In this and the next parshios we read about the false prophets. This parsha mentions a “prophet” who incites us to worship the idols. Various incidents with false prophets are mentioned in the Tanach and many questions can be asked about prophesy in general and the possibility of false “prophesy” in particular. Does the “prophet” himself always know that his message in not from G-d? Why would Hashem allow the phenomenon of false “prophesy”. If the possibility of false prophesy exists then how can we distinguish the true prophet from the false one? At last, how do we know then that our whole Torah is true? If miracles and predictions can be made by people other then true prophets of Hashem, how can we trust anyone then?




The discussion about the phenomenon of prophesy can certainly be very elaborate but we will try to be concise as usual. First and foremost, we need to realize that the possibility of sometimes predicting the nearby future certainly does not imply a true connection to Hashem Himself. Indeed, “people of spirit[1]” have always existed and still exist today. At certain times in history[2] when spirituality literally flows in the air[3], many people see visions and think they have reached prophetic state. This is not surprising at all since our souls are indeed found in spiritual realm and they may sense at times what is being projected and “announced” there. Moreover, even certain deviations from “nature[4]” that we call miracles can sometimes be achieved through various ways by people other then true prophets of Hashem.


Indeed, the Torah’s credibility does not depend on being able to foretell the near future[5] or perform certain miracles. However certain types of predictions and miracles in the Torah are such that no nation ever experienced or will ever experience. These are the global miracles and the global historical predictions having to do with the distant future. In the beginning of our history our nation numbering millions saw the miracles of Egyptian plagues, splitting of the sea, revelation at Sinai, getting food from the sky and water from a rock. No nation ever claimed or will ever claim that these types of miracles had happened to their ancestors[6]. Indeed, it’s these miracles that our nation had experienced that form the basis of our faith[7], and that is why the Torah reiterates the Exodus from Egypt, when answering the claims of a false prophet.


Regarding the prophecies of Torah, they are also global in nature spanning throughout the entire history, different from the predictions of various sorcerers and false prophets[8]. Our nation has a history so vastly different from any other people, that even the non-Jews have noticed it. Indeed, the Jewish survival alone in the conditions of our exile is a tremendous miracle that makes many non-Jewish historians recognize the Hand of G-d. This would be impressive enough even without being predicted but in addition the details of our worldwide dispersion had been foretold by the Torah.


Even though the miracles during the Exodus from Egypt were unique and so are the prophesies of the Chumash, the Jewish prophets who lived for the next one thousand years after the Torah was given, did not have to perform global miracles. Their main function was the same as that of Rabbis and Rebbes today. They needed to bring the people close to Hashem and make sure the mitzvos are observed properly. Sometimes they were given the power to perform miracles, generally at the time this was needed. People get impressed when public miracles are performed, and the prophet may have used miracles to bring the people closer to Hashem. Sometimes some laws of Torah needed to be temporarily suspended, and therefore the prophet was given this general permission[9]. However he could not change any law of Torah forever, and he could not suspend the prohibition of idolatry even temporarily. Another function of the prophet was helping individuals achieve their potential. Many times a particular soul needs a specific rectification; a person may need to be extra careful about a precise mitzvah. The prophet could thus guide an individual in his way. A prophet could answer various questions from important ones, like telling people what to do during the time of war, to such minor questions as to where one’s lost object is[10].


Now regarding the phenomenon of false prophets, in many of cases these people were simple charlatans. However sometimes these were sincere people, looking for spirituality, especially at times when it seemed to be easy to achieve. When many true prophets walked on earth, many more people wanted to also “hear voices from above”. At times these people did not realize that their vision was not from Hashem[11] but fooled themselves to believe they saw a true vision. On top of that, even a formerly true prophet could go astray one day and become a false prophet or even a prophet of idolatry. After all, the freedom of choice exists till one’s last day on earth[12], and nobody is immune from the yetzer hara[13].


Now what the Torah expects from the Jewish people, who can not always distinguish between the true and the false prophet, is to listen to those people who have a reputation of being righteous and accurately predicted the future a few times. Once an individual has earned a reputation of the true prophet, we are not allowed to keep testing him but have to listen to him even when he temporarily suspends any laws except idolatry. The reason we listen to him is not because we are sure he is a true prophet, but because this is the mitzvah of the Torah. Similarly, we rely on two witnesses in most laws, even though we can’t know for sure that their testimony is true. However, if the prophet tries to permanently change any law of the Torah we can know for sure this is not a true prophet. Similarly, the “prophet” that incites us to worship idols even if he insists this is the Divine Will, can not be a true prophet. This is the “prophet” this parsha[14] is talking about and his punishment is death penalty. Even though the Torah tells us that Hashem is “testing” us, by allowing the false prophet to correctly predict the future or perform certain miracles, still the “prophet” himself is fully responsible for his actions. Indeed, he is supposed to know just as anybody else that Hashem could not possibly want us to worship idols and therefore he should have ignored any vision he had. Even to be able to temporarily suspend other laws one had to better be sure that his visions are truly prophetic. To become a true prophet usually took a lot of training[15] and effort and in most cases involved guidance from the previous generations of prophets[16]. Claiming to be a prophet is a tremendous responsibility[17] and when it is purposefully[18] done by the one who had not reached this lofty level, he incurs death penalty[19]. Regular dreams should generally be ignored and certainly no forbidden actions can be permitted or even monitory laws decided based on one’s visions[20].


May we deserve to speedily see prophesy restored when Moshiach comes and the whole Earth will be filled with knowledge of Hashem as water covers the seabed (Yeshiyahu 11:9).



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[1] See Ramban, Devarim 13:2.


[2] This was especially true in the ancient times before the destruction of the First Temple. At a later time our sages prayed that the temptation for idolatry would be removed and their request was granted. Since then there were no more true prophets and the general level of spirituality went down, but there were much fewer false prophets as well (see also Hoshea 3:4, GR”S on Seder Olam 30:12: “when the yetzer hara for idolatry was destroyed, prophesy also finished”).


[3] See the GR”A on Zohar, Yahel Ohr 2:248a, where he discusses the difference between dreams a soul sees and the prophetic levels. Indeed many predictions of the future are envisioned when one is asleep but they are usually obscure and need an explanation.


[4] See for example Ramchal, the beginning of Maamar Haikarim, that just as there are physical laws and limitations for each object and process, so too there are certain spiritual laws. Through certain actions in this world people can arouse spiritual entities to do particular functions in the ways that the Creator instituted. Thus, knowing the laws of these spiritual entities, one can produce effects to this world that will be considered miraculous. However, not every type of miracle can be achieved, everything is governed according to the preset laws from the beginning of Creation. The general name for the forbidden types of actions that stimulate spiritual entities in the manner not desired by Hashem, is witchcraft or sorcery (see also Derech Hashem 3:2).


[5] Even though one of the obvious differences between true prophets and false ones is the fact that the prophesies of true prophet are always true, while false prophet can only sometimes predict the future, this alone would not make it simple to distinguish the true prophet from the false one. The reason is that even the true prophet’s predictions can be fulfilled in various ways not necessarily corresponding to what people understood to be the original prophesy (see also our words to parshas Lech Lecha). Moreover, bad prophesies can at times be reversed depending on people’s repentance and change of their deeds (see Yirmiyahu chapter 28, Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 56b, Rambam, Yesodey HaTorah, 10:4).


[6] Indeed, the Torah states that such a claim has never been made (see Devarim 4:32-34).


[7] However, according to Rambam (Yesodey Hatorah 8:1) only the revelation at Sinai formed the basis of our faith (see his words in Yesoday Hatorah, chapters 8 and 10 for many fundamental concepts).


[8] Even the celebrated Nostradamus’s predictions are very obscure and can be interpreted in various ways after the fact to fit the events that already occurred. Even though there are also some unclear prophesies in the Torah, however there are many clear predictions with details as well. For example, the detailed description of our two exiles to Babylon and Rome. Just the fact that our nation will be taken to Egypt by ships and sold as slaves, but there will be no buyers includes three predictions. We could have not been taken to Egypt and Egypt did not even have to exist at the time, just as Amon, Moav, Edom and other countries disappeared from the map. Even if taken to Egypt it could have been done by other means of transportation. At last, the Jewish people could have been in demand on market. However the prophesy was fulfilled exactly when Titus filled whole ships with the Jews and the market price for a Jew in Egypt fell below the price of food for a horse.


[9] Eliyahu brought korbonos outside the Temple in order to bring the assembled people to recognize Hashem and reject the idolatry (see Melachim 1:18:21-40).


[10] See Shmuel 1:9:6.


[11] See Ramchal, Derech Hashem 3:4.


[12] See Midrash Tanchuma, Toldos 7.


[13] Even though Dovid was able to destroy his internal yetzer hara, the external one still remained.


[14] See further Ramban, Devarim 13:2. The next parsha (18:20) discusses other types of false prophets.


[15] One had to first pass the ten levels of righteousness mentioned in Mesilas Yesharim.


[16] See Shmuel 1:3:9. In general, the students of prophets were usually called “Bney Neviim” – children of prophets.


[17] See Rambam, Igeres Teiman.


[18] However if it’s done accidentally, the “prophet” is not punished (see Sifri, Shofrim; GR”A in Aderes Eliyahu 18:20).


[19] Moreover, according to some opinions it’s forbidden to say even jokingly: “Hashem told me such and such” (Hagahos Maymoniyos, Avodas Kochavim 5:1, but see Ohr Someach there).


[20] See Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 255:9. Unfortunately many people place too much significance to their dreams (see Questions and Answers Rav Poalim, regarding a girl that saw a dream that she would die on a certain day and when that day came, she committed suicide).