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Environmental Change in the Messianic Era

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Environmental Studies

No. 6

Several classic and modern Jewish sources refer to the environmental change anticipated for the Messianic Age. They concern inter alia a modified relationship between man and nature, the end of human mortality, development of different characteristics in nature, changes in human diet, modifications in the sensory perception as well as cosmic changes.

In Isaiah’s vision: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid; the calf, the beast of prey and the fatling together, with a little boy to herd them.”3 Isaiah repeats this motif in other places too: “The wolf and lamb shall graze together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and the serpent’s food shall be earth. In all my sacred mount nothing evil or vile shall be done.”4 Hosea says: “In that day, I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; I will also banish bow, sword and war from the land.”5

Philosopher Shalom Rosenberg contends that the reference to the wolf and the lamb symbolizes a conceptual revolution regarding the relationship between God and nature. “God is outside nature, and creates a new morality, which ends man’s enslavement to nature. Nature means the victory of the strongest. The Bible recognizes this reality but also stresses that things can be different, hence the vision of the Latter Days6 in which wolf and lamb will graze together.”7 Rosenberg’s implication is that only in the Messianic Era will there be harmony between man and nature.

R. Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook predicts there will be no death in the Latter Days. Death is the result of mankind’s primeval sin. Had man not forgotten his initial task – to work and guard the Garden of Eden – human life would have been eternal. Man’s soul could have remained connected to his body.8

Change in Nature’s Characteristics

Nature’s characteristics will be different in the Latter Days. Ezekiel prophesizes foul waters will become healthy ones: “But its swamps and marshes shall not become wholesome; they will serve to [supply] salt. All kinds of trees for food will grow up on both banks of the stream. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail; they will yield new fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the Temple. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.”9

Midrashic literature mentions similar changes: “R. Yehuda said that in this world there is a harvest every six months and the trees give every twelve months fruit. When the Messiah arrives, there will be a harvest every month and the trees will give fruit every two months.”10

Another midrash talks of peace in the ‘Future to Come,’ a synonym for the Messianic era. It also says the environment will change and provide greater affluence, quoting Isaiah: “For thus said the Lord, I will extend to her prosperity like a stream, the wealth of nations like a wadi in flood; And you shall drink of it.”11

The Talmud quotes R. Hia, son of R. Ashi, who says, in the name of Rav, that “trees which bear no fruit, in the future will give their produce.”12 Elsewhere it mentions that Rabban Gamliel predicted that one day the trees would produce fruit every day. One student joked there was nothing new under the sun, indicating that as this was not happening presently anywhere, it would never happen. So Rabban Gamliel showed him a caper bush, which produced fruit daily.

On another occasion Rabban Gamliel predicted how in the future the land of Israel would bring forth bread and finished woolen clothes. The student once again joked and Rabban Gamliel then showed him various things resembling bread and woolen clothes such as some types of mushrooms and barks of trees.13

R. Akiva maintained that Bar Kokhba is the Messiah, whereupon his colleague R. Yohanan ben Torta attempted to illustrate the folly of R. Akiva’s claim and joked that before the Messiah arrives, grass would grow on R. Akiva’s cheeks.14

A Different Diet

Another aspect of environmental importance concerns human food in the Messianic era. According to one midrash15 man’s priorities will change and his interest in food for his physical sustenance will decrease. It applies to the Latter Days the prophetic words of Amos: “A time is coming – declares my Lord God – when I will send a famine upon the land: not a hunger for bread or a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of the Lord.”16

Another view is expressed in the apocryphal book of Henokh, which claims that two mythical animals – the Leviathan and the Beheymot – will become available for food.17

This motif is developed in the Talmud, which quotes Rabba, who says in the name of R. Yohanan, that in the future God will prepare a meal for the righteous from the Leviathan’s meat.18

R. Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook considered not eating meat as ideal, noting that Adam was a vegetarian. R. J. David Bleich interprets this saying that R. Kook considers that the Messianic era will be a vegetarian one in which humanity will return to living like in the Garden of Eden.19

A Change of Senses

The midrashic literature also notes that some environmental realities will not change, even in the messianic era. The snake remains eternally condemned: he eats dust and will continue to do so; it was because of the snake that man was sentenced to come from the dust and return to the dust. The midrash also links this to what is currently referred to as “human ecology.” It mentions certain categories of people who will not be healed in the Latter Days, e.g. those who engage in evil speech about their fellows.20

Another midrash states that man’s senses will change, citing various verses from the Tanakh which indicate such change,21 for example, according to Isaiah: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb shall shout aloud.”22

The text then describes how the restoration of senses will be accompanied by a parallel transformation of the environment: “For waters shall burst forth in the desert, Streams in the wilderness. Torrid earth shall become a pool; Parched land, fountains of water; The home of jackals, a pasture; The abode [of ostriches] reeds and rushes.”23

The same midrash also refers to another change of senses which occurred when the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, based on the verse: “All the people saw the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking.”24 Lightning and the smoking of the mountain can indeed be seen. A change of senses however was required to see the thunder and the blare of the horn. The midrash also refers to another phenomenon concerning transformation of human faculties when Moses read the Covenant to the Israelites. It is based on the verse “We will do and we will listen.”25

The motif of a change in senses is also mentioned in the Hassidic literature. It relates that when R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk lived in Jerusalem a foolish person ascended the Mount of Olives. Nobody saw him go there and upon reaching the summit he blew the shofar. “Among the excited community the rumor went round that this was the sound of the Messiah’s shofar. When R. Menahem Mendel heard the rumor he opened his window. He looked at the air of the world and said ‘There is no rejuvenation whatsoever.'”26 Apparently R. Menahem Mendel believed environmental change to be a precondition for the coming of the Messiah. One must therefore examine whether the air has changed.

R. Nahman of Bratslav

Hassidic literature also develops several classic motifs of expected environmental change. This is particularly evident in the writings of R. Nahman of Bratslav, who makes many references to Isaiah’s prophecy about the wolf and lamb grazing together. In some of them he focuses on change in the social and moral environment – reflecting on human ecology – rather than the physical environment.

R. Nahman claims that the Latter Days will induce greater understanding accompanied by “a marvelous peace in the world.” Only in a time of great peace can two major antipodes such as the wolf and the lamb coexist. This increased understanding will also eliminate anger and cruelty, which now result from its absence. R. Nahman bases this on the verse in Ecclesiastes: “Anger abides in the breasts of fools.”27

R. Nahman adds that the increased understanding will also lead to more mercy and peace. Environmental change will facilitate human efforts to earn a livelihood, which he derives from a text of the Psalms: “He [God] endows your realm with well-being and satisfies you with choice wheat.”28 R. Nahman also offers another interpretation of the text of the wolf and the lamb grazing together,29 pointing out that it refers to the disappearance of commerce in the latter days.30

Habad Hassidism

The founder of Habad Hassidism, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, says that when the Messiah comes, all the righteous, including Moshe and Abraham who are in the highest part of Garden of Eden, will be corporeally resurrected in this world. Furthermore, in the world to come Divine revelation will be greater in the material world than in the upper spiritual sphere.31

A later leader of Habad Hassidism R. Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson says that: “When the Messiah comes the ‘lifeless’ will speak. The earth will admonish men for walking on it without thinking or speaking about the Torah.”32

But Hassidism does not require a revolution in the Messianic era. According to its thought Divine sparks are found in everything, thus the difference between the present and the Latter Days is expressed by God’s presence then becoming visible. This refers to a perceptional change rather than an environmental one.

The Period of Messianic Afflictions

The period of ‘Messianic afflictions,’ which will precede the Messianic Era will also be characterized by environmental change. According to a midrashic source, this is an awesome period in which: “there will be much poverty and things will be expensive, while the vine plant will give its fruit, its wine will stink.”33

The availability of resources is a cornerstone of contemporary environmental policies. The Baal Shem Tov addressed resource availability by saying that before the Messiah comes there will be great wealth in the world. The Jews will become affluent and will no longer be satisfied with little. This period will be followed by economic hardship and the Israelites will be unable to satisfy their increased needs. This signals the beginning of the Messianic afflictions.34

R. Nahman of Bratslav discusses human ecology in this period, maintaining that it will be characterized by severe tests of man’s faith. Those who meet the challenges, however, will be happy and enjoy all that is good.35

Paradise and the Latter Days

The aforementioned visions of the prophets with respect to the Latter Days elicit midrashic associations with Biblical periods of protracted, abnormal environmental phenomena. The environment in the Garden of Eden was radically different from the current one. So was the environmental reality of the Israelites in the desert, where for 40 years they survived on manna. Some of the characteristics of these two periods provide an indication as to how the environment may look in the Messianic era.

One midrashic source develops the connection between the environment in the Latter Days and that of Paradise. It relates that R. Bibi, in the name of R. Reuven, claimed that there were six elements which were taken away from Adam, to be restored to him by Ben Nahshon, the Messiah.36 One concerns changes in the cosmic environment. The light of the moon will become much brighter. This is based on Isaiah’s saying: “And the light of the moon shall become like the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall become sevenfold, like the light of the seven days.”37

The Manna

The abovementioned are individual issues concerning the environment in the Latter Days. To obtain a broader picture one must analyze the description in Jewish classical sources of an earlier period, somewhat similar to the days of the Messiah, which can serve as a precedent.

Once again the midrash guides us. It says that in the Latter Days God will give mankind his sustenance in full. Though this sounds unrealistic, it has a precedent as during their sojourn in the desert God physically sustained the Israelites by bringing down manna, which had all the possible tastes so that each person could taste in it whatever he desired.38

The Biblical story of the manna can be studied to obtain a broad picture of environmental issues in the Latter Days. The narrative and its interpretation throughout the centuries highlight several environmental motifs such as the prevention of waste and pollution, the avoidance of over-consumption, durability and the maintenance of cleanliness. Religious, moral and spiritual motifs are frequently interwoven with environmental ones.

Jewish literature through the ages expresses diverse views on the nature of manna. One interpretative trend emphasizes it as a God-given material food, while another views it as spiritual nourishment.

Avoiding Excess Consumption

When Moses commanded the Israelites to collect the manna, he told them to gather only what was needed for current consumption of the residents of their tents.39 Irrespective of how much manna an individual collected, it always amounted to one omer per person.40 The availability of an equal quantity of a single food for everybody – without surplus – implies one should not consume excessively.41 This anticipated another environmental concern of our days: a disproportionate part of the world’s limited resources being consumed by a small minority. The manna story is, to some extent, the antithesis of what is now called ‘conspicuous consumption.’42

Moses instructed the Israelites not to leave any manna until the next morning.43,44 Those who disobeyed were left with an ugly, smelly waste product, infested with maggots.45 The theological message is that one has to comply with God’s word. It implies that collecting more than one can eat expresses doubt in Divine providence to provide further nourishment. It is punished by an environmental nuisance.46 Through this environmental teaching in a religious context, the Israelites probably understood very rapidly not to leave manna overnight in their tents.

The manna is white – a color often symbolic of cleanliness in modern thought. In the Tanakh white also represents moral purity. According to the prophet Isaiah: “Be your sins like crimson, they can turn snow-white; be they red as dyed wool, they can become like fleece.”47

The manna narrative also expresses the central message of the Biblical attitude to nature. God created nature; thus He can change it at will.48 Biblical texts also refer to other methods of waste reduction and waste disposal in the desert. Examples of this are: “The clothes upon you did not wear out…these forty years”49 and “I led you through the wilderness for forty years; the clothes on your back did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet…”50 The miracle of the clothes and that of the manna are also mentioned together in the book of Nehemia as significant events during the desert crossing.

No Bodily Waste

Environmental observations on the manna narrative are dispersed throughout classical Jewish literature. Aspects of waste are frequently discussed and several sources address the potential dichotomy between the Divine origin of the manna and the material waste remaining after its consumption. Many rabbinical sources claim the Divine food was entirely digested.

A midrash states Divine food cannot contain waste: “And so said to them the Holy One, blessed be He… ‘They came to the desert and I fed them manna for forty years and nobody needed to excrete anything; for forty years they ate the manna and it turned into meat for them.'”51 A halakhic midrash expresses the same motif: “The Israelites worried: they said: ‘In the future the manna will swell in our stomach and kill us. Is there a human being who does not defecate what he eats?'”52

Nahmanides53 understands from this narrative that in the Garden of Eden too, all food was entirely absorbed by the body.54 This fits in with many other elements of life in Paradise that turn it into a Utopian environmental society from the Jewish viewpoint.55

A Clean Environment

Another midrash states that even manna remaining in the desert and not consumed by the Israelites, does not create waste. The Divinely-provided material is not lost even if it melts: “As the sun was shining on it, it melted and started to flow, and streams were created, leading to the big sea, and there came deer, gazelles and roebucks and other animals and drank from them. Thereafter the nations came and hunted them and ate them, and tasted through them the manna which came down for the people of Israel.”56

The halakhic midrash adds that the manna’s purity contributed to environmental cleanliness: “When the dew fell on the camp the manna came down on it. It fell on the thresholds and door-posts. Is it conceivable that one would eat it soiled and filthy? Thus it is written ‘over the surface of the wilderness, lay a fine and flaky substance.'”57 And also: “It was like ice which came down first and was on the earth as a tray. The manna would fall on it and therefrom the Israelites would collect and eat it. That concerns what is below it, but couldn’t reptiles and flies be on top of it? Thus there is written ‘when the fall of dew lifted.'”58

A Perfect Food

Those entirely satisfied with manna do not need foods brought from other places. Thus, contenting humans with this single food also has environmental implications as it has no transportation impact. According to the Tosefta, manna “would take on in the mouth whatever taste each person wants.”59 It is described as a perfect food, not requiring any supplements, and compared to mother’s milk.60 Both provide all nutritional needs and “even if the Israelites eat it all day long, it does not cause any harm.”61

The Talmud relates a discussion about the flavor of the manna: “R. Ami and R. Assi explained this. One said: ‘In the manna they tasted the flavor of all foods but five.’62 The other said: ‘In all foods, they tasted both flavor and essence; in the latter, the flavor and not the essence.'”63

Manna had additional functions. According to the Talmud: “R. Yehuda said in the name of Rav and, according to others, R. Hama bar Hanina: ‘…the manna contained cosmetics for women that are ground in a mortar…’ R. Hama says: ‘… in the manna, spices also fell.'”64 These motifs are also found in the midrash: “All forty years that the Israelites were in the desert women did not need spices. They adorned themselves from the manna.”65

Satisfying Spiritual Needs

At the same time, the Bible ascribes spiritual characteristics to the manna. “He subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees.”66

These spiritual themes are further developed in later literature. The Talmud says that the manna “whitened the sins of the Israelites.”67 Nahmanides interprets a Talmudic teaching that manna is food of angels.68 He also says that the soul of those who eat manna “will not dry up.”69 Ibn Ezra observes that “the manna probably did not produce sweat.”70

In the Hasidic world R. Tzadok Hacohen of Lublin sees the manna as the food of angels. When man’s intention is that manna is exclusively spiritual food for his soul it creates no waste. When one intends to eat the manna for one’s own enjoyment, then it is no longer exclusively for the soul and – like all bodily foods – creates waste.71


The manna narrative reveals elements of a specific Jewish environmental vision. The Divine substance provides all nutritional and several other needs, and leaves no waste. What remains after the Israelites have eaten is also put to use. Its spiritual and physical elements cannot be separated. manna is also a barometer of man’s moral state. Studying the manna story is perhaps as close as one can come to understanding potential environmental changes in Messianic times.

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1. The author wishes to express his appreciation to Netanel Lederberg for his assistance and comments in the research for this paper.
2. Biblical quotations are taken from the Jewish Publication Society Bible translation unless otherwise indicated.
3. Isaiah 11:6.
4. Isaiah 65:25.
5. Hosea 2:20.
6. The expressions ‘Messianic Era’ and ‘Latter Days’ are considered synonyms in this essay.
7. Shalom Rosenberg, Torah veTevah. Paper presented at the Harvard Conference on Judaism and the Natural World, February 22-24, 1998. [Hebrew]
8. R. Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, Oroth Hakodesh (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1982) part 2:42, p. 385. [Hebrew]
9. Ezekiel 47:11-12.
10. Yerushalmi Shekalim 50a.
11. Isaiah 66:12.
12. Bavli Ketubot 112b.
13. Bavli Shabbat 30b.
14. Lamentations Rabba (Buber ed.) 2.
15. Genesis Rabba (Theodor-Albeck ed.) 64.
16. Amos 8:11.
17. Henokh 50:24 (Hartom ed.).
18. Bavli Bava Batra 75a.
19. J. David Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems (New York: Ktav, 1989) Vol. 3, p. 246.
20. Aggadat Bereishit (Buber ed.) 79.
21. Psikta d’Rav Kahane (Mandelbaum ed.) 5.
22. Isaiah 35:5-6.
23. Isaiah 35:6-7.
24. Exodus 20:15. (Translation is literal and not the JPS one).
25. Exodus 19:8; Exodus 24:7.
26. Martin Buber, Or Haganuz (Tel Aviv: Shocken Publishing, 1979), p. 170. [Hebrew]
27. Ecclesiastes 7:9.
28. Psalms 147:14.
29. Likkute Moharan, part 1, 33:4, p. 48 and part 1, 21:11, p. 31. See also Likkute Tefillot, 33, p. 174.
30. Likkute Moharan, part 1, 14:12, p. 20.
31. R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Likkute Torah: Shelah Lekha (Brooklyn: Kehot Publishing Society, 1987), p. 49.
32. R. Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson, Igrot Kodesh (Brooklyn: Kehot Publishing Society), part 4, p. 151.
33. Song of Songs Rabba 2:4 (Vilna ed.).
34. Buber, op. cit., p. 95.
35. R. Nahman of Bratslav, Sikhot Haran, 32 section 35.
36. Numbers Rabba (Vilna ed.) 13:12.
37. Isaiah 30:26.
38. Exodus Rabba (Vilna ed.) 25:13.
39. Exodus 16:16.
40. Exodus 16:18.
41. Ibn Ezra points out that a person did not have to eat what he could not; but, if he could not eat everything, he should throw the surplus out from his tent. (Ibn Ezra, Long commentary on Exodus 16:19).
42. This term was coined at the end of the 19th century by the American economist Thorstein Veblen who drew attention to the link between consumption, display of wealth and status. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Original edition, 1899. Reprinted in 1965 by arrangement with the Viking Press. See also Manfred Gerstenfeld, Environment and Confusion: Searching for a Balanced View (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies/Rubin Mass Ltd., 2002), (Second ed.) pp. 217ff.
43. Exodus 16:19.
44. Nahmanides says that it was through Moses’ merits that God fed the Israelites with grain from Heaven, a level which even the Patriarchs did not merit. Nahmanides on Deuteronomy 8:3.
45. Exodus 16:20.
46. Manfred Gerstenfeld, Judaism, Environmentalism and the Environment, (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies/Rubin Mass Ltd., 1998), p. 190. In the Bible, disobedience is frequently punished by natural or environmental disasters.
47. Isaiah 1:18.
48. Manfred Gerstenfeld, Judaism, Environmentalism and the Environment, op. cit., pp. 168ff.
49. Deuteronomy 8:4.
50. Deuteronomy 29:4.
51. Numbers Rabba (Vilna ed.) 16:24. A similar motif is mentioned in the Jerusalem Targum on Exodus 16:21.
52. Sifrei 88 on Numbers (Horowitz ed.). See also Bavli Yoma 75b.
53. Nahmanides on Genesis 2:17.
54. Only by their being in the desert did the Israelites reach their high spiritual degree and thus became worthy of eating the manna. (See also: Nahmanides on Exodus 16:6).
55. Vegetarian, not yet violent, man did not harm nature in Paradise in any way; neither had he any other impact on its eco-system. Gerstenfeld, Judaism, Environmentalism and the Environment, op. cit., pp. 166ff.
56. Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael: Beshallah 4. See also Bavli Yoma 75b.
57. Exodus 16:14.
58. Yalkut Shimoni: Beha’alotkha 635.
59. Tosefta Sota 4:3 (Lieberman ed.).
60. Bavli Yoma 75a: “R. Abahu says: ‘Like the child finding different tastes at the breast, also the Israelites found diverse tastes when consuming the manna.'”
61. Tosefta Sota, op. cit.
62. This refers to the five fruits and vegetables which they used to eat in Egypt, that are mentioned in Numbers 11:5: “…the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”
63. Bavli Yoma 75a.
64. Bavli Yoma 75a and b. According to this source even jewelry came down with the manna.
65. Sifrei 89 on Numbers. See also The Song of Songs Rabba 4:1 (Vilna ed.).
66. Deuteronomy 8:3.
67. Bavli Yoma, 75a.
68. Nahmanides on Exodus 16:6.
69. Nahmanides on Numbers 11:6.
70. Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 8:4. See also Nahmanides on the same verse.
71. R. Tzadok Hacohen of Lublin, Dover Tzedek 51a. [Hebrew]