Hebrew In Israel | Mashiach – Learn Torah

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Hebrew In Israel | Mashiach – Learn Torah

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The word משיח-Mashiach-Messiah is derived from the root משח which is mostly associated with the idea of placing oil on something or someone.  The act of anointing was performed as an act of dedication of a person or an item to a service (mostly to God).  In this article, I will be looking into the background of this act, and the meaning of the title Mashiach.

Basic Use

In the Bible, we find two basic uses for oil, consumption and anointing for medical/cosmetic use and ritualistic/religious.  Olive oil was considered one of the most basic homestead items which was used as a base for food due to its high caloric value and its health value (Katz, 2008, 35), and as a gift from God.  It is my assumption (though I have yet to find anyone who has proven this), that oil was considered a gift from God because it helped the population of the middle-east to create a surplus which enabled wealth.  Wealth is a common feature in biblical thought as a sign of blessing (Leviticus 26:3-5;10, Deuteronomy 28:11-12).  Hence, it seems logical that such a symbolic item which represents health, wealth and divine gifting would be used to symbolize a divine favor over a person’s head.

Who Was Anointed

The two most common persons to be anointed were the high priest of the Hebrew Temple, and the Kings of Israel and Judah.  One can also speculate that maybe the regular priests were also anointed, however this issue is debated due to the different descriptions in the Torah (Leviticus 8:12; Numbers 3:3).  The high priest is also referred to as הכהן המשיח Hakohen Hamashich – The anointed priest (Leviticus 4:3) indicating the difference between the high priest who is anointed, and the regular priests.  The second type of anointing was for kings such as Saul (1Sam 10:1), David (16:13), Solomon (1Kings 1:39) and Yehu (2Kings 9:6).  We do find the idea of being appointed as king without the actual act of actual anointing in the cases of Avimelekh (Judges 9:15) and Avshalom (2Sam 19:11). 

An interesting thing is that most of the cases in the bible where this root appears are in the book of Samuel where it is very emphatic.  I think that in Samuel it is pointed out due to the conflict between Saul and David who were both anointed.  There is an interesting note in rabbinic writings that only when there was a dispute was a king anointed, but in other cases they were not anointed because David had been anointed in the past and that anointed the whole line.  When a text doesn’t say something, we can assume it did happen, but we have no proof it actually did.

Though it can be argued that even when the act itself is not mentioned, it would be logical that it was done.  However, in the case of Avimelekh he is only referencing the act of making one king, and not that the oil was actually used (though they probably would have).  Avimelekh is using the verb “to anoint” as a reference to the overall idea of making someone king which was mostly recognized as the act of anointing.

Besides the anointing of people, we also find the anointing of items in the temple as described in the dedication of The Tabernacle (Leviticus 9:10).

Can It Mean Something Else?

It has been identified by modern dictionaries that משח is used to indicate the appointment of position regardless of the actual act of placing oil due to the uses mentioned earlier (Kedarri, 2006, 672).  However, to satisfy this interpretation I would suggest another layer of information.

A different approach can be found if we use comparative philology.  It is important to realize that many words in Hebrew find their origins in other languages, and in the case of משח we can find a parallel in Akkadian.  משח is a word comes from the Akkadian word “miŠihtu” which means a “share”, meaning that when one is “anointed” one is receiving a share (Tawill, 2009, 226).  What this implies is that it is not the anointing with oil which is the point, but what the person receives.  One can be “anointed” even without oil, and the oil was only the external symbol of something much deeper.  This principle can be found in the share of Aharon and his sons where their literal anointing is the opening for the gifts they receive due to their position (Leviticus 9 uses the root מלא– to fill multiple times).  It is interesting that “filling the hands” is a repetitive idea in the anointing of the priests, and indicates the Akkadian meaning (8:33, 21:10, 16:32).

Other Uses In The Bible

There are some places where it is clear oil was not placed on the person.  It is very possible that the original meaning was one, and became another in time.  It however does not change the fact that oil was used in most cases. 

The point to be made here is not the literal cases in the Hebrew text, but rather the original intent of the word. There is no doubt that Hebrew uses the root to mean actual use of oil, however the way Akkadian uses it can shed light on the earlier use of the word, and it is possible that it traveled into Hebrew from Akkadian.  We do find the root being used in a non-literal way such as Lamentations 4:20, Habakkuk 3:13 and Isaiah 45:1, 61:1.  But this is not the main argument because one can argue that it was borrowed from the literal meaning.

The case of Habakkuk is an interesting one where the word for people is synonymous with anointed making the people the anointed one.

יָצָאתָ לְיֵשַׁע עַמֶּךָ, לְיֵשַׁע אֶתמְשִׁיחֶךָ

“You come out to save your people,
to save your anointed one

It is possible, however not proven, that the word “anointed” is being used here in the sense of “your share”.  Though this is a “bit” of a stretch, we do find עם and נחלה as parallels, and this might be a rare case where משיחך substitutes נחלה.  Because this section in the bible is poetic, we can sometimes find unusual uses, and even rare ones.


It is possible to argue that משח originally meant “share”, and in time was used to mean “one who is anointed with oil”.  The main meaning probably meant to receive a position or appointment, and in time anointing with oil became the standard.  We might be looking at a case where an action received its verbal word due to a previous meaning.


כץ חיה, ׳ארץ דגן ותירוש…ארץ זית יצהר ודבש׳ הכלכלה בממלכת יהודה בימי הבית הראשון, ירושלים, 2008

קדרי מנחם צבי, מילון העברית המקראית, רמת גן, 2007

Hayim Tawill, An Akkadian Lexical Companion For BH, New-York, 2009


Originally Published:  24 December 2014


Sarah Yocheved

October 29, 2018 at 7:08 pm

Yakov poured oil on a stone (Genesis 28:18); was that an anointing?

    Yoel Halevi

    October 30, 2018 at 8:05 pm

    It is a type of anointing, so the short of it is yes.

Elvira White

November 4, 2018 at 10:05 pm

The 70 elders received a share of the same spirit that was on Moses. In this way they were equipped for service. Were Elders ever anointed?

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