Prophecy and Legislation After Moses
Moses the Lawgiver
One unique feature of Moses as a prophet is that he receives revelation about laws and statutes that Israel is bound to keep in the future, even after his death. As Moses reminds the Israelites, after God gave them the Decalogue on Mount Horeb:
דברים ד:יד וְאֹתִי צִוָּה יְ־הוָה בָּעֵת הַהִוא לְלַמֵּד אֶתְכֶם חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים לַעֲשֹׂתְכֶם אֹתָם בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.
Deut 4:14 At the same time YHWH commanded me to impart to you laws and statutes for you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy.
Moreover, these statues must be kept continuously, throughout Israel’s sojourn in the land, and cannot be changed or adjusted:
דברים ד:א וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל שְׁמַע אֶל הַחֻקִּים וְאֶל הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְלַמֵּד אֶתְכֶם לַעֲשׂוֹת לְמַעַן תִּחְיוּ וּבָאתֶם וִירִשְׁתֶּם אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵיכֶם נֹתֵן לָכֶם. ד:ב לֹא תֹסִפוּ עַל הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם וְלֹא תִגְרְעוּ מִמֶּנּוּ לִשְׁמֹר אֶת מִצְוֹת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם.
Deut 4:1 And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and statutes that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that YHWH, the God of your fathers, is giving you. 4:2 You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it,but keep the commandments of YHWH your God that I enjoin upon you.
One way to understand this prohibition of neither adding to nor subtracting from the law is that it applies only to regular people, but YHWH himself may change the laws later and send a prophet to inform the Israelites of this. Nevertheless, the traditional understanding of the passage is that the commandments of the Torah are never to be altered. Yet such an interpretation seems to be in tension with a different passage, dealing with post-Mosaic prophecy:
דברים יח:טו נָבִיא מִקִּרְבְּךָ מֵאַחֶיךָ כָּמֹנִי יָקִים לְךָ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֵלָיו תִּשְׁמָעוּן.
Deut 18:15 YHWH your God will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people, like myself; him you shall heed.
Already at Mount Horeb (vv. 16–17), when the Israelites express their fear of directly hearing the divine voice, God confirms that a prophet like Moses will appear in the future, who will serve as an intermediary between God and Israel:
דברים יח:יח נָבִיא אָקִים לָהֶם מִקֶּרֶב אֲחֵיהֶם כָּמוֹךָ וְנָתַתִּי דְבָרַי בְּפִיו וְדִבֶּר אֲלֵיהֶם אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּנּוּ. יח:יט וְהָיָה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמַע אֶל דְּבָרַי אֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר בִּשְׁמִי אָנֹכִי אֶדְרֹשׁ מֵעִמּוֹ.
Deut 18:18 I will raise up a prophet for them from among their own people, like yourself: I will put My words in his mouth and he will speak to them all that I command him; 18:19 and if anybody fails to heed the words he speaks in My name, I myself will call him to account.
But if the revelation at Horeb is unchangeable, what would the function of a “prophet like Moses” be?
Like Moses but Not Like Moses
Moses is unique in the Bible in his level of his prophecy:
דברים לד:י וְלֹא קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ יְ־הוָה פָּנִים אֶל פָּנִים.
Deut 34:10 Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses whom YHWH singled out, face to face.
Nevertheless, communicating God’s laws is not Moses’ only prophetic activity. Like other prophets, he receives messages relevant only to his specific time and place, such as how to find water in the wilderness and warning the Israelites that they have angered YHWH. This is a kind of prophecy about which we read in the books of the Prophets, who call for Israel to stop sinning and turn back to God, and even offer political advice such as not to rebel against Babylonia.
The context of Deuteronomy 18 suggests that it is speaking of the future function of prophets: rebuking Israel and predicting future events. Immediately before, Moses tells the Israelites:
דברים יח:יד כִּי הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה יוֹרֵשׁ אוֹתָם אֶל מְעֹנְנִים וְאֶל קֹסְמִים יִשְׁמָעוּ וְאַתָּה לֹא כֵן נָתַן לְךָ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.
Deut 18:14 Those nations that you are about to dispossess do indeed resort to soothsayers and augurs; to you, however, YHWH your God has not assigned the like.
In other words, the “prophet like Moses” replaces augurs, who typically tell people about the future and give advice on contemporary problems. The prophet can tell the Israelites if God is angry or happy with them, and if God will allow them to succeed in battle and other initiatives.
This is confirmed later in the passage, in the discussion of how Israel will know whether a prophet is legitimate or not:
דברים יח:כא וְכִי תֹאמַר בִּלְבָבֶךָ אֵיכָה נֵדַע אֶת הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא דִבְּרוֹ יְ־הוָה. יח:כב אֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר הַנָּבִיא בְּשֵׁם יְ־הוָה וְלֹא יִהְיֶה הַדָּבָר וְלֹא יָבוֹא הוּא הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא דִבְּרוֹ יְ־הוָה בְּזָדוֹן דִּבְּרוֹ הַנָּבִיא לֹא תָגוּר מִמֶּנּוּ.
Deut 18:21 And should you ask yourselves, “How can we know that the oracle was not spoken by YHWH?” 18:22 if the prophet speaks in the name of YHWH and the oracle does not come true, that oracle was not spoken by YHWH; the prophet has uttered it presumptuously: do not stand in dread of him.
The focus here is on the fulfillment of oracles and predictions, not new laws.
Torah Laws are Perfect: Rabbinic Interpretation
The rabbis understood “prophets like Moses” to be predictors of the future, and rebukers, not legislators. They even read this idea into other passages. For instance, the concluding verse of Leviticus and its Holiness Collection reads:
ויקרא כז:לד אֵלֶּה הַמִּצְוֹת אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ־הוָה אֶת מֹשֶׁה אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהַר סִינָי.
Lev 27:34 These are the commandments that YHWH gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai.
On this, the Babylonian Talmud comments (b. Shabbat 104a):
אלה המצות—שאין נביא רשאי לחדש דבר מעתה.
“These are the commandments”—For from now on, a prophet is not permitted to add anything new.
This implies that God’s revelation to Moses is perfect just as it is. While Deuteronomy can be understood to say that the revelation is to last only as long as Israel resides on YHWH’s land, the rabbis understood the Torah’s legislation to be permanently valid. Meaning, in all times and in all places, the laws remains permanently in force.
Accordingly, the rabbis took the point to its logical conclusion: Not only is it impossible for a post-Mosaic prophet to change any of the commandments—even God cannot. The rabbis supported this argument with a homiletical reading of the inspirational speech of Moses toward the end of Deuteronomy:
דברים ל:יא כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לֹא נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא. ל:יב לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲלֶה לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה.
Deut 30:11 Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond your reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”… 30:14 No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.
This passage seems to mean that fulfillment of the Torah does not exceed the limits of human capacity. Nevertheless, the rabbis read it differently (b. Baba Metzia 59b):
מאי לא בשמים היא? א"ר ירמיה אין משגיחין בבת קול שכבר נתת לנו על הר סיני.
What does “it is not in the heavens” mean? Rabbi Jeremiah said: “We do not pay attention to heavenly voices, for [the Torah] was already given to us at Mount Sinai.”
In other words, there is no additional Torah in heaven that we await God to reveal. This, too, implies that the original revelation God gave to Moses is perfect as is, so that no amendments are possible even if they come from God.
Maimonides’ Codification: Additional Legislation Is a Sign of False Prophecy
Codifying rabbinic thinking, Maimonides argues that anyone who tries to amend Torah law is by definition a false prophet (Mishneh Torah, “Book of Knowledge,” Laws of Basic Principles, 9.1):
דבר ברור ומפורש בתורה שהיא מצוה עומדת לעולם ולעולמי עולמים אין לה לא שינוי ולא גרעון ולא תוספת שנאמר את כל הדבר אשר אנכי מצוה אתכם אותו תשמרון לעשות לא תוסף עליו ולא תגרע ממנו ונאמר והנגלות לנו ולבנינו עד עולם לעשות את כל דברי התורה הזאת.
It is clear and explicit in the Torah that its laws remain valid for all time; they will never change, be subtracted from, or added to, as it says (Deut 13:1), “Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it.” And it says (Deut 29:28), “Overt acts are for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching.”
הא למדת שכל דברי תורה מצווין אנו לעשותן עד עולם וכן הוא אומר חוקת עולם לדורותיכם, ונאמר לא בשמים היא. הא למדת שאין נביא רשאי לחדש דבר מעתה.
From this you learn that we are commanded to keep all the words of the Torah forever. And thus it says, “a permanent law throughout your generations.” And it says (Deut 30:12), “It is not in heaven.” From this you learn that no prophet is allowed to add anything new from now on.
לפיכך אם יעמוד איש בין מן האומות בין מישראל ויעשה אות ומופת ויאמר שה' שלחו להוסיף מצוה או לגרוע מצוה או לפרש במצוה מן המצות פירוש שלא שמענו ממשה, או שאמר שאותן המצות שנצטוו בהן ישראל אינן לעולם ולדורי דורות אלא מצות לפי זמן היו, הרי זה נביא שקר שהרי בא להכחיש נבואתו של משה, ומיתתו בחנק על שהזיד לדבר בשם ה' אשר לא צוהו, שהוא ברוך שמו צוה למשה שהמצוה הזאת לנו ולבנינו עד עולם ולא איש אל ויכזב.
Therefore, if a person whether from the nations or from the Jews stands up and performs a miracle or wonder, and says that God has sent him to add a commandment or to subtract a commandment, or to explain a commandment in a way different from the interpretation we received from Moses, or if he says that those commandments which Israel was commanded do not apply forever, throughout the generations, but that they were applicable only for a certain time—this is a false prophet, for he has come to contradict the prophecy of Moses. His execution should take place by suffocation, for he has willfully spoken in God’s name without having been commanded to do so, for the Blessed One commanded Moses that these commandments will be for us and our children throughout time, and “God is not a man to be capricious” (Num 23:19).
Maimonides continues by taking up the Deuteronomy 18 problem referenced above (law #2):
א"כ למה נאמר בתורה נביא אקים להם מקרב אחיהם כמוך, לא לעשות דת הוא בא אלא לצוות על דברי התורה ולהזהיר העם שלא יעברו עליה, כמו שאמר האחרון שבהן זכרו תורת משה עבדי, וכן אם צונו בדברי הרשות כגון לכו למקום פלוני או אל תלכו, עשו מלחמה היום או אל תעשו, בנו חומה זו או אל תבנוה, מצוה לשמוע לו והעובר על דבריו חייב מיתה בידי שמים שנאמר והיה האיש אשר לא ישמע אל דברי הנביא אשר ידבר בשמי אנכי אדרוש מעמו.
If so, why does the Torah say (Deut 18:18), “I will raise up a prophet for them from among their own people, like yourself”? [This prophet] is not coming to make law, but to reinforce the words of the Torah and to warn the people not to violate them. Just as the final prophet says (Mal 3:22), “remember the Torah of Moses my servant.” Also, [to tell us] if we are commanded about things that are otherwise optional, such as going to a certain place or not going, making war today or not making war, building a certain wall or not building it, it is a commandment to listen to him, and one who violates his words is liable to execution by the heavenly court, as it says (Deut 18:19), “and if anybody fails to heed the words he speaks in My name, I myself will call him to account.”
What About All the Jewish Practices not in the Torah?
If it is forbidden to add new legislation, how can we explain laws in rabbinic Judaism that do not appear in the Torah, e.g., lighting candles on Friday night, putting up an eruvim, or celebrating Chanukah and Purim? The traditional answer is that Moses received two Torahs on Mount Sinai, one written and one oral (Sifrei Deuteronomy 351):
ותורתך לישראל. מלמד ששתי תורות ניתנו לישראל אחת בפה ואחת בכתב
“And your teachings (lit. Torahs) to Israel” (Deut 33:10)—This teaches that two Torahs were given to Israel: One was oral and one was written.
According to the rabbis, the Oral Torah contains knowledge of the social practices, legal procedures, and interpretive principles needed to interpret and apply the written laws. As the rabbis understood it, the two Torahs do not constitute two bodies of law but rather one body given by God with the full weight of Mosaic authority behind it.
It follows that normative practices not mentioned in the written Torah were given to Moses and passed on by word of mouth to post-Mosaic prophets, and eventually to the rabbis of the Talmud. Thus, for the rabbis, practices not mentioned in the written Torah do not constitute additions to the original revelation that Moses received from God.
This explanation, however, cannot justify all rabbinic laws. Take Chanukah, for example. Not only does the Torah never mention Chanukah, but it cannot, since this holiday commemorates events that occurred many centuries after the Torah was written. Even so, rabbinic tradition requires the lighting of candles on Chanukah with a blessing, noting that this constitutes a divine commandment. This bothered the rabbis (b. Shabbat 23a):
מאי מברך? אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו להדליק נר של חנוכה. היכן צונו? רב אויא אמר: מלא תסור. רב נחמן בר יצחק אמר: שאל אביך ויגדך.
What is the blessing? “Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light.” Where were we commanded? Rabbi Avya says: “From ‘Do not deviate’ (Deut 17:11).” Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak says: “‘Ask your father and he will tell you’ (Deut 32:7).”
The rabbis, knowing that to suggest that Moses was aware of the events commemorated by Chanukah strains credulity, explained this commandment in reference to the Torah commandment that the Israelites must listen to their leaders.
In making this claim, the rabbis distinguish between:
- New commandments originating in a new revelation;
- New commandments adopted by a rabbinic court.
Only the former constitutes a forbidden “addition” to the Torah, because such laws claim to derive their authority from a divine revelation. This leads to what some may consider a paradox: it is the person who claims to be a prophet and to have heard the voice of God is illegitimate, while the person who does not claim prophetic authority and defends his view on the basis of a reasoned argument is within their rights.
What about Prophecy?
Legislation after Moses is in the hands of the rabbis rather than the prophets, but shouldn’t prophecy itself continue throughout the generations? According to the rabbis, the age of prophecy came to an end in the early Second Temple Period, with Malachi as the final prophet. While the rabbis are aware of claims to prophecy that post-date this period, they respond to it with contempt (b. Baba Batra 12b):
אמר רבה בר בר חנה א'ר יוחנן: מיום שחרב בית המקדש נטלה נבואה מן הנביאים וניתנה לשוטים ולתינוקות.
Rabbah bar bar Chana said in the name of R. Yohanan: “From the day that the Temple was destroyed, all prophecy has been taken away from prophets and given to fools and children.”
According to this, since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., God no longer reveals anything to people. Simply put: we have everything we are ever going to get. All that matters now is how we understand what we have.
Postscript: But Aren’t There Still Prophets of a Sort?
While the claim that prophecy ended long ago reflects the rabbinic view, any number of Jewish luminaries in the medieval period believed that they received mystical or esoteric knowledge from God. For example, ecstatic kabbalists such as Abraham Abulafia (1240-1291) claimed to have prophetic knowledge.
This alternative view, according to which God continues to communicate with people, was adopted and defended by the modern Jewish philosopher from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972). In fact, Heschel regarded Maimonides as a prophet, while some have suggested that Heschel himself should be regarded as a prophet.
Heschel argues that people still experience the voice of God and communicate it. To eliminate prophecy would be to rob Judaism of the spontaneity and vitality that were prevalent in ancient times. Needless to say, modern prophets both experience and communicate their revelations differently than their biblical predecessors, since in this day and age, few people would pay heed to someone who defended their position by proclaiming: “Thus says the LORD.”
Heschel’s position is appealing, but it comes with a price. At a fundamental level, it jeopardizes Mosaic supremacy and the guaranteed stability of Judaism based on Torah law. By claiming that the age of prophecy is over, the rabbis sought to uphold the supremacy of Moses’ prophecy and avoid all the problems associated with God’s promise to raise up other prophets—most especially the prospect of the Torah being amended.
The price the rabbis pay for this view is that for anyone living after the destruction of the Second Temple, the voice of God can only be heard as part of a historical narrative and no longer as a living force. Which approach is preferable religiously speaking remains an open question.
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August 21, 2020
October 8, 2020
Prof. Kenneth Seeskin is Professor of Philosophy and Philip M. and Ethel Klutznick Professor of Jewish Civilization at Northwestern University. He received his Ph.D in Philosophy from Yale University in 1972 and has been at Northwestern ever since. He specializes in the rationalist tradition in Jewish philosophy with an emphasis on Maimonides. Publications include Maimonides on the Origin of the World (CUP, 2005), Jewish Messianic Thoughts in an Age of Despair (CUP, 2012), and Thinking about the Torah: A Philosopher Reads the Bible (JPS, 2016).
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