Which Comes First, the Messiah or the Temple?
The Messiah and the Temple
For many, the anticipation towards the building of the Holy Temple is linked to the arrival of the messiah. For under the harsh conditions of the exile, it had always simply been assumed that there could be no other way of returning to Israel and rebuilding the Temple. How else would the circumstances that would permit the rebuilding come about, the people believed, short of "Divine Intervention" and the messiah's appearance on the scene?
Messiah in Biblical Sources
Let us begin by examining the Biblical foundation for the concept of messiah. We find that the concept of messiah first appears in the prophecy of Bilaam: "There shall come a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel" (Numbers 24:17).
The Hebrew word used here for scepter, shevet, is translated into Aramaic as "messiah."
The idea of "messiah" is described in the various writings of the prophets with varying attributes.
In the book of Daniel, he is described as one who arrives with the clouds of heaven. "I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like a son of man came with the clouds of heaven... " (Daniel 7:13).
However, in Zechariah (9:9), the messiah is described as "lowly, riding upon an ass."
Our sages understand this seeming contradiction to indicate that both visions are essentially correct - and that anything is possible. Perhaps when the messiah arrives, grandeur and splendor will accompany his appearance. Alternatively, perhaps he will come in a quiet and unassuming fashion. The Talmud indicates that much of this depends upon Israel: If they are deemed worthy and deserving, he will arrive in a grand manner to befit their status; if not, the opposite is true (Sanhedrin 98:A).
The Definition of Messiah in Halacha (Authentic Jewish Law)
Shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jewish warrior Bar Cochba led a short-lived rebellion against the Roman occupation of the Land of Israel (80-83 CE). Maimonides describes Bar Cochba as "a great king whom all of Israel, including the great sages, were convinced was the messiah" (Hilchot Ta'aniot Ch. 5, Hilchot Melachim Ch. 11). In fact, one of the reasons that the solemn fast of Tisha B'Av (the ninth of Av) was instituted - in addition to the destruction of the Holy Temple - was to commemorate Bar Cochba's downfall.
This is crucial to a proper understanding of the role of the messiah. From Maimonides' words, we understand that Bar Cochba's attempt to restore the kingdom to Israel and return the nation to its land is clearly defined by Jewish law as a messianic manifestation. Thus a fast was decreed for all generations to mourn the failure of this process. In other words, the attempts of Bar Cochba had messianic potential.
Similarly, the prophet Zechariah indicates that it is proper to rejoice over any messianic manifestation, even if it only exists on a small scale, or in potential.
"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O daughter of Jerusalem;
behold, your king comes to you...
humble, and riding upon an ass."
In the Second Temple era, the nation did indeed rejoice with their return to the land, in spite of the fact that it was a very modest return. It was administered by a government of chieftains, Ezra and Nehemiah... and the messiah had not returned. Under these modest circumstances, the verse borrows the word "messiah" and uses it to describe, of all people - Cyrus, king of Persia, who authorized the building of the Temple. In this regard the verse in Isaiah states: "Thus says the L-rd to His messiah, to Cyrus" (Isaiah 45:1).
The Performance of the Torah's Commandments Does Not Depend Upon the Messiah
There are no Biblical verses that make a connection between the building of the Holy Temple and the arrival of the messiah. The building of the Holy Temple is a commandment that is binding upon all of Israel to fulfill, in every generation.
But it must be noted that there is a difference between the commandments that Israel are obliged to perform, and the prophecies referring to the appearance of the messiah. The prophecies are a Divine promise; a heavenly revelation concerning the appearance of the redeemer in the end of days.
Nothing can ever change that Divine promise. However it is important to understand that the arrival of the messiah is not dependent on anything other than the will of G-d alone. He shall fulfill His promise at the time that He deems fit.
In fact, if there really is a question as to "Which comes first, the messiah or the Temple," there seems to be ample indication that the building of the Holy Temple will precede the messiah's arrival. Various Biblical verses and statements made by the great sages prove this. This is actually the opinion of Maimonides, who quotes an astounding verse from the prophecy of Malachi (3:1) in his classic Letter to Yemen:
"For suddenly the master whom you are seeking will come to his sanctuary."
It appears that this prophecy, referring to the arrival of the messiah, specifies that he will indeed arrive at the already built Temple.
One of the most important foundations of Jewish faith is the belief that the commandments of the Torah are applicable, and indeed must be fulfilled, at all times and under all circumstances. They are to be performed without engaging in speculation as to when the messiah will arrive. An entire verse in the book of Deuteronomy is dedicated to this: "The secret things are for the L-rd our G-d, and that which has been revealed - they are for us and for our children, forever, to perform all of the words of this Torah" (29:28).
Maimonides expresses scorn for those individuals who would nullify certain commandments of the Torah and not fulfill them, saying that they will wait for the messiah to arrive first:
"Those people who convince themselves that they will remain [in exile where they cannot perform the commandments] until the king, the messiah arrives, and then they will all go to Jerusalem... they are not only fooling themselves, but they are causing others to sin as well... because there is no fixed set time for the messiah to arrive... but the obligation of our religion and the commandments is not dependant on the arrival of the king, the messiah. Rather, it is our duty to be occupied with the Torah and commandments, doing our best to fulfill them. After we have seen to our obligations, if G-d finds us worthy... to see the messiah, then good. But if not - we have lost nothing, and we have fulfilled our obligation."
(Maimonides, Letter on Religious Persecution)
Thus, it certainly stands to reason that the Third Temple could be rebuilt today in Jerusalem even before the messiah arrives. This would concur precisely with the opinion of the sages of Israel recorded in the Jerusalem Talmud:
"The Holy Temple will in the future be re-established before the establishment of the kingdom of David."
(Ma'aser Sheni 29)
In the same way, the builders of the Second Temple did not wait for the messiah to arrive. They simply began the construction, regardless of their destitution and foreign domination.
Similarly, several attempts were made to rebuild the Temple, throughout history. These attempts were based on Maimonides' important principle, "the obligation of the commandments is not dependent upon the arrival of the messiah."
We can also find other indications throughout rabbinic literature that the messiah will appear to a generation that has already built the Temple. For example, in the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni (Isaiah 499) it is stated: "Our rabbis taught: when the messiah arrives, he will stand on the roof of the Holy Temple, and shout out to Israel: 'Humble ones! The time of your redemption is at hand!'"
In this scene, the messiah arrives to declare to his people Israel that the promised and long-awaited redemption has arrived... and Israel meets him in the Holy Temple.
At the same time, we also understand that in the event Israel has not yet built the Temple by the time the messiah arrives, one of his duties will be to instruct them to do so. It is to this scenario that Maimonides refers when he states in his "Laws of Kings:"
"In the future the messiah king will arrive... and build the Temple... and all the laws will be reinstituted as in former days; sacrifices will be brought, and the sabbatical and jubilee year records will be adhered to as specified in the Torah... and he will see to it that all of Israel follow these laws."
If Israel does not fulfill the commandment to build the Holy Temple as the returning Babylonian exiles did, then it will be done under the directive of the messiah, who will instruct the entire nation to rise up and rebuild it as in the past. But nowhere is Israel instructed to wait for him for the rebuilding! Thus Maimonides begins his "Laws of the Temple" with these words:
"It is a positive commandment to erect a Temple for the L-rd, ready for the performance of the sacrificial offerings, to where the festive pilgrimage is directed three times a year... "
In summary: it is much easier to wait for the messiah, and thus, "put the blame on him," then to take the responsibility for ourselves, for our lives, for our actions. But a careful Biblical analysis and study will reveal that waiting for the messiah's arrival to begin rebuilding the Temple is just a convenient excuse.
There is no question about the fact that at the time G-d wills it, the messiah will arrive. This a great promise that He made, and nothing can happen that will change that. But this has nothing to do with our obligations to G-d! Those also do not change! The messiah's job is not to come and tell us, "Now, it is time for you to fulfill this or that particular commandment." For the commandments are always to be fulfilled by Israel, at all times, to the best of our ability.