by R. Gidon Rothstein
Abarbanel’s Yemot HaMashiach: Depths of Exile and Wonders of Redemption
Mashmi’a Yeshu’a is a book about the prophets who predicted salvation for the Jewish people. In theory, Abarbanel could have shared only those prophecies that had new information about the Messianic era, and noted in the introduction or conclusion that he’s skipped many prophecies that echo these.
Instead, he decided to go through each of them (although, as he noted, he did not do all of Yeshayahu’s prophecies, since there were too many. He instead chose sixteen), even though there’s much repetition. He does not explain why seeing it in multiple texts is worth readers’ whiles; I suspect it’s because of the anti-Christian element. To convince his fellow Jews that the Christians were not correct in their claim that the founder of their religion was the Mashiach, he showed, over and over, that prophecies about the Messianic era have not yet been fulfilled.
Our goal here, though, is to learn some traditional views of how those times will look, not review Tanach in general (valuable as that is; just this past week, a listener contacted me about one of the shiurim I recorded for the OU’s Nach Yomi project, where you can hear audio shiurim of every chapter in Tanach). I won’t try to cover all of Mashmi’a Yeshu’a, then, I’ll finish up what’s new in Yeshayahu and the (very little) that’s new in the other prophets.
Abarbanel confirms my sense that the prophecies in Yeshayahu cover the Messianic era, because in each of the later chapters, covering the predictions of other prophets, he shows how their major points all only reflect ideas we had already seen in Yeshayahu.
The Way Back to Israel
The seventh prophecy Abarbanel takes up, starting at Yeshayahu 34;1, speaks again of massive casualties for non-Jews—which Hashem will bring about despite the good predicted by their astrological fortunes [in our terms, despite the course of nature and history pointing towards positive outcomes, Hashem will bring death and destruction].
In the long time it will take until this happens, the sages and leaders of the Jewish people must encourage the populace to retain faith in the future redemption [in Abarbanel’s time, many Jews despaired, convinced that the Christians must be right, since they were so ascendant; it is hard to seem to be on the losing side of history, for centuries, and still believe in a future that will include salvation and success].
When that future arrives, he reads Yeshayahu as telling us, the way back to Israel will be through deserts where no other people had gone. He doesn’t quite explain the value in that, although his first reading of the next phrase of 35;8 is that no impure nations would have gone on that route. Perhaps, then, he means the redemption will happen in such a way that the Jews returning will not have to deal with those who have not yet bought into our understanding of the world.
That fits his second reading, which he labels more correct, that the evildoers of the Jewish people will die during the advent of Mashiach, will not merit getting to Israel with the righteous.
[It’s not clear how that would translate to our times. Most today get to Israel by plane which, as an historical matter, has not been much travelled by the impure, although they do travel it now as much as the pure do. Too, if we see events of the last century as at least beginning the Messianic era, it’s not clear to me that we would be comfortable asserting that those who didn’t make it were not worthy, nor that all those who did make it were. Were Abarbanel here to pursue the discussion, I could imagine him either saying that we still haven’t hit chevlei Mashiach, the true advent of the Messianic era, or that the percentages of those who made it and didn’t make it were tilted in the direction he understood Yeshayahu to have predicted. Or something else].
He also understands Yeshayahu to have said that non-Jewish kings would not be able to stop our return, which only fully happened once the State of Israel came into being [I once saw a moving video of R. Ovadia Yosef, zt”l, which I can no longer find, speaking of the end of the British Mandate’s obstructions of aliyah as itself reason to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut].
Mashiach Now, Mashiach Later
Although I think we’ve seen him say it before, he takes the section of Yeshayahu that we read on Shabbat Nachamu as a reminder that there is a time beyond which the redemption must happen, and there are times when we could, were we to act properly enough, hasten that redemption, bring it earlier than otherwise.
He also reads 43;1 as calling to those who left the Jewish people (note that he says they left the Jewish people, not just the religion) because of the pressures of exile, assuring them Hashem will bring them back, too [this stands in unresolved tension with his earlier assumption that evildoers won’t make it back; I think he might mean that succumbing to exile is less culpable than truly willful evil. The problem is that if those who stay and, later, reject the religion for no reason are held accountable for all they do, they’d have been better off giving in to the pressures of the Christians. There’s moral hazard there, it seems to me.]
The Glory of the Return
Part of what’s important about the predicted return (in Yeshayahu’s ninth prophecy, starting at 49;7) is that it will demonstrate to those who have mocked us for our foolish fidelity that we are, indeed, still Hashem’s nation. Kings will stand before Mashiach out of respect, nobles will bow to the ground in his presence, recognizing that Hashem’s Presence and Providence are connected to him.
So many Jews will return to Israel, from all ends of the earth, that it will be filled to bursting, and they will have no fear of their enemies. The Land, suddenly fruitful where it was once desolate, will also be surprised by the return since most Jews will have left the religion and assimilated [while he was obviously speaking of his time, this could easily apply today], yet Hashem will find the way to bring them back, to have non-Jews assist in bringing them back.
This prediction, for Abarbanel, is one more proof that resurrection will happen in the course of the redemption, since he cannot imagine how otherwise there would be enough Jews to fill Israel, even if all the assimilated Jews returned [if he only he had lived until now, where even just those who affiliate as Jews would go a long way to filling Israel, let alone those who have been completely lost. And that even after the terrible destructions of the intervening centuries].
Expanding Jerusalem, Expanding Providence
The resurgent population, especially of Jerusalem, is the topic of prophecy eleven (Yeshayahu 54;1), which calls for spreading the city’s borders as well as strengthening its foundations. To accommodate the increase, the city will expand [this has started in our times; Yehezkel thinks it will be much bigger even than it is now, as we will see in a moment].
With the visible changes will come a change in attitude, among Jews and non-Jews. Even Jews who until now were uninterested in Torah study or Hashem will now want to learn more. Some non-Jews will recognize Hashem, as we’ve said, but Hashem will still punish some—in Abarbanel’s reading, the Moslems and Christians, who act as if they’re serving the true Gd, when they’re actually not. They will therefore suffer plague and other natural disasters in their homelands, leaving it to nations that had not heard of Hashem before to now learn of Him and join in bringing the Jews to Israel.
Summing Up Yeshayahu
In the name of space and brevity, I have skipped a tremendous amount, but this brings us, mostly, to the end of Abarbanel’s discussion of Yeshayahu. Noting that almost everything about the predicted redemption is in Yeshayahu already (which is why we will have little to add when we turn to other of the mashmi’ei yeshu’a, the harbingers of redemption), he says it was for that reason that Hashem had him called Yeshayahu, which means “will be saved by Hashem.”
Abarbanel closes with a list of the essential points of Yeshayahu’s view of the redemption. They offer a good review, especially since he found that almost all of the rest of the prophets echoed these fourteen points. For us, they’re a quick way to see how he saw the Messianic era.
He starts with the idea that Hashem will take vengeance on other nations, 2) more so on Edom and Botzra (Christians), whose survivors will not be able to join in faith in God. 3) The Jews will be saved and gathered back to Israel. 4) As will the ten tribes. 5) Leaving this exile will be similar to the Exodus in many ways, 6) The redemption will happen by a certain predetermined time, 7) but only after a long exile, 8) It will bring with it a return of the Divine Presence, like at Sinai, a restoration of prophecy for those ready for it, and an increase in wisdom among all Jews, 9) Even those who abandoned Judaism totally will return, some forced by circumstance, 10) there will be a Davidic king, 11) there will never be another exile, 12) most of the other nations will come to believe in Hashem, 13) world peace will come with the redemption, and 14) the dead will be resurrected.
Yirmiyahu and Yehezkel Added the Size of Jerusalem
The main point in later prophecies that I found was that how large Jerusalem will be. Yirmiyahu, in what Abarbanel counts as his fourth prophecy, says the city will more than double its original size, and that because of its sanctity, many other nations will live there as well. Yehezkel defines the size more explicitly; Abarbanel understand him to mean it will be a square 150,000 amah on each side. [If we take the lowest suggested length of an amah, 18”, that’s 42.6 miles on each side. For reference, that’s about the distance between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, so it’s suggesting that Jerusalem would sit at the center of a square that would extend 21 miles in each direction.]
Lest we find that impossible, he points out that Nineveh is described in Tanach as a city that took three days to walk from one end to the other, where 42 miles is walkable more quickly than that. Egypt’s main city, in Abarbanel’s time, was also that large or larger, so there’s no reason Jerusalem cannot be as well.
Next time, on to Maharal, whose view of the Messianic era focuses on much different aspects of redemption.