Abarbanel’s View of Yemot HaMashiach: Introduction

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

R. Isaac Abarbanel’s View of Yemot HaMashiach: Introduction

R. Don Isaac Abarbanel (I will follow common convention and refer to him just as Abarbanel) had as much reason as anyone to long for the Arrival of Mashiach. He had been forced out of his native Portugal in 1483, then Spain during the Expulsion of 1492. Add the fact that the Christians of his time were promoting their view that the Messiah had already arrived, and had fulfilled both Scriptural and Talmudic descriptions of the Messiah, and it is not surprising that the timing and nature of Redemption would be on his mind.

In 1497—when he was in Italy, where political changes would again mean that he never settled in one place long term–he wrote a book covering these topics, Migdol Yeshu’ot (which I’ve seen translated as Tower of Salvation). The book has three parts.

One, Ma’ayanei HaYeshua, is a commentary on Daniel; in a quick skim of the work, it seemed to me that he focused on the meaning of the predictions about when the Redemption will occur. The next, Yeshu’ot Meshicho, is ostensibly about the passages in the Talmud that talk about the times of the Mashiach; his introduction does tell us some of how he understood the Messianic future, but the work itself— in my very quick read-through– was more focused on refuting Christian claims that the Gemara itself supported the truths of their beliefs.

We can summarize the points about Mashiach in the introduction fairly quickly, and then turn to Mashmi’a Yeshua, which gathers the ideas of the prophets in Tanach who were mevasrei tov, mashmi’ei yeshu’a, the bearers of good tidings, the harbingers of redemption (the phrase is from Yeshayahu 52;7; he chose it because tov numerologically is 17, and he’s found seventeen prophets who told us about the goodness of that future time).

It’s a bit of a tour de force, in that Abarbanel goes through Scripture text by text, citing the passages, interpreting them almost line by line to explain their predictions. In the several weeks it will take us to review this, I won’t focus on his textual readings, just the picture of Mashiach.  

Shoring Up Faith

Abarbanel explains that the pain and bitterness of the Expulsion has led Jews to question whether Mashiach was ever going to come, which spurred Ma’ayanei HaYeshuah (the commentary on Daniel), a discussion of  ways of calculating when Mashiach could or would arrive. 

With that out of the way, he searched Talmudic and Midrashic sources for further insight, both to understand the Talmudic view and because many Jews were being challenged by Christians with whom they socialized, accosted for debate about how the end of days will look. Jewish scholars had either borne these attacks in silence, groped blindly for answers, or written polemical responses, without explaining the Talmudic view on its own terms.

His two-part work addresses when the Redemption will happen (his basic answer is that there are times when Mashiach could come, should we merit it, and a point beyond which Mashiach must come. That later point is called et ketz, the time of the end, in Daniel, and is elsewhere referred to as acharit hayamim, the end of days).

The bulk of Yeshu’ot Meshicho, however, is about how to read Rabbinic passages, and refutes the Christian readings of those texts. In terms of a presentation of his view of how that time will actually look, I think we’re best off turning to Mashmi’a Yeshu’a.

Problems of Interpreters and Interpretation

The introduction bemoans the difficulties of understanding passages in Chazal and Tanach about Mashiach. He repeats Rambam’s idea from the introduction to Chelek, that some interpret Chazal literally and assert we have to believe that, and some interpret it literally and reject it. (Neither of which is the correct approach, according to Rambam or Abarbanel).

Another continuing concern here is that many have read Tanach as referring to events that already occurred (the reign of Hizkiyahu, or the Second Temple era). That would leave Jews in the post-Second Temple era with no Scriptural assurances of a future redemption. Abarbanel points instead to Yonatan b. Uzziel, Rashi, the Kimchi family, who read these texts from a context of faith, as about a future we have not yet experienced [to me, that’s an insight not always noticed, which I first heard from my teacher R. Dr. Haym Soloveitchik, that the assumptions we bring to a text often shape what seem to us its “clear” meaning].

He has taken it upon himself to share his insight into the simple meaning of these passages—he says (loosely) “given that I have been blessed by God with the ability to understand these texts more properly.” [An interesting comment; I am sure he meant it as a humble expression of his understanding of his role in God’s world, even as I know people in our time who would take statements like that as arrogant, who would be offended by the idea that he or anyone could understand what God wanted of them, as if he or anyone had the right to see him or herself as uniquely talented in some way]. In offering these readings, he hopes to silence those who would undermine the faith.

He’ll start with Bil’am, move to Moshe’s predictions in Sefer Devarim, fifteen prophecies in Yeshayahu, six in Yirmiyahu, ten in Yehezkel, Hoshe’a, Yo’el, Amos, Ovadyah, two in Michah, Chabakuk, Tzefanyah, Chaggai, four in Zecharyah, Malachi, twelve chapters of Tehillim. He’s already addressed Daniel’s views in his commentary on that book, he says, so he won’t repeat them here [and I’ll leave that for another time].

I will try to summarize his views as briefly as possible, because we still have to get to Maharal. I will also not have the space here to engage his readings of the texts—we won’t get the chance to review all that Tanach has to say about the Redemption– just the conclusions he draws. For this week, let’s see what his understanding of what Bil’am and Moshe Rabbenu had to say.

Bil’am—Broadcasting Good Against His Will

Unique among the figures Abarbanel will discuss, Bil’am didn’t want to be a mashmi’a yeshua. Nonetheless, his words had much good, about his own time, about the kingdoms of David and Shlomo, and about Mashiach. We’ll discuss only those parts that have to do with Mashiach.

In Bil’am’s first words, Abarbanel finds a reference to the Jewish people’s uniqueness, that we are not under the control of the stars [today, we would say that we are not bound by the forces of nature, or the “natural” course of history; same idea, different terminology]. Because of that, it’s the Jews who earn or garner the real reward in life, why he expresses a hope to die their kind of death.

While not solely about Mashiach, that fosters a view of the course of Jewish history that seems to me worth remembering, and very relevant to our belief in a Messianic future. It is our memory and certainty that history the way it looks to the human eye isn’t the whole story that fuels our ability to maintain confidence in the prophesied future good of the Jewish people.

His fourth prophecy is again about Mashiach. In contrast to Chazal, who blame Bil’am for the idea of sending Moabite women to seduce Jewish men, Abarbanel reads him as advising Balak to ignore the Jews, since they won’t bother Moav or Midian in his time. In the end of days, long beyond his time frame, they will, but that’s not his concern.

In that later time, when they have not had a king for many generations, a group will arise from within the people [Abarbanal says yakum me-‘atzmo, will arise on its own, which implies that it will be grassroots-driven, rather than coming from a Messiah figure gathering them himself]. They will then re-establish a kingdom which will conquer Moav and the rest of the world (benei Shet are the children of Shet, the only child of Adam to have a lasting lineage).

Bil’am was aware of Mashiach as a time when the Jews would rise up, restore the monarchy, and conquer the world. Moshe Rabbenu went into a bit more detail.

Parshat Ekev and Shoftim

Lema’an yirbu yemeichem, that your days be long on the Land, in Devarim 11;21, repeats the promise to the Patriarchs that the Jews would receive Israel as a permanent and eternal gift. That promise will not have been fulfilled until the Jews are ensconced there permanently, never to be exiled again. [Let’s hope this time is it.]

We saw Rambam’s view that there would one day be nine cities of refuge. Abarbanel agrees, and thinks that will come true when another promise to Avraham will be fulfilled, that the Jews will be given the land of ten nations (adding Keni, Kenizi, and Kadmoni to the seven Canaanite ones), expanding the borders to the river of Egypt on the west and the Euphrates on the east.

When we first entered Israel, there were too few of us, and we were too loosely attached to service of Hashem, to merit all that land. But when we observe all the mitzvot, out of love of Hashem and in a continuing attempt to walk His paths, our borders will expand, and we will then add three more. [Since he conditions this time on the Jews investing fully in service of God, it’s even more notable that he still thinks there will be a need for cities of refuge. As I noted when Rambam said it, that implies there will still be both murder and unintentional killing].

Parshat Nitzavim as Salve to the Tochacha and Circumcision of the Heart

The Torah twice warns us at length of the consequences of failure to serve Hashem. The tochacha in Bechukotai ends with a promise of eventual restoration, but not the one in Ki Tavo. Abarbanel thinks that’s because that tochacha only ends at the beginning of Nitzavim, where the Torah stresses the promise of redemption to help Jews avoid despair.

The Torah doubles its references to the Jews’ repentance (ve-shavta el Hashem and va-hashevota el levavecha), Abarbanel says, to address both Jews who identify as such as well as the anusim, those forced to convert. Both groups need to know that repentance will bring them redemption and permanent residence in this broadened Land. Ordinary Jews will have Hashem circumcise their hearts, such that they will never again sin in ways that would mandate another exile. The anusim, born into families that are outwardly non-Jewish, will need physical circumcision as well as spiritual.

The verses that speak of Hashem returning to a relationship of joy, as Hashem had with our forefathers, means we’ll get back the full Divine Presence we had in the desert, with the Aron, and prophecy, and fire from Heaven on the altar, etc.

In his summary of this section, Abarbanel that the Jewish people will reach a higher spiritual state than even in the time of David and Shlomo, and that all our enemies will be destroyed, accursed, and punished.

Ha’azinu

He saw seven ideas in Ha’azinu, related to the redemption. The ones we have not seen before are: it will involve vengeance against all the nations that oppressed us, at a time that is pre-set, although carefully hidden in Daniel such that people will not understand it until it comes to pass. Third, it is dependent on the Jewish people fully atoning for their sins, by being downtrodden to the lowest possible point of lack of respect and of poverty.

This exile will last until the merit of the Patriarchs is used up (as Ramban held), and the only reason for our redemption will be the denigration of Hashem’s Name caused by the victories of those who do not believe in Hashem. Fifth, there is a guarantee that, at some point, even if the Jewish people fail to repent, Hashem will punish them sufficiently and then redeem them, to rehabilitate Hashem’s honor in the world.

Sixth, resurrection of the dead will happen soon after the ingathering of the exiles, since only three verses separate the reference to Hashem’s judging the Jews (ki yadin Hashem amo) and the resurrection (ani amit ve-achayeh, a verse Sanhedrin 91b sees as promising bodily resurrection).

Those are the Biblical presentations of Mashiach, for Abarbanel: a promise of a permanent Jewish return to an expanded Israel, either by virtue of the Jews’ repentance or—at a predetermined time—as a way to restore the proper honor and respect to Hashem’s Name.

Next week, Yeshayahu.

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