What is the role of Elijah the Prophet (Eliyahu HaNavi) in bringing the Messianic Era?

The Second Holy Temple

The Coming Of The Prophet Eliyahu

This translation is an adapted version of a Chassidic discourse by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, on 10th Shevat, 5747. The Hebrew original appeared at the time as Siyum HaRambam, MiSichos Yud Shvat 5747. Published in English in the book “I Await His Coming Every Day“. (Presented here with permission of the publisher: Sichos in English, Brooklyn, NY. )

A Prophet Will Arise

Describing the Era of the Redemption, Rambam [Maimonides] writes: [1]

The simple meaning of the words of the prophets appears to imply that the War of Gog and Magog [2] will take place at the beginning of the Messianic Age. Before the War of Gog and Magog, a prophet will arise to rectify Israel’s conduct and prepare their hearts [for the Redemption], as it is written: [3] “Behold, I am sending you Eliyah[u] [4] [the prophet, before the advent of the great and awesome Day of G-d].”

He will not come [in order] to declare the pure, impure, nor to declare the impure, pure; nor [will he come in order] to disqualify the lineage of those presumed to be of flawless descent, nor to validate lineage which is presumed to be blemished. Rather, [he will come in order] to establish peace in the world; as [the above prophecy] continues, [5] “He will bring back the hearts of the fathers to the children.”

Some of the Sages say that Eliyahu will appear [immediately] before the coming of Mashiach [the true Messiah, descended from kings David and Solomon].

Difficulties in Rambam’s Wording

There are two difficulties in the wording chosen by Rambam in the above halachah (Torah Law).

  1. The first becomes obvious from a comparison with the following halachah:[6] During the Era of the King Mashiach… the entire [nation’s] line of descent will be established on the basis of his words…. He will define the lineage of the Israelites according to their tribe alone; i.e., he will make known each person’s tribal origin, stating that “This one is from one tribe” and “This one is from another tribe.” However, concerning a person who is presumed to be of unblemished lineage, he will not state that “He is illegitimate,” or “He is of slave lineage,” for the law rules that once a family has become intermingled [within the entire Jewish people], they may remain intermingled. [7] Thus, in regard to Mashiach, Rambam writes that “he will not state” whether a person’s lineage is blemished or not, while in regard to Eliyahu, Rambam writes that “he will not come [in order] … to disqualify….” Why does Rambam include the words “come to”? Would it not have been appropriate to use the same expression that was used in regard to Mashiach?
  1. The second difficulty concerns Rambam’s mention of the time Eliyahu will appear. He cites two opinions: one, that Eliyahu will make his appearance in the initial days of the Era of the Redemption, even before the War of Gog and Magog, and one that Eliyahu will appear immediately before the coming of Mashiach.[8]On the surface, since both opinions agree in regard to the purpose of Eliyahu’s coming, namely, to “establish peace in the world,” the sequence within the halachah appears problematic. First, Rambam cites one opinion concerning the time at which Eliyahu will come; he then describes the purpose he will fulfill; and finally, he mentions a second opinion concerning the time at which he will come. Would one not expect Rambam to place side by side the two opinions concerning the time of Eliyahu’s coming, and then to conclude by describing the purpose of his coming?

When Can There Be a Difference of Opinion Among Our Sages?

These difficulties can be resolved within the context of the resolution of a problem of larger scope. According to Talmudic tradition, there cannot be a difference of opinion among the Sages over a point of fact, be it past or future.

[To explain: Whenever there is a difference of opinion among the Sages, we say, “Both these and those are the words of the living G-d.” [9] It is not that one opinion is right and the other wrong. Both opinions result from the application of sets of principles that are acceptable within Torah law. In practice, only one opinion is followed, but both positions are meaningful in the realm of divine service.

When is this explanation tenable? In regard to a difference of opinion over a particular law or practice. In regard to an event which happened in the past or which will happen in the future, there cannot be two opinions. The event transpired – or will transpire – as it actually did or will. This is a fact concerning which there can only be one correct opinion.]

It would thus seem that the time of Eliyahu’s arrival cannot be a subject for debate among the Sages, for this difference of opinion concerns a fact, albeit one which has not taken place.

Analyzing Rambam’s Source

A similar question arises concerning the mishnah [10] from which Rambam derives his conception of the purpose for Mashiach’s coming:

Rabbi Yehoshua declared: “I have received a tradition from Rabban Yochanan be Zakkai, who heard from his master, who in turn received from his master the halachah conveyed to Moshe on [Mount] Sinai – that Eliyahu will not come to declare the [lineage of those families which is in doubt] as pure or impure, nor to have them included [among the families whose lineage is accepted as pure] or excluded [from them]. [He will come] to exclude those [families] whose lineage had been accepted by force and to include those [families] whose lineage had been rejected by force….”

Rabbi Yehudah states: “[Eliyahu will come] to include a family whose lineage had been rejected by force, but not to exclude those [families] whose lineage had been accepted by force.”

Rabbi Shimon states: “[He will come] to heal dissension.” The Sages state: “[He will come] not to include nor to exclude [families], but rather to establish peace, as it is written, ‘Behold, I am sending you Eliyah(u) the prophet…. He will bring back the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to their fathers.’ ”

It is the view of the Sages that Rambam adopts as the halachah.

Clarifying Rambam’s Interpretation

This teaching presents a difficulty. In the introduction to his Commentary to the Mishnah, Rambam explains that the term, “a halachah conveyed to Moshe on [Mount] Sinai,” implies a tradition accepted universally without debate. If so, since the purpose of Eliyahu’s coming derives from “a halachah conveyed to Moshe on [Mount] Sinai,” how can the Sages differ on it?

In his commentary on the above-quoted mishnah, Rambam addresses himself to this question and explains:

A precise statement to this effect was not heard from our teacher Moshe. In general terms, however, Moshe informed the Jewish people about the coming of Mashiach, as is explicitly stated in the Torah, for example in the following passages: “If your scattered remnants are in the furthest reaches of the heavens…,” [11] and “G-d, your L-rd, will bring back your captivity….” [12] He also told them… that [Mashiach’s] arrival will be preceded by the appearance of a person who will prepare the ground for him. This person will be Eliyahu. He will neither add to the Torah nor detract from it, but will eliminate wrongdoing. On this matter there is no difference of opinion…. There is, however, a difference of opinion concerning the particular kinds of wrongdoing that Eliyahu will eliminate, [and to this question various Sages address themselves].

Rambam’s explanation, however, is incomplete. Although he has resolved the difficulty about a difference of opinion concerning “a halachah conveyed to Moshe on [Mount] Sinai,” the above mishnah is still problematic, since the difference of opinion between the Sages concerns a fact, i.e., the nature of the tasks which Eliyahu will undertake.

The Dual Nature of Eliyahu’s Functions

The above questions can be resolved by drawing the following distinction. There are two types of activities to be undertaken by Eliyahu:

  1. those that reflect his function in preparing the world for Mashiach’s coming;
  2. those that reflect his individual service of G-d. Just as he was involved in many significant activities (prophecies to Ahab, the confrontation with the false prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel, and so on) as described in the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) [14] and in the Midrashim, he will again be active in various ways when he reappears before Mashiach’s arrival. These activities, however, will not be part of his function in eliminating wrongdoing in the world in preparation for the ultimate Redemption.

The Purpose of Eliyahu’s Coming

Based on the above, we can appreciate the nature of the difference of opinion in the mishnah cited above. The Sages all agree that the prophet Eliyahu will carry out all the activities mentioned in the mishnah. The question is: What will he come to do? I.e., what is the purpose of his coming? What kinds of wrongdoing or confusion must be eliminated so that the world will be prepared for the Redemption?

Thus several of the Sages maintain that this preparation requires that the familial lineage of the Jewish people be clarified. The final opinion cited by the Mishnah, that of the Sages, agrees that Eliyahu will also deal with these questions, but does not consider this to be the purpose of his coming. Why, then, will Eliyahu come? “To bring about peace in the world.”

Rambam accepts this latter view. This is why he writes that “He will not come to declare the pure, impure….” He cannot say that Eliyahu will not declare the pure, impure, because in particular situations he will in fact make such declarations. This, however, does not represent the purpose of his coming. That purpose is – “to bring about peace in the world.”

Resolving the Above Difficulties

In this context, we can also resolve the difficulty concerning Rambam’s statements regarding the time of Eliyahu’s coming. There are Sages who maintain that even Eliyahu’s efforts to eliminate wrongdoing and to bridge the gap between fathers and sons, thus bringing peace to the world, are part of his individual achievements and do not reflect his mission in preparing the world for Mashiach’s coming. Seen in this light, his function is solely to herald Mashiach’s coming; as Rashi states, [14] “Before the son of David comes, Eliyahu will come to announce …”

Thus we can understand the order of the statements in this passage. First Rambam states that Eliyahu will arise before the War of Gog and Magog. At this time he will make significant endeavors to uplift and refine the Jewish people. This is an explicit prophecy – “Behold, I am sending you Eliyah[u] the prophet, before the advent of the great and awesome Day of G-d” – and therefore accepted as a fact by all the Sages.

Secondly, Rambam paraphrases the Mishnah’s description of the purpose of Eliyahu’s coming, namely, to eliminate wrongdoing. In this regard he cites the Sages who speak of Eliyahu’s function in bringing about peace – “bringing back the hearts of the fathers to the children…,” as the above-mentioned prophecy continues.

Finally, Rambam mentions another opinion among the Sages which considers Eliyahu’s endeavors in the cause of peace as one matter, and his function in regard to the Redemption (namely, to herald the coming of Mashiach) as something separate and unique. And to fulfill that latter function, Eliyahu will come – i.e., at this point the purpose of his appearance within the context of the Redemption will be fulfilled – immediately before Mashiach.

Bringing Mashiach by Spreading Peace

In the final analysis, Eliyahu’s endeavors to establish peace among the Jewish people are clearly interrelated with his heralding of Mashiach’s arrival. For peace, unity, and brotherly love are the means of hastening the coming of the Redemption. Our Sages teach that the exile was caused by unwarranted hatred. [15] Undoing the cause of the exile, hatred, will thus erase its effect, the exile itself.

The harmony introduced by Mashiach will strike waves throughout the world at large, as Rambam writes: [16]

He will then perfect the entire world, [motivating all the nations] to serve G-d together, as it is written, [17] “I will make the peoples pure of speech so that they will all call upon the Name of G-d and serve Him with one purpose.”

Ultimately, writes Rambam, as the climax to the entire Mishneh Torah: [18]

The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G-d…, as it is written, [19] “For the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d as the waters cover the ocean bed.”

Footnotes:

[1] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 12:2.

[2] Ezekiel ch. 38.

[3] Malachi 3:23.

[4] The name of the prophet is occasionally spelled, as in this verse, without the final Hebrew letter vav.

[5] Malachi 3:24.

[6] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 12:3.

[7] Tractate Kiddushin.

[8] From Tractate Eruvin, the source for the second opinion, it appears that Eliyahu will appear only one day before Mashiach’s coming, while according to the first opinion, which is based on the conclusion of Tractate Eduyos, he will appear a considerable time before Mashiach, and work to prepare the world to accept him.

[9] Tractate Eruvin.

[10] The conclusion of Tractate Eduyos.

[11] Deuteronomy 30:4.

[12] Ibid., v. 3.

[13] I Kings 17:1 and following. Eruvin 43b.

[14] Tractate Eruvin.

[15] Tractates Yoma and Gittin.

[16] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 11:4.

[17] Zephaniah 3:9.

[18] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 12:5.

[19] Isaiah 11:9.

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