What is a prophet?
A prophet is an individual who receives a message from G‑d to transmit to
the people. Maimonides counts it as one of the 13 foundations of the Jewish
faith that "G‑d communicates to mankind through prophecy."
What's in these messages?
The purpose of the messages communicated to individual prophets is not
to reveal the purpose of existence or to legislate the laws of life. That's
contained in the Torah and
its 613 mitzvot (commandments), which G‑d communicated to us all together at
Mount Sinai. Once G‑d got the message across with the
revelation at Sinai, He pretty much backed off and left it to us to study it
and explain it. The Talmud even relates a case in which Torah sages were debating a
point in Torah law and a heavenly voice rang out in support of the minority
view; the sages were unimpressed, and silenced the voice by quoting the
Torah's own statement about itself -- "it is not in heaven" (Deuteronomy 30:12).
The purpose of prophecy is to make course corrections in the direction of
Jewish society, or in the direction of society at large. Sometimes a prophet
comes to foretell the future, when G‑d deems it necessary that we should know what's to come in order to encourage us in our mission in life. Other times it's to remind us that we're slacking off on what He expects from us, and warn us of the dire consequences this will bring if we don't get our act together. Sometimes, G‑d used a prophet to deliver private messages to an individual (particularly to an important individual whose actions would have a widespread effect, such as a king). A prophet may also convey a specific instruction that is not contained in the Torah as a "one-time-only" command from on high; in such cases, one must follow that instruction even if it runs contrary to a universal Torah command. A prophecy, however, will never contain a new mitzvah, nor the annulment of a mitzvah; a prophet claiming such a communication from G‑d proves himself a false prophet.
Thus, Isaiah was sent to describe the messianic era that is the culmination
and reward of our efforts. Jeremiah foretold the destruction of the Holy Temple.
Jonah was dispatched to Ninveh to warn its inhabitants
that the city will be destroyed unless they repent their evil ways. Samuel carried
G‑d's message to King Saul to wage war against Amalek, while Elijah was sent to
conduct the famous challenge of the two bullocks
on Mount Carmel (even though that temporarily violated the Torah prohibition
against offering sacrifices outside the Holy Temple). But no prophet ever said
anything that was the product of his own mind. They spoke and acted only at
How does one become a prophet?
First, one has to make oneself worthy. Maimonides lists the following
criteria: one must be wise, and of a clear and lucid mind; of impeccable
character, and utterly in control of one's passions and desires; of a calm and
joyous constitution; one must shun materiality and the frivolities of life,
devoting oneself entirely to knowing and serving G‑d.
All this, however, does not bring on prophecy -- it only makes one worthy
to receive it. The actual reception of prophecy comes from Above, by Divine
election. While "prophecy schools" in ancient Israel would train
aspiring prophets to become conducive to receiving a prophecy, via extensive meditation and a rigorous spiritual lifestyle, the student-prophet could not cause a prophecy to come to him through specific actions. Much like uncontrolled ESP or psychic powers, prophecy would manifest itself suddenly, without any warning signals or preparation on the part of the prophet. What happened was that G‑d chose a
person to speak to and through -- not the other way around.
How are prophets verified?
Firstly, the person has to be known as one possessing the above attributes.
Then, if a person of such caliber announces that he received a prophecy, it
is assumed that he is telling the truth. But the ultimate test is the
accuracy of his prophecies: if what he said will come to pass actually comes to
pass, we know that he is a prophet; if not, we know that he is not.
(This, however, applies only to the prediction of a positive event, since
once a Divine promise of good is communicated through a prophet it is never
retracted; however, if the prophet warns, in the name of G‑d, that a calamity
is destined to befall, and it does not occur, this does not disprove his
prophecy, since a decree of evil can be removed through prayer and repentance.
Of course, simply predicting the future without possessing the traits of a
prophet does not make one a prophet.)
What is it like to experience prophecy?
Like the transmission of a high-megawatt signal to a low-wattage instrument,
prophecy would often overload the mental equipment of the receiver. Prophecy
frequently caused fainting, temporary insanity, involuntary muscular spasms
and seizures. Some prophets were capable of receiving the signal in their
sleep, having extremely enigmatic, riddle-like dreams which they would decode
upon awakening. Prophets did not have the verbal or mental conversations with
G‑d depicted in Hollywood films. The single exception was Moses,
who talked to G‑d "like a man talking to his friend" (Exodus 33:11).
What are the primary rules of prophecy?
Of the 613 commandments of the Torah, a number pertain to prophecy. These
1) To obey the prophet's instructions.
2) Not to doubt or test G‑d's promises or warnings conveyed by the prophet.
And for the prophet:
3) To personally carry out G‑d's instructions (i.e., "practice
what you preach").
4) Not to suppress a prophecy one receives (as Jonah attempted).
5) Not to prophecy in the name of other gods (even if the content is true).
Who were the prophets?
There were thousands of prophets in Jewish history (we also know of at least one non-Jewish prophet, Balaam). The overwhelming
majority of them, however, conveyed messages that were specific to the
time and circumstances they were sent to address. Their prophecies, therefore,
were not recorded for posterity, and even their names are unknown to us. Many of these prophets were ordinary citizens -- students, craftsmen, farmers -- who, by virtue of their righteousness and heightened sensitivity to spirituality, were selected by G‑d to receive a prophecy. Often they didn't know what hit them, only to realize
later they'd been hit by prophecy. Some, like Jonah, knew what it was, but
tried to run from it (a Torah prohibition, as per above).
The Talmud counts 55 "historical" prophets whose prophecies were recorded
in the Tanach (Bible) because they contain a message relevant to all
generations. Most of these were public figures who prophesied frequently and became lifetime leaders of their people. These include the 15 prophets whose words
were recorded in individual books that bear their names: Isaiah, Jeremiah,
Ezekiel, and twelve lesser ones including Amos, Hosea, Nahum and others. The
other 40, who may or may not have been in prophecy full-time, are mentioned in various places throughout Tanach, such as Nathan (the Books of Samuel) and Ido (Chronicles). Outside of these there were the uncharted number of unrecorded prophetic experiences. King Saul dabbled in prophecy for a time,
but what he was told is unknown.
Prophecy seems to have been by and large a male experience -- 48 of the 55
"historical" prophets were men, though we cannot know if this reflects the
overall prophet/prophetess ratio. The seven major prophetesses are: Sarah (wife of
Abraham, mother of all Jews; incidentally, G‑d told Abraham that "she is your
superior in prophecy"), Miriam (sister to Moses), Deborah (the only
woman among the "Judges"), Chana (mother of Samuel), Avigayil, Chuldah and
Esther (of Purim fame).
Does prophecy exist today?
The era of prophecy officially came to an end some 23 centuries ago. The
last generation of prophets were those who began to prophecy before the First
Holy Temple was destroyed in 423 BCE, though a number of that generation
survived the 70-year Babylonian exile and lived to see the building of the
Second Temple. Most famously, Ezekiel prophesied in Babylonia, and three
prophets, Chaggai, Zachariah and Malachi, were members of the "Great Assembly"
that led the people in the first years of the return from Babylon. Mordechai
and Esther were also members of the long-lived generation that mourned the
destruction of the First Temple and witnessed the building of the second. With
the demise of that generation, "prophecy departed from Israel."
Nevertheless, the principle that "G‑d communicates to mankind through
prophecy" remains a foundation of the Jewish faith. A lesser form of prophecy,
known as ruach hakodesh (divine inspiration), remains the province of
the tzaddikim, the righteous men and women of all generations.
According to tradition, one of the greatest prophets, Elijah, never died, and
will herald the coming of the Moshiach. Moshiach himself is a prophet
("approaching the prophecy of Moses" according to Maimonides), and in the
messianic era, prophecy will become a universal phenomenon -- in the words of
the prophet Joel, "And it shall come to pass afterwards that I will pour out
My spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophecy; your
elders shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions." And in a letter
to the Jews of Yemen, Maimonides recounts an age-old tradition that "shortly
before the messianic era, prophecy will return to the Jewish people."