February 16, 2010


From Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, “Meditation and the Bible” (Samuel Weiser or Jason Aronson edition), Chapter 8, “The Link,” pp. 93-94.

The End of Prophecy

[M]editation played a key role in the careers of the prophets, and was an indispensible element in attaining prophetic enlightenment. With the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the Babylonian Exile, however, the prophetic schools lost their influence, and prophecy virtually vanished from the scene.

A number of reasons are given for this. One is that it is well established that true prophecy can only take place in the Holy Land. While the more general enlightenment of Ruach HaKodesh can be attained anywhere, actual prophecy, where a distinct message can be discerned, requires special conditions (Mekhilta on Exodus 12:1; Sifri on Deuteronomy 18:15, et al.). Since the majority did not return to the Holy Land after the Babylonian Exile, prophecy, in its formal sense, no longer could be attained (Yoma 9b; Kuzari 2:24).

Although the prophetic schools never admitted initiates indiscriminately, after the exile they actually became secret societies. The leaders had seen that the open quest for prophecy and the mystical experience had led many people to engage in idolatry and sorcery. In a large measure, it was this that led to the exile, and the leadership was determined that this would not recur. They therefore “nullified the lust for idolatry,” restricting all mystical teachings to very limited schools, consisting only of the most spiritually advanced individuals (Yoma 69b; Sanhedrin 64a).

The entire focus of Judaism was thus altered. Where the quest for prophecy and mystical enlightenment had played a key role in the general life of the populace, it was now regulated to the background. The focus shifted, and now the Oral Law, with all its intricacies, became the focus of national life, reaching its zenith with the compilation of the Talmud. The mystical activity that existed remained the domain of a few small restricted secret societies. The general rule was: “One may not teach the secrets to two people at a time. One may not teach the mysteries of the Chariot (Merkava) even to one, unless he is so wise that he can understand by himself” (Chagigah 11b).

An important ramification of this was found in the area of prayer. During the time of the prophets, there was no real formal worship service, and each person would pray in his own words. If a special prayer was needed to channel a particular level of spiritual energy, such a service could be led by one of the prophets or their disciples, who knew how to word the prayer to channel the required forces. It is for this reason that a prayer leader is called a Chazan, from the same root as Chazon, meaning a prophetic vision (Likkutei Moharan I, 3).

When prophecy ceased, however, this was no longer possible. A formal system of worship, including all of its mystical elements, had to be formulated. This was done by the Great Assembly, under the leader of Ezra, shortly after the return from the Babylonian Exile. It is significant to note that a number of the last prophets took part in compiling these prayers.

Many of the prophetic traditions were transmitted to the sages of the Talmud and beyond. An excellent account of this is provided by Rabbi Chaim Vital in his introduction to the Gates of Holiness (Sha’arey Kedushah).