Prophecy is a “learned” skill. It can be taught. Here are the steps you need to become a prophet or prophetess.
Whether you are a man or a woman, the process is the same.
It’s important for the aspiring prophet or prophetess to understand both what prophecy is and what it is not.
I wrote a separate article titled What is Prophecy? A Jewish Perspective.
What Prophecy is Not
Prophecy is not a mere mental state or some vague feeling of ecstasy.
6.17 Inspiration and prophecy are not mere psychological processes in which the human imagination constitutes the main factor. Rather they are conditions in which man becomes the instrument through which God exerts His power. They are experiences that are as real as physical sensation, leaving absolutely no doubt as to their authenticity.
If we are going to become one of God’s instruments, we must prepare ourselves.
6:77 Although revelations is primarily a gift to perfect the prophet himself, there are many instances in which a prophet is sent with a message to others.
Relatively few prophets ever received a message that was meant for other people.
The aspiring prophet must be willing to do the work needed to grow spiritually, to develop a closer relationship with the Creator.
In the times of Elijah and Elisha there were schools for aspiring prophets.
3. And the sons of the prophets who were at Beit El came out to Elisha, and said to him, …
5. And the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho came to Elisha, and said to him, …
The actual event recorded here is not important for our purposes. Note that there were “sons of the prophets” both in Beit El and in Jericho.
Radak explains that these “sons of the prophets” were “students of prophecy.”
There were 2 separate schools for prophets in Israel at that time and probably more that aren’t mentioned in the Bible.
What might have been part of the curriculum in these schools?
The Rambam’s 3 Levels
Rambam in The Guide for the Perplexed explains that there are 3 major levels of prophecy. I’ve written more details about these levels in my article Types of Prophets in the Bible.
The Rambam explains that a person who achieves either of the 2 lower levels is not yet a prophet. However, the lower levels are necessary steps that most people must master before becoming a prophet.
Let’s look at what is required to achieve each level.
Level 1: Divine Assistance
This level is also called Divine Guidance. In Hebrew it’s called “the spirit of the Lord” or “ruach HaShem.”
This level is available to all people. The prerequisite to reach this level is fear / awe of God. This is hinted at in this verse from Psalms:
14. The secret counsel of the Lord is with them who fear Him; and He will reveal to them His covenant.
This verse is quoted by the Gemara in Sotah 4b. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in his commentary explains “‘The secret counsel of the Lord is with them who fear Him,’ teaching that those who fear God are privy to knowledge beyond their personal experience.”
What was the character of Deborah that she judged Israel at that time? …I bring the heavens and the earth as witnesses against me: whether Jew or non-Jew, whether man or woman, whether male or female slave, everyone according to his actions: “ruach hakodesh” may rest on him …
As Tanna DeBei Eliyahu goes on to explain, Deborah experienced this level of Divine Assistance as she and her husband began their prophetic careers. In other words, this was the first step in a process of spiritual growth.
Tanna DeBei Eliyahu calls this first level “ruach hakodesh” but Rambam calls it “the spirit of the Lord” or “ruach HaShem.”
Unfortunately, there is some confusion / overlap in how different writers use these terms.
Rabbi Kaplan in The Handbook of Jewish Thought (6:20) makes it clear that Tanna DeBei Eliyahu is referring to the Rambam’s Level 1.
Level 2: Divine Inspiration
The Rambam calls this second level “ruach hakodesh.” It is hinted at in David’s prayer of repentance in Psalm 51:
13. Do not cast me away from your presence; and do not take your holy spirit [ruach hakodesh] from me.
The Gemara in Avodah Zarah 20b lists 10 steps that a person must follow to reach Divine Inspiration. As the Gemara makes clear, these steps are in a particular order. Success with one of the steps is necessary before trying to master the next step.
Here are the steps in Hebrew followed by an English translation and brief explanation:
- Torah – Torah must be carefully studied and observed
- Zehirut – Vigilance to not violate negative commandments
- Zerizut – Alacrity and diligence to observe positive commandments
- Nekiut – Cleanliness from sin in all its forms
- Perishut – Abstinence from permissible things that may lead one astray
- Tohorah – Purity and refining of thoughts and actions
- Chasidut – Piety, dedication to God
- Anavah – Humility, regarding oneself as unimportant
- Yirat cheit – Fear of sin
- Kedushah – Separation from the material
Each of these traits requires much more explanation. Fortunately for us, the Ramchal wrote a book called Mesilat Yesharim – The Path of the Just. In it he explains each of these traits and how to acquire it.
Ramchal states near the end of Mesilat Yesharim: “From this point he will be elevated to an even higher plane, that of Ruach HaKodesh [“Divine inspiration”], where his understanding will transcend the limits of human capabilities.”
There are many levels of Divine Inspiration, the highest of which is just short of Prophecy.
Level 3: Prophecy
Prophecy is a gift from God, but it requires spiritual preparation.
Also, there are some general requirements that are beyond the control of the aspiring prophet.
1. The generation must be worthy having a prophet.
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 11a) relates that Hillel the Elder and Shemuel HaKatan were worthy of prophecy, but their generations were not.
2. The prophet’s first experience of prophesy must be in the Land of Israel.
3. Usually, both parents of the aspiring prophet must be Jewish.
This is the general rule, but there are exceptions. The best known exception is the prophet Obadiah who was an Edomite convert.
Rambam in The Guide to the Perplexed (2:36:3) lists additional required attributes to become a prophet. The aspiring prophet or prophetess must:
- be in complete mental and physical health
- study and acquire wisdom
- have an intellect that is as perfect as possible
- have his passions under complete control
- not seek after pleasure for its own sake
- have no desire for power and dominion
Becoming a prophet is no small task and there are many potential spiritual pitfalls. Therefore, the aspiring prophet should have an experienced prophet to serve as a guide. That was part of the reason for the schools of prophets that used to exist.
There is one important idea for the aspiring prophet to understand. Even if a person succeeds in achieving all of the steps mentioned above, there is no guarantee that he will be granted prophecy.
Here is how the Rambam explains it:
4. The third view is that which is taught in Scripture, and which forms one of the principles of our religion. … 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.
5. There are, however, numerous passages in Scripture as well as in the writings of our Sages, which support the principle that it depends chiefly on the will of God who is to prophesy, and at what time; and that He only selects the best and the wisest.
Prophecy is a gift from God that He bestows on those who He requires to fulfill His will in this world.
One More Thing
One issue I have not talked about in this article is whether or not prophecy exists in today’s world. That is an important topic that is discussed here.
Even if a person may never become a prophet, there is no doubt that it is still worthwhile to strive for these levels of spiritual growth.
This article is part of a series on the subject of prophecy. A good place to start is with the article What is Prophecy – A Jewish Perspective.
At the end of that article you will find links to all of the other articles.