17. The Messiah and the Messianic Era according to Maimonides
* Known as the RaMBaM -- Rabbi Moshe Ben (son of) Maimon, the renowned 12th Century C. E. Rabbi, Philosopher and Physician. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings chapters 11-12
One who does not believe in a restoration, or does not look forward to the coming of the Messiah denies not only the teachings of the Prophets but also those of the Torah and Moses, our teacher, for Scripture affirms the restoration of Israel, as it is said: "Then the L-rd your G-d will turn your captivity, and have compassion upon you, and will return and gather you...and the L-rd your G-d will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed" (Deuteronomy 30:3-5).
King Messiah will arise, and restore the kingdom of David to its former state and original sovereignty. He will rebuild the Sanctuary, and gather the dispersed of Israel. All the ancient laws will be reinstated in his days, sacrifices will again be offered. The Sabbatical and Jubilee years will again be observed in accordance with the commandments set forth in the Torah.
Do not think that King Messiah will have to perform signs and wonders, bring anything new into being, revive the dead, or do similar acts. It is not so. Rabbi Akiba was a great sage, a teacher of the Mishnah, yet he was also the right hand man of Ben Kozba. He thought that the latter was King Messiah; he and all the Sages of his generation shared this belief until Ben Kozba was slain. Then it became known that he was not the Messiah. Yet the Rabbis had not asked him for a sign or token. The general principle is: This Torah of ours with its statutes and ordinances is not subject to change. It is forever and all eternity. It is not to be added to, or to be taken away from. Whoever adds to it, or takes away from it, or misinterprets it, and strips the commandments of their literal sense is an impostor, a wicked man and a heretic.
If a King arises from the House of David who meditates on the Torah, occupies himself with the commandments, as did his ancestor David, observes the precepts prescribed in the Written and the Oral Law, prevails upon Israel to walk in the way of the Torah and to follow its direction, and fights the battles of the L-rd, it may be assumed that he is the Messiah. If he does these things and succeeds, rebuilds the Sanctuary on its site, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is beyond all doubt the Messiah. He will prepare the whole world to serve the L-rd as it is written: "For then will I turn to the peoples a pure language that they may all call upon the Name of the L-rd to serve Him with one consent" (Zephaniah 3:9). But if he does not meet with full success, or is slain, it is obvious that he is not the Messiah promised in the Torah. He is to be regarded like all the other wholehearted, and worthy Kings of the House of David who died and whom the Holy One, blessed be He, raised up to test the multitude, as it is written: "And some of them that are wise shall stumble, to refine among them, and to purify, and to make white, even to the time of the end; for it is yet for the time appointed" (Daniel 11:35).
Even Jesus of Nazareth, who imagined that he was the Messiah, but was put to death by the court, Daniel had prophesied, as it is written: "And the children of the violent among your people shall lift themselves up to establish the vision, but they shall stumble" (Daniel 11:14). For has there ever been a greater stumbling than this? All the Prophets affirmed that the Messiah would redeem Israel, save them, gather their dispersed, and confirm the commandments. But he caused Israel to be destroyed by the sword, their remnant to be dispersed and humiliated. He was instrumental in changing the Torah, and causing the world to err and serve another beside G-d.
But it is beyond the human mind to fathom the designs of the Creator, for our ways are not His ways, neither are our thoughts His thoughts. All these matters relating to Jesus of Nazareth...only served to clear the way for King Messiah, to prepare the whole world to worship G-d with one accord, as it is written: "For then will I turn to the peoples a pure language, that they may call upon the Name of the L-rd to serve Him with one consent" (Zephaniah 3:9). Thus, the messianic hope, the Torah, and the commandments have become familiar topics of conversation among the inhabitants of the far isles and many peoples, uncircumcized of heart and flesh. They are discussing these matters, and the commandments of the Torah. Some say, "Those commandments were true, but have lost their validity, and are no longer binding, others declare that they had an esoteric meaning and were not intended to be taken literally. The Messiah has already come and revealed their occult significance." But when the true King Messiah will appear and succeed, be exalted and lifted up, they will forthwith recant, and realize that they have inherited nothing but lies from their fathers, that their prophets and forbears led them astray.
One should not think that in the days of the Messiah any of the laws of nature will cease, or a new creation will come into being. The world will follow its normal course. The words of Isaiah: "And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid" (Isaiah 11:6) are to be understood figuratively. It means that Israel will live securely among the wicked of the non-Jews, who are likened to wolves and leopards, as it is written: "A wolf of the deserts does spoil them, a leopard watches over their cities" (Jeremiah 5:6). They will all accept the true religion, and will neither plunder or destroy. They will eat what is permissible, gently with Israel, as it is written: "And the lion shall eat straw like the ox" (Isaiah 11:7). All similar expressions used in connection with the Messianic Era are metaphorical. In the days of King Messiah the full meaning of those metaphors, and their allusions will become clear to all.
The Rabbis said: "The sole difference between the present, and the Messianic days is delivery from servitude to foreign powers" (Sanhedrin 91b). Taking the words of the Prophets in their literal sense, it appears that the beginning of the Messianic Era will be marked by the war of Gog and Magog, that prior to that war, a Prophet will arise to guide Israel and set their hearts aright, as it is written: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the Prophet" (Malachi 3:23). Elijah will come neither to declare the clean unclean, nor the unclean clean, neither to disqualify those who are presumed to be of legitimate descent, nor to pronounce qualified those who are presumed to be of illegitimate descent, but to bring peace in the world, as it is said: "And he shall turn the hearts of the fathers to the children" (Malachi 3:24).
Some of our Sages say that the coming of Elijah will precede the advent of the Messiah. But no one is in a position to know the details of this and similar things until they happen. They are not explicitly stated by the Prophets. Nor have the Rabbis any tradition with regard to these matters. They are guided solely by what the Scriptural texts seem to imply. Hence, there is a divergence of opinion on the subject. Nevertheless, neither the exact sequence of those events nor their particulars constitute religious dogmas. No one should ever occupy himself with the legendary themes or spend much time on midrashic statements bearing on these and similar subjects. He should not consider them essential, since they lead neither to the fear of G-d, nor to the love of Him. Nor should one calculate the end. The Rabbis said: "Blasted be the bones of those who calculate the end" (Talmud Sanhedrin 97b). One should wait for his coming and accept in principle this article of faith, as we have stated before.
In the days of King Messiah when his kingdom will be established, and all Israel will gather around him, their pedigrees will be determined by him through Divine Inspiration which will rest upon him, as it is written: "And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier..." (Malachi 3:3). First he will purify the descendants of Levi, declaring: "This one of good birth, is a priest; this one of good birth, is a Levite." Those who are not of good birth will be demoted to the rank of Israelite, for it is written: "And the governor said unto them that they should not eat of the most holy things, until there stood up a priest with Urim and Tummim" (Ezra 2:63). It is inferred therefrom that the genealogy of those considered to be of good lineage will be traced by means of Divine Inspiration, and those found to be of good birth will be made known. The descent of the Israelites will be recorded according to their tribes. He will announce: "This one is of such and such a tribe, and this one of such and such a tribe." But he will not say concerning those who are presumed to be of pure descent: "This is a bastard, this is a slave." For the rule is: Once a family has mixed with others, it retains its status.
The Sages and Prophets did not long for the days of the Messiah so that Israel might exercise dominion over the world, or rule over the nations, or be exalted by them, or that it might eat and drink and rejoice. Their aspiration was that Israel be free to devote itself to the Torah and its wisdom with no one to oppress or disturb them, and thus be worthy of life in the World to Come.
In that era there will be neither famine nor war, neither jealousy nor strife. Blessings will be abundant, comforts within the reach of all. The one preoccupation of the whole world will be to know the L-rd. Hence, Jews will be very wise, they will know things that are now concealed, and will attain an understanding of their Creator to the utmost capacity of the human mind, as it is written: "For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the L-rd, as the waters cover the sea " (Isaiah 11:9).