Sunday 10 April 2022

379) Dealing with a Talmudic view that there is “No Messiah for Israel”


The Babylonian Talmud, particularly, is authoritatively quoted as the foundational text to support and bolster almost any argument within Jewish law and theology. But what happens when a talmudic view seems to fly in the face of principles that are held as true, fundamental and essential to the very faith itself? A case in point is the statement by R. Hillel that “There is no Messiah for Israel”:

R. Hillel says: ‘There is no Messiah [coming] for Israel, as they [the prophesies relating to the Messiah] were already fulfilled during the days of Hezekiah’. Said R. Joseph [in response]: 'May R. Hillel's Master forgive him! When did Hezekiah live? In the time of the first Temple. Yet Zechariah, prophesying during the time of the second Temple, said: "Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion, shout, daughter of Jerusalem; behold, your king comes unto you”’[1]  (b. Sanhedrin 99a).

In other words: R. Hillel says that the Messiah already came during the time of King Hezekiah. R. Yosef challenges him by pointing out that even after Hezekiah, a later prophet, Zechariah, prophesied that the Messiah was yet to come.

Because of the obvious subversive nature of this text, many commentators reworked R. Hillel’s statement. According to Rashi, R. Hillel only denies a personal messiah, but still believes there will be a messianic era, initiated by G-d:

אלא הקב"ה ימלוך בעצמו ויגאלם לבדו

           G-d Himself will redeem them [Israel].[2]

In this article, we shall explore various responses and reactions to this unusual and disquieting statement by R. Hillel. We focus particularly on the tensions in the very different responses which show how later interpreters tried to fit R. Hillel’s ‘renegade’ position into their own messianic worldviews.

Eric Lawee (2001:135) puts the dilemma as follows:


To dogmatists… [R. Hillel’s view][3] could appear downright scandalous. Had not Maimonides listed belief in the Messiah’s coming as a fundamental principle of Judaism? If so, how could a rabbinic sage have denied it?

Is R. Hillel an authoritative sage?

R. Hillel is not to be confused with the famous Hillel haZaken (Hillel the Elder)[4] the tannaic (mishnaic) sage who was, according to tradition, born in Babylon around 110 BCE and passed away in Jerusalem in 10CE. Hillel the Elder was never referred to as “Rabbi”.

The R. Hillel in our discussion was from the later generation of Amoraim, as the later sages of the Gemara were known, but his identify is difficult to ascertain. R. Aharon Hyman[5] considers him to have been Hillel II, also known as Hillel haNasi (as he served as the Nasi or Prince between 320 and 385 CE). Hillel II, the grandson of R. Yehuda Hanasi, is best known as the one who finalised and fixed the Jewish calendar as we know it today.[6]  If this is the case then we are dealing with a very authoritative figure indeed. His statement, therefore, becomes even more ‘scandalous’, in light of messianic dogma so entrenched within later rabbinic Judaism, particularly Maimonides and his Twelfth Principle concerning the belief in the coming of the Messiah.

Shapiro (2004:136), however, argues that R. Hillel was a “minor scholar” and for this reason his view is not a “viable option” for representing traditional Jewish thought. R. Abraham Bivagch, writing in his Derech Emunah, just before the Expulsion from Spain, also claims that R. Hillel was:

not from among the greatest scholars, the masters of the Mishnah [but rather an Amora and a late one at that] (cited in Lawee 1996:264).

On the other hand, David Weiss Halivni (1991:94-6) claims that it is only when it comes to determining practical Halacha or law, that we are required to establish the popular credentials of a rabbinic sage. But this is not the case when it comes to establishing a theological idea:


Issues of doctrine, in contrast [to halacha], cannot be definitively settled merely through the consensus suggested by a vote of the majority nor by the judgement rendered by the passage of history…Quantitative superiority can play no role in the qualitative realm of [theological][7] speculation. 

On the status of the scholarship of R. Hillel, R. Yosef Albo (1380-4440) writes:


[It cannot be maintained that R. Hillel's words were cited] only for the purpose of being refuted [for if so] he would not be referred to as rabbi, nor would authoritative rules be quoted in his name anywhere (Cited in Lawee 1996:259). 

The view of Spanish rabbis

Lawee (2001:135) shows how this debate became very important to Spanish Jews around the time of the Expulsion from Spain in 1492 because of the mounting pressures to covert to Christianity or be exiled:


R. Hillel’s dictum inevitably attracted analysis from medieval writers working in various times, places, and literary genres, it became a major crux interpretum [i.e., a point difficult to interpret][8] in late medieval[9] Spain [i.e., around the time of the Expulsion from Spain]. 

Lawee points out that a certain anonymous fourteenth century Spanish Talmudist claimed that Israel didn’t need a Messiah and it would attain victories without one. A short time later Abravanel (1437-1508), writing in his Yeshuot Meshicho would, to some extent, retain this position by emphasising:


the regal-military element of Maimonides’ naturalistic understanding of the measures required to bring that [messianic][10] age into being” (Lawee 2001:141). 

This is because Maimonides did not believe in a supernatural messianic age. According to him, the messianic age was a natural human progression brough about by human initiatives without supernatural or cosmic effects. 

This shows that, certainly amongst certain Hispano-rabbis, there was some buy-in, to some degree, into the general notion of the tenor of R. Hillel’s dictum. Fascinatingly, Lawee points out that a view had circulated:


among Jews since the early Middle Ages—which some had ascribed to R. Hillel—that most if not all scriptural promises of redemption had been realized during the second Jewish commonwealth (Lawee 2001:141). 

Already in the tenth century, Rav Saadiah Gaon had written about this view, and he tried to combat it. But the view that messianic promises had already been fulfilled was certainly in existence. During the following century, R. Mose Ibn Gigatilah also wrote about this same idea in his biblical commentaries. And the momentum was growing because this belief was beginning even to flourish, to the extent that Nachmanides referred to the “many” who claimed that “the messages of comfort found at the beginning of the book of Isaiah are said with regard to King Hezekiah.” Lawee similarly shows that Shem Tov ben Shaprut was also concerned about the “many” who were adhering to these views and that this was considered “a great difficulty”. 

Most revealing, perhaps, is the statement by Nachmanides during the ‘disputation of Barcelona’ of 1263 where he said:


our law and truth and justice are not dependent upon a Messiah.[11]

And in Nachmanides’ Sefer haGeulah, he similarly writes:


even if we were convinced in our hearts that our own transgressions and the sins of our fathers deprived us of all consolations and that our exile will be prolonged without end . . . none of this would infringe upon a fundamental of the Torah[12] (cited in Lawee 1996:257). 

To the consternation of Abravanel, R. Joseph Albo wrote about the fourteenth-century Spanish rabbi, Hayyim Galipapa, who held that:


all the prophecies of Daniel refer to the Second Temple only 

And even Albo himself had invoked that view! Albo, surprisingly, argues that the messianic idea is a fundamental dogma and:


particular root of the law of the Christians [since Christianity is inconceivable without it] (cited in Lawee 1996:259). 

In other words, in Albo’s view, the centrality of the messianic belief, while certainly a ‘branch’ of Judaism, is not a primary or fundamental ‘root’ of Jewish theology. 

Adding to these rabbis of some considerable authority who subscribed to this notion bearing significant resemblance to R. Hillel, was Ibn Ezra who “is also said not to be free of ‘taint’ in this regard” (Lawee 2001:141). 

Throughout the ages, rabbis have engaged with this tiny phrase uttered by R. Hillel and there are many interpretations of his words.[13] One such example of a reworking of this statement is by R. David ben Reuben Bonflls, a student of Nachmanides. He writes that R. Hillel’s view must be read in context to an immediately previous section of Talmud which records a Briata quoting R. Eliezer who says that that the messianic age will last for forty years: 

תניא ר' אליעזר אומר ימות המשיח ארבעים שנה 

Bonfills explains that this statement of R. Eliezer was not to diminish the role of the Messiah (in that he would only rule for forty years) but, on the contrary to show how great Israel was because in the space of just four decades they would be ready to move on to Olam haBah (the second and more lasting of the messianic phases). And R. Hillel was even more optimistic than R. Eliezer, because Israel was so great that they wouldn’t even need the intermediate period of Mashiach. Israel would achieve entry into Olam haBah without the intercession of Mashiach! This way R. Hillel emerges not as detractor but as a champion of the Jewish people. 

On the other hand, R. Yehuda Zabara, a contemporary of Rashba, sees nothing redeeming in the words of R. Hillel. He writes that it is:


a great heresy insofar as R. Hillel does not believe in the ingathering of the exiles. 

The statement of R. Hillel not only ruffled feathers, but some were very antagonistic towards him, regardless of his words being included in the Talmud. R. Chaim Ibn Musa, writing in the turmoil after the Expulsion from Spain, was worried that R. Hillel’s statement would engender a feeling of hopelessness among the Jewish exiles. He wrote in a letter to his son that he had heard about:


a darshan who preached the aforementioned view of R. Hillel in your city. [The effect was dramatic] as the preacher did not explain the meaning of this statement, many in the congregation were perplexed 'and the people were at strife'[II Sam. 19: 10]… Perhaps R. Hillel was not so expert in [interpreting] scripture (cited in Lawee 1996:267). 

Ibn Musa thus paints R. Hillel as one who doesn’t understand basic scripture, never mind rabbinic interpretation, and goes on to suggest that sometimes the baal haTalmud (Talmudic redactor) specifically recorded incorrect views in order to show how they were refuted, as we see with R. Yosef who challenges R. Hillel in our opening Gemara. 

No one really knows how to deal with R. Hillel nor with his statement openly recorded in the Talmud “אין להם משיח לישראל – Israel has no Messiah”. Was he a minor sage or an authoritative figure or a Nasi? Was he a champion of the faith of the Jewish people or was he a heretic? Was he expressing a legitimate Talmudic opinion? Or, was he simply an ordinary man who expressed an opinion that, in the interests of transparency, the Talmud refused to censor? 



Shapiro, M.B., 2004, The Limits of Orthodox Theology, Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in association with Liverpool University Press, London. 

Shapiro, M.B., 1993, ‘Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles: The Last Word in Jewish Theology?’ The Torah U-Madda Journal 4, 187-242, Published by Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, an affiliate of Yeshiva University. 

Halivni, D.W., 1991, Peshat and Derash: Plain and Applied Meaning in Rabbinic Exegesis, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford. 

Lawee, E., 1996, ‘"Israel Has No Messiah" in Late Medieval Spain’, The Journal of   Jewish Thought and Philosophy, vol. 5, 245-279. 

Lawee, E., 2001, Isaac Abarbanel’s Stance Toward Tradition, State University of New York Press, Albany.


[1] Zech. 9:9.

[2] This is not necessarily Rashi’s view, but rather Rashi’s interpretation of R. Hillel’s view.

[3] Parenthesis is mine.

[4] Hillel haZaken is also variously known as Hillel HaGadolHillel HaBavli or simple as HaBavli.

[5] Toledot Tanaim veAmoraim, 1, 362-375. R. Hyman points out that fourteen different people went by the name Hillel in the Talmud (See Gil Student, 2010, Torah Musings, ‘Was Rabbi Hillel a Heretic?’).

[6] Astoundingly, there is Christian tradition that Hillel II was secretly baptised on his deathbed, according to Epiphanius of Salamis (d. 403), Panarion, ch. 30. Lawee does not mention this but he does say: “Through his assertion that Israel had no Messiah, R. Hillel seemingly corroborated the Christian view that ongoing adherence to Judaism in anticipation of the messianic advent was in vain (Lawee 2001:135).

[7] Parenthesis is mine.

[8] Parentheses are mine.

[9] The medieval period is generally regarded as being between 500 and 1500 CE.

[10] Parenthesis is mine.

[11] See Kitvei Ramban, ed. Charles B. Chavel (Jerusalem: Mosad ha-Rav Kook, 1963), 1:310.

[12] Sefer haGeulah in ibid., 279

[13] See the reference in note 5 to Gil Student.


  1. Brilliant research Rabbi Michal. Thank you for the insight. Whilst R Hillel's recorded statement is most unsettling, there's the comforting thought that his identity remains vague still to this day and age.

  2. I heard that this "Rabbi Hillel" is actually Hillel II who lived in Bavel and is famous for creating the modern Jewish calendar in the 350s CE. (This would be the only time he is mentioned in the entire Talmud) This is used as an explanation as to why he allowed the leaps year to be a shmittah (as is the case this year), something the Gemara says should never happen because it is too hard on the farmers, since he did not believe the Shmittah would ever return. If so, why did we adopt the calander of someone with such unusual beliefs?

  3. This is such an interesting explanation as, if it is indeed Hillel II, it connects the fixing of the calendar to his apparent (non) messianic views.