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There's a sefer called אפיקי מים where it comments on Sanhedrin 97a, on the following:

ת"ר שבוע שבן דוד בא בו שנה ראשונה מתקיים מקרא זה (עמוס ד, ז) והמטרתי על עיר אחת ועל עיר אחת לא אמטיר שניה חיצי רעב משתלחים שלישית רעב גדול ומתים אנשים ונשים וטף חסידים ואנשי מעשה ותורה משתכחת מלומדיה ברביעית שובע ואינו שובע בחמישית שובע גדול ואוכלין ושותין ושמחין ותורה חוזרת ללומדיה בששית קולות בשביעית מלחמות במוצאי שביעית בן דוד בא The Sages taught in a baraita: With regard to the seven-year period, i.e., the Sabbatical cycle, during which the Messiah, son of David, comes: During the first year, this verse will be fulfilled: “And I will cause it to rain upon one city and cause it not to rain upon another city” (Amos 4:7). During the second year of that period, arrows of famine will be shot, indicating that there will be famine only in certain places. During the third year there will be a great famine, and men, women, children, the pious, and men of action will die, and the Torah is forgotten by those who study it. During the fourth year there will be plenty but not great plenty. During the fifth year there will be great plenty and they will eat, and drink, and rejoice, and the Torah will return to those who study it. During the sixth year, heavenly voices will be heard. During the Sabbatical Year, wars, e.g., the war of Gog and Magog, will be waged involving the Jewish people. During the year after the conclusion of the Sabbatical Year, the son of David will come.

On this Gemara, the author explains (middle line of the page):

הרי שד' שנים הראשונים של הסדר ימי רעה וצרה הם ואילו ג' האחרונים ימי טובה הם וביאור הפלוגתא הוא שלדעת סבי דבי אתונא אין ד' הראשונים שייכים כלל לסדר לידת המשיח מכיון שאין בהם שום שיפור מצב העולם כל ל והרי אין המשיח בא אלא לשפר מצב העולם הקיים ולגלות כוחותיו אל הפועל בלבד וממילא כל שאין בו הטבה ושיפור בפועל ע"כ שאינם בכלל חבלי משיח אכן ריב"ח אמר להם דודאי גם ימי הרעה מצטרפים לסדר ביאתו שהרי לעומקו של דבר הנה לידת המשיח אינה אלא תולדה של ימי הצרה גופייהו כי המשיח בא מכח הרע והטוב גם יחד וזהו הקיום של אז אהפוך כמו שיתבאר לפנינו בענין י"א אשר כל מה שהיה נראה שהוא היפך כבודו ית' לאמיתו של דבר הרי הוא בכלל מהלך הפנימי והעמוק מי ימצאנה וממילא צריכים כל הסדר של ז' שנים להולידו והרי מכיון שאין שום מציאות כ"א רצונו ית' הא ע"כ שגם מהרע מתגלה רצונו

Can someone explain to me what the author means with that the first four, e.g. the first four years in the seven year cycle, do not belong to the order of Mashiach, since there is no improvement in the world. Is that what the author means with:

הרי שד' שנים הראשונים של הסדר ימי רעה וצרה הם ואילו ג' האחרונים ימי טובה הם

Is this a common explanation found in the commentaries?

Also, what does the author means with the last line of the page? It seems the author is talking about childbirth. Does this have something to do with the birthpangs of Mashiach?

Also, what does the author means with:

ושאלו כמה ימי העיבור וא"ל לשב שני כמ"ש סנהדרין ל"ז שבוע שב"ד בא בו שנה ראשונה מתקיים מקרא זה והמטרתי' כו' וזהו התחלתו וגרם של ביאתו כמו העיבור ללידה וז"ש ישעי' כ"ו הרינו חלנו' שהיה לנו כל הצרות אבל ילדנו רוח שלא בא עדיין וכו' כי בכל עת ועת מתעברת י ממשיח ואם היו ישראל כדאי כבר נולד משיח אבל בעוננו מפלת אותו כל פעם ופעם בעבור שאנו מתרפים מד"ת וכו' וידוע שרוב המפילים מפילים לה' וכמ"ש בתז"ח בירחא חמישאה יהיב ליה תוקפא כו' וז"ש שם הא כמה שביעית דהוה כן ולא אתא א"ל אביי בששית קולות בשביעית

Thank you in advance!

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    Is this a common explanation found in the commentaries? - No, it is his own peshat. It seems the author is talking about childbirth. - Yes, in many places in Tenach the travails before the coming of mashiach are compared to birth-pangs.
    – pcoz
    Dec 20, 2021 at 21:49

1 Answer 1

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Let's backtrack.

The Gemara in Bechoros (8b) describes a debate between Rebbi Yehoshua ben Chananya and the Roman Emporer as to the period of pregnancy of a snake. R' Yehoshua ben Chananya holds that the period is 7 years, yet The Emporer claims that the Sabei Debei Atuna - The Sages of Athens bred snakes who were only pregnant for 3 years. R' Yehoshua ben Chananya retorted that those snakes were already pregnant for 4 years when The Sages of Athens bred them, as snakes can cohabitate for purely carnal reasons.

Rav Moshe Shapiro is explaining the debate to be referring to the final 7 years building up to the coming of the Mashiach. As the Gemara here in Sanhedrin states, in the first 4 years the state of the world will gradually decline, whereas in the final 3 years the world will gradually improve. The Sages of Athens understand this to mean that only the final 3 years represent the build-up to the Mashiach, as the purpose of the Mashiach is to ultimately perfect the world, therefore the final 3 years in which the state of affairs of the world will improve must in fact be the groundwork for the arrival of the Mashiach. It is for this reason that The Sages of Athens believe the birth period of a snake to be only 3 years, as the embryo inside the snake homiletically represents the development of the Mashiach. The 4 years prior in which the world only declines cannot be related to the totality of the Mashiach's arrival, as it is in diametric opposition to what the Mashiach represents.

R' Yehoshua ben Chananya, however, disagrees fundamentally. Although it is true that the goal of the Mashiach is to perfect the state of the world, the understanding of this perfection is unique.

The ultimate perfection of the world is found in the deep secret of how the root of all evil is in fact goodness itself. The Ramcha"l (Klach Pischei Chochmah, 1-3) describes this phenomenon as God's ultimate will manifesting completely. God's will is goodness itself, and being that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, nothing exists outside of his will. That which seems antithetical to God's will of goodness is only due to our lack of understanding, this is our test of faith, to believe that even the existence of evil is only a part of God's ultimate will of goodness. The transition of this concept from a belief to reality is the perfection of the world and is what the arrival of Mashiach represents.

With that said, we now understand the opinion of R' Yehoshua ben Chananya. In the first 4 years prior to the coming of Mashiach the world will decline in the most extreme way, a seemingly pure manifestation of evil. Yet this is specifically part of the arrival of Mashiach, for these 4 years of evil are in fact the groundwork for the Mashiach's arrival, being that we will see how even the most extreme form of evil is rooted in God's will of goodness. We will gradually begin to understand this reality and when the Mashiach arrives, he will bring with him the ultimate manifestation of this reality, as it won't just be a belief, or even an understanding, it will be a tangible perception.

This explains why R' Yehoshua ben Chananya claimed that The Sages of Athens bred their snakes when they were already 4 years pregnant, this means that they completely disregard the first 4 years prior to the coming of the Mashiach as being the groundwork of his arrival, rather only the last 3 years relate to his arrival. The Sages of Athens believe that the gestation and birth, or the conception and ultimate arrival of the Mashiach is only a 3 year process in which the world will improve.

As to the opinion of other commentators I cannot say much as I have not researched the topic in such length.

The last paragraph you cited is explaining the point made earlier in the text of the Gemara. The 7 year period of pregnancy is parallel to the 7 years prior to the arrival of the Mashiach. The first year represents the conception of the Mashiach, just like an embryo must be conceived before birth. The conception of the Mashiach can happen at any time if we are worthy, yet we must continue in our righteous ways devoted to the Torah in order for the Mashiach to gestate and ultimately reveal himself. Even if we were worthy and the Mashiach was conceived, if we don't persist in our righteous ways then the Mashiach will not gestate, like that of a miscarriage.

This idea is written clearly in the Zohar Chadash (Sifra Tanina, 62) which describes the development of the Mashiach as a fetus, and the Pesikta Rabbasi (15,1) which describes more details on the years leading up to arrival of the Mashiach.

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    One word, Wow! Thank you very much!
    – Shmuel
    Dec 21, 2021 at 16:31
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    My pleasure! I am so pleased that you are exposed to the torah of Rav Moshe Shapiro, he has been the sole factor to my understanding of the words of Chazal. Dec 21, 2021 at 22:50
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    Yes, I found his work on Otzar. Any recommendations to read on Otzar from Rav Moshe Shapiro perhaps?
    – Shmuel
    Dec 22, 2021 at 12:50
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    @mvs Rav Moshe Shapiro himself didn't publish anything, however his talmidim collected much of his Torah and published multiple seforim. His most renowned sefer is Afikei Mayim, but I find the "yeshivishe" hebrew frustrating. I would look into Shiurei Rabbeinu, Shuvi V'Nechaze, and Zeh Hashaar. If you understand modern conversational hebrew I highly recommend listening to his recorded audio shiurim online at ravmosheshapiro.com. Dec 23, 2021 at 3:14
  • Thank you! Will be looking into that!
    – Shmuel
    Dec 23, 2021 at 13:07

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