We live in a world where animal sacrifice is alien, a relic of a primitive past. The perspective challenges Jews, whose prayers hope for a third Temple, with its sacrificial service. Some uncomfortable with the idea take solace in a passage in Rambam’s Guide (III;32). Rambam says Gd sometimes chose to wean people of a practice to which they were too attached to quit cold turkey. It sounds like he means once we were weaned from it, we would not need it anymore.
Obviously, the idea implies Torah law could change, a concept he vigorously rejected in Mishneh Torah, his halachic work. Sacrifice thus becomes a prime test of our view of the relationship between the two works, whether Rambam would assert as fact in Mishneh Torah an idea he in truth rejected. In the Introduction to the Guide, Rambam says an author sometimes contradicts himself because he does not wish to reveal the whole of his perspective to those unready for it. A segment of his readers (throughout the centuries) have assumed Rambam was telling us he is willing to lie, to write claims he himself does not accept, so as to cushion those who could not take his true perspective.
I am not going to do justice to the longstanding debates over those broad issues. Here, I aim to share two pieces of information that I think support the view Rambam did think sacrifice would return, calling us to think carefully about why Gd would institute sacrifice as a permanent element of Jewish observance.
My teacher R. Aharon Lichtenstein, z”l, once told me his brother-in-law suggested Rambam did not mean to give the reason for mitzvot at the end of the Guide, but a reason. At the time, I did not know which of his brothers-in-law he meant, later realized it was Prof. Yitzhak Twersky, z”l, with whom I also had the good fortune to study.
Prof. Twersky pointed out the end of the third part of Rambam’s Guide gives reasons for all the mitzvot to make the point there are such reasons. It is part of Rambam’s interest in showing the Torah is wise in a way any rational human being can appreciate (it is how he understood the message of Devarim 4;6, where Moshe Rabbenu says the Torah will lead other nations to consider the Jewish people wise and insightful. For Rambam, they will only have that feeling about the Jewish people if they can appreciate the are rationales for mitzvot, and he set out to give them.)
Prof. Twersky felt it plausible Rambam had no intention of giving the only reason, only giving an understandable one. There might be others, too, ones that would come into play in a rebuilt Temple.
Two surprising choices of Rambam’s in writing the Mishneh Torah seem to me to support the idea. First, he set himself the task of writing a legal code encompassing all of Jewish law, including the laws of sacrifice, the only writer to successfully do so since the time of the Mishnah. Why would Rambam spend time and effort on an area of law he thinks had become obsolete?
Those certain of Rambam’s disbelief in future sacrifice have answers to that question, but I think a passage in Laws of Kings 11;1 clinches the issue. Coming to the end of his work, Rambam spends two chapters on the Messianic era. To open the discussion, he says Mashiah will restore the Davidic kingship, rebuild the Temple, and gather all Jewish exiles (I am not interested here in the order in which he thinks it will happen).
Then he says all the laws of old will return, sacrifices will be offered, and Shemittah and Yovel (the laws of sabbatical and Jubilee years) will return, and goes on from there. The example is arresting, because had he skipped it, there is no reason for anyone to have noticed (and therefore no reason to say he put it in to avoid suspicion). Had Rambam said Mashiah would rebuild the Temple and restore Shemittah and Yovel, we would have assumed he meant sacrifice, too—it was one of the main functions of the Temple—but he wouldn’t have said it.
When he throws it in where it isn’t needed, it tells me he meant it. Leaving us to find rationales for sacrifice still meaningful in our modern era. A big job, but not the task I set myself here, where I just wanted to convince you Rambam did think sacrifice would return, whatever else you may have heard to the contrary.