A burst in technology, a drop in morality, and the Jewish return to Israel are all predicted as precursors to the Messiah.
The coming of the Messiah and the subsequent redemption of Israel is a basic belief of Judaism.
God will bring the redemption in His own time. If all Israel were to return to God, the Messiah would appear and the final redemption would be ushered in immediately. Otherwise, the redemption will not occur until the final time decreed by God. This is the meaning of the verse, “I, God, will accelerate it in its due time” (Isaiah 60:22). That is, if Israel is worthy, God will hasten the redemption; if they are not, it will come, but only in its due time.
Thus, we find two contradictory concepts regarding the advent of the Messianic Era in the Bible. There are many passages which indicate that the Messianic Era will be ushered in with miracles, such as, “In visions of the night, I beheld the likes of a human being who came with the clouds of heaven… and he was given… an everlasting dominion which will never pass away” (Daniel 7:13-14).
On the other hand, numerous passages indicate that the Messiah will come in a more prosaic manner, such as “Behold, your king comes to you… humble and riding upon a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). Here again, we are taught that there are two basic ways in which the Messianic Era can commence. If Israel is worthy, it will indeed by accompanied by heavenly miracles. If not, the Messianic Era will arrive through an apparently natural unfolding of historical events. In either case, God Himself will guide the forces of history to eventually bring about the Messianic Era.
Redemption will not come all at once, but gradually, in a natural manner.
Many of our sages maintained that there would be very little difference between now and the onset of the Messianic Era except with respect to Israel’s subjugation by other governments. Similarly, we are taught that the redemption will not come all at once, but gradually, in a natural manner.
Nevertheless, the Messiah can come at any time, totally without warning. The reason for this is that many of the traditions regarding events which will precede the Messianic Era are contingent upon factors known only to God. Not all are necessary conditions for the redemption. It is for this reason that one should not attempt to calculate the date of the coming of the Messiah. Our sages thus taught, “May the soul of those who calculate the end rot.”
Many of our traditions predict that there will be an extremely advanced technology in the Messianic Era. All disease will be eliminated, as the prophet foretold, “Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame man will leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb will sing” (Isaiah 35:5-6).
In order that man devote himself totally to achieving spiritual perfection, many forms of labour will become obsolete. A number of miracles are predicted, such as grapes as large as hen’s eggs and grains of wheat as big as a fist. As we now know, all this can become possible with a technology not too far removed from that of today. Indeed, when Rabbi Gamliel spoke of these predicted miracles, he stated that they would not involve any change in the laws of nature, but are allusions to a highly advanced technology. Thus, so little labour will be needed to process agricultural products that clothing and loaves of bread will seem to grow on trees. Similarly, as we learn the secrets of all life processes, it will become possible to make trees bear fruit continually.
When we think of the miracles of the Messianic Age as being technological rather than manifest, then we have no trouble understanding traditions that predict such things as space flight and interstellar colonisation in the Messianic Age, even according to those who believe that it will not be a time of manifest miracles.
All of this would be mere conjecture and even forced interpretation if it were not for the fact that our present technological revolution has also been predicted, with an approximate date as to its inception. Almost 2000 years ago, the Zohar predicted, “In the 600th year of the 6th millennium, the gates of wisdom on high and the wellsprings of lower wisdom will be opened. This will prepare the world to enter the 7th millennium, just as a person prepares himself toward sunset on Friday for the Sabbath. It is the same here. And the mnemonic for this is (Genesis 7:11), ‘In the 600th year… all the foundations of the great deep were split’.”
The Zohar predicts with almost uncanny accuracy the onset of the technological revolution.
Here we see a clear prediction that in the Jewish year 5600 (1840 CE), the wellsprings of lower wisdom would be opened and there would be a sudden expansion of secular knowledge. Although the year 1840 did not yield any major scientific breakthrough, the date corresponds with almost uncanny accuracy to the onset of the present scientific revolution.
The tradition may have even anticipated the tremendous destructive powers of our modern technology. Thus, we are taught that the Messianic Era will begin in a generation with the power to destroy itself.
The rapid changes on both a technological and sociological level will result in great social upheaval. The cataclysmic changes will result in considerable suffering, often referred to as the Chevley Mashiach or birth pangs of the Messiah. If the Messiah comes with miracles, these may be avoided, but the great changes involved in his coming in a natural manner may make these birth pangs inevitable.
From The Handbook of Jewish Thought (Vol. 2, Maznaim Publishing). Reprinted with permission.