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Jewish eschatology is the area of theology and philosophy concerned with events that will happen in the end of days and related concepts, according to the Hebrew Bible and Jewish thought. This includes the ingathering of the exiled diaspora, the coming of a Jewish Messiah, afterlife, and the revival of the dead Tzadikim. In Judaism, end times are usually called the "end of days" (aḥarit ha-yamim, אחרית הימים), a phrase that appears several times in the Tanakh.
Until the late modern era, the standard Jewish belief was that after one dies, one's immortal soul joins God in the world to come while one's body decomposes. At the end of days, God will recompose one's body, place within it one's immortal soul, and that person will stand before God in judgement. The idea of a messianic age has a prominent place in Jewish thought, and is incorporated as part of the end of days. Jewish philosophers from medieval times to the present day have emphasized the soul's immortality and deemphasized the resurrection of the dead.
In Judaism, the main textual source for the belief in the end of days and accompanying events is the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible. In the Five Books of Moses (the Torah), references are made in Deuteronomy 28-31, that the Jews will not be able to keep the Laws of Moses in the Land of Israel and will be subsequently exiled but ultimately redeemed. The books of the Hebrew Prophets elaborated and prophesied about the end of days.
The Hebrew word mashiach (or moshiach) refers to the Jewish idea of the messiah. Mashiach means anointed, a meaning preserved in the English word derived from it, messiah. The Messiah is to be a human leader, physically descended from the Davidic line, who will rule and unite the people of Israel and will usher in the Messianic Age of global and universal peace. While the name of Jewish Messiah is considered to be one of the things that precede creation, he is not considered divine, in contrast to Christianity where Jesus is both divine and the Messiah.
In biblical times the title mashiach was awarded to someone in a high position of nobility and greatness. For example, Cohen ha-Mašíaḥ means High Priest. In the Talmudic era the title mashiach or מלך המשיח, Méleḫ ha-Mašíaḥ (in the Tiberian vocalization is pronounced Méleḵ haMMāšîªḥ) and literally means "the anointed King". It is a reference to the Jewish leader and king that will redeem Israel in the end of days and usher in a messianic era of peace and prosperity for both the living and deceased.
Most textual requirements concerning the Messiah and his reign are inferred from verses in the Book of Isaiah, although aspects are mentioned in other prophets as well.
R. Johanan said: When you see a generation ever dwindling, hope for him [the Messiah], as it is written, and the afflicted people thou wilt save. R. Johanan said: When thou seest a generation overwhelmed by many troubles as by a river, await him, as it is written, when the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him; which is followed by, and the Redeemer shall come to Zion.
R. Johanan also said: The son of David will come only in a generation that is either altogether righteous or altogether wicked. 'in a generation that is altogether righteous,' — as it is written, Thy people also shall be all righteous: they shall inherit the land for ever. 'Or altogether wicked,' — as it is written, And he saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor;31 and it is [elsewhere] written, For mine own sake, even for mine own sake, will I do it.
Throughout Jewish history Jews have compared these passages (and others) to contemporary events in search of signs of the Messiah's imminent arrival, continuing into present times. For example, many Orthodox Jewish leaders have suggested that the devastation among Jews wrought by the Holocaust may represent a sign of hope for the Messiah's present imminent arrival.
The Talmud tells many stories about the Messiah, some of which represent famous Talmudic rabbis as receiving personal visitations from Elijah the Prophet and the Messiah. For example:
R. Joshua b. Levi met Elijah standing by the entrance of R. Simeon b. Yohai's tomb. He asked him: 'Have I a portion in the world to come?' He replied, 'if this Master desires it.' R. Joshua b. Levi said, 'I saw two, but heard the voice of a third.' He then asked him, 'When will the Messiah come?' — 'Go and ask him himself,' was his reply. 'Where is he sitting?' — 'At the entrance.' And by what sign may I recognise him?' — 'He is sitting among the poor lepers: all of them untie [them] all at once, and rebandage them together, whereas he unties and rebandages each separately, [before treating the next], thinking, should I be wanted, [it being time for my appearance as the Messiah] I must not be delayed [through having to bandage a number of sores].' So he went to him and greeted him, saying, 'peace upon thee, Master and Teacher.' 'peace upon thee, O son of Levi,' he replied. 'When wilt thou come Master?' asked he, 'To-day', was his answer. On his returning to Elijah, the latter enquired, 'What did he say to thee?' — 'peace Upon thee, O son of Levi,' he answered. Thereupon he [Elijah] observed, 'He thereby assured thee and thy father of [a portion in] the world to come.' 'He spoke falsely to me,' he rejoined, 'stating that he would come to-day, but has not.' He [Elijah] answered him, 'This is what he said to thee, To-day, if ye will hear his voice (Psalms 95).'
The Medieval rabbinic figure Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), also known as the Rambam, wrote a commentary to tractate Sanhedrin stressing a relatively naturalistic interpretation of the Messiah and de-emphasizing miraculous elements. His commentary became widely (although not universally) accepted in the non- or less-mystical branches of Orthodox Judaism:
The Messianic age is when the Jews will regain their independence and all return to the land of Israel. The Messiah will be a very great king, he will achieve great fame, and his reputation among the gentile nations will be even greater than that of King Solomon. His great righteousness and the wonders that he will bring about will cause all peoples to make peace with him and all lands to serve him.... Nothing will change in the Messianic age, however, except that Jews will regain their independence. Rich and poor, strong and weak, will still exist. However it will be very easy for people to make a living, and with very little effort they will be able to accomplish very much.... it will be a time when the number of wise men will increase.... war shall not exist, and nation shall no longer lift up sword against nation.... The Messianic age will be highlighted by a community of the righteous and dominated by goodness and wisdom. It will be ruled by the Messiah, a righteous and honest king, outstanding in wisdom, and close to God. Do not think that the ways of the world or the laws of nature will change, this is not true. The world will continue as it is. The prophet Isaiah predicted "The wolf shall live with the sheep; the leopard shall lie down with the kid." This, however, is merely allegory, meaning that the Jews will live safely, even with the formerly wicked nations. All nations will return to the true religion and will no longer steal or oppress. Note that all prophecies regarding the Messiah are allegorical. Only in the Messianic age will we know the meaning of each allegory and what it comes to teach us. Our sages and prophets did not long for the Messianic age in order that they might rule the world and dominate the gentiles, the only thing they wanted was to be free for Jews to involve themselves with the Torah and its wisdom.
According to the Talmud, the Midrash, and the Kabbalistic work, the Zohar, the 'deadline' by which the Messiah must appear is 6000 years from creation. Orthodox and Hasidic Jews believe that the Hebrew calendar dates back to the time of creation; the year 2009-2010 (the Hebrew New Year begins during September or October) of the Gregorian calendar corresponds to the Hebrew year 5770.
There is a kabbalistic tradition that maintains that the seven days of creation in Genesis 1 correspond to seven millennia of the existence of natural creation. The tradition teaches that the seventh day of the week, Shabbat or the day of rest, corresponds to the seventh millennium (Hebrew years 6000 - 7000), the age of universal 'rest' - the Messianic Era.
The Talmud comments:
The Midrash comments:
The Zohar explains:
Elaborating on this theme are numerous early and late Jewish scholars, including the Ramban, Isaac Abrabanel, Abraham Ibn Ezra, Rabbeinu Bachya, the Vilna Gaon, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Ramchal, Aryeh Kaplan, and Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis.
Some authorities in Orthodox Judaism believe that this era will lead to supernatural events culminating in a bodily resurrection of the dead. Maimonides, on the other hand, holds that the events of the messianic era are not specifically connected with the resurrection. (See the Maimonides article.)
Conservative Judaism varies in its teachings. While it retains traditional references to a personal redeemer and prayers for the restoration of the Davidic line in the liturgy, Conservative Jews are more inclined to accept the idea of a messianic era:
We do not know when the Messiah will come, nor whether he will be a charismatic human figure or is a symbol of the redemption of mankind from the evils of the world. Through the doctrine of a Messianic figure, Judaism teaches us that every individual human being must live as if he or she, individually, has the responsibility to bring about the messianic age. Beyond that, we echo the words of Maimonides based on the prophet Habakkuk (2:3) that though he may tarry, yet do we wait for him each day... (Emet ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism)
Reform Judaism generally concurs with the more liberal Conservative perspective of a future messianic era rather than a personal Messiah. Reflecting its philosophical position, Reform Judaism, unlike Conservative Judaism, has altered the traditional prayers to refer to "redemption" rather than a "redeemer" and removed petitions for restoration of the House of David.
According to some commentators,[who?] the war of Gog and Magog envisioned in Ezekiel 38 is expected to occur in the end of days. This is described to be a climactic war that is said to occur at the end of the Jewish exile. Radak comments on Zechariah 14, that in the end of days Jerusalem will be the battle ground of Gog and Magog.
The hereafter is known as 'olam ha-ba (the "world to come", עולם הבא in Hebrew), and related to concepts of Gan Eden (the Heavenly "Garden in Eden", or paradise) and Gehinom. The accepted halakha is that it is impossible for living human beings to know what the world to come is like, although Rav, a rabbi quoted in the Talmud, describes it thusly: "In the World-to-Come there is no eating, no drinking, no procreation, no business negotiations, no jealousy, no hatred, and no competition. Rather, the righteous sit with their crowns upon their heads, enjoying the splendor of the Divine Presence."
The phrase "olam ha-ba" does not occur in the Hebrew Bible.
In the late Second Temple period, beliefs about the ultimate fate of the individual were diverse. The Essenes believed in the immortality of the soul, but the Pharisees and Sadducees, apparently, did not. The Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Pseudepigrapha and Jewish magical papyri reflect this diversity.
According to Maimonides, any non-Jew who lives according to the Seven Laws of Noah is regarded as a righteous gentile, and is assured of a place in the world to come, the final reward of the righteous.
While all classic rabbinic sources discuss the afterlife, the classic Medieval scholars dispute the nature of existence in the "End of Days" after the messianic period. While Maimonides describes an entirely spiritual existence for souls, which he calls "disembodied intellects," Nahmanides discusses an intensely spiritual existence on Earth, where spirituality and physicality are merged. Both agree that life after death is as Maimonides describes the "End of Days." This existence entails an extremely heightened understanding of and connection to the Divine Presence. This view is shared by all classic rabbinic scholars.
There is much rabbinic material on what happens to the soul of the deceased after death, what it experiences, and where it goes. At various points in the afterlife journey, the soul may encounter: Hibbut ha-kever, the pains of the grave; Dumah, the angel of silence; Satan as the angel of death; the Kaf ha-Kela, the catapult of the soul; Gehinom (purgatory); and Gan Eden (heaven or paradise). All classic rabbinic scholars agree that these concepts are beyond typical human understanding. Therefore, these ideas are expressed throughout rabbinic literature through many varied parables and analogies.
Gehinom is fairly well defined in rabbinic literature. It is sometimes translated as "hell", but is much closer to the Catholic view of purgatory than to the Christian view of hell, which differs from the classical Jewish view. Rabbinic thought maintains that souls are not tortured in gehinom forever; the longest that one can be there is said to be eleven months, with the exception of heretics, and unobservant Jews. This is the reason that even when in mourning for near relatives, Jews will not recite mourner's kaddish for longer than an eleven-month period. Gehinom is considered a spiritual forge where the soul is purified for its eventual ascent to Gan Eden ("Garden of Eden").
In explaining the Orthodox view of the afterlife, Irving Greenberg, a Modern Orthodox rabbi, discussed both the "world to come" and the belief in punishment and reward in a Moment Magazine "Ask the Rabbis" forum:
"Belief in the afterlife - a world to come in which the righteous get their true reward and the wicked get their deserved comeuppance - is a central teaching of traditional Judaism. This belief stems from the conviction that a loving God would not allow injustice to win.
When the facts of life did not fit the Bible's emphasis on reward and punishment in the here and now, this faith in the afterlife was emphasized. In the Middle Ages, when Jews suffered so much while enemies ruled the world, the stress on the world to come grew stronger. Some religious teachers taught that this life is "unimportant," and that one should live only to be worthy of eternal bliss. This view spilled over into asceticism and less respect for the body and material activity.
Early modernizers reversed direction. They validated Judaism and dismissed Christianity by insisting that Judaism is interested only in doing well in earthly life. Christianity was criticized as otherworldly, repressive and dreaming only of getting to heaven. It was described as cruel for condemning people to eternal damnation. This modern one-sided emphasis on mortal life robbed Jews of the profound consolation of eternal life and justice for all who suffered unjustly and innocently.
What is needed is the classical Jewish ability to hold both sides of the tension. Such Judaism would inspire people to find God in the secular, to unite body and soul, to work for tkkun olam (repairing the world) in the here and now. At the same time, it would uphold the reality of the spirit and the immortality of the soul. This faith offers the consolation of a final reunion - with those we have loved and lost with the El Maleh Rachamim, the Infinite God of Compassion."
Conservative Judaism both affirms belief in the world beyond (as referenced in the Amidah and Maimonides' Thirteen Precepts of Faith) while recognizing that human understanding is limited and we cannot know exactly what the world beyond consists of. Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism affirm belief in the afterlife, though they downplay the theological implications in favor of emphasizing the importance of the "here and now," as opposed to reward and punishment.
The Book of the Prophet of Ezekiel displays the first perception of resurrection. Under the Babylonian Empire in 539 BCE, Ezekiel described God's will to revive flesh upon the bones of dead Judeans. However, Ezekiel's narrative of resurrection was intended only as a metaphor for national rebirth, promising the Jews return to Israel and reconstruction of the Temple.
Daniel's eschatological prophecy, taking place in the 6th century BCE, promised literal resurrection to the Jews, in concrete detail. Daniel wrote that with the coming of the Archangel Michael, misery would beset the world, and only those whose names were in a divine book would be resurrected. Moreover, Daniel's promise of resurrection was intended only for the most righteous and the most sinful because the afterlife was a place for the virtuous individuals to be rewarded and the sinful individuals to receive eternal punishment.
The Hebrew Bible, at least as seen through interpretation of Bavli Sanhedrin, contains frequent reference to resurrection of the dead. The Mishnah (c. 200) lists belief in the resurrection of the dead as one of three essential beliefs necessary for a Jew to participate in it:
"All Israel have a portion in the world to come, for it is written: 'Thy people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified.' But the following have no portion therein: one who maintains that resurrection is not a biblical doctrine, the Torah was not divinely revealed, and an Apikoros ('heretic')."
In the late Second Temple period, the Pharisees believed in resurrection, while Essenes and Sadducees did not. During the Rabbinic period, beginning in the late first century and carrying on to the present, the works of Daniel were included into the Hebrew Bible, signaling the adoption of Jewish resurrection into the officially sacred texts.
Jewish liturgy, most notably the Amidah, contains references to the tenet of the bodily resurrection of the dead. In contemporary Judaism, both Orthodox Judaism and Conservative Judaism maintain the traditional references to it in their liturgy. However, many Conservative Jews interpret the tenet metaphorically rather than literally. Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism have altered traditional references to the resurrection of the dead in the liturgy ("who gives life to the dead") to refer to "who gives life to all."
The notion of reincarnation, while held as a mystical belief by some, is not an essential tenet of traditional Judaism. It is not mentioned in traditional classical sources such as the Tanakh ("Hebrew Bible"), the classical rabbinic works (Mishnah and Talmud), or Maimonides' 13 Principles of Faith. While one might contend the idea of reincarnation is not outlined in the Tanakh, there exist references to resurrection throughout Isaiah. However, books of Kabbalah — Jewish mysticism — teach a belief in gilgul, transmigration of souls, and hence the belief is universal in Hasidic Judaism, which regards the Kabbalah as sacred and authoritative.
Among well-known Rabbis who rejected the idea of reincarnation are Saadia Gaon, David Kimhi, Hasdai Crescas, Yedayah Bedershi (early 14th century), Joseph Albo, Abraham ibn Daud and Leon de Modena. Among the Geonim, Hai Gaon argued with Saadia Gaon in favour of gilgulim.
Rabbis who accepted the idea of reincarnation include, from Medieval times: the mystical leaders Nahmanides (the Ramban) and Rabbenu Bahya ben Asher; from the 16th-century: Levi ibn Habib (the Ralbah), and from the mystical school of Safed Shelomoh Alkabez, Isaac Luria (the Ari) and his exponent Hayyim Vital; and from the 18th-century: the founder of Hasidism Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, later Hasidic Masters, and the Lithuanian Jewish Orthodox leader and Kabbalist the Vilna Gaon.
With the 16th-century rational systemisation of Cordoveran Kabbalah by the Ramak, and the subsequent new paradigm of Lurianic Kabbalah by the Ari, Kabbalah replaced "Hakirah" (Rationalistic Medieval Jewish Philosophy) as the mainstream traditional Jewish theology, both in scholarly circles and in the popular imagination. Isaac Luria taught new explanations of the process of gilgul, and identification of the reincarnations of historic Jewish figures, which were compiled by Haim Vital in his Shaar HaGilgulim.
In Kabbalistic understanding of gilgul, which differs from many Eastern-religious views, reincarnation is not fatalistic or automatic, nor is it essentially a punishment of sin, or reward of virtue. In Judaism, the Heavenly realms could fulfill Maimonides' Principle of faith in Reward and Punishment. Rather, it is concerned with the process of individual Tikkun (Rectification) of the soul. In Kabbalistic interpretation, each Jewish soul is reincarnated enough times only in order to fulfil each of the 613 Mitzvot. The souls of the righteous among the Nations may be assisted through gilgulim to fulfil their Seven Laws of Noah. As such gilgul is an expression of Divine compassion, and is seen as a Heavenly agreement with the individual soul to descend again. This stress on physical performance and perfection of each Mitzvah is tied to the Lurianic doctrine of Cosmic Tikkun of Creation. In these new teachings, a cosmic catastrophe occurred at the beginning of creation called the "Shattering of the Vessels" of the Sephirot in the "World of Tohu (Chaos)". The vessels of the Sephirot broke and fell down through the spiritual worlds until they were embedded in our physical realm as "sparks of holiness" (Nitzutzot). The reason in Lurianic Kabbalah that almost all Mitzvot involve physical action is that through their performance, they elevate each particular spark of holiness associated with that commandment. Once all the sparks are redeemed to their spiritual source, the Messianic Era begins. This metaphysical theology gives cosmic significance to the life of each person, as each individual has particular tasks that only they can fulfil. Therefore, gilgulim assist the individual soul in this cosmic plan. This also explains the Kabbalistic reason why the future eschatological Utopia will be in this world, as only in the lowest, physical realm is the purpose of creation fulfilled.
The idea of gilgul became popular in folk belief, and is found in much Yiddish literature among Ashkenazi Jews.
In Judaism, the day of judgment happens every year on Rosh Hashanah; therefore, the belief in a last day of judgment for all mankind is disputed. Some rabbis hold that there will be such a day following the resurrection of the dead. Others hold that there is no need for that because of Rosh Hashanah. Yet others hold that this accounting and judgment happens when one dies. Other rabbis hold that the last judgment only applies to the gentile nations and not the Jewish people.
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