When the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, all of Israel experienced direct prophecy. However, that revelation was too powerful for them, and they requested that Moses serve as an intermediary between them and God’s word. Following that model, God sent us other prophets to communicate His messages. Prophecy continued until the beginning of the Second Temple period. Since then, we have received God’s word with less clarity. One of the indicators of the future redemption will be the return of prophecy to Israel. When the glory of God will be revealed in the future world, all will prophesy, young and old.

A person who possesses the highest intellectual and moral virtues can receive prophecy if he purifies himself and is free of sin. Nevertheless, prophecy is not automatic; God might still withhold prophecy from someone who is fit for it.

Prophecy is communicated through imagery and metaphor and the prophet did not necessarily receive the specific wording of his message. During prophecy, a prophet became detached from the physical world. If someone who is recognized as a righteous person gives us a miraculous sign or wonder indicating that he is a prophet, God commands us in the Torah to treat him as a legitimate prophet.

The Prophet

If a person is of excellent mind and character, separates himself from the behavior of the masses, and attaches his mind to the Holy One, blessed be He, a spirit of holiness rests upon him. Some character traits, like anger and sadness, prevent prophecy; and sometimes God decides to withhold prophecy from a person even though he would have been worthy of it.

Prophecy: A fundamental principle of faith:

Knowing that God grants prophecy to human beings is a principle of faith.

Characteristics of prophets and preparations for prophecy:

Prophecy only rests upon a person who is extremely wise, has mastery over his inclinations so that his drives do not overcome him in any way, rather, he always overcomes his natural drives, and upon one who possesses an extremely broad and sound mind.

A person who has all of these characteristics and is sound in body, when he enters the orchard [pardes]1 and is drawn after those great and obscure matters and has a mind that can understand and grasp them, he becomes continuously more holy and separated from the ways of the masses who walk in the darkness of temporal life. He constantly energizes himself and trains himself not to think about any useless matters, frivolities, or schemes. Instead, his mind is always free to be connected above, bound up with the heavenly throne, striving to understand pure and holy forms. He views the world through all of the Holy One, blessed be He’s wisdom, from the primordial form until the core of the earth,2 and from there recognizes His greatness. Immediately, the spirit of holiness rests upon him.

The prophet is elevated and transformed into a different person:

When that divine spirit of holiness rests upon him, his soul merges with the level of the angels who are referred to as ishim3 and he transforms into a different type of person. He understands that he is no longer as he was, but has risen above the level of other wise men.

Things that prevent prophecy:

Some character flaws, like anger, totally prevent prophecy. The Sages said: If a prophet gets angry his prophecy abandons him (Pesaĥim 66b)…. Anxiety and anguish [likewise prevent prophecy]…. Our Sages expressed it this way: “Prophecy does not rest upon one who is in a state of laziness or sad- ness. Instead, it rests upon one who is in a state of joy” (Shabbat 30b).

Those who are precluded from prophecy:

We believe that there are those fit for prophecy, but when they prepare themselves for it do not prophesy, and this is in accordance with the divine will. In my view, prophecy is similar to miracles and functions like them. For if it was a natural phenomenon, then anyone who was fit for prophecy by nature, and trained himself based on how he was educated and instructed, would necessarily experience prophecy…. However, it is impossible, in our opinion, that one of the ignoramuses among the masses could experience prophecy any more than a donkey or frog could. Our principle is: Training and personal perfection are necessary, and then it is possible that the divine ability will be manifest in him.

(Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 7:1; Shemoneh Perakim, chap. 7; Guide of the Perplexed II:32)

Preparing for Prophecy

After a person has refined himself and is free of sin, he is able to receive prophecy on condition that he prepares himself to do so. Prophecy does not involve the soul actually leaving the body, for that would merely be a dream like any other, but, instead, takes place when the soul is still within the body. During prophecy the prophet disconnects himself from his physical body and connects to his spiritual self.

Prophecy comes to a person after he has refined himself and is free of sins:

This explains the phenomenon of prophecy. For when a person is within a spiritually refined body, free of the filth of the evil inclination, of the drives of his foundational soul,4 and with no sin that pollutes any of the roots of his soul, he can, if he focuses on it, connect to his upper spiritual source and cling to it.

The soul detaching from the body: Total focus on the spiritual:

However, even though one is fit to [prophesy], he must strip his soul entirely and separate his soul from physicality. Then his soul will be able to reconnect with its spiritual source. But this separation, spoken about in the mystical works dealing with prophecy and the spirit of holiness, is not actual separation, in which the soul leaves the body, as it does in sleep. If that were the case, prophecy would be no different from a normal dream. In truth, when the spirit of holiness rests upon a person, his soul is within his body and he is awake; it does not leave the body. The separation is that the prophet totally detaches himself from his thoughts and his imagination, which stem from his foundational animal soul. He stops [his animal soul] from imagining, thinking about, or pondering any matter related to this world, as if his soul left him. Then the power of imagination within him transforms, rendering an image as if he has ascended to the higher levels of existence, climbing stage by stage to the roots of his soul until he vividly imagines his upper source. All of the lights that he sees with his imagination are embed- ded in his consciousness in a way parallel to the way he imagines this world even though he does not apprehend them through sight, as is known by the science of nature.5

(Rabbi Ĥayyim Vital, Sha’arei Kedusha 5)


All prophets experience prophetic visions while asleep. During prophecy they lose control of their bodies, and that opens up their minds to understand their visions.

There are many different levels of prophets. Just like one wise man might be wiser than another, so one prophet might be greater than another. All of them have their prophetic visions either at night in a dream or during the day after having fallen into a deep sleep, as it is stated: “I will reveal Myself to him in a vision; in a dream I will speak to him” (Numbers 12:6). When all of them prophesy their limbs shake, their physical strength is weakened, and their thought processes are interrupted, leaving their minds free to understand what they see.

(Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 7:2)

Prophecy is not communicated through direct speech, but through allegory and imagery. Prophecy is a vision the prophet sees, not speech that he hears. Some of the prophecies in the Bible are accounts of the interpretation of their visions, and others include a description of the vision as well as its interpretation.

The message the prophet receives through prophetic vision is given in the form of an allegory. The interpretation of the allegory is immediately clear to him and he knows what it means. Examples of this are the patriarch Jacob’s vision of the ladder with angels ascending and descending upon it (Genesis 28:12) which alluded to the kingdoms throughout history that would enslave his descendants, the animals Ezekiel saw in his vision (Ezekiel 1), the boiling pot and almond branch that Jeremiah saw ( Jeremiah 1:11-13), and the ephah measure Zekhariah saw (Zekhariah 5:6). The same is true for the rest of the prophets. Some of the prophets, like these, stated both the allegory and its interpretation, some only the interpretation, and some, like a portion of Ezekiel’s and Zekhariah’s prophetic messages, only the allegory without stating the meaning. But all of them prophesied through allegory and imagery.

(Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 7:3)

Not only does the prophet receive a message from God, but he is also given the specific words he should use. During prophecy, the prophet’s free choice is removed; he is merely a channel to pass on the prophecy.

During prophecy, the prophet does not have any free choice at all – neither with regard to its contents nor its extent. He is merely a vessel to pass it on, like a glass mirror that reflects whatever sunlight shines on it. The spir- it of God comes with specific words and the order with which he should convey them. The prophet does not choose words to express the meaning he received, as David said: “The spirit of the Lord spoke through me, and His word is on my tongue” (II Samuel 23:2), i.e., that statement came to him through the spirit of God, may He be blessed, and was not merely the intended message with a mandate to improvise words that express the message. Rather, the words themselves were also placed on his tongue by God. He had no choice in the matter; he was merely a vessel: The light of prophecy is seen through him and through him divine speech is heard.

(Rabbeinu Nissim of Gerona, Derashot HaRan 5)

In some prophecies the prophet receives only the content of his prophecy, and he must himself choose the words with which to communicate his message. There are also prophecies in which the prophet is also given the specific words to say to the people. Sometimes the prophet is also commanded to do a prophetic act, which arouses higher powers connected with the prophecy.

There are two aspects of prophecy: its content and the specific words [by which the prophet communicates the prophecy]. There are instances where the prophet grasps the content of the prophecy but is not constrained with regard to the words he uses, and can choose the words himself as he wishes. There are other instances, like the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the rest of the prophets whose prophecies are written for subsequent generations, where prophets are also constrained with regard to which words they can use. [The words were chosen] to incorporate multiple meanings. Even in this case, different prophets have different styles, in accordance with their character, their natural language, and style of speech. There are many times when prophets are asked to perform demonstrative acts along with their prophecy, as with Jeremiah’s belt,6 Ezekiel’s brick,7 and many similar cases. The point was to arouse, through those actions, whatever higher powers were needed in those matters the prophecy was about, in all its aspects. These powers had been made available and were appointed by God to be manifest at the appropriate time.

(Rabbi Moshe Ĥayyim Luzzatto, Derekh Hashem 3:4:8)

Levels of Prophecy

There are a number of ways in which God communicates with people: by a voice from heaven; by means of the Urim and the Tumim8 that functioned during the earliest period of Jewish history; by the holy spirit, where a person would say words that God caused him to say without being aware of their origin; and by prophecy, in which a person’s senses would be numbed and he would see visions from above.

A voice from heaven:

There are four levels of divine communication: a voice from heaven, the Urim and the Tumim, the holy spirit, and prophecy. These are increasingly higher levels of revelation… I will now explain these four levels to you: The first, the voice from heaven…was always heard by the Sages of the Talmud and pious people of the generations during the Second Temple era. They would make use of the voice from heaven when prophecy had ceased and the Urim and the Tumim no longer operated.

The Urim and the Tumim:

The second level was the Urim and the Tumim, which, through its holy names, conveyed an indirect divine revelation.

The holy spirit:

The third level was the holy spirit…in which a person would find that he experienced expanded consciousness, and wonderous words would come out of his mouth, speaking about future events. His feelings would not be affected at all; he would say words placed in his mouth through the spirit of holiness and he would not know the source of those words.


The fourth level was prophecy; in prophecy a person would speak of future events when all of his feelings were numbed. He would remain separated from physicality and anything connected with it, totally and exclusively uniting with his pure mind. Then he would see clear light with visions, perceiving things through a dream or while awake.

(Rabbeinu Baĥya ibn Ĥalawa, Commentary on the Torah, Deuteronomy 33:8)

The Obligation to Obey the Prophet’s Message

Sometimes a prophecy’s message is for the prophet himself, and at other times for others, who are commanded to heed his instructions. There is no obligation to heed just anyone who shows a wondrous sign and says words; we are only obligated to heed one who we recognize as fit for prophecy.

A prophecy might be for the prophet himself, to expand his mind and to increase his knowledge, so he knows of lofty matters he hasn’t known about previously. A prophet could also be sent to one of the world’s nations or to the people of a city or kingdom, to prepare them for the future and to tell them what to do, or to stop them from doing evil. When the prophet is sent, he is given a sign or wonder [to perform before them], so the listeners will know that God truly sent him. Not everyone who performs a sign or wonder is to be believed to be a prophet. Rather, [this is how we identify a true prophet]: If he is a person we previously knew to be fitting for prophecy through his wisdom and actions that are superior to that of his contemporaries, and if he follows the ways of prophecy, its holiness and asceticism, and he then proceeds to perform a sign and wonder and says that God sent him, it is a mitzva to heed him. This is stated in the verse: “[A prophet from your midst, from your brethren, like me, the Lord your God will establish for you;] him you shall heed” (Deuteronomy 18:15).

(Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 7:7)

What Is the Source of the Prophet’s Power?

The prophet expresses Israel’s essence and also transmits messages from the Holy One, blessed be He. The prophet’s power is dependent on the children of Israel, and he needs them more than they need him.

The prophet serves as Israel’s mouth [expressing the truths that make up their spiritual essence]. The prophet’s abilities are therefore dependent on the children of Israel’s service of God. As it is written: “A prophet from your midst…the Lord your God will establish for you” (Deuteronomy 18:15). More than Israel needs the prophet, the prophet needs them.

(Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, Sefat Emet, Balak 5649)

The Restoration of Prophecy

Divine speech enters the world in different ways. There was a time when it came through prophecy, later it was through a voice from heaven to the Sages, and now God’s word comes to people through dreams.

In ancient times, people would be inspired to prophesy, and they would know and experience the glory of the Highest. Once prophecy ceased, they would experience a voice from heaven. Now that both prophecy and the voice from heaven have ceased, people only [hear divine messages] through dreams.

(Zohar 1:238:1)

There was a tradition that prophecy would be restored to the Jewish people in the year 4976 (1216 CE):

We have a great and wonderful tradition, which I received from my father, who received it from his father and grandfather, who received it at the be- ginning of the exile from Jerusalem… that the verse, stated by Bilam, “Now, what God has wrought is what shall be said of Jacob and of Israel” (Numbers 23:23), contains a hint [to when prophecy will be restored]. First, calculate how much time elapsed from the six days of Creation until the time of Bilam’s prophecy. Then, add an identical amount of time and you will arrive at the year when prophecy will return to Israel. Then, they will be told by prophets what God has wrought. This prophecy [of Bilam] was said in the fortieth year after the exodus from Egypt. You will find that from the be- ginning of the calendar [namely, the six days of Creation] until then, 2488 years elapsed. Based on this calculation and this interpretation of the verse, prophecy will return to Israel in the year 4976 after Creation (1216 CE). Undoubtedly, the return of prophecy will be a portent of the coming of the anointed one.

(Rambam, Igeret Teman, chap. 3)

Since the destruction of the First Temple there have been no prophets in Israel.24 But during the age of the redemption, prophecy will return to those who are properly prepared to receive it.

Even though there have no longer been prophets since the First Temple was destroyed and the Ark of the Covenant was hidden by the prophet Jeremiah, and during the Second Temple period no one at all experienced prophecy, and all the more so, no one has received a prophetic vision during the exile, nevertheless, during the time of the redemption, prophecy will return to the Jewish nation. That is to say, to those people who are prepared for prophecy. This never applied to the other nations and never will.

(Don Yitzĥak Abravanel, Commentary on Joel 3:1)

Prophecy, in the future, will involve divine revelation for all, not only for prophets who are prepared for it. The prophecy of the future will be natural; even boys and girls will prophesy.

In the future, there will be a revelation of the actual divine light of the in- finite. It will be visible and revealed to all, as the verse states: “The glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see...” (Isaiah 40:5). There will be a similar prophetic revelation to each and every individual, as the verse states: “Thereafter it will be that I will pour My spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy…also upon the slaves and upon the maidservants in those days” ( Joel 3:1–2). This [prophecy of the future] is different from the prophetic revelation the prophets experienced, where a number of conditions were required to prophesy…In contrast, in the future, prophetic revelation will be part of the natural order; even boys and girls will experience it.

(Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneersohn, Sefer HaMa’amarim, Continuation of 5672, part 2, p. 936)

The Hozeh (Seer) of Lublin was famous for his prophetic vision, and many would consult with him, even about day-to-day matters of their livelihood. Once, a butcher came to him and asked whether to slaughter his animals or sell them, because he was worried that they might betreifot.9 The saintly man instructed him to make a list of his animals and indicate each one’s identifying marks.

When the list was presented to him, the Hozeh began to declare, “This one is kosher; this one is not,” and so on. When he got to one animal he said, “This one, I don’t know.”

When the butcher asked the Hozeh for an explanation, the saintly man replied, “This animal has an internal condition that will present a halakhic question. They will bring it before a rabbi to decide whether it is kosher. I do not know what that rabbi’s ruling will be, for ‘Torah is not in heaven.’”