G-d gave us His Torah. It is His instructions on how to live our lives. There are times when the sheep stray from the path and need to be brought back. For those times, G-d included the mechanism of prophecy that would (among other things) provide for timely help.
Who could be a prophet?
Anyone. To be more specific, anyone (man or woman) who had, over the course of a lifetime, perfected his Mitzvah-observance, his character, and his fear of G-d. Theoretically the job was open for anyone.
In addition to general spiritual preparation, a would-be prophet would normally study under someone older and more experienced to lay the groundwork for the exercise of speaking with G-d. After that, it was simply a matter of waiting until G-d chose to appear.
How would we recognize a prophet?
The Torah is quite clear about the need to confirm the authenticity of a prophet. Prophets were given so much credibility in Jewish law that a faker could have caused considerable damage. G-d gave us a simple test in order to weed out the pretenders.
"If a prophet or dreamer shall arise in your midst, and he gives to you a sign or wonder And the sign or wonder that he had mentioned shall come true, (and he) says let us go after other G-ds that you don't already know and let us serve them Do not listen to the words of this prophet or dreamer, because the L-rd your G-d is testing you..." (Deut. 13:2-4).
The test is very straightforward: if anyone comes to change, add, or subtract anything from the Torah, you can be sure that it's not the real thing. Even Pharaoh's magicians pulled off some pretty impressive tricks (Exodus, 7:11), but we didn't change religions then, did we?
Is propehcy still around today?
No. G-d doesn't "do tricks" for just anyone. Until the construction of the Second Temple (3408 - 352 BCE) the nation was still close enough to G-d and His service to merit the close contact of prophecy. But from that time on, we were just too far from our Creator. In a sense, our hearts were blocked by sin.
While the institution of prophecy has never been returned to us, its function has been partly filled by great Torah scholars possessing "Ruach Hakodesh" - the Divine spirit, a level of G-dly communication which is a step lower than prophecy. The books of the Prophets and later works of Torah also provide us with a source for Divine instruction.
Are there different types of prophecy?
Yes. While every word that G-d spoke to Moshe at Mt. Sinai was clearly and perfectly transmitted to the Jewish people, other prophets communicated their Divine visions within the context of their own personalities. It's a pillar of Jewish belief that none of the accepted prophets made up any of their prophecies, but nevertheless, their "Signon" - personality - affected the wording and the tone of their message. This "dilution" represents a lower level of Divine contact than that enjoyed by Moses.
Are the old prophets relevant to us today?
You bet. According to Jewish Tradition there were tens of thousands of prophets throughout the centuries leading up to the destruction of the First Temple. However, many of them were only given prophecy that were the immediate concern of the individuals of their generation. There was no need for these visions to be written down or preserved.
All the prophecies that make up our Bible (Tanach) carry a message for every generation, each according to its needs. Even though we don't seem to be steeped in idolatry these days and the prophets' preoccupation with it leaves us cold, we should re-examine their words. Perhaps broaden some of our definitions.
Rabbi Boruch Clinton teaches at the Ottawa Torah Institute yeshiva high
school and Machon Sarah high school for girls (both in Ottawa, Canada).
You may reach him with comments and questions at