by R. Gidon Rothstein
Abarbanel’s Understanding of Yeshayahu’s Yemot HaMashiach: Changes in the World and the King Who Will Inaugurate Them
Abarbanel deals with Yeshayahu’s vision of the Messianic era at remarkable length [I find it especially remarkable because he was pre-printing, mostly, so that to write at such length implies a confidence in readers’ willingness to transcribe this that is itself eye-popping.] As I said last time, I don’t intend to summarize the presentation, since he is interested both in the conclusions and the process, taking readers through the text, to show how it means what he claims it means.
I’ll leave that for your private learning. Here, I just want to see how he understands what Yeshayahu told us about how yemot haMashiach will look. He opens with the admission that he does not have the space to discuss all of Yeshayahu’s eschatological prophecies, because that would take too long. [A revelation of a comment, since if he was sensitive to going on too long, it means that the lengthy work he did write did not seem to him too long. It would be interesting if he was unaware of the issue of length; to see that he knows that he can’t just go on and on, and yet to have written the volumes he did, surprises me at another level.]
Then he refers to a comment of Rambam’s in an introduction to his medical aphorisms, that people choose according to their likes; Abarbanel admits he’s doing that as well, choosing those of Yeshayahu’s prophecies that appealed most to him. [The comment resonates with me since one of my main goals in my A Responsum a Day project (both on ou.org and here on Torah Musings) is to find a collection of responsa that, as much as possible, are randomized such as not to reflect my interests].
The End of Days Wasn’t the Second Temple
The first prophecy he takes up begins at Yeshayahu 2;2. Abarbanel argues that the prophecy cannot have referred to the Second Temple (this is a continuing concern; throughout Mashmi’a Yeshu’a, he closes almost every chapter by summarizing how the ideas he’s just shared were not fulfilled in the Second Temple, so they must be about a future time).
Here, more than that these promises had not come true, Yeshayahu explicitly refers to acharit hayamim, the end of days. The 170 years from Yeshayahu until the return from Bavel weren’t long enough to be called “the end of days,” Abarbanel says. [We could argue that point; I assume we’re much closer to Mashiach than was Yeshayahu, and it may be within 170 years, but we refer to it as “the end of days” until it happens.] More convincingly, to me, Abarbanel notes that Ramban in Vayechi says explicitly that acharit hayamim means the time of Mashiach.
The Future Temple
In that time, Yeshayahu tells us, the Temple will be rebuilt, to stand in perpetuity. The Temple Mount will also be the location of the Presence of Hashem (it will appear there, in a way all can experience), to such an extent that all the nations of the world will gather there.
They will take the faith they learn at the Temple Mount and bring it with them to their home lands, where they, too, will cultivate lives of service to Hashem, will call to Hashem as the power that rules the world, and turn to Mashiach for guidance on how to live that life. That will include availing themselves of his good offices as judge of their disputes, part of what will lead to international peace.
More broadly, since religious differences (Abarbanel says) fuel much of world conflict [people in our times who agree with that view see it as a reason to reject religion; think John Lennon—Abarbanel thinks it’s just about bringing everyone on board with the correct religious view]. Once everyone comes to accept Hashem’s rule, the conflict will go away and peace will reign.
Another reason there will be no more war is that everyone will have enough, leaving no urge for theft or conquest. That is how Abarbanel interprets Yeshayahu’s reference to wolves and lambs living together—there will no longer be people who act like wolves, grabbing others’ property [Rambam interpreted this that way as well].
With all the improved knowledge, everyone’s goal in life will be to perfect their souls. In doing so, they will make war more distant as well, since—as Rambam had said—the evils that people perpetrate stem from their lack of understanding or wisdom. The wiser they are, they less evil they will do, and the more they will get along.
The Person of Mashiach
This Mashiach will be a descendant of David, a prophet of the highest level, such that, for example, he will be able to judge others without relying solely on the evidence, will be able to use his prophetic insight to achieve fuller justice. This is a daring claim, ripe for abuse, but Abarbanel takes Yeshayahu at his word, that Mashiach will not need to restrict himself to human mechanisms for discovering the truth of a dispute).
Aside from that, he’ll be extraordinarily wise, in all ways. Many wise people are less than fully practical, or political, etc., Mashiach will excel in all of it. He will control his physical appetites (the verse singles out smell, despite its being more innocuous than touch or taste), using them only to serve Hashem. He will seek justice and charity, and his close connection to Hashem will mean that he can and will perform miracles [Rambam was clear that Mashiach would not]. This power will obviate war, since he can deal with enemies by prayer, calls to Hashem that will be answered with divine force against the troublesome nation.
A Return to a Truer Nature
Abarbanel is also comfortable with the more simple view of the verse about wolves, that predators will cease killing their prey. He sees this as a restoration of Nature’s original way, as proven by the animals’ ability to coexist peacefully on Noach’s ark. In the time of Mashiach, that halcyon time will return, a function of the overall peace that will reign.[Three points: First, Abarbanel is comfortable with multiple contradictory interpretations, an aspect of his commentary that I saw in his commentary on Avot as well, when I was writing a PhD dissertation; second, he sees the foregoing predatory activity not as a new version of Nature, but a return to how it originally was [I assume he’d say it changed when Noach left the ark, and Hashem allowed the eating of meat]—that implies that some changes in Nature that we might worry about are actually the world going back to how it was supposed to be; last, he assumes that animals’ behavior is a function of, and reveals something about, the state of humanity].
He wonders at Rambam’s taking this figuratively instead, since he reads other verses as making clear that Hashem can control the nature of animals, such as when Hashem promises to send stinging insects to aid in the conquest of Israel, or warns that He will send wild animals against the Jewish people, as part of the punishments that will come for failure to keep the Torah (and the reverse for when we keep the Torah properly). Similarly, one of the miracles of the Temple era that Avot lists was that no snake or scorpion bit anyone in Jerusalem. That that would be true of the Messianic era does not seem at all unlikely to Abarbanel.
Nations and the Nation
As predicted by Moshe and Bil’am [and let me here say that as we go forward, I will not include predictions that repeat earlier ones—my interest here isn’t in where in Tanach we find which ideas about Mashiach, or how often. It’s only what Abarbanel understood about how that era would look. For that goal, we don’t have to use space repeating an idea each time it comes up].
One last new idea Abarbanel finds in this prophecy of Yeshayahu’s is that in that future time, Hashem will perform a miracle similar to the Splitting of the Sea [he assumes the future redemption will parallel the Exodus]. His reading of the verse is that it predicts that Hashem will dry the Nile, a terrible evil to befall Egypt, will split it into seven smaller rivers, leaving the bigger Nile as a dry path the Jews can follow back to Israel, singing songs of praise and thanksgiving [Abarbanel doesn’t here delve into why Egypt is so central to the future redemption, so neither will we].
So far, we’ve seen Mashiach as a time of peace and prosperity. Next time, we’ll see Abarbanel’s understanding of the world war that will precipitate the Messianic era.