The Vilna Gaon and Moshiach by Rivka Levy
Artwork by Davora Lilian
The Vilna Gaon was really into the Moshiach and calculations of ‘End Times’.
There’s a book exchange station next to the bike path in the German Colony, and because it’s arguably the most Anglo neighborhood in Jerusalem, I often find some really good stuff there. Last week, I picked up a book called: The Gaon of Vilna and His Messianic Vision, by an observant Israeli academic called Arie Morgenstern. I have to tell you, it’s one of the most interesting books that I’ve read in a very long time.
I learned so many things that I didn’t know before, both about the Vilna Gaon himself, but also about the Chassidic community, the roots of the machloket between the mitnagdim and the chassidim, and also, how there was still a very strong yearning for Moshiach in the Ashkenazi world even after the Shabtai Tzvi false messiah disaster.
BUT – there was a huge clash of ideas about how best to bring the Moshiach and get to the end of days, which is basically what most of the book explores. BH, I want to explore what all that means for us today in the next article, but before I do, I first just wanted to share some of the more general interesting nuggets of information I picked up from the book.
Why is there such a strong Armenian presence in Jerusalem?
Every time I drive or walk through the Old City, I skirt the Armenian quarter, and I find myself asking again:
WHY is there an Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem?!?!
It’s quite a small denomination, as xtian sects go, it’s not a world power, heck, Armenia doesn’t even neighbor Israel. So what’s going on here? Read on, to find out.
The Italian Jew Raphael Mordechai Malchi moved to Israel in 1673, and practiced medicine in Jerusalem until his death in 1702. He treated many of the residents of the Holy City, including non-Jews, and he recorded a conversation that he had with an Armenian priest, who explained why the Armenian church had built so many buildings in Jerusalem. Malchi wrote:
“He showed me some writings in Assyrian and Hebrew…and told me that on Mt Sinai, where a monastery stands today, they found a large tablet of lead in a cave, bearing Hebrew letters and these verses from Jeremiah.”
Ed. Note: This is Jeremiah’s prophecy of Messianic times, 30-35, that begins: For behold, days are coming – the word of Hashem – when I will return the captivity of my people Israel and Judah, said Hashem, and I will return them to the land that I gave their forefathers and they will possess it.
(It’s worth looking at these chapters in detail, which BH we will do in a separate post.)
What the Armenian priest told Dr Malchi is that after they ‘searched the whole world’ trying to figure out how to read it, “they discovered explicitly that at the end of day, the Semites will demand Jerusalem from all places around the world where they have been living.”
So the Armenians built monasteries in the holy city, arranged for a different patriarch to live in the city every year, and sent huge amounts of money to Jerusalem to ensure they had a strong toehold and a grip on the future seat of power. (And let’s be honest, probably also to try to put a dent in the ‘Semites’ plans to reclaim their country and usher in the time of Moshiach.)
Halavi, the Jews would take Jeremiah’s prophecies as seriously.
Messianic fervor didn’t ‘disappear’ from the Jewish world after Shabtai Tzvi, the false messiah from Izmir who ended up converting to Islam.
I know that’s not obvious from our viewpoint of 2019, where the whole non-Chassidic, Ashkenazi Jewish world likes to pretend that after Shabtai Tzvi, everyone except Breslov and Lubavitch stopped even thinking about Moshiach, but as we’ll see in the next post, there was a big cover up going on at the end of the 18th century.
Shabtai Tzvi lived between August 1, 1626 – c. September 17, 1676. While his ‘false messianic’ vision certainly did enormous harm to the Ashkenazi world, it seems the problem was more that he created a false – and fundamentally evil – new ‘religion’ called Sabbateanism, that continued after his death, than that he was talking about Moshiach and the geula.
Very soon after he disappeared from the scene, Jews from all different backgrounds continued to have ‘Moshiach fever’, and even to discuss specific dates for the end of days to begin, based on their understanding of allusions to this time in the Zohar.
Most notably, there was a widespread movement of making aliya to Israel between the years 1740 and 1781.
This was based on kabbalistic calculations that 1740 marked the half-way point in the 6th millennia – and the time when the house of Yaakov would finally rise up against the house of Esav.
Here’s the quote from the Zohar that got all the kabbalists of that time so excited, based on Genesis 32:13-26, where Yaakov wrestles the angel of Esav until dawn:
“Until dawn.” For by then, [Esav’s] dominion has passed on. So it will be in the future. The current exile resembles night. It is night. And it’s dust dominates the Jews. They are hurled into the dust until the light ascends and illuminates the day. Then Israel will be dominant and the kingship will be given to them…
“…Israel’s deliverance will not be revealed in one stroke but rather like a dawn, which progresses and grows in light until true day appears.”
The kabbalists of that time, including one named Rabbi Shalom Buzaglo, estimated that the ‘time’ spoken of by the Prophet Daniel was 480 years long, as the gematria for hashahar (dawn) is 480. So when Daniel (in 7:25) speaks of ‘a time and times and half a time’, Rabbi Buzaglo worked out that this would be 1680 years after the second Temple was destroyed, which equated to the Hebrew year 5508 (1748 C.E.)
Ahead of that date, a whole bunch of big kabbalists, rabbis and other important communal figures from both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi world suddenly upped sticks, and moved to Eretz Yisrael, swelling the population of Jerusalem from just over 1000, to more than 5000 in five years.
Moshiach didn’t come then – but what did happen instead was that many members of the community started to die prematurely, including in a terrible plague, that killed hundreds of the Jews in Israel. The Ohr HaChaim died in Jerusalem in 1743, and the RaMCHaL succumbed to the plague in Acco, in May 1746.
The rabbis in Jerusalem responded to what they saw as this ‘Divine punishment’ by issuing ‘Moral Legislation’ in 1749, which forbade the wealthy new olim to the Holy Land from wearing their expensive clothes and jewelry in public. The Jerusalem rabbis also gave all the single men in the city an ultimatum to either get married, or leave town, to minimize the untznius behavior they were trailing in their wake.
In the meantime, the Moshiach didn’t come in 1748.
But what certainly did happen is that the ‘end of days’ process did begin in earnest at that point, after all, because so many people moved to the Holy Land at that time, more than at any other point in preceding 1600 years of exile.
The Baal Shem Tov ‘speaks to Moshiach’ in 1747, and discovers that geula depends on the Jews making teshuva, not on a fixed date
Very interestingly, while all this was going on, the Baal Shem Tov wrote a letter to his brother-in-law, Reb Gershon of Kutow, that his student Yaakov Yosef of Polonoye was meant to take to Israel to deliver, when he also made aliya ahead of 1748. The letter was never delivered, because Rabbi Y.Y. stayed home, after Moshiach didn’t show up then as hoped.
Instead, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef sat on this letter for over 35 years, only publishing it in his book Ben Porat Yosef in 1780. Why did he wait so long to publicise the letter? It seems that even amongst the Baal Shem Tov’s leading students, there was a strong belief that Moshiach had to be imminent. To put this a different way, it seems Rabbi Yaakov Yosef was hoping the Baal Shem Tov’s insight about the end of days, which he described to Reb Gershon, was wrong.
So what did the letter actually say?
In his missive, the BESHT described how his neshama had ascended to heaven on Rosh Hashana in 1747 – the year before ‘the end’ was meant to occur, according to the kabbalists – and had met the Moshiach, who was learning Torah with the Patriarchs, Tannaim and the Seven Shepherds.
This is a quote from the BESHT’s letter:
“I asked the Messiah when he would be coming. “This is how you will know,” he replied. “When your teachings become public and revealed to the world, and your wellsprings of my teachings, which you will have mastered, overflow to the outside, so that [others], too, will be able to perform mystical unifications and ascents of the soul like you. Then all the husks will be eradicated and a time of [Divine] desire and salvation will come.”
The Baal Shem Tov continues:
“[This reply] left me puzzled and severely troubled. Such a long time! When can it possibly come to pass?”
To phrase this another way, as Arie Morgenstern points out, this experience totally shifted the question of ‘when will the Moshiach come?’ out of the realm of ‘time’, and into the realm of ‘behavior’.
We’re back to that discussion in the Gemara, about whether the redemption depends on the Jewish people making teshuva, or is totally just a matter of ‘timing’. Rabbi Yehoshua said the latter, Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol said the former – and according to this letter from the BESHT, Rabbi Eliezer was right.
The Baal Shem Tov was explaining to Reb Gershon that the Moshiach is going to come, and the end of days is going to happen, only when the Jews start to really connect to God, and experience ‘ascents of the soul’, and to really learn and understand Torah on the deep level of chassidut.
And not a second before.
That’s why the Baal Shem Tov was so troubled, because in order for the Jewish nation to reach that high spiritual level, so much had to change first.
And if he was thinking it was a tall order in his generation, what can we begin to say about ours?
In the meantime, the kabbalist’s date of 1748 came and went with no Moshiach, but Rabbi Yaakov Yosef only published the Baal Shem Tov’s letter in 1780, because at that stage, there was another date for imminent redemption being mooted: 1781.
And at that stage Rabbi Y.Y. wanted to pre-empt any more ‘Moshiach no-show letdown’ by publishing the BESHT’s letter, which described in detail how the rules of the game had actually changed.
And here’s where things get even more interesting.
Various groups of kabbalists keep trying to ‘force’ geula in various ways.
Back in 1753, a small group of Jerusalem kabbalists including Rabbi Shalom Sharabi (the Rashash), Rabbi Chaim de la Roza, and Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai (the Chida) formed a ‘secret society’ with the aim of trying to force Hashem to bring the geula that year
The year 5313 spells ‘ha shahar’ – the dawn, and was also connected to the word ve-nivneta, talking about the rebuilding of Jerusalem. (Jeremiah 30:18). There are four separate accounts of what these three kabbalists tried to do, but the long and short of it is that after weeks of lengthy preparations and self-mortifications, they tried to use different holy names to ‘force’ the coming of the Moshiach.
Suddenly, the three heard a voice from Heaven telling them to stop from their “brazen undertaking” before they totally unhinge the world, because they “wish to hasten something whose time has not yet come, as God has counseled.”
The voice then tells them:
“One of you will have to leave the holy city, for only the three of you together in unison can force the Messiah’s hand.”
The decree of exile seems to have fallen upon the Chida, who immediately left Jerusalem for unknown reasons on January 9, 1753 and stayed out of Israel for the next 5 years.
The three kabbalists were terrified at the sin they felt they had committed, by trying to go against God’s will to hasten the end, so much so that Rabbi de la Rosa asked his student to perform the four types of execution upon his body, after he died.
His students couldn’t bring themselves to do it – but Rabbi de la Rosa’s funeral procession was attacked by Arab bandits, and his body was thrown into a ravine. The Tzaddik’s decree was fulfilled, one way or another.
There was a wave of Chassidic aliya before 1781
So now, the next date that loomed into view for the ‘end of days’ was 1781. A well-known kabbalist by the name of Immanuel Hai Ricchi, from the previous generation, had calculated that the ‘in its time’ redemption would occur in May 1781, corresponding to the Hebrew year of 5541.
And historical events certainly seemed to be heading in that direction.
The vicious Haidamak pogroms began in 1768 (and saw 30,000 Jews murdered in Uman, alone), and then were was also an awful outbreak of bubonic plague in 1770 (!) which killed hundreds of thousands of the Jews in the pale of settlement.
This from HERE:
In Western Europe, the last outbreak of plague was in southern France between 1720 and 1722. Towns like Marseilles and Toulon were devastated. In Eastern Europe, Kiev in Ukraine suffered a severe outbreak in 1770. The last serious outbreak of bubonic plague in Europe was in Moscow in 1771.
Then, Russia conquered Poland in 1772, and also some of the Turkish empire, too, in 1774 – and it really looked like ‘the End of Days’ was fast approaching.
Many leaders of the growing chassidut movement thought so, with some of chassidut’s biggest luminaries, including Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, and Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk, making aliya to Israel in 1777.
But the Chassidic aliya quickly ran into severe problems, mostly of the financial kind, so when the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, asked Rabbi Menachem Mendel if he should also ascend to the holy land in 1780, Rabbi Menachem Mendel basically told him to hold off until the next year, to see if the Moshiach really was about to show up.
Again, he didn’t.
So at that point, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonoye decided to finally print the letter describing the Baal Shem Tov meeting the Moshiach, from many years before. Presumably, he was trying to ‘bank’ any disappointment that Moshiach hadn’t shown up, and to set out a new path, one based on perfecting behavior and fixing bad middot, instead of a fixed ‘time’ of redemption.
The point of all these tidbits is to point out that the Jewish community has actually weathered far more disappointments over Moshiach not showing up than you might think, even after the whole Shabtai Tzvi affair.
And we actually came through all these false starts OK.
History shows that it’s been far more damaging, spiritually, for Jews to totally forget about Moshiach and geula, and considering moving to Israel, than obsessing over these things too much.
In part two of this post, we’re going to take a closer look at the disagreement that erupted between the Vilna Gaon and the Lithuanian rabbis and the chassidim in 1781 – there’s that date again! – because we’re going to learn something amazing about the ‘end of days’ by the time we’ve reached that end of that story.
To be continued…