Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sefer HaIkkarim: Prophet can misunderstand his prophetic vision

Sefer HaIkkarim(3:17)  Even though that all the words of the prophets are true with out any doubt, nevertheless according to the greatness of the prophet and his level of prophecy will the truth that comes from his words be stronger. Because many prophets due to the weakness of their comprehension did not comprehend the clear facts properly. This is because what happens to the perception of the prophets is that which happens to perception of our physical senses. One whose senses are healthy and strong perceives things the way they truly are and one whose sense are weak will not perceive things the way they truly are but will only be aware of the general type or category and not the full details. Someone with healthy vision will see things according to the way they really are for example red or green and will perceive the hue of red or green. However the one who has weak vision will only perceive things in general. Even if he perceives the category i.e., red or green he will not perceive which hue or red or green. This is true also with the sense of hearing and the other senses.

This exact thing occurs also with the prophets and their perceptions. One who has strong perception will perceive things the way they are without illusion and his words will be clear without vagueness and thus his understanding will be true the way things are. A prophet who is on a lower level will perceive things as vague or as a puzzle or metaphors that are unclear. Therefore he won't see the truth as it is but only according to the appearance of the metaphor. He will thus confuse the metaphor with that which it alludes to and thus will fail to be aware of actual reality i.e., the message that he was sent. [Ohel Yaakov: for example Zecharya saw a man riding on a horse...That in itself was meaningless...what was to be seen by the prophet in this vision was that he was being sent by G-d to travel all over the land.]...

Therefore the words of all the prophets are of necessity subordinate to that of Moshe Rabbeinu. In other words the prophesy of a lesser prophets needs to be made totally consistent with that which a greater prophet said.

To clarify this matter we find for example that Yeshaya (6:1) said And I saw G‑d sitting on a throne elevated and transcendent. In contrast Moshe said G-d said that no man can see Me and live. If we didn't know the relative greatness of these two prophets we might have thought that the words of Yeshaya are correct. We would have assumed that because of his great prophetic ability that he perceived from G-d that which he was capable of seeing and therefore his words are to be taken literally And I saw G-d.  We would have assumed that Moshe had not reached the level of Yeshaya and therefore could not perceive G-d to any significant degree and thus he said No one can see G‑d and live.  But now that we know that Moshe was the epitome of the prophets...we know that Moshe's statements have to be taken as literally true and the words of Yeshaya are on a lower level and are not literally true. In fact according to his lower level the words I saw G-d which indicated he thought he saw G-d are not correct and are the result of his imagination. Moshe in contrast did not utilize the power of imagination in his prophecy at all. His prophecy was to report things exactly as they were and thus No one can see G-d and live is literally true.

Yeshaya who utilized his power of imagination in his prophecies that is called by our sages (Yevamos 49b) the unclear lenses - was brought to err by means of his imagination to think that he actually saw G-d. The explanation of this is that the physical essence of Yeshaya was not as refined as that of Moshe as Yeshaya (6:5) said I am a man of impure lips. Even his moral qualities were not proper as he said (6:5) In the midst of a people of impure lips I dwell. Dwelling amongst people with made moral qualities degrades the moral qualities of a good person. That is why he said (6:5) Woe is me that I have imagined. In other words I have been brought to error by my imagination I didn't prophesize with a clear lens like the prophesy of Moshe who heard the voice speaking to him without needing the image in from of his eyes. But I - said Yeshaya - prophesize with an unclear lens which is through the power of imagination I am not able to proper comprehend what I hear without seeing what I am being told and this causes me to be a man of impure lips and that I dwell amongst a nation of impure lips. And I know that this activates my imagination because concerning G-d it is impossible to associate any clear description or image even in a prophetic vision for one who has a clear lens.

This is what our sages (Yevamos 49b) say that Menashe killed Yeshaya because he had said I have seen G-d while Moshe Rabbeinu had said it is impossible to see G-d... He could however have defended himself by saying that even in the time of Moshe the people said they saw the G-d of Israel (Shemos 24:10).

What is learned from all this is that a prophet can never disagree with a prophet who is on a higher level. Instead he must interpret his own words in such a way that there is no conflict between them. Since the Torah has stated that the prophecy of Moshe Rabbeinu was on the highest level of all the prophets, it is impossible for any prophet to disagree with him or nullify his words. However if it is possible to reconcile the apparent disagreement by saying that there were additional factors not mentioned explicitly that is also acceptable.


  1. Rashi is choleiq in his famous comment (IIRC, paraphrasing Chazal) about how Avraham must have been certain of his prophecy to slaughter Yitzchaq. The Rambam also appears to diagree in MN 3:24 (his second purpose for the Aqeidah).

  2. Rashi in commenting on Yevamos 49b

    acknowledges that Yeshaya and others misunderstood what he saw

    נסתכלו באספקלריא שאין מאירה־ וכסבורים לראות ולא ראו ומשה נסתכל באספקלריא המאירה וידע שלא ראהו בפניו.

  3. so we see that Yeshaya thought he saw Hashem,immediately regretted the error that was caused by his "impure lips" then went ahead and wrote his error in his nevua and defended himself because apparently Hashem wrote in the Torah that the people made the same error! If his impure nature made him err what made Moshe err? Why didn't Moshe interpret the vision of the people so as not to conflict with the truth? As a side point I think translating nidmaisee as imagine does violence to dikduk. Most people translate it as I am cut off.That is how it is used other places in Tnach.


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