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According to the Gemara and the Rambam, certain prophecies must come true. However, there are many that did not.

How do we determine if a prophet is false?

It is a matter of halacha that a rabbinical court must know how to prove that a prophet is false in order to punish him as described in Deuteronomy 18:18-22. However, because there has not been prophecy since the time of Malachi, this topic is not discussed in detail in the halachic literature. Elsewhere, we have explained the positions of a number of rishonim. Here, we will only discuss the Rambam's view.

In his introduction to his commentary on the Mishna (Kaffih edition, vol. 1 pp. 3-8) as well as in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah (1:1-2), Rambam discusses this issue. Rambam explains that there are two types of idolatrous prophets - those who say that a god other than G-d communicated to them and those who say that G-d commanded them to worship idolatry. Additionally, there are non-idolatrous prophets who say that G-d told them to add or subtract from the commandments. These three types are definitely false prophets. However, there are also prophets who give us specific instructions or tell us the future and they may or may not be false prophets. We need to be able to determine whether they are true or false prophets. This is particularly important because every person is obligated to follow a prophet's directions (Deuteronomy 18:15).

How do we determine if a prophet is true or not? Rambam (ibid. pp. 4-5) says that if this person is morally worthy of prophecy, we ask him or her to give us a prophecy of a future event. If this prophecy does not come totally true then we know that this prophet is false. If it comes true then we continue this a few times until we are certain that this is a true prophet. Rambam does not specify how many times.

Rambam (p. 6) then goes on to say that a prophecy for a bad thing does not have to come true because G-d may change His mind. However, a prophecy for a good thing must come true "in order to prove the truth of their prophecy to people." This, of course, is based on the Gemara in Berachot 7a.

However, there is an exception to this rule. Rambam notes that Ya'akov our forefather was scared that something bad might happen to him (Genesis 32:8) even though G-d had already promised him in a prophecy that he would be fine (ibid. 28:15). Why was Ya'akov scared? The Gemara in Berachot 4a says that Ya'akov was scared because his sins might cause G-d to change His mind. Yet, Rambam asks, Ya'akov received a prophecy that he would survive and a prophecy for a good thing must come true. Rambam explains that this rule that a good prophecy must come true only applies to public prophecies, those that the prophet is commanded to tell others. These prophecies must come true because otherwise "there would be no way left in which we can prove a prophecy to be true." However, a personal prophecy, one given to the prophet for himself, does not need to be proven. He knows that G-d spoke to him. Therefore, a private prophecy for good does not have to come true.

Second Return to Israel

It can be asked on the Rambam that the very Gemara that discusses Ya'akov brings another example of a good prophecy that did not come true. Based on the verse in Exodus (15:16), the Gemara says that the Jews who entered Israel in Ezra's time were supposed to witness miracles like in Yehoshua's time but their sins prevented it. Does this not contradict the Rambam's principle (that is based on the Gemara)? Moshe said a prophecy for good but it did not come true because of people's sins.

The answer to this, given by R' Yechezkel Landau in his Tzelach on Berachot (4a sv re'uyim), is quite obvious. The Rambam said twice that the reason a good prophecy must always come true is so that we will be able to test prophets and know that they are true. However, Moshe had already been proven to be the ultimate prophet and needed no testing. Does it not say (Exodus 19:9), "And even in you they will believe forever"? Since there is no question that Moshe was a true prophet, the rule that a good prophecy must always come true, even when undeserved, does not apply. A careful reading of the Rambam's words will show that this is his true intention.

Chulda's Prophecy

Another question that can be raised is that in 2 Kings (22:20) Chulda the prophetess told the king Josiah that he would be laid in his tomb in peace. Yet in 2 Chronicles (35:23) it says that King Josiah was shot by archers during battle. Is this not a case of a phrophecy for good that did not come true? It is not, as the very next verse in 2 Chronicles demonstrates. Rather, Josiah was only injured in battle and he was brought back to Jerusalem, died there, was buried in his ancestral tomb, and was mourned by all of Judah. He truly was laid in his tomb in peace, as Chulda prophesied.

Jeremiah's Seventy Years

The next questioin that has been asked is a little puzzling. Jeremiah said (29:10) that after seventy years in the Babylonian exile, G-d would bring the Jews back to Israel. As a comfort to those who would soon be exiled, Jeremiah told them that the exile would be short. The Gemara in Megillah (12a) says that Daniel, while in Babylonia, tried to calculate when the seventy years ended and made a mistake in the calculations. How is this a problem with Jeremiah's prophecy? He told them that the exile would be short and Daniel was slightly mistaken about how short. In fact, the book of Ezra begins by demonstrating that this prophecy came true (see Ezra 1:1-4).

Indeed, this prophecy came true in many different ways. Esther Rabbah (2:11) tells us based on Esther (1:7) that Achashverosh used utensils from the Holy Temple. However, this is difficult because in Ezra (1:7-8) we are told that Cyrus had previously sent the utensils from the Temple to Israel. If the utensils had already been sent to Israel, how could Achashverosh use them in Shushan? The Ramban (Chiddushim on Talmud, Megillah, end of first chapter) answers this beautifully. We know from Daniel (1:2) that when Yehoyakim was exiled, some of the utensils from the Temple were taken to Babylonia. Eighteen years later, when the Temple was destroyed, the remaining utensils were taken (Jeremiah 52:17-23).

Seventy years after Yehoyakim's exile, in fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophecy, Cyrus gave the Jews permission to return to Israel and rebuild the Holy Temple (Ezra 1:1). This did not end up allowing the Jews to rebuild the Temple, as explained in the book of Ezra, because it had only been fifty two years since the destruction of the Temple. However, some people and, as Ramban points out, some but not all utensils were allowed to return to Israel. The remaining utensils stayed in exile until seventy years from their exile had passed. Not only was Jeremiah's prophecy fulfilled, it was even fulfilled with the utensils of the Temple.

Isaiah's Prophecies

It is also asked that Isaiah (13:17) says that the Medes will conquer Babylonia when it was really the Persians who conquered it. This question is puzzling because Darius the Mede conquered Babylonia (Daniel 5:30-6:1). Is that not a fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy?

Isaiah (13:19-20) says that Babylonia will be destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah and will remain uninhabited forever. Did that come true? We recommend that anyone who questions this prophecy visit the city of Babylon. It is nothing but a mound that only archaeologists visit. Compare that to Jerusalem and Alexandria which are still inhabited today.

In Isaiah 7:8, Isaiah tells Achaz that in sixty five years Ephraim will cease being a people. However, the kingdom of Israel was actually conquered twenty two ears after the beginning of Achaz's reign. It seems to us that it would not be a false prophecy if the punishment came quicker than originally prophesied. This only means that the sins of the people made G-d even angrier.

However, Rashi quotes Seder Olam that the sixty five years began at the beginning of Isaiah's prophecies. While the arrangement of the books of the Bible do not imply this, the historical truth is that Isaiah and Amos lived at the same time and prophesied basically the same things to the same people. If you start counting from the beginning of Amos' prophecy (two years before Isaiah), which is justified because Isaiah essentially continued Amos' job, then there are sixty five years from the beginning of these types of prophecies to the destruction of the kingdom of Israel. Is this necessary to prove that Isaiah was not a false prophet? We do not think so. (See also Da'at Mikra's important commentary to this verse.)

While discussing Isaiah's prophecies, let us look at one of his prophecies that was so accurate that modern scholars are forced to say that Isaiah did not really write it but that it was written later. However, those of us who believe in prophecy know that this was the word of G-d through Isaiah. About the mighty Persian conqueror Cyrus, who came to power many years after Isaiah's prophecy, Isaiah (45:1-3) says:

Thus said the Lord to Cyrus, His anointed one - whose right hand He has grasped, treading down nations before him, ungirding the loins of kings, opening doors before him and letting no gate stay shut: I will march before you and level the hills that loom up. I will shatter doors of bronze and cut down iron bars. I will give you treasures concealed in the dark and secret hoards - so that you may know that I am the Lord, the G-d of Israel ,who call you by name.

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Contributor(s): Gil Student
Last revised: 10/17/01
© Aishdas 2001