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The credentials for prophets and judges (parashat Shoftim)

Author: Esther Ehrman, Elul 5765/Sept 2005

The problem of being able to distinguish the authentic divine message is very real in the Torah. The Almighty opens the Ten Commandments with the words 'I am the Lord your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage', to remind the people of Israel that they had seen the signs and wonders for themselves and would know that the message they were hearing was genuine. Again, after the people had miraculously crossed the Red Sea, they 'believed the Lord and His servant Moses' (Ex. 14, v.31).

In Deuteronomy, the people are about to enter the promised land and Moses is about to die. How will they now distinguish the genuine divine message? The answer seems to be that the Almighty will transmit His message through prophets:

I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, like you (Moses), and I will put my words in his mouth. And he shall speak to them all that I command him. And it shall be that whoever does not hearken to my words which he shall speak in my Name, I will require it (his life) of him. But the prophet who shall presume to speak a word in my Name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who will speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die (be put to death). An if you say in your heart, how shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken? When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken, the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him (Deut.18, v.18ff)

A prophet must be clearly known to speak in G-d's Name. Nachmanides, (the RamBaN) suggests that the prophet must be one known as genuine to the people, as for instance, Elijah when he was taking the unusual action of sacrificing on Mount Carmel and not in Jerusalem. And, what the prophet announces as signs of the truth of his message must come true. That is the prophet's credential. We read a little earlier (Deut.13 v.2ff) that if a prophet announces signs and wonders and they do come about, but the message is to worship other gods, that is a test and the prophet is to be put to death. So signs and wonders are credentials, but they can only be accepted as a test of an authentic message if the messenger, the prophet really speaks in G-d's name. We have to-day lost the prophet.

Very different is the test of authenticity when it comes to knowing the laws of the Torah:

If there arise a matter too hard for you in judgment....you shall come to the priests, the Levites and to the judges that shall be in those days and inquire, and they will show you the sentence of judgement (ve higidu lecha et devar ha mishpat).... And according to the sentence of the law that they will teach you and according to the judgment which they will tell you, you will do (Deut.17, v.8 ff).

No supernatural credentials are indicated here for the interpretation of the Law by the Cohen, the Levi and the judge. Moreover the prophet is not on the list of people to ask. The question arises, why is the prophet not there? The Rabbinical tradition gives us one answer in a famous story in the Talmud (Tractate Bava Metzia 59b). Here, we read that Rabbi Eliezer declared an oven ritually clean and the Rabbis declared it unclean. Rabbi Eliezer calls on heavenly support 'If the Halacha is in accordance with me, let the carob tree prove it. The carob tree uprooted itself a hundred cubits from its place – and some say four hundred cubits. They said to him: one cannot bring the evidence of a carob'. He asks that the stream prove it and the water turns back. This too is not accepted by the Rabbis. He asks that he walls of the house of study fall and they begin to fall. Rabbi Joshua shouts at the walls that they should not interfere in a discussion on the Law and the walls stop falling, 'they did not fall, out of respect for Rabbi Joshua and they did not straighten out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer. And they still stand, partly leaning' Rabbi Eliezer asks for direct heavenly proof of his judgment and a heavenly voice confirms that the Halachah is according to Rabbi Eliezer in all things. 'Rabbi Joshua rose to his feet and said: It is not in heaven (lo ba shahamayim hee). The Gemara explains that the Torah was given at Sinai and Moses gave the instruction (based on Ex23, v.2): turn after the majority (acharei rabbim le hatot) When it is matter of deciding the validity of a law, a majority of scholars is empowered to determine that validity. No supernatural signs are called for and the prophet has no role here. The Almighty gave the Torah to us here on earth and our efforts to understand its Laws will help us to live.