Three Diverse Sources

The1 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 heart25 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.