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How will moshiach fulfill the Rambam's criteria without violating the oaths?


Dear Rabbi,

You've stated several times (in previous letters posted on this site), "How will we know who the messiah is? He will bring all Jews to repent and fulfill all the laws of the Torah (Rambam, Melachim 11:4). THIS IS SUCH A HARD TASK THAT NO FALSE MESSIAH WILL BE ABLE TO ACCOMPLISH IT AND FOOL THE WORLD...The Satmar Rav notes that by making the repentence of the entire Jewish people the criterion for the messiah, the Rambam is not leaving open the door for imposters."

However, in Melachim 11:4, the Rambam says: "If he (the potential messiah) DID NOT SUCCEED TO THIS DEGREE OR HE WAS KILLED, HE SURELY IS NOT HE MESSIAH PROMISED BY THE TORAH. Rather, HE SHOULD BE CONSIDERED AS ALL THE OTHER PROPER AND COMPLETE KINGS OF THE DAVIDIC DYNASTY WHO DIED...G-d only caused him to arise in order to test the many..."

Now then, what is the Rambam saying here? He seems to be saying in a very complimentary way that there will indeed be "imposters messiahs," not as the Satmar Rav stated. He seems to be saying that someone will indeed be PERMITTED to make an effort and even fail in his attempts (and that those "attempts" are defined as TRYING to get the Jews to do teshuva, TRYING to gather Jews to the land of Israel, and TRYING to fight the wars of G-d, and TRYING to have the Temple rebuilt. It seems clearly inferred from here that the Rambam is not condemning the attempt that fails, since he refers to such a failed attempt in a complimentary light (i.e. comparing such a person to one of the righteous kings of the Davidic dynasty). Yet, after the fact, if such a person dies before he completes any of these tasks, we can call it in retrospect a test from G-d.

This complimentary wording regarding someone who makes the effort but ends up failing, despite the fact that he was not the messiah and despite the fact that he was only sent as a test and we can only realize that it was a test in RETROSPECT, clearly implies that the Rambam holds that someone must make the messianic attempts BEFORE he is officially called the messiah, and only after he accomplishes in total is he considered the messiah.

Your ideas do not seem to jibe with this understanding of the Rambam. Because your ideas are predicated on the notion that the person must FIRST be recognized as the messiah and then attempt to accomplish all that the Rambam says must be done. The fact that R. Akiva and perhaps all of his colleagues first believed that Bar Kochba was the Moshiach only later to retract does not prove the halacha l'maase that this MUST necessarily be the order. According to the Rambam it certainly does not need to be the order.

If so, this might be a source that refutes your entire thesis that the three oaths cannot be nullified until the Moshiach does it first. Because according to this understanding of the Rambam, the person does not have to be the moshiach first before he ATTEMPTS to accomplish his main missions, which include trying to make everyone frum, trying to gather the Jews to the land of Israel, fighting the wars of G-d (note that the uncensored version of the Rambam exchanges the words to "fighting the wars against the nations" so as to rebut the notion that the Rambam might mean "fighting assimilation" or the like). If ATTEMPTING to do so prior to his being called the moshiach were wrong or inviolate of the oaths, then the Rambam would not refer to such a person as being like one of the righteous kings of the house of David, would he? And of course, the Rambam does not just say things happenstance. The fact that he intentionally felt it necessary to compare such an attempt to someone who is like a righteous king though not the moshiach was probably meant for someone such as yourself who would view such an attempt (before someone is officially called the Moshiach) as being a misleader or as the Satmar Rav would say, "an imposter" in the pejorative.

Meir Braun

Dear Mr. Braun,

The Rambam says that if the potential moshiach brings the Jews to repentance, he has chezkas moshiach, which means that we are permitted to follow him in returning to Eretz Yisroel; we can assume he was sent by Hashem and thus there is no problem of the oaths. However you ask that the Rambam says there is a possibility that after that point he may still fail and turn out not to be moshiach. You seem to be saying that we see from here that a potential moshiach is allowed to go ahead with the gathering of the exiles even though he is not sure he is really moshiach. I dont really know what your kashya is here because the Rambam says clearly that a chezkas moshiach is enough for us to assume the oaths are permitted, and we as well as the potential moshiach himself cannot be blamed if the chazakah turns out to be wrong. Lets say a person eats something based on a chazakah or a rov that its kosher, and it turns out not to be kosher. Is that person a sinner? Of course not.

You say that according to the uncensored text of the Rambam, the potential moshiach must wage wars against the nations before he reaches the stage of chezkas moshiach. But I see that in the Frankel Rambam (which is the original uncensored text) the reference to defeating the nations is in the part about reaching vadai moshiach, not in the part about reaching chezkas moshiach. The text is, "If a king arises from the house of David who studies Torah and does mitzvos like his ancestor David, according to the written and oral Torah, and he compels all of Israel to walk in it and strengthen its weak points, and he fights the wars of Hashem, then he has chezkas (presumed to be) moshiach. If he does and succeeds, and subdues all the surrounding nations, and he builds the Temple, and gathers the exiles of Israel, then he is definitely moshiach." To reach chezkas moshiach the candidate must only make all the Jews repent and "fight the wars of Hashem" which could mean fighting false ideologies within the Jewish people. Then, after that point he may continue and
subdue the nations and build the Temple and gather the exiles. So to reach chezkas he need not do anything that is kefirah, out of bounds, or a violation of the oaths.

You interpret the Rambam's words "fights the wars of Hashem" as not referring to a literal war. But the Rambam already stated that the moshiach candidate has to "compel all of
Israel to walk in the ways of Torah, and reinforce the breaches in its
observance." Those two things really do fit the definition of fighting
"assimilation" unless you really really want to split hairs about what it
means to "fight assimilation." As such, it seems clearly superfluous to interpret
"fighting the wars of G-d" as fighting assimilation in my opinion.

I don't know if you can find any sources in the
Torah that describe trying to make people observant as "fighting a war of
G-d." I'm talking explicit Torah sources here, not what a modern day
Rabbi might wish to call such activities (noble though they are).

"Fighting the wars of Hashem" doesn't have to mean only fighting assimilation. It could mean fighting false ideologies that are held sometimes by Jews who otherwise observe all of the Torah. (For example, there are some Jews who keep halacha down to the last detail yet in their beliefs and mindset are Zionists.) So the Rambam contains no superfluous words: he is saying that the potential moshiach must compel all of the assimilated and non-observant Jews to keep the Torah, and furthermore even within the community of observant Jews he must wage war against false and anti-Torah ideologies.

Even if we were to prove (by comparison to other places where the Rambam uses the phrase "wars of Hashem") that the Rambam means literal warfare, this would not mean that moshiach violates the oaths before knowing that he is moshiach. The reason is that the Rambam is to be read in order: only if the messianic canditate succeeds in bringing all the Jews to repent may he go on to the next step of fighting wars. Once he has accomplished the repentance of all the Jews, clearly Hashem is telling us that he has enough of a chezkas moshiach to be allowed to fight wars. Once he fights the wars, he reaches an even higher level of chazakah, allowing him to gather the exiles and build the Temple.

Furthermore, we could answer that on the contrary, the oaths are implicit in the Rambam's description of the process of identifying moshiach. It is no coincidence that the things moshiach must do are the very things prohibited by the oaths. Fighting wars is prohibited by the oath "that they should not rebel against the nations." Gathering the dispersed Jews is prohibited by the oath "that they should not go up as a wall." Building the Temple is prohibited by the oath "that they should not force the end."

So now, back to your question: How will moshiach know he is moshiach before he does these things? Even if he thinks he is, he is taking a big risk, because if he isn’t the real one these things are terrible sins.

The answer is that Hashem will certainly let him know he is moshiach before he begins the entire process. The Rambam's criteria are what we, the rest of the Jewish people, will use to identify him as moshiach. We will watch him fight wars and understand that as a potential moshiach he is allowed to do this; at the same time, we will not join in his wars until we have more proof.

But only someone claiming to be moshiach may do these things; for anyone else they are forbidden. And if the person or group attempting these actions does not care about the prohibition and does them anyway, the Jewish people is forbidden to follow.

You may argue that the Rambam never says that for anyone else these things are forbidden. He is just telling us what moshiach must do so that we know he is the real moshiach and not an impostor.

But these three jobs are, by their very nature, things that can only be done once. Once the wars are fought, the Jews are gathered in and the Temple is built by someone other than moshiach, there is no room for moshiach to come and do those things over again. How then would he prove himself to be moshiach? Therefore, it's clear from the Rambam that just as someone may not claim to be moshiach without doing those things, someone not claiming to be moshiach may not do those things.

It's interesting to note that Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Herzog, the state's first chief rabbi, addresses your question in the midst of his rendition of the usual argument that the oath did not apply since the British, the League of Nations and United Nations agreed to give us the land. The fact that war had to be waged against the inhabitants of Palestine itself is no problem, he says, because they had no sovereignty. His proof to this is our Rambam in Hilchos Melachim 11:4. The Rambam counts fighting wars as one of the criteria moshiach must meet in order to an "assumed" (b'chezkas) moshiach. Now, if it is prohibited to fight any wars during exile, how will moshiach be able to reach even the "assumed" status? From this Rabbi Herzog concludes that a war against the Palestinian and other Arab peoples is permitted as long as most other nations in the world sanction it. If such a war is permitted for someone claiming to be moshiach who has not yet attained assumed status, then we see it is not a violation of the oaths, and thus it is permitted for any Jew. (Techukah Leyisroel Al Pi Halacha, v. 1 p. 127)

But as we said earlier, there are other ways to understand the Rambam. The Rambam could be saying that only a messianic claimant who has already completed the first three criteria - being a king from the house of David, studying and practicing Torah, and forcing all Jews to keep the Torah - can be assumed to be moshiach with enough certainty to go on to step four, fighting wars, which in any other circumstance would be a violation of the oath.

Or, it could even be that the Rambam is saying that any messianic claimant is an exception to the oaths, even before he does anything to prove himself as moshiach. He himself will know through prophecy that he is moshiach. And the rest of the Jewish people is allowed to follow him into battle without proof, because of this exception for a messianic claimant. As an analogy, imagine that a father sends his child to his bedroom as a punishment, and warns him not to come out until he, the father, sends him a message telling him to do so. The child sits in his room for a long time, and then a voice from the other side of the door says, "I am the messenger of your father. He says you may come out now." Now, since the father did not give the child any signs by which to identify the messenger, he clearly allowed him to follow anyone claiming to be the messenger. Of course, if the son comes out and discovers that his father still wants him in his room, he will know that the messenger had been an impostor. Still, he did nothing wrong by following him.

But suppose someone comes to the door and says, "I am not the messenger of your father. But I think you've waited long enough and you may come out." Then the son must certainly stay in his room.