Much has been written about the time period preceding Mashiah’s arrival. Our sages have elaborated in great detail on the specific characteristics of that generation and the extraordinary events that would take place at that time. As this month’s article demonstrates, these descriptions lead us to the inevitable conclusion that we are living today in the pre-Messianic era.
In his later years, the Hafess Haim, z”l, (1838-1933) often referred to his times as the generation before Mashiah, noting the occurrence of all the signs mentioned by the prophets. He eventually published a pamphlet entitled Waiting for the Redemption, seeking to raise the Jewish public’s awareness of the onset of the pre-Messianic era, and the need for spiritual preparation.
In anticipation of the imminent restoration of the Bet Hamikdash, the Hafess Haim urged Torah scholars, and especially kohanim, to learn and teach the laws pertaining to the Temple rituals. He also published a series of scholarly works elucidating these laws, and established a kollel devoted to this area of study. As a direct result of his pioneering efforts, many yeshivot today include the laws of the Mikdash in their curricula.[i]
It must be emphasized that when the Hafess Haim and others speak of “the generation before Mashiah,” they do not refer to a particular number of years after which Mashiah will arrive. The precise point at which Mashiah will arrive remains unknown, never to be revealed before his actual arrival.[ii]
Describing the Generation before Mashiah
Drawing from the words of the Prophets, the Talmud gives the following description of the pre-Messianic era:
“In that time, the words of our sages and those who fear sin will be disgusted and disregarded, the pursuit of truth will be scarce, the world at large will be sinners and nonbelievers, insolence will thrive, the young will shame the elderly, the elderly will stand for the young, children will stray from their parents, all will do as they please and no one will give rebuke, the face of the generation will resemble that of a dog…” (Sanhedrin 97a)
This passage, in many ways, describes the unfortunate state of the world in our times. The groups that have defected from Torah Judaism during the past two centuries openly “disgust and disregard” the sacred words of our sages, dismissing our traditions as “outdated” and “irrational.”[iii] The “pursuit of truth” has been replaced by the pursuit of vanity, and has become so “scarce” that a full eighty percent of world Jewry is not religiously observant.[iv] “The world at large” is indeed full of “non-believers” who deny the existence of a Creator. And the alarmingly rampant immorality and indecency (exacerbated in no small part by the Internet) render our generation comparable to a dog, which has no feelings of privacy or shame.[v]
Our generation resembles a dog in a different sense, as well. Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin of Salant[vi], z”l (1810-1883), founder of the Musar Movement, noted that when a dog walks with his owner, it generally walks ahead, giving the impression that it leads and directs the owner. It is only when it reaches a fork in the road and must wait for its master that it becomes clear that the master, and not the dog, is the leader. In the pre-Messianic era, Rabbi Yisrael explained, the leadership, the “face of the generation”, will resemble that of a dog. Leaders will only give the impression of leadership – while in truth it will be their constituencies who are showing them the way.
Sure enough, in our times, politicians pander to the people’s preferences, sometimes changing their platforms several times to conform to the latest opinion poll. While the leaders try to give the impression of guiding and directing the masses, in truth, it is the people who choose the direction which the leaders then feel bound to follow.
The Industrial Revolution in the early nineteenth century brought with it a fundamental change to the world and human life. What used to take months to accomplish can now be done in mere seconds. A traveler can journey from one end of the earth to the other in less than 19 hours[vii], people can amass and lose enormous fortunes practically overnight, wars are fought and decided in a matter of days, and countries rise and fall in rapid succession. Our sages[viii] explain that as Mashiah’s arrival draws near, Hashem “rushes” to complete all the events that must take place before the end of days, when the world will begin a new chapter in the existence of mankind.
The spiritual forces of impurity are working “overtime” and with extra vigor in a final, desperate surge of power before their final elimination with Mashiah’s arrival.[ix] The lust for wealth, rampant immorality and widespread atheism that characterize our generation are all manifestations of this process. Just as a candle shines brightest before it extinguishes completely, the forces of evil similarly shine with unprecedented force just prior to being extinguished.
Our Last Stop in Exile
The events of the twentieth century have dramatically changed the face of the Jewish nation. The Holocaust obliterated the flourishing communities of Eastern Europe; nearly all Middle Eastern Jews were forced out of their resident countries; Israel has been rebuilt to an extent that has not been seen since the Second Commonwealth, with millions of Jews settling in their homeland. How do we explain these dramatic upheavals?
A story is told how one morning, while reciting the shaharit service, Rav Haim of Volozhin (1749-1820) – the most illustrious disciple of the Vilna Gaon – suddenly burst into heartrending tears. The students watched in astonishment, wondering what could have provoked such an outbreak of emotion. A few minutes later, Rav Haim again burst into tears.
Though initially hesitant to explain to his students what had happened, Rav Haim realized that if he beheld this vision in public, it is apparently meant to be revealed.
“Know my sons,” he whispered, “that a day will come when all the communities and great yeshivot of Europe will be destroyed and uprooted. They will be rebuilt in America – the Jews’ last stop in exile before Mashiah.”
After more prodding from his students, Rav Haim revealed the reason for his second outburst. “I have also foreseen the terrible suffering and destruction that will take place before they are resettled there!”[x]
Rav Haim foresaw the calamity of WWII and the subsequent rebuilding of Jewish life in America – over a century before these events occurred. More importantly, this episode bids us to view the Holocaust and the resettling of the Jews in America as a part of Gd’s master plan to bring us to the Messianic era.
Furthermore, our Sages[xi] have alluded to the Jewish settlement of Eress Yisrael that will occur in the period before Mashiah. Indeed, after centuries of near desolation and foreign rule, Israel has, in a matter of just several decades, become a sovereign Jewish State and home to nearly 40 percent of the world’s Jewish population – yet another indication that we are living in pre-Messianic times.[xii]
Elsewhere, the Talmud foresees the suffering that the Jewish people will endure prior to Mashiah’s arrival:
“In that time, a great wave of suffering and harsh decrees will afflict the Jewish nation, all the wicked among the Jews will die out; even the Torah scholars will have no peace… and many will despair of the final redemption.” (Sanhedrin 97b, 98a)
It has been foreseen by the prophets[xiii] that the suffering preceding Mashiah will reach an unprecedented magnitude. The commentators explain[xiv] that throughout the different periods of persecution the Jewish nation has endured, there had always been a safe haven to run to – away from affliction. In the end of days however, there will be no escape, as all the nations will unite as one common enemy against the Jewish Nation.
The Purpose of Suffering
Our Sages give a number of reasons for the suffering that will precede Mashiah. Primarily, it will inspire a process of repentance through which the Jews will become worthy of redemption, and the sinners who fail to repent will be eliminated.[xv] Others[xvi] claim that in the period before Mashiah the Jews will spiritually deteriorate to the point where Hashem will need to hasten Mashiah’s arrival, before they reach the level at which redemption is no longer possible.
Ways to Be Saved
This information should not lead us to fear and despair, Heaven forbid. It should rather inspire us to increase our commitment to Torah, so that Gd will spare us the suffering that will precede Mashiah.
How specifically can one save himself from these horrors?
The Talmud[xvii] lists several particular missvot that help a person escape the suffering of pre-Messianic times, including involvement in Torah learning, kindness, and ensuring to eat three meals on Shabbat. These missvot, in particular, have the ability to protect a person from suffering before Mashiah’s arrival.
The Two Times for Mashiah’s Arrival
Although the prophet Daniel[xviii] designated a specific time for Mashiah’s arrival (albeit in an indecipherable way), the Jews’ repentance could bring Mashiah earlier – even today! The Talmud[xix] relates that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi once met Mashiah, and Mashiah announced that he would be coming that very day. When the day passed uneventfully, Rabbi Yehoshua asked the prophet Eliyahu to explain why Mashiah had misled him. Eliyahu answered that indeed, if the Jews would wholeheartedly repent, Mashiah would come that same day.
The Talmud[xx] says that the present world will span a period of six thousand years, and Mashiah will come some time during the last two millennia – thus guaranteeing his arrival by the year 6000.[xxi] We are now in the year 5769, a mere 231 years away from that “deadline.” Hopefully, through our sincere efforts to repent, we will be deserving of welcoming Mashiah even before then, speedily and in our times, Amen!
Next Month: Mashiah ben Yosef and Mashiah ben David
[i] Kol Kitvei Hafess Haim, vol. 3, pp. 60-63.
[ii] Letter from Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman (1875-1941); see preface to Bet Hasho’eva by Rabbi Shimon Shwab, zt”l.
[iii] Tsipita Li’yeshu’a, chapter 1.
[v] Bet Hasho’eva, pp. 112,117.
[vi] Bet Hasho’eva, p. 124.
[vii] Flug Revue 4/2004, p. 22.
[viii] The Hafess Haim and others; see Bet Hasho’eva, p. 162.
[ix] See Osserot Aharit Hayamim, p. 89, and Kovess He’arot, p. 146.
[x] Sefer Avi Hayeshivot, p. 110.
[xi] See Sanhedrin 97b and 98b, and Malbim’s commentary to Yehezkel, chapter 38.
[xii] Jewish Virtual Library.org.
[xiii] Daniel chapter 12
[xiv] Bet Hasho’eva p.164
[xv] Sanhedrin 97b and Sefer Even Shelomo, 11:6.
[xvi] Bet Hasho’eva, p.182.
[xvii] Sanhedrin 98b, Shabbat 118a.
[xviii] Daniel, chapter 12 (see commentaries).
[xix] Sanhedrin 98a.
[xx] Sanhedrin 97b.
[xxi] Sefer Nessah Yisrael, 27.