We must abide by the words of a Navi and if we fail to do so, the punishment is Mita Biday Shamayim, death by the hands of God (Devarim 18:19 and Rambam Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 9:2). On the other hand, the Torah instructs us to execute a false Navi (Devarim 18:15-22). How do we know who is an authentic Navi and who is a false Navi? The written Torah presents a basic sketch of how to authenticate a Navi, which the Rambam (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, chapters 8-10) explains at some length. The authentication of prophets also serves as a model for how we determine who is an authentic Gadol Hador. This essay is based on study with students at the Torah Academy, members of the Congregation Shaarei Ora Chumash Shiur, and my cousin Yehuda Brandriss.
The Model of Moshe Rabbeinu
Hashem told Moshe that He would present prophets to Am Yisrael “like you” (Devarim 18:18). This appears to be problematic because Moshe was a Navi that was “in a class by himself” and was greater than any other Navi that will ever arise among Am Yisrael, as stated explicitly in the Chumash (Devarim 34:10). The Rashbam (Devarim 18:15) addresses this problem and explains that future prophets must model themselves after Moshe Rabbeinu even though they cannot reach his level of Nevua. They must be completely devoted to Torah and neither detract from nor add to the Torah. They must be thoroughly devoted to relaying the truth as they heard from Hashem and they must be on an especially high spiritual level. Indeed, the very last Nevua that Am Yisrael received was Malachi exhorting us to “remember the Torah of Moshe” (Malachi 3:22).
In fact, the Rambam (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 10:1) writes that someone who presents himself to Am Yisrael as a Navi must be deemed suitable for this role even before we begin to test him to determine if he is a true Navi. The Rambam (Hilchot Y.H. 7:1) describes the personal characteristics of a Navi. This includes being an extraordinary scholar who possesses excellent character who consistently masters his Yetzer Hara without fail.
Testing a Candidate for Nevua
The Torah (Devarim 18:22) presents a straightforward manner for determining the authenticity of a legitimate candidate for Nevua – we test whether his prophecies are fulfilled. There appears to be a problem, though (as my student David Ginsburg notes), because the Torah (Devarim 13:2-6) teaches that if someone presents himself as a Navi and performs a miracle to legitimate his call to worship Avoda Zara, we should ignore him, as Hashem is simply testing us. Accordingly, even though someone’s prediction is fulfilled, the person is not considered a Navi. What is the difference between Devarim 13:2-6 and Devarim 18:22?
There appears to be at least two solutions to this problem. First, a prerequisite to even considering someone to be a candidate as a Navi is that he model himself after Moshe Rabbeinu and demonstrate complete fidelity to the Torah. Someone who urges the worship of idols is automatically rejected and thus the miracles he performs are irrelevant. Second, the false prophet presents an “Ot or Mofet”, a sign or wonder. A legitimate Navi, on the other hand, does not produce such a phenomenon. Rather, he proves his credentials by making predictions that come true. The Rambam explains that every detail of the predictions must be fulfilled without the slightest deviation. The Navi is tested repeatedly and if he passes the tests without exception then he is accepted as a Navi.
Interestingly, the Rambam cites as a proof text for his assertion that the Navi must be tested repeatedly, the Pasuk describing the Navi Shmuel (Shmuel 1:3:20) “And all of Israel from Dan to Beer Sheva knew that Shmuel was accredited as a prophet of Hashem.” This indicates another requirement for accreditation as a Navi, that the entire Jewish people accept the individual as a Navi. Indeed, we do not find in the Tanach any accepted Navi (save perhaps with the unusual circumstances of Yirmiyahu) whose authenticity was mired in controversy. We trust the collective wisdom of the Jewish people to determine the legitimacy of a Navi, as a false prophet will not succeed in fooling the entire Jewish people.
My cousin Yehuda Brandriss makes the following poignant observation. He asks why the Torah refers to a false prophet as a Navi if he is not a Navi. Shouldn’t the Torah describe him simply as a fraudulent person or liar? Yehuda suggests that the Torah is communicating a subtle warning that we should be aware that the false prophet would deceptively appear to have credibility as a prophet. He will be a person of some substance whose words do not have the obvious appearance of falsehood. Indeed, Chazal (see Rashi to Bemidbar 13:27) teach, “Any lie that does not contain a measure of truth does not stand.” Jewish History does bear out the accuracy of Yehuda’s insight, as the leaders and ideologues of deviationist groups have been people of intelligence and oratory ability. They are false prophets rather than simple charlatans.
We should also note that the Rambam is emphatic that an Ot or Mofet is inadequate to prove the legitimacy of a Navi. In fact, the Rambam devotes the eighth chapter of Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah to teach that Moshe Rabbeinu’s stature as a prophet does not rest upon the miracles that he performed. Rather, the fact that we all saw at Maamad Har Sinai (the Sinaitic revelation) that Hashem communicated directly with Moshe Rabbeinu is what endows Moshe Rabbeinu with legitimacy. The signs that Moshe Rabbeinu performed (Shemot 4:30) before Am Yisrael to prove that God spoke to him were only a temporary measure to introduce Moshe Rabbeinu to Am Yisrael upon his return to Mitzrayim. Mollie Fisch and Abbey Leichman explain that these signs were merely a “hook” to demonstrate that Moshe Rabbeinu was a unique individual. His eternal stature as the greatest of all Neviim was established at Maamad Har Sinai, as is indicated by the Torah (Shemot 19:9). For further discussion of this issue, see Nechama Leibowitz’s New Studies in Sefer Shemot (pp. 118-123). This may be compared to the contemporary use of Torah codes to introduce people to the Torah. They cannot serve as a foundation of a lifelong commitment to Torah, but they can serve as a “hook” to demonstrate to people that the Torah is no ordinary book and motivate them to further explore the Torah.
The Model of Yehoshua
We may ask, though, how did Yehoshua establish credibility as a Navi, as we find no evidence in the Chumash of his providing verification of his status as a prophet? The Rambam (Hilchot Y.H. 10:5) explains that a Navi need not demonstrate his legitimacy if another Navi vouches for his authenticity as a Navi. The Rambam writes that one about whom an accepted Navi has testified to his legitimacy is accepted “Bechezkat Navi,” as a presumed Navi. One who is Bechezkat Navi need not be tested as a Navi and is accepted as a Navi unless evidence to the contrary emerges.
Similarly, today many great Sages develop their reputations because of older and well-accepted Rabbinic Greats affirming their stature. This explains, in part, why younger Rabbanim ask older Gedolei Torah to write Haskamot (letters of approbation) to their Sefarim. Two examples are Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach’s Meorei Eish and the first volume of Rav Ovadia Yosef’s Teshuvot Yabia Omer’s adornment with the Haskamot of many of the Torah giants of the day. These works were published when Rav Shlomo Zalman and Rav Ovadia were young and the approbations as well as the content of these works vaulted them into prominence.
The Yona Question
Many people ask that since a prophet’s failed prediction proves that he is a false prophet, then why is Yona not considered a Navi Sheker (false prophet). After all, Yona prophesized that in forty days Ninve will be destroyed and this did not happen. The Rambam (Hilchot Y.H. 10:4) explains that evil tidings may not materialize because people might do Teshuva and motivate Hashem to abrogate the evil decree. Thus, a prophet will verify his stature by predicting only good tidings. If these do not materialize then we can be sure that the person is a Navi Sheker.
The Eliyahu Question
Another question that people often pose regards the action of Eliyahu at Har Hacarmel (Mount Carmel), when he offered Korbanot outside of the Bait Hamikdash in order to disprove the false prophets of Baal (Melachim 1 chapter 18). The problem is that the Torah strictly prohibits offering Korbanot outside the Bait Hamikdash after the Bait Hamikdash was established in Jerusalem (Vayikra 17:1-9). Accordingly, why isn’t Eliyahu discredited for violating a specific Torah prohibition? The Rambam (Hilchot Y.H. 9:3, based on Sanhedrin 89) explains that there are five criteria that must be satisfied to permit radical action such as the step taken by Eliyahu at Har Hacarmel. First, is that the prohibition to engage in Avoda Zara is never waived in any circumstance (as is indicated by Devarim 13:2-6). Second, is that there must be an extremely good reason to violate the Torah. In Eliyahu’s time, so many people were involved with the popular mode of worship of the time (Ba’al) that Eliyahu had to take drastic action and challenge the Neviay Habaal to offer Korbanot alongside him and see upon whose Korban would fire descend from the heavens. It was inconceivable to do this in the Bait Hamikdash, as it is intolerable for the Neviay Habaal to offer their sacrifices there. Fourth, is that the Navi must only temporarily suspend the prohibition. A Navi who claims that a particular prohibition should be permanently removed from the Torah must be dismissed as a Navi Sheker. Fifth, the individual who calls for the temporary suspension of a Torah prohibition must be an accepted Navi whose authenticity is beyond reproach. A modern application of this idea is Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook referring to his implementing Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor’s Heter Mechira (selling farmland of Eretz Yisrael to a Muslim to side-step Shmitta regulations) as a Horaat Shaa, a temporary ruling. Although Rav Kook was not engaged in what he believed to be a direct violation of Torah law, he nevertheless felt that the Heter Mechira offends the spirit of the Torah and was permitted only on a temporary basis because of dire circumstances faced by the Jews living in Israel in his time.
Contemporary leaders also must prove themselves to Am Yisrael before we recognize them as a Gadol Biyisroel. They must have excellent character as well as excellent scholarship. An interesting example is Rav Moshe Feinstein who permitted many women to remarry on the basis that their husbands perished in concentration camps. To this day, none of the men whom he pronounced dead was later discovered to be alive. A Posek and Gadol can also prove themselves by demonstrating their fidelity to Torat Moshe and their competence in Torah teachings and rulings to the point when the committed portion of the nation regards him as a Gadol, as they regarded Shmuel in the days of Sefer Shmuel.
The process of identifying an authentic Navi serves a model for identifying legitimate Torah leadership in all generations. It also parallels the manner in which we shall soon identify the Mashiach (as described in the Rambam Hilchot Melachim 11:4). An authentic Jewish leader does not deviate from the teachings of Moshe Rabbeinu in any generation. A legitimate Torah leader does not seek to change Halacha but rather guides Am Yisrael how to properly observe the Torah in the midst of the many challenges that individuals and communities encounter in every generation.