A useful rule of thumb in the teaching of Jewish history states that there is generally a correlation between the severity of the troubles besetting the Jews and the intensity of their yearning and expectations for the the coming of messianic redemption. Another rule holds that very few people at any given point in history believed that the world-as-we-know-it would continue for more than fifty years after the current date.
A corollary of all this is that Jews who lived in political and social tranquility were unlikely to be thinking very much about the advent of the redeemer or the restoration of the glory of Israel. This should apply to communities such as that of eighteenth-century America where the small congregations of Jews were being granted true civil rights and enjoying the prosperity that blossomed in the New World.
The fact is that we have relatively sparse information about what American Jews were thinking in those days. They had not reached a state of scholarly erudition that would generate learned tomes by home-grown religious scholars; and the feelings of average Jews in the street were unlikely to get recorded for posterity. In the present instance, however, we do have some fascinating testimony from a prominent American thinker who took a special interest in developments among his Jewish neighbours.
The witness in question was Ezra Stiles (1727-1795), an illustrious New England educator and theologian who served as President of Yale University and was a founder of Brown University. Like many of his Christian contemporaries, Stiles studied and taught the Hebrew language. He delivered some of his important academic speeches in Hebrew, and may have been responsible for emblazoning the Hebrew words “Urim v’Thummim” on Yale’s official seal. For more than twenty years he served as a Congregationalist minister in Newport Rhode Island where he maintained close ties with the city’s Jewish community. He studied Hebrew Bible and Kabbalah with Rabbi Hayyim Isaac Carregal during the latter’s brief sojourn in Newport as an emissary from the holy land, and they afterwards continued to correspond in Hebrew.
Stiles kept a “Literary Diary” which he continued to update with admirable diligence. In the entry for July 26, 1769 he wrote about a friend who “tells me that the Jews in New York expected the Messiah 1768, and are greatly disappointed.” It was explained that this messianic expectation had been inspired by a computation of prophetic numbers “by the Rabbins of the present day.” This episode seems to be linked to another piece of information that he tossed into the diary: “that two Jews from Constantinople visited New York last year.” We might recall that a century earlier, Constantinople had been a main hub of activities for the messianic movement of Shabbetai Zvi.
In his August 10 entry, Stiles recorded a more precise calculation that resulted in the proposal of a somewhat later year for the approaching redemption. A Jewish acquaintance showed him a computation by “one of the present Rabbins of Germany.” Like many such calculations, it was based on an enigmatic text from the book of Daniel in which it is stated that the period until the ultimate fulfilment of the great divine wonders will consist of "a time, times, and half a time.”
According to the unidentified Rabbi, this cryptic expression represents the time that will have elapsed from the destruction of the Second Temple until its restoration and the return of all the tribes of Israel. The unit by which it is measured is a “time”—that is to say, seventy sabbatical cycles adding up to 490 years. Thus, one “time” equals 490 years, “times” is double that or 980 years, while the “half” consists of 245 years, producing a total of 1,715 years. Add that to the date of the Temple’s fall (for the calculation to work out, they had to place the event at 68 rather than the accepted historical date 70 C.E.), and that brings us to the year 1783 C.E. The anticipation of the Messiah’s advent at that time became a major focus of the religious fervor of Jews in New York.
We may get a tangible picture of how intense this expectation was from another detail in Stiles’ diary. He wrote that during thunderstorms the Jews were accustomed keep all their doors and windows open for the coming of the Messiah. This was evident at the time of a violent hail-storm in Newport, during which the Jews “threw open Doors, Windows, and employed themselves in Singing & repeating Prayers, &c., for Meeting Messias.”
On the other hand, Stiles told of a conversation he had with a visiting Jew from Poland who, when asked to comment on the German rabbi's messianic computations, simply smiled and said that they await him every day.
The strong impact of this messianic calculation is corroborated by a text written by Rev. Gershom Mendes Seixas, who served at the time as cantor in New York. In addition to a more detailed version of the “time, times and a half” computation, Seixas mentioned two additional calculations. One of them was based on the period of time that the biblical Israelites were steeped in idol-worship, fixed at 245 years. Scripture states that this grave sin is to be punished sevenfold, which produces the same total of 1,715 that served as the foundation for the previous computation. A third calculation mentioned by Ḥazan Seixas divides up the three numbers into distinct historical eras. The “time” of 490 years after the Temple’s destruction brings us to 558, marked by the appearance of “the Turkish empire” [that is: the advent of Islam]. Add to that the “times”—980 years—and we are now in 1538 and the Protestant Reformation. The subsequent “half-time” of 245 years should coincide with the Messiah’s arrival in 1783, which will bring about redemption for all humanity.
The American Jewish interest in redemption appeared to focus principally on the ingathering of the exiles (an interest that they shared with Christian neighbours). This was a natural sentiment for a community that was largely descended from Spanish and Portuguese exiles who must have felt acutely conscious of their geographic isolation from the centres of mainstream civilization.
American Jews were quick to relate to any reports about “exotic” Jewish communities, which they viewed as harbingers of the reunification of the lost tribes of Israel; and they tried to initiate correspondences with coreligionists in far-flung lands like Malabar, India or Kaifeng, China. Their interest in the future ingathering was also sparked by frequent visits from emissaries and fund-raisers from the holy land who were adept at persuading the Jews of the diaspora that they would all shortly be led back to their beloved homeland.
Then as now, anticipating the messiah’s arrival was a job that could demand a high price in faith and in soothing the constant disappointments.
But as the old quip has it: the work is steady.