I can’t count how many people have asked me a form of the question in the title. Many speculators have come equipped with all sorts of evidence associating current events with the end of days. My answer is short: I don’t know, and we shouldn’t try to figure it out. Indeed, Rambam highlights three reasons why this sort of conjecture is a really bad idea.
We Don’t Know
The first reason is found in Hilchot Malachim (12:2) where Rambam writes, “All these and similar matters [concerning the coming of mashiach] cannot be known by man until they occur, for they are undefined in the words of the prophets. Even the sages have no established tradition regarding these matters beyond what is implied by the verses; hence, there is divergence of opinion among them.”
Rambam tells us that even the greatest of our sages did not know how the messianic era will unfold. All we have to work with are the words of the prophets which are obscure and offer little concrete details. Here, Rambam applies a principle he articulates elsewhere: debate reflects a lack of tradition. If the sages have many debates concerning the details of mashiach’s arrival (and they do), it is an indication that we do not have a tradition regarding these matters. Since we don’t know how the messianic process will unfold it doesn’t make any sense to associate a particular event with that process. As Rambam says we will not know until it happens.
Of course, I am not saying that the current war has no role in the unfolding of the messianic process. Numerous sources indicate that wars such as this play a role. For example, Bereishit Rabba 42:4 states that if you see nations warring each other, hope for the coming of mashiach. However, obviously this does not mean that we should see any such war as a heralding the mashiach, since we have seen innumerable such wars over the course of our long exile. Rather, as R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto writes in Da’at Tevunot (section 48), “The path by which Hashem brings the world in the direction of good is very very deep, and will not be revealed until the end.” We cannot know if mashiach is around the corner or a long way off. Only at the end of the saga will the role of this conflict become clear.
Speculating Is Dangerous
The second reason why such speculation is a bad idea is that if the prediction does not materialize a person is likely to lose hope. In the above halacha Rambam writes: “Similarly, one should not try to calculate the appointed time [for the coming of mashiach]. Our sages declared: “May the spirits of those who attempt to calculate the final time [of mashiach’s arrival] expire!” Rambam cites Chazal (Sanhedrin 97b) who harshly condemn those who try to predict the end of days. Why are such calculations so problematic? The Talmud there explains:
Said R. Yonatan: Blasted be the bones of those who calculate the end (keitz). For they would say, “Since the predetermined time has arrived, and yet he has not come, he never will come.” Rather, wait for him, as it is written, “Though he may tarry, wait for him.”
While associating current events with points in the messianic saga may not violate the formal injunction against calculating the keitz it presumably violates the spirit of the law.
Growing up I remember how many people predicted that the first Gulf War was the ultimate war of Gog u’Magog. It seemed to meet all the criteria (Christians versus Muslims, the population of Israel threatened by Scud missiles with chemical warheads, etc.). I remember how two years ago at this very time people were convinced that the unprecedented lockdowns triggered by Covid-19 was a harbinger for the coming of mashiach. (What other explanation could there be?) Truth is that such projections are not new. Throughout history people have interpreted cataclysmic events as clear omens of the mashiach.
But what happens if they don’t pan out? People lose hope. Or worse, they are drawn after false messiahs. Jewish history is littered with false messiahs, and, generally speaking, these outbreaks follow extraordinary and especially tragic occurrences. Shabtai Tzvi, for example, rose to prominence shortly after the Chmielnicki massacres. Indeed, Rambam alludes to this point in his epistle to the Jews of Yemen in 1173 when following crushing persecution of a radical sect of Islam numerous Yemenite Jews were led astray by a false messiah. Worse, the harmful effects of a false messiah often linger even after his exposure when unable to deal with the cognitive dissidence people continue to follow the charlatan despite the certainty of his falsehood.
Interestingly, the injunction against predicting the keitz occasionally was ignored, even by some of the greatest rabbinic figures of our history. One such figure was R. Sa’adya Gaon, whose actions Rambam (in his Epistle to Yemen) attributes to extenuating circumstances:
In your letter, you have referred to the computations of the keitz and R. Sa’adya’s opinion on the subject. First of all, you must know that no human being ever will be able to determine it precisely…. Furthermore, we have a divine communication through the medium of the prophets that many people will calculate the time of the advent of mashiach but will fail to ascertain its true date….
As for R. Sa’adya’s messianic calculations, there are extenuating circumstances for them, though he knew they were disallowed. For the Jews of his time were perplexed and misguided. The divine religion might have disappeared had he not encouraged the timid and diffused, disseminated, and propagated by word of mouth and pen a knowledge of the Torah’s underlying principles. He believed, in all earnestness, that by means of the messianic calculations, he would inspire the masses with hope for the truth. Verily, all his deeds were for the sake of heaven. Consequently, in view of the probity of his motives, which we have disclosed, one must not decry him for his messianic computations…
Despite Rambam’s warning against calculating the keitz, he seems to offer one himself by relating a family tradition that prophecy will be restored in the year 1210. How could Rambam flaunt the very prohibition that he just highlighted? R. Yitzchak Shilat, an expert on the Rambam’s writings, in his comments on the above letter, suggests two answers. First, Rambam’s calculation relates to the restoration of prophecy, not to the coming of mashiach. Second, Rambam may have felt he had a dispensation based on the exigencies of the time, just like R. Sa’adya Gaon. Presumably, he felt that the desperate and downtrodden situation of the Jews in Yemen justified a partial abrogation of the law.
Predicting Is a Waste of Time and Distracts Us from Our Mission
In the above halacha Rambam cites a third reason to avoid prognosticating about the messianic era:
Neither the sequence of these events [leading up to the coming of mashiach] nor their precise details are among the fundamental principles of the faith. One should not occupy himself at length with the aggadot and midrashim that deal with these and similar matters, nor should he deem them of prime importance, for they bring one to neither awe nor love [of G-d].
We should use our time studying matters that have a practical applications or that inspire us to become better people and to love and fear G-d. Messianic projections do none of that.
But if studying these matters is a waste of time, as Rambam claims, why did Chazal write about them? R. Saadya Gaon (Emunot v-De’ot 8:5) suggests that if we did not know about such things as chevlei mashiach (the birth pangs of mashiach) then we might lose hope when experiencing these tumultuous and tortuous events preceding the coming of mashiach. Knowing a little about the process will help us deal with the upheaval, even if we will not really know what we are going through until after it is over.
When Rambam writes that we should not study texts discussing the coming of mashiach but focus on loving and fearing G-d, Rambam may also be alluding to an additional problem. Our job in this world is to accomplish things (both spiritual and material). It is true that in the messianic era all of problems will be solved, but if we spend too much time thinking about that we will ignore our current responsibility to solve those problems now. We cannot rely upon G-d to clean up our mess; we must get down and dirty. R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik develops this theme:
The Halakhah is not at all concerned with a transcendent world… However, the receiving of reward is not a religious act; therefore Halakhic Man prefers the real world to a transcendent existence because here, in this world, man is given the opportunity to create, act, accomplish, while there, in the World to Come, he is powerless to change anything at all. (Halakhic Man, trans. Lawrence Kaplan, p. 32)
While the Rav was discussing olam haba and we are discussing the messianic era, an analogy can be made. Ramban (Devarim 30:5) cites the Talmud (Shabbat 151b) that refers to the messianic era as “days without desire,” a time, “wherein there is neither merit nor guilt,” meaning, according to Ramban, “they will offer opportunity neither for merit nor guilt.” It will be a wonderful time, an era we long for and pray for, but it will be a time where we have a different mission. Now our task demands that we address the problems we currently face and Rambam warns us that contemplating about the end of days distracts us from that mission. (For more on this point see “Sometimes Mashiach Is Not The Solution” by my Rebbe, R. Aaron Lopiansky, Mishpacha, May 26, 2020.)
We Must Long for Mashiach
All this does not mean that we should not yearn for the mashiach. On the contrary, Rambam (Hilchot Malachaim 11:1) indicates that failure to long for the messianic era (even if one believes in it) constitutes heresy: “Whoever does not believe in him, or does not await his coming, denies not only [the statements of] the other prophets, but also [those of] the Torah and of Moshe, our teacher.” Indeed, the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) states one of the six questions we will be asked upon our death is tzipita l’yeshua, did you long for redemption.
Earlier we quoted Chazal as saying that when you see nations warring each other hope for the coming of mashiach. R. Leib Shteinman suggested that Chazal meant that there are certain times that are more propitious to the coming of mashiach; one such time is when nations are warring. Accordingly, at times like that we must work on increasing our tzipiya l’yeshua. Likewise, Nissan, another time associated with redemption, should be a time when we should focus on boosting our yearning for mashiach. We must pray for the coming of mashiach with all our hearts. We may certainly hope that the horrific current events we are witnessing portend the coming of mashiach. But we must avoid predicting whether that is the case. We will only know after the saga is complete.
Ultimately, the injunction against predicting his arrival must not reduce our anticipation for his coming. On the contrary it is intended to ensure our continued yearning despite the longevity of our exile. Thus, even as we desire a day in which peace will reign, in which the knowledge of G-d will fill the earth as the sea covers the seabed, in which we will all unite in the service of G-d, we must remain wary of speculating as to whether current events portend his arrival.
May we see that day soon. Chag sameach!
I would like to thank R. Yakov Haber who directed me to a number of the sources that appear in this article.