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A Clarification on the Issue of Prophets in Israel and How to Recognize a True Prophet From a False Prophet


“I will raise up a prophet for them from among their own people, like yourself…And should you ask yourselves, ‘How can we know that the oracle was not spoken by the Lord?” If the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by the Lord” (Deuteronomy 18:18-22).


Before we begin to clarify the issue of prophecy and prophets you should know the role and the goal of prophecy. Therefore we cite here the words of the Rambam in his introduction to the Mishnah commentary, “Certainly prophecy is not helpful in interpreting the Torah and elucidating the facets of the commandments through the 13 methods in which the Torah is explicated. But what Joshua and Pinchas did through learning and deduction is equal to what Rabina and Rav Ashi did.… [therefore, what is the role of the prophet?] He should call people to the worship of G-d and command them about His commandments and warn them to obey the Torah without additions or diminishments…. He can also command them to do this, or forbid them to do that, in matters which are not from the Torah, such as telling them to besiege a certain city… The holy one, blessed be He, did not allow us to learn from the prophets, but only from the sages, the people of deduction and knowledge.”

So from the Rambam’s words we learn that the role of a sage is greater and more important than that of a prophet, for a sage teaches us Torah and commandments while a prophet’s mission is to strengthen the faith of the people (which is like a job of mashgiach in a yeshiva), though the prophet can also command people to do things which are not matters of the Torah.


This is the great thing about prophecy: when it is verified and comes to pass, it shows us the providence of the holy one, blessed be He, and that He wishes us to fulfill His commandments. Therefore it is important to clarify and check whether the prophecies have indeed come to pass and whether we can fulfill the verse, “And should you ask yourselves, ‘How can we know’…” and know through examination, based on the time of the prophecies, whether they are true prophets or not.


The Rambam, in his introduction to the Mishnah commentary, explains that a prophet who foretells doom may not have his prophecy fulfilled, for people may do repentance. Therefore one can only test a prophet at the time of his prophecy if he foretells good. But even this is limited, for Jacob, whom the holy one, blessed be He, promised “And I shall be with you to guard you wherever you go” feared that he would die, for he might sin. So we see that the good which G-d himself promised might yet not come to pass, had Jacob sinned; how much more so is this true of what a prophet says.

The Rambam explained that this refers specifically to the prophecy between G-d and the prophet, but when the prophet foretells good for people, absolutely and unconditionally, then if he is a true prophet his prophecy must come to pass.

The words of the Rambam require study. The Gemara in Brachot 4a says: “And Jacob feared exceedingly, he said, ‘lest I sin,’ as the Baraita says, ‘“Until Your people cross over, O Lord”,’ this is the first coming, ‘“until Your people cross whom You have ransomed”,’ this is the second coming.’ From this the sages said that Israel of Ezra’s day would have deserved having a miracle performed for them as in the days of Joshua the son of Nun, but they sinned.”

Come and see: The Song of Moses at the sea foretold the second redemption and was a prophecy of good, an unconditional prophecy to people, and even so it did not come to pass because of sin! This is completely the opposite of what the Rambam said.

And come see another thing: Hulda’s prophecy was proven false. After Shaphan the scribe found the Torah scroll and brought it to Josiah, they went to the prophetess Hulda and she foretold, "So, I will gather you to your fathers and you will be laid in your tomb in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster which I will bring upon this place” (II Kings 22:20). This was a good prophecy about another person, but what happened to Josiah? “The archers shot King Josiah” (II Chronicles 35:23) and as the Talmud Yerushalmi, Kiddushin chapter one, halacha 7 explains, “Rabbi Yochanan said, this teaches you that they made his body as a sieve; Rabbi Yishmael said, they shot three hundred arrows in the Lord’s emissary.” So we find that according to the Rambam, the prophetess Hulda was a false prophet, for her prophecy was a positive one and did not come to pass. But the Ridbaz, in his responsa, part three, section 688, concluded from this question that prophecy meant for a single individual might not come to pass for the subject might sin, but in his opinion prophecy which is meant for the public will come to pass in any case, though it may be delayed, as we have found on the verse, “and the sojourn of the people of Israel in Egypt was 30 and 400 years”--because they had sinned in Egypt, their exile was extended. His words are beyond us, for if the prophecy of one who foretells public good at a specific time does not come to pass, someone could always claim, “Wait a bit, for sin may have delayed the prophecy, as Israel waited in Egypt an extra thirty years.” Any sensible person understands that, given these limitations, there is no way to check if a prophet is true or false. For how shall we check? If he foretells doom--there is nothing to test, for they may repent. If he foretells good for an individual--there is nothing to test, see the cases of Jacob and Josiah. If he foretells good for the public--there is nothing to test, for the prophecy may be “delayed” due to sins. In short, there is no way at all to test a prophet and see if he is a true one.


And indeed, the Tosfot on Yevamot 50a, third reference, said, “Anyway you find, a prophet foretells naught but  things which would happen, were there no sin.” The words of the Tosfot are a general explanation of prophecy, that the prophet foretells what should and might happen, but not what will actually happen! See how, according to the Tosfot and the Ridbaz, any examination of a prophet will fall into a deep well.


The prophet Jeremiah said to the prophet Hananiah, the son of Azur: “A prophet that prophesies a good fortune, if the word of the prophet comes true, will it be known the Lord had really sent him” (Jeremiah 28:9). We find that Hananiah was a false prophet, as brought in Sanhedrin 90a: “Hananiah, the son of Azur, began as a true prophet and ended as a false prophet.” And Jeremiah himself foretold, “For thus said the Lord: When Babylon’s seventy years are over, I will take note of you” (Jeremiah 29:10), but the prophet Daniel (Daniel 9:2) so erred in calculating the prophecy of Jeremiah that the Gemara (Megillah 12a) stated, “Rabbah said, ‘Daniel also erred in this calculation’.” We find that Jeremiah did not speak clearly enough for us to check and see if his prophecy did come to pass (see what we wrote on the weekly portion of Miketz), and Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi asked this question of Ibn Ezra (Daniel 9:2): “And Yehuda HaLevi asked, ‘I wonder how Daniel, a prophet and a sage, erred over the course of seventy years by nineteen years?’” Until Ibn Ezra answered that Jeremiah did not foretell the building of the Holy Temple, only the return to the Land, and he brought a proof from the Scripture that the Holy Temple was built after seventy years [which contradicts the Gemara], see there.” This is the way of our rabbis, to strain and explain and excuse the words of a prophet, whom the sages had determined in advance to be true, at any price, their only goal being to make it seem that his words had come to pass.


An additional proof of our words can be found in I Kings 13:1. The prophet (Ido) foretold that Josiah would be born to the House of David, and afterwards Ido’s body was found thrown on the side of the road, with a lion and an ass standing beside it, for he had listened to the words of another prophet who turned out to be false; see there, the whole chapter. About this the Rashba wrote in his responsa, part one, section 11: “And since the prophet who came from Judah to Jerobam…we see through the plain meaning of the text that the prophet who answered him was a true prophet from the start…but afterwards he became a false prophet, as happened to Hananiah the son of Azor.”

So you see that even the prophets, who were held to be true, were found to be false prophets. And if a flame fell amongst the prophets, what can ordinary people say?

Come see what happened to the prophecy of Isaiah the son of Amotz (upon which all sorts of Jewish outreach people base themselves, as though his prophecy had come to pass). In Isaiah 13:17 he foretold the end of Babylon: “Behold, I stir up the Medes against them,” but it was not the Medes who conquered Babylon, it was the Persians! Media was, in fact, the second largest kingdom after Babylon during Isaiah’s era. A prophecy about the destruction of Babylon by the Medes is a very reasonable prophecy indeed, and any reasonable prophet worth his name would thus foretell. But, woe, Isaiah did not foresee the rapid rise of Persia, which conquered both Babylon and Media. Perhaps we should say that the sins of the Medes led to his prophecy not coming to pass. But he did not err only in this; he foretold, “And Babylon…shall become like Sodom and Gomorrah, overturned by G-d.” What can we do if Babylon continued to thrive, in all its greatness and splendor, for several hundred years under the reign of the Persians, and even after the Greek conquest led by Alexander it continued to flourish? Alexander the Great planned to make it the capital of the Persian empire and he died in Nebuchadnezer’s splendid palace, which had survived until then. This was a prophecy which foretold good for the public and it was not completely fulfilled, and the Rambam had already written in The Laws of the  Torah Foundations, chapter 10, halacha one, “A prophet who fails on a small part of his prophecy is a false prophet.”


And not only did Isaiah not foretell the overturning of Babylon, he also did not properly foresee the exile of the Israelite kingdom. Here, Isaiah stands up during the days of Ahaz, son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, and says: “And in another sixty five years Ephraim shall be shattered as a people” (Isaiah 7:8), but only twenty one years passed before “the ninth year of King Hoshea of Israel, Samaria was captured, and the king of Assyria deported the Israelites to Assyria” (II Kings 18:10). Ibn Ezra, who was not agitated by the errors of the prophets, wrote thus: “and when we looked in the Scriptures we found many like this [!]. The prophet said that in sixty five years Ephraim would be shattered as a people, and this was during the reign of Ahaz. Even if you say it was at the beginning of his reign, his whole reign lasted only 16 years, and in the sixth year of King Hezekiah Samaria was exiled, and the count began from the day of the earthquake (Amos 1:1). There are many more like this in Kings and Chronicles” (Ibn Ezra on Exodus 12:40).


But how do our rabbis settle the contradictions in Isaiah’s words? See the Tosfot on Moed Katan 7b, third reference: “‘And in another sixty five years Ephraim shall be shattered as a people’--this is from Amos’s prophecy, though Isaiah said it.” What does Isaiah’s count of the years have to do with Amos’s prophecy? But this is the way of our faith; first we decide he was a true prophet, and if it becomes clear he erred in his words, we settle all problems in any way possible, our only goal being to keep from calling him a false prophet.


From all that said above we have found that there is no way to determine who is a false prophet and who is true. One who foretells the future will always claim that sins were done, or that repentance negated his prophecy, or that his words were not properly understood. That is why we live not according to the Torah or according to the prophets, but according to the sages. They are the ones who determine for us the instructions and the commandments, and they also decide who is a true prophet and who is a false one. We can also see this from the story of Hananiah the son of Hezekiah, for were it not for him, the book of Ezekiel would have been hidden, as its words contradicted the words of the Torah (Shabbat 13b). Hananiah was one of the Mishnaic Sages, and he dealt with the words of Ezekiel as though they were his own, so that they could “match” the words of the Torah. And who determines who the sages and Torah greats are? It is the public itself, the religious, faithful people, who accept leaders upon themselves and thereby give authority to the sages to determine the Halacha and the commandments.

We find that Jewish law, which is determined by the sages and teaches the public how to behave according to G-d’s instructions, draws its authority from naught but the public itself. There is no internal contradiction here; this is the way several systems in human society are set up: the leaders draw their authority from the public which chose them, though they may impose laws on that public even against its will. The only difference is that religious sages (of any religion) base the authority for their laws on the Divine, and in His name they promise reward and punishment.


We will conclude this discussion of faith in the prophets’ forecasts with the words of Sefer HaChinuch, commandment 523, which explain why we do not pass judgement based on a lone witness’s testimony (even were he a prophet or a sage), but only on that of two: “Since the inclination of man’s heart is evil, sometimes a resentful grievance will arise in his heart against his fellow-man… And even if a man stands fast a long time in the ways of decency and worthiness, it is not inconceivable for him to change over in his thinking and do evil. For look: the Sages of blessed memory related that Yohanan served as the High Priest and at the end he became a Sadducee. They also said that Hananiah the son of Azor was at first a true prophet and at the end he became a false prophet. It is therefore a proper and estimable thing not to rely on a man’s heart, to punish his fellow-man on his word.…When, however, those who testify are two honest, worthy people, it is a presumption about Jewish stock that two will not be in accord to testify falsely. And the presumption is of a great legal force in all matters.” And therefore a prophet, who is alone, can not be relied upon.


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