[Background: The Rambam (Hilchos Melachim 11:3) stated that moshiach will not have to perform miracles to prove himself; as proof, the Rambam cited the fact that Rabbi Akiva and the other Sages thought that Ben Koziva (Bar Kochba) was moshiach, and they never asked him for any sign or wonder. In Siman 38, the Rebbe showed that the Rambam agrees that moshiach will be a great prophet with supernatural powers; it is only in the rest of the world that nature will not change. It follows that if Ben Koziva was mistaken for moshiach, he must have been a prophet or at least a candidate for prophecy.]
It must be that Ben Koziva was an amazing holy man, fit for prophecy, possessing all the traits that the Rambam enumerates (Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah 7:1 and 7:7; see above Siman 38). The clear proof to this is from the Gemara (Sanhedrin 93b), which relates that the Sages said regarding Ben Koziva, “Let us see if he can judge based on smell.” This was an ability that even Moshe Rabbeinu did not have, as the Rambam writes in Igeres Teiman (see above Siman 37). If Ben Koziva was not deserving of such a high spiritual level, how could the Sages have entertained the possibility that he had this ability, to the point that they took the trouble to test him?
Furthermore, the Rambam, even in Sefer Hayad (Hilchos Teshuva 9:1), writes clearly that the melech hamoshiach will be a prophet greater than all the prophets, and the Rambam earlier established a principle (Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah 7:7) that we must not believe in anyone’s status as a prophet unless he has all the qualities that the Rambam enumerates. So how could the Sages have thought at first that Ben Koziva was the melech hamoshiach, if he did not possess those qualities that make a person fit for prophecy?
The Midrash Rabbah (Eichah 2:4) tells that when Ben Koziva and his soldiers went out to battle, they would pray using the verse from Tehillim (60:12), “Did you not desert us, O G-d? Do not go out, O G-d, among our troops!” One might argue that this shows that Ben Koziva was a man without much faith, like the Zionists, who thought he could succeed without G-d’s help. But the commentators explain that whenever it is impossible to win a battle naturally, and miracles and Divine intervention are necessary to save the Jews, the Jews need more merits to deserve such intervention. If the Jews are naturally strong, on the other hand, such that on the contrary, it would take a miracle for them to lose the battle, then it is easier to be saved – they need less merit. That is what Ben Koziva meant: he knew that the Jews of his time did not have enough merit for miracles, but he and his army were physically strong, so he said, “Let G-d’s attribute of justice not come out especially to punish us.” Similarly, the Midrash says that Ben Koziva’s soldiers said before battle, “Do not help us or destroy us!”
It would also seem that Chazal’s intent was that although Ben Koziva did not intend anything sinful with this prayer, it was indeed a mistake that contributed to his downfall. This is comparable to the story Chazal tell In Gittin 57a about a similar Jewish military hero, Bar Deroma, who also prayed, “Do not go out, O G-d, among our troops!” The Gemara says, “Bar Deroma’s mouth caused him to stumble.” He did not mean to say anything incorrect, rather he stumbled in his speech. Thus it is not as some mistakenly think, that Ben Koziva did not believe in Divine intervention, Heaven forbid.
The Jews of Ben Koziva’s time as well were completely righteous; Chazal could find no sin in them other than the fact that they did not mourn for Jerusalem. [The Yerushalmi Taanis 24b says that Beitar continued to exist for 52 years after the destruction of the Temple, and it was destroyed because they lit candles to celebrate the destruction of Jerusalem. They did so out of anger at the wealthy swindlers who lived in Jerusalem and used to trick Jews from Beitar into selling their fields, using false documents.]
Perhaps if not for that sin, they would have been on a high enough level to merit an early redemption, as Chazal say, “If they merit, I will hasten it” (Sanhedrin 98a). But because of this single sin that they committed, it was not the right time for an early redemption, and as a result, to launch an uprising against Rome was considered forcing the end, and they received the punishment of which Chazal warned, “I will permit your flesh,” may Hashem spare us.
As I stood at Rabbi Akiva’s grave during my visit to Tiberias this past summer (5719/1959) [Vayoel Moshe was first published in 1959, Rosh Hashanah 5720; the second edition came out one year later], I thought of a idea to explain Rabbi Akiva’s position regarding Ben Koziva. It was not a mistake, Heaven forbid, but rather there was a good reason, ordained in Heaven, why he said what he said at that time. I came up with an idea as to what this reason might have been, but I do not wish to write at length about it now.
[This explanation can be found in Divrei Yoel, Parshas Shemos, p. 51: Rabbi Akiva’s belief in Ben Koziva served to minimize the punishment of the Jewish people for the uprising. If no Tanna had supported Ben Koziva, Hashem would have been more angry at the Jews for following a false moshiach. Hashem caused Rabbi Akiva to support him create a defense for the Jewish people. Although the Ben Koziva movement still resulted in terrible destruction, it was less severe than it could have been, due to the power of Rabbi Akiva’s Torah. That is why we were left with so many tzaddikim, the students of Rabbi Akiva. This does not mean to say that Hashem caused Rabbi Akiva to make an error. He made no legal error, since Ben Koziva certainly must have had the qualifications to be a prophet and to be moshiach, as the Rebbe writes here in Vayoel Moshe. The fact that he was not moshiach was only knowable in retrospect.]
The truth is that nobody knows the real story; the ways of the holy Tannaim are deep. What we do know is that Chazal say that the error of supporting a movement that attempted to force the end was an awesome and terrible stumbling block. Furthermore, the conclusion of the story, according to the Talmud Bavli, is that the Sages killed Ben Koziva. All the more so must we, orphans, children of orphans, keep far in all possible ways from any sort of steps toward forcing the end, more than one flees from a lion chasing him to kill him, may Hashem spare us. May Hashem Yisborach have mercy on us and all of the Jewish people and send up moshiach, soon in our days, amen.
The Ridbaz says that if Rabbi Akiva did not retract his view that Ben Koziva was moshiach, it was because no case was ever brought before Ben Koziva on which he would have had to rule using his sense of smell. We see here that the Ridbaz held that there is no dispute in this matter; all agree that the melech hamoshiach will judge based on smell.
[The Rambam says that the Sages did not ask of Ben Koziva any sign or wonder; the Raavad disagrees, based on the Gemara in Sanhedrin which says that the Sages tested him to see if he could judge based on smell. This would leave us with the impression that the Rambam holds that the halacha does not follow that Gemara and moshiach need not be able to judge based on smell. However, the Ridbaz makes it clear that there is no dispute; the Rambam agrees to the Raavad, but holds that Rabbi Akiva supported Ben Koziva because he never had the chance to test him. This would fit well with the explicit words of the Rambam in Igeres Teiman, which say that moshiach will judge based on smell, quoted earlier in Siman 37. Thus, the Rambam meant that Chazal never asked Ben Koziva to perform a miracle involving the nature of the world around him, such as resurrecting the dead. However, they did expect him to be able to judge based on smell, if the opportunity arose. The opportunity evidently did arise, but not when Rabbi Akiva was present. The Raavad, who disagrees with the Rambam based on this story, does not distinguish between miraculous abilities and changes in the natural world, and holds that performing a miracle is a necessity for moshiach; one cannot accept a messianic claim at all until one sees a miracle.]
That is why the Ridbaz was forced to propose that no such case, where there would have been a need to judge based on smell, ever came before Rabbi Akiva at that time. This is an unlikely scenario, for if Rabbi Akiva’s contemporaries tested Ben Koziva to see if he could judge based on smell, how could Rabbi Akiva not have heard about it?
Now, the Ridbaz’s use of the word “if” implies that he was uncertain as to whether Rabbi Akiva ever retracted his view. However, the Sefer Hayuchsin, by Rabbi Avraham Zacuto, Maamar 1, under Rabbi Akiva, says explicitly that even Rabbi Akiva, after seeing that Ben Koziva could not distinguish the wicked by smell, gave up his messianic hopes for him; he writes that this teaches us a great principle in the matter of moshiach.
[Rabbi Avraham Zacuto served as an astronomical advisor to the kings of Spain and Portugal at the time of the Inquisition. He gained fame as the inventor of the astrolabe, a device that enables sailors to use the stars to determine their position. He astronomical charts were used by Columbus and Vasco Da Gama when they crossed the Atlantic. After the expulsion of the Jews, he moved to North Africa and later to Jerusalem. His Sefer Hayuchsin covers world history from creation up to his time. Here is the full quote:
The Rambam says at the end of Mishpatim (actually, Shoftim) that he [Rabbi Akiva] was a bearer of arms for Ben Koziva, king of Beitar, whom he thought was moshiach. But in the Midrashos we do not find that he bore arms for him, but because he was from the tribe of Yehuda and he fought wars and did mighty acts and was successful, he thought that he was moshiach, applying to him the verse, “A star will go forth from Jacob” (Bamidbar 24:17). But once he saw that he could not identify the wicked by smell, as Scripture says, “And he will sniff with the fear of Hashem” (Yishaya 11:2), he gave up on him. And this [fact that we have a litmus test for moshiach] is a great principle in the matter of moshiach against the gentiles (the Christians).]
The Maharsha as well, who writes in his commentary to Sanhedrin 93b that “even Rabbi Akiva was mistaken about him at first,” implies that he later retracted his position.
[Thus the Ridbaz, Sefer Hayuchsin and Maharsha all assume that the Rambam agrees that moshiach must judge based on smell. The difference between them is only that the Ridbaz was uncertain as to whether Rabbi Akiva was aware that Ben Koziva failed this test, while the Sefer Hayuchsin and Maharsha assume that he was aware and therefore retracted.]
It is surprising to me that the Lechem Mishneh [and the Kesef Mishneh] understand that the Rambam and Raavad disagree as to whether moshiach must judge based on smell. Apparently, he did not have access to the Igeres Teiman, where the Rambam himself writes explicitly that the melech hamoshiach will have to judge based on smell.
[The Kesef Mishneh writes that the Raavad, who says that moshiach must judge based on smell, is quoting the Gemara in Sanhedrin 93b: “Once the Sages saw that he could not judge based on smell, they killed him.” The Rambam, on the other hand, bases himself on the Midrash Eichah which says that the gentiles killed him. The Rambam made the unusual choice of following the Midrash over the Gemara because he held that the Gemara follows the opinion that holds that the natural order of the world will change in the messianic era, while the Rambam holds like Shmuel, who says that the only difference between our time and the messianic era is that the Jewish people will not be living under the nations. Since there will be no changes in nature, it must be that moshiach will not be able to judge based on smell.
The Lechem Mishneh quotes the Kesef Mishneh and then suggests a different reason why the Rambam would rule like the Midrash rather than the Gemara: the Gemara itself mentions another Amora, Rabbi Alexandri, who disagrees with Rava and holds that the words, “Vaharicho beyiras Hashem” do not refer to judging by smell, but rather to a flour mill: Hashem will load moshiach up with mitzvos and suffering like a mill. The Rambam held that since the Midrash tells us that the gentiles, not the Sages, killed Ben Koziva, it must be that the halacha is not like Rava, but like Rabbi Alexandri.]
In any case, you see that the Ridbaz and Rabbi Avraham Zacuto took for granted that there is no dispute about this. And even according to the Lechem Mishneh, the Rambam, even in Sefer Hayad, says clearly that moshiach will have to be a prophet almost as great as Moshe Rabbeinu. [Thus the contradiction between Sefer Hayad and Igeres Teiman is not so great.] Later (Siman 53) I will speak more about the dispute between the Rambam and the Raavad, and about the Kesef Mishneh and Lechem Mishneh on the subject of Ben Koziva.