As we saw last week, the final chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin is concerned with the World to Come. But what exactly is the World to Come, olam haba? Is it heaven, or the afterlife, or the end of the world, or the resurrection of the dead, or the messianic era? Will we all get to see it, or does it require extraordinary spiritual merit? These are the kinds of questions the rabbis ask in Chapter 11 of Sanhedrin. At the center of their speculations is the figure of the Messiah, whom the rabbis refer to simply as the Son of David, ben David, since he will be a descendant of the biblical king. At some point in the future, the rabbis are sure, the Messiah will come to redeem the Jewish people. But what exactly will this involve, and when is it going to happen?
The sages offer a variety of answers. One view is that the world was created with a fixed timetable; when it expires, the Messiah will come and everything will be transformed. Thus in Sanhedrin 97b, Rav Ketina says, “6,000 years is the duration of the world, and it is in ruins for 1,000 years.” There is a clear analogy with the days of the week and Shabbat, and with the cycle of the Sabbatical Year. Other sages offer different schedules: Rav Yehuda learned directly from the prophet Elijah that the world will exist for 85 Jubilee cycles, which works out to 4,250 years. Another sage claims to know a man who discovered a secret scroll “among the Roman archives” which predicted that the world will last exactly 4,291 years.
But where does the Messiah fit into these timetables? The rabbis warn against speculating about the date of his arrival. Rabbi Natan quotes the prophet Habakkuk: “For the vision is yet for the appointed time, and does not lie; though it tarry, wait for it because it will surely come.” Natan says that “this verse penetrates and descends until the depths,” by which he means that “the appointed time” of the Messiah is unfathomable. He goes to enumerate various theories about the Messianic age and refutes them all: The Messiah will come, but “not in accordance with our rabbis,” he declares. Rabbi Yonatan agrees: “May those who calculate the end of days be cursed,” he says, since when their calculations prove erroneous they may stop believing in redemption altogether.
If the Messiah is not destined to come at a particular time, however, this raises the question of why he doesn’t just come now. “Since we are awaiting and the holy one, blessed be he is, is awaiting, who is preventing the coming of the Messiah?” the Gemara asks. The obvious answer is that the messianic age is conditional on God’s judgment, which in turn depends on the conduct of the Jewish people. As Rav puts it, “All the ends of days that were calculated passed, and the matter depends only on repentance and good deeds.” Rabbi Eliezer agrees: “If the Jewish people repent they are redeemed, and if not they are not redeemed.”
But what is it that will make the Jewish people finally repent? One strain of rabbinic thinking holds that only unprecedented suffering will provoke a wholehearted return to God. By this logic, what the Talmud elsewhere calls “the footsteps of the Messiah” will involve terrible trials, which the rabbis take turns describing. People will be unable to earn a living through work; Torah scholars will be persecuted; food will be so scarce that it will be impossible to find a fish to feed a sick person. In general, Rabbi Yochanan says, “If you saw a generation who is steadily diminishing, await” the coming of the Messiah. It’s notable that these are not spectacular or supernatural afflictions, on the order of the 10 Plagues. They are, rather, natural human problems, poverty, and oppression, which will increase until they become unbearable. At that point, when the Jewish people can take no more, God will take mercy on them and send the Son of David.
Rabbi Yochanan captures the paradox of the Messiah in a resonant formula, in Sanhedrin 98a: “The son of David will come only in a generation that is entirely innocent or entirely guilty.” If all Jews are innocent of sin, they will deserve the reward of the Messiah; if all are guilty, they will need the Messiah to save them from destruction. Another sage elaborates that these two paths will bring the Messiah in different guises. If the people merit redemption, he will come “with the clouds of heaven,” in a miraculous fashion; if they do not merit redemption, he will come “lowly and riding upon a donkey.” This dualistic thinking can lead a specifically Jewish kind of antinomianism, which would appear in the heretical movements of Shabbetai Zevi and Jacob Frank—the idea that sin is the best way to force God’s hand and bring about the messianic age.
This ambiguity leads some sages to hope that they do not live to see the messianic age because it will be preceded by so much suffering. “Ulla says: Let the Messiah come, but after my death, so that I will not see him,” and Rabba agrees. On the other hand, Rav Yosef believes that the redemption will be worth its price in suffering: “Let the Messiah come, and I will be privileged to sit in the shadow of his donkey’s excrement.” Rabbi Simlai offers another animal image: “It is comparable to a rooster and a bat who were looking forward to the light of day.” The rooster is happy when the sun rises because it allows him to start crowing, while the bat is sad because he is a nocturnal creature who is happiest in the dark. Just so with the dawn of the messianic age: It will be a glorious time for the righteous, while heretics and sinners ought to be afraid of it.
So is the messianic age the same thing as the World to Come? Apparently, the two are connected because discussion of one leads automatically to the other; but they are not identical, as the rabbis go on to explain. The messianic age will be an earthly dispensation. To Shmuel, it will be different from the world we know in only one respect: “The difference between this world and the messianic era is only with regard to servitude to foreign kingdoms alone.” That is, the Messiah will restore the Jewish state in the Land of Israel, but he will not introduce a magical period of universal peace and plenty. According to Shmuel’s definition, one could even say that we live today in the age of the Messiah because a Jewish state exists. Nor will this period necessarily last forever. Rabbi Eliezer says that it will last just forty years; other sages say seventy years or three generations.
The World to Come, on the other hand, is a supernatural phenomenon and cannot be quantified or even described. According to Yochanan, “all the prophets prophesied only about the Messianic era, but with regard to the World to Come,” a verse from Isaiah applies: “No eye has seen it, God, aside from You.” Reish Lakish says that it will involve restoration to Paradise, to the Garden of Eden. This is more like what we think of as heaven because admission to it depends on the merit of the individual soul. But what qualifies a soul for redemption? We learned at the beginning of Chapter 11 that every Jew has a share in the World to Come, with the exception of those who reject central principles of Judaism. This suggests that the World to Come is not something that has to be earned by special effort.
But in the Gemara in Sanhedrin 111a the rabbis debate this point. According to Reish Lakish, “one who leaves even one statute” unfulfilled is doomed to Gehenna, the underworld; only perfect obedience to the law earns the soul a place in the World to Come. But Rabbi Yochanan rebukes Reish Lakish for taking such a strict view: “It is not satisfactory to their Master that you said this about them.” Rather, Yochanan reverses the equation: “If one learned only one statute,” he deserves admission to paradise. The two sages argue the point at length, each citing biblical verses in support of his position. Strictness and leniency are the two poles of the Talmud between which the rabbis are constantly torn; but with the World to Come, it seems that leniency will prevail.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.