By Rabbi Dovid Markel
Rambam, in his Laws of Kings, writes concerning the belief in the coming of the Messianic era:
“In the future, the Messianic king will arise and renew the Davidic dynasty, restoring it to its initial sovereignty. He will build the Temple and gather the dispersed of Israel… Anyone who does not believe in him or does not await his coming, denies not only the statements of the other prophets, but those of the Torah and Moshe, our teacher.”
Rambam gives the halachik ruling that if one does not believe in the arrival of the King Moshiach (Messiah), it is considered as if they denied the Torah.
His statement though, seems perplexing, as the Talmud recounts the statement of a great sage of Israel who declared that there will be no Messiah, yet no one has ever branded him to be a heretic, G-d forbid.
The Talmud relates:
“R. Hillel said: There shall be no Messiah for Israel, because they have already devoured him in the days of Chizkiah. R. Yosef said: ‘May G-d forgive him [for saying so]. Now, when did Chizkiah flourish? During the first Temple. Yet Zechariah, prophesying in the days of the second, proclaimed, ‘Be exceedingly happy, O daughter of Tzion; Shout, O daughter of Yerushalayim. Behold! Your king shall come to you. He is just and victorious; humble, and riding a donkey and a foal, the offspring of [one of] she-donkeys.’”
R. Yosef explains that it is impossible to say that Moshiach has been “devoured” in the days of Chizkiah, as Zecharyah prophesized regarding the coming of Moshiach after the demise of Chizkiah.
While R. Yosef does discredit the statement of R. Hillel and proclaim that he is mistaken, he in no way says that R. Hillel is a heretic for saying such a thing.
Why the does Rambam proclaim that one who does not believe in Moshiach is considered to be denying the Torah?
R. Hillel’s statement
To understand Rambam’s statement it is imperative to clearly understand the meaning of R. Hillel’s statement.
Though R. Hillel said that “there shall be no Messiah for Israel,” he did not mean that there will be no era of Redemption for the Jewish people, rather, that it will not be in the manner that was assumed.
In understanding R. Hillel’s remark, there are two general explanations to the meaning of his statement:
Rashi: R. Hillel meant that there will be no King Moshiach. Instead, “the Almighty will himself redeem Israel and reign over them.”
Abarbanel: Moshiach will not come before its appointed time but will only come at the predestined moment for it.
According to both explanations R. Hillel believes in a messianic era and the statement that Moshiach has been “devoured” is not to be taken literally.
Hastened in its time
The meaning behind the explanation of Abarbanel—that R. Hillel says that Moshiach will come in its predetermined time—is the following:
The verse states regarding the time in which Moshiach will arrive: “The smallest shall become a thousand and the least a mighty nation; I am the Lord, in its time I will hasten it.”
This statement seems contradictory: Something is either in its proper time or it is hastened. How can it possibly be both?
The Talmud recounts the following to explain the verse:
“R. Alexandri said: R. Yehoshua ben Levi pointed out a contradiction. It is written, ‘in its time [will the Messiah come],’ whilst it is also written, ‘I [the Lord] will hasten it’ — if they are worthy, I will hasten it: if not, [he will come] at the due time.”
R. Yehushua ben Levi explains that there are two times that Moshiach can come. He can either arrive in an earlier time if the Jewish people repent, or he can come at a later, predetermined time if the Jewish people do not repent.
Abarbenel explains R. Hillel’s opinion that he embraces the latter statement of R. Yehoshua. R. Hillel believes that Moshiach will not come at an earlier time but will only come in the time that was pre-decided. So while he most definitely believes in Moshiach, he believes that there is no way to bring about his redemption earlier than has been predetermined.
The reason for this is because of the great miracles that occurred during the time of Chizkiyah that therefore prevent the coming of Moshiach at an earlier time.
The verse states regarding the war against the king of Assyria which transpired during Chizkiya’s reign:
“And it came to pass on that night that an angel of the Lord went out and slew one hundred eighty-five thousand of the camp of Assyria. And they arose in the morning, and behold they were all dead corpses.”
R. Hillel maintained that though the Jewish people merited a great miracle of messianic proportions, it was actually a great disservice for them, as a miracle of such magnitude greatly subtracted any of the merits that they accumulated.
Though R. Hillel believed that Moshiach will come, he believed that “there shall be no Messiah for Israel.” Meaning to say, that Moshiach will not come because of the actions of Israel but will instead come at its appointed time.
Moshiach, the person
Though according to Abarbanel R. Hillel indeed believes in the person, Moshiach, who will redeem the Jewish people, Rashi however maintains that R. Hillel stated there will be no King Moshiach, and that rather, “the Almighty will himself redeem Israel and reign over them.”
Rambam nonetheless explains, that one must not only believe in the Redemption but in Moshiach, the individual. Moshiach, according to Rambam, is not merely a utopian era of physical and spiritual delight, it is a time where monarchy will return to the people of Israel and it will be this monarch who will bring about all of the messianic events.
He states: “Anyone who does not believe in him or does not await his coming, denies not only the statements of the other prophets, but those of the Torah and Moshe, our teacher.”
It is clear from Rambam that even if a person believes in the time of the Redemption, but not in the person who will bring about the redemption, it is nevertheless considered as if he denies the Torah.
The attestation that Moshiach will indeed be an individual can be seen in the proof that Rambam brings for the messianic era:
“Reference to Mashiach is… made in the portion of Bilaam who prophesies about two anointed kings: the first anointed king, David, who saved Israel from her oppressors; and the final anointed king who will arise from his descendants and save Israel in the end of days.”
From the statement of Bilaam—which speaks of two kings—it is clear that moshiach is not only a time period but a person as well. When someone denies the belief in moshiach, he is therefore denying the accuracy of Bilaam’s prophecy which is recorded in the Torah and is therefore considered as if they had denied the truth of the Torah.
Why, though, should the negation of the King Moshiach be considered heresy if this is indeed the belief of R. Hillel?!
Before and after
To answer this question, R. Moshe Sofer explains in his work titled Chassam Sofer, that while in R. Hillel’s time it would not be considered heresy to believe that there is no Moshiach, in our time it is.
The Chassam Sofer explains that Halacha is not static and something that an action that once was lauded can transform—through halachic ruling—into a forbidden act.
This is expressed in the following Talmudic statement:
“Our Rabbis taught: In R. Eliezer’s locality they used to cut timber to make charcoal for making iron on the Shabbos (for the knife to do the bris mila)… R. Yitzchak said: ‘There was one town in Palestine where they followed R. Eliezer, and they died there at the [proper] time, Moreover, the wicked State once promulgated a decree against Israel concerning circumcision, yet did not decree [it] against that town.’”
Though cutting timber is generally prohibited on Shabbos, not only were they not punished for their action but in fact they were rewarded.
However, once the law was established that such that an act was prohibited on the Shabbos, not only would their act not be rewarded but they would be receive the death penalty for violating the Shabbos. An act that was considered positive beforehand transforms into a negative one when the majority of sages rule that such an act is prohibited.
The same too, is with the belief in Moshiach:
Whereas in the time of R. Hillel, the law had yet to be established that one must believe in king Moshiach, it was possible for one to believe that Moshiach will not be a person, and nevertheless not be deemed a heretic—as R. Hillel did.
However, once the law has been established, as expressed in R. Yosef’s vehemently arguing with R. Hillel and codified by Rambam, now, if one believes that Moshiach is not an individual but only a redemptive time, he is indeed considered to be a heretic.
May we speedily merit to see the coming of King Moshiach who will usher in the era of Redemption in our times!
 See as well Rambam, Pirush HaMashinayos, Preface to Ch. 9 of Sanhedrin in his 12th axiom of faith.
 Sanhedrin, 99a
 Zecharia, 9:9
 Ibid. See as well Chidushei HaRan that explains R. Hillel’s statement in a similar manner.
 Rosh Amana, Ch. 14
 Yeshaya, 60:22
 Sanhedrin 98a
 II Melachim 19:35
 See there that R. Yosef’s argument was that the prophet was encouraging the Jews to repent so that Moshiach would come earlier. It is therefore clear that Moshiach can indeed come before its appointed time, unlike the view of R. Hillel.
 Laws of Kings, 11:1
 According to Rashi
 Yora Deah, 356. See as well Radvaz, 1258, that explains that a mistake that one makes in analysis does not cause that the person should be considered a heretic as it is considered an honest mistake.
 One can explain that R. Hillel would explain that the prophecy of Bilaam will not come about because of the sins of the Jewish people. See Likutei Sichos, Vol 34, Pg. 119, FN 42.
 Shabbos, 130a
 The rest of the sages tacitly agree to R. Yosef as well this is expressed throughout the Talmud that all sages in the Talmud discuss the coming of Moshiach as a person besides R. Hillel.