Although He May Tarry
Rabbi Yossi says, “Ben David (i.e. Mashiach) will not arrive until all of the neshamot (souls) have been ‘finished’ from the guf.”
What does this seemingly enigmatic expression mean? Rashi explains that the guf is the name of a “room” that is designated by Heaven as a place of existence for all neshamot that will be born in the future. It appears that the physical name of guf — which means “body” —is a reference to the fact that the spiritual souls await there to be put into the physical bodies of new human life. Accordingly, Rabbi Yossi is teaching that Mashiach will not arrive until all neshamot are “emptied” from that place and given by
According to Rashi, Rabbi Yossi is teaching that Mashiach will not arrive until this condition is fulfilled: all souls will be removed from the spiritual realm and will be present in the physical world.
Tosefot, however, finds this explanation difficult to understand. We learn in another sugya (Shabbat 118b) that if, in fact, all of the Jewish People had observed two Shabbats in the desert after receiving the Torah they would have been redeemed immediately (i.e. Mashiach would have immediately arrived). No mention is made there of a requirement for all neshamot to have been born. Therefore, Tosefot explains Rabbi Yossi’s teaching in a different manner. Immediately prior to Mashiach’s arrival, Tosefot states, there will be a boom in multiple births.
This answer would seem to indicate an accounting difficulty. Would it have been possible for so many multiple births to have occurred in one week in the desert, enough to equal all future births we have witnessed until this very day, when Mashiach has not yet arrived? One approach is to consider a metaphoric count: the righteousness and greatness of the souls born during that week would be equivalent to the value of all of the neshamot in the guf. (Maharsha)
The Rishonim offer a completely different answer to Tosefot’s question, one that does not give birth to any accounting issue. The gemara in Masechet Shabbat is teaching an alternate way to know when Mashiach will arrive. In fact, unlike our gemara which seems to teach a “sign” that is a prerequisite for his arrival, the other gemara teaches a “reason” for his arrival. A reason that would override the accounting of the number of souls in the world. The merit of observing two Shabbats would be so great, significant and powerful that Mashiach would immediately arrive, regardless of other factors. (Rabbeinu Asher)
Although we don’t have any humanly possible way of knowing when the “all of the neshamot in the guf” has actually occurred, I once heard an inspiring explanation regarding this subject. It was at the occasion of a festive meal celebration for the mitzvah of brit milah involving a great Rabbi in Jerusalem. At the time he was learning Torah in the Beit Midrash of Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem in the afternoons and I had the privilege to learn Torah from him. He and his rebetzen were blessed with newborn triplets, and at least one was a boy. I attended the joyous meal that followed the mitzvah of the brit milah (or three mitzvahs, I don’t recall), and listened to the words of the great Rabbi as he spoke to the gathering at the festive meal. He noted that there had recently been a very large number of multiple births of twins and triplets in his neighborhood, a fact that had been the topic of much amazement in the entire city — and perhaps beyond. Many saw this as a highly unusual coincidence, but he saw it as a sign from Above.
The Rabbi quoted the statement of Rabbi Yossi in our sugya, and the opinion of Tosefot here, and said with great joy that the recent multiple births that occurred in a limited geographic location and within a very short period of time were a clear sign from Heaven that it was a specially auspicious time for the arrival of Mashiach.
Although we are taught not to try to calculate the exact time of the long-anticipated arrival of Mashiach ben David, we seem to be given a glimpse in our gemara regarding his arrival. But regardless of our interpretation of our sugya or of the gemara in Shabbat, we are to believe that he will certainly arrive, and, in fact, we are to faithfully await his arrival each day. As the Rambam lays out in principle twelve of his work called The Thirteen Principles of Faith, the core beliefs of Judaism: “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Mashiach, and although he may tarry I still await him every day.”
- Nidah 13b