How many times have we heard that Moshiach will come to town riding on a white donkey? Is it true? Well, the “white” part, no—it doesn’t say it anywhere. The “donkey” part—it does say that in Zechariah, but some commentators understand it in a metaphorical sense. The same is true of many other Moshiach “facts”—e.g. he will be an angel and not a human; he must perform incredible miracles; in his days, lolly pops will grow on trees, etc. What’s clear is that a lot of our so-called “information” about Moshiach is not information at all, but warm, fuzzy details that somehow got appended—or not even—to some actual facts stated in our Torah literature.
So how do we sort fact from fiction when it comes to Moshiach? The answer is quite simple. We look to Torah sources, as we do when gathering information on any Torah subject.
But it goes beyond that, for in Torah itself there may be several opinions on a given matter, as well as diverse categories of interpretation—e.g., pshat, remez, drush, sod, etc. And so, when looking to deliver an inspiring sermon, or stir up a lively conversation, we may draw on works of aggadah, midrash, or even kabbalah. But when seeking to determine a Torah perspective—especially one that has ramifications on our behavior, both as individuals and as a nation—we must turn to halachah.
And this is where many scratch their heads and say, “Halacha!?” Yes, Torah abounds with tales and tidbits of Moshiach and the future Redemption, but these are descriptions, prophecies, and promises—aspects of Torah not at all connected with halachah!? What halachos can there possibly be concerning Moshiach!? And which halachic authorities would describe them!?”
Enter Yad ha’Chazaka, the Rambam’s comprehensive, encyclopedic work of halachah. Not only does the Rambam devote two entire chapters to the halachos of Moshiach — Hilchos Melachim,, laws of kings chapters 11-12 —, he actually seals Yad ha’Chazaka with them, thus alluding—in the spirit of the Talmudic dictum “Hakol holech achar hachitom [everything follows the conclusion]” —to their primary role as the goal and purpose of all the halachos preceding them.
To be sure, the Rambam acknowledges that certain aspects of Moshiach’s coming are shrouded in mystery and were vague even to the Talmudic Sages. The particulars of the War of Gog u’Magog are a case in point. The details of Techiyas ha’Meisim are another case in point. Nevertheless, when it comes to some other aspects of Moshiach’s coming, such as the obligation to believe in him and anticipate his coming and the qualities by which he is identified as the presumed redeemer and later the definite redeemer, the Rambam lays down the law in a most definitive manner.
Lest one think, however, that the Rambam is a lone voice on this subject and interpret the other rishonim’s lack of commentary or discussion of these laws as disagreement with the Rambam, we already have a klal—a halachic principle—that wherever the Poskim who usually disagree with the Rambam do not voice disagreement with the Rambam they in fact endorse his view. What that means is that most of the Yad ha’Chazaka’s rulings on Moshiach are indeed the final Halacha.
Ok, so we learned something new—there are halachos about Moshiach. There’s no denying, however, that there are numerous midrashim and ma’amarei Chazal that describe the coming of Moshiach—and even the belief in him and the anticipation of his arrival—very differently from the way the Rambam describes it. For example, from the Rambam it is clear that the Geulah begins with the arrival of Moshiach. Yet we have numerous ma’amarei Chazal, ranging from the Yerushalmi to the Midrash to the Zohar, that seem to call into question this signpost for the beginning of the Geulah. For example, the Gemara says that the clearest sign of the impending Geulah is that the trees of the land of Israel will bear fruit. Another statement teaches that the Geulah will come “little by little,” which may suggest that it will begin well before Moshiach’s arrival. How are we to understand teachings such as these in the light of the above?
Once again the answer is simple and straightforward: the Rambam was surely aware of all of these teachings and rendered his halachic decisions having taken them into account. Any ideas about Moshiach, then, that we may have garnered from the teachings of Chazal, or from psukim in Navi, cannot dictate our practical behavior where there is a clear ruling.
So the next time we hear that Moshiach will come to town riding on a white donkey, we may just want to slip sefer Shoftim off the shelf, dust off the pages of Hilchos Melachim and take a look at the Rambam’s rulings on this most important of Torah subjects.