Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Be- Ha`alotekha 5770/ June 29, 2010

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Are Eldad and Medad among the Prophets?


Atty. Pinehas Haliwa


Ashkelon College


The people’s continual grumbling reached a climax when family gatherings were also accompanied by unexplained crying, as described in this week’s reading: “Moses heard the people weeping, every clan apart, each person at the entrance of his tent.   The Lord was very angry, and Moses was distressed” (Num. 11:10). [1]   This grumbling, after the manna had been given from Heaven and Moses had prayed for the plague to cease among the people, gave Moses the feeling that he had lost control, and he doubted his ability to continue leading the people.  The despair than engulfed him was expressed in the extreme words which he addressed to the Lord:  “If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You” (Num. 11:15).   For the first time Moses admitted that he was unable to bear the burden of leadership alone and demanded that the public responsibility be shared:  “And Moses said to the Lord, ‘Why have You dealt ill with Your servant… that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me? … I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me” (Num. 11:10-14).

Despite Moses’ extreme reaction, his request was accepted, and as a first step he was asked to select seventy of the people’s elders and officers to join him in the task of leadership.  To assure the success of this endeavor, Moses was commanded to gather all seventy chosen men into the Tent of Meeting for a short training process, prior to their assuming the burden of public office:   “I will come down and speak with you there, and I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden of the people with you” (Num. 11:17).   Scripture describes how the elders presented themselves in the Tent of Meeting, and mentions that two others, Eldad and Medad, prophesied outside the Tent of Meeting, while remaining within the camp with all the Israelites.  Both the midrashic sages and later biblical exegetes have attempted to understand the question mark surrounding these two figures and what it was that they did, especially given the fact that their prophesying did not follow the procedure set in the Lord’s words to Moses. In his commentary on the Torah, Or ha-Hayyim, Rabbi Hayyim ben-Atar asks:

If they were among the seventy, then why would Scripture describe the spirit being vested in them separately?  And if they were not among the seventy, why did the spirit of the Divine Presence come to them, for the divine spirit was promised only to those who gathered in the Tent of Meeting so that Moses’ spirit could be vested in them?

In other words, what was the nature of their prophecy and why were they granted this ability?   If they were elevated to the level of prophecy even though they remained in the camp, away from the place of the Divine Presence, was their prophetic capacity different from the others, perhaps not drawn from Moses’ prophetic spirit?

A Higher Place

The prevalent view among the Sages, and following them, several biblical exegetes, is that they attained to a unique level of prophecy.  This view is based on the way Eldad and Medad’s prophecy is described, contrasting to that of the elders:  the elder’s prophecy took place in the vicinity of the Tent of Meeting and is described as being a one-time event:  “And when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, but did not continue” (Num. 11:25).  Eldad and Medad, however, prophesied in the camp, not in the place of inspiration, and Scripture does not say that their prophecy ceased.  The Sages say their prophecy reached a level even greater than that of the Prophets:  “For all the prophets prophesied and then ceased, but they prophesied and did not cease” (Sanhedrin 17a).  The midrash presents the far-reaching view that they continued to prophesy until their death. [2]   According to this view, their prophecy was more special than that of all the prophets and excelled that of the seventy elders, for the elders were only accorded temporary prophetic ability during the period of wandering in the wilderness and until their mission was completed, and they did not have the pleasure of entering the promised land.  Eldad and Medad, however, according to the midrash, were given the gift of continuous prophecy and had the good fortune of entering the land, being among the people who apportioned the land to the people along with Joshua son of Nun and Eleazar the Priest. [3]   This view is not substantiated by anything in Scripture.

A Step Lower

Maimonides differed with the Sages, and several biblical exegetes in recent generations have followed his lead.   Maimonides discusses the character of the prophet and the virtues that make one fit for prophecy in several places in his works. [4]   Basing his view on the Talmudic statement, “The Divine Presence dwells only on those who have wisdom, courage, wealth and stature” (Shabbat 92a), Maimonides lists personality traits that constitute a necessary precondition to experience prophecy or receive the divine spirit.  These characteristics he divides into two groups:  personality traits deriving from intellectual capability and personality traits influenced by a person's morality.  Wisdom and knowledge shape and enhance intellectual ability.   Moral capacity finds expression in the concepts of courage and wealth.  Wealth describes the personality trait that enables people to be satisfied with their lot, as the Sages declared:  “Who is considered wealthy?  He who is satisfied with his lot” (Avot 4.1).   Courage finds expression in the ability to act on the basis of intellectual as opposed to emotional considerations, rejecting non-rational considerations, [5] as in the saying:  “Who is the man of courage?  He who subdues his desires” (ibid.)   These necessary preconditions of prophecy do not assure that a person will be a prophet; that decision is made by the Holy One, blessed be He, if indeed that person is worthy of prophecy.

In Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides discusses degrees of prophecy, listing eleven degrees, the first two being only steps leading to prophecy, and the remaining nine being degrees of prophetic ability.  These nine degrees he divides into two:  prophetic dreams and prophetic vision.  Prophetic dreams include the first five levels in the scale of actual prophecy, and prophetic vision includes the four last highest levels.  The faculty of prophecy in the four most elevated classes of prophecy is marked by the prophet’s ability to experience prophetic vision while awake; the prophetic message is transmitted through the sense of sight and not through thought or imagination, and is transmitted when the prophet is fully aware.   Degrees of prophecy defined as prophetic dream, in contrast, are experienced through the mediation of imagination and thought.  The highest of all degrees of prophecy was attained by Moses, the only one to experience prophetic vision in a waking state, mediated neither  by rational faculties nor imagination, and without specific advance preparation. [6]   Moses’ degree of prophecy was defined by the Sages as vision “through an illuminating glass” with no mediation that obscures the vision, whereas the other prophets saw through “a glass that is not illuminated,” [7] each according to the degree of their prophetic ability.  The degree of prophecy that they attain is determined by the number of barriers they succeed in removing, but no prophet other than Moses ever succeeded in removing all barriers.  According to Maimonides, prophetic visions of a higher order can come only to a prophet of the highest perfection, for any imperfection creates a barrier blocking prophetic vision. 

King Solomon

King Solomon is classified by Maimonides as only having prophetic faculties of the second degree due to his having taken many wives, which lowered his moral virtue.  As Maimonides put it:

As it is said:   “It was just in such things that King Solomon of Israel sinned” (Neh. 13:26).  Likewise David, of blessed memory, was a prophet – he said, “The Rock of Israel said concerning me” (II Sam. 23:3) – yet we find him to have been cruel.   Even though he used his faculties against gentiles, killing non-believers, and was merciful to Israel, nevertheless Chronicles makes it clear that the Lord did not find him worthy of building the Temple  We also find that Elijah, of blessed memory, had a wrathful temperament … and the Sages explain that the Lord removed him … these and similar qualities constitute barriers for prophets.

According to these general principles and the definition of prophecy in the relevant verses of this week’s reading, Maimonides classified the type of prophecy that came to Eldad and Medad as being of the second degree, as “steps leading to prophecy.”  On the same level, along with the first degree of prophecy, is Saul, of whom it was said, “Is Saul too among the prophets?” (I Sam. 10:11).  The prominent characteristics of this level are the ability to deliver useful and enlightening words of wisdom.  A person at this level feels that he is not speaking from his own intelligence, but that words of wisdom newly instilled in him are coming forth, accompanied by a sense of inner awakening, stirring him to take action to change a given situation.  According to Maimonides, all the books in Writings, but not Prophets, were written at this level of prophecy.  He also includes the words of David, Solomon, Daniel and others in this level, and surprisingly, contrary to the opinion of the Sages, also the seventy elders, who in his view were instilled with the same degree of prophecy as Eldad and Medad: [8]

This class includes the seventy elders of whom it is said, “and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, but did not continue” (Num. 11:15); also Eldad and Medad … on whom, as our Sages say the divine glory rested, and who spoke by the holy spirit.

Rabbi Meir Simhah of Dvinsk followed Maimonides’ approach in his commentary, Meshekh Hokhmah.   Basing his commentary on remarks in the Mekhilta, Parashat Bo, he distinguishes between prophetic holy spirit, which the person thus endowed is constantly in preparing to receive, and the holy spirit which comes to a person on a one-time basis without special preparation, such as that which inspired the Israelites during the exodus from Egypt, as in the verse, “And the Lord had disposed the Egyptians favorable towards the people” (Ex. 12:36), on which the midrash comments, “Favorably refers to none other than the holy spirit, as it is written, ‘But I will fill the House of David … with a spirit of pity’ (Zech. 12:10).” [9]   The seventy elders were given of the holy spirit endowed to Moses, and from the seventy elders the spirit went to Eldad and Medad, “who were on an equal level with the elders.” [10]

In conclusion, the Sages viewed Eldad and Medad as attaining a lofty, independent degree of prophecy, whereas Maimonides, taking an original approach, classified them as being on the level of “steps leading to prophecy,” ascribing the origin of their prophetic capacity to the spirit which rested on Moses, along with the seventy elders.


[1] Rashi, citing the Sages (Shabbat 130a and Yoma 75a), explains that they wept because of the laws against incest and marriage to close relatives.

[2] Sifre Zuta, ch. 11.

[3] As hinted at in Numbers 34:21.  See Midrash Tanhuma (Warsaw ed.), Be- Ha`alotkha, par. 12; Rabbenu Bahya on Numbers 11:10.

[4] As in Guide for the Perplexed, Part II, chapters 32 and 45; Hilkhot Yesodei Torah, chapter 7; Shemonah Perakim, chapter 7, and his introduction to Mishneh Torah.

[5] Similarly, Kant tests the degree of morality by a person’s ability to make rational decisions, which he defines as autonomous will, such as legal decisions, as opposed to emotional decisions, which he defines as heteronymous will and are not based on reason.  

[6] Maimonides, Hilkhot Yesodei ha- Torah, 7.6.

[7] Bava Batra 75a.

[8] Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Part II, ch. 45.

[9] Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Bo, Tractate de Pishah, ch. 13.

[10] Meshekh Hokhmah, Numbers 11:17.