Aggadot of Redemption: Can We Ask When Mashiach Will Come?

  • Rav Dr. Yonatan Feintuch

Translated by Kaeren Fish


A.        R. Yehoshua ben Levi, Eliyahu, and the Mashiach

The tenth chapter of Massekhet Sanhedrin (Perek Chelek) lists those who have no portion in the World to Come, and first on the list is one who denies that the resurrection of the dead has its source in the Torah. The first sugya on the mishna begins by discussing the resurrection of the dead and concludes with a discussion of the future redemption and the Mashiach. In this latter context, the gemara cites the following story:

R. Yehoshua ben Levi met Eliyahu and R. Shimon bar Yochai, who were standing at the gates of the Garden of Eden.[1] He asked him, “Do I have a portion in the World to Come?” He answered him, “If this master desires it.” R. Yehoshua ben Levi said: “I saw two, but heard the voice of a third.” He then asked, “When will Mashiach come?” He said to him, “Go and ask him yourself.” “Where is he sitting?” “At the entrance to Rome.” “And by which sign shall I know him?” “He is sitting among the poor sick ones. All of them untie and retie [their bandages] all at once, while he unties and reties one at a time, saying, ‘In case I am needed [to appear], I must not be delayed [by having to retie all my bandages].’”

So he went to him and said to him, “Peace be upon you, my teacher.” [Mashiach] answered, “Peace be upon you, son of Levi.” He asked him, “When will you come, master?” He answered, “Today.”

When he returned to Eliyahu, he [R. Yehoshua ben Levi] said to him, “He lied to me, for he said that he would come today [but he did not].” He answered, “Today – if you will hear His voice” (Tehillim 95:7). Eliyahu then asked, “What did he tell you?” He answered, “Peace be upon you, son of Levi.” Eliyahu then said, “He thereby assured both you and your father of a place in the World to Come.” (Sanhedrin 98a)

B.        Analysis of the Story

Ambiguity at the outset

The story has three units. The first and third sections record conversations between R. Yehoshua ben Levi and Eliyahu, while the middle part records a conversation between R. Yehoshua ben Levi and Mashiach.

The first conversation is built around two questions, neither of which receives a direct answer in this part of the story. The first question is whether R. Yehoshua b. Levi is deserving of a place in the World to Come. The answer to this question is said to be dependent on the will of “this master.” Who is “this master”? From the next words of R. Yehoshua b. Levi (“I saw two but heard the voice of a third”), it seems that he heard the voice of a third figure, without seeing him, and it is this figure that would seem to be referred to as “this master.” Who might this be?

Rashi (ad loc.) explains that the reference is to the Divine Presence. This fits with the idea of a voice that R. Yehoshua hears without seeing anything. According to this explanation, it is easy to understand why his entry into the World to Come depends on the will of “this Master.” Another possible explanation arises from the continuation of the story. After being told that the entry into the World to Come depends on “this master,” R. Yehoshua asks, “When will Mashiach come?”, and this would seem to suggest that he identifies “this master” as Mashiach. This reading is also supported by Eliyahu’s words at the end of the story, when he tells R. Yehoshua that Mashiach himself has now assured R. Yehoshua that he will have a place in the World to Come. In any event, at this stage of the story the identity of “this master” remains opaque. R. Yehoshua’s question likewise receives no clear answer. Perhaps this is meant as a hint to R. Yehoshua that he should set this question aside and direct his efforts towards doing what is good and right in this world.

R. Yehoshua persists, and the ambiguous answer to his first question leads him to the second: When will Mashiach come? The significance of this question is also somewhat ambiguous.[2] On the one hand, we might understand it as arising from longing for the redemption and the desire that Mashiach come soon. On the other hand, when Mashiach indeed comes – according to one explanation noted above – he will also be able to answer that first question which had troubled him deeply – the question of whether he would merit the World to Come. At this point, the main motivation for R. Yehoshua’s question as to when Mashiach will come remains unclear.

“A poor man riding on a donkey”

Eliyahu’s answer to R. Yehoshua’s second question sends him – and takes us, the readers – far away from the gates of the Garden of Eden. In fact, one might describe the “gates of Rome (pit’cha de-Romi)” as the very opposite of the “pit’cha de-Gan Eden.” In a story like this one, whose context is the coming of Mashiach, Rome – the power that destroyed the Temple – symbolizes the very essence of evil. At the entrance to Rome, in contrast to the very distinguished figures that R. Yehoshua met at the entrance to the Garden of Eden (Eliyahu and R. Shimon bar Yochai), he encounters the lowest and most humble: “poor sick ones” (lepers).

Who are these poor lepers? As Prof. Fraenkel shows,[3] this appellation seems to be based on a verse in Yeshayahu (53:4), in a section that is introduced with the words, “Behold, My servant shall prosper…” and goes on to describe God’s servant:

But in truth he has borne our sicknesses (cholayenu) and endured (sevalam) our pains, yet we did esteem him stricken (nagu’a), smitten of God, and afflicted (me’uneh).

This verse seems to refer to lepers[4] – in other words, people who are relegated to the very margins of society, or even beyond, and who have nothing to do but endlessly loosen and retie the dressings on their wounds.

Earlier, R. Yehoshua ben Levi had heard the voice of Mashiach at the gates of the Garden of Eden, but now that he tries to find him, he is directed to the very opposite place – the gates of Rome. What is the meaning of Mashiach’s “move” from one pole to the other, causing R. Yehoshua to similarly move from the gates of paradise to the gates of Rome?

It is interesting to consider the broader context of the story within the discussion in the gemara. Just prior to our story, we find a statement that is also attributed to R. Yehoshua ben Levi:

R. Alexandri said: R. Yehoshua ben Levi noted: It is written, “Behold, one like a son of man came with the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 7:13), but it is also written, “poor and riding upon a donkey” (Zekharia 9:9)! [How are these opposite depictions of Mashiach to be reconciled?] If they merit it – [he will come] “with the clouds of heaven”; if they do not merit – then “poor and riding upon a donkey.”

In other words, R. Yehoshua himself teaches us that Mashiach can be revealed in two different ways. He may appear “with the clouds of heaven” – in the highest, most supernal place – or as “a poor man riding upon a donkey.” The way in which it will happen is dependent upon the deeds of Am Yisrael. If they merit it, Mashiach will be revealed in heavenly splendor; if not, he will be revealed in humble destitution.

Perhaps in our story it is specifically R. Yehoshua’s attempt to find Mashiach, to see him and understand exactly when he will come (and, specifically, the answer to his question, “Where is he sitting?”) that causes him to be sent to the “lower” place of Mashiach – the gates of Rome – where he indeed finds him. Perhaps we should read the story, in light of the background provided by the sugya, as hinting that the direct search for Mashiach and the stubborn insistence on obtaining concrete information about him is what relegates R. Yehoshua to the category of those who “do not merit.” From this perspective, this scene recalls R. Yehoshua’s first question – whether he will merit the World to Come, which is the Garden of Eden. There too, we recall, he did not receive a clear answer, perhaps because the very asking of the question is problematic.

Setting aside questions – and receiving answers

Mashiach does not fit in completely among his surroundings and his companions at the gates of Rome. Unlike the other lepers, who untie all their bandages and then dress all their wounds anew, Mashiach unties and reties his bandages one at a time. Aside from the practical reason given in the story – that in this way he will be able to arrive at the appointed time (“today”) without any delay, this practice also serves to set him aside from the other unfortunates, emphasizing the transient nature of his presence among them and the fact that this is not really his place; he belongs, at the same time, also to the “gates of heaven.”

In the encounter with Mashiach, we see that R. Yehoshua has internalized part of Eliyahu’s message to him. Surprisingly, after finally locating Mashiach, he says nothing at all about his entry into the Garden of Eden, sufficing with the question of when Mashiach will appear. This casts his quest in a more positive light in relation to the previous time that he asked this question, when – as noted above – the motivation for the question was unclear. Now he is no longer inquiring with a view to his own personal situation, but is rather focused on redemption as a worthy goal in its own right. However, in this regard the response he receives is not as satisfying as it seems at first.

Mashiach’s answer is, “Today” – and R. Yehoshua, who must surely rejoice greatly over this answer, suffers acute disillusionment as a result. He returns angrily to Eliyahu and accuses Mashiach of lying. Eliyahu interprets the answer that Mashiach had given in accordance with the verse in Tehillim – “Today, if you will listen to His voice.” What his answer means is that there is actually no answer – or, more accurately, that there is no point in asking the question. What brings redemption closer is not speculation about when it will happen, but rather engagement in Torah and observance of the commandments.

Indeed, it turns out that the answer to R. Yehoshua’s second question – “When will Mashiach come?” – even when it is asked from a pure longing for redemption, turns out to be the same as the answer given to his first question: If you will listen to his voice. Both questions, then, are inappropriate; they both focus on the wrong issue. The answers to them will not arise from delving into the question, but rather, on the contrary, from setting the question aside and engaging in other matters that relate to the reality of this world – obeying God and doing good.

This message is emphasized through the literary structure of the story, as well. We noted above that over the course of the plot, there are several points that remain unclear. For instance, who is “this master,” and what is the motivation behind the question of when Mashiach will come? The use of opacity in the story is related to the message. There are matters that must remain opaque, and it is inappropriate to seek a direct and absolute answer to them. This may also be hinted to in the continuation of the psalm from which the words “Today, if you will listen to His voice” are taken. The psalm continues, “Do not harden your hearts as at Meriva, as in the day of Massa in the wilderness, where your forefathers tested Me, assessed Me, even though they saw My deeds….” “Listening to God’s voice,” according to the psalm, means acting differently than the generation of the wilderness, which sinned and demonstrated lack of faith in God. However, in the context of the story in the gemara, we might understand the words, “where your forefathers tested Me, assessed Me,” in a different way. “Today, if you will listen to His voice” – one must not test God’s actions and His accounting; rather, one must engage in that which man is supposed to be doing.

At the end of the story, R. Yehoshua ben Levi receives an answer to his first question – specifically because he has, in the meantime, set it aside.[5] The answer comes from an unexpected place – Mashiach’s greeting, “Peace be upon you, son of Levi.” He fails to interpret this as a response to his question because he is no longer concentrating on that question. By virtue of his setting the question aside, Eliyahu gives him this answer as a gift, informing him that he will indeed have a place in the World to Come. Similarly, with regard to Mashiach, a genuine answer about when he will come requires that the question be set aside and that attention be focused elsewhere. Otherwise, the answer to the question does not exist, as the date of his coming is truly determined by actions alone, and thus it has not yet been determined.

C.        The Broader Context of the Story within the Sugya

Above, we looked briefly at a different teaching of R. Yehoshua that appears in the sugya. We will now look more closely at the broader context.

The story of R. Yehoshua, Eliyahu, and Mashiach is preceded by two teachings of R. Yehoshua concerning the coming of Mashiach:

R. Alexandri said: R. Yehoshua ben Levi noted: It is written (Yeshayahu 60:22), “In its time,” but it is also written, “I shall hasten it”! [How are these mutually contradictory depictions of the time of Mashiach’s arrival to be reconciled?] If they merit it, [then Mashiach will come soon,] “I shall hasten it.” If they do not merit it, [it will happen] “in its time.”

R. Yehoshua ben Levi noted: It is written, “Behold, one like a son of man came with the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 7:13), but it is also written, “Poor and riding upon a donkey” (Zekharia 9:9)! [How are these opposite depictions of Mashiach to be reconciled?] If they merit it – [he will come] “with the clouds of heaven.” If they do not merit – then “poor and riding upon a donkey.”

Both teachings address apparent contradictions in the text concerning the coming of Mashiach. The first concerns the timing of his arrival: “in its time” vs. “I shall hasten it.” The solution to this contradiction is that the text is describing two different scenarios. There is a fixed, set time when Mashiach will come, regardless of the reality of this world; that is “in its time.” However, the people of Am Yisrael have free choice, and if they so choose, they can make themselves worthy of bringing the redemption sooner: “I shall hasten it.” The same applies to the second contradiction, as discussed above. “If they merit it,” Mashiach will come with the clouds of heaven. If not, he will be a poor man riding upon a donkey.[6]

However, the meaning of “if they merit it” is unclear. On the simplest level, we might say that this implies adherence to Torah and observance of the commandments. However, the story, following after these two teachings,[7] sheds new light on this point: R. Yehoshua ben Levi “merits” when he lets go of his questions and focuses on the proper issue. The same message applies to Am Yisrael. The focus on Torah and its commandments includes letting go of the direct question of when and how Mashiach will come.

The teachings shed new light on the story. They help us to understand these two poles – the gates of the Garden of Eden, on the one hand, and the gates of Rome, on the other – in the context of “if they merit it – with the clouds of the heaven; if they do not merit it – a poor man, riding upon a donkey.”

D.        The Story about the Arab and Mashiach

The same idea – that it is specifically letting go of the focus on Mashiach himself and the engagement in activity in this world that brings his arrival closer and vice versa – arises from another story, which is also tightly bound up with the transition from building to destruction to rebuilding. This story is recorded in the Talmud Yerushalmi, Berakhot 2:4:[8]

This supports the view of R. Yudan, son of R. Aybo: Once a Jew was plowing, and his ox bellowed before him. An Arab was passing by and he heard the sound. He said to him, “Jew, Jew – loosen your ox and let go of your plow, for the Temple is destroyed.” The ox bellowed a second time. He said to him, “Jew, Jew, bind your ox and bind your plow [so you can continue plowing], for the King Mashiach is born.” He said to him, “What is his name?” “Menachem.” He said to him, “And what is his father’s name?” He answered, “Chizkiya.” He asked, “Where is he from?” He said, “From the royal capital of Beit Lechem, in Yehuda.” [The Jew] went and sold his ox and sold his plow, and he became a peddler of infants’ clothing. And he went from city to city until he reached that place. All the women bought from him, but the mother of Menachem did not. He heard the women saying, “Menachem’s mother, Menachem’s mother, come and buy for your child.” She said, “I want to choke the enemies of Israel [a euphemistic reference to her son], for on the day that he was born, the Temple was destroyed.” He said to her, “We know that on this day it was destroyed, but on this date it will also be rebuilt.” She said to him, “I have no money.” He told her, “It is of no matter to me. Come and buy for him. If you have no money now, I will return in a while to receive payment.” After some time, he returned to that city. He asked her, “What has become of the infant?” She said to him, “After you saw me, winds and storms came and snatched him from me.”

Response to the Destruction

This story takes place during the time of the destruction and afterwards. The first part deals with the destruction. On the same day, a number of things happen simultaneously. A Jew is busy plowing his field. His ox bellows, and a passing Arab explains the significance of this signal – the Temple has been destroyed. He even goes so far as to suggest what the Jew should do in the wake of this event; he should halt his work, release the ox, and loosen the plow. Why? It appears that at the moment that the Temple was destroyed, the world changed completely. The chasm was so stark and dramatic that there was no point in continuing one’s labor. In fact, the feeling among the Jews of that time was that there was no point in continuing to exist at all, as we learn from the well-known beraita (Tosefta Sota 15:11):

After the Second Temple was destroyed, ascetics multiplied amongst Israel; they would neither eat meat nor drink wine. R. Yehoshua struck up conversation with them. He said to them, “My sons, why do you not eat meat?” They answered him, “Shall we eat meat, when each day the daily sacrifice used to be offered on the altar, and now it lies unused?” He said, “So then we shall not eat [meat]. But why shall we not drink wine?” They said to him, “Shall we then drink wine, when every day wine was poured as a libation upon the altar, but now it lies unused?!” He said, “So then we shall not drink [wine].” Then he said, “But then we shall [also] not eat bread, because of the two loaves and the showbread that used to be brought, and we shall not drink water, because the ceremonial pouring of the water on the festival [of Sukkot] is no more. We shall not eat figs and grapes, for these were brought as first fruits on the festival [of Shavuot]...”

The beraita continues with R. Yehoshua explaining that this logic can be followed ad absurdum, leading to a dead end for all life and existence. While there is certainly a need for well-defined actions that reflect mourning, at the same time, life must go on.

In the story of the Jew with the plow, in contrast, we find a different approach – the proper attitude in the wake of the destruction is indeed one of despondency and despair. It seems that there is indeed no purpose in going on living. One might as well leave off plowing, for there is no longer any point to it.

Advancing and Distancing Mashiach

Once that consciousness is established, something happens that changes the view of the world once again. The ox bellows a second time, and the Arab explains that this time the signal indicates the birth of Mashiach, who is born at the same time as the destruction. The birth of Mashiach symbolizes the fact that the destruction is not complete and final; at the very moment of the destruction, the process that will eventually lead to redemption and rebuilding is already set in motion. Now, the Arab suggests, the plowing of the field should continue. The moment that there is a tangible embodiment of the hope of redemption, there is room to go on with the existence of this world.

However, the Jew finds himself unable to continue; the knowledge of the birth of Mashiach draws him irresistibly to the place where he might encounter him and discover his identity. He asks the Arab for details, sells his ox and his plow, and becomes an itinerant peddler, hoping to find the infant and to see him with his own eyes. Eventually, he arrives in Beit Lechem. The symbols in the story are clear; the name of the place where King David was born and raised and the name of Mashiach’s father – Chizkiya – hint very clearly to the Davidic dynasty. In Beit Lechem, the peddler meets the mother of the infant, who is deeply troubled by the fact that he was born on the day of the destruction. She is unaware of the interweaving of destruction and redemption. She sees only one side of reality: the child was born on the day of the destruction, and therefore for his mother he symbolizes tragedy and loss. His entire being reminds her constantly of the ruins, to the point that she feels that she would like to strangle the child, a symbolic strangling and suffocating and erasing of the reality that he represents for her. She does not really want to do this to her child, but at the same time she feels incapable of showing her child maternal love. The peddler, who is aware of the larger picture and has achieved his dream of seeing the infant Mashiach, persuades her to work on her attitude towards the child. Later, however, the price of his insistence on seeing the child becomes apparent. On the day that the peddler saw the infant, the wind snatched him from his mother, such that his arrival to redeem his people is now postponed for an indefinite time.

In this story, too, the abandonment of the Jew’s task at hand – continuing to cultivate the earth and maintaining life – in order to attain some tangible evidence of Mashiach serves only to distance him. Mashiach must be “hidden from the eye.” The secret and essence of his existence is a secret because the aim is not to focus on Mashiach himself, but rather to continue doing what one is meant to be doing. This itself will bring him, and in an unexpected way: “Nevertheless, I await him every day, that he will come.”



[1]  This is the version that appears in some manuscripts of the gemara. Other versions, including the printed Vilna edition, have R. Yehoshua ben Levi meeting Eliyahu at the entrance to the tomb of R. Shimon bar Yochai.

[2]  As noted by Yonah Fraenkel in his analysis of the story. See Y. Fraenkel, Sippur Ha-Aggada – Achdut shel Tochen Ve-Tzura (Tel Aviv, 5761), pp. 284-293.

[3]  Ibid., p. 291, n. 57.

[4] Fraenkel (ibid.) also refers to the discussion in Sanhedrin, where the Sages refer to Mashiach as “a leper of the house of Rabbi” (according to Rashi’s interpretation) and cite, as their source, the same verse from Yeshayahu.

[5] Fraenkel (ibid.) offers a slightly different interpretation of the story. To his view, R. Yehoshua receives an answer about his place in the World to Come the moment he sets aside his personal needs and concerns (the question of whether he will merit the World to Come) and focuses on the needs of Am Yisrael in general (the coming of Mashiach). We, in contrast, are focusing on the setting aside of questions of the future redemption altogether, on both the personal and the national level, turning attention instead to positive spiritual and religious activity in the world.

[6]  Rashi interprets this teaching in a similar manner to the one he adopted for the first one – that is, as concerning the timing of Mashiach’s arrival. If they merit it, he will come like the fleeting clouds (“I will hasten it”); if not, he will come slowly, like a donkey plodding on its way. However, it seems that the second teaching may be interpreted differently, relating instead to the “quality” of the redemption, and not just the issue of time. This quality is not entirely clear, and might be understood in different ways. We might suggest that if Am Yisrael merit the redemption by creating a society that follows a proper order of priorities and that places religious and spiritual values at its center, and as part of that commitment takes care of the poor, with the understanding that their status in Torah study is not necessarily any lower, then Mashiach will come from heaven. His arrival will thus represent a Divine stamp of approval, affirming that the society operates in the way it should. If they do not merit it – if the society places material values at its center and both Divine service and concern for the poor and downtrodden are pushed aside – then Mashiach will come from that very place that society has cast aside.

[7]  Prompted by the mention of the donkey, the gemara “squeezes in” a conversation between Shmuel and King Shapur, but this is parenthetical in nature and not a change of subject. It seems that the story about R. Yehoshua ben Levi should be read against the background of the teachings brought in his name.

[8]  Fraenkel has noted the interrelatedness of the two stories in his Iyyunim Be-Olamo Ha-Ruchani shel Sippur Ha-Aggada (Tel Aviv, 5741), pp. 158-163.