Sunday, 19 May 2019


But the future Temple which we await...will descend from Heaven. (Rashi on Sukkah 41a)


In this article, we will examine the concept of Mashiach as portrayed by two very different schools of Jewish thought which emerged simultaneously during the period of the Tosafists. We will attempt to show how the Messiah was defined very differently by both Rambam and the Tosafists.


The Tosafist period - spawned by Rashi (1040-1105) - lasted about two hundred years, encompassing the 12th and 13th centuries, and ending with R. Meir of Rothenburg (d. 1293). The term Tosafists generally refers to the rabbis of the early period of the Rishonim (1038-1500) who lived specifically in Ashkenaz (Northern France and Germany).

Although Rambam lived during that same period (1135-1204), he is not regarded as a Tosafist because he lived in Egypt.

I draw from Rabbi Professor Ephraim Kanarfogel[1] who is a specialist in the period of the Tosafists and particularly in their unpublished manuscripts.


Professor Kanarfogel explains, that we only know part of the Tosafists’ story from their published and printed works – yet their unpublished manuscripts reveal so much more about who they actually were. And these unpublished manuscripts - some only recently discovered - reveal a very different side to their authors from the way they are commonly perceived.

According to Kanarfogel’s research into these unpublished manuscripts, the Tosafists emerge not just as Talmudic commentators but also, to a large extent, as mystics – influenced as they were by the Chasidei Ashkenaz. [For more, see Mystical Forays of the Tosafists.]

On the other hand, Rambam was a rationalist and so the stage is set for a showdown of divergent views regarding the personality and era of Mashiach. [See The Maimonidean Controversies.]


R. Kanarfogel shows how the Tosafists were mystics and how they also (or therefore?) had a: “tendency to interpret aggadah literally.” This means that they also generally took Midrashim more literally than allegorically.

This tendency led to Tosafists, like the 13th century Moshe Taku, to describe the Messianic era as follows:

“[W]e will then become familiar with and experience Ruach haKodesh [the Spirit of Holiness], the fire falling [from Heaven] on the sacrifices, and the closeness of the Holy Presence in the pillar of fire and the cloud, just as it had been during the Exodus from Egypt. After a time, with the intensification of our redemption and enlightenment, [we will see] the resurrection of the dead, and the descent of the [third] Temple...”[2]

R. Moshe Taku continues by claiming that during a certain stage of the Messianic era:

“...the righteous people...will be given special angel-like forms...and have no need for food or drink...a state of existence that will continue into Olam haBah."


It should be pointed out that the notion of the Third Temple miraculously descending from Heaven in Messianic times is of Midrashic origin[3]:

 According to Midrash Tanchuma[4] G-d informs the Jewish people that:  “[I]n the future I will build it, and I will not destroy it.” Accordingly, the Messianic Temple will not be built by human hands, as were the previous two Temples, but rather by G-d himself.

Another Midrashic source similarly states that: “the first Temple which was built by flesh and blood was destroyed by enemies, whereas the future Temple which will be built by the Holy One....will never be destroyed.”[5]

According to Kanarfogel:

  “As far as I can tell, there are no medieval Ashkenazic rabbinic authorities who suggest the third Temple will be built by human hands, despite the fact that there are a number of midrashic sources which record and support this view.”

Clearly, the Tosafists - by selecting only Midrashic references to G-d building the third Temple - were firm in their resolve to perpetuate the miraculous nature of the Messianic era.

However, there is much debate as to whether we take Midrashim literally or allegorically [See The Challenge of Midrashic Amplification]. 

It is, therefore, surprising to see that the popular conception of Mashiah in modern times, happens to be identical to the views espoused by the Tosafists who certainly were inclined to take Midrashim literally.


The Tosafists also promoted the notion of there being two Messiahs, namely, Mashiach ben Yosef, followed by the ‘main’ Messiah, Mashiach ben David.

Kanarfogel writes:

“These Tosafot texts assume, as a foregone conclusion, that the arrival of...[Mashiach ben Yosef] is part of the redemptive process, despite the minimal reference to this messiah in the Talmud itself.”


Rambam, on the other hand, adopted a completely different view of the Messiah and the Messianic era.[6]

As Kanarfogel puts it:

“[A]ll analyses concur that the non-miraculous, naturalistic character of the messianic age is fundamental to Maimonides’ presentation. During the messianic era, the workings of the world will continue to be guided solely by natural law...”

Rambam bases himself on the opinion expressed in the Talmud by the Amora known as Shmuel of Nehardea (165-257 CE):

“There is no difference between this world and the days of Mashiach other than the [elimination of] oppression by other nations.”  

In other words, according to Shmuel, during the Messianic era there will be no great wonders and miracles. Everything will be exactly the same as it is now, except that Jews will no longer be subjugated by the nations.[7]

Rambam writes:

“The messianic era will (take place) in this [physical] realm, and the world will (continue) to follow its naturalistic character. The only difference will be that Jews will rule over themselves. This was already stated by our early sages...[and the abovementioned quote from Shmuel follows].”[8]

Again Rambam writes:

“Do not think that during the messianic era, the world will no longer function naturally, or that there will be any change in the fundamentals of creation. Rather, the world will run according to its natural order, as our sages have said...[and, again, the abovementioned quote from Shmuel follows].”[9]

The interesting thing is that, in both cases above, Rambam only quotes Shmuel, although there are also other dissenting views expressed in the Talmud[10] which do indicate a more miraculous Messianic era.

Rambam continues:

“Nor should you think that the king messiah has to perform miracles and wonders, or change any order in the world, or [even] revive the dead, etc.”[11]

Rambam adds that the Messiah himself will build the Third Temple – a view which flies in the face of the popular notion that the Temple will be built by G-d and descend from Heaven.

Rambam also maintains that the verse in Isaiah which refers to the wolf lying down with the lamb is not to be taken literally but rather allegorically as alluding to a state of universal peace.

Rambam also makes absolutely no reference to the concept of Mashiach ben Yosef – this again is in stark contrast to the view of the Tosafists.


Two and a half centuries later, Rambam was severely criticised for his rationalist messianic views by R. Don Yitzchak Abravanel (1437-1508).

In his Yeshuot Meshicho, Abravanel challenges Rambam for citing Shmuel as his source, because although Shmuel’s view is mentioned six times in the Talmud, on four of those occasions the Talmud rejects or minimises his position.

Furthermore, Abravanel also criticises Rambam for not mentioning Shmuel by name but instead simply refers to the ‘opinion of the Sages’ as if this was the main Talmudic position.


Rambam’s non-mystical Messiah was sharply criticised by Abravanel and it is difficult to pick holes in the technical accuracy of his criticism.

By the same token, although the mystical Messiah of the Tosafists became the hallmark of mainstream Judaism – their source material too, is not without flaws. The Tosafists based themselves on debatable Midrashic sources that even much of the mainstream acknowledge are not solid enough to determine practical outcomes. It is a well-established principle (although one often overlooked) that we do not determine practical Halacha from Midrash.

And the Tosafists were also guilty of choosing particular Midrashic references concerning the Temple falling from Heaven, despite the fact that there are numerous other Midrashic references to the Temple being built by human hands. 

They did the same by emphasizing the role of Mashiach ben Yosef, despite minimal Talmudic references to that character.

Thus, both schools appear to have cherry-picked their support texts very selectively.

Nevertheless, what we ultimately do have are two fundamentally different defining approaches to the essential nature of the Messianic age in general, and of the Messiah in particular.

The mystics and the rationalists, therefore, have mutually exclusive theories as to how we will progress to that anticipated state of the culmination of humankind.

And instead of having more clarity, the question now becomes even more intense: What, indeed, is the Torah perspective of the future era? – Will we humans allow the Messianic era to be brought about through a process of refinement and natural progression or will we be unable to do so without an intervention requiring miracles and wonders?

[1] Medieval Rabbinic Conceptions of the Messianic Ages, by Ephraim Kanarfogel.
[2] Ketav Tamim 40b.
[3] Tosefot (Shavuot 15b) brings a support that the Final Temple will be built out of fire and will fall from Heaven from the verse “Mikdash Hashem Konenu Yadecha” (Shemot 15:17), “G-d’s Temple will be established by Your hand”) although according to the Talmud (Ketuvot 5a) this verse refers to the building of the Second Temple which was built by righteous people who were considered tantamount to ‘G-d’s hand’.
Incidentally, Rashi (in Rosh haShana and Sukkah) appears to take a similar view, based on the same verse “Mikdash Hashem etc.” But Rashi on Ezekiel 43:11 (in some editions) contradicts this by suggesting that the Third Temple will be built by human hands.
[4] Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Noach, section 13. It is difficult to precisely date the Midrash Tanchuma, as cultural references within the text as well as other early medieval writings suggest it may have been edited around the 800s CE, although it does contain sections that are most likely centuries older.
[5] Pesikta Rabati Ch 29. This Midrashic work was composed around the year 845 CE.
[6] This is based, primarily, on his views as recorded in his Mishneh Torah.
[7] Some explain Shmuel to only be referring to the initial process of the redemption.
[8] Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 9:2.
[9] Rambam, Hilchot Melachim, 12 1-2.
[10] See Berachot 34b.
[11] Kanarfogel does point out these views of Rambam follow his formulation in Mishneh Torah. However, in his Iggeret Teiman, he does indicate that some miracles may occur to validate his authenticity.  This may have been his view at the time of his writing the Iggeret, or he may have tried to comfort the Yemenite community in the aftermath of false messianic claims.


  1. Hi, great article. However, I do not see these two ideas as radically different from each other and believe both can encoperate the ideas of Mashiach Ben Yosef and MB Dovid as explained by the Gr'a in Sefer kol hatur. The essential explanation for Mashiach Ben Yosef is the stage of geulah which is a natural process. In a sense a "non miraculous miracle". Ie the in gathering of the exiles. Although the Rambam doesent mention this spefically, it sounds like, at least to me, he must hold of natural process as part of the stages of Geulah. Becease he sites the mane difference is "shibud malchius" complete jewish sovernty. I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Thank you

  2. Thank you. In my humble opinion, while my first reaction was also to want to reconcile both views (especially as Rambam uses the term 'yemot haMashiach' as opposed to 'olam habah' - in above-mentioned sources), perhaps as result of the style of Gemara study where reconciliation is important - However, I have adopted the approach, in matters of Hashkafa, to allow opposing views to play out freely. I believe this better represents the breadth of our divergent theologies, and I believe it supports the vital and important notion of Hashkafic choice.
    But these are just my subjective thoughts.