Prophecy VIII: What Is Prophecy Today?

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by R. Gil Student

I. Prophecy and the Generation

Other essays in this series

Prophecy ended around the period of the destruction of the first Temple and the building of the second Temple. The last prophets–Chagai, Zechariah and Malachi–lived at the beginning of the second Temple. When they died, prophecy ceased. Rav Moshe of Coucy (Semag, introduction to positive commandments) points out that the last prophet, Malachi, concludes his book by pointing to the next prophet and reminding people to keep the Torah in the interim (Malachi 3:22-23):

Remember the Torah of Moshe, my servant… Behold, I will send to you Eliyah the prophet before the great and awesome day.

There will be no prophet from the early second Temple period until Eliyahu comes, at the onset of the Messianic Era. Based on what we have learned, we can question the breadth of this assertion.

The Gemara (Sotah 48b) says:

From the deaths of Chagai, Zechariah and Malachi, the heavenly spirit has departed from Israel but despite this, they used a heavenly voice (bas kol, a lower level of divine communication). Once they were sitting in the upper chamber of the house of Guria in Jericho and a bas kol came to them and said: “There is one among you who is worthy of having the divine presence rest on him but the generation is not worthy.” Their eyes turned to Hillel… [Similar story many years later,] their eyes turned to Shmuel Ha-Katan.

Apparently, Hillel and Shmuel Ha-Katan both attained the spiritual and intellectual perfection necessary for prophecy. They had fulfilled all the requirements but prophecy was withheld from them because of their generation. As Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Yesodei Ha-Torah 7:5) wrote, it is possible for prophecy to descend on a prophet who is ready but it is also possible that it will not. This is God’s choice (Moreh Nevukhim 2:32, the third view).

It is hard to understand what can make a generation unworthy of prophecy. After all, during the first Temple era, when prophets roamed the country, people murdered, committed adultery, worshipped idols and violated other religious laws. Yet the generation was worthy of prophecy. Perhaps they lacked intra-national hatred (although given the split kingdoms, that is hard to accept) or maybe the temptation of idolatry they faced–sometimes falling prey to it but also overcoming it–made them somehow more worthy. Be that as it may, later generations were unworthy and that is why Hillel and Shmuel Ha-Katan did not achieve prophecy.

However, Rambam (ibid., 7) also writes that “there is the possibility that a prophet will experience prophecy for his own sake alone – i.e., to expand his mental capacities and to increase his knowledge.” Sometimes a prophet prophesies for his own benefit and sometimes as a divine messenger to others. If the generation is unworthy of receiving prophecy, why should that stop a prophet from achieving prophecy for his own benefit?

I think the answer lies elsewhere in Mishneh Torah. Rambam (Hilkhos Dei’os 6:1) writes:

It is natural for a man’s character and actions to be influenced by his friends and associates and for him to follow the local norms of behavior. Therefore, he should associate with the righteous and be constantly in the company of the wise, so as to learn from their deeds. Conversely, he should keep away from the wicked who walk in darkness, so as not to learn from their deeds.

No one is an island. A person is supposed to be “me’urav im ha-beriyos,” involved with others, part of society. But that inevitably flows influence in both directions. A righteous person can inspire those around him to be better and more religious people. In turn, that righteous person will receive some influence from those who are less righteous, even if it is only in the subtlest ways.

While Hillel and Shmuel Ha-Katan were spiritual giants, they were part of societies that were unworthy of prophecy. These traits of unworthiness, whatever they may be, rubbed off in small portions even on the greatest and most righteous people of the times.1

II. Medieval Prophecy

Among medieval Jewish scholars, we find occasional reference to divine revelation. Prof. Yitzchak (Isadore) Twersky analyzed this phenomenon with the writings of Ra’avad at the very end of his masterful biography of the great sage, Rabad of Posquieres.

Prof. Twersky writes (p. 391):

It is not rare to find him referring to teachings which “they have shown him from heaven” or asserting that “so it has been revealed to me from ‘the secret counsel of the Lord [which] is with them that fear him.'”

In Mishneh Torah (Hilkhos Lulav 8:5), Rambam rules that a hadas branch whose top has been cut off is still kosher to be taken with a lulav, as one of the four species. Ra’avad glosses: “The divine spirit has appeared in our house of study for many years and we concluded that it is invalid.”

Did Ra’avad actually believe that he achieved prophecy? Since he lived after Malachi’s death and before Eliyahu’s return, how could he claim to be a prophet? Or perhaps he thought he merited a lower level of special revelation, even if not prophecy. Ra’avad is only one of many others who wrote with such language. Even Rambam wrote in a responsum, “I shall reply as they have shown me from heaven.”

Prof. Twersky argues that these phrases are literary expressions. They do not literally mean that Ra’avad or anyone else achieved prophecy or divine revelation. Ra’avad’s “frequent use of [these terms] underlines the certitude and clarity he felt to be inherent in his theoretical writings and practical decisions” (pp. 298-299). It is a manner of confident speech, not a declaration of revelation.

III. Prophecy and Not Prediction

R. Jonathan Sacks has written on a number of occasions about the difference between prediction and prophecy. Intellectuals–economists, historians, demographers and many more–look at trends and try to see the future with their best analyses. A prophet sees the future with divine assistance. But there is a greater difference between a prediction and a prophecy than the source. R. Sacks writes (Arguments For the Sake of Heaven, p. 85):

A prediction is successful if it comes true. A prophecy is successful when it proves false, when it has alerted the community to avoid catastrophe. The task of prophecy is to be self-refuting.

This statement is overly broad. Sometimes predictions are intended as warnings to avoid the expected outcome. And really there are two kinds of prophecy: rebuke and consolation. The consolation, a good prophecy, will always come true. The rebuke, the future punishment, will be averted if people repent and no longer deserve the punishment. But in general, R. Sacks is correct that the prophet’s goal is to be wrong, to spur repentance so the punishment is averted.

What do we do today when we sorely lack the prophetic rebuke? How do we avoid catastrophe? In a haunting series of lectures from 1937 Lithuania, Rav Avraham Grodzinski (Toras Avraham, pp. 27-32) answers this question. The Gemara (Berakhos 5a) says that if a person finds himself suffering, undergoing yissurim, he should reconsider his actions. Suffering is our prophecy. It should cause us to repent from our sins. Suffering leads to introspection, which generates change, which causes the heavenly decree to be rescinded.

In one sense, suffering is more powerful than prophets. The Gemara (Megillah 14a) says that Achashverosh’s giving of the royal ring to Haman (Esther 3:10) was greater than all 48 prophets. The fear of a descending sword stirs up more repentance than any prophetic rebuke. On the other hand, the prophets tried to cause change before the punishment. Today we have suffering, which causes change only as the punishment begins, not before.

Prophets speak to the nation as a whole. An individual who cheated on his taxes would not be visited by a prophet, speaking of a punishment unless the cheater fixed his ways. In contrast, suffering contains both individual and national messages. Everyone can look to their own troubles and find the personal flaw that needs fixing.

This points to another uniqueness of suffering. Through suffering and the resultant introspection, we become our own prophets. Rather than an outsider preaching to us, we preach to ourselves. We look for our own faults in order to correct them. Through suffering, we are not only the rebuked but also the rebuker, an actor rather than a recipient.

Even though we no longer have the privilege of prophecy, we can reap the benefit of the rebuke from suffering. Rav Grodzinski actually calls suffering a divine kindness, to prevent much greater suffering in the future. The goal of prophecy is to be wrong; the goal of suffering is to be over.


  1. I also found this answer in R. Meir Ibn Gabbai’s Avodas Ha-Kodesh, Sisrei Torah, ch. 24, quoted in R. Yitzchak Sender, Machazeh Elyon, ch. 14. 

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

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