How Can We Recognize a True Prophet?

How do we know to trust the past prophets of Israel – or a future one if one comes along? I know that we consider the Revelation at Sinai historically credible because it occurred so publicly. But all the other prophets received private communications from God – as many prophets of other religions have claimed. How are we to know that our prophets are true but the ones from other religions are not?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for sending your incisive question. You are right that it is critically important to have clear guidelines as to when to accept a prophet as authentic and when not. Except in the case of Moses’s prophecy at Sinai – which the entire nation witnessed (see Exodus 19:9), prophecy is by its nature a private experience. Everyone else, who is not on the level of prophecy, has to simply trust the prophet that his words are true. If so, what’s to stop any old kook or charlatan from claiming he’s been having mystical visions and inventing a new religion?

Maimonides (Hil’ Yesodei HaTorah 7:1,7) deals this topic at some length. The following discussion is based primarily on his writings.

Prophecy does not descend on a person out of nowhere. It is a level of communion with God only attainable to the most spiritually advanced individuals, and even for them only after long periods of intense preparation. In fact, in Biblical times there were “prophecy schools” (see e.g. I Kings 20:35, II Kings 2:3) – which would train especially ascetic students to develop the spiritual and Kabbalistic capacities for Divine encounter.

As a result, we would only entertain that a person is a prophet if he is known to be fully righteous – a master Torah scholar who has perfected his character traits and who is never ruled by his evil inclination or passions. If he then further separates himself from the ways of the world and devotes himself entirely to sanctity, he may attain prophecy. If he afterwards comes forward with the claim that he is a prophet – and he provides a miraculous sign to prove it, we believe him and follow his words.

If however any other person – i.e., one not known to be fully learned and righteous, claims prophecy, even if he performs a miracle, we dismiss him, assuming he is either imbalanced or a charlatan, and that his “miracle” was done via witchcraft or optical illusion. In Biblical times, such false prophets would be put to death. See Deut. 18:20-22.

In addition to this, the Torah provides some simple rules for determining if a prophet is authentic – see Deut. 13:2-6 & 18:20-22. The most important is that if a prophet attempts to change the laws of the Torah (in permanent fashion, rather than making a one-time exception, or regarding matters of idolatry even making a one-time exception – see Talmud Yevamot 90b, Sanhedrin 89b), we can conclude that he is a fraud – even if he had earlier been thought to be fully righteous and he does performs a wonder. This is because his prophecy contradicts the prophecy of Moses that God’s laws are eternal (see e.g. Deut. 29:28). And clearly, no other prophet can reach Moses’s level of direct communion with God. The Torah itself attests: “There did not arise another prophet in Israel as Moses” (Deut. 34:10). No prophet can override the Torah of Moses, and one who claims the laws of the Torah have changed or are no longer binding is by definition an imposter.

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