Strange animal behavior, sudden earthquakes, apocalyptic-like weather incidents – all the signs seem to indicate that the Messiah will be arriving very soon, in a matter of years or perhaps even less. Prominent rabbis have predicted his imminent arrival but all this speculation begs the question: Are we permitted to calculate the arrival of the Messiah?
The answer, according to the most respected contemporary Sephardic Torah authority, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is that it is allowed. His ruling is supported by other classic sources which cite various reasons and conditions that allow us to calculate the Messiah’s arrival.
According to all Jewish religious opinions and Torah authorities, there is no dispute about naming a period of time as being more likely or auspicious for the arrival of the Messiah. However, the only question is whether it is permissible to name a specific date for the End of Days.
Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, known more popularly as Nachmanides, was a prominent medieval Jewish scholar, Sephardic rabbi, philosopher, physician, Kabbalist, and Biblical commentator. He ruled that the prohibition against predicting a date for the coming of the Messiah only pertains to the earlier generations who were still distant from the Messiah. Nachmanides reasoned that if the still distant date were to be revealed, it would cause the people to become desperate and weaken their resolve.
Conversely, revealing the date as the Messiah’s arrival approaches will strengthen people and motivate them to do good deeds and repent. This idea is even more important in that it might be reasoned that increasing in good deeds as the prophesied time approaches will cancel out any decrees that are preventing the Messiah from coming earlier.
In his teachings, Nachmanides emphasized that it is only forbidden to speak of the coming of the Messiah in specific and defined terms. It is, however, permissible to speak of the Messiah as a definite event, but in terms of a possible and imminent arrival.
A second well-known Torah scholar, Rabbi Isaac ben Judah Abravanel, was a Portuguese Jewish statesman, philosopher, Bible commentator and financier from the 15th century CE. Rabbi Abravanel wrote that when the Torah sages decried those who figured out the coming of the Messiah, they were only speaking of those who did so according to astrology or witchcraft.
According to Rabbi Abravanel, it is totally permissible to calculate the coming of the Messiah according to the Bible and prophets. He also points out that the desire to know when the Messiah is coming is not a negative thing, but is a positive and praiseworthy trait, showing a true and strong desire to bring the Messiah through good deeds and closeness to God. As a proof, Rabbi Abravanel brings several examples in the Talmud of people who merited seeing Elijah the Prophet, and then inquired when the Messiah would come. Similar to Nachmanides, Rabbi Abravanel also specifies that the prohibition only applied to the earlier generations.
Rabbi Abravanel based his opinion on the teachings of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, more popularly known by the acronym Rashbi. A 2nd-century sage purported to be the author of the Zohar, the basic text for the study of Kabbalah, Rashbi ruled that it was forbidden for uneducated people who do not base their opinions on Torah sources to predict the Messiah’s arrival. However, Torah scholars are permitted because they understand how to do so in a proper manner.
In a hint concerning the times preceding the End of Days, Rashbi explained that in the days before the Messiah’s arrival, the deepest secrets will be revealed even to little children.