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Coronavirus and the Coming of Mashiach

In this week’s parasha, Vayikra, we see the word HaMashiach (המשיח) appear for the first time. In fact, the word only appears a total of four times in the entire Torah, three in this week’s parasha, and once next week. In all four cases, the Torah is not speaking of the messiah, but rather of the High Priest, the anointed kohen gadol. Of course, this is only true on the surface, peshat, level. On a deeper, mystical level the Torah is indeed alluding to the messiah at the End of Days.

It is fitting that we are reading these words now, when the Jewish world is abuzz over what coronavirus means in the grand scheme of things, and whether, perhaps, it is a sign of Mashiach’s coming. Jewish social media is full of posts and reposts affirming that coronavirus is absolutely a sign of Mashiach’s arrival, with all kinds of “proofs” based on gematria and ancient prophecies. While some of these are accurate, others are nonsensical, absurd, or just plain fake, so it is worth checking the sources behind everything you receive.

Many of the posts cite the same verse, Isaiah 26:20: “Go, my people, enter your chambers, and lock your doors behind you. Hide but a little moment, until the fury passes.” This verse is indeed a prophecy for the End of Days. The preceding verse speaks of the Resurrection of the Dead (“Your dead shall live, dead bodies shall arise; those that dwell in the dust will awake and sing…”) while the verse that follows describes God’s final retribution: “Behold, God shall come forth from His place to punish the dwellers of the earth for their iniquity…” Having said that, it isn’t only sinners that perish. On the contrary, Isaiah cautions everyone to hide behind closed doors for, as the Sages teach, in such moments the angel of death is let loose and doesn’t differentiate between the righteous and the wicked. (For a detailed explanation of this, see Alshech on Exodus 12:13.)

Now, what exactly is the nature of the za’am (זעם), “fury”, that Isaiah speaks of? Is it really a virulent plague?

A Plague Before Mashiach

In several places, the Sages speak of a great plague that will befall the world before Mashiach comes. Possibly the earliest mention of this is Tosefta Ta’anit 2:11, where the Sages discuss if a global flood can come upon the Earth again, since God promised it wouldn’t (Genesis 9:15). The Sages qualify that statement:

Rabbi Meir said: A flood of water will not come again, but a flood of fire and brimstone will, like He brought upon the people of Sodom, as it is written, “And God rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire.” (Genesis 19:24) Rabbi Yehudah said: A flood upon the whole world will not come again, but a flood upon individuals will, such as if a person is at sea and his ship sinks and he dies—this is like a personal flood. Rabbi Yose said: A flood of water will not come again, but a “flood” of plague upon the idolaters in the days of Mashiach will…

A similar statement is found in the Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 2:13):

“The fig tree puts forth her green figs…” (Song of Songs 2:13) Said Rabbi Chiya bar Abba: before the days of the messiah, a great plague will come to the world, and the sinners will succumb to it “…and the vines in blossom give forth their fragrance…” (ibid.) These are the survivors, of whom it is said: “And it shall be, that he that is left in Zion, and he that remains in Jerusalem [shall be called holy…]” (Isaiah 4:3)

Such passages agree that a devastating plague will come upon the world at the End of Days to strike down idolaters and sinners (though even the righteous will suffer among them). It is interesting to point out how the coronavirus we are dealing with today has, strangely, left the vast majority of children unaffected, with mild symptoms, or none at all. Scientists have yet to find a good explanation for this baffling phenomenon. Perhaps, from a spiritual perspective, it is because innocent children cannot be categorized as “sinners” or “idolaters”, and are being spared.

The Midrash Rabbah quoted above goes on to cite a couple of passages that also appear in the Talmud about the final seven-year period before Mashiach comes, and the state of the world during that time. We’ve written about both of these prophecies on multiple occasions in the past (see, for example, #21 here), so we shall not repeat them. It suffices to say that much of what the Sages predicted has come true. The final sign given in the lengthy midrashic passage is that if you see a generation where people are growing bolder and bolder, love to “rant and rave”, where blasphemy is widespread and people constantly “taunt” God, you should expect Mashiach to be near.

This is one of the factors that distinguish between the current state of the world compared to previous global plagues. For example, the Spanish Flu that started in 1918 certainly qualifies as a great plague that engulfed the entire world, with an estimated 50 million deaths. It came at the same time as World War I, and there were certainly Jews then who expected Mashiach imminently. The critical difference between then and now is the set of prophecies in the Talmud, which are more descriptive of today’s world than, say, 1918, as well as the fact that today we have the State of Israel. The latter is especially significant, since Ezekiel (ch. 37-38) prophesied that Jews would first return to Israel, settle down and build a prosperous country, and only then Mashiach would come. Thus, it is only today that essentially all the prophecies have been fulfilled. And there is at least one more.

Rome and the Enemies of Israel

Another intriguing prophecy that has been brought to light in recent days is the destruction of Rome. The notion that Rome will be crushed before Mashiach comes is found across ancient Jewish texts. This is because, of course, for most of history the biggest oppressor of Israel has been Rome. It was Rome that destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and thrust the Jewish people into this current, millennia-old exile. From historical records, we know that Rome enslaved countless Jews, far more than any other empire in history (see, for example, Samuel Kurinsky’s The Eighth Day). Later, Rome transformed into the Christian Empire—its seat being the Vatican in Rome—from which horrifying crusades, inquisitions, and other terrors were launched.

For the Sages, the greatest enemy was always Rome, and for Mashiach to come it meant Rome must fall for good. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a-b) records how when the students of Rabbi Yose ben Kisma asked him when Mashiach would come, he answered: “When [Rome] falls down, is rebuilt, falls again, and is again rebuilt, and then falls a third time, before it can be rebuilt the son of David will come.” Rabbi Yose predicted that Rome would fall three times. The third would be the last, and then Mashiach would come.*

While the city of Rome has been conquered and sacked multiple times, there have been three major powers that can be called “Rome”. The first was the Roman Empire itself, which formally came to an end in 476 CE. Then, in 800 CE, Pope Leo III resurrected the title and crowned Charlemagne as Roman Emperor once more. What followed was the era of the “Holy Roman Empire”. By 1648, the Holy Roman Empire was dismantled (though the title was carried on by some German powers until 1806). Finally, in 1861 the various kingdoms and states on the Italian peninsula unified to form the modern nation-state of Italy in the hopes of forging a renewed, strong Rome. Today’s Italy can therefore be seen as the third incarnation of ancient Rome. (This is all the more compelling when we remember that Italy was Hitler’s primary ally.)

As it stands currently, Italy has been hardest hit by the coronavirus. They have already had more than double the casualties of China, where the plague began. While we sincerely wish for everyone around the world to be healthy and protected from this dreadful pandemic, it is understandable why some have connected Italy’s unfortunate (and inexplicable) fate to this ancient prophecy. On that note, closely following Italy in terms of casualties are Spain and Iran—probably next in line when it comes to horrible treatment of the Jewish people throughout history. Of course, these numbers will change with time, and we pray for the plague to end immediately so that none more shall perish, no matter where they happen to live.

A Final Prophecy and a Call to Action

The Sages famously state that “in Nisan they were redeemed, and in Nisan they are destined to be redeemed again.” (Rosh Hashanah 11a-b) Just as the Israelites were saved from ancient Egypt in the month of Nisan, the Jewish people in the End of Days will be saved in the same month. The Sages actually debate in these pages whether the Redemption will take place in Nisan or in Tishrei, bringing various Scriptural proofs for both possibilities. The only conclusion is that both must happen: the process will begin in Nisan, and end in Tishrei, with the blowing of the Great Shofar.

Tonight, we usher in the month of Nisan. It is a most auspicious time to bring about the Final Redemption. Now is the time to take this opportunity seriously and prepare. Thankfully, God has made it easy—after all, just about everything is closed. There are no shows, no sports games, no vacations, no activities. There is nowhere to go. For most people, there is no need to even go to work. All distractions are out of the way. Now is the time for Torah and mitzvot, for prayer and repentance.

Finally, the Sages state that the best way to bring Mashiach is for all the Jewish people to keep Shabbat together, and that if the entire nation kept just one Shabbat properly, Mashiach would come (Shemot Rabbah 25:12). The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847-1905) added that the ideal time for this unified Shabbat is the last Shabbat of the month of Adar, right before the start of Nisan (see his commentary on Parashat Zachor). That Shabbat was just a few days ago, and it just so happened that the parasha we read was Vayakhel-Pekudei, which begins with God’s command to keep the Sabbath! (Exodus 35:2) The timing couldn’t be better. Heck, even the Pope has called for everyone to keep Shabbat like the Jews!

With the State of Israel, and much of the rest of the world, currently on lockdown, God has made it especially easy for us to fulfil one proper, nation-wide Sabbath. This week we have another tremendous opportunity, and the Shabbat that follows is Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Sabbath” before Pesach. If we do our utmost now then maybe, just maybe, it will be the Great Sabbath that brings the Final Redemption.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

*Click here to read about the “Three Romes” and the coming of Mashiach from a different perspective.

The Jewish View on Cards and Gambling

In this week’s parasha, Matot-Massei, we read how the Israelites were supposed to divide up the Holy Land between the Twelve Tribes:

And you shall inherit the land by lot according to your families; to the more [numerous] you shall give the more inheritance, and to the fewer you shall give the lesser inheritance; wherever the lot falls to any man, that shall be his…

We learn that the land of Israel was apportioned based on family size, with larger families logically receiving a larger share. Now, to determine which chunk of land a family would receive, the Israelites cast lots. The Talmud (Bava Batra 122a) describes how this was done: two urns were prepared, one containing the names of the Twelve Tribes, and the other containing the names of the various allotments of land. Elazar the High Priest would pick one name from each urn, thus designating a piece of land for a particular tribe.

Casting lots was very common in Biblical times, and is mentioned frequently in the Tanakh. For example, the Torah commands casting lots to determine which goat is sent to Azazel on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:8). In the Book of Jonah (1:7), the sailors on Jonah’s ship cast lots to determine who was guilty of causing the storm. In the time of King David, the kohanim were thus divided into 24 groups (I Chronicles 24). Haman cast lots to determine the best day to attack the Jews, and this is why the holiday is called “Purim”, since purim was the Persian word for “lots” (Esther 3:7).

Casting lots suggests a large degree of chance or randomness in the process. Yet, people of faith are naturally quite averse to the concept of random chance, for isn’t everything determined by God? Not surprisingly, the word “lot” (goral) also takes on the meaning of “fate” in the Tanakh. For instance, Isaiah (17:14) prophesies: “At evening there will be terror, and before morning they are not. This is the portion of them that spoil us, and the goral of them that rob us.” The ultimate fate of those that harm the Jewish people will be utter destruction. The Sages, too, were uncomfortable with the idea of dividing the Holy Land by seemingly random lots. They therefore stated (ibid.) that the lots were really just a show for the people to see what God intended. In reality:

Elazar was wearing the Urim and Tumim, while Joshua and all Israel stood before him… Animated by the Holy Spirit, he gave directions, exclaiming: “Zevulun” is coming up and the boundary lines of Acco are coming up with it. [Thereupon], he shook well the urn of the tribes and Zevulun came up in his hand. [Likewise] he shook well the urn of the boundaries and the boundary lines of Acco came up in his hand…

Elazar would prophetically see which tribe needed which land, and when he then shook the urns those exact pairs that he foresaw would emerge! So, the process was not random at all, but simply a materialization of the Divine Will. Still, the Sages insist that in the messianic era the Holy Land will not be apportioned through this method of casting lots, but rather “The Holy One, blessed be He, Himself, will divide it among them; for it is said [Ezekiel 48:29], ‘And these are their portions, says the Lord God.’”

If the Sages were not fond of casting random lots by chance, how would they feel about playing games of chance and gambling?

Gambling in the Talmud

In 1999 and 2000, the Muslim Waqf (Temple Mount authority) dug up 9000 tons of Temple Mount soil and unceremoniously dumped it in the Kidron Valley, creating one of the largest archaeological catastrophes in history. Thankfully, archaeologists did not give up on this precious soil, and began the “Temple Mount Sifting Project”. Among the many incredible finds are these Second Temple-era playing dice.

In a list of people that are ineligible to serve as witnesses or as judges, the Mishnah includes a mesachek b’kubia, a person who plays with dice, and mafrichei yonim, “pigeon flyers”. According to the Talmud, the latter most likely refers to people who bet on pigeon races, which were apparently common in those days. We know from historical sources that gambling with various dice games was very popular in Greek and Roman times. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 24b) goes on to discuss what the problem with such people is.

Rami bar Hama teaches that the issue with gambling is that it is essentially built on a lie: each player agrees to pay a certain sum of money if they lose, yet they hope (and fully intend) not to lose at all! That means the initial agreement made by the players is not even valid. The losing gambler is entirely dejected, and gives up their money reluctantly, often with a nagging feeling of being robbed or cheated out of their money.

Rav Sheshet disagrees. After all, there may be some people who are not so sad to part with their money, or are simply addicted to the game itself. Whatever the case, Rav Sheshet holds that gambling is inappropriate because it is a terribly unproductive waste of time, and the gambler contributes nothing to “the welfare of the world”. This is why, Rav Sheshet says, the Mishnah above concludes by saying that only a full-time gambler is prohibited, but one who has an actual job and just plays for fun on the side is permitted.

Nonetheless, Rav Yehudah holds that regardless of whether the gambler has an occupation or not, or whether he is a full-time player or not, a gambler is disqualified from being a kosher witness or judge. Rav Yehudah bases his statement on a related teaching of Rabbi Tarfon, and on this Rashi comments that a gambler is likened to a thief. The Midrash is even more vocal, saying that gamblers “calculate with their left hand, and press with their right, and rob and wrong one another” (Midrash Tehillim on Psalm 26:10).

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 25b) goes on to state that the prohibitions above don’t only refer to a literal dice-player, but any kind of gambler, including one who plays with pebbles (or checkers), and even with nuts. The Sages state that such a person is only readmitted when they do a complete repentance, and refuse to play the game even just for fun without any money!

Halachically-speaking, the Shulchan Arukh (Choshen Mishpat 370:2-3) first states that any kind of gambling is like theft and is forbidden, but then suggests that while it may not exactly be theft it is certainly a waste of time and not something anyone should engage in.

A Ban on Gambling

While the Talmud does not explicitly forbid gambling, later rabbis recognized its addictive nature and sought to ban the practice entirely. In 1628, for example, the rabbis of Venice issued a decree (to last six years) excommunicating any Jew who gambled. Part of the motivation for this decree was the case of Leon da Modena (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Modena, 1571-1648).

Rabbi Leon Yehudah Aryeh da Modena

Born in Venice to a family of Sephardic exiles, da Modena went on to become a respected rabbi and the hazzan of Venice’s main synagogue for forty years. A noted scholar, he wrote about a dozen important treatises. In Magen v’Herev, he systematically tore down the major tenets of Christianity, while in Ari Nohem he sought to discredit Kabbalah and prove that the Zohar has no ancient or divine origin. (The latter is probably why he isn’t as well-known in Jewish circles today as he should be.)

In 1637, he published Historia de’riti hebraici, an overview of Judaism for the European world, meant to dispel myths about Judaism and quell anti-Semitism. Historians credit this with being the first Jewish text written for the non-Jewish world in over a millennium, since the time of Josephus. The book was incredibly popular, and played a key role in England’s readmitting Jews to the country in the 1650s (after having being expelled in 1290).

More pertinent to the present discussion, Rabbi da Modena wrote Sur miRa (“Desist from Evil”), outlining the problems with gambling. He would know, since he was horribly addicted to gambling himself. He wrote of this problem in his own autobiography, Chayei Yehudah. And because such a high-profile sage was a gambler, his rabbinic colleagues in Venice issued that decree to ban any form of gambling.

Rabbi da Modena’s game of choice was cards. At that point in time, playing cards had become wildly popular in Europe. First invented in China in the 9th century, playing cards slowly made their way across Asia, and reached Europe around 1365. They have remained popular ever since, both for gambling and non-gambling games. While it is clear from an halachic standpoint that card games involving money (like Poker or Blackjack) should not be played, is it permissible to play non-gambling card games (like Crazy Eights or Go Fish)?

At first glance, it may not seem like there should be a problem with this. Yet, some rabbis have recently spoken out against all playing cards. Usually, this prohibition is connected not to gambling or wasting time, but rather to cards’ apparent origins in idolatry or the dark arts. Although it is true that some types of cards are used in divination and fortune-telling, it is important to examine the matter in depth and determine whether cards really are associated with forbidden practices.

The History of Playing Cards

Mamluk Cards

The exact origins of cards are unclear. We do know that they come from China, where paper and printing were invented. Card games are attested to in Chinese texts as early as 868 CE. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Muslims brought cards across Asia. They were particularly popular in Egypt during the Mamluk Sultanate (1250-1517). The Mamluks created the first modern-style deck of 52 cards with 4 suits. The suits were sticks, coins, swords, and cups. In the 15th century, Italians started to make cards of their own, with the suits being leaves, hearts, bells, and acorns. The French had three-leaf clovers for leaves, square tiles (or diamonds) for bells, and pikes for acorns. Although these suit symbols remained, the English names reflect the earlier suits of sticks (“clubs”) and swords (“spades”).

The Muslim Mamluks did not draw any faces on their court cards (since depicting faces in art is forbidden in Islam). The Europeans did not have this issue, and adapted the Muslim court cards of malik (king), malik na’ib (deputy king), and thani na’ib (second deputy) to king, queen, and prince or knight (“jack”). In 16th century France, the four kings were depicted as particular historical figures: the King of Spades was King David, the King of Clubs was Alexander the Great, the King of Hearts was Charlemagne, and the King of Diamonds was Julius (or Augustus) Caesar.

We see that playing cards have no origins in idolatry. The style of cards we know today were developed by staunchly monotheistic Muslims. They were further developed by mostly non-religious European renaissance printers, against the wishes of the Church which sought to ban cards on a number of occasions. Neither are playing cards known for being used in fortune-telling. However, a related type of card is used in divination today.

Tarot Cards and Kabbalah

In 15th century Italy, a different type of playing card developed. These were called trionfi, later tarocchi, and finally “tarot cards”. They, too, have four suits, but with 56 cards. These were, and still are, used for a number of different games, just like regular playing cards are. Outside of Europe, tarot cards are not well-known, and are generally associated with fortune-tellers.

In reality, the earliest mention of tarot cards being used in divination is only from 1750, and it was essentially unheard of until the late 19th century. Besides, most diviners actually use a different deck of 78 cards. Of course, such divination is entirely forbidden according to the Torah. So, it seems like some well-meaning rabbis have confused these tarot cards with regular playing cards. Ironically, many occultists actually claim that tarot cards come from Kabbalah!

The Tarot “Tree of Life” (Credit: Byzant.com)

These occultists tie the 22 additional divination cards to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 22 paths on the mystical “Tree of Life”. The ten numeral cards (naturally) correspond to the Ten Sefirot, while the four suits correspond to the four olamot, or universes. Finally, the four court cards and the ace represent the five partzufim (with the king and queen appropriately being Aba and Ima). While these parallels are neat, there is absolutely no known historical or textual basis to support these claims. Tarot cards have nothing to do with traditional Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism. (There is a concept in Kabbalah of a negative set of Ten Sefirot belonging to the Sitra Achra, so perhaps there is some connection between these tarot cards and certain evil spiritual forces.)

Having said all that, to forbid playing with cards (or even standard tarot cards) just because some people recently started using them in divination is like forbidding drinking coffee because some people recently started divining with coffee (a practice called “tassology” or “tasseography”). While playing cards copiously is certainly a waste of time, there is nothing wrong with the occasional—no gambling—game.

Ba’al HaTurim

It is fitting to end with the words of the Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, c. 1269-1343) who writes in his commentary on the Torah (Tur HaAroch on Deuteronomy 1:1) that Moses himself cautioned Israel about gambling in his final speech before passing away:

Before Moses got ready to relate all these various commandments, he used the present opportunity, a few weeks before his death, to admonish the people, and to remind them of past sins, and how they had caused Hashem a lot of grief during these years. He reminded them how God had treated them by invoking His attribute of mercy and loving kindness time and again. He warned them not to become corrupt again by gambling… They should not rely on the fact that because they were human they were bound to err and sin from time to time and that God, knowing this, would overlook their trespasses.