Dear Jew in the City-
When is Moshiach coming?
Ah, nothing like the easy ones!
Happily, I don’t have to answer this question on my own because the Talmud discusses it in great detail. The subject is examined in tractate Sanhedrin on pages 97a-99a, with occasional tangents for related topics. Here, I will hit just a few of the high points but there is much more to be found in those pages.
On page 97a, a number of Sages share their opinions as to what the world will be like prior to Moshiach’s arrival. Rav Yochanan says that Moshiach will come in a generation when Torah scholars are decreasing, the people are in despair, and afflictions just keep on coming without a break. R. Yehuda says that Moshiach will come in a generation when the study halls are used for promiscuity, people despise those who shun sin, and people’s faces will resemble those of dogs (meaning that they are shameless). Rabbi Nehurai says that Moshiach will come in a generation when young people are chutzpadik to their elders and those elders honor the young. Daughters disgrace their mothers, daughters-in-law humiliate their mothers-in-law, and sons feel no shame in front of their fathers.
Rabbi Yitzchak said that before Moshiach would come, the entire Roman Empire would convert to Christianity – an impressive statement given that Rabbi Yitzchak lived in the second century and died about 150 years before Emperor Constantine would realize his prediction!
The Sages say that Moshiach won’t come until things are so bad that the people have despaired of redemption altogether.
Of course, many of these things have come to pass and Moshiach has not yet come because our sins delay his arrival. Alternately, God’s attribute of strict justice (as opposed to His attribute of mercy) is delaying Moshiach’s arrival. If this is the case, the Gemara asks, why should we even bother waiting for him? It answers that we wait for Moshiach because doing so earns us a reward as per Isaiah 30:18, “Happy are all those who wait for him.”
The Sage known as Rav says that all the scheduled times for Moshiach to arrive have already passed; the only things that can bring him now are teshuvah (repentance) and performing mitzvos. His counterpart, Shmuel, says that the suffering the Jews endure in exile will be sufficient to do the job even if the Jews do not repent.
Rabbi Nosson expounds on Habakkuk 2:3: “The vision is reserved for the appointed time; it declares the end and does not lie. Though it tarries, wait for it because it will surely come and will not delay.” This verse, he tells us, “penetrates and descends to the depths.” That is to say, just as the extent of the depths are unknowable, so too the date of Moshiach’s arrival is an impenetrable mystery. He then cites three opinions about the date of Moshiach’s arrival – those of the Sages, Rabbi Simlai and Rabbi Akiva, all of whom based their positions on Biblical verses. They all have it wrong, Rabbi Nosson says. None of those verses are talking about Moshiach. Rather, he says, they foretell the durations of the Hasmonean dynasty, the Herodian dynasty, and Bar Kochba. The advent of Moshiach, however, is incalculable.
Rabbi Abba thinks that the time of Moshiach’s arrival is obvious, based on Ezekiel 36:8, “But you mountains of Israel will shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit for My people Israel because they are coming soon.” (This, of course, happened when the Jews returned with the founding of the modern-day State of Israel.)
Rabbi Yochanan said that if you see a generation beset by afflictions that are relentless like a river, you should expect that Moshiach is coming soon. This is based on verses in Isaiah chapter 59. Verse 19 says that “distress will come in like a flood, driven by the breath of God.” Verse 20 continues, “And a redeemer will come to Zion….”
Rabbi Yochanan also said that Moshiach will only come either in a generation that is totally innocent or one that is totally guilty. “Totally innocent” is based on Isaiah 60:21, “Your people will all be righteous; they will inherit the land forever.” “Totally guilty” is based on several verses, including Isaiah 48:11, in which God says, “I will do it for My Own sake.”
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi pointed out an apparent contradiction in Isaiah 60:22. The verse says, “I will hasten (Moshiach’s arrival) in its time.” Which is it? Will He hasten it, meaning He will make it happen quickly, or will it happen in its assigned time? He reconciles the conflict as follows: if the Jews are worthy, God will hasten the redemption. If we are not, it will come about at the designated time.
Of course, there are those Talmudic authorities who discourage thinking at all about when Moshiach is coming. Whenever Rav Zeira saw people speculating as to the timing of Moshiach’s arrival, he would ask them to desist because the mere act actually delays him. Rav Zeira based this on a dictum that three things only happen when people are not thinking about them: finding an object, a scorpion stinging and Moshiach arriving.
Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani actually cursed those who try to calculate the time of Moshiach’s arrival. This is because such people end up causing a decrease in others’ faith. They name a time and, when Moshiach doesn’t adhere to their timetables, those who accepted the prediction assume he must never be coming.
Ultimately, it’s up to us to bring Moshiach. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked Eliyahu HaNavi (the prophet Elijah) when Moshiach would arrive. Eliyahu said, “He’s sitting at the city gate – go ask him yourself!” So Rabbi Yehoshua found Moshiach and asked him, “When are you coming?” “Today,” Moshiach replied.
Rabbi Yehoshua was excited by this news but he was subsequently disappointed when Moshiach didn’t show up as expected. He complained to Eliyahu, who explained that Rabbi Yehoshua had misunderstood Moshiach’s meaning. What Moshiach meant was Psalms 95:7, “Today, if you will just listen to His voice!”
In short, if we want Moshiach to come, we should stop talking about it so much and actually do something about it!
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent