The concept of Shabbat affects us not only in a private or even a communal capacity, but in a global sense as well, in terms of the destiny of humankind. It is a map for human history and holds the key to understanding the concept of time.
As we know, the six days of Creation were followed by Shabbat. The Gemara in Tractate Sanhedrin, page 97a, says that human history is modelled on the days of Creation and consequently it is 7000 years long. The Gemara says there will be 6000 years followed by Shabbat, a grand Shabbat for all of humankind, with the coming of Mashiach and the Final Redemption in the seventh millennium. We refer to this in the psalm we say every Shabbat, Mizmor shir leyom hashabbat, “A psalm for the Shabbat day,” which the Gemara says refers to yom shekulo Shabbat, “a day that is entirely Shabbat” – namely, the era of the Final Redemption.
We are now in the Hebrew year of 5773 since the creation of Adam and Eve, and in the year 6000, human history will culminate in the final Shabbat – the seventh millennium – which is the ultimate Shabbat of history. This is why we refer to Shabbat in our sources as me’ein Olam Haba, “a taste of the World to Come”.
There is discussion among the commentaries as to what the term Olam Haba means. Some say it refers to the world of the souls. When a person dies and the soul leaves the body and returns to G-d, it goes to Olam Haba. Others say Olam Haba refers to the time of the Final Redemption, when the dead will be resurrected and Mashiach will come – an era when, as the Prophets tell us, “the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d.” There won’t be any more wars, and all our anguish and tribulations will end. Both opinions agree that there is a world of the souls and that one day there will be a Final Redemption; it’s just a question of how to interpret the term Olam Haba.
When we say that Shabbat is “a taste of Olam Haba,” it actually refers to both interpretations. Shabbat gives us a sense of what heaven’s perfection is like, and it also refers to the Final Redemption, which will be in the End of Days. The term Olam Haba means the World to Come, namely, a future world. Thus, according to the interpretation that it refers to the world of the souls, the World to Come already exists, in a different place. It is relative; for each of us, as an individual living in this world, Olam Haba is the next stage after we die. According to the other interpretation, however, the World to Come refers to a whole new era for all of humankind, an entirely new existence. The Gemara says that the 6000 years of human history can be divided into three eras: the first 2000 years, are called “chaos”; the next 2000 years, are called “Torah” and the last 2000 years, which are called Mashiach.
The 2000 years prior to Avraham teaching Torah are called “chaos,” because without Torah principles the world lacks direction, coherence and purpose. Without the principles that define our morality as given to us by G-d, there is chaos in the world. It says in the beginning of Creation, “And the world was filled with chaos, void and darkness.” That is what the world looks like without the Torah’s principles to anchor it.
The next 2000 years are all about the giving of the Torah. Avraham was born in the Jewish year of 1948, meaning he was born 1948 after the creation of Adam and Eve. Thus, in the year 2000, Avraham was fifty-two years old. It was about this time that he began reaching out to people and spreading Torah. That year was, in effect, the birth of Torah in the world. This is what Rashi explains in his commentary on the aforementioned passage in the Gemara: the year 2000 began the epoch of Torah, with Avraham teaching about G-d and His principles, even though G-d had not yet given the Torah to the world. We have a tradition that our Forefathers understood the Torah principles and were able to give them over to the world in their private capacity, before it was given to the nation of Israel en masse.
From the time Avraham started spreading Torah till the Jewish people went down to Egypt there were 238 years. We know that the Jewish people spent 210 years in Egypt, so 238 plus 210 years – from the time of Avraham till they came out of Egypt and were given the Torah – is a total of 448 years.
Thus, they got the Torah on Mount Sinai in the year 2448, which is 448 years after Avraham started spreading Torah. From when they left Egypt until the building of the First Temple there were 480 years. We know this from the book of Kings, which says that when King Solomon built the Holy Temple in the city of Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, it was 480 years since the exodus from Egypt. The First Temple stood for 410 years and after it was destroyed by the Babylonians, the Jews were exiled for seventy years. The Temple was then rebuilt and the Second Temple stood for 420 years. If you add up all of the years, you will see that it comes to 1828 years. In other words, from the time that Avraham started spreading Torah at the age of 52 till the destruction of the Second Temple there were 1828 years. That’s short 172 years to the next 2000-year mark, which concludes the epoch of the giving of the Torah.
In his commentary on the Gemara, the Maharsha explains these 172 years as follows : the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 of the Common Era. Around the year 200 Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi wrote down the Oral Law, known as the Mishna, lest it be forgotten because the Jews were being scattered in exile. Later on, the commentary of the Gemara was added to the Mishna. But the primary writing down of the Oral Law took place in the year 200 C.E., which is 130 years later. So the 4000-year mark marks the end of the writing down of the Oral Torah. We know that at Mount Sinai G-d gave us the written Torah in the form of the Five Books of the Chumash and that he gave an Oral Torah which was eventually written down in the year 200 C.E. Thus the 2000-year era of the Torah started with Avraham’s incredible journey spreading the Torah’s principles in the world, going through to the revelation at Mount Sinai and ultimately the writing down of the Oral Law in the form of the Mishna. We then enter the third era of history – the designated time for the Final Redemption and the coming of Mashiach.
The next two millennia were designated for the era of Mashiach, which began in the Jewish year of 4001. Before the 4000-year mark, Mashiach could not have come.
This does not mean that immediately after the 4000-year mark Mashiach is going to come; clearly this is not so, as we are now in the year 5773, it has already been 1773 years since the 4000-year mark and Mashiach has not yet come. Rather, Mashiach could come anytime from the 4000-year mark onward, till the 6000-year mark, by which time he must come to usher in the era of redemption. In fact, one of the thirteen principles of faith is to believe that Mashiach could come any day. We are not required to believe that he will come today, but that he could come today. We are now in that time period when Mashiach could come at any point.
What emerges from all is that the framework of history is contained in 6000 years, followed by Shabbat. When we say Mizmor shir leyom hashabbat, “the Psalm for the Shabbat day,” it also refers to the day that is completely Shabbat, meaning the seventh millennium which will be a Shabbat for all of civilisation. The model of Creation – six days followed by Shabbat – is actually the model for all of human history and therefore Shabbat is not just a day that affects us as individuals or even as communities; it is the focal point around which time, and all of civilisation, revolves. All of human civilisation is headed toward this goal.
Thus the six days of Creation serve as the model of history, giving us an understanding of our destiny – for us as individuals, as the Jewish people, and indeed for all of humankind. All of history is headed toward that final Shabbat, symbolising that at the heart of history and our destiny are the Torah and its foundation principles, which give the world structure, order and purpose. The world revolves around the Torah; it gives the world purpose and meaning, guiding us through history toward the ultimate destination for all of humankind – the Final Redemption, the Great Shabbat of history.