The Messianic Age in Judaism

Jewish text offers glimpses into the time of the Messiah.

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"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]."

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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.