Shiur #15: The Prophecy of Moshe vs. the Prophecy of Other Prophets

  • Rav Chaim Navon

A.        The Uniqueness of Moshe's Prophecy


The Rambam precedes his description of the mechanism of prophecy with a clarification:


Whatever I say here of prophecy refers exclusively to the form of prophecy of all the prophets before and after Moshe. But as to the prophecy of Moshe I will not discuss it in this work with one single word, whether directly or indirectly, because, in my opinion, the term prophet is applied to Moshe and other men homonymously. (Guide, II:35)


This is quite a dramatic statement; it asserts that the phenomenon of Moshe's prophecy is completely and fundamentally different from other prophecy. In support of this assertion, the Rambam mentions that he has written elsewhere about the important differences between Moshe's prophecy and that of the other prophets. The Rambam discusses these differences in his Commentary on the Mishna, in the introduction to Perek Chelek in Massekhet Sanhedrin, and in his Mishneh Torah, in the seventh chapter of his “Laws of the Foundations of the Torah.” We will examine these differences, but first let us discuss more generally the superiority of Moshe's prophecy.


In his introduction to Perek Chelek, the Rambam formulates his famous Thirteen Principles of Faith. The seventh principle concerns the prophecy of Moshe:


We are to believe that he was the chief of all other prophets who preceded and followed him, all of whom were his inferiors. He was the chosen one of all mankind, superior in attaining the knowledge of God to any other person who ever lived or ever will live. He surpassed the normal human condition and attained the angelic. There remained no veil that he did not rend and penetrate, nothing physical to hold him back, no deficiency, great or small, to confuse him. All his sensory and imaginative powers were repressed, leaving only pure reason.


The Rambam asserts that Moshe penetrated every barrier that separates man from God. In his introduction (known as "Shemona Perakim") to Pirkei Avot, he elaborates, explaining these barriers as the moral and intellectual deficiencies that exist in man. Moshe was "complete in all moral qualities, as well as in all intellectual qualities." Nevertheless, he still had one limitation:


The fact that his intellect was bound within the material – i.e., insofar as he was a mortal… there remained only one thing that obstructed his perception of God's true essence, and that was his human intellect, inseparable [from his physical human existence]." (Introduction to Massekhet Avot, chapter 7)


Even Moshe could not attain fully the level of the angels, since as a mortal, formed from physical substance, his intellect was limited by the material, which separated him from God.


At the beginning of his Guide, the Rambam sets forth his famous metaphor of lightning. He compares knowledge to this light, and describes different levels of its perception. With reference to the highest level, he writes:


There are some for whom the lightning flashes in rapid succession, and they seem to be in continuous light, and their night is as clear as the day. This was the degree of prophetic excellence attained by [Moshe], the greatest of the prophets. (Introduction to Guide of the Perplexed)


Even Moshe has limitations. He does not perceive continuous light, but rather a succession of flashes of light. In other words, he does not maintain a state of stable, ongoing, supreme intellectual awareness; rather, he experiences a series of intellectual insights. As a human being, even he is rooted in this world; he is limited by his material being, which draws him back to his earthly existence. Hunger, thirst, fatigue, and other limitations of the body render it impossible for even the most superior human being to engage in unceasing intellectual concentration. Nevertheless, Moshe attained the highest level that a person is able to attain, and he is fundamentally different from other prophets.


The difference between Moshe and the other prophets is also reflected in the miracles that he performed: "There will never arise a prophet who will perform signs publicly, before supporters and opponents alike" (Guide, II:35). Only Moshe performed miracles and wonders before the eyes of the entire nation.


Why was it so important to the Rambam to emphasize the difference between Moshe and the other prophets, to the extent that this itself becomes a fundamental principle of Jewish faith? The answer is simple: the Rambam was defending Jewish faith in the face of attack from within and from without. The Muslims, for example, claimed that the teachings of Muhammad represented the true Torah, rather than the teachings of Moshe. One of the philosophical means that the Rambam employs in his defense of the Torah is an emphasis on the figure of Moshe. Moshe was the master of the prophets; no prophet like him had existed previously, and none other would arise in the future. Therefore, the messages which he received from God are the most perfect messages that a human being is capable of receiving. The absolute validity of the Torah as taught by Moshe is derived from the absolute superiority of his prophecy.


B.        The Differences between Moshe's Prophecy and that of the Other Prophets


In the introduction to Perek Chelek and in his “Laws of the Foundations of the Torah,” the Rambam lists four differences between Moshe's prophecy and that of the other prophets:


What differentiates Moshe's prophecy from that of all the other prophets? (1) All the other prophets experience a dream of a vision, while Moshe prophesizes while he is awake and standing… (2) All the other prophets receive their prophecy by agency of an angel, and hence they perceive the message through metaphor and riddles. Moshe, in contrast, does not prophesize through the agency of an angel, as it is written, “Mouth to mouth I speak to him” (Bemidbar 12:8). It is also written, “And God spoke to Moshe face to face” (Shemot 33:11); and furthermore, “He beholds the likeness of God” (Bemidbar 12:8). In other words, he does not perceive a metaphor or riddle, but rather perceives the essence of the thing… (3) All of the other prophets are fearful and terrified by the experience of prophecy, but not so Moshe… (4) None of the other prophets are able to prophesize whenever they wish to. But this is not the case concerning Moshe: whenever he so wishes, he is garbed in the divine spirit, and prophecy comes to him. He need not focus his thoughts and prepare himself, for he is in a constant state of preparedness and readiness, like the ministering angels; therefore, he can prophesize at any time. (“Laws of the Foundations of the Torah,” 7:6)


Let us examine these four differences in more detail:


  1. The other prophets receive their prophecy through an agent, while Moshe receives his prophecy directly from God. In his Mishneh Torah, the Rambam connects this principle with another difference between the two levels of prophecy: all the other prophets perceive "metaphor and riddles," while Moshe perceives "the essence of the thing." What is the connection between agency and metaphor? To answer this question we must first understand the nature of the agent that mediates between the other prophets and God. Further on in the Guide, the Rambam explains, "The mediating agent here is the power of the imagination" (II:45). The other prophets receive their prophecy through the mediation of the power of imagination, and for this reason the divine message comes to them through the medium of metaphor and vision. Moshe, in contrast, receives the divine message through pure intellect; therefore, his prophecy is clear. It comes as pure knowledge, rather than in the form of metaphor or vision. Imagination does not mediate between God and Moshe's intellect, and therefore Moshe receives the divine message as pure, clear knowledge.


  1. The other prophets receive their prophecy while asleep, or in a sleep-like state. Moshe receives the divine messages while in a state of full consciousness.
  2. The other prophets are struck with terror when they experience a prophetic revelation. Moshe, however, is not overcome with fear, "just as a person is not struck with terror when his friend speaks to him… and this is by virtue of his pure intellect, as we have explained."


  1. "All the other prophets receive prophecy not when they so choose, but rather when God chooses it. Sometimes a prophet may wait for years without being visited with prophecy… But Moshe, whenever he chose, could say, ‘Wait and I shall hear what God commands you’ (Bemidbar 9:8)” (introduction to Perek Chelek). The other prophets would sometimes perform certain actions or undertake preparations that would invite prophecy, such as Elisha, who would summon a musician for this purpose. But this preparation would not necessarily result in prophecy. Moshe was the only prophet who could receive prophecy at will.


On the basis of the Rambam's enumeration of these characteristics that were unique to Moshe's prophecy, some scholars of the Rambam have concluded that he viewed it as a supernatural phenomenon.[1] In the previous shiur we saw that the Rambam views prophecy in general as an essentially natural phenomenon (the natural experience of a person who has achieved the necessary state). However, perhaps Moshe's level of prophecy is indeed a miracle and cannot be achieved through natural means. For this reason the Rambam can state with confidence that even in the future there will be no one who can achieve the level of Moshe, for God declares explicitly that He will not repeat this miracle: "There arose no prophet in Israel like Moshe" (Devarim 34:10).


C.        The Mental Mechanism of Prophecy


After emphasizing the uniqueness of Moshe's prophecy in comparison to the other prophets, the Rambam goes on to explain the mental mechanism of prophecy (II:36). He defines it as follows:


Prophecy is, in truth and reality, an emanation sent forth by the Divine Being through the medium of the Active Intellect, first to man's rational faculty, and then to his imaginative faculty; it is the highest degree and greatest perfection man can attain: it consists in the most perfect development that may exist in a mortal.


Prophecy is the reception of an emanation that proceeds from God via the "Active Intellect." This entity is a central feature in the Aristotelian world-view, and the Rambam understands it as an angel that mediates between heaven and earth. Prophecy employs both the intellectual faculty and the imaginative faculty. Therefore, in order to attain prophecy, a person must first attain perfection in his moral qualities (since moral perfection is essential for intellectual perfection), in his intellect, and also in his imaginative faculty. The moral qualities and intellect may be improved through effort, but the imaginative faculty is an inborn talent: "Any defect in this respect cannot in any way be supplied or remedied by training." Perfection of the imaginative faculty may also lead to "dreams of truth," which are similar to prophecy, the difference between them being "one of quantity, not of quality." In this context the Rambam mentions Chazal's teaching that "a dream is one sixtieth of prophecy" (Berakhot 57b).


The Rambam proceeds to set forth the qualities of the perfected individual who is able to attain prophecy:


The substance of the brain must from the very beginning be in the most perfect condition as regards purity of matter… he must in addition have studied and acquired wisdom, so that his rational faculty passes from a state of potentiality to that of actuality; his intellect must be as developed and perfect as human intellect can be; his passions pure and equally balanced; all his desires must aim at obtaining a knowledge of the hidden laws and causes that are in force in the universe; his thoughts must be engaged in lofty matters: his attention directed to the knowledge of God, the consideration of His works, and of that which he must believe in this respect. There must be an absence of the lower desires and appetites… It is further necessary to suppress every thought or desire for unreal power; that is to say, for dominion, or for adulation on the part of the masses…


A man who satisfies these conditions, whilst his fully developed imagination is in action, influenced by the Active Intellect according to his mental training - such a person will undoubtedly perceive nothing but things that are very extraordinary and divine, and see nothing but God and His angels. His knowledge will only include that which is real knowledge, and his thought will only be directed to general truths and principles that improve the social relations between people.


The requirements set forth here may be summarized as follows: inborn perfection of the intellect; acquisition of knowledge; pure and balanced moral qualities; ambition that is focused on knowing lofty matters; forsaking thoughts pertaining to physical pleasure or power; and inborn perfection of the imaginative faculty.


In describing the aspirations which a person must set aside in order to achieve prophecy, the Rambam seems to propose going so far as to abandon completely any real social connection:


The multitude must be considered according to their true worth; some of them are undoubtedly like domesticated cattle, and others like wild beasts, and these only engage the mind of the perfect and distinguished man in so far as he desires to guard himself from injury… or to derive some benefit from them where absolutely necessary.


This is an extreme, ascetic formulation, describing a person who secludes himself, scorning all human company. However, as Prof. David Hartmann has explained, this represents only an intermediate stage.[2] During the process of a person's training for prophecy – and perhaps as he takes his first steps as a prophet – there are times when he must ignore everything around him, focusing exclusively on his own personal development. Ultimately, however, a mature prophet returns to social involvement. In fact, this is one of the most important goals of the prophets, as we have noted above: "His knowledge will only include that which is real knowledge, and his thought will only be directed to general truths and principles that improve the social relations between people." Once the prophet has achieved that highest level, he must return to society and use his wisdom for leadership.


In light of this understanding, we must review the role of the imaginative faculty in prophecy. So far we have seen its role as mediating between God and man. As a mediator, the imaginative faculty is an obstacle to clear, pure intellectual perception; for this reason the Rambam asserts that Moshe's prophecy was devoid of any imaginative element. However, in other places the Rambam seems to suggest that the imaginative faculty played some role in Moshe's prophecy, too. According to some of his commentators, our chapter is one example. The Rambam writes that prophecy is dependent upon the imaginative faculty, and hence a somber mood may prevent a person from achieving prophecy. For this reason Yaakov experienced no prophecy during the period of his mourning over Yosef; for the same reason, there is no prophecy during the exile. (Attention should be paid here to the rational, psychological explanation for the absence of prophecy during exile.) This also explains, according to the Rambam, why Moshe experienced no prophecy from the second year in the wilderness, when the sin of the spies occurred, until the entire generation of the wilderness had died out:


He received no message of God, as he used to do, even though he did not receive prophetic inspiration through the medium of the imaginative faculty, but directly through the intellect.


The meaning here is not clear: if the imaginative faculty is not involved in Moshe's prophecy, then why was his prophecy dependent on his mood? Some scholars have suggested that prophecy is dependent upon mood independently of its connection with the imaginative faculty, but the Efodi explains that even Moshe's prophecy entailed some aspect of this faculty.


In the Mishneh Torah we find further indication of the involvement of the imaginative faculty in Moshe's prophecy:


Our Sages taught: God showed Moshe, in a prophetic vision, the form of the moon, and told him, “When you see this [appearance of the moon], sanctify [the new month]." (“Laws of the Sanctification of the Month,” 1:1)


This suggests that there was room for the imaginative faculty in Moshe's prophecy, too: God did not suffice with an abstract message, but showed Moshe an actual image of the moon.


Prof. Y. Levinger offers a convincing explanation for the Rambam's view of the role of the imaginative faculty in Moshe's prophecy.[3] Among the other prophets, the imaginative faculty obscures intellectual perception. Moshe attained pure intellectual perception, with no involvement of the imaginative faculty. Moshe still needed this ability – but for a different purpose: to fulfill his role as prophet within society. Prophets must use the imaginative faculty to translate their abstract perceptions into real images, so that the rest of the nation is able to understand them. Moshe required this ability no less than the other prophets did.


Here we discover that the imaginative faculty also plays a positive and vital role in the prophet's personality: it helps him to communicate with people. Moshe attained the loftiest, purest intellectual perception, but even he needed some measure of imagination in order to be able to convey the meaning of what he perceived – i.e., in order to fulfill his social and political role.


D.        The Rambam and Plato


The Rambam's political philosophy was influenced by the teachings of Plato, which reached him via the Muslim philosophers of the Middle Ages. In his work, The Republic, Plato asserts that the city-state is ideally to be ruled by philosophers, who possess the necessary wisdom to lead. Plato's attitude towards political leaders who are not philosophers is reflected in his famous "ship of state" metaphor:


Imagine a ship or a fleet in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but who is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and whose knowledge of navigation is not much better…. [The sailors], having first disabled the noble captain’s senses with drink or some narcotic drug, proceed to mutiny and take possession of the ship, and make free with the stores. But it has never seriously entered their minds that the good pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship…


You can readily see the similarity between the situation described in the metaphor and the way in which the general population views the true philosophers. (The Republic, VI488a-489a)


Plato regarded government as an art requiring knowledge and wisdom. Placing the reins of power in the hands of ignorant people is like entrusting the ship's helm to a captain who has no knowledge of navigation. According to Plato, the ideal city-state is one ruled by philosopher-kings. How could a political entity of this sort come about? It would emerge either through a takeover of government by the philosophers, or through the kings becoming convinced of the truths of philosophy. It seems that Plato viewed the second possibility as being more realistic (The Republic, VI502). In any event, in the ideal city-state, philosophers play a vital social and political role.


This role is also depicted in another of Plato's famous metaphors – that of the cave (The Republic VII514-518). We shall not discuss this metaphor in detail, but its general message depicts a group of people who are in a dark cave and who perceive only shadows. One of these people, having managed to find his way out of the cave, and after encountering sunlight on the outside, goes back inside and tries to convince the others to follow him. This leader is the philosopher; he has a social and educational mission for which he is prepared to give up the tranquility of his study (basking in the light outside) and to go back to the people of the shadows (the community or society that needs his guidance).


There is certainly room to argue that Plato viewed his political teaching as a utopian view that would never be realized. The Rambam, however, believed that this utopian society existed in reality, in the form of Am Yisrael. Even if government by philosophers is not a realistic vision, leadership by prophets is a fact. The prophets are the true guides and leaders of the nation, and they correspond to Plato's philosopher-kings. The greatest of these was Moshe, the archetype of the philosopher-king. Moshe was the greatest of the prophets, and therefore – according to the Rambam – also the wisest of sages, and he was the ruler and leader of Am Yisrael, in accordance with Chazal's interpretation of the verse, "Va-yehi bi-Yeshurun melekh" (He was king in Yeshurun) (Devarim 33:5; see Tanchuma Beshalach 2).


The Torah is the political constitution which God bequeathed to the world through this supreme king-sage – Moshe. Therefore, this is the most perfect constitution, meant to further all of mankind on the best path to wisdom and moral perfection.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]  Prof. Y. Guttman, Ha-Philosophia shel Ha-Yahadut, p. 160. Some other scholars have disagreed.

[2] Prof. David Hartmann, Ha-RambamHalakha U-philosophia, p. 163.

[3]  Prof. Y. Levinger, Ha-Rambam Ke-philosoph U-keposek, p. 37.