Avraham’s Prophecy

Question #1: Vayeira

How could Avraham Avinu attend to his guests if he was in the midst of a prophetic trance?

Question #2: Kesuvim

What is the difference between Nevi’im and Kesuvim?

Question #3: Tehillim

Is Tehillim prophetic?

Parshas Vayeira

Parshas Vayeira begins with Hashem appearing to Avraham. When a navi, Avraham included, receives a prophecy, he is in a prophetic trance or a dreamlike state, as we will see later in the words of the Rambam regarding prophecy. Yet, the very next posuk has Avraham seeing travelers, racing out to invite them into his tent, cooking and serving them a meal, and carrying on conversation with them. How could he do this if he was in the middle of having a prophetic vision?

The answer to this question involves a dispute among rishonim. According to Rashi, the Ramban, the Ritva and the vast majority of rishonim, it seems that receiving a prophecy did not preclude Avraham Avinu from requesting permission of Hashem to leave his prophetic state in order to attend to the visitors. This is explained by Chazal as: Gedolah hachnasas orchim mei’hakbolas penei ShechinaBringing in guests is greater than receiving the Divine presence (Shabbos 127a; Shavuos 35b). This is based on the observation of what Avraham did. This should seem similar to someone who is on the telephone with “The Rosh Yeshivah (or “The Boss”) and says to Him, “Can G-d please hold the telephone line for a moment; I have guests to entertain!” This may sound strange to us – is it not greater to receive Hashem’s presence than to receive common people?

The answer is that it is more important that we emulate what Hashem does — in this case, make sure that wanderers have a place to rest, wash and eat (and, if necessary, sleep), all of which reflects what Hashem does for the entire world daily — than it is to receive communication from Hashem on the level that a prophet does.

On the other hand, the Rambam has a very different way of understanding what happened, which I will explain after the following introduction:

Levels of prophecy

According to the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 2:44), there are twelve different levels of prophecy:

Levels 1 and 2 are different levels of ruach hakodesh, which the Rambam considers on a lower level than prophecy, and which I will soon explain in more detail.

Levels 3-11 are various degrees of prophecy. It is unnecessary for us to explore every category in this gamut of qualities of prophecy to explain our topic. We simply need to understand that these are different types of Divine experience that the Rambam includes under the general heading of prophecy.

Level 12 is the highest level of prophecy, which was achieved only by Moshe Rabbeinu, and is based on the Torah’s description (Bamidbar 12:6-8) that Hashem communicates with other prophets in visions and riddles, whereas Hashem speaks to Moshe in regular conversation. As the Rambam explains, Moshe is the father of all prophets, both of those who preceded him and those who succeeded him. Other prophets receive their prophecy when they are asleep or in a trance, when their physical senses are inactive;  Moshe could receive a prophecy while awake. Other prophets see symbolic images or allegories; Moshe needed no metaphors. Moshe was able to receive words of prophecy and remain fully composed. Other prophets can only wait and hope to receive a vision; only Moshe could initiate a dialogue with Hashem (Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah 7:6; Commentary to Mishnah, Sanhedrin, Chapter 10).

Ruach hakodesh

(1) Divine assistance

At this point, I am going to explain the first level, as I promised above. According to the Rambam, most of the passages in Tanach in which it says “and the Ruach of Hashem came upon” or enveloped someone mean that the individual received Divine assistance to achieve something that he would, otherwise, probably have been unable to accomplish on his own. The Rambam implies that the individual may not even realize that he has been the beneficiary of special Divine involvement. Among the many personalities in Tanach who achieved ruach hakodesh are Yosef, Shimshon, Shaul and the many shoftim. The Rambam explains that this was the level that Moshe Rabbeinu had achieved before his first prophecy at the Burning Bush.

This level is not true prophecy, which is receiving a communication from Hashem; nor does it necessarily effect a permanent change in the individual receiving this Divine blessing, again unlike true prophecy in which the prophet now feels a qualitative difference in his own spirituality that remains with him for the rest of his life.

Many authorities accept fully this approach of the Rambam, including theRadak (in the introduction to his commentary on Tehillim) and the Abarbanel (in his commentaries to Tanach and Moreh Nevuchim).

(2) Higher Ruach hakodesh

There is a higher level of ruach hakodesh, in which the individual is aware that he has received a Divine gift that allows him to accomplish more than he would otherwise have been able to. This higher level of ruach hakodesh enabled Dovid Hamelech to compose Tehillim, Shelomoh Hamelech to write Mishlei, Koheles and Shir Hashirim, and Daniel, Mordechai, Esther and others to write all the works that we call Kesuvim. This was also the level achieved by Eldad and Meidad, when they foretold the future (Bamidbar 11:26-27), and by the kohanim gedolim, when they requested advice or direction from the Urim Vetumim. It is noteworthy that the Rambam places Eldad and Meidad in this category, notwithstanding that the posuk says that they prophesied (misnabe’im).

While receiving this Divine gift, Dovid, Shelomoh, Daniel and the others retained full possession of their senses, which is why the Rambam explains that this is not true nevuah, in which a prophet reaches a state of trance. With this approach, the Rambam explains the passage of the Gemara wherein it states that Chaggai, Zecharyah and Malachi were prophets, although Daniel, who was not a prophet, perceived more than they did (Megillah 3a; Sanhedrin 94a). Daniel did not achieve the level of true prophecy, but his accomplishments in ruach hakodesh enabled him to foresee more than Chaggai, Zecharyah and Malachi did with their prophecy.

The Rambam does not consider Dovid, Shelomoh and Daniel to be true prophets, but to have received a high level of ruach hakodesh. This does not in any way demean these great Torah leaders of their spiritual genius and accomplishments. It is simply a definition of forms and levels of prophecy that different great Torah leaders achieved.

Other rishonim, such as Rashi (Megillah 14a), disagree with the Rambam and consider Dovid, Shelomoh and Daniel to be true prophets, and, presumably, also place Eldad and Meidad in the same category.

Kesuvim

At this point, we can answer the second of our opening questions: “What is the difference between Nevi’im and Kesuvim?” In other words, why did Chazal divide the non-Torah parts of Tanach into two sections, one called “Nevi’im” and the other called “Kesuvim?” According to the Rambam, the words of Nevi’im were received as prophecy (levels 3-11), whereas the words of the Kesuvim were received in ruach hakodesh. In the instances where the same person wrote seforim both in Nevi’im and Kesuvim, such as Yirmiyohu, who wrote the book of Nevi’im that bears his name, the book of Melachim, which is also in Nevi’im, and also Megillas Eicha, which is part of Kesuvim (Bava Basra 15a; Mo’ed Katan 26a), the book that is in Kesuvim was written with ruach hakodesh, whereas the books in Nevi’im were written with prophecy (Commentary of Abarbanel to Moreh Nevuchim).

Since Rashi understands that Dovid, Shelomoh and Daniel were prophets, and presumably is of the opinion that the books of Kesuvim are also written with prophecy, he cannot accept the Rambam’s approach to explain the difference between Nevi’im and Kesuvim. There are many other answers to explain what is the difference between Nevi’im and Kesuvim. In the work, Ohel Rivkah, by Rabbi Yitzchak Sender, several approaches to this question are quoted (pages 133-139).

(3-11) The words of the prophets

Levels numbered three through eleven of the Rambam are different intensities of prophecy (Moreh Nevuchim 2:44). Prophecy can be received either in a vision or in a dream. The prophet may perceive that Hashem is speaking to him, or that he is receiving communication via an angel, whom he might see and/or hear. He might hear and see a human or an unusual being talking to him, or he may hear only a voice or a series of different voices. It might even be a voice of someone who is familiar to him, such as when Shemuel heard what he thought was the voice of Eili (Shemuel I, Chapter 3). A prophet might receive a message that is meant only for his own erudition and growth, but not to be communicated to others, or he might receive a message that is meant to be told to others, as we see numerous times in Chumash and Navi (Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah 7:7). A prophet may receive a vision that is anywhere among these levels. The fact that he once received a more intense level of prophecy does not mean that his future prophecies will be as intense.

In the Rambam’s opinion, when the Torah describes, in parshas Shoftim: “A prophet from among you, from your brothers, like me (Moshe), will Hashem, your G-d, establish for you. You shall listen to him…. Then, Hashem said to me… ‘I will establish for you a prophet from among your brothers, like you, and I will put My words in his mouth – everything that I will command him’” (Devorim 18: 15-18), it is not referring to someone who received ruach hakodesh, but to someone who received true prophecy. Therefore, although the Torah prescribes a stern sentence for someone who pays no attention to the admonition of a prophet, that punishment does not apply to someone who ignored a message received through ruach hakodesh.

Two prophets

The Midrash teaches that ein shenei nevi’im misnabe’im besignon echod, two prophets will never prophesy using the exact same words (Pesikta and Midrash Seichel Tov, parshas Va’eira 9:14). This is because a prophet saw a vision, which he later describes. Each prophet still maintains his own personality and upbringing that is reflected when he describes what he saw. Since no two people have the same personality, no two people — not even prophets who see the same Divine vision — will describe what they saw using the exact same words.

Profitable prophet

The Rambam explains: “Prophecy is bestowed only to a very wise talmid chacham who is in total control of his personality traits. Prophecy can be achieved only by someone whose yetzeir hora never controls him – rather, he is in control of his yetzeir hora always.

Once he is filled with all these qualities, particularly tremendous and correct understanding, and he is physically complete and healthy, he may begin studying the deeper aspects of Torah. When he is drawn by these deep subjects, his great understanding must be channeled to becoming sanctified and to continue to grow spiritually. At this point, he separates himself from the ways of common people who follow the darkness of the time, and, instead, this individual constantly grows and spurs himself onward. He teaches himself to control his thoughts so as not to think of things that have no value. Rather, his thoughts should always be engaged with the Throne of Hashem, in his attempts to understand holy and pure ideas.… When the spirit of Hashem rests upon him, his soul becomes mixed with that of the angels… and he becomes a new person who understands that he is no longer the same as he was before, but that he has become elevated beyond the level of other talmidei chachomim”(Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah 7:1).

In the Rambam’s opinion, while achieving true prophecy, every prophet, with the exception of Moshe Rabbeinu, goes into a trance. The nine different levels of prophecy that the Rambam describes in Moreh Nevuchim represent lesser or greater, clearer or more opaque communication from Hashem, but they are all in visions, allegories or dreams.

The intent of the prophecy is clear

It is clear to the prophet what message is intended, and he will be able afterward to explain, in his own words, what he envisioned and what was the message. Even after the prophetic experience has dissipated, the prophet has become a changed person who will live with this experience the rest of his life. This was the level of prophecy of the avos, Yehoshua, anyone whom the posuk calls a navi, and all authors of the books of Nevi’im.

Parshas Vayeira

Now that we understand a bit about how the Rambam categorizes the various levels of prophecy, we are faced with a conundrum regarding the first two pesukim of parshas Vayeira. In the first posuk, Hashem appears to Avraham, while he is sitting at the opening of his tent. In the second posuk, Avraham sees three travelers outside, in the midday heat of the desert, and he runs to greet them; and then, the posuk describes how Avraham invited them to rest and refresh themselves. The problem facing us is that, if all prophecy, except that granted to Moshe, required that the prophet be in a state of trance, how could Avraham have even noticed the three visitors or been able to run to greet them, invite them into his house and provide them with gracious hospitality?

The Rambam’s approach is that the appearance of three men in the desert near the entrance to Avraham Avinu’s tent was the beginning of the prophecy that Avraham Avinu received. All the chesed that Avraham performed, the ensuing conversation between Avraham and Sarah, the angels visiting Lot, the riot of the men of Sodom concerning Lot’s hachnasas orchim, and Avraham’s prayers and “negotiating” with Hashem to save Sodom were all part of the prophecy. Thus, all the events of the first chapters of the parsha are included in the prophecy received by Avraham, and these are introduced with the first words, “And Hashem appeared to him.”

The Ramban, in his commentary to the beginning of parshas Vayeira, takes great issue with the Rambam’s approach. To quote the Ramban: “How can the Torah say that Hashem appeared to Avraham, when [in the details of the prophecy that follows] all he saw was [not Hashem but] three men eating meat! He has no vision or thought of Hashem! This is unlike any other prophecy. Furthermore, according to the Rambam, Sarah never kneaded dough, Avraham never prepared meat and Sarah never laughed, but it was all a vision… what could possibly be the purpose in all this as a vision? In addition, according to the Rambam, no angels ever arrived at Lot’s house; he never baked matzos for them nor did they eat in his house, for it was all a vision! If Lot had achieved prophecy to see the angels, who told the people of Sodom of the arrival of these men in his house? Did they also achieve the level of prophets? And, if indeed, this was also part of the prophecy, when did the angels urge Lot to take his wife and daughters and escape from Sodom? And how did Lot negotiate with the angels to save one city?”

The Ramban disagrees with the Rambam that seeing an angel is a form of prophecy. After all, notes the Ramban, Hagar was not a prophetess, notwithstanding that she had a conversation with an angel, or perhaps four different angels (according to Rashi). (By the way, the Rambam explains that Hagar’s conversation was with a prophet, and not with an angel [Moreh Nevuchim 2:42]. He explains that in some places in Tanach the word malach should be translated as prophet and not as angel.)

Sefer Hazikaron

We should be aware that the Ritva, known predominantly for his commentaries to Shas, authored a work called Sefer Hazikaron,whose entire purpose was to answer questions raised by the Ramban, in his commentary on Chumash, against positions taught by the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim. The Ritva was a disciple of Rabbeinu Aharon Halevi (usually abbreviated to “ReAH”), who himself was a disciple  of the Ramban. The Ritva elucidates the Rambam’s opinions and answers the questions of the Ramban, but, invariably, concludes that the Ramban’s approach should be followed. In his understanding of parshas Vayeira, the Ramban’s approach is accepted by the vast majority of rishonim, including Rashi and the Ibn Ezra. I specifically mention the Ibn Ezra because, in many places where the Rambam’s philosophic approach influences how he understands Tanach, statements of Chazal, or halacha, the Ibn Ezra is often one of his major co-travelers. However, in his interpretation of this parsha, Ibn Ezra appears to follow the main highway of exposition – that Avraham interrupted his prophetic experience with Hashem to take care of his guests, and that his conversation with Hashem resumes later in the parsha.

Tehillim

At this point, let us examine the next of our opening questions: “Is Tehillim prophetic?” Assuming that we define prophetic as that which tells about future events, it is, since Dovid sings of events that had not yet occurred in his time, such as the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, which took place 417 years after his passing, and the tragedies that happened to the Jews in its aftermath (Tehillim 74, 79). Dovid Hamelech describes the emotional reaction to the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and to finally reaching the rivers in Bavel (Tehillim 137), although these events transpired hundreds of years after his passing.

Conclusion

In Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah #424 is entitled, “Not to test a true prophet too much.” The Sefer Hachinuch explains that if a navi is subjected to excessive evaluation to prove his veracity, those jealous or otherwise pained by his success may use inadequate testing as an excuse to disobey his commandments. They might deny the prophet’s authenticity by claiming, unjustifiably, that he did not undergo enough investigation. Thus, we see that even something so obvious as the ability of a great tzadik to foretell the future can be denied by people when they don’t want to accept the truth!




The Words of the Prophets

Question #1: Just This Once

“Obviously, I never met either the Chofeitz Chayim or Rav Aryeh Levin, but there is a great tzadik in our neighborhood, a big talmid chacham and a mekubal, who is never involved in what is going on. Today, he came to me, quietly, and told me that Hashem appeared to him in a vision and instructed him to tell me that this coming Shabbos, but only this Shabbos, I am supposed to drive him somewhere in my car. Am I supposed to listen to him?”

Question #2: Untruthful Prophets?

The brocha we recite prior to reading the haftarah states ve’rotzeh be’divreihem ha’ne’emarim be’emes, that Hashem “desired the words of the prophets that are said in truth.” This brocha requires explanation: Of course, Hashem desires the words of the prophets – He was the One Who sent them the message in the first place! What does this brocha mean?

Answer:

To answer the above questions thoroughly and correctly, we need to study the entire halachic issue of prophets, beginning from the Chumash, through the Gemara, rishonim and poskim. Even if we do not happen to have a neighbor in shul who meets all the requirements of a navi, we should know these laws:

(1) From a perspective of mitzvas Talmud Torah.

(2) So that we can observe them properly when we again have the opportunity.

(3) So that we can understand the verses that are germane.

(4) A proper understanding of the thirteen ikarei emunah of the Rambam is contingent on comprehending these laws.

How prophetable?

We will start with the Torah’s discussion in parshas Shoftim about the topic:

 “You shall be wholehearted with Hashem, your G-d… A prophet from among you, from your brothers, like me (Moshe), will Hashem, your G-d, establish for you. You shall listen to him…. Then, Hashem said to me… ‘I will establish for you a prophet from among your brothers, like you, and I will put My words in his mouth – everything that I will command him. Whoever will not listen to My words that the prophet will speak in My name – I will exact punishment from him. However, any prophet who will have the audacity to speak in My name that which I did not command him to say, or any prophet who will speak in the name of foreign gods – that prophet shall surely be put to death.’ And should you ask in your heart, ‘How am I to know which statement was not said by Hashem?’ (The answer is): That which the prophet says in the name of Hashem (that it will miraculously happen) and the matter does not transpire, this is, for certain, something that Hashem never said. This prophet has violated the Torah intentionally: Do not be afraid of him.” (Devorim 18: 13, 15, 18-22).

We see in these pesukim the following laws:

A.    If a prophet demonstrates that he is, indeed, a prophet that Hashem sent, we are required to obey whatever he tells us that Hashem commanded. Based on the pesukim and some relevant passages of Gemara and halachic midrash, the Rambam (Sefer Hamitzvos) explains as follows: “Mitzvah #172 is that we were commanded to listen to every prophet and to obey what he commands, even if it contradicts a mitzvah… as long as it is temporary, not a permanent change either to add or subtract… The words of the Sifrei are ‘to him shall you listen’; even if he tells you to violate temporarily one of the mitzvos that are written in the Torah, listen to him.”

B.     Someone who does not follow the commandment of the prophet – Hashem will exact punishment from him. Chazal tell us that the punishment is quite severe.

C.     If the prophet claims to speak in Hashem’s Name and he had received no such commandment – such a “prophet” should be executed.

D.    Someone who meets all the requirements of a true prophet, but relates a prophetic vision in the name of an idol or other foreign god (anything that qualifies as avodah zarah) — this “prophet” should also be executed.

In the Rambam’s opinion, there is also another place in the Torah where this mitzvah is discussed. At the end of parshas Va’eschanan, the Torah writes, “Lo senasu es Hashem Elokeichem, do not test Hashem your G-d” (Devorim 6:16), which the Rambam explains to mean: Do not test the promises or warnings that Hashem sent to us via His prophets, by casting doubt on the veracity of a prophet after he has proven his authenticity. This mitzvah is similarly quoted by the Sefer Hachinuch, who calls this mitzvah (#424 in his count): “Not to test a true prophet more than necessary.”

This leads us to the following question: What are we to do when someone seems to have the right qualifications for a prophet, and he tells us that he received a prophetic vision? The prohibition just described is only after he has demonstrated adequately that he is, indeed, a navi. How does he prove that he is an authentic navi?

Who is prophetable?

First, we need to establish that there are pre-requisite qualifications that must be met by a navi. The Gemara (Nedarim 38a) states: “Hashem places his presence only on someone who is physically powerful, wealthy, wise and humble.” The Gemara proceeds to prove that we know these factors from the fact that Moshe Rabbeinu was physically strong enough to assemble the Mishkan on his own, and that he was extremely wealthy from the trimmings of precious stone that he collected when he chiseled out the second luchos.

The Rambam adds a few other qualities that a prophet must always exhibit: “Among the most basic concepts of religion is to know that Hashem communicates with people. Prophecy happens only to a very wise talmid chacham who is in total control of his personality traits, whose yetzer hora never controls him – rather, he is in control of his yetzer hora, always. He must also be someone with tremendous and correct understanding. Someone filled with all these qualities, who is physically complete and healthy, when he begins studying the deeper aspects of Torah and is drawn into these great topics, develops great understanding, becomes sanctified and continues to grow spiritually, separates himself from the ways of common people who follow the darkness of the time, and instead, he is constantly growing and spurring himself onward. He teaches himself to control his thoughts so as not to think of things that have no value. Rather, his thoughts should always be engaged with the ‘Throne of Hashem’, in his attempts to understand holy and pure ideas.… When the spirit of Hashem rests upon him, his soul becomes mixed with that of the angels… and he becomes a new person who understands that he is no longer the same as he was before, but that he has become elevated beyond the level of other talmidei chachamim” (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 7:1).

Net prophets

When the prophet reveals his first prophecy, the posuk that we quoted above teaches: “How am I to know which word was not said by Hashem?” (The answer is): “That which the prophet says in the name of Hashem (that it will miraculously happen) and the matter does not transpire, this is for certain something that Hashem never said.”

This posuk teaches that, in addition to having all the requisite personal qualities, a navi must foretell the future in the Name of Hashem in order to qualify as a navi. There is a dispute between Rav Sa’adiyah Gaon and the Rambam what type of “prophecy” must be demonstrated to prove that he is a prophet. According to Rav Sa’adiyah, the prophet must perform something that is supernatural, such as Moshe did when he turned water into blood, or the stick into a snake. This is because the navi, functioning as a messenger of Hashem, would have been provided by Him with a sign that only Hashem could accomplish, such as preventing water from running downhill, or stopping a heavenly body in its course (Emunos Udei’os 3:4). (This is also the opinion of the Abarbanel in parshas Shoftim.)

On the other hand, the Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 10:2) disagrees, stating:

“Any prophet who arises and says that Hashem sent him does not need to produce a sign on the level of what Moshe Rabbeinu did, or Eliyahu or Elisha, which was completely supernatural. It is sufficient that he prophesy, saying that something will happen in the future, and his words come true.… Therefore, when a man appropriate to being a navi comes… we do not tell him, ‘Let us see you split the sea, or bring the dead back to life, or anything similar, in order that we can believe you’. Rather, we tell him: ‘If you are indeed a prophet, foretell something that will happen.’ When he foretells, we then wait to see if it happens. If it does not happen, even if something small of his prophecy does not happen, we know for certain that he is a false prophet. If his words are entirely fulfilled, you should consider him to be truthful. We then proceed to check him several times; if each time his words are exactly fulfilled, we consider him a true prophet.”

According to some acharonim (Arba’ah Turei Aven), we test him three times, just as Moshe Rabbeinu was given three signs. If he meets all the requirements of a navi and foretells the future, perfectly and accurately, three times, we are required to follow what he tells us to do, and, when we do so, we accomplish the mitzvah of the Torah.

If he predicts that something will happen and it does not, we know that he is a false prophet. In any of these cases where we are not permitted to obey his words, the Sanhedrin would subject him to capital punishment as a false prophet.

Prophets on prophets

There is another way that a navi can be verified as such, without his producing a miracle or foretelling the future. If someone we already know to be a prophet testifies that an individual who meets the personal requirements of a prophet is indeed a navi, the second individual should be accepted immediately as a prophet (Rambam, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 10:5). The proof for this is that Yehoshua became accepted as a prophet on Moshe Rabbeinu’s say-so, without producing any miracles or foretelling the future. (The miracles he performed were done later, after he already had been accepted as a navi.)

Gross prophet

What is the halacha if someone who clearly does not meet the personal requirements that we have described tells us that Hashem spoke to him. Let us even assume that he foretells the future successfully, or that he performs miracles. What is the halacha?

The halacha is that he is considered a false prophet. When the batei din had the ability to carry out capital punishment, he would be executed by them. Since our batei din do not have this ability today, we can excommunicate him or banish him, to mitigate the harm he causes. This was done many times in our past, when we were confronted by false prophets. In other words, it is non-prophetable to have him among the Jewish people.

Highly prophetable

The halacha is that once he proved he is a prophet, we are required to obey him, even if he tells us to do something that is counter to a mitzvah or is usually prohibited. The two exceptions are if he tells us that he is changing something of the Torah permanently, or if tells us to violate the prohibition of avodah zarah. In either of these two situations, the Torah tells us that he is a false prophet, even if his tests were true.

Is this a prophetable venture?

At this point, we can analyze our opening question: “Obviously, I never met either the Chofeitz Chayim or Rav Aryeh Levin, but there is a great tzadik in our neighborhood, a big talmid chacham and a mekubal, who is never involved in what is going on. Today, he came to me, quietly, and told me that Hashem appeared to him in a vision and instructed him to tell me that this coming Shabbos, but only this Shabbos, I am supposed to drive him somewhere in my car. Am I supposed to listen to him?”

Let us assume that this talmid chacham/mekubal meets all the requirements that the halacha requires, as quoted above. He now needs to meet the next challenge: According to Rav Sa’adiyah and the Abarbanel, he must perform a miracle that defies nature as we know it. According to the Rambam, he must successfully predict future events several times, without a single detail varying from his description and without any incorrect prediction. If his prophecy is inaccurate even in a slight detail, he is subject to the death penalty, if Sanhedrin can carry out this ruling. Since we have no Sanhedrin today, he would be ruled as a rosho, notwithstanding his other fine qualities.

Personally, I would think that he is probably suffering from some mental illness, and I would recommend that he have a full psychiatric evaluation. I do not think that he is evil; I think that he is ill.

Prophetable brochos

At this point, let us examine our second opening question: The brocha we recite prior to reading the haftarah states that Hashem “desired the words of the prophets that are said in truth.” This brocha requires explanation: Of course, Hashem desires the words of the prophets – He was the One Who sent them the message in the first place! What does this brocha mean?

We can answer this question by realizing the following: With the exception of Moshe Rabbeinu, Hashem communicated to the prophets in a vision, not in words. The prophet, himself, put the ideas he had seen, heard and understood into his own words. It is for this reason that the Midrash teaches that ein shenei nevi’im misnabe’im besignon echad, it will never happen that two prophets recite the exact same words of prophecy (Pesikta and Midrash Seichel Tov, Parshas Va’eira 9:14). Each prophet still maintains some of his own personality and upbringing that will reflect itself in the way he describes what he saw. Yet, the final words, which are the words of the prophet, “their words,” are still “said in truth” – meaning that notwithstanding the personal imprint of the prophet on what he said, the words all convey Hashem’s absolute intent.

Conclusion

In the Sefer Hachinuch, mitzvah #424 is: “Not to test a true prophet too much.” He explains that, if we test the navi after he has adequately proved his veracity, those jealous of him or pained by his success may use excessive testing as an excuse not to listen to his commandments. In other words, they will deny his authenticity unjustifiably, by claiming that he has as yet not been tested sufficiently. Thus, we see that even something so obvious as the ability of a great tzadik to foretell the future can be denied by people, when they don’t want to accept the truth!




The Stuff of Dreams

Question #1: Which approach is best?

“I had a bad dream. Should I fast, go to the nearest Sefardi shul and pray while the kohanim are duchening, or perform the hatovas chalom ceremony?”

Question #2: Fast again?

“I was told that if someone fasts for a bad dream, he is supposed to fast again. Why?”

Question #3: Strange dreamer

“I often have strange dreams. Should I be concerned?”

Answer

This week’s parsha begins with the famous story of Pharaoh’s dreams, certainly providing an opportunity to discuss the many passages of Gemara relating to dreams.

Before we discuss these Talmudic passages, let me explain some of the ideas mentioned in the opening questions. The Gemara mentions three different solutions to guarantee that disturbing dreams have pleasant results. The first is to daven while the kohanim bless the people, the second is a procedure called hatovas chalom – literally, rectifying the dream, and the third is to fast on the day that the person wakes up with the disturbing dream.We will cite these three approaches in the course of this article.

The first question we need to address is whether one should place any weight at all on dreams. In the following passage, the Gemara itself implies that one should not:

Rav Shmuel bar Nachmeini said, quoting Rav Yonasan, “You dream at night what you think about during the daytime” (Brachos 55b). As proof, the Gemara notes that people do not dream of palm trees made of gold or of elephants climbing through the eyes of needles. Since no one thinks about these things during the day, one does not dream about them at night.

In this context, the Gemara shares the following anecdote: The emperor of Rome, in the midst of one of his wars with the Persians, asked Rabbi Yehoshua what he would dream about the coming night. Undaunted, Rabbi Yehoshua answered him, “You will dream that the Persians will be serving you as their king” (Brachos 55b). We can all guess what the emperor dreamed the following night. We call this the power of suggestion.

Thus, the Gemara’s view is that dreams should not be relied upon. A corollary of this idea is that one need not take action when one wakes with a disturbing dream. Following this approach, the Gemara quotes the prophet Zecharyah (10:2), who stated, “Dreamers speak falsehood.”

Prophetic dreams

On the other hand, both Tanach and the writings of Chazal contain numerous instances wherein dreams are taken very seriously. Let us begin with Chumash. Aside from the dreams of the officers of Pharaoh discussed in last week’s parsha, and those of Pharaoh himself this week, we have Yaakov’s dream at the beginning of parshas Vayeitzei, and those of Yosef at the beginning of parshas Vayeishev. Furthermore, in Bamidbar (12:6), Hashem tells Miriam and Aharon, regarding most prophets, “In a dream, I speak to him.” Obviously, these dreams are prophetic.

Also in Nach, we have numerous examples of prophecy occurring through dreams. In the second perek of Daniel, we are told about Nevuchadnetzar’s terrifying and forgotten dream; he tests Daniel by demanding that the latter discover and reveal it – and the dream is fulfilled. Again, we have the pasuk (Shmuel I, 28:6) which says, “And Shaul asked of Hashem, and Hashem did not answer him, not with dreams, nor with the Urim, nor with prophets.” Thus, we see that Shaul’s dreams included communication from Hashem.

In this context, the Gemara reports that dreams are one-sixtieth of prophecy (Brachos 57b). This expression means that although many aspects of a dream are fictitious or represent one’s imagination, there is a kernel of prophecy in the dream.

Moreover, an extensive discussion in the Gemara (Brachos 55b-57b) mentions numerous lessons and messages, both positive and negative, that can be derived from dreams.

The Gemara even tells us how to guarantee a good result from a dream. It states that the spoken interpretation of a dream determines its outcome (Brachos 55b), and implies that one can even pay the interpreter of the dream in order to gain a favorable consequence (Brachos 55b). This means that if someone has a dream, he can hire someone to provide a favorable interpretation, which will indeed come true as fulfillment of the dream.

In this context, Rav Binah said that in his day, there were 24 dream interpreters in Yerushalayim. “Once I had a dream, and I went to all of them and received 24 different interpretations – and all 24 interpretations happened!” According to the Maharsha, this means that all 24 approaches lay within the dream, and therefore they were all true.

The Gemara also states that one could wait up to 22 years for a good dream to be fulfilled (Brachos 55b). The proof is from Yosef, since what he dreamed when he was 17 was not fulfilled until his brothers came down to Egypt, 22 years later.

Meaningless parts

Although the main part of the dream might be prophetic, the Gemara concludes that just as all grain includes chaff, every dream includes meaningless parts (Nedorim 8a and Brachos 55a).

Dreams to motivate teshuvah

Rav Huna said that a good man never has a good dream, and a bad man never has a bad one (Brachos 55b). Rashi explains that the good person is motivated by a bad dream to do teshuvah, whereas with a good dream the bad person receives his reward in this world for the mitzvos he performed. The specific examples cited are Dovid Hamelech, who never had a good dream, and Achitofel, who never had a bad one.

Worrisome dreams

In a deep medical-psychological evaluation, the Gemara notes that a bad dream is worse for the body than receiving a brutal physical beating, because the worry about what the bad dream means harms a person in a much greater way than being beaten (Brachos 55a). This helps us understand our previous comment about dreams being used to encourage a person to do teshuvah.

Selective interpretation

A different passage of Gemara (Sanhedrin 30a) relates an event and the resultant halachic ruling. A person knew that his father had hidden money but didn’t know where his now-deceased father had placed it. A “baal hachalom” – apparently someone who either could have a prophetic dream or had the ability to interpret one – told him where the money was located, how much was there, and also that the money had the sanctity of maaser sheini, which may be used only to purchase food that must be eaten in Yerushalayim. The Gemara concludes that the heir is permitted to ignore the statement that the money is maaser sheini, notwithstanding the fact that the very same interpreter successfully located the money and named the sum! This Gemara is quoted as the final halacha by the authorities (Rif and Rosh, ad locum; Rambam, Hilchos Ma’aser Sheini 6:6). The words of the Gemara are “divrei chalomos einan ma’alin v’einan moridin – dreams are meaningless and neither help nor hinder” (Sanhedrin 30a).

The Gemara reports that when the amora Shmuel had a bad dream, he would quote the above-referenced verse of Zecharyah that dreams lie; yet, when he had a good dream, he would refer to Chumash as proof that this was a good indication. The Gemara notes that these two statements of Shmuel appear contradictory, to which the Gemara responds that it depends whether the dream was conveyed by an angel or by a demon (sheid). A dream conveyed by an angel is considered a form of prophecy, whereas one from a demon or other questionable source should be ignored. Many halachic authorities explain that when one cannot attribute the dream to an angel, this is the same as blaming it on a demon, and one may ignore the dream (see, for example, Shu”t Tashbeitz, vol. II, #128; Aruch Hashulchan, Orach Chayim 220:1).

Later dream interpretation

The Jewish literature and history involved in dream interpretation did not end with the closure of the Gemara. Some rishonim discuss other specific events that were governed by dreams, as in the following story: Some people were building a wooden coffin for a meis, and someone wanted to take a piece of leftover wood and make a harp out of it. This individual was warned by the others not to do so, but he disregarded them. The meis for whom the coffin was made came in a dream and warned him that if he persisted in making the harp, he would be punished. He ignored this admonition and made the harp. He then had another dream, in which the meis told him that if he does not break the harp, he will be in danger. This was also ignored, and the man got sick. When he became very ill, his son took the harp and broke it on the grave of that particular meis, leaving the pieces on top of the grave. After this, his father recovered (Sefer Chassidim #727).

Which dreams?

So far, we see that dreams can foretell the truth, at least in part, and can also be used to encourage someone to do teshuvah. On the other hand, we have statements in the Gemara implying that dreams can be ignored. Is there a dispute in the Gemara as to whether dreams should be interpreted or not? The Gemara’s presentation does not imply this.

Rather, the Gemara and its commentaries suggest that there are different types of dreams, some of which are simply a reflection of what one experienced during the previous day, and others that are, indeed, prophetic or potentially prophetic.

I had a dream

As I mentioned above, the Gemara has many discussions about dreams, and also provides advice on how to counteract the harm foretold by disturbing ones. The Gemara teaches that if someone had a dream that disturbed him in a major way, he should perform the procedure called hatovas chalom in the presence of three people. The hatovah is performed by asking three friends to recite together a series of statements and pesukim. The Mishnah Berurah (220:3) comments that it is a mitzvah to be one of these three people, as they give confidence to the discouraged person to move on in life. The Gemara presents the structure of hatovas chalom: It should include three verses of Tanach that mention “reversal” (meaning that they will “reverse,” or annul, the message of the dream), three that mention redemption, and three that mention peace. The Gemara proceeds to enumerate which pesukim to use (Brachos 55b). (The text of hatovas chalom is printed in many siddurim.)

The Pri Megadim and the Mishnah Berurah (220:1) comment that the criterion for hatovas chalom is not the nature of the dream but the extent to which the dreamer finds it disturbing. By the way, hatovas chalom may be performed even on Shabbos (Elyah Rabbah; Mishnah Berurah).

We should note that if the dreamer had been fasting the previous day, heard bad news or anything similar, and then had a troubling dream, he should not be concerned about the dream and no hatovas chalom is necessary (Shaar Hatziyun ad locum).

Duchening and Dreams

A second suggestion mentioned in the Gemara regarding dreams is that someone who had a dream that requires interpretation and does not know whether the dream bodes well should recite a prayer at the time of duchening (Brachos 55b; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 130:1). Some authorities prefer that one not recite this prayer while the kohanim are actually reciting the words of the duchening (see Rema, Orach Chayim 128:45; Mishnah Berurah 130:3). For this reason, Ashkenazic practice is that when the kohanim duchen on Yom Tov, they chant a tune prior to the completion of the brocha to give people the opportunity to recite the prayer. This prayer can be recited not only when one is uncertain of the interpretation of the dream, but even when one knows that the dream bodes ill (Mishnah Berurah 130:4).

In chutz la’aretz, where the practice among Ashkenazim is that bircas kohanim is recited only on Yom Tov, the minhag is that everyone recites this tefilah during the duchening on Yom Tov, as it is likely that every person had such a dream since the previous Yom Tov (Mishnah Berurah 130:1).

But since Ashkenazim in chutz la’aretz duchen only on Yomim Tovim, this suggestion does not provide an immediate solution for someone whose bad dream did not schedule itself on the night of Yom Tov. At this point, let us examine one of our opening questions: “I had a bad dream. Should I fast, go to the nearest Sefardi shul and pray while the kohanim are duchening, or perform the hatovas chalom ceremony?”

The basis of the question is that the person is an Ashkenazi in chutz la’aretz, and he does not want to wait until Yom Tov to ameliorate his dream. Thus, he is asking whether he should find a Sefardic shul where the kohanim duchen daily (even in chutz la’aretz) and say his tefillah there. I refer our reader who has this question to his rav or posek for halachic guidance.

Fasting

A third suggestion to blunt the potential damage of a disturbing dream is to fast on the day that one wakes up with the dream (Shabbos 11a). This procedure is called taanis chalom. This fast is effective in nullifying any negative outcome foretold by the dream, but only when one fasts the day immediately following the dream. Note that there is no obligation to observe this fast – it is simply a suggestion to countermand whatever bad consequence was warned about in the dream (Mishnah Berurah 220:7).

The Gemara reports that this fast may be observed even on Shabbos, although an individual who does so is then required to fast another day (sometime in the future) for having compromised the sanctity of Shabbos by fasting. Thus, although the taanis chalom, itself, is effective to protect against harm, it is still considered a violation of the sanctity of Shabbos.

We can now address the second of our opening questions: “I was told that if someone fasts for a bad dream, he is supposed to fast again. Why?”

Someone here misunderstood the law. The halacha of fasting a second time is only for someone who fasted a taanis chalom on Shabbos, and now we know the reason for the second fast.

In our day

In our day, one should not be overly concerned about dreams, both with regard to fasting and with regard to reciting hatovas chalom. This is because, as we mentioned earlier, most dreams are either a product of things that a person thinks about during the day or are due to overeating or another experience (Aruch Hashulchan, Orach Chayim 220:1, 4). Additionally, one who suffered from some pain or anguish and then had a bad dream need not be concerned, as the dream resulted from his anguish (Sha’ar Hatziyun 220:1).

One of the talmidim of the great mekubal, Rav Yaakov Hillel, told me the following: “Rav Yaakov Hillel told us many times not to pay attention to dreams. He explained that the statements of Chazal explaining the messages of dreams are significant only when they are messages from Above. Our thoughts are polluted by the media, technology, and extremely unnatural stimuli that bombard us all day. Our dreams reflect what we saw or heard during our waking hours. They might even be triggered by an ad or a newspaper headline we saw in passing. Rav Hillel tells people who come to him with disturbing dreams not to pay attention to or be bothered by them.”

One might ask: If this is so, why do we still recite the prayer while the kohanim duchen? There are several ways to resolve this question, but explaining them properly is beyond the scope of this article.

Conclusion

A dream is the first step of any new venture. We see a vision for our lives, our families, our community and the world we live in. We dream about how the world can be improved, and of the contribution that we can make.

In this context, I want to share an anecdote told about the Ponevizher Rov standing over the vacant hill and fields that today are the center of the city of Bnei Brak. Upon hearing the Rov’s visions of the future that would be there, someone turned to him and said, “The Rov is dreaming.” The Rov responded, “I may be dreaming, but I am certainly not sleeping!”