Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Devarim, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
As Moshe turns his attention to a series of internal forces that might endanger the nation after his death, he begins by outlining the potential challenge presented by a navi sheker, a false prophet.
He warns of the possibility that “a prophet or a dreamer of a dream” might successfully produce “a sign or a wonder” in an attempt to convince the people to follow the gods of others.
“Do not listen to the words of that prophet,” he cautions, “for the Lord your God is testing you to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”
If the individual in question is a charlatan, why does the Torah refer to him as a “prophet or a dreamer of dreams”? Shouldn’t the appellation “prophet” be reserved for someone who is telling the truth?
Even more importantly, why would God grant this individual the power to produce “a sign or a wonder”? Shouldn’t such power be divinely granted only to a true prophet? Would God truly grant supernatural powers to an imposter, simply to “test” the people’s belief? Given that God knows from the outset what lies in man’s heart, what would be the purpose of such a test?
Finally, Moshe indicates in this passage that the production of “a sign or a wonder” by a possible prophet does not, in and of itself, confirm the veracity of the messenger. In Parshat Shoftim, however, when the Torah discusses the general method for determining the truthfulness of a potential prophet, the text states that veracity is determined by whether or not an event predicted by the prophet “comes about.”
Under what circumstances is the production of “a sign or a wonder” proof of a prophet’s truthfulness and under what conditions is it not?
A number of commentaries, Rabbi Saadia Gaon and Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher among them, maintain that the Torah labels the false prophet as a “prophet” as a reflection of his own claims. From the perspective of these authorities, the term prophet in this case refers to someone who “claims prophecy.”
After first considering the above interpretation, the Ramban offers an alternative approach. Perhaps the text refers to an individual who possesses a natural talent for divination. Such an individual, who in our day might be referred to as a psychic or a medium, could justifiably be called a “prophet” by the Torah because of his innate ability to predict the future. Unlike a true prophet, however, this individual remains unaware of the source of his talent and enjoys no special relationship with God.
Whatever explanation we accept for the Torah’s reference to the false prophet as a “prophet,” the deeper question remains. What is the source of this individual’s power? Why would God grant an imposter the power to produce “a sign or a wonder”?
This question serves as the focus of a debate recorded in the Babylonian Talmud between two towering figures of the Mishnaic period:
Rabbi Yossi the Galilean stated: “The Torah understood the intentions of idolaters and therefore granted them dominion. Even if he [the false prophet] causes the sun to stand still in the middle of the heavens, do not listen to him.”
Rabbi Akiva said: “God forbid that the Holy One Blessed Be He would cause the sun to stand still in the heavens on behalf of those who transgress His will. Instead, [the Torah passage that references miracles generated by a false prophet] speaks of an individual such as Chanania ben Azur, who began his career as a true prophet and subsequently became a false prophet.”
Rashi explains Rabbi Akiva’s position to mean that the “sign or wonder” attributed in the text to the navi sheker was actually performed before this individual rebelled against God, while he was still a true prophet.
The debate between these two great Talmudic luminaries is clear. Rabbi Yossi the Galilean maintains that, at times, God will grant transgressors the ability to perform miraculous acts, in order, as the Torah testifies, to test the nation’s loyalty. Rabbi Akiva demurs and insists that under no conditions would God grant supernatural power to those who disobey His will. Any apparent evidence to the contrary is simply incorrect.
With the above Talmudic debate serving as a backdrop, scholars across the ages continue their struggle to understand what, if any, powers God might grant a false prophet, and why.
As noted above, for example, the Ramban suggests that the power of a navi sheker rises out of a natural talent for divination. God allows such abilities to develop even among those who would use them for ill, the Ramban insists, in order to “test” and ultimately benefit those targeted by the false prophet. Consistent with his general approach to God-administered tests, the Ramban explains that God tests man to increase man’s awareness of his own capabilities and to actualize man’s own potential (see Bereishit: Vayeira 4, Context). Through their resistance to the words of the navi sheker, in the face of the “wonders” that he performs, the people will become more aware of their own attachment to God. More than that, the very experience of crisis will transform them. The potential love of God that exists in their hearts will be converted into concrete behavior that will subsequently shape their future actions and character.
In contrast to Rashi, who appears to accept the possibility that God would grant supernatural strength to a navi sheker in order to test the Israelites, the Rambam views any seemingly miraculous sign generated by a false prophet to be the product of magic or sorcery. As to the purpose of the encounter with the navi sheker, the Rambam, like the Ramban, remains true to his own general approach to divinely administered tests, explaining as follows:
“If a man should rise, pretend to be a prophet, and show you his signs…”
Know that God intends thereby to prove to the nations how firmly you believe in the truth of God’s word, and how well you have comprehended the true essence of God, that you cannot be misled by any tempter to corrupt your faith in God.
Your religion will then afford a guidance to all who seek the truth, and of all the religions man will choose that which is so firmly established that it is not shaken by the performance of a miracle. For a miracle cannot prove that which is impossible; it is useful only as a confirmation of that which is possible…”
God tests an individual, or a group, the Rambam believes, in order to proclaim that individual or group’s greatness to others (see Bereishit: Vayeira 4, Context). This interpretation is reflected in the fact that the biblical term for test, nissayon, comes from the root nes (banner). God will test the nation as a whole through their encounter with false prophecy, in order to “raise the banner” of the nation’s greatness to the world. When surrounding nations discern the Jewish people’s ability to retain their belief in God’s word, they will be moved to explore a religion that is “so firmly entrenched” in the hearts of its adherents “that it is not shaken by the performance of a miracle.” In the Rambam’s eyes, successful resistance to the words of the navi sheker furthers the Jewish nation’s mission to the world.
Unwilling to accept the prospect that God would grant any unusual power to a navi sheker, the Ibn Ezra offers two possible explanations for the navi’s apparent ability to produce “a sign or a wonder.” Perhaps the false prophet, this scholar suggests, overhears the predictions of a true prophet and “steals them,” presenting them as his own to bolster his reputation and position. Alternatively, the Torah’s terms ot (sign) and mofet (wonder) may not refer to miraculous signs at all, but to volitional acts performed by the navi. The navi Yeshayahu, for example, proclaims: “Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and wonders for Israel…” The unique acts that I perform and the unusual names that I have bestowed upon my children are all “signs and wonders,” God-commanded deeds designed to represent events that will befall the nation of Israel.
Similarly, says the Ibn Ezra, the “signs and wonders” associated with the false prophet in the text may well refer to conscious acts that he performs in order to convey his message. God’s “test” of the nation, the Ibn Ezra concludes, does not consist of granting powers to the navi sheker, but simply allowing him to survive in spite of his designs against the nation. The purpose of the test is to “demonstrate the righteousness of those tested.”
Likewise maintaining that “the Holy One Blessed Be He would not strengthen the hand of evildoers by granting them the power to change the course of nature or to perform wonders for the purpose of perpetuating lies,” the Abravanel notes a nuance in the text concerning the false prophet’s approach to the nation. The Torah states: V’natan lecha ot o mofet, “and he will present to you a sign or a wonder,” and not V’asa lecha ot o mofet, “and he will create for you a sign or a wonder.” The power of a navi sheker, the Abravanel explains, is limited to the presentation through magic or sorcery of that which already exists, while the power of a true prophet extends to the creation of wonders that transcend the natural world. The test of the nation consists of God’s refusal to sabotage the navi sheker’s presentation by changing the course of natural events.
Ultimately, however, the role of seemingly miraculous signs in the realm of prophecy remains confusing.
On the one hand, as we have seen, the Torah clearly informs us that such signs are not to be believed when determining the character of a navi sheker. The litmus test of a prophet’s veracity is the content of his prophecy, rather than the wonders that he performs. Thus, the Talmud clearly proclaims, “He who prophesies to uproot anything that is in the Torah is culpable and we pay no heed to his ‘signs and wonders.’ ”
On the other hand, as noted before, the text in Parshat Shoftim indicates that the presentation of signs is a critical component in the process of a true prophet’s self-identification. This point is legally codified by the Rambam in his Mishneh Torah, where he states that when a navi is divinely sent to speak to a people, “he is given a sign or a wonder [to present] so that the nation will know that God has sent him.”
Are signs and wonders acceptable proof of a prophet’s veracity, or not? The evidence seems contradictory. If the validation of a potential prophet is based on the content of his prophecy, why must the candidate present a sign? And if signs are significant, how are we to discern which signs are truthful and which are not?
Our guide in this area will be the Rambam, who, in his Mishneh Torah, outlines a halachic approach to a nation’s encounter with prophecy. In his unique, brilliant style, this great sage marries the esoteric realm of prophetic vision to the rational world of Jewish law.
Public awareness of a potential prophet’s personal characteristics and spiritual dedication, the Rambam maintains, is an essential prerequisite towards this individual’s acceptance as a true navi. Not everyone is worthy of becoming a prophet. Prophecy will only visit an individual who is innately wise, strong of character and in full control of his passions; who possesses an extremely wide breadth of true knowledge; and who consciously cultivates communication with the Divine through separation from the outside world and full immersion in the contemplation of heavenly mysteries. Only such an individual, known to be “worthy of prophecy in his wisdom and actions,” can be considered a candidate for prophecy from the outset. If an individual who is not known to possess these qualities claims prophecy, he is not to be heeded by the people, no matter what signs or wonders he may produce. If, on the other hand, an apparently worthy individual does present himself to the nation as a prophet, they cannot ignore his approach. Upon his successful production of a sign or a wonder the nation is bound by law to accept his prophecy.
At this point in his analysis, the Rambam makes a striking assertion. Even an apparently worthy individual who claims to be a prophet may be a charlatan, and the sign that he produces may be sleight of hand. “We are nonetheless commanded to heed him,” the Rambam asserts. “Since he is great, wise and [apparently] deserving of prophecy, we accept him upon his assumed merit.”
This situation is actually comparable, the Rambam explains, to a much more familiar set of circumstances. Throughout Jewish jurisprudence, a fact is established through the testimony of two halachically acceptable witnesses. Although it remains completely possible that these witnesses are testifying falsely, we rely upon their established legal acceptability. In these matters, the Rambam concludes, the operant Torah passage is: “The hidden things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, to carry out all the words of this Torah.” The “truth” is immaterial to our actions, the Rambam argues, because we can never be certain of the truth. Certainty remains in God’s realm and not in ours. Our behavior is determined by the law. When that law is satisfied in cases of uncertainty, whether through the testimony of two “kosher” witnesses or through a sign produced by a seemingly worthy navi, we have no choice but to follow the mandated path. We accept a potential navi’s sign, not because we are convinced by the sign itself, but because the Torah commands that a “worthy” candidate for prophecy must be accepted upon
his presentation of a sign.
There is one circumstance, however, under which even a seemingly worthy navi’s sign will not be accepted: if the candidate preaches the overturning of any aspect of the Torah.
Once again, the Rambam maintains, this ruling is eminently logical. We accept the prophecy of Moshe, not because of the miraculous signs that he produced, but ultimately because of the monumental corroborating evidence that we ourselves saw and heard, together with Moshe, at Sinai. The situation of a navi sheker, therefore, is comparable to two halachically acceptable witnesses who offer testimony that directly contradicts what we ourselves have observed. Such testimony is clearly not acceptable, no matter how reliable the witnesses themselves may seem to be. Similarly, the signs presented by a potential navi who directly contradicts the prophecy of Moshe will not sway us, no matter how worthy that candidate for prophecy seems to be. “Given that we only accept a potential navi’s signs because we are commanded to do so [by God through Moshe], how can we accept such a sign from one who endeavors to refute the very prophecy of Moshe, prophecy that we ourselves have seen and heard?” Here again, the law leads us. Just as we are mandated by law to accept the sign of a worthy candidate for prophecy who does not contradict Torah law, we are equally mandated by law not to accept the sign of an apparently worthy candidate who does contradict Torah law.
When all is said and done, the ultimate veracity of a prophet will be determined by what he says and not by how he says it. Substance, and not form, the halacha mandates, should convince us of the truth.