1. It is [one] of the foundations of [our] faith that G-d communicates by prophecy with man.
The Rambam lists as the sixth of his Thirteen Principles of Faith, the concept of prophecy. In Hilchot Teshuva 3:8, the Rambam includes in the category of heretics who have no portion in the World to Come "One who says prophecy does not exist and knowledge is not communicated from the Creator to the heart of man". (See also "Guide for the Perplexed", Vol. ii, Chapters 36-46.)
Prophecy is bestowed only upon a very wise sage of a strong character, who is never overcome by his natural inclinations in any regard. Instead, with his mind, he overcomes his natural inclinations at all times. He must [also] possess a broad and correct perspective. A person who is full of all these qualities and is physically sound [is fit for prophecy].
These characteristics do not themselves bring prophecy, but remove obstacles that a prophet might face were he to lack them.
Prophecy is not acquired in a short time or without great effort….
When he enters the Pardes [the realm of spiritual knowledge] and is drawn into these great and sublime concepts, if he possesses a correct perspective to comprehend and grasp [them], he will become holy. He will advance and separate himself from the masses who proceed in the darkness of the time. He must continue and diligently train himself not to have any thoughts whatsoever about fruitless things or the vanities and intrigues of the times.
This is because prophecy is not acquired in a short time or without great effort.
Instead, his mind should constantly be directed upward, bound beneath [G-d's] throne [of Glory, striving] to comprehend the holy and pure forms and gazing at the wisdom of the Holy One, blessed be He, in its entirety, [in its manifold manifestations] from the most elevated [spiritual] form until the navel of the earth, appreciating His greatness from them.
[After these preparations,] the spirit of prophecy will immediately rest upon him.
Nevertheless, there is the possibility that G-d will withhold prophecy from a person who is worthy of it.
When the spirit rests upon him, his soul becomes intermingled with the angels….
When the spirit rests upon him, his soul becomes intermingled with the angels called "ishim", and he will be transformed into a different person and will understand with a knowledge different from what it was previously. He will rise above the level of other wise men, as the prophet, Samuel told Saul: "[The spirit of G-d will descend upon you] and you shall prophecy with them. And you will be transformed into a different person." (Samuel I 10:6)
2. There are a number of levels among the prophets. Just as with regard to wisdom, one sage is greater than his colleague, so, too, with regard to prophecy, one prophet is greater than another. They all, [however share certain commonalities].
With the exception of Moses, as stated in Law 6.
They receive prophetic visions only in a visionary dream or during the day after slumber has overtaken them, as the verse states: "I make Myself known to him in a vision. I speak to him in a dream." (Num. 12:6)
When any of them prophecy, their limbs tremble, their physical powers become weak, they lose control of their senses, and thus, their minds are free to comprehend what they see, as the verse states concerning Abraham: "And a great, dark dread fell over him." (Gen. 15:12)
Similarly, Daniel states: "My appearance was horribly changed and I retained no strength." (Daniel 10:8)
Since these prophets' level of refinement is not complete, their conscious minds cannot operate in their normal fashion while they prophecy.
3. When a prophet is informed of a message in a vision, it is granted to him in metaphoric imagery. Immediately, the interpretation of the imagery is imprinted upon his heart, and he knows its meaning.
For example, the ladder with the angels ascending and descending envisioned by the patriarch Jacob was an allegory for the empires and their subjugation [of his descendants]. Similarly, the creatures Ezekiel saw, the boiling pot and the rod from an almond tree envisioned by Jeremiah, the scroll Ezekiel saw, and the measure seen by Zechariah [were all metaphoric images].
Prophecy cannot rest upon a person when he is sad or languid, but only when he is happy….
Similarly, some of the prophets would relate the allegory and its explanation. Others would relate only the explanation. At times, they would relate only the imagery without explaining it, as can be seen in some of the prophecies of Ezekiel and Zechariah.
All of the prophecies come in the form of metaphoric imagery and allegories.
4. All the prophets do not prophecy whenever they desire. Instead, they must concentrate their attention [upon spiritual concepts] and seclude themselves, [waiting] in a happy, joyous mood, because prophecy cannot rest upon a person when he is sad or languid, but only when he is happy.
See II Kings, Chapter 3, which relates that after Yehoram, King of Israel, had aroused the wrath of Elisha, the prophet, it was necessary to have a minstrel play before him before he could attain prophecy. And see the Guide for the Perplexed (Vol. II, Chapter 36), which explains that the reason prophecy ceased shortly after the destruction of the First Temple is that the difficulties of the exile prevented our people from experiencing the genuine happiness necessary to be fit recipients of the prophetic spirit.
Therefore, the prophets' disciples would always have a harp, drum, flute, and lyre [before them when] they were seeking prophecy. This is what is meant by the expression I Samuel 10:5): "They were prophesying" - i.e. following the path of prophecy until they would actually prophecy - as one might say, "So and so aspires to greatness."
5) Those who aspire to prophecy are called "the disciples of the prophets." Even though they concentrate their attention, it is possible that the Divine Presence will rest upon them, and it is possible that it will not rest upon them.
6) All the statements made above describe the path of prophecy of all the early and later prophets, with the exception of Moses, our teacher, the master of all the prophets.
G-d spoke to Moses…as a man speaks to a friend….
What is the difference between Moses' prophecy and that of all the other prophets? [Divine insight is bestowed upon] all the [other] prophets in a dream or vision. Moses, our teacher, would prophecy while standing awake, as states: "When Moses came into the Tent of Meeting to speak to Him, he heard the Voice speaking to him." (Num. 7:89)
[Divine insight is bestowed upon] all the [other] prophets through the medium of an angel.
Because their level of refinement is insufficient for them to receive the divine revelation openly.
Therefore, they perceive only metaphoric imagery and allegories [which reflect the nature of that particular angel]. Moses, our teacher, [would prophecy] without the medium of an angel, as the verses state: "Mouth to mouth I speak to him" (Num. 12:8), "And G-d spoke to Moses face to face" (Ex. 33:11) and "He gazed upon the image of G-d" (Num. 12:8) - i.e. there was no metaphor. Rather, he would perceive the matter in its fullness, without metaphor or allegory. The Torah testifies concerning him "[I speak to him…] manifestly, without allegory" (Num. 12:8), meaning his appreciation of prophecy would not be through metaphor, but through open revelation, appreciating the matter in its fullness.
All the [other] prophets are overawed, terrified, and confounded [by the revelations they experience], but Moses, our teacher, would not [respond in this manner], as the Torah relates: "[G-d spoke to Moses…] as a man speaks to a friend" (Ex. 33:11) - i.e. just as a person will not be awe-struck from hearing his friend's words, so, too, Moses' mental power was sufficient to comprehend the words of prophecy while he was standing in a composed state.
All the [other] prophets cannot prophecy whenever they desire. Moses, our teacher, was different. Whenever he desired, the divine spirit would envelop him, and prophecy would rest upon him. He did not have to concentrate his attention to prepare himself [for prophecy], because his [mind] was always concentrated, prepared, and ready [to appreciate spiritual truth] as the angels [are]. Therefore, he would prophecy at all times, as the verse states: "Stand and hear what G-d will command you." (Num. 9:8)
He was promised this by G-d, as [implied by]: "Go and tell them 'Return to your tents,' but you stand here together with Me" (Deut. 5:27-28). This should be interpreted to mean that when prophecy departs from all the [other] prophets, they return to their "tents" - i.e. the needs of the body, like other people. Therefore, they do not separate themselves from their wives. Moses, our teacher, never returned to his original "tent". Therefore, he separated himself from women and everything of that nature forever. He bound his mind to the Eternal Rock. [Accordingly,] the glory never left him forever. The flesh of his countenance shone, [for] he became holy like the angels.
7) There is the possibility that a prophet will experience prophecy for his own sake alone - i.e. to broaden his perspective and to increase his knowledge - [allowing him] to know more about the lofty concepts than he knew before.
If he follows the paths of prophecy in holiness…it is a mitzvah to listen to him….
It is also possible that he will be sent to one of the nations of the world, or to the inhabitants of a particular city or kingdom, to prepare them and to inform them what they should do or to prevent them [from continuing] the evil which they are doing.
When he is sent [on such a mission], he is given a sign or a wonder [to perform], so that the people will know that G-d has truly sent him. Not everyone who performs signs or wonders should be accepted as a prophet: only a person who is known to be fit for prophecy beforehand; i.e. his wisdom and his [good] deeds surpass those of all his contemporaries. If he follows the paths of prophecy in holiness, separating himself from worldly matters, and afterwards performs a sign or wonder and states that he was sent by G-d, it is a mitzvah to listen to him, as the verse states: "Listen to him" (Deut. 18:15).
It is possible that a person will perform a sign or wonder even though he is not a prophet - rather, the wonder will have [another cause] behind it. [This is because signs and wonders and even divining the future can be performed by sorcery and the like, as explained in ch. 8-10]. It is, nevertheless, a mitzvah to listen to him. Since he is a wise man of stature and fit for prophecy, we accept [his prophecy as true].
This is the nature of [the Torah's] commandment. [To give an example of a parallel:] We are commanded to render a [legal] judgment based on the testimony of two witnesses. Even though they may testify falsely, since we know them to be acceptable [as witnesses], we presume that they [are telling the truth].
Considering these matters and the like, the Torah states: "The hidden matters are for G-d, our Lord, but what is revealed is for us and our children" (Deut. 29:28), and "Man sees what is revealed to the eyes, but G-d sees into the heart" (Samuel I 16:7).
The Rambam is implying that it is impossible for man ever to know the absolute truth about a situation. Therefore, the Torah gives us criteria with which to govern our decisions. Though they may not be totally foolproof, they are, nevertheless, applicable to our circumstances. If we follow these criteria and an error does occur, G-d does not hold man responsible.
(In the following three chapters (8-10), Maimonides sets out the rules for determining whether a purported prophet is genuine or not.)
[From Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, Chapter 7/
Published by Moznaim]