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Maimonides: Prophecy in the Guide for the Perplexed and the Epistle to Yemen
Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) is perhaps one of the most influential rabbinic
scholars of modern Judaism. A distinguished scholar, philosopher, and physician,
Maimonides created many substantial works despite his being self-exiled from Spain and
North Africa. His Commentary on the Mishnah, Mishneh-Torah and The Guide for the
Perplexed are among his most famed works.
Through his Aristotelian-based theory, Maimonides provided a philosophical lens
through which to view Judaism. The Guide for the Perplexed is one such work that
refracted the ideals of Judaism current in his time. The Guide worked through many
components of Judaism, using a hermeneutical style primarily based on homonymic
evidence within the Torah and other sacred books. It became and continues to be a
highly influential book for the theological studies of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Another area of value in discussing the works of Maimonides are his epistles and
treatises written to various Jewish communities throughout France, Germany, North
Africa and the Middle East. Very often lengthy responses to questions or concerns raised
by the communities to which they were addressed, Maimonides had a way satisfying
much of the thirst from which the communities suffered. His Jewish Creed provides the
foundation for the faith of any Torah-true Jew. While his Treatise on Resurrection works
to answer questions that, perhaps, many felt were left unanswered. Of particular interest
to this paper is The Epistle to Yemen, a series of responsa to the legendary South Arabian
Jewish community that discusses themes of prophecy, astrology and messianism.
Through this paper, I will utilize both the Guide for the Perplexed and the Epistle
to Yemen in an attempt to elucidate Maimonides views on prophecy including where the
two works collide and how elitism played a role in these works.
The Guide for the Perplexed
Maimonides’ The Guide for the Perplexed is quite possibly his most widely
reaching and influential work. Unlike his Commentary on the Mishneh or the Mishneh
Torah, the Guide was produced as a strictly philosophical piece crossing the boundaries
between Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Maimonides’ Aristotelian interpretations of
themes important to this medieval thinker depict an audience from among the three
monotheistic religions quite capable of a few bouts in the intellectual ring with Aristotle
himself. The Guide is rife with assumptions intended for the philosophical elite of his
time to infer without a great deal of trouble.
For our purposes, the prophetical views of Maimonides will be at issue here.
Particularly in focus will be whom Maimonides declares a prophet—such as Moses.
More specifically, what sets Moses apart from all other prophets before and since the
Revelation at Mt. Sinai? This section will also analyze Maimonides’ handling of
Mohammed in a work meant for Muslim eyes. Any inflammatory work could have
easily gotten Maimonides killed, so how does he balance his philosophical view of
prophecy in Judaism with the ruling religion’s prophetic finale. Likewise, it is important
to look at the role of dreams in the determination of prophecy and prophet. If a person
received a vision in a dream, was this prophecy? If an angel delivered a message in a
dream, was this prophecy? Simply, what are the criteria that Maimonides presents to his
philosophically inclined peers?
Maimonides has no qualms discussing his philosophical views of prophecy the
elite scholars of his day. Throughout the entirety of the Guide there exists a certain air of
authority and elitism. He repeatedly concludes chapters with an abrupt “Note it (229)” or
“Note what is meant by these words (234),” adding to the degree of authority he wishes
to convey. He remarks quite matter-of-factly regarding certain aspects of the material
and divine worlds so as to separate his elitist audience from the vulgar below. When
discussing the precepts concerning the faculties of potential prophet’s mind, Maimonides
speaks of “the intuitive faculty” that “all possess, but in different degrees (229).” As if
this is something that any individual would ponder on any given day. Maimonides
knows affectionately the audience he is trying to reach and leaves unapologetically the
vulgar in the dust.
It seems that of particular interest to Maimonides is the subject of prophecy. He
devotes nearly the entire second part of the Guide to this matter. Perhaps living under the
influence of Muslim rule, Maimonides thought often about the meaning of prophecy.
After all, Mohammed, according to Islam, is the final prophet of the Lord. This of course
conflicts with much of Maimonides’ views concerning the Jewish faith and the fate of the
Jewish people (Jewish Creed). So, here on the stage before not only his usual
coreligionists, he attempts to rectify exactly what it means to be a prophet for his
Christian and Muslim philosophical peers as well (Guide xl).
Before setting out on exactly what makes a prophet, Maimonides must first
acknowledge what beliefs of prophecy are held among the God-fearing folk. This, of
course, immediately cancels out the Atheists who would disqualify any God-based
prophecy from the outset. He develops, then, three categories of people to whom his
views on prophecy should be relevant. First, the group of people that believe in Prophecy
as ordained by God who chooses individuals as prophets at random. This group,
admittedly, dismisses the wicked as capable prophets unless some divine intervention
were to make the wicked upright (219). Second, the philosophers who only believe
prophesy as a function of the scholarly individual. For this group, Maimonides contends,
there is no prophecy without perfection in the “intellectual and moral faculties.” The
third and lengthiest view of Prophecy is contained in the Scripture. He asserts, likewise,
that this view is a principle of Judaism. Therefore, and this is undoubtedly directed
toward his coreligionists, this is the type of Prophecy with which he will be in agreement.
He does concede to the similarity of his type of prophecy with that of the philosophers.
However, unlike the philosophers who suggest anyone capable of prophecy is therefore a
prophet, Maimonides makes the distinction that a prophet is only a prophet if she
communicates the prophecy. In addition, the prophet would only be prevented from
revealing prophesy by some will of God. It is by this Will that prophecy like all miracles
is administered or silenced. In keeping with his elitist attitude, Maimonides assures that
ignoramuses are unfit for prophecy. He likens such the possibility for an ignorant
prophet to that of an “ass or a frog” prophesying.
As soon as the opinions of prophecy are established, Maimonides moves right on
to Moses. Being fond of categorization, Maimonides wants to set forth the traits that
distinguish Moses from those of other prophets. He states unquestionably, “It is clear to
me that what Moses experienced at the revelation on Mount Sinai was different from that
which was experience by all the other Israelites, for Moses was alone addressed by
God….” (221). Though Maimonides specifies the Israelites in this sentence; his
argument upholds that Moses was exceptional among all other Israelites and prophets.
He concludes his discussion of Moses reminding the reader that he compiled already four
arguments noting the distinction of Moses over all other prophets “in books accessible to
every one, in the Commentary on the Mishnah and in Mishneh-Torah” (223). Of course,
the reader of the Guide should be well familiar with these volumes for Maimonides will
not be referring to Moses in relation to prophecy any further (223). In this way, he has
set apart Judaism from Christianity and Islam. He has unabashedly placed Moses and his
prophecy above that of Jesus and Mohammed without mentioning their names or fully
explaining what he considers prophecy to be.
It is not difficult to understand the reasoning behind Maimonides’ vague allusions
to Christianity and Islam in his discussions of Prophecy. Living in a society in which the
ruling class adheres strictly to the moral code of a particular religion is perhaps enough to
make anyone mum on the subject of the ruling religion—in this case Islam. Yehuda
Shamir reminds us that Maimonides’ residence in Egypt and his prior residence in Spain
and North Africa would have well informed him on the matters of punishment regarding
outbursts against Islam (213). Maimonides needed to set apart Moses in order to
stealthily lower the prophetic aspirations of Mohammed and Jesus.
Despite his unimpressed attitude toward the vision of Mohammed and Jesus,
Maimonides still manages to allude to their status as being among the ranks of Abraham.
In the Guide, he redacts a list containing, in his view, all the degrees of prophecy in
accordance with his deduction through and his hermeneutical readings of Scripture.
Excluding Moses’ prophecy, he reduces all prophetic aspirations to just eleven categories
(241). Most of these degrees revolve around the core idea of prophecy being intertwined
with dreams. All prophets including Jesus and Mohammed received their prophecy
through an intermediary such as an angel or a messenger within the dream—excluding
the prophecy of Moses since “mouth to mouth [God] spoke to him (Exodus 25:22)”
Maimonides notes that it is unreservedly important to make the distinction
between prophecy received through a dream and the revelation Moses experienced at
Sinai. As stated before, Maimonides does not discuss at length in the Guide what Moses
experienced at Sinai. He does, however, discuss at length what it means to receive
prophecy by dream. This type of prophecy is second only to what Moses experienced at
Sinai. Maimonides continues in his philosophical way to deduce that as long as the
person receiving prophecy is sound in her rationality, this type of prophecy will only
include visions or dreams containing an angel. There will never be any intervention on
the part of God to communicate directly or through the dream state to the prophet. This
is something Maimonides makes very clear (244).
Once again, Maimonides makes this distinction quite purposefully. Despite his
silence in uttering his name, Maimonides does not in any way wish to exalt the prophecy
of Mohammed to the level of prophecy attained by Moses. By describing the prophetic
dream like that experienced by Mohammed without mentioning his name, Maimonides is
able to assert Judaism as the one true monotheistic religion. Yehuda Shamir refers to a
censored portion from the Mishneh-Torah that helps to clarify Maimonides views of
Christianity and Islam (214). Maimonides states that Jesus and Mohammed “only served
to clear the way for King Messiah, to prepare the whole world to worship God with one
accord….Thus the messianic hope, the Torah, and the commandments have become
familiar topics….[People from faraway lands] are discussing these matters…But when
the true King Messiah will appear and succeed…they will forthwith recant and realize
that they have inherited naught but lies from their fathers, that their prophets and forbears
led them astray (214).”
Thus, it is clear that Maimonides has used his views of prophecy to subordinate
the roles of Islam and Christianity to the true God-given religion of Judaism. Shamir
provides three guidelines for what Maimonides believes Christianity and Islam to be: (1)
unauthentic religions when held to the light of Judaism; (2) dispersers of the ideals of
monotheism and the Torah; and (3) preparatory devices for the Messiah who will reveal
for all the true religion—Judaism (215). These are critical functions for Maimonides
view of prophecy. He does not outright dismiss the work of Mohammed and Jesus. He
instead provides a purpose for the two largest of the three monotheistic religions. That
purpose is preparation. God revealing to Jesus and to Mohammed through the Angel
Gabriel endowed the world with a means to understand monotheism. According to
Maimonides, prior to the presageful visions of Jesus and Mohammed, the Romans and
the Arabs bathed in the sin of paganism. Following their prophecy, Jesus and
Mohammed spread monotheism throughout the world. Though unable to express this
view directly in the Guide, Maimonides is still able to address how he feels about the two
dispersers through his discussion of their type of prophecy.
The Epistle to Yemen
After analyzing Maimonides’ elitist depictions of prophecy, it is also important to
understand how he translates the heavy material of the Guide to less philosophically
attuned individuals. So now we turn to Maimonides’ famed Epistle to Yemen. Written as
a response, or possibly series of responsa, to Rabbi Jacob ben Nethan’el al-Fayyumi, the
Epistle addresses a legendary Jewish community highly learned in the Law and with
unrelenting devotion unrivaled among the Jewish people. The Jews of Yemen are “the
real roots” to the existence of unwavering devotion and righteousness from among whom
“no breach, no going forth, and no outcry” could be heard [1-2].
Despite Maimonides’ portrayal of the Yemenite community as a pious bunch out
which song flows freely and Jewish ceremonies continue unbroken; the Epistle
demonstrates a people living in utter fear and terror of the their Muslim counterparts, a
people whose devotion is shaken by the preaching of false prophets and forced
conversion, a people whose burden is so massive it could easily break the backs of those
who bear it, let alone the spirits. Rabbi Jacob wrote to Maimonides not only to praise its
upright stature among the Jews of Muslim countries, but also to seek dire spiritual
counsel lest the backbone of the community be broken. Rabbi Jacob chose no better an
individual than Maimonides to relay their distress.
Like the Yemenite community, Maimonides with his family were forced to flee
southern Spain due to forced conversions of Jews to Islam or, quite possibly, death at the
hands of the Berbers. Quite unlike the Maimon family, however, the Yemenite
community was quite impoverished. Notwithstanding Maimonides’ humble insistence
that, dissimilar to generations prior to his own that reached great heights in their
learnedness of Torah and all the works’ of the Great Sages, he was unable to know the
depths of their Torah knowledge since being shuffled from one country to another; the
Yemenite Jews had not the freedom of choice afforded by the wealthy Jews of southern
Spain. Their remaining in Yemen was not a choice but a requirement determined by their
lack of funds and their status as dhimmi—non-Muslim protected class, or “People of the
Maimonides’ addresses Rabbi Jacob in Arabic as an equal and as messenger. He
is inculcated with a most important task. He must deliver the contents of the Epistle not
only to the elites within the Yemenite community, but also to every women and every
child amongst them. The Epistle is thus a decree to the most vulnerable of the
community. Those persons not at all versed in Torah and those yet to fully understand all
the Torah provides to the Jewish community. He requires of Rabbi Jacob to distribute the
letter so that all persons can hear the Epistle in the company of others and read the Epistle
in solitude to be familiar with all that Maimonides is detailing. In requiring this of Rabbi
Jacob, Maimonides reveals quite a different attitude than that depicted in the Guide. Here
it seems that in times of dire need, Maimonides insists upon the dispersal of knowledge
among all the children of Israel, not only the rabbis, to ensure the righteousness of future
generations. All must know who can be considered a prophet, who is most certainly not a
prophet, and how to deal with those other poor representations of the true Prophecy seen
at Sinai.
After relating his own experience, Maimonides begins to restate the information
provided to him by the Rabbi in the now lost letters sent out by R. Jacob. It is here that
Maimonides reminds the Yemenite community of the travails that Israel will face in
Warga 10
accordance with the Divine plan, yet to be revealed. He speaks of Israel’s time in the
Diaspora, a time that, for Maimonides, will be coming to an end possibly in his lifetime.
He advises that despite the falling away from Torah by some of Israel, God has not
forgotten her. There will always be those that turn away from God, to their own dreadful
fate, and yet God remains steadfast by Israel’s side. God does not disregard his Chosen
People. In order to prove God’s devotion to Israel, he recalls through the prophetic
words of Daniel and Isaiah several nations who by “sword” or by “intellect” have posed,
at various times in history, great strife for the Israelites. Among those who have
attempted to destroy Israel through sword he mentions Amalek, Sisera and
Nebuchadnezzar, and among those who have attempted to destroy Israel through intellect
he mentions the Syrians, Persians and Greeks. All these were great nations, he continues,
yet God did not waver in his devotion—as the community should not waver in theirs—
and pulled Israel from out of the fire. He relieves some of the burden felt by the
Yemenite Jewish community by enforcing the eternal Truth of God who is eternally
superior to the power and knowledge of any mortal [9-11].
After reassuring his readers of Israel’s place in God’s eyes, Maimonides turns to
problems of the day—Christianity and, in particular, Islam. Once again, he uses the
words of a Biblical prophet to uplift and embolden the hearts of the Yemenite Jews. He
says that Daniel spoke of both Jesus—a heretic, and Mohammed—the wicked one—in
his own true divination. The heretic would “make bold to claim prophecy, but they shall
fall” (Daniel 11:14). Maimonides’ own detraction of Jesus the Nazarene is brief but
poignant. In only one short paragraph, he divulges that although Jesus was in fact a
legitimate child and a Jew, he was nonetheless a false prophet of the worst kind. Through
Warga 11
his false prophesizing, Jesus interpreted the commandments so as to lead to their utter
dissolution [12]. Maimonides bluntly reminds the Yemenites of Jesus’ fate following his
prophetic plans.
After a hasty jaunt into the life and false prophecy of Jesus, Maimonides runs
directly into the more pressing issue of Mohammed whom he terms the Crazy one. In
this instance, his audience appears transparent. He trusts that the Epistle should reach
every Jew close to the community without splintering to an unworthy audience. Though
he is writing in Arabic and is quite aware of the punishment he would receive if the letter
should be discovered, Maimonides deems Mohammed the Crazy one. There is perhaps
no simpler way of dismissing someone than to term them crazy, and this is exactly the
task that Maimonides has to accomplish. He reaffirms the divine place of Torah above
the divine aspirations set forth by the very human creation of Mohammed. Mohammed
followed in the footsteps of Jesus with his false prophecy. However, he injected his
religion with the additional components of “rule and submission” —objectives with
which the Yemenite community were certainly familiar when R. Jacob wrote his initial
inquiries to Maimonides.
Clearly, Maimonides takes issue with the teachings of Mohammed, but this does
not explain what disqualifies his prophecy. At this point, Maimonides alludes that mere
humanity does not disqualify Mohammed’s divine inspirations, reminding the reader that
all of the Biblical prophets including Moses were assuredly human. What separates
Mohammed’s false presage from the Biblical prophets was the assertion of his own
religion above that of the divinely transmitted Law—the Torah. Maimonides explains in
Warga 12
“All of these men purposed to place their teachings on the same level with
our divine religion. But only a simpleton who lacks knowledge of both would
liken divine institutions to human practices. Our religion differs as much from
other religions for which there are alleged resemblances as a living man endowed
with the faculty of reason is unlike a statue which is ever so well carved….When
a person ignorant of divine wisdom or of God’s works sees the statue that
superficially resembles a man…, he believes that the structure of the parts of a
statue is like the constitution of a man, because he is deficient in understanding
concerning the inner organization of both. But the informed person who knows
the interior of both, is cognizant of the fact that the internal structure of the parts
of man are truly marvelously made, a testimony to the wisdom of the
Creator…the uncovered parts and covered parts, every one of these in proportion,
in form and proper place.”
The infraction by a simpleton to be led astray by the teachings of other religions is
not at all surprising to Maimonides. He expects human beings to be mistaken. Both
religions have positive and negative aspects that could allow a person to choose the
incorrect one—that is the religion not transmitted from God. This requires the true
believers in Torah to be extra diligent in whom they trust to be a prophet. Again Daniel
citing, Maimonides reminds the reader that Mohammed is a false prophet who “shall seek
to change the seasons and the law.” (Daniel 7:25).
Maimonides uplifts the spirit of the Jew who may not have scholarly attributes yet
still yearns to know God. He admits that there is a place for Christianity and Islam in
Warga 13
preparing the world for the Messiah. However, he asserts that the only way to divine
perfection is the Torah.
Maimonides ascertains that certain Islamists are attempting to read into the Torah
the name of Mohammed in order to proselytize Jews. Maimonides immediately takes
issue with this, stating that God created the divine covenant with Abraham, Isaac and
Jacob. Unlike the religion of Mohammed that teaches a covenant between Abraham,
Ishmael, and his descendants, the divinely sanctioned Torah states that God’s covenant
with Ishmael was only to make him a great nation, not the Chosen nation. In the Epistle,
Maimonides investigates the passage from the Torah used as evidence for the Godly
foreshadowing associated with Mohammed. The suggested references are supposedly
scattered in the Torah thereby foreseeing Mohammed’s inception and the carrying of
God’s promise to the descendants of Ishmael. Maimonides, however, is not impressed by
the exegetical explanations. He dismisses any allusions to Mohammed’s name through
the numerical values of certain Hebrew roots, to Mohammed being mentioned in
reference to Mount Paran (Deuteronomy 33:2), and to the nation of Ishamel being
anything more than great in size. (Genesis 17:20). [37-38].
Maimonides impresses upon the Yemenite community his might in the ken of
Torah swiftly striking down the legitimacy of Mohammed and his teachings as being true
prophecy more upright than the Torah. Not only does he denounce the claims made
Islamists to read Mohammed into the Torah, he places Mohammed on a rung far below
that of Moses—the True Prophet. Maimonides sees Moses—like the Torah—on a
different plain than that of Mohammed because Moses, unlike Mohammed, received his
Warga 14
prophecy directly from God. Unlike Mohammed, Moses and God did not have a
mediating angel. Mohammed spoke not to God but to the angel Gabriel.
Maimonides thinks even less highly of Mohammed than Moses because the
prophecy that Mohammed received came to him by dream. This type of prophecy to
Maimonides is unreliable. He insists that the reader maintain caution when a potential
prophet is revealed divine teachings through dreams. These prophets are unreliable and
perhaps confuse dreams with divine inspiration. As well, Mohammed was revealed
divine teachings with fear in his heart. Moses, however, sat at God’s side while the entire
secrets of the Torah were revealed all the while bathing in the gloriousness of God.
Aside from Mohammed and Jesus, Maimonides emphasizes other means of
telling a false prophet. One devious means by which a prophet would attempt to seduce a
person is through the human practice of soothsaying. One should be weary to the prophet
that tempts one to commit acts of astrological calculation or augury. If a prophet should
suggest such means and state that they be in accordance with God’s will, this prophet is
false. Maimonides makes this point to uphold the value that any prophet who should
attempt to diminish or add to the God-given Torah should be labeled as false.
The differences that exist between the Guide and the Epistle are certainly not
difficult notice. Though Maimonides has presented generally the same view of prophecy
in both works, he has constructed to very separate audiences in the manner he composed
each. The Guide is highly philosophical in its depiction of prophecy. There is a great
deal of allusion that he was obliged to make use of in order to conceal his genuine beliefs
Warga 15
regarding Mohammed and Jesus. The insinuating method that Maimonides used allowed
this major work to be distributed to a much broader audience had he been forthright in his
conclusions. The Epistle, on the other hand, was constructed specifically to enliven the
Jewish spirit in Yemen. Maimonides received word of the plight concerning the Jewish
community there. He, then, produced a most uplifting and dignifying letter that, in a
way, raised the intellect of the vulgar to that of the elite. This was a composition
intended strictly for Jewish eyes. And Maimonides’ slaying of the prophecy and
character of Mohammed speaks directly to this point. The Crazy man whose only real
achievement was to pull the Arabs from the fires of paganism in order to ready them in
the ways of monotheism. A task fit for nearly anyone with the proper faculties, in the
view of Maimonides.
Judaism is the only triumphant religion in the end. Maimonides holds that
Christianity and Islam are but poor representations of a divine revelation long since past.
They may lay claim to a type of prophecy. However, the only true prophecy was
experienced at Sinai.
Warga 16
Works Cited
Maimonides, Moses. The Epistle to Yemen. Ed. by Abraham S. Halkin. Translated from
the Arabic by Boaz Cohen. American Academy for Jewish Research, New York.
Maimonides, Moses. The Guide for the Perplexed. Translated from the Arabic by M.
Friedlander, Ph.D. Dover Publications, New York. 1994.
Maimonides, Moses. Jewish Creed. Translated by J. Abelson. The Jewish Quarterly
Review, Vol. 19, No. 1. Oct., 1906, pp. 24-58.
Shamir, Yehuda. Allusions to Muhammed in Maimonides’ Theory of Prophecy in His
“Guide of the Perplexed.” The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Ser., Vol. 64, No.
3. Jan., 1974. pp. 212-224.
Works Consulted
Breslauer, S. Daniel. Philosophy and Imagination: The Politics of Prophecy in the View
of Moses Maimonides. The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Ser., Vol. 70, No. 3.
Jan., 1980. pp. 153-171.
Kiener, Ronald C. Jewish Isma’ilism in Twelfth Century Yemen: R. Nathanel ben alFayyumi. The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Ser., Vol. 74, No. 3. Jan., 1984. pp.
Maimonides, Moses. Treatise on Resurrection. Translated by Ralph Lerner. History of
Religions, Vol. 23, No. 2. Nov., 1983. pp. 140-155.
Morais, Sabato. A Letter by Maimonides to the Jews of South Arabia Entitled “The
Inspired Hope.” The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Ser., Vol. 25, No. 4. Apr.,
1935. pp. 330-369.
Warga 17
Wolfson, Harry Austryn. Hallevi and Maimonides on Prophecy. The Jewish Quarterly
Review, New Ser., Vol. 32, No.4. Apr., 1942. pp. 345-370.