Sunday, August 03, 2008

Prophetic Visions and Trances.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Torah tells us that all prophets besides Moshe experienced their prophecy in either a dream or a vision.

ו וַיֹּאמֶר, שִׁמְעוּ-נָא דְבָרָי; אִם-יִהְיֶה, נְבִיאֲכֶם--יְהוָה בַּמַּרְאָה אֵלָיו אֶתְוַדָּע, בַּחֲלוֹם אֲדַבֶּר-בּוֹ.

6 And He said: Listen pray to My words: if your prophet be the Lord’s in a vision to him would I be known, in a dream would I speak through him. (Bamidbar 12:6)

We also showed that the Sifre and Rambam in its wake both understand this verse to describe the state the prophet is in when he prophesizes, namely either dreaming or having a vision. Dreaming clearly can only occur when a person is asleep but what happens when the prophet has a vision?

I need not explain what a dream is, but I will explain the meaning of the term "vision," which occurs in the passage: "In a vision do I make myself known unto him" (Num. xii. 6). The term signifies that which is also called mare’eh ha-nevuah, "prophetic vision," Yad ha-shem, "the hand of God," and Machazeh, "a sight." It is a fearful and terrifying state which comes to the prophet while awake, as is made clear by Daniel, "And I saw this great vision, and there remained no strength in me, for my comeliness was turned in me into corruption, and I retained no strength" (Dan, x. 8). He afterwards continues, "Thus was I in deep sleep on my face, and my face toward the ground" (ibid. ver. 9). It was in a prophetic vision that the angel spoke to him and "set him upright." Under such circumstances, the senses cease to act, and the overflow in question comes to the rational faculty and through them to the imaginative faculty, which become perfect and performs its function. (MN 2:41)

Rambam further defines this state in his Pirush Hamishna –

The third difference [between Moshe and other prophets] is that when the prophet apprehends “the sight” – Chazon – although it is a vision via an angel, [IOW a vision resulting from rational speculation], his strength leaves him. His whole body trembles and he becomes so fearful as if he is about to die. As Daniel explained when Gavriel spoke to him in a vision “and there remained no strength in me, for my comeliness was turned in me into corruption, and I retained no strength" (Dan, x. 8) and “overcome by a deep sleep I lay prostrate on the ground.” He continues “and because of the vision, I have been seized by pangs”.

Reading these two descriptions, we get the picture that first the prophet speculates about physical and metaphysical matters using his rational faculty - and the overflow in question comes to the rational faculty. As he gets deeper into trying to apprehend metaphysical and transcendental matters that are no longer material, he has to engage his imaginative faculty to translate them into something coherent - and through them to the imaginative faculty. There is now an internal collision between the rational and imaginative, where the rational keeps on reminding the prophet that what he sees in his imaginative faculty is only a metaphor and an allegory. The mental strain that results from this conflict throws the prophet into a state of trance, where he loses touch with his physicality and material self. A person that has not reached the level of perfection of Moshe can only deal with this conflict either while asleep or when in a trance.

Moshe was different. He received the word without any tremor. That is [the meaning of] what HKBH said “and God spoke to Moshe face to face as a friend speaks to another”, namely just as a person does not experience tremors when speaking to a friend so too Moshe did not tremble from the speech although it was face to face. That was because of how strongly he was attached to his rational faculty as we explained.

Moshe having reached perfection was able to deal with the transcendental without having to use the imaginative to make it coherent. His rational faculty could handle these abstract concepts while awake and standing. Rambam summarizes the above as usual in a few words in Hil Yesodei Hatorah 7:12 -


כל הנביאים, יראין ונבהלין ומתמוגגים. ומשה רבנו, אינו כן; הוא שהכתוב אומר "כאשר ידבר איש אל ריעהו" (שמות לג,יא):

כמו שאין אדם נבהל לשמוע דברי חברו, כך היה כוח בדעתו של משה רבנו להבין דברי הנבואה; והוא עומד על עומדו שלם.

There is however, a very intriguing statement in MN 3:9.

Similarly, when it speaks about His manifestation in a thick cloud and in darkness, cloud and thick darkness, it is also only in order that the notion in question is inferred from this manner of speech. For everything that is apprehended in a vision of prophecy is only a parable for some notion. And though that great assembly was greater than any vision of prophecy and beyond any analogy, it also indicated a notion; I refer to His manifestation in a thick cloud. For it draws attention to the fact, that the apprehension of His true reality is impossible for us, because of the dark matter that surrounds us and not Him; for He is not a body.

I have touched on this subject of clouds and this chapter many times and I am sure will return many more times to it. Here I want to focus on just one sentence “And though that great assembly was greater than any vision of prophecy and beyond any analogy”. Rambam is saying that the assembly at Sinai was an experience greater than any vision of prophecy. He then says it is beyond any analogy. Was it a greater vision or was it beyond any analogy to a vision?

Rambam told us that there are two possible prophetic experiences - a dream while sleeping or a vision that results from rational speculation which happens while the prophet is in a trance. We also know that prophecy takes on different forms. It goes from a deep understanding of a metaphysical concept such as Creation from nothingness (MN 2:24) to an apprehension of a concept which takes the form of a communication. It is as if the prophet hears a voice talking to him. Rambam has difficulties with this type prophecy, the idea that a person can hear voices in a semi wakeful trance. He therefore asserts that communication can only occur in a dream.

But it appears to me improbable that a prophet should be able to perceive in a prophetic vision God speaking to him. The action of the imaginative faculty does not go so far, and therefore we do not notice this in the case of the ordinary prophets. Scripture says expressly, "In a vision I will make myself known, in a dream I will speak to him". The speaking is here connected with dream, the influence and the action of the intellect is connected with vision. (MN2:45)

It is not clear exactly why he objects to hearing God speaking during a vision. I suspect that he would question the authenticity of such an experience - “The action of the imaginative faculty does not go so far”. At Sinai, though we are told that the people “heard” God speaking to Moshe. That was the whole point of the experience - to verify that Moshe is the true prophet. The people were not sleeping so they could only have “heard” God speaking in a vision. I understand that is the point Rambam makes when he says that that vision was beyond any analogy. It was a unique vision where the people “heard” God speaking. No other prophet besides Moshe experienced such a vision.

I plan to discuss Rambam’s understanding of the Sinai experience in upcoming posts as I elaborate on the next Ikar, TMS. It is however important to keep in mind what we learned here; that the Sinaitic experience was a “prophetic vision” and that visions are always experienced while in a trance, except for Moshe.


  1. 'although it is a vision via an angel, [IOW a vision resulting from rational speculation]'

    I do wish you would stop writing about rational as if it is speculation, something intellectual. Rational means the rational soul, not our everyday 'rational' mind. And often the term 'angel' is used to refer to the rational soul itself.

  2. I don't know what "soul" is other than the intangible of thought. You cannot mix Rambam with the Kabbalah. He believed it to be heresy and falsehood.

  3. Soul is the 'zurah', the form, of a person, the eidelon. The inner light that every object possesses, that is visible through hasogo sichlis.

  4. >The inner light that every object possesses, that is visible through hasogo sichlis.

    Unfortunately the hasogo sichlis tells us that there is no such "inner light". It is pure imagination akin to Mohammed's flying camel.

  5. The sfas emes says that 'Zurah' is what he calls pnimius, and that this is the or hagonuz. You are imposing an artifical 'flatland' perspective on the Rambam which is simply not there if you read what he actually says instead of what you keep imagining him to say. The task of man is to reclaim his own hasogo sichlis, lost in the chet of odom harishon, at which point you find the zurah of the world, i.e. hasogos elokus. Please drop Spinoza.

  6. Where do you see that Sinai was a prophetic experience for the people as opposed to a created voice (Or other indication of communication)?

  7. R. Yaakov,

    Rambam accepts "created voice" as a possibility (as a concession to Rav Sa'adyah Gaon)but to apprehend that one would also need preparation. Ramban who understands angels as physical entities of a diaphanous quality says that only Zakei Hanefesh would see them. The same would apply here too.

    Rambam however seems to personally think it was a prophetic experience. I am working on a post on just this and I will quote the sources there.

  8. How are you learning the MN chapters 32-33? (he says only those who were ready received prophecy and that there was a created voice which was not perceived as words by the people and that the first two were known through logical reasoning not prophecy?)

  9. r.Yaakov

    you mean MN2:33 I will be addressing that in my next series of posts. I am working on Shechinah which is an or nivra going back to Rasag.

  10. sorry I meant Book 2 chapters 32 (At the end) and 33