Sanhedrin 98a states: “The descendant of David (Mashiach) will not come until they will search for a fish for a sick person and it will be impossible to find one.”

The connection between the two concepts — Mashiach’s coming and the fact that a fish will not be able to be found — can be understood through the following preface.

Mashiach, “the anointed one,” is the most elevated of the names with which we referto Mashiach. For that name has the connotation of greatness, as Rashi1 comments: “To anoint him for greatness.”

Moreover, anointment is a reflection of inner distinction. For that reason, a king is anointed only at the beginning of a dynasty (i.e., because of his own unique advantages). Anointment does not relate to qualities transmitted because of one’s lineage. For that reason, we do not anoint a king whose father was a king (Horios 11b) unless there is was a dispute concerning the matter and, nevertheless, one was chosen. In such an instance, anointing the son of the king highlights the essential advantages the chosen son possesses.

The name “the descendant of David,” by contrast, points to a positive quality Mashiach possesses that is not due to his own essential nature, but rather is inherited from his ancestors. For that reason, he is not referred by his own name, but by that of his ancestors, as we see in the names ben Zakkai, ben Zoma, and ben Azzai.

Therefore, “the descendant of David” is the lowest of the names with which Mashiach is referred. Accordingly, whenever the inferior level of the generation of Mashiach and the difficulties that it will face are mentioned, our Sages use the term “the descendant of David.” {An exception which requires clarification is the conclusion of tractate Sotah which speaks of brazenness increasing in “[the generation when] the footsteps of Mashiach [can be heard].”}

The concept that the name “descendant of David” reflects the lowest level of Mashiach is intimated, not only by the fact that it uses the term “descendant of,” but also that it refers to the name David.

The term ben, translated as “descendant of,” can also mean “possessing the quality of” as in the term ben chorin which means “free man,” [i.e., possessing the quality of freedom]. Similarly, the term ben David means not only “descendant of David,” but also that he possesses David’s quality and nature. David is identified with humility and bittul, as it is written:2 “I am a worm,” “David was the smallest,”3 “And if He will say: ‘I do not desire you,’ here I am. Let Him do to me as is good in His eyes.”4 For David is identified with bittul and mesirus nefesh.

These two names represent two extremes within Mashiach. Mashiach will be elevated, as it is written:5 “My servant will succeed. He will be exalted, elevated, and uplifted exceedingly high,” i.e., higher than Avraham, as stated in the Zohar, Vol. I, p. 181b. On the other hand, he will possess great bittul. (See Derech Mitzvosecha, mitzvas minui melech.)

Based on the above explanations, we can understand our Sages’ statement quoted at the outset. The expression: “The descendant of David will not come until they will search for a fish for a sick person and it will be impossible to find one” can be explained in two ways, paralleling another statement of our Sages:6 “The descendant of David will come only in a generation that is entirely virtuous or entirely liable.” As will be explained, these two explanations relate to the two extremes within Mashiach.

“The descendant of David” refers to the lowest level within Mashiach, as above. Correspondingly, it relates to a generation on a low level, i.e., one whose Divine service is characterized merely by iskafia, subduing one’s natural tendencies. In such a generation, there are sick people, i.e., those who sin and transgress, as stated in Yeshayahu 1:6: “From the sole of the foot until his head, nothing within him is intact; [everywhere, there are] wounds, cuts, and infected bruises.” Here sin is described with the analogy of infirmity. Hence, teshuvah which brings healing is required, as stated in Yoma 86b.

The possibility for a person to sin stems from the fact that he forgets at that moment that he is not a separate entity and that it is the word of G‑d which maintains him, as explained at length in Tanya, ch. 20ff. This fault can be corrected — healed — by remembering his connection to the Divine life force that maintains him. Herein lies a connection to a fish which is always connected to its source of life.

On this basis, we can understand what is meant by “seeking a fish for a sick person.” To explain: We find (Ramban’s commentary to Vayikra 11:13) a straightforward rationale for the prohibition against eating non-kosher animals, particularly, beasts of prey: that their meat imparts traces of their cruel nature to the soul of a person who partakes of it.

The same principle also applies in a positive context. Eating meat from animals that have desirable character traits endows a person with these positive traits. On this basis, we can understand why a sick person is advised to eat fish. Fish are always encompassed within their source of life. If they depart from it, they die immediately (Berachos 61b). Since fish are always connected to their source, partaking of their meat will enable a sick person — i.e., as above, one is unaware of his connection to his G‑dly life force — to become conscious of that bond.

In that vein, Rashi7 interpretsa fish as “a small entity,” one which possesses the quality of humility. Similarly, the Jewish people are referred to as “the smallest among the nations,”8 and, as above, David is “the smallest.”

If “they will search for a fish for a sick person and it will be impossible to find one,” that will indicate that this bittul is lacking entirely. The generation is “entirely liable.” Hence the son of David will come.

Conversely, this teaching can be interpreted in a positive context, referring to the highest levels. The Hebrew word חולה, “sick person,” is numerically equivalent to 49, i.e., one is bordering on perfection and lacks only the fiftieth Gate of Understanding.9 Consequently, as a result of his yearning and desire for the fiftieth level, he is “lovesick,”10 consumed by his longing for oneness with G‑d. [See also the note on the teaching: “Four are required to offers thanks.”11 ]

Nevertheless, even if he is a completely righteous man, serving G‑d with “the love of delights, he is still an individual entity. As Tanya states,12 “There is one who loves.”13 Therefore it is necessary that he partake of “a fish,” i.e., internalize the quality of bittul. He also must heighten his awareness that he is always encompassed by the source of his life-energy.

The fish, however, will “be impossible to be found (לא ימצא).” In this context, the term ימצא is translated non-literally. To explain: Likkutei Torah, Parshas Behaalos’cha,14 interpretsthe verse:15 “Would sheep and cattle... suffice (ימצא) them?” as meaning: “Would the sheep and cattle reach them?” The intent being that the Jews were on a very high spiritual level and eating meat would draw them down to contact with the physical realm. The question in the verse is: Would it be possible for a connection to be made between the meat and the souls of the Jewish people?

Similarly, in this context, the fact that the fish will “be impossible to be found (לא ימצא)” can be interpreted as meaning that the bittul of the fish will not reach the aspirations of the “sick” person. Because of his high attainments, his yearning is for complete and total bittul. A fish, although constantly in connection with its source, is still a separate entity. Hence, partaking of it will not enable him to reach the desired level of bittul.

The Mishnah16 mentions the opinion of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel who rules that the created beings within the water are not considered as intervening substances.17 The halachah, however, does not follow this view, as explained in the series of maamarim entitled BeShaah SheHikdimu, 5672.18

This high level of yearning reflects how the generation is “entirely meritorious.” Therefore “the son of David will come.”

Although this represents a high level, Mashiach is still referred to as “the son of David” to highlight the qualities of mesirus nefesh and kabbalas ol identified with David. For these extend upward to the highest peaks.