Sunday, September 03, 2006

What is Prophecy?

How does one become a prophet?

In Moreh 3:51 Rambam states:

When you understand Physics, you have entered the hall; and when, after completing the study of Natural Philosophy, you master Metaphysics, you have entered the innermost court, and are with the king in the same palace. You have attained the degree of the wise men, who include men of different grades of perfection.”

One step below prophets are the “wise men”, the scientists and philosophers who have mastered physics and metaphysics. They are not prophets yet. To become a prophet the “wise men” have to translate their knowledge into a state of mind:

There are some who direct all their mind toward the attainment of perfection in Metaphysics, turn wholly towards God, exclude from their thought every other thing, and employ all their intellectual faculties in the study of the Universe, in order to derive from it a proof with regard to God, so as to learn in every possible way how God rules all things; they form the class of those who have entered the palace, namely, the class of prophets. One of these [Moshe] has attained so much knowledge, and has concentrated his thoughts to such an extent in the idea of God, that it could be said of him, "And he was with the Lord forty days," etc. (Exod. xxxiv. 28); during that holy communion he could ask Him, answer Him, speak to Him, and be addressed by Him, enjoying beatitude in that which he had obtained to such a degree that "he did neither eat bread nor drink water" (ibid.); his intellectual energy was so predominant that all coarser functions of the body, especially those connected with the sense of touch, were in abeyance. Some prophets are only able to see, and of these some approach near and see, whilst others see from a distance.”

It is not enough just to know about God, a level attainable by us, (note how Rambam talks in first person until the ‘wise men” and switches to third person when talking about prophets), but one has to act on it by devoting all of one’s thoughts to God and the investigation of His actions. Only then can one become a prophet. In other words the essence of prophecy is apprehension of God and cleaving to Him. Knowledge of the future is only a by- product of prophecy.

Rambam in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 7:2 legislates this with feeling and eloquence:

אדם שהוא ממולא בכל המידות האלו, שלם בגופו, כשייכנס לפרדס ויימשך באותן העניינות הגדולים הרחוקים, ותהיה לו דעת נכונה להבין ולהשיג, והוא מתקדש והולך פורש מדרכי כלל העם ההולכים במחשכי הזמן, והולך מזרז עצמו ומלמד נפשו שלא תהיה לו מחשבה כלל באחד מדברים בטילים, ולא מהבלי הזמן ותחבולותיו, אלא דעתו תמיד פנויה למעלה, קשורה תחת הכיסא, להבין באותן הצורות הקדושות הטהורות, ומסתכל בחכמתו של הקדוש ברוך הוא כולה מצורה ראשונה עד טבור הארץ, ויודע מהם גודלו--מיד רוח הקודש שורה עליו.

What can a prophet expect to apprehend about God if he reaches a level of prophecy? Can anyone really get to know anything about God’s essence through prophecy? Rambam in his preface to the Moreh discusses this issue.

Do not imagine that these most difficult problems can be thoroughly understood by any one of us. This is not the case. At times the truth shines so brilliantly that we perceive it as clear as day. Our nature and habit then draw a veil over our perception, and we return to darkness almost as dense as before. We are like those who, though beholding frequent flashes of lightning, still find themselves in the thickest darkness of the night.”

The truth that we see in a flash of insight suddenly disappears and is gone. We cannot acquire a clear understanding only a fleeting insight into the truth. Even the greatest of all prophets, Moshe Rabbeinu -

On some the lightning flashes in rapid succession, and they seem to be in continuous light, and their night is as clear as the day. This was the degree of prophetic excellence attained by (Moses) the greatest of prophets, to whom God said, "But as for thee, stand thou here by Me" (Deut. v. 31), and of whom it is written "the skin of his face shone," etc. (Exod. xxxiv. 29).”

Even Moshe only “seems” to be in continuous light but in reality he knows that the God he is trying to grasp is ultimately unknowable. Much more so with the other prophets -

“[Some perceive the prophetic flash at long intervals; this is the degree of most prophets.] By others only once during the whole night is a flash of lightning perceived. This is the case with those of whom we are informed, "They prophesied, and did not prophesy again" (Num. xi. 25). There are some to whom the flashes of lightning appear with varying intervals; others are in the condition of men, whose darkness is illumined not by lightning, but by some kind of crystal or similar stone, or other substances that possess the property of shining during the night; and to them even this small amount of light is not continuous, but now it shines and now it vanishes, as if it were "the flame of the rotating sword”.

Those that see flashes of light are the prophets, those that see” the substances that possess the property of shining” are probably the philosophers and scientists with great insight, though Rambam does not make it clear here who he is referring to.

The picture we get of the prophet is that of a philosopher-scientist who has reached the heights of human knowledge and is searching for God, the unknowable God. That process brings him close to God, seeing “flashes of light” during the times he is able to divest himself from his physicality. God is not physical; He is transcendental and unique, totally incomprehensible to a physical human who can only apprehend something composed of matter and form. All a human can expect to get are momentary flashes of insight of what God is not. Prophecy is only a more advanced level in that ultimately endless search. So why search? If the goal is unattainable why put in so much effort into it? The answer is that the opportunity of experiencing that one flash of insight in a lifetime, even if it is not even direct light, just a reflection on a crystal, is worth all the effort. That is Olam Haba.

I was going to say that I am glad to be back but I have to be honest and admit that vacationing is a good thing. Maybe not at the level of Olam Haba but not that far from it! I will be continuing with a series of posts about prophecy because it is an important foundation that is the basis for many beliefs of Judaism and is the ultimate goal of a human being according to Rambam. I have not answered all questions in the comments on earlier posts on the subject because the answers will become clear as I continue. (Yes Rambam did address Bilam, Avimelech and Laban’s prophecies).


  1. Nice to have you back! I kept checking your blog, wondering "what happened to David?," forgetting that you were vacationing.

    So let me ask you this: Where would I find Rambam's seminal statement on the nature of God's unknowability, i.e., his most concise answer to the question of "Why, in particular, is God unknowable?"

    I've been compsing a long post about unknowability, and I want to be sure I've got his view right (or at least have the right citation). I have the following three excerpts from GP:

    (I:35) Now everything that can be ascribed to God, may He be exalted, differs in every respect from our attributes, so that no definition can comprehend the one thing and the other.

    (I:56) Know that likeness is a certain relation between two things and that in cases where no relation can be supposed to exist between two things, no likeness between them can be represented to oneself. Similarly in all cases in which there is no likeness between two things, there is no relation between them. An example of this is that one does not say this heat is like this color, or that this voice is like this sweetness. This is a matter that is clear in itself. Accordingly, in view of the fact that the relation between us and Him, may He be exalted, is considered as nonexistent---I mean the relation between Him and that which is other than He---it follows necessarily that likeness between Him and us should also be considered nonexistent. [...]

    ... it behoves those who believe that there are essential attributes that may be predicated of the Creator---namely that He is existent, living, possessing power, knowing, and willing---to understand that these notions are not ascribed to Him and to us in the same sense. [...] ... it is clear to all those who understand the meaning of being alike that the term "existent" is predicated of Him, may He be exalted, and of everything that is other than He, in a purely equivocal sense. Similarly, the terms "knowledge," "power," "will," and "life," as applied to Him, may He be exalted, and to all those possessing knowledge, power, will, and life, are purely equivocal, so that their meaning when they are predicated of Him is in no way like their meaning in other applications.

    Is there some other seminal statement that I am missing? (Obviously, I may also be missing the correct understanding of Rambam's position, but that's a different matter. I just want to be sure that I've at least got the correct sources.)

    Thanks muchly. Good to have you back.

  2. Some Guy, you are quoting the correct chapters 1:57 and 58 continue on the subject. Hil Yesodei hatorah 1:10 is a succinct presentation:

    [י] מה הוא זה שביקש משה רבנו להשיג כשאמר "הראני נא, את כבודך" (שמות לג,יח)--ביקש לידע אמיתת הימצאו של הקדוש ברוך הוא, עד שיהיה ידוע בליבו כמו ידיעת אחד מן האנשים שראה פניו ונחקקה צורתו בקרבו, שנמצא אותו האיש נפרד בדעתו משאר האנשים; כך ביקש משה רבנו להיות מציאת הקדוש ברוך הוא נפרדת בליבו משאר מציאת הנמצאים, עד שיידע אמיתת הימצאו כמה שהיא. והשיבו ברוך הוא שאין כוח בדעת האדם החי שהוא מחובר מגוף ונפש, להשיג אמיתת דבר זה על בורייו

    he elaborates on this in Moreh 1:54

  3. Thanks very much!

  4. welcome back!