R. Yochanan said: From the day that the Holy Temple was destroyed, prophecy was taken away from the prophets and given to fools and children. “To fools.” What does this mean? It is like what happened to Mar bar Rav Ashi who was standing in the marketplace of Mechuza and heard a fool saying, “The person being appointed to lead the academy in Mechasya signs his name ‘Tavyumi.’” He [Mar ben Rav Ashi] said [to himself]: “Who among the rabbis signs his name ‘Tavyumi’? I do! This means it is a fortunate time for me.” He arose and went [to Mechasya] but by the time he arrived the rabbis had voted to appoint Rav Acha of Difti as the head [of the academy]. When the rabbis [in the academy in Mechasya] heard that [Mar bar Rav Ashi] had arrived, they sent a pair of rabbis to consult him. He kept the pair there. They sent another pair of rabbis. He held them [the second pair] there. [The rabbis continued to send rabbis in pairs to visit Mar ben Rav Ashi] until he had ten. [Then Mar bar Rav Ashi] began to teach and expound [to the ten assembled rabbis sent by the academy at Mechasya]. Because one does not begin to expound with a group of fewer than ten people.
In Ten Minutes of Talmud #5 we saw the Rabbis wrestling with whether their Torah—the halakhic decisions they made—falls under the rubric of prophecy. In claiming divine authority for their decisions, they effectively claim some sort of prophecy. The Bet Midrash, however, operates by discussion, debate, logical reasoning, precedent, rabbinic hermeneutics (rules of textual interpretation), and ultimately democracy. They may not all agree, but after the vote is taken, everyone is expected to “incline with the majority.”
R. Yochanan asserts that since the Destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., prophecy is entrusted only to fools and children. How could one possibly know whether the words of fools (the term shotim includes deranged individuals) and children are indeed divine communications or simple the product of their imaginations? And who would trust either to convey God’s will reliably? Talmud supplies two examples: prophecy from “fools” and from children (see below).
Mar bar Rav Ashi hears a “fool” in the marketplace of Mechuza saying that the rabbis in the academy in Mechasya will appoint him over his rival, Rav Acha of Difti, to lead them. The manner in which the fool identifies the future leader of the academy in Mechasya is bizarre: someone who signs his name “Tavyumi,” which as far as Mar bar Rav Ashi knows, applies only to him among all the rabbis. He therefore travels to Mechasya to claim his prize, only to learn that the rabbis have just voted to appoint Rav Acha of Difti as their head. When they learn that Mar bar Rav Ashi is in town, however, they send two rabbis to secure his approval and permission to appoint his rival. Mar bar Rav Ashi, it appears, has a plan. He detains the two rabbis; when they do not return, their colleagues assume they did not complete their task. Therefore two more rabbis are sent. Mar bar Rav Ashi delays them, as well. In pairs, rabbis arrive, until Mar bar Rav Ashi has assembled a minyan of rabbis. He thereupon formally addresses them and successfully convinces them that he will be the superior leader. Mar bar Rav Ashi is appointed in place of Rav Acha of Difti.
Aside from the chutzpah factor evident here, we might wonder: Did the rabbis change their minds and install Mar bar Rav Ashi to head the academy at Mechasya in fulfillment of the prophecy? Or did Mar bar Rav Ashi implement a crassly political scheme emboldened by the fool’s words? Or perhaps the prophecy provided an opening for Mar bar Rav Ashi to confidently prove his qualifications and secure a position for which he was eminently qualified? It would seem that if the fool’s words were genuine prophecy, Mar bar Rav Ashi’s fortunes would be secured without having to go through the machinations of delaying the rabbis and addressing them as a candidate for office.
It appears that the Rabbis are deeply conflicted about the notion of prophecy: Does it exist at all any longer? Does God communicate directly with anyone? The notion that God communicates only to fools and children reflects the Rabbis’ sense that at least since the calamity of Roman rule in the Land of Israel, culminating in the Destruction of the Second Temple, God was far less involved with the world than previously. For them, God was distance and out-of-touch.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
1. Do you believe that prophecy exists? If so, how would you recognize a genuine prophet, or genuine prophecy?
2. Another hint that the Rabbis understood R. Yochanan’s statement as debasing prophecy is the story they tell to illustrate the prophecy given to children:
Rav Chisda’s daughter was once sitting on her father’s lap. Rava and Rami bar Chama were sitting before Rav Chisda. He [jokingly] said to her: “Which of these two do you want [to marry]?” She said: “Both of them.” Rava said: “[I want to be] last.”There are only two ways that Rav Chisda’s daughter could marry both scholars: either she was divorced from the first and married the second, or her first husband died and she married the second man. Rava sardonically prefers being the second husband to assure that he does not die early. The Talmud understands her statement to have come to pass. Does this mean that a child acting childishly is spouting prophecy? Hardly.
3. Psychologists have explained the power of self-fulfilling prophecies in our lives. They are fueled by our expectations. Two types of self-fulfilling prophecies often seen in the educational and organizational realms are the Pygmalion Effect (higher expectations lead to increased performance) and the Golem Effect (lower expectations lead to lower performance). Have you witnessed either of these or experienced them in your life?