written by Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld, a guest author.
Meditative disciplines have been part of Judaism since ancient times. Ancient Israel abounded with meditation schools, teachers and disciples, especially during the First Temple era (ca. 900-500 BCE). These schools used a curriculum that was specifically tailored toward the achievement of a clear and direct line of communication with the Infinite Creator. Such a level of communication is the ultimate state of transcendental awareness and is called nevius, or prophecy. The masters of this “transcendental meditation” who led the schools were known as nevi’im, or “prophets”.
Prophecy is generally misunderstood. It does not mean simply telling the future. A person who tells the future via naturalistic forces is called a fortuneteller or a soothsayer, an extremely un-Jewish practice, according to the Torah. Since the greatest Jews of history were prophets, they must have been doing something other than (or in addition to) merely predicting the future.
Part of the misunderstanding of prophecy comes from the fact that the Bible records the prophecies of only forty-eight post-Mosaic prophets, many of whom bring tidings of doom and destruction. No wonder the word “prophet” has become associated with prescience.
In fact, prophecy is defined by an experience rather than by a specific type of pronouncement. We actually know very little about the prophetic experience because true prophecy has been absent from the world since the 4th Century BCE. Yet the scattered evidence, including descriptive sources, indicates an experience of channeling energy.
The average, non-prophetic person receives indirect messages from the Infinite Creator in the form of the events that occur to us every day. There are some, such as the insane, who can receive direct but unclear communications. The prophetic experience is a communication that is both clear and direct.
To reach the prophetic state of consciousness required a long period of study, meditation and self-purification. To succeed required both tremendous self-discipline and professional guidance. Modern authorities such as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, affirm that prophecy is the “ultimate peak” of human creative achievement.
The nation-wide system of meditation schools produced, over a period of 500-800 years, over one million prophets—1,200 or more “graduating” every year. This continual influx created a prophet cadre who acquired an important social role. Imagine, for example, that you had lost your keys. You would have been able to go to the neighborhood prophet for help. He or she might tell you, “Your keys are in your coat pocket. By the way, you’ve been careless lately—perhaps you should think about why you lost them in the first place?”
In other words, a person who reached the meditative state called prophecy took on a special responsibility to help others grow, too.
Each of us has the potential to achieve prophecy. The first steps involve developing the mind, including Torah study and mastering basic Jewish meditations like brachot and the Shema.
Some classical sources on prophecy
Prophecy only occurs to a sage who is great in wisdom, mighty in deeds and whom the material inclination does not control in any material thing; rather he continually fortifies his mind against his inclination and he is an exceedingly masterful intellect.
Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1135-1204)
Description of the experience:
There are many levels of prophecy. Just as one person may have greater intelligence than another, so one prophet can be greater in prophecy than another.
Yet all of them, rather than seeing a vision, they see their prophecy only in a dream or vision at night, or else during the day, while in a trance….
All of them, while experiencing prophecy, the limbs tremble, the body becomes weak, and he loses control of his stream of consciousness. All that remains in his conscious mind is a clear understanding of what he is experiencing at the time….
The information transmitted to a prophet in a prophetic vision is transmitted to him via allegory. The interpretation of the allegory, however, is immediately implanted in the prophet’s mind, and he is aware of its meaning. Like the ladder that our father Jacob saw and the angels ascending and descending on it….
How to achieve prophecy:
The first step in prophecy is a strong desire. This is followed by meditation, which is its means. The goal is then the influx that comes to him.
Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508)
The prophets would meditate on the highest mysteries…. They would depict these things in their mind with their imaginative faculty, visualizing them as if they were actually in front of them.
When their soul became attached to the Supernal Soul, this vision would be increased and intensified. It would then be revealed automatically through a state where thought is utterly absent….
Rabbi Menachem Recanti (1223-1290)
There were various methods:
One must learn these methods from a master…. They would…have to put themselves in a joyous mood…. They would then meditate according to their knowledge of the meditative methods. Through this, they would attain wondrous levels, divesting themselves of the physical, and making the mind overcome the body completely. The mind becomes so overpowering that the physical senses are abandoned and the prophet does not sense anything with them at all.
Rabbi Moses Cordevero (1522-1570)
From “The Art of Amazement: Discover Judaism’s Forgotten Spirituality,” by Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld http://www.daasbooks.com (Daas Books, April 2003). The author teaches “Art of Amazement” seminars around the world (and now available on CD and tape). Cf. I Samuel 19:20-23; there, Targum Yonasan interprets natzav as maleef (teaching); see the Radak there. From this passage as well as the Talmud in B. Megilla 14a and Midrashic sources, scholars infer the widespread, organized study of meditation techniques. Cf. Aryeh Kaplan, Meditation and the Bible, p. 152.  Not to be confused with “Transcendental Meditation” (with capitals), which is a trademark of the Maharishi organization. Cf. Rashbam on Genesis 20:7. The root nun-bet-alef is based on the two-letter root nun-bet which denotes hollowness or openness; to receive transcendental wisdom, one must make oneself “open”.  Leviticus 19:26,31; Deuteronomy 18:10-11.  Cf. Rashbam on Genesis 20:7. The root of the Hebrew navi (prophet) is nun-bet which denotes hollowness or openness; to receive transcendental wisdom, one must make oneself “open”. See also Luzatto, Daas Tvunos p. 331.  Talmud Baba Basra 12b.  Rabbi Joseph P. Soloveitchik, Halakhik Man, p. 130.  Thanks to Rabbi Shmuel Silinsky for this analogy.  Talmud Avodah Zara 20b. Cf. Luzatto, Path of the Just, p. 13.  Maimonides, Mishneh Torah Hilkhos Yesodei HaTorah 7:1  Ibid. 7:2-3.  Commentary on I Samuel 10:5.  Commentary on VaYechi (Lvov, 1880) p. 37d., quoted and translated in Kaplan, loc. cit., p. 88.  Shiur Komah 16, quoted and translated in Aryeh Kaplan, Meditation and the Bible., p. 92.