Contact Us

What is Prophecy?

What is Prophecy?

''Eliyahu Hanavi'' - by Zalman Kleinman
"Eliyahu Hanavi" - by Zalman Kleinman

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 G‑d's behest.

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 include:

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."

Mendy Hecht lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Painting by Chassidic artist Zalman Kleinman.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with's copyright policy.
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
1000 characters remaining
Anonymous October 30, 2015

Spirit of Prophecy Yes, a famine of the word was declared. No prophets until a certain time in history. Someone with a key is to not only loosen the seals of the Book, but also restart an age of prophecy, what it really means, in body, mind, and soul.
It has therefore, never been correct to call anyone a prophet since that time. So, if you want a better understanding of history, The Difference Between Man and Beast and other works for man, on the Internet Archive. Many claim to understand, but being sealed, it is not true. As was written, prophecy will be taught by God, not by men who call each other by what they are not. Reply

Simcha Bart for October 13, 2015

Divine Inspiration As the last paragraph states - there is still Ruach Hakodesh, though the era of the Prophets are over. Reply

Anonymous October 4, 2015

If prophecy is over how do we call rabbis that predicted things in our generation? Reply

doreet Eugene March 9, 2014

THE MENTION OF "UNCONTROLLED ESP": OK, ahem,I know a family very well, who's biological members all share a remarkable gift of ESP.From very early, the kids and the dad shared and transmitted dreams back and forth without meaning to.I am being honest,..The father had it so strongly, he would dream at night a bad nightmare of a specific war battle; and see it.And wake up the next morning and see it in photos and stories.It was on another continent, far away.

ESP still exsists in some biological families.Perhaps it was fully used in ancient times, when there was very little communication tools.Now,we don't need it at all.But family members could tell when one member was hurt badly.One of them kept track somehow, unconsciously,,of people they knew, and could sometimes predict when they would run into an old friend, a week ahead of time.Even if they hadn't seen them for months.Maybe real prophets do not talk about theirs,, now,for fear of social rejection? Rejection may keep them mum? Reply

Mandla Nkosi South Afrca June 16, 2013

Prophecy Well presented! Reply

Anonymous Blacksburg, VA November 14, 2010

I second that request... Brian S, of Simsbury, CT asked, "Who says that Prophecy departed Israel with 'that generation' which spanned the Babylonian Diaspora and return?"

I would like to see a response to that question. Also, if prophecy departed Israel, who is to say it departed the rest of the world as well?

Thanks! Reply

Brian S Simsbury, CT August 19, 2009

Prophecy requires a prophet and hearer. Pharaoh had the dream, Joseph interpreted it. It took both in tandem to make prophecy. (There is no reason to presume that this pharaoh was unrighteous.) Ditto Daniel and Neb, except that Neb was no way righteous. The Prophets of Record, as named in the Torah combined the two. They were given a vision (awake but entranced, or as a dream), and they were given an explanation. Thus the angel Gabriel "shows" Daniel the vision, and then "explains its meaning" . But a third necessary component is an audience to hear the Prophecy and a fourth is a witness of fulfillment, who has heard the prophecy. Without any of the four there can be no prophecy. Reply

Richard Kissimmee, FL August 19, 2009

What is Prophesy? It appears that this article does not make a proper distinction between a "prophesy" and a "prophet".
Here are the words contained in the article regarding "prophesy" -
"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."
Therefore, everyone must wait for the prophesy to be fulfilled, prior to confirming that the "nebi" has spoken "prophesy".

However, it seems to me that the writer has forgotten the meaning of the word "nebi", which is an "utterer", speaking without his own volition-speaking at the will of G-d. Therefore, NOT everything that the Nebi says is "prophesy", and not every "nebi" is a "prophet".
In conclusion, when a "nebi" utters divine speech, he is NOT ALWAYS delivering "prophesy". This is point is not well developed and I believe that this statement must be modified accordingly. Reply

Menachem Posner for August 19, 2009

to David from Whitefish It's pretty simple. If a prophet comes along and fulfills all of the criteria mentioned in the article (you can read them at length in Maimonides's Code), we will know that prophecy has returned. It can happen today, and it can happen tomorrow. In fact, it may just have happened yesterday. Reply

David Whitefish, Mt. August 18, 2009

Prophecy I enjoyed this well done article. I have a question. How will it be known that prophecy has returned? What will the signs be? Reply

Anonymous dothan, al August 18, 2009

prophecy Why did the age of prophecy end? What is the official reason for it ending, and what are the references.
thanks, Reply

Evelyn Roberts August 18, 2009

Extraordinary Lovingly presented. Reply

Brian S Simsbury, CT August 18, 2009

Prophecy Who says that Prophecy departed Israel with "that generation" which spanned the Babylonian Diaspora and return? Wouldn't that very statement constitute a prophecy?
And Sarah is mother to the Jews, no more or less than she is the mother of Esau/Edom. Both Jacob and Esau are her grandsons. Judah was her great grandson as were the brothers Benjamin, Simeon and part of Levy which made up the Southern Kingdom called Judah.
Finally, was Hagar not a prophetrix as well? She was given the word that Ishmael will also become father to many nations. Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for June 28, 2009

To Rivka The basic difference between an authentic prophet and soothsayers is that the former serves one purpose and one purpose only: to encourage fellow Jews in their observance of Torah and Mitzvahs. At times prophets would indeed foretell the future, but that is not what they are uniquely all about. It is all a means to an end – to bring the people closer to G-d. Reply

Rivka Sydney June 27, 2009

Prophecy So how do you define the difference between a prophet and a soothsayer? Considering that being a soothsayer is apparently not allowed- and yet being a prophet is allowed? The bible (or those that wrote it) seems to have very conflicting views on intuitive, clairvoyant and psychic ability's. Reply

Tzvi Freeman Thornhill, Canada July 17, 2008

Re: Pharaoh Neither was Bilaam a righteous person. Neither was Nebuchadnezzar, who also had a dream.

But there are times when G_d will send a message to a person simply because he is a leader of many people. He may be corrupt, but he has a great responsibility nonetheless.

Furthermore, all these instances resulted in the empowerment of a tzadik. Reply

Felice Debra Eliscu Platteville, WI July 14, 2008

I Wonder if....... "If a prophet were to speak today I wonder if we would be able to recognize him as a messenger from G_D?"
Posted By Jeff Newcomb, Corona, CA/USA

If a Prophet/Prophetess were to speak today there would be a civil commitment order for forced medication. Most likely some type of Anti-psycotic or Neuroleptic "medication".
However considering the G-d factor and neuroplasticity the damage from chemical restraint would not be permanent. Said Prophet/Prophetess would learn from this. Reply

chaim baruch St. Louis, MO July 14, 2008

Pharoah Everyone has dreams and the Talmud says that some of them, even of the average person, have a hint of prophecy in them.

Maimonides explains that more than half of the Jews in the world need to be in Israel in order for prophecy to re-begin. Reply

Andrew Gross NY, NY July 13, 2008

Pharoah The Pharoah of Joseph was also a prophet (Seven fat cows and seven thin cows). Joseph interpreted the dream, but it was Pharoah who had the dream, and we would probably not consider Pharoah to be a righteous person. Reply

Sunny Murchison and Lil' Sunny Lee Pasadena, California July 12, 2008

This mesmerizing article on Prophecy May G-d bless you and keep you. This article is one of the most powrful I ever read to date. I will keep this in my files and refer to it as needed. Reply

Related Topics
This page in other languages