All About Prophecy

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I. Importance of Prophecy

This summer, I am giving classes on prophecy, based in chapter 7 of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Yesodei Ha-Torah (I will be using the Touger translation). This chapter is the Rambam’s primary Hebrew discussion of prophecy. However, he discusses the subject at great length in many places in his Arabic writings. In his commentary on the Mishnah, in his introduction to Avos known commonly as Shemoneh Perakim (ch. 7), he even refers to a Book of Prophecy that he was planning to write, which some think turned into his Moreh Nevukhim, Guide for the Perplexed.

There are many reasons the Rambam discusses prophecy so much but one that I think is most important. Prophecy, revelation, is God’s communication with us. It offers us ultimate truth, which serves as the basis of our religion. Prophecy is also a philosophical problem. Through what mechanism does the heavenly God connect with the earthly man? In addition to all this, there is a basic problem facing Judaism.

My Christian colleagues are often confused about what Jews think about Jesus. They grew up in a community that worships him, literally, and have trouble relating to anything to the contrary. When I am asked what Jews think about Jesus, I explain it with an analogy: To Muslims, Muhammad was the holy prophet who revealed God’s word and restored monotheism to an idolatrous world. To Christians, Muhammad was just some guy who started a new religion. Similarly, to Christians, Jesus was the resurrected son of God who revealed a new covenant. To Jews, he was just some guy who started a new religion. Jews view Jesus just like Christians view Muhammad. Someone whom others consider holy but we do not. In my experience, this analogy works even if it isn’t sufficient.

If we turn this analogy into a dispute, it would go some thing like this:

Christian: Jesus was the son of God.
Jew: No, he wasn’t.
Christian: Yes, he was.
Jew: No, he wasn’t, etc., etc.

And we could have the same unproductive dispute with a Muslim about Muhammad. The Rambam was smarter than that. When Christians and Muslims argued the Jesus or Muhammad were prophets who changed the laws of the Bible, Rambam had a better answer. Rather than saying “no they weren’t,” as I would, effectively Rambam responded, “it doesn’t matter.” By describing prophecy in detail and explaining why Moshe’s prophecy was qualitatively different from anyone else’s, Rambam rebutted all claims that Judaism has been replaced by later prophecies. The Christians and Muslims can say that they had prophets and our response is that no other prophet can be like Moshe, as the Torah itself says (Deut. 34:10). I believe that this was a factor in Rambam’s continued emphasis on prophecy, which of course does not detract from the truth of his statements and explanations.

II. Fundamental Principle

It is [one] of the foundations of [our] faith that God conveys prophecy to man.

Rambam begins the chapter (Yesodei Ha-Torah 7:1) by declaring that one of the religious foundations of Judaism is that God gives prophecy to man. Of the 13 fundamental principles of faith, prophecy is the sixth. The first five relate to God. The next four, six through nine, are about the Torah. Rambam writes explicitly in Moreh Nevukhim (2:45) that without prophecy, there is no Torah. Someone who rejects prophecy, rejects the Torah, effectively rejecting Judaism.

To reverse the equation, if God created people with an intention to guide them on what is right and wrong, He would have to communicate with them in some way. That communication is prophecy. The Ran (Derashos Ha-Ran, no. 5, p. 61) frames this an argument for the logical necessity of prophecy. It is well known, he tells us, that God created the world so people will worship Him. Therefore, there must be a way for people to learn how to accomplish this, i.e. prophecy.

I don’t find this argument compelling. It is possible that God expects people to intuitively arrive at definitions of good and bad, as some define the Noahide commandments. Maybe most people will get it wrong, but we can do our best and the smartest among us will succeed.

III. What is Prophecy?

Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 2:36) distinguishes between the rational and imaginative faculties of the mind. The rational faculty is where abstract thought and reasoning take place. The imaginative faculty takes the impressions of the senses (sight, touch, etc.) and turns them into images. Prophecy is sent to the rational faculty and then overflows into the imaginative faculty. Which means that depending on a prophet’s rational and imaginative abilities, he will have either more or less clear of a prophetic vision. Rambam adds that a person’s moral perfection also contributes to his prophetic ability, which leads to the qualifications of prophecy.

Rambam further says that someone lacking in his imaginative faculty may still receive a prophetic emanation as a type of intellectual insight–a spark of brilliance. We will return to this another time. In contrast, someone with a strong imaginative faculty but a weak rational faculty may receive a prophetic emanation as a political visionary or a fortune teller. With their small taste of prophecy, they are able to see far.

IV. Requirements of Prophecy

Rambam (Yesodei Ha-Torah 7:1) continues with the requirements of prophecy:

Prophecy is bestowed only upon a very wise sage of a strong character, who is never overcome by his natural inclinations in any regard. Instead, with his mind, he overcomes his natural inclinations at all times. He must [also] possess a very broad and accurate mental capacity.



The Gemara (Nedarim 38a) states that God only rests His presence on someone who is wise (chakham), strong (gibor), wealthy (ashir) and modest (anav). Elsewhere (Shabbos 92a) the list is slightly different: wise (chakham), strong (gibor), wealthy (ashir) and tall (ba’al komah). The Gemara derives these qualifications from descriptions of Moshe. However, the first three are clearly based also on the following passage in Yirmiyahu (Jer. 9:22-23):

Thus says the Lord: Let not the wise man glorify in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glorify in his might, let not the rich man glorify in his riches. But let him that glorifies glorify in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises mercy, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.

It seems from the Rambam’s other writings that his text of the Gemara omitted modest and tall, and spoke of prophecy resting based on these three qualifications, rather than the divine presence resting. This seems to have been a common Sephardic version of the text. However, we still have two questions. First, if the prophet says that these three things–wisdom, might and wealth–are not worthy of glorifying, why does prophecy require them? Second, why doesn’t the Rambam list all three qualifications?

The Malbim (Jer. 9:23) explains this passage beautifully. Wisdom, might and wealth are not praiseworthy on their own. These are not the kinds of traits to which a religious person should strive. However, when they are used as a means toward knowing God, they become praiseworthy. While the Malbim does not take his explanation in this direction, we can add that implicit in this passage as explained by the Malbim is the idea that wisdom, might and wealth are tools for knowing God, prophecy.

Rambam (Shemonah Perakim, ch. 7) explains these qualifications for prophecies non-literally. He breaks the qualifications into two categories: intellectual and moral. Wise means acquiring all types of knowledge, growing your intellect. A prophet must fulfill this requirement completely. Strong, mighty means overcoming your evil inclination and wealthy means being content, as Ben Zoma teaches in Avos (4:1): “Who is mighty? One who conquers his inclination… Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his lot.” Rambam combines mighty and wealthy into one category of moral qualifications, proper character traits, which must be fulfilled mostly but not necessarily completely. However, if they are basically the same, why does the Gemara need to list both? I don’t have a solid answer to this question but I note that Rambam differentiates between to two behavioral qualifications. He seems to say that might refers to acting properly, based on appropriate balance, while wealth refers to attitudes. While they are both moral concerns, might is behavioral and wealth is attitudinal. Only behavioral is mentioned in Mishneh Torah, not the attitude. Perhaps the next part, about a “broad and accurate mental capacity” derives from the wealth, attitudinal qualification.

R. Touger translates Rambam’s phrase “ba’al dei’ah rechavah nekhonah ad me’od” as “He must [also] possess a very broad and accurate mental capacity.” Rav Nachum Rabinovich disagrees with this translation. In his Yad Peshutah commentary (ad loc., p. 142), he suggests that “dei’ah” here refers not to intellectual knowledge but to character traits (as in Hilkhos Dei’os). This phrase means that an aspiring prophet must follow the golden mean in his character traits, as Rambam prescribes in Hilkhos Dei’os (2:7). In this passage, “dei’ah” contrasts with “da’as,” which appears shortly and refers to intellectual knowledge. You can overcome your evil inclination every time by engage in extreme behaviors. As the Rambam explains in Hilkhos Dei’os, extremes are less than ideal. Therefore, the Rambam has to add here that a prophet must not only overcome his inclination, he must do so through moderation rather than extremes. This might be the wealth mentioned in the Gemara, interpreted by the Rambam as contentment and more broadly as proper moral attitudes.

The Ran (Derashos Ha-Ran, no. 3, pp. 37-38; no. 5, p. 61) challenges the Rambam’s non-literal explanation of the Gemara’s qualifications for prophecy. First, the Gemara learns these qualifications from Moshe and clearly takes them literally. Also, in listing modest, the Gemara already accounted for proper character traits (Ran clearly had this in his text, although Rambam did not). Rather, Ran explains that a prophet must be respected by the populace in order to exert influence. A tall, strong and wealthy man–someone charismatic–will find his religious teachings taken seriously.

Rav Yitzchak Arama (Akeidas Yitzchak, no. 35 pp. 17b-18a) also takes these qualifications literally. A prophet has to be physically strong and wealthy to withstand the difficult life of a prophet. Not only is prophecy itself physically draining, the prophet must exert great energy and time teaching his messages to the people. This may even demand that he trek through the desert and absent him from his work for months or years at a time.

(to be continued)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

2 comments

  1. Rabbi Reuven Margulies, in his article “Conditions To Being Appointed To Be Part of The Sanhedrin” (which can be found in Sefer Margoliot from Mossad HaRav Kook), explains “height”, “good looks”, etc in a literal fashion, but that the meaning of those terms refer to different than what we assume.

    For example, for “baal koma” he finds several places in the midrashim that the anointing someone is called “raising his height”. For example, Vayikra Rabba 26, or Yalkut Tehillim 45.

    This is an alternate solution I found interesting, while not directly about conditions for prophecy.

  2. Interesting read. Look forward to the next part. On the analogy, another one with respect to Christianity would be as Mormonism is to mainstream Christianity, so Christianity is to Judaism.

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