70 chapters, or Tikkunim, of varied length, followed by a few additions in the back. The third section is called the Zohar Chadash. It is like the Zohar, but smaller. It also has Midrashic material on 3 of the 5 Magillas (Ruth, Song of Songs, Lamentations) and it’s own Tikkunim.


Within this collection of around 1000 pages there are a few passages where verses from Isaiah 53 are mentioned. Who is referred to at the time is not always the same. What I will do is bring all the references that, for some obvious reasons, are NOT mentioned by the missionaries, and then we can discuss the one that is mentioned.


In discussion of Kabbalistic concepts we have 4 references in Isaiah:

  1. 52:13 in Zohar Volume III 246b.
  2. 53:1 in Tekunei HaZohar page 28a; Zohar Volume I 253a.
  3. 53:5 in Zohar Chadash page 91a
  4. 53:7 in Zohar Volume I 137b.


Verse 53:10 is applied to the soul in the Zohar Volume II page 168a.


There are numerous individuals that the Zohar applies Isaiah 53 to:

  1. 52:13-14 is applied to the Angel Metatron in Zohar Volume I 182a.
  2. 53:5 is applied to Elijah the prophet in Zohar Volume II 115b.
  3. 53:5 is applied to Moshiach ben Yosef in Zohar Volume III 276b.


Then we have the following eight references to Moses:

  1. 52:13 in Zohar Volume III page 153b.
  2. 52:13, 53:2,5 in Zohar Volume III 280a.
  3. 53:1 in Tekunei HaZohar page 43a.
  4. 53:5 in Tekunei HaZohar page 54b and 112a.
  5. 53:5,9 in Zohar Volume III 125b.
  6. 53:5,6,9 in Zohar Volume III 282b.
  7. 53:12 in Zohar Chadash page 15a


There one reference to Israel based on Isaiah 53:7 in Zohar Volume II 29b.


There are 7 references to the Righteous of Israel:


  1. 52:13 in Zohar Volume I 181a.
  2. 53:5 in Zohar Volume III 218a, 231a, 247b
  3. 53:10 in Zohar Volume I 140a; Volume II 244b; Volume III 57b


To summarize: Five of the occurrences deal with Kabbalistic subjects and do not refer to people at all. The most common subject of Isaiah 53 in the Zohar is the righteous of Israel (7) and one more referring to Israel following the view of the Jewish commentators.  The next in order of occurrences is Moses (8).  The four of the other five occurrences are one each for the Messiah the son of Joseph (a descendant of Jeroboam the son of Nevat), the angel Metatron, Elijah the prophet and the soul. I think this alone shows that to make a claim that ‘the Zohar teaches that Isaiah 53 refers to X’ is just not true.


The fact is that this should be enough to end discussion on this issue. However, I wish to deal with that passage used by missionaries, and discuss what it is really about. It teaches us some very important theological issues, and gives us an understanding of many things that are found in other Rabbinic works.


The passage appears in the Zohar Volume II 212a and references the verses Isaiah 53:4,5.[3] This passage is quoted many times as a ‘proof’ that according to the Zohar the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is the Messiah. Let’s look at the English version that is most often used:[4]


“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."


Before discussing this passage we need to know that it is abridged, and much of the important context is lost because of that.[5] In order to fully understand this passage I need to explain another Rabbinic text that is also quoted to prove that the Rabbis agree that the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is the Messiah. This is the musaf prayer for Yom Kippur.[6] Here is the text as usually quoted:


“Our righteous anointed is departed from us: horror hath seized us, and we have none 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.”[7]


In order to understand this passage I need to give a little historical background.  The author of this payyut (religious poem) is Rabbi Eluzer HaKalir. He was a Kabbalist, and some believe he was the son of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, although others place him around the 9th century CE.  This above passage is only a small part of the payyut that is called 'Az MeLifnei Beraishis' (Then before the world was created). It is made up of four parts and is said in the middle of the Kedusha for the Musuf prayer of Yom Kippur in a number of Jewish communities.


Let me here translate the whole section in which that above passage appears:


Then before Creation;

The Holy Temple and Yanin were prepared;

An exalted place of prayer from the beginning;

was prepared before there was any people or language.


It was strong for the Shechina to rest there;

Unintentional sinners were shown the upright way;

The wicked whose sins that were red;

were washed and purified to be as they were before.


If He was angry with an anger causing fear;

Holy One do not bring all your anger;

Even if we have continued to steal until this time;

Our Rock will not bring a plague on us.


Our righteous Moshiach has been removed from us;

We are beaten and none is here to stand for our righteousness;

Our sins and the yoke of our rebellion are upon him;

He is wounded from our rebellion.


From the earth raise him,

From Seir rise up;

To gather us on Mount Lebanon,[8]

again by the hand of Yanin.


The simple meaning of this prayer is that we had a Holy Temple for atonement, and now we are in exile, and when Moshiach comes he shall return us to the Holy Temple. (Mount Lebanon) When looking at this passage in full it is somewhat difficult to see what the missionaries are trying to say. Certainly seeing this passage in the context of those before and after, it is hard to see the point they are making.


This payyut is based on the teaching in the Midrash Tanchuma parshas Nasa 11, page 506 in the standard Hebrew edition. There it says:

" 'Teach us, our Rabbi, how many things were created before the Creation of the world?' 'Thus taught our rabbis, "Seven things were created before the world was created. They are: (1) the throne of glory (2) the Torah (3) the Temple (4) the Patriarchs (Abraham Isaac and Jacob) (5) The people Israel (6) the name of the Messiah (7) repentance." '"

When we look at the payyut we see that each section of it mentions some of these things. The first part: The Torah and the Throne of Glory.  The second: The Patriarchs and Israel. The third: Messiah and the Temple. The fourth: repentance. The whole history of the Jewish people is woven into this Midrash.


I would like to point out a few things that are interesting and important in this Midrash and also in the payyut that come up in discussions about the beliefs of the rabbis. These relate directly to our understanding of what the meaning of this payyut is.


1.      These 7 things were considered necessary for the world to be able to exist, and achieve the purpose for which the world was created.

2.      Notice that in the Midrash only the NAME of the Messiah is preexistent not the Messiah himself (However with regards to the patriarchs, and Israel, they are considered preexistent.)

3.      In the Midrash the proof of this preexistent name is based on the rabbinic interpretation of Psalms 72:17 which literally says: "His name should last forever, may his name last as long as the sun", which they interpret as meaning "His name shall forever endure, before the sun (was made) Yanin was his name." As I have mentioned the Rabbis many times took verses out of context to teach spiritual lessons, this is an example of that. This in fact appears in the passage from the payyut.

4.      Each part of the payyut relates to part of the Kedusha prayer.

a.       The first part that talks of how G-d's glory fills the world and it is related to the Torah and the Throne of Glory that are examples of G-d's presence. 

b.      The second which deals with the proclaiming of G-d's oneness relates to the Patriarchs and Israel who sanctify G-d's name and proclaim his oneness.

c.       The third, which talks of how we shall be taken from exile, mentions the Temple and the Messiah. 

d.      The final portion proclaiming G-d's kingship is associated with repentance, which is to accept G-d as king and follow his commands.

5.      Repentance appears alone in the last section of the payyut. If you read that section you see that repentance is the most important of the seven things.

6.      Significantly, the third and fourth parts talk about sin, with the difference that the third discusses sin in relation to the exile and a return to the temple, while the fourth discusses it with regards to individual repentance. They are taken as separate issues.


With these points in mind let's consider one important principle that is taught in the Tenach, but is often missed. It is one that in Judaism has an important place in both theology and in our prayers. That is 'sin'. But not just simply sin, but the idea of communal sin. The concept of "we and our fathers have sinned'. (Jer. 3:25)  The concept of communal sin is that the community as a whole is responsible and punishable for the sins of members of the community, both now and in the past. This idea is seen most clearly in the book of Joshua where the people were punished for the sin of one person, Achan. There are numerous examples of this.


One principle is clear in the Tenach and that is: if a person sins he will be punished unless he repents of his sins. Let’s look at Ezekiel 3:

18 When I say unto the wicked: Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood will I require at thy hand.

19 Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.

20 Again, when a righteous man doth turn from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, I will lay a stumblingblock before him, he shall die; because thou hast not given him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteous deeds which he hath done shall not be remembered; but his blood will I require at thy hand.

21 Nevertheless if thou warn the righteous man, that the righteous sin not, and he doth not sin, he shall surely live, because he took warning; and thou hast delivered thy soul.’

Now 33:11-20:

11 Say unto them: As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel? 12 And thou, son of man, say unto the children of thy people: The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him in the day of his transgression; and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not stumble thereby in the day that he turneth from his wickedness; neither shall he that is righteous be able to live thereby in the day that he sinneth.

13 When I say to the righteous, that he shall surely live; if he trust to his righteousness, and commit iniquity, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered; but for his iniquity that he hath committed, for it shall he die.

14 Again, when I say unto the wicked: Thou shalt surely die; if he turn from his sin, and do that which is lawful and right;

15 if the wicked restore the pledge, give back that which he had taken by robbery, walk in the statutes of life, committing no iniquity; he shall surely live, he shall not die.

16 None of his sins that he hath committed shall be remembered against him; he hath done that which is lawful and right; he shall surely live.

17 Yet the children of thy people say: The way of the Lord is not equal; but as for them, their way is not equal.

18 When the righteous turneth from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, he shall even die thereby.

19 And when the wicked turneth from his wickedness, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall live thereby.

20 Yet ye say: The way of the Lord is not equal. O house of Israel, I will judge you every one after his ways.’

We see from these passages that the wicked die from their sins.  It is clear that this death is the cutting off of the soul, the spiritual death of Numbers 15:30-31.

30 But the soul that doeth aught with a high hand, whether he be home-born or a stranger, the same blasphemeth the LORD; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people.

31 Because he hath despised the word of the LORD, and hath broken His commandment; that soul shall utterly be cut off, his iniquity shall be upon him.

There is also a clear promise of punishments in THIS world for sins. This is found in many places in the Torah like Deut. 28:15-68. From this we see that sin has TWO aspects. There is a spiritual punishment in the future, and a punishment of suffering in this world. But these punishments are for different things. We shall see exile and punishment in this world is primarily for the sins of  the people, and the punishment for the world to come is ONLY for individual sins.


The question is: Can someone die or suffer in this world in order to bring atonement for the sinner so that the sinner will not suffer spiritual death, or any other Biblical punishment for the individual? The answer is no.  There is no example in the Tenach of a person sinning and another person either being punished for this individual's sin, or being able to accept the punishment and atoning for the person's sin. The Torah says clearly that 'a father shall not die for the sin of the son'.  This is even more clearly stated in

Ezekiel 18 where the prophet discusses this in depth and clearly states in G-d's name that the sins of fathers (and hence any other person) do not effect the son.


What about sacrifices?  Are they not an example of another (the animal) dying and the person being atoned for?  The answer is not really.  For the sacrifice to be valid the person had to confess, as it says in Lev. 5:5 “and it shall be, when he shall be guilty in one of these things, that he shall confess that wherein he hath sinned;” He must repent, and have a change of heart. If not he could not bring the sacrifice. You could not be a ‘sinner’ and bring a sacrifice and expect it to be accepted. That is the message of the prophet Isaiah in the first chapter:

11 To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith the LORD; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats.

12 When ye come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hand, to trample My courts?

13 Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me; new moon and sabbath, the holding of convocations —I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly.

14 Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hateth; they are a burden unto Me; I am weary to bear them.

15 And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood.

16 Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil;

17 Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

19 If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land;

20 But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword; for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken.

Without the repentance of the individual the sacrifice was of no use.


And more importantly there is absolutely no examples showing that Reuven could sin and Shimon could bring a sacrifice and that would work for Reuven.  Reuven is ALWAYS responsible for his own sin. If he does not repent, then he suffers spiritual death and not just a physical one.


This is nothing really new. However, the question of whether the whole Jewish people can be punished in this world for the sins of a few is another matter. If we look at Joshua 7, we see that a single individual, Achan, had sinned and did not follow the command of G-d, but the whole people is blamed.

1 But the children of Israel committed a trespass concerning the devoted thing; for Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took of the devoted thing; and the anger of the LORD was kindled against the children of Israel.

The Jewish people went up to war, and they did not succeed. There were a number of Jews killed.  After which G-d states in verses 11-12: 

11 Israel hath sinned; yea, they have even transgressed My covenant which I commanded them; yea, they have even taken of the devoted thing; and have also stolen, and dissembled also, and they have even put it among their own stuff.

12 Therefore the children of Israel cannot stand before their enemies, they turn their backs before their enemies, because they are become accursed; I will not be with you any more, except ye destroy the accursed from among you.

BUT only one person had sinned.


Here we see a clear example of the community punished for the sins of the few. In fact this is clearly discussed in Deuteronomy 28, where they are told that punishment and exile will be the result for not following the commands of G-d. In the Tenach we see that the first exile to Babylonia was caused by the sins of Menashah, as it says

2 Kings 23:26 Notwithstanding the LORD turned not from the fierceness of His great wrath, wherewith His anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations wherewith Manasseh had provoked Him.

Jer. 15:1 Then said the LORD unto me: ‘Though Moses and Samuel stood before Me, yet My mind could not be toward this people; cast them out of My sight, and let them go forth.

2 And it shall come to pass, when they say unto thee: Whither shall we go forth? then thou shall tell them: Thus saith the LORD: Such as are for death, to death; and such as are for the sword, to the sword; and such as are for the famine, to the famine; and such as are for captivity, to captivity.

3 And I will appoint over them four kinds, saith the LORD: the sword to slay, and the dogs to drag, and the fowls of the heaven, and the beasts of the earth, to devour and to destroy.

4 And I will cause them to be a horror among all the kingdoms of the earth, because of Manasseh the son of Hezekiah king of Judah, for that which he did in Jerusalem.

 The exile as a collective punishment was caused by the sins of a few. Communal punishment CAN be caused by sins other then those by the individuals.


No individual can die or suffer so that another individual will have atonement, but the whole community could suffer death and exile in this world due to the sins of individuals. That is the effect of the sin of the individual on the Jewish people as a whole.


What about the opposite case? Can the death of a single person have an effect on the community and bring atonement for the communal sin? The answer is clearly no.  There are no examples in the Tenach of the opposite. No righteous person dies and that causes the community to be forgiven of their sins.


In fact in one instance in the Torah we see that someone tried and that G-d said it could not happen. When Israel sinned with the Golden Calf, Moses goes up to make atonement for them. Moses asked that he be removed from G-d's book (i.e. his soul should be destroyed), and Israel should not be punished for their sin. But G-d tells him no, the one who sinned will be blotted out.

30 And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses said unto the people: ‘Ye have sinned a great sin; and now I will go up unto the LORD, peradventure I shall make atonement for your sin.’

31 And Moses returned unto the LORD, and said: ‘Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them a god of gold.

32 Yet now, if Thou wilt forgive their sin—; and if not, blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book which Thou hast written.’

33 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Whosoever hath sinned against Me, him will I blot out of My book.

Those who sinned will be punished; an individual cannot make atonement for them!!!


There is however a value in the death or suffering of the righteous that DOES effect the community.  There are times G-d will take away the righteous from the world in order that the people left over will repent of their evil deeds. This is clearly stated in the prophet Isaiah 57:1, where we see that the righteous are taken from the world and the prophet complains that G-d has done this and no one has understood the message.  They act as if they were themselves righteous, which they weren’t, and they should have repented.

1 The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart, and godly men are taken away, none considering that the righteous is taken away from the evil to come.

2 He entereth into peace, they rest in their beds, each one that walketh in his uprightness.


It is clear in Rabbinic literature that the reason why the righteous suffer even when they have not sinned is so that those who see their suffering should repent of their sins. This is the message of Isaiah 57. This is similar to the reason why a sacrifice is brought for an unintentional sin. He should look at the innocent animal and say that I should be that sacrifice and repent of his sins. This is clearly stated in the Zohar (III 57b):

"All those who are pained by the suffering of the righteous their sins are removed from the world...  all those that are pained from those righteous who have died, or who sheds tears for them, G-d proclaims over him, 'Your sins are remove, your iniquities removed.' Not just that, but his children will not die in his days as it says, 'He will see seed, and lengthen his days.' (Is 53:10)"

The suffering is to effect repentance and hence atonement of sin. Suffering does not atone. The repentance that one does because of the death or suffering of the righteous atones.


This repentance is not related to the sins of one person alone but to the sins of the community as the Zohar states (III 118b):

"If the sins multiply in the world, then all the righteous suffer in order to cure (bring to repentance) the generation. But when they are not so much, then one righteous person suffers and the rest are left in peace because the world does not need their sufferings. If the people are cured (they repent) then the righteous are cured. There are times that righteous men suffer their whole lives to protect the generation.  When the sins get very great, the righteous die, and that causes them to be cured, and they are forgiven"

Here we see three ideas with regards to the suffering of the righteous. 


1.      Their suffering makes it so that the rest of the generation need not suffer for communal sins. 

2.      The suffering comes so that the generation will see and get cured from their sins by repentance.

3.      The number of righteous who must suffer depends on the sinfulness of the generation.


We have almost all the pieces to understand the payyut, except the relationship to the Messiah. What kind of suffering can someone who has never come to this world have?  There is in fact a source that is the basis for this payyut, but to understand it we need to look at a famous passage in the Talmud Sanhedrin 98a. Here we see that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi has a number of meetings with Elijah the prophet. (None of which appear to be in this world, but deal with either visitations through visions or the like, as he is described as meeting him at the gates of Gan Eden [heaven] and similar spots):

“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked Elijah, " 'When will the Messiah come?'

He (Elijah) answered 'Go ask him'.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked 'Where does he sit?'

'By the gates of Rome'

'How will I recognize him?'

'He sits with the poor who suffer sicknesses. They take off all their bandages at once, while he takes off one at a time so that should it be time for him to come he will not be held back'

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi went to him and said 'Peace to you my master and teacher'

The Messiah responded 'Peace to you, son of Levi'

'When will the master come?'


Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi went back to Elijah.

Elijah asked him, 'What did he say?'

'Peace to you, son of Levi'.

'That means that he has assured both you and your father that you will have a place in the world to come'

'He lied to me. He said he would come today and he did not!'

'This is what he said, "Today if you will listen to My (G-d) voice (Psalms 95:7)"' "


To understand this we must remember one point from Jewish theology. That is that the souls have an independent existence that precedes that of the person, this includes the soul of the Messiah that exists even before his body does. The Talmud even states that the Messiah will not come until all those souls have entered this world.


We see this concept very clearly laid out in a famous teaching in the work of Rabbi Chaim ben Attar, the Holy Or HaChaim.  In Deuteronomy 15:7, the verse says, “If there will be with you a poor man from among your brothers…” he explains it as a Remez for some concepts dealing with the Messiah. Here is what he says:

“And in the method of Remez, it is to be a remez to us, in order to inspire us greatly with regards to one person, that special person among the people for whom we are anxiously waiting for the time when he will come. This is The King of Israel, our Moshiach who is a poor man. He has already been compared to a poor person as it says ‘A poor man riding on a donkey.’ (Zechariah 9:9) And the remez is that because of us he is made poor.

And it says, ‘with you’. This means because of you. Our sins have caused the lengthening of the time until the ‘end’. Also the word ‘with you’ is a remez that the poor man is with us. He strongly desires for the time to come when he can redeem us from exile. You should go and learn this from what our Rabbis have taught with regards to the story of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. When the King Moshiach saw him he asked him how the Jewish people were doing in the world. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi answered him that they were sitting and waiting for him to come. When he heard this the pious one started to cry greatly because of his great desire to come and redeem them from exile.”


From these two sources, one based on the Talmud and the other Kabbalah, we see that the soul of Messiah suffers because he wants to come into this world and he is waiting to enter the world. This relates to the end of the exile, which comes when all will repent bringing an end to the Messiah's suffering.


Now we can look at the passage that is used by the missionaries and relaters to the payyut that deals with the Messiah. It is in the Zohar (II 212a), where it says:


"After that they (i.e. these souls) journey and look upon those who are pained and sick and who have suffered for the Unity of their Master. They then return and tell this to the Messiah. When they tell to the Messiah about the suffering of Israel in exile and of the wicked ones who are among them who do not try to know their Master, he raises his voice and weeps because of the wicked ones among them, as it says. “He was pained because of our rebellion and oppressed because if our sins.”  Then the souls return to their place.

“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'. And just like that is Rabbi Eluzer in the Land.  Because there is no measure to the sufferings that come upon a man every day, and they all came to the world when the Torah was given.  When Israel was in the Holy Land those services and the sacrifices that they did took up from them all the sicknesses and sufferings of the world.  Now Messiah takes them from the world, until a man leaves the world and receives his punishments. As it says 'if his sins are more he is taken to Gehennim (hell) to the lowest of the levels and he receives there many punishments because of the greatness of the 'filth' that is on his soul.  Then they light the fire greater to burn this 'filth'."


From here we see a few points:


1.      There are holy people in this world who suffer for G-d’s sake.

2.      There is nothing there about a servant dying as Christian theology would demand.

3.      The sufferings from the Messiah are to remove two types of sufferings:

a.       Those for the communal sins, while the individual sins do not disappear but wait for their punishment when he dies.

b.      The suffering of the Holy ones in this world, who suffer for G-d’s sake without sin.

4.      It is associated with the sacrifices (just as in the payyut).

5.      There is no difference between the suffering of the Messiah's soul waiting to enter this world and any other righteous person. Both fulfill the same function with this respect.


So the Zohar is teaching us the purpose of the suffering of the righteous, including the Messiah’s soul awaiting his entry to this world. The payyut is to said to remind the people, on this holiest of days, that the exile and the loss of the temple is only because they have not done the proper repentance for their sins and the sins of their fathers.  But should they do it on this day, the Messiah will come, and the Temple be restored.  This is in fact what the Prophet says in Hoshea 3:4-5:

4 For the children of Israel shall sit solitary many days without king, and without prince, and without sacrifice, and without pillar, and without ephod or teraphim;

5 afterward shall the children of Israel return, and seek the LORD their God, and David their king; and shall come trembling unto the LORD and to His goodness in the end of days.


© Moshe Shulman 2003

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[1]   For a little background on the nature of Rabbinic texts like the Zohar, please look at my article: “What is Midrash”. There I have discussed the Midrashic method and that it is not understood to be literal. That applies to the Zohar also.

[2]   Secular scholars contend that it dates from the middle ages, around the 13th century.

[3]   It should be noted that in the passage I am quoting, one of the Isaiah verses does not appear. When I make a full translation later we shall see that verse within the context of the Zohar.

[4]   Translation from Frydland, Rachmiel, in  “What the Rabbis Know About the Messiah”, page 56, note 27. He cites as the source Driver and Neubauer “Isaiah 53 according to the Rabbinic Commentators”, pp. 14-15 from section "va-yiqqahel".

[5]   This is not necessarily done to distort the facts. For example in the work ‘Messiah Texts’, Patai brings this passage and part of it is missing, which he indicates with three dots. That missing passage contains important contextual information, but because it is not what the subject of his book is about, he has left it out. We will quote from that material because it helps us understand what the Zohar is trying to tell us.

[6]   This particular passage is included because it alludes to verses in Isaiah 53 even though it does not claim to quote from them, claim they mean anything or to explain them. Being poetic it would be difficult to claim support from it for any doctrine of what the Rabbis say Isaiah 53 is about.

[7]   Philips, A. Th.  Machzor Leyom Kippur / Prayer Book for the Day of Atonement with English Translation; Revised and Enlarged Edition (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1931), p.  239.  The passage can also be found in, e.g., the 1937 edition.  Also, Driver and Neubauer, p.  399.

[8]  Another name for the Holy Temple in rabbinic literature.