Analysis of Maimonides’ 3 Sources for the Coming of Moshiach

Three Diverse Sources

The[1] belief in the coming of Mashiach is a fundamental element of the Jewish faith. Thus, the Rambam writes:[2]

Whoever does not believe in him, or does not await his coming, denies not only [the statements of] the other prophets, but also [those of] the Torah and of Moshe, our teacher, for the Torah attests to his coming, stating,[3] “And the L-rd your G-d will bring back your captivity.”

Not content with a single prooftext, the Rambam continues:

There is also a reference [to Mashiach] in the passage concerning Bilaam,[4] who prophesies about the two anointed [kings]: the first anointed [king], David, who saved Israel from her oppressors, and the final anointed [king] who will arise from among his descendants and save Israel [at the End of Days].

After quoting and analyzing several references to Mashiach in Bilaam’s prophecy,[5] the Rambam begins a second halachah with these words:

Similarly, in regard to the Cities of Refuge, it is stated,[6] “When G‑d will expand your borders… you shall add three more cities.” This command has never been fulfilled. [Surely,] G‑d did not give this command in vain, [and thus the intent was that it be fulfilled after the coming of Mashiach]. There is no need to cite prooftexts on the concept [of the Mashiach] from the words of the prophets, for all [their] books are filled with it.

The Complementary Nature of the First Two Supporting Texts

The necessity for the two supporting texts quoted by the Rambam in the first halachah is obvious: The first verse quoted by the Rambam explicitly speaks of the Redemption, but not of the Mashiach personally. It is thus complemented by the allusions in Bilaam’s prophecy which, though allegorical in nature, clearly indicate the existence of a person who will bring about the Redemption of the Jewish people.[7]

Conversely, the allusions in Bilaam’s prophecy do not suffice alone. Since the Rambam wants to demonstrate that “Whoever does not believe in [Mashiach]… denies… the Torah” and that “The Torah attests to his coming,” his authority must be more explicit. Prophetic allegories cannot serve this purpose sufficiently.

Two points, however, still require clarification:

(a) Why did the Rambam need further corroboration from the commandment to establish three new Cities of Refuge? And what is the nature of the added support this subject contributes?

(b) Why did he cite this evidence in a separate halachah? Since his division of halachos is extremely precise, one would have expected him to include it in the same halachah as the previous two prooftexts.

Mashiach’s Coming as an Intrinsic Element of a Mitzvah

The contribution added by the proof from the Cities of Refuge can be explained as follows: The requirement to set aside three additional Cities of Refuge after Mashiach’s coming establishes his appearance as a condition for the fulfillment of one of the mitzvos of the Torah.

The promise of Mashiach’s coming is thus reinforced, since “The Torah clearly and explicitly states that it [i.e., the Torah itself] is [G‑d’s] commandment incumbent [upon us] for all eternity. There is no possibility of its being changed, expanded or diminished.”[8] The Rambam writes similarly when discussing the function of Mashiach in Hilchos Melachim.[9]

This is the main thrust of the matter: This Torah, with its statutes and laws, is everlasting. We may neither add to them nor detract from them. Whoever adds to [the mitzvos] or detracts from them, or misinterprets the Torah, implying that the mitzvos are not intended to be understood literally, is surely a wicked impostor and a heretic.[10]

Although every teaching of the Torah communicates eternal truth, the mitzvos reflect a truth whose literal expression is unalterable.[11] Therefore, by emphasizing that Mashiach’s coming is a prerequisite for the fulfillment of a mitzvah, the Rambam makes it clear that the Redemption will actually occur.

This concept is alluded to in the very wording chosen by the Rambam: “[Surely,] G‑d did not give this command in vain.” I.e., here the emphasis is on the Mashiach’s coming insofar as it is a component of one of the Torah’s commandments, and hence there is no possibility here for change.

The Eternal Relevance of the Torah’s Mitzvos

To explain in greater depth: It is written,[12] “I will appoint a prophet…and I will place My words in his mouth and he will speak….”

Since a prophet conveys G‑d’s words and not his own, the words he speaks and the prophecies he utters are eternally true. Nevertheless, there is a possibility that these truths will not become manifest as actual fact. For example, prophecies of divine retribution will not necessarily come to fruition. Since in His abundant compassion G‑d forgives the penitent, a predicted punishment may be averted.[13] Similarly, prophecies of good which were not made public by a prophet, but rather remain as communications related to him privately by G‑d, may be aborted “as a result of sin.”[14]

This implies that, even in a case when a prophecy will surely come to fruition, as in the case of prophecies foretelling good things,[15] this does not mean that there is no possibility for change in regard to the prophecy, but merely that in actual fact there will be no change. In contrast, as mentioned above, the commandments of the Torah are everlasting and unchangeable by definition.

The Torah indeed includes prophecies of Mashiach’s coming, prophecies which will surely be fulfilled.[16] Nevertheless, by emphasizing that Mashiach’s coming is also an intrinsic element of a mitzvah, the Rambam stresses further that the coming of Mashiach is an eternal and fundamental truth.

Mitzvos Cannot Deviate from their Plain Meaning

There is, however, still room for question. There is a difference between the eternal nature of the Five Books of the Torah itself and that of the other books of the Tanach. The Rambam writes:[17]

All the books of the Prophets (Nevi’im) and all the Sacred Writings (Kesuvim) will ultimately be annulled in the Era of the Mashiach, except for the Book of Esther. This Book will continue to exist together with the Five Books of the Torah and the halachos of the Oral Law which will never be retracted.

If so, since the promise of Mashiach’s coming is embodied within the Torah, what additional measure of eternality can be contributed by its inclusion as an element of a mitzvah?

There is, however, a difference between the eternality of the mitzvos of the Torah and the other dimensions of the Written Torah. In regard to these other dimensions, it is possible that their eternal relevance will be expressed only on a spiritual level, in the lessons that they can teach us in our service of G‑d. For example, the question is asked: Since the narratives of the Torah describe historical events which transpired centuries ago, what is their eternal relevance? And the answer is given that they contain significant lessons relevant to all aspects of our lives.

In contrast, though the mitzvos of the Torah also contain many meaningful lessons, their eternal relevance is primarily reflected in the obligation to actually perform them according to their straightforward meaning. (This is implied in the Rambam’s statements cited above: “Whoever…misinterprets the Torah, implying that the mitzvos are not intended to be understood literally, is surely a wicked impostor and a heretic.”[18] It can be inferred that these sharp words apply only in regard to a person who applies a non-literal interpretation to mitzvos, though not to other dimensions of the Torah.)

To relate these concepts to the question at hand. All the prophecies recorded by the Torah are of eternal relevance. Nevertheless, if the conduct of the Jewish people is not appropriate, it is possible that a prophecy will not become manifest in an actual manner. For example, we find that in their interpretation of the verse,[19] “Until Your people pass over, O L‑rd, until the people You acquire pass over,” our Sages comment:[20]

Miracles should well have been performed for the Jewish people in the era of [the Return to Zion led by] Ezra as were performed for them in the era of Yehoshua…. Sins, however, prevented this.

Since this prophecy, though recorded in the Torah, was not actually fulfilled, we can conclude that though the Torah’s truth is eternal, the truth of a prophecy may be relevant only in a spiritual sense, and will not necessarily become manifest tangibly.[21]

Similarly, were Mashiach’s coming to be only recorded as a prophecy, it might then be possible for one to conclude that perhaps, [heaven forbid,] the Jewish people’s conduct will not be worthy of Mashiach and the prophecies of his coming would remain relevant only in a spiritual context.[22] Since, however, Mashiach’s coming is a necessary prerequisite for the fulfillment of the mitzvah of setting aside Cities of Refuge, we can be assured that it will become manifest in a literal way, without any change.

And to emphasize this concept, the Rambam allocates a separate halachah to the Cities of Refuge. The first two texts cited in support of the belief in the coming of Mashiach are both prophecies, and it is therefore appropriate to pair them together in a single halachah. The proof from the Cities of Refuge, however, with its own distinctive strength, stands in a halachah of its own.

Prophecy: A Message Directed to Man

On the other hand, something is gained by quoting prophecies as supporting evidence. Although in general the commandments of the Torah have greater authority than the words of a prophet,[23] prophecy enjoys a certain superiority. Thus, though there are varying levels of punishment for the transgression of a commandment of Torah law, there is only one punishment for disobeying the command of a prophet. Even when the command violated is seemingly insignificant, such a transgression warrants the death penalty.[24]

Why is such a severe punishment given?- Because prophecy is more closely related to man. The words of a prophet are perceived by the prophet’s heart[25] and cogently communicated to others as a direct message from G‑d. Violating such a command is thus a blatant act of rebellion against G‑d and hence deserving of such a penalty.

Similarly, even prophecies which do not convey directives for our conduct are messages to us from G‑d with which we share a personal connection. And for this reason, by emphasizing that Mashiach’s coming is a prophecy, the Rambam complements his explanation of how fundamental this concept is.

The Era of the Redemption: A Refuge for the Jewish People

One might ask: Why is it that, of all the commandments of the Torah, it is the commandment to set aside Cities of Refuge that is intrinsically related to the coming of the Mashiach?

It can be explained that there is a thematic relationship between the two. The Cities of Refuge serve- in the dimension of space- as a haven, where a person who has accidentally killed a fellow man can live free from danger. Similarly, in the dimension of time, the Era of the Redemption will be a haven for the entire Jewish people, when they will not be disturbed by any undesirable influences:

In that Era there will be neither famine nor war, neither envy nor competition… The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G‑d.

May this be realized in the immediate future.

[1].   [In the present text, the Rebbe examines the Rambam’s choice of prooftexts for the belief in the coming of Mashiach, in the meantime clarifying concepts such as the following: what is meant by the everlasting nature of the mitzvos; how the coming of Mashiach is a prerequisite for the practical fulfillment of one of the commandments of the Torah; whether all prophecies are necessarily fulfilled; and how a prophetic command can at the same time be formally less authoritative yet actually more weighty than a verse drawn from the Five Books of the Chumash.

  This discussion is adapted from talks which the Rebbe Shlita delivered on Shabbos Parshas Devarim and Rosh Chodesh Elul, 5746, and on Motzaei Shabbos Parshas Pinchas, 5738. The original fully-documented and annotated Hebrew version appeared in Likkutei Sichos for Shabbos Parshas Shoftim, 5749.]

[2].   Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Melachim 11:1.

[3].   Devarim 30:3.

[4].   Bamidbar 24:17-18.

[5].   See the opening passage of the above essay entitled “The Function of Mashiach.”

[6].   Devarim 19:8-9.

[7].   This concept is discussed in the above-mentioned essay, in the section entitled, “The Parallel between David and Mashiach.” See footnotes there.

[8].   Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 9:1. Note similar statements elsewhere in the Mishneh Torah (Hilchos Teshuvah 3:8 and Hilchos Maaseh HaKorbanos 2:13), and in the Rambam’s Commentary to the Mishnah (both in the Introduction to the text as a whole and in the Introduction to ch. 10 of Tractate Sanhedrin, in Principle 9 of his Thirteen Principles of Faith).

[9].   Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Melachim 11:3.

[10].  These last lines do not appear in the censored editions of the Mishneh Torah, and have been added here on the authority of the above-mentioned Yemenite manuscript.

[11].  A study of Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah brings to light a distinction between mitzvos and other Torah truths. Although in his Commentary to the Mishnah (Introduction to ch. 10 of Tractate Sanhedrin), the Rambam enumerates thirteen fundamental principles of faith, many of them are not mentioned in Hilchos Yesodei Torah, “The Laws Concerning the Foundations of the Torah.”

  In resolution of this difficulty, Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel (Rosh Amanah, ch. 9) explains that the Mishneh Torah sets out to define Jewish law, not Jewish philosophy. Hilchos Yesodei Torah therefore enumerates only those fundamental principles that are mitzvos, commandments which we are obligated to actually observe.

[12]Devarim 18:18, cited by the Rambam in his discussion of prophecy in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 9:2.

[13]Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 10:4.

[14].  [In the Introduction to his Commentary on the Mishnah, the Rambam mentions our Sages’ discussion (Berachos 4b) of the fear that gripped the Patriarch Yaakov before his encounter with Esav. Our Sages question Yaakov’s reaction, noting that G‑d had already promised that He would stand by him in whatever he did (Bereishis 32:8). If so, why was Yaakov afraid?

  They explain that, in his modesty, Yaakov feared that his sins had made him unworthy of the fulfillment of G‑d’s blessing. Similarly, the Rambam asks, why can we not say that all prophecies foretelling good things are conditional on our conduct, and if we do not merit their fulfillment, the good will not materialize?

  In reply, the Rambam differentiates between a promise made by G‑d to a prophet in private (as in Yaakov’s case) and a prophecy that has been made public. In the former instance, the person’s conduct may cause G‑d to withhold His promise of good. In contrast, once a prophecy has been publicly proclaimed, G‑d will never withhold its fulfillment, for were He to do so, we would be left without any barometer with which to test a prophet’s truth. (I.e., an individual could always argue that his prophecy was not fulfilled because his listeners were found unworthy of it.)]

[15]Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, loc. cit.

[16].  Furthermore, in this instance, there is no possibility that the prophecies will be annulled by sin because “The Torah has already promised that, ultimately, the Jews will repent in the final days of their exile, and immediately thereafter, they will be redeemed” (Hilchos Teshuvah 7:5). The Rambam there goes on to cite prooftexts (Devarim 30:1-3, significantly in the same passage as the verse concerning the Redemption cited in Hilchos Melachim) which indicate that the Torah promises that the Jews will repent and thus cleanse themselves of all sin.

[17]Hilchos Megillah 2:18, based on the Talmud Yerushalmi, Megillah 1:5.

[18].  Although on an obvious level, the Rambam’s critique was aimed at one particular ideology, there is no reason to restrict his words to that limited scope.

[19]Shmos 15:16.

[20]Berachos 4a.

[21].  [As has been pointed out by various classical commentators on the Rambam, the nonfulfillment of this prophecy is problematic for, as mentioned above, the Rambam states (in the Introduction to his Commentary on the Mishnah) that a prophecy whose content is positive will always be fulfilled. The Lechem Mishnah, Avodas HaMelech, and other commentaries propose several possible resolutions of this difficulty.]

[22].  Indeed, an opinion of this nature is ventured in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a), though it is not accepted by the majoriy of the Sages. See footnote 11 to the above essay entitled “The Function of Mashiach” (p. 32).

[23].  See Chagigah 10b.

[24]Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 9:2.

[25]Hilchos Teshuvah 3:8.

Reprinted from “I Await His Coming Every Day” (Kehot Publication Society, 1991) Adapted & Translated by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger Edited by Uri Kaploun.