The Messianic Age in Judaism

Jewish text offers glimpses into the time of the Messiah.

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Classical Jewish texts depict a Messiah who will come to redeem the Jewish people, gather the exiled to the land of Israel, and rule over a prosperous nation, and relate other more detailed (and diverse) traditions about the Messiah's arrival as well as the conditions of the messianic era. Excerpted and reprinted with the permission of Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc., from What Do Jews Believe?

The Arrival of the Messiah

The rabbis speculated on the conditions under which the Messiah was likely to appear.afterlife messiah

He will not arrive on the Sabbath, since that would require people to violate the Sabbath in welcoming him [Babylonian Talmud Pesahim 13a]. [The prophet] Elijah [who is supposed to usher in the messianic age] will arrive no later in the week than Thursday, leaving room for the Messiah to arrive by Friday. Elijah will announce the arrival of the Messiah from Mount Carmel in the Land of Israel [Jerusalem Talmud Pesahim 3:6].

Many rabbis believed that the Messiah would arrive suddenly on the eve of Passover, the first redemption, which serves as a model of the final redemption [Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Pischa 14].

Corruption and Degradation Will Precede Redemption

One statement from the time of the rabbis describes the era leading up to the Messiah in the darkest terms of societal corruption:

"In the footsteps of the Messiah, arrogance [chutzpah] will increase; prices will rise; grapes will be abundant but wine will be costly; the government will turn into heresy; and there will be no reproach. The meeting place [of scholars] will become a bordello; the Galilee will be destroyed; the highland will lie desolate; the border people will wander from city to city and none will show them compassion; the wisdom of authors will stink; sin‑fearing people will be detested; truth will be missing; young men will humiliate the elderly; the elderly will stand while the young sit; sons will revile their fathers; daughters will strike their mothers, brides will strike their mothers‑in‑law; and a man's enemies will take over his house. The face of the generation is like the face of a dog! Sons have no shame in front of their fathers; and on whom can one depend? Only upon our father in heaven [Sotah 9:15]."

This era will be characterized by God's war against Gog and Magog and other catastrophic events. Another statement, which may date from the time of the Hadrianic persecutions (132‑35 C.E.), offers the dark assessment that the Messiah will arrive in a period when Jews collaborate with their enemies, Torah learning disappears, poverty increases, and religious despair deepens:

"The son of David will not arrive until informers are everywhere. Another view: Until there are few students left. Another view: Until the last coin is gone from the pocket. Another view: Until peo­ple despair of redemption…as if there is no support or help for Israel [BT Sanhedrin 97a]."messianic age

Some sages predicted that the Messiah would not arrive until Israel observed the commandments more fully:

"Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rav: If all Israel had observed the very first Sabbath, no nation or tongue would have ever ruled over her…Rabbi Yohanan said, following Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai: Were Israel to observe two Sabbaths punctiliously, they would be redeemed immediately [BT Shabbat 118b]."

Some rabbis believed that the arrival of the Messiah had no relation either to political and societal events or to individual actions. They believed that there were a finite number of souls destined to enter the world and reside within human bodies. When the supply of fresh souls was exhausted, the Messiah would arrive [BT Yevamot 62a; BT Avodah Zarah 5a; BT Niddah 13b] […]

Converting to Judaism in the Messianic Age

A central question that preoccupied the rabbis was how the messianic age would differ from the present age.

One concern was that many Gentiles would convert to Judaism at the last moment just in order to participate in the new age. Some sages concluded, therefore, that "converts are not received in the days of the Messiah," just as they were not welcome in the days of David and Solomon [BT Yevamot 24b].

A dispute arose among the rabbinic sages about the desirability of encouraging Gentiles to convert to Judaism. While most welcomed converts, others raised doubts about their sincerity. Rabbi Helbo, who mistrusted the sincerity of converts, stated that "converts are more difficult for Israel than a sore [BT Niddah 13b]." Others suspected that converts might not remain loyal during the messianic era. They decided that converts could be accepted, but with difficulty because they were likely to revert to their former ways in the heat of the messianic upheavals [BT Avodah Zarah 3b].

Specific Features of the Messianic Age

Foreign nations would not be obliterated in the messianic era. Nations such as Rome would come to the Messiah to pay tribute to him, but their appeals for favor would be rejected [BT Pesahim 118b].

Some rabbis faced the messianic age with anticipation, others with dread. One viewpoint suggested that knowledge of Torah would continue to decline in the messianic age: "A bad announcement was conveyed to Israel at that moment. In the future, the Torah will be forgotten [Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Pischa 12]." Others forecast that in "the future era, the synagogues and academies of Babylonia will be transported to the Land of Israel [BT Megillah 29a]."

Still others held that humans would take on a new appearance: some thought that man would achieve a height of 160 feet, while another suggested he might double that. There is no suggestion that the Messiah himself is a wonder worker, but many sages believed that the messianic age would be a time of wonders. Women would give birth painlessly, hens lay eggs continuously, and food appear in abundance [BT Shabbat 30b].

There were controversies about the nature of the messianic era. Followers of the sage Samuel maintained that it would be similar to their own era, except that the Jewish people would be returned to Israel and the Davidic monarchy restored. Samuel saw "no difference between this world and the messianic age other than subjugation to dispersions [BT Shabbat 63a]."

Others, such as Rabbi Eliezer, believed that the next era would be unprecedented and qualitatively different. This debate represented the two poles of Jewish belief about the messianic era. One view sees it in terms of normal human existence under conditions of Jewish political independence; the other as something wholly new that defies prediction.

During the messianic era, the Messiah will reign victorious and rebuild the Temple. He will restore the priesthood to the Temple, and the traditional sacrifices will be reinstated. The return to the golden age of the Jewish people will be complete. Many popular Jewish prayers express this messianic longing for the rebuilding of the Temple and above all for the return to Zion. Perhaps even more than the coming of the Messiah, traditional Judaism has sought this dream of the return to Zion.

The Jewish people will be complete. Many popular Jewish prayers express this messianic longing for the rebuilding of the Temple and above all for the return to Zion. Perhaps even more than the coming of the Messiah, traditional Judaism has sought this dream of the return to Zion.

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Dr. David S. Ariel

Dr. David S. Ariel is head of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He was previously president of Siegal College of Judaic Studies (formerly the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies). He is author of Spiritual Judaism: Restoring Heart and Soul to Jewish Life and The Mystic Quest: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism.