Introduction to Sefer Yeshaya

The book of Yeshaya is essentially a roller-coaster of prophecies which range from extreme and harsh reproach to comforting and revealing peeks into the future and the final redemption. To get a bit of context we will take a brief look at who Yeshaya was, when he lived, and finally some information about the sefer itself.

a) Yeshaya the Prophet

Yeshaya was from royal descent: he was the cousin of one of the kings of Yehuda, and he was well-known to the people of Yehuda before he began his ‘career in prophecy.’ In fact, Chazal suggest that Yeshaya was able ‘to get away’ with such harsh and damning prophecies without being rejected by the people because they had a personal relationship with him from years before. Chazal also record Hashem’s statement that ‘There is no-one who loves my children as much as Yeshaya does.’ Perhaps this is another reason why Yeshaya’s rebukes could be so forceful –they were clearly stemming from love for the people and a genuine desire for the people to change their ways and enjoy the benefits of a loyal relationship with Hashem.  Yeshaya was a prophet for 80 years (619-533 BCE) during the period of the first Beis Hamikdash, from the reign of King Uziyahu until King Menashe (who was Yeshaya’s grandson). Yeshaya was actually killed by Menashe in his ruthless ‘search and destroy’ pursuit of the prophets. Yeshaya prophesied to the kingdom of Yehuda while Hoshea prophesied  to the kingdom of Yisrael. Other contemporaries were Micha and Amos.

Yeshaya’s father Amotz was a prophet too, and there is a dispute among the Rishonim as to whether Yeshaya’s wife was a prophetess. Chazal[1] compare Yeshaya to none other than Moshe Rabbeinu in terms of clarity of his prophecy, and it is interesting to note that both lived for 120 years and both were called ovdei Hashem by Hashem. Chazal give us a glimpse of Yeshaya’s righteousness; the Midrash relates that it was in the merit of Yeshaya and Chizkiyah’s Torah study on the night of Pesach that the army of Sancheirev was miraculously destroyed. Furthermore, the Tanna De’Bei Eliyahu says that Yeshaya merited receiving and conveying such greatly comforting prophecies because he accepted the yoke of Hashem upon himself with a great degree of joy. However, Yeshaya was punished for (twice) criticizing Bnei Yisrael by describing them as ‘a people of impure lips;’ as a punishment for this sin, he was murdered by Menashe. In fact, Chazal[2] tell us that it was after Yeshaya saw that Hashem was unhappy with this statement that he began defending Bnei Yisrael instead of berating them.

There is a debate between the Judaica and Me’or Nach introductions as to how evil the people were in Yeshaya’s time. The former claims it was only a minority of the people who were sinning, but since all of Bnei Yisrael are held responsible for one another (especially when the majority do not aim to rectify the deeds of the sinners) the sins of the minority can have major (destructive) effects. One gets the impression from various commentaries (see for example Radak 1:2) that the majority of the nation were acting disloyally to Hashem

a) Yeshaya the Sefer

The Gemara tells us that Sefer Yeshaya was written by King Chizkiyah (Yeshaya’s son-in-law) and his colleagues. However, as Tosafos points out, since Chizkiyah died a while before Yeshaya, it was Chizkiyah’s colleagues who authored Sefer Yeshaya. Why then did the Gemara attribute the writing (at least in part) to Chizkiyah? It was due to Chizkiyah that his colleagues were able to spend their time learning Torah and recording these prophecies.

Finally, in the Abarbanel’s fundamental ‘Introduction to Yeshaya’ (in which, among other things, he highlights 14 points about Techiyas Hameisim), the Abarbanel highlights five reasons why Sefer Yeshaya was chosen to be the first sefer in Neviim Achronim. First, Yeshaya’s prophecies came first chronologically. Second, Yeshaya had royal and prophetic importance, as well as pristine traits (courage), and a high level of rhetoric. Third, his level of prophecy surpassed that of the other Neviim Achronim in that it was a clearer form of prophecy. Fourth, his sefer has the most prophecies of nechama, comfort, and of the future redemption. In fact, the Abarbanel even suggests that the name Yeshaya is taken from the word teshua (salvation), for Yeshaya prophesied about our future salvation. Finally, his prophecies had the important goal to bring man to his ultimate purpose and potential.

The Gemara[3] tells us that there are 55 recorded Jewish prophets in our history; 48 men and 7 women. Yet, the Gemara notes, there were over a million prophets across our history whose prophecies were not recorded. What were the criteria for recording prophecies? The Gemara reveals that only those prophecies which had relevance for [all] future generations were recorded. Thus, we are not to regard these recorded messages as archaic and out of date. On the contrary, these prophecies were written solely because of their enduring relevance.

[1] Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:2.

[2] Psikta Rabbati 33:20.

[3] Megilla 14a.