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?
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.
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).
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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!