The coming of the Messiah and the subsequent redemption of Israel is a basic belief of Judaism.
God will bring the redemption in His own time. If all Israel were to return to God, the Messiah would appear and the final redemption would be ushered in immediately. Otherwise, the redemption will not occur until the final time decreed by God. This is the meaning of the verse, “I, God, will accelerate it in its due time” (Isaiah 60:22). That is, if Israel is worthy, God will hasten the redemption; if they are not, it will come, but only in its due time.
Thus, we find two contradictory concepts regarding the advent of the Messianic Era in the Bible. There are many passages which indicate that the Messianic Era will be ushered in with miracles, such as, “In visions of the night, I beheld the likes of a human being who came with the clouds of heaven… and he was given… an everlasting dominion which will never pass away” (Daniel 7:13-14).
On the other hand, numerous passages indicate that the Messiah will come in a more prosaic manner, such as “Behold, your king comes to you… humble and riding upon a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). Here again, we are taught that there are two basic ways in which the Messianic Era can commence. If Israel is worthy, it will indeed by accompanied by heavenly miracles. If not, the Messianic Era will arrive through an apparently natural unfolding of historical events. In either case, God Himself will guide the forces of history to eventually bring about the Messianic Era.
Many of our sages maintained that there would be very little difference between now and the onset of the Messianic Era except with respect to Israel’s subjugation by other governments. Similarly, we are taught that the redemption will not come all at once, but gradually, in a natural manner.
Nevertheless, the Messiah can come at any time, totally without warning. The reason for this is that many of the traditions regarding events which will precede the Messianic Era are contingent upon factors known only to God. Not all are necessary conditions for the redemption. It is for this reason that one should not attempt to calculate the date of the coming of the Messiah. Our sages thus taught, “May the soul of those who calculate the end rot.”
Many of our traditions predict that there will be an extremely advanced technology in the Messianic Era. All disease will be eliminated, as the prophet foretold, “Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame man will leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb will sing” (Isaiah 35:5-6).
In order that man devote himself totally to achieving spiritual perfection, many forms of labor will become obsolete. A number of miracles are predicted, such as grapes as large as hen’s eggs and grains of wheat as big as a fist. As we now know, all this can become possible with a technology not too far removed from that of today. Indeed, when Rabbi Gamliel spoke of these predicted miracles, he stated that they would not involve any change in the laws of nature, but are allusions to a highly advanced technology. Thus, so little labor will be needed to process agricultural products that clothing and loaves of bread will seem to grow on trees. Similarly, as we learn the secrets of all life processes, it will become possible to make trees bear fruit continually.
When we think of the miracles of the Messianic Age as being technological rather than manifest, then we have no trouble understanding traditions that predict such things as space flight and interstellar colonization in the Messianic Age, even according to those who believe that it will not be a time of manifest miracles.
All of this would be mere conjecture and even forced interpretation if it were not for the fact that our present technological revolution has also been predicted, with an approximate date as to its inception. Almost 2000 years ago, the Zohar predicted, “In the 600th year of the 6th millennium, the gates of wisdom on high and the wellsprings of lower wisdom will be opened. This will prepare the world to enter the 7th millennium, just as a person prepares himself toward sunset on Friday for the Sabbath. It is the same here. And the mnemonic for this is (Genesis 7:11), ‘In the 600th year… all the foundation of the great deep were split’.”
Here we see a clear prediction that in the Jewish year 5600 (1840 CE), the wellsprings of lower wisdom would be opened and there would be a sudden expansion of secular knowledge. Although the year 1840 did not yield any major scientific breakthrough, the date corresponds with almost uncanny accuracy to the onset of the present scientific revolution.
The tradition may have even anticipated the tremendous destructive powers of our modern technology. Thus, we are taught that the Messianic Era will begin in a generation with the power to destroy itself.
The rapid changes on both a technological and sociological level will result in great social upheaval. The cataclysmic changes will result in considerable suffering, often referred to as the Chevley Mashiach or birth pangs of the Messiah. If the Messiah comes with miracles, these may be avoided, but he great changes involved in his coming in a natural manner may make these birth pangs inevitable.
There is a tradition that the Jewish people will begin to despise the values of their religion in the generations preceding the coming of the Messiah. Since in a period of such accelerated change parents and children will grow up in literally different worlds, traditions handed down from father to son will be among the major casualties. Our sages thus teach us that neither parents nor the aged will be respected, the old will have to seek favors from the young, and a person’s household will become his enemies. Insolence will increase, people will no longer have respect, and none will offer correction. Religious studies will be despised and used by nonbelievers to strengthen their own claims; the government will become godless, academies places of immorality, and the pious denigrated.
Judaism will suffer greatly because of these upheavals. There is a tradition that the Jewish people will split up into various groups, each laying claim to the truth, making it almost impossible to discern true Judaism from the false. This is the meaning of the prophecy, “Truth will fail” (Isaiah 59:15).
It has also been predicted that a great wave of atheism would sweep the world. As a result, many would leave the fold of Judaism completely. This is how our sages interpret the prophecy, “Many will purify themselves… and be refined. But the wicked will do evil; not one of them will understand. Only the wise will understand” (Daniel 12:10). That is, only the wise will understand that this is a test from heaven and that they must stand firm in their faith.
Of course, there will be some Jews who remain loyal to their traditions. Still others will return to the true values of Judaism after having been estranged. They will realize that they are witnessing the death throes of a degenerate old order and will not be drawn into it. But they will suffer all the more for this, and be dubbed fools for not conforming to the debased ways of the pre-Messianic period. This is the meaning of the prophecy, “He who departs from evil will be considered a fool” (Isaiah 59:15).
There is an apparent tradition that there will be a population explosion prior to the coming of the Messiah.
There is a tradition that if Israel does not repent, God will raise up a king like Haman who will want to annihilate the entire Jewish people. This may be the reason for Hitler’s almost incomprehensible career.
RETURN TO ISRAEL
One of the most important traditions regarding the Messianic Era concerns the ingathering of the Diaspora and the resettlement of the Land of Israel. There are numerous traditions that the Jewish people will begin to return to the Land of Israel as a prelude to the Messiah. The ingathering will begin with a measure of political independence, and according to some, with the permission of the other nations.
As the holiest spot in the Land of Israel, Jerusalem is the most important city that must be rebuilt there. There is a tradition that the ingathering of the exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem will go hand in hand as the two most important preludes to the coming of the Messiah. According to this tradition, first a small percentage of the exile will return to the Holy Land, and then Jerusalem will come under Jewish control and be rebuilt. Only then will the majority of Jews in the world return to their homeland. It is thus written, “God is rebuilding Jerusalem; [then] He will gather the dispersed of Israel” (Psalms 147:2).
There is a tradition that the Land of Israel will be cultivated at that time, after a long period of desolation. This is based on the prophecy, “O mountains of Israel, let your branches sprout forth; yield your fruit to My people Israel, for they are at hand to come” (Ezekiel 36:8).
There is another important reason why the ingathering of the exile must precede the coming of the Messiah. One of our traditions regarding the advent of the Messianic Era is that it will mark the return of prophecy among the Jewish people. Furthermore, according to the final words ever spoken by a prophet, Elijah will return as a prophet and announce the coming of the Messiah, as it is written, “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of God” (Malachi 3:23). This is necessary because the Messiah will be a king, and a king can be anointed only by a prophet. Besides this, the Messiah himself will be a prophet, the greatest of them all, second only to Moses.
Thus, the restoration of prophecy is very important in the unfolding of the Messianic drama. This, however, requires a number of conditions. First of all, prophecy can usually take place only in the Land of Israel, and not in any other land. The Land of Israel, however, is not conducive to prophecy at all times. Before prophecy can exist in the Land of Israel, it must be inhabited by the majority of Jews in the world. Thus, unless we assume that this rule is to be broken, more than half of the Jewish people will have to live in the Land of Israel before the Messianic Era commences.
TEMPLE AND TRIBES
One of the most important events in the Messianic Era will be the rebuilding of the Holy Temple (Beit HaMikdash). Indeed, according to Maimonides, it is the act of building the Temple which will establish the identity of the Messiah beyond any shadow of a doubt. There are, however, many things involving the Temple which can only be ascertained prophetically, such as, for example, the precise location of the Altar. When Ezra rebuilt the Temple after the Babylonian exile, the place of the Altar had to be revealed prophetically, and the same will apparently be true when the Temple is rebuilt in the Messianic Ages.
Regarding the conquest of the Land of Israel, the Torah states, “Clear out the land and live in it” (Numbers 33:53). Many authorities maintain that this commandment remains in full force today.
There is a tradition that the Land of Israel will only be regained through great suffering. This has been fulfilled to obtain that part of the Land which we possess today.
Although some measure of political independence has been obtained in Israel, the complete ingathering of the exile will only be accomplished by the Messiah. Regarding this, the prophet foretold, “On that day, God will stretch forth His hand a second time to bring back the remnant of His people… He will hold up a banner for the nations, assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” (Isaiah 11:11-12).
GOG AND MAGOG
There is a tradition that there will be great suffering before the advent of the Messiah. We are thus taught, “One third of the world’s woes will come in the generation preceding the Messiah.”
There are prophecies that there will be a “War of Gog and Magog” around Jerusalem. According to this tradition, when the nations hear of the success of the Jewish people in rebuilding their land, they will gather to do battle against them near Jerusalem, led by Gog, the king of Magog. The battle will symbolize the final war between good and evil. In Jerusalem, all evil will ultimately be vanquished.
The Messiah of whom we have been speaking will be a direct descendent of King David, from the tribe of Judah. He is therefore known as Mashiach ben Dovid or Messiah the son of David. There is also a tradition that there will be another Messiah, from the tribe of Ephraim, the son of Joseph, who will precede Mashiach ben Dovid. He is therefore known as Mashiach ben Yosef or Mashiach ben Ephraim.
There is a tradition that Israel’s enemies will only succumb to a descendant of Joseph. Thus, Mashiach ben Yosef will be the one who will lead Israel to victory in the war of Gog and Magog. This is the meaning of the verse, “The house of Jacob will be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau stubble. They will set them ablaze, and consume them; there will be no survivor of the house of Esau, for God has spoken” (Ovadiah 1:18).
Concerning the relationship between the two Messiahs — the initial Messiah, Mashiach ben Yosef, and the final Messiah, Mashiach ben Dovid — the prophet declared, “Ephraim’s envy will depart and Judah’s adversaries will be cut off. Ephraim will not envy Judah, and Judah will not harass Ephraim” (Isaiah 11:13). That is, each Messiah will perform his appointed task, without jealousy. It is likewise written, “Son of man, take a stick, and write upon it, ‘For Judah, and the children of Israel, his companions.’ Then take another stick, and write upon it, ‘For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and all the house of Israel, his companions.’ Join them together into one stick, so that they are one in your hand” (Ezekiel 37:16-17).
According to ancient tradition, the initial Messiah will fight and be killed in the war of Gog and Magog. He will be mourned by all Israel, as it is written, “They shall look to Me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourns his first born son” (Zechariah 12:10).
Before the appearance of the final Messiah, a prophet will arise to announce his coming and to draw the Jewish people back to God. This prophet is referred to as Elijah the prophet. It is thus written, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of God” (Malachi 3:23). His primary task will be to bring peace to the world by leading all people back to God. The prophecy thus concludes, “He will turn the ears of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I [God] come and strike the world with destruction” (ibid. 3:24).
There is a tradition that Elijah will reveal himself sometime after the war of Gog and Magog, immediately before Mashiach ben Dovid appears.
Some maintain that Elijah is a kohen, who will serve as the High Priest in the days of the Messiah, in the Third Temple.
From “The Handbook of Jewish Thought” (Vol. 2, Maznaim Publishing). Reprinted with permission.
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan was a multi-faceted, prolific exponent of Jewish thought — skilled in both Kabbalah and Jewish law, as well as the natural sciences (he was listed in “Who’s Who in Physics”). He suffered an untimely death at age 48.