The importance of learning about Moshiach

An Orthodox person made the following remark:

Remember folks, the Rambam told us that we shouldn't make issues of Moshiach the center of our study and faith (Hilchos Melachim 12:2: "al tasimam ikar").

Answer: This is a very mistaken reading of the Rambam

Hilchos Melachim, 12:2, translated by Eliyahu Touger:

"Regardless [of the debate concerning these questions] {prophetic metaphors, Elijah, Gog & Magog} neither the order of the occurrence of these events nor their precise detail are among the fundamental principles of the faith. A person should not occupy himself with the Aggadot and homiletics concerning these and similar matters, nor should he consider them as essentials {v'lo y'simam ikkar}, for [study of] them will neither bring fear nor love [of God]."

The Rambam himself has said that the idea of Moshiach is a central pillar of our faith. It is one of the 13 Ikkarim (13 Principles of faith). Obviously the Rambam does not feel that we should be ignorant in a central tenant of Judaism. Nor would he feel that a superficial understanding of an Ikkar would be sufficient, if this is an Ikkar of Yiddishkeit our understanding of it should be commensurate (i.e. it is an ikkar [center] of our study).

In an average day we mention our desire for the Moshiach from 50 to 80 times. Many of these are in the Shemona Esra which is the center of our davening. Indeed, in Gemorrah it is sometimes referred to simply as teffilah (prayer) which indicates that it is the essence of prayer. The entire middle part of the Shemonah Esra is given over to requests related to the Moshiach:

L'shuasecha kivinu cal ha'yom (we hope for your salvation every day)
L'rushalayim irecha brachamim tashuv (Yerushalayim your city should be speedily rebuilt)
t'ka bshofer godol lchrutanu (sound the great shofar for our freedom)

map1.jpg (77305 bytes)We have to have some comprehension of what we are asking for. The time of the Shemonah Esra is not the time for uttering unthinking words. We have to have some concept of what is salvation, why blow a shofar and why a "big" shofar? Certainly the Shemonah Esra is not the time for superficial requests, and thus those who have the ability to understand should certainly deepen their understanding in order that what they request is not vague superficially understood concepts.

The Chofetz Chaim writes in is Maamar Or Torah about one who recites the second paragraph of Alainu "v'al kain n'kava l'cha hashem elokaynu lriot m'hara b'tiferet uzecah" We hope to You... to see speedily [the acknowledgement of G-d that will take place when Moshiach comes] He says if one recites this and does not indeed hope for its speedily fulfillment is an outright liar before G-d.

So the Chofetz Chaim feels that we should we should (1) have an intent desire for the Moshiach (not a superficially, poorly understood wish) (2) that we should want it "speedily" and not be content with a general desire that it come at some unspecified time in the future.

The rambam himself extensively engaged in studying concepts connected with Moshiach. Both he and Rashi discuss whether Moshiach can come on Shabbos. Now this discussed in connection with the hilchos (laws) of Shabbos. One might ask: what does Moshiach have to do with Shabbos? And the answer according to the rambam is that the idea of Moshiach is an ikkar, and an ikkar is connected to everything.

To explain: In Chassidus a moshel (example) of this concept of an ikkar is given. Picture the human body. Each part of the body is connected with a individual power of the soul. The eye with the power of sight, the ear with hearing, etc. These are the individual powers of the soul. However there are also ikkarim (central) powers of the soul such as the life and vitality of the soul. These powers diffuse equally to all parts of the body. It makes no sense to say that the head is more alive than the foot. All are equally alive, and this central power of life does not negate or diminish the particular powers of sight or hearing, adarabah (the opposite) it enhances and vitalizes them.

So too with mitzvoth. The 248 positive mitzvoth correspond to the 248 limbs of the body and the 365 negative mitzvoth to the 365 giddim (veins, nerves) of the body. Each mitzvoth is concerned with elevating a particular aspect of the physical world. A ikkar mitzvoth such as Moshiach is connected to all mitzvoth. It envitalizes and gives life to all mitzvoth. It thus makes perfect sense for the rambam to deal with such a particular detail such as whether Moshiach can come on Shabbos in the laws of Shabbos.

This is also the answer to another question that comes up with the idea of Moshiach. Doesn't learning about Moshiach diminish our learning in other areas of Torah? But by now the answer should be clear. The concept of Moshiach is an ikkar. An ikkar does not negate pratim (individual) concepts but instead enlivens and envitalizes them and is an essential part of each individual concept. Without it, chas v'sholom, one would remove the life from the other mitzvoth.

For an entire chapter (11), the rambam brings out numerous concepts about:

  1. The essential need to year for Moshiach's coming.
  2. Biblical proof texts that indicate Moshiach's coming.
  3. The nature of the Messianic era
  4. The nature of the Moshiach
  5. What Moshiach has to do to be accepted.
  6. Halochos that will have their ultimate fulfillment with the coming of Moshiach.

It is not until the second halacha in chapter 12 - where the rambam starts to talk about the war of Gog and Magog, and how long before Moshiach will Eliyahu will appear - that the rambam mentions about not making THESE things one's ikkar (v'lo yarich bmidrashim hamurim b'inyanim alu, v'chyothey b'hem v'lo yasim ikkar ...)

Clearly, if one takes the time to study the rambam and make full quotations one see that we are talking about these particular kinds of calculations for when Moshiach comes. The rambam did not start his Hilchos about Moshiach with a caveat. The caveat is delayed and the rambam connects it directly to the prophecies about Gog and Magog. It is a complete misreading to think that the rambam felt we should not make an ikkar of what he himself considers and ikkar of the Jewish faith.

In closing I have to express amazement that someone could make a call for ignorance and stupidity in relation to what is an ikkar of the Jewish faith. Luckily, I know that the Jewish people are inherently a curious people, and telling them to not learn something is most likely to have a directly opposite effect.

Thanks go to David Kaufman for his editorial assistance in this post.

Author: Yechezkal-Shimon Gutfreund