Chaim Navon

Prophecy and the Revelation at Sinai

The Rambam devotes several chapters of Book II of the Guide to his understanding of prophecy. His keen interest in the subject of prophecy is prompted by two main factors. First, prophecy represents the pinnacle of religious perfection, and the Rambam – whose philosophy strives for the attainment of personal perfection – sought eagerly to understand the meaning of this aspect of perfection. Second, prophecy plays a central role in his political philosophy too, as we shall see in the next few shiurim. He introduces his discussion of prophecy in chapter thirty-two of Book II, with the elementary question: What is prophecy?

A. What is Prophecy?

The chapter opens with the assertion that there is a parallel between the differing views concerning prophecy and the differing views concerning the eternity of the universe. The commentators on the Guide are divided as to the details of this comparison.[1] What is the connection between these two subjects, which appear so distant from one another? The discussion about the eternity of the universe, with which the Rambam introduces Book II of the Guide, is regarded by him as possessing great importance in terms of one’s religious position. The philosophers believe that the world has always existed and was never created. According to the Rambam, the belief– as taught by Aristotle – that everything in the universe is the result of fixed laws, that nature does not change, and that there is nothing supernatural, destroys the very foundation of Torah; it entails that we “disbelieve all miracles and signs, and reject every promise and every threat that the Torah teaches” (II:25).

In our belief, that the world was created, we are making two important declarations about God. First, we are saying that God rules the world and can act towards and within it as He pleases. If God created the world, then He can also perform miracles that are contrary to the laws of nature. Second, we are saying that God is dynamic and initiates change. Both of these assertions are undermined if we believe that the world has always existed. This would imply that the laws of nature have always existed and have been valid for all time, such that there is no basis for assuming that God could change them. Moreover, if God did not create the world, then He may easily be depicted as Aristotle’s “First Cause”: a perfect, passive, and aloof intellect completely immersed in self-contemplation, having no interest in anything outside of itself. Faith in creation is essential for the concept of the God of Israel, Who is a living, active, initiating Being, interested and intervening in the world.

A similar discussion is relevant to the matter of prophecy. Prophecy is a message that God conveys to man. Those who hold that the world is eternal would have difficulty understanding prophecy as discourse between God and man – since God, according to their view, is necessarily passive and aloof, taking no interest in the world. The more we view God as dynamic, the more we tend to the traditional understanding of prophecy.

The Rambam cites three views of prophecy. The first is held by “many ignorant people, including some of our coreligionists,” formulated as follows:God selects any person He pleases, inspires him with the spirit of prophecy, and entrusts him with a mission. It makes no difference whether that person be wise or stupid, old or young, provided he be, to some extent, morally good.

The Rambam, who regards prophecy as the pinnacle of human perfection, necessarily rejects this view. It means that a person who receives a divine message has not necessarily attained any special level. God, for reasons known only to Him, chooses certain people to convey His messages, because He finds them suited to His purposes. This view regards prophecy as a sort of miracle: God invades the world, as it were, and connects in a supernatural manner with a person who might be quite unworthy of such endowment. The Rambam respected the natural order of the world and preferred to leave as little as possible to the supernatural and miraculous. Hence he was not inclined to accept this explanation.

The second view is that maintained by the philosophers:

Prophecy is a certain faculty of man in a state of perfection. Accordingly, it is impossible that an ignorant person should be a prophet, or that a person being no prophet in the evening, should, unexpectedly on the following morning, find himself a prophet, as if prophecy were a thing that could be found unintentionally. Rather, if a person, perfect in his intellectual and moral faculties, and also perfect, as far as possible, in his imaginative faculty, prepares himself in the manner which will be described, he must become a prophet; for prophecy is a natural faculty of man. It is impossible that a man who has the capacity for prophecy should prepare himself for it without attaining it, just as it is impossible that a person with a healthy constitution should be fed well, and yet not properly assimilate his food, and the like.

Here the Rambam sets forth one of the central concepts in the magnificent edifice of medieval religious philosophy. These philosophers had to find a way to contain on the one hand the truths of their religion, and on the other hand Aristotelian philosophy, which was regarded at the time not only as the most advanced philosophical worldview, but also as the ultimate truth. The solution adopted by many was to translate the concepts of Aristotelian philosophy into religious language. Aristotle’s “First Cause” became “God”; “active intellects” were “angels.” In the same way, prophecy was understood as the religious term for the most supreme level of intellectual perfection, bringing man to the point where he is able to absorb the intellectual richness of the supreme intellects. In other words, prophecy is a natural phenomenon, expressing a certain human condition, requiring no divine initiative or action of any sort. Just as opening a tap causes a flow of water, opening one’s head, as it were, causes a flow of prophecy.

Rabbi Yehuda Ha-levi expresses strong opposition to this view in his Sefer Ha-kuzari. The attempt to suffice with a literal translation of the Aristotelian position into the language of religion ignores the tremendous chasm separating these two worldviews. In our context, if we assert that prophecy is nothing but a high level of human intellectual perfection, then we have done away with the personal aspect of God. God does not speak to man; the entire prophetic process takes place without God initiating anything.

This view parallels the belief in the eternity of the universe: it, too, regards the world as being ruled by natural phenomena and natural laws, and erases God’s volitional intervention. Hence, just as the Rambam rejected the Aristotelian view of the world’s eternity, so he likewise rejected this view of prophecy.

Nevertheless, the Rambam did not give up his quest for a synthesis between the philosophical and religious positions. He therefore proposed a third approach to prophecy, which, in his view, represents “the view of the Torah and a fundamental principle of our religion”:

It coincides with the opinion of the philosophers in all points except one. For we believe that, even if one has the capacity for prophecy, and has duly prepared himself, it may yet happen that he does not actually prophesy – since in this case, that is the will of God. According to my opinion, this fact is as exceptional as any other miracle, and acts in the same way. For the laws of nature demand that everyone should be a prophet, who has a proper physical constitution, and has been duly prepared as regards education and training. If such a person is not a prophet, he is in the same position as a person who, like Yerav’am is deprived of the use of his hand (I Melakhim 13:4), or of his eyes, as was the case with the army of Syria, in the story of Elisha (II Melakhim 6:18).

The Rambam proposes a mediating view. He testifies that he accepts, in principle, the philosophical view, regarding prophecy as a certain level of human perfection. In essence, prophecy is a natural phenomenon. Hence, not just anyone can become a prophet; only someone who has attained the necessary level is a candidate. “Fools and ignorant people are unfit for this distinction. It is as impossible for any one of these to prophesy as it is for an ass or a frog.”

In describing the view of the philosophers, the Rambam enumerates three aspects of human perfection that are necessary for prophecy: his intellect, his moral qualities, and his faculty of imagination. If the prophet’s moral level is inadequate, his intellectual faculty will also be affected. A person who engages in adultery and pursues his desires is too closely bound up with matter and the body; he will not be able to entertain lofty intellectual insights. Likewise his faculty of imagination must be properly developed, for reasons which we shall discuss in the next few shiurim. In this context, the Rambam writes elsewhere:

We maintain that a prophet must necessarily possess the highest level of wisdom, and then God grants him prophecy, for we maintain the principle that “Prophecy rests only upon one who is wise, mighty, and wealthy” (see Shabbat 92a), and Chazal explained that “mighty” here refers to one who conquers his inclination, and “wealthy” means one who is wealthy in knowledge. Indeed, if a person who is not a great sage should pride himself on being a prophet, we would not believe him. (Iggeret Teiman, in: Iggerot Ha-Rambam, Shilat edition, pp. 155-156).

However, the Rambam is forced to part ways with the philosophical position in one central respect. Aristotle’s “First Cause” is devoid of initiative or action. The Rambam cannot accept this description of God. Therefore, he had to add that God may “block” someone’s prophecy. In other words, prophecy is essentially a natural phenomenon, but God may withhold it, in a supernatural manner, from someone who is worthy of it. The Rambam emphasizes that this withholding is a miracle, in the fullest sense of the word. If prophecy is a natural phenomenon, then the inescapable corollary is that withholding it is a deviation from nature – i.e., a miracle. Thus, the Rambam turns the tables on the view of the ignorant masses: it is not the granting of prophecy that is a miracle, but rather its withholding from someone who possesses the qualities that naturally invite it. And indeed, God is able to perform such miracles.[2]

B. The Revelation at Sinai

In order to defend his approach, the Rambam must contend with many verses in Tanakh which seem to suggest a different meaning of the concept of prophecy. Inter alia, he has to explain the biblical description of the Revelation at Sinai. The Torah describes a prophetic experience that was shared by the entire nation. How is this possible? According to the Rambam, prophecy – by definition – is something that not everyone is able to attain!

At the Revelation at Sinai, although everyone saw the great fire and heard the fearful thunder, that caused such an extraordinary terror; but only those of them who were duly qualified were prophetically inspired, and even among them – each according to his capacity (II:32).[3]

The Rambam did not suffice with his brief discussion of the Revelation at Sinai in chapter thirty-two, but goes on to devote an entire chapter (thirty-three) to the subject. He introduces this chapter with an assertion that we have already encountered: “Not everything that was experienced by Moshe, was experienced by all of Israel.” Over the course of the chapter the Rambam refers to Chazal‘s teachings in this regard. Chazal offer different opinions, and the Rambam quotes those who maintain that the first two of the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord your God…” and “You shall have no other gods…,” were heard directly from God (Makkot 24a). In other words, only these two commandments came to them directly from God; the rest were received through Moshe’s agency. The Rambam explains the significance of the difference between the first two of the Ten Commandments and the eight that followed:

For these two principles – the existence of God and His Unity – can be arrived at by means of reasoning, and whatever can be established by proof is known by the prophet in the same way as by any other person; he has no advantage in this respect. These two principles were not known through prophecy alone… But the rest of the commandments are of an ethical and authoritative character, and do not contain [truths] perceived by the intellect.

In the Rambam’s view, the first two of the Ten Commandments are the foundations of faith, which every person is able to attain through reason. The other eight commandments are “apparent truths” (moral laws) rather than “necessary truths” (a priori axioms) (see shiur no. 3). “Apparent truths” are rules which do not arise from pure logic; rather, they are essential tools for practical dealings with human failings and weaknesses. Here the Rambam asserts that if we wish to arrive at the most supreme rules of practical morality, these ideal “apparent truths” may be arrived at only through prophecy – i.e., through supreme intellectual inspiration. One might argue: why is prophecy necessary in order to arrive at a formulation such as “you shall not commit adultery”? Perhaps the answer is that prophecy helps the prophet to establish an order of priorities – in our context, to know which “apparent truths” are worthy of comprising the Ten Commandments.

It is not clear from the Rambam’s discussion exactly what happened at Sinai, and his commentators are divided in this regard. A simple reading of his explanation would suggest that the nation and Moshe heard (with their ears? Perceived with their intellect?) some sort of sound, by which the people were able to understand only the first two of the Ten Commandments, since their intellectual preparation allowed them this perception, but they were unable to make sense of the rest.

In this chapter we also begin to discern the political aspect of prophecy as discerned by the Rambam. In his view, the prophet is not just a holy and righteous person who attains a very high spiritual level; he is also a political leader. The prophet mediates between God and the masses; furthermore, he receives, through prophecy, not only metaphysical messages, but also the rules of practical morality, the “apparent truths.” All of this hints at his political role.

The Rambam concludes chapter thirty-two by acknowledging that much remains unknown:

It is very difficult to have a true conception of the events, for there has never been before, nor will there ever be again, anything like it. Note this.


[1]  In chapter thirteen of Book II, the Rambam cites three opinions on the eternity of the universe; in chapter thirty-two, he cites three opinions on the essence of prophecy. Abravanel proposes the seemingly obvious set of relationships: the view of the philosophers concerning prophecy corresponds to Aristotle’s view of the origin of the universe; the view of the masses concerning prophecy corresponds to the Torah view, which negates the eternity of the universe; and the Torah view concerning prophecy corresponds to Plato’s view of the origin of the universe. This seems to be the simplest explanation. However, adoption of this system suggests that the Rambam adopted Plato’s view that there existed some primal matter out of which God created the world. The Rambam’s explicit negation of Plato’s view must then be regarded as an example of deliberately misleading, esoteric writing.

[2]  As Mikha Goodman comments: “The withholding of prophecy is an individual instance of the phenomenon of miracles, and is not conceptually related to the phenomenon of prophecy. Concerning the definition of prophecy, there is therefore no difference between the Torah’s approach and that of Aristotle: prophecy itself is natural, the prophet is a person, and prophecy is a human achievement” (Sodotav shel Moreh Ha-nevukhim, p. 69).

[3] There is something of a contradiction in this regard in the Rambam’s writings. In his “Laws of the Foundations of the Torah” (8:1) his formulation is quite different. There the Rambam describes the Revelation at Sinai as a landmark event that caused Benei Yisrael to accept Moshe and the Torah, since all of them shared prophetic perception: “The Voice spoke to him and we heard, ‘Moshe, Moshe, go and tell them such-and-such.’” Even if we maintain that many of the people were on a high spiritual level which made them worthy of prophecy, this is still very far removed from the sweeping statement in the Mishneh Torah. This discrepancy requires further study and discussion.

Translated by Kaeren Fish

To download this page in word format, click here

VBM—The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har EtzionThis article was reposted with permission from the VBM—The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion. It is part of a  series “Topics in Halakha“.

If you found this shiur interesting, you may also enjoy Rabbi Chaim Navon’s article on Acceptance of the Mitzvot as a Requirement for Conversion 

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Navon teaches Gemara and Jewish thought in Herzog College at Yeshivat Har Etzion and at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an author of several series of shiurim online at the VBM—The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion. Rabbi Navon authored a number of books including: Caught in the Thicket: An Introduction to the Thought of Rav Soloveitchik. He studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion from 1992 to 2004 and received rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein.
Related Topics
Related Posts