For how long will Messianic times last?
This enigmatic question is discussed on today’s daf with the Talmudic Sages offering different suggestions on the matter.
Rabbi Eliezer says 40 years (see Tehillim 95:10)
Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya says 70 years (see Yeshayahu 23:15)
Rabbi says three generations (see Tehillim 72:5).
Perhaps the most surprising suggestion is made by Rabbi Hillel who says that the prophecies regarding mashi’aḥ were already fulfilled in the time of King Ḥizkiyahu (see daf 94) and therefore there is no future Messiah for the Jewish people.
How are we to understand Rabbi Hillel’s statement?
Rashi suggests that this means the future redemption will not be led by a human being, but by God Himself. The Rema in his Torat HaOla argues that this means that the Messiah will not arrive because of the merit of the Jewish people, rather solely for the honor of God.
Rav David Bonfil explains this discussion as follows. Messianic times will serve as the time when the world generally and the Jewish people specifically will be prepared for Ḥayyei HaOlam HaBa – their lives in the World-to-Come. The issue debated by the Sages is how long will be needed to prepare for the spiritual level necessary for that time. Thus, the shorter the amount of time that is needed for this preparatory stage, the greater the current level of the Jewish people. Rabbi Hillel who says that no time is needed at all assumes that the Jewish people are already on the high level necessary.
Rav Yosef responds to Rabbi Hillel’s statement by pointing out that the story of King Ḥizkiyahu took place during first Temple times, while prophecies foretelling of the coming of the Messiah are still being told by the prophet Zekhariah during second Temple times (see Zekhariah 9:9).
Rabbi Hillel who appears in our Gemara is not Hillel HaZaken. It appears that he is the younger brother of Rabbi Yehuda Nesia, the grandson of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi.