Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 17 March 2007 / 27 Adar I 5767

The Meaning of Prophecy

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Masha
Dear Rabbi,
I don’t understand the notion of prophecy. How exactly does a person come to speak in the name of G-d?
Dear Masha,

G-d gave mankind the ability to apply intellect to gain information, understanding and knowledge of things not immediately apparent. In the ordinary plane this involves the faculties referred in Judaism as chochma, bina and da’at respectively, which describe a person’s ability to grasp information, process it and then apply it to extrapolate new information. This new information is then processed and extrapolated, thus setting into motion the never-ending dynamic of learning which illuminates the reasoning mind.

There is a parallel to this dynamic in the spiritual plane whereby G-d also gave mankind a venue to perceive the unapparent through spiritual enlightenment. This is called inspiration, of which there are several levels. Hidden inspiration is when the enlightenment is bestowed in a seemingly normal way and perceived as any other spontaneous idea. Many people experience this, for example when we think of someone who then suddenly calls or whom we unexpectedly bump into, or when we get a sudden inkling of the right course of action, often while in the throes of indecision. This differs from Divine inspiration, however, where the enlightenment is not a spontaneous inkling, but rather a clear and true experience where the person is certain that enlightenment has been bestowed upon him.

There are advantages to inspiration over reason. Inspiration can pertain to knowledge accessible by reason and logic, but in a much clearer way. Also, inspiration pertains to knowledge beyond logic and reason, like future events or hidden secrets. For example, there is well known story of a family from London whose son was kidnapped and who the police could not find. In their despair the family flew to Israel to consult the famous Baba Sali who referred them to his son Baba Meir. The rabbi told the family to return in the morning, at which time he presented them with a hand-drawn map of London (which he had never seen), marking the location of the lad. After the boy was found, the Baba Sali explained that the great degree with which his son protected the sanctity of his physical eyesight granted him a tremendous degree of spiritual insight.

There is a third level of Divine inspiration which is even higher than the others called navua, which is translated (not entirely accurately) as “prophecy”. The use of this term in the Torah elucidates its meaning. Avraham is called a navi regarding the curing of Avimelech after taking Sarah: “And now, return the man’s wife, because he is a navi (prophet), and he will pray for you and you will live; but if you do not return her, know that you will surely die” (Gen. 20:7). Aaron is also called a navi: “The Lord said to Moses, See! I have made you a lord over Pharaoh, and Aaron, your brother, will be your navi (prophet)” (Ex. 7:1). Interestingly, neither case seems related to our traditional understanding of prophecy. What then is navua?

There are four nuances of navua that give us a composite picture of what prophecy means in the Torah. 1] Navi is related to niv, which indicates speech as in the verse, “He created the fruit (niv) of the lips” (Is. 57:19). In this context, a navi is a spokesman. 2] Another nuance of navua is from bo, meaning come. This expresses the idea that the navi enables the word of G-d to come forth. 3] It is also related to nava, which means flow. Here Divine influence flows forth from the prophet as from a spring or fountain. 4] Last, navi is connected to navuv, meaning hollow. This implies the process of emptying oneself of ego, becoming channel or conduit for Divine inspiration. Accordingly, Avraham and Aaron are each referred to as navi because they spoke of, brought forth, caused to flow and channeled Divine energy to achieve a goal. In Avraham’s case it brought forth a cure; regarding Aaron, it refers to his initiating the first of the plagues. Prophesizing the future, then, is only one limited manifestation or expression of navua.

There are many methods of inducing prophetic influence mentioned in our sources which include: intense Torah study and prayer; meditations involving mantras, visualizations and postures; invoking the names of angels or various names of G-d; and the use of music to induce the prophetic state. Women were also prophets. Sarah was described by G-d as having a higher level of prophecy than Avraham. The Judge Deborah was consulted by all of Israel because of her insight, and it was through her leadership that the Jewish nation prevailed over, and gained freedom from, their enemy. In Temple times, a prophetess named Chulda sat at the southern gates of the Temple Mount prophesying to and inspiring the Jewish pilgrims as they went up to the Temple. It was in her honor that this entrance to the House of G-d was called the Chulda Gate.

Additional Note:

For an even more informative and in-depth discussion on Inspiration and Prophecy you are invited to listen to a lecture on the topic by Rabbi Ullman at

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