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I was studying in Sefer Ha-Aggadah with a chevruta this morning and we came across a passage about prophets having to have certain qualities, including wealth. I followed the reference to Nedarim 38a, which quotes R. Yochanan as saying: "The Holy One, blessed be He, causes His Divine Presence to rest only upon him who is strong, wealthy, wise and meek." He then goes on to say that all the prophets were wealthy and brings proof for four of them: Moshe had the shattered sapphire tablets; Shmuel had a house in Ramah and when he traveled all his household and belongings traveled with him; Amos was the owner of flocks and sycamore trees; and Yonah not only bought passage on the ship but hired the whole ship for 4000 gold dinari.

This passage seems to be talking about material wealth in this world. Why would the holy job of a prophet be tied to material wealth, and is the wealth a prerequisite or a consequence of prophecy?

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Wouldn't want a prophet that is open to bribery, now would we? – avi Dec 29 '11 at 8:15
"No comparison between one with bread in his basket, and one with no bread in his basket" – sq33G Dec 29 '11 at 13:08
@avi, if he would succumb to bribery then would God choose him in the first place? Or, if yes, would He keep him in that role, or provide a very clear demonstration that this person is now out of favor? – Monica Cellio Dec 29 '11 at 15:47
@MonicaCellio Good questions. But imagine what sort of hakarat hatov a prophet must feel if he was poor and certain people provided for him. Would he then be willing to give them tochacha? – avi Dec 29 '11 at 16:21
up vote 9 down vote accepted

This is discussed by Abarbanel in his commentary to Rambam's Moreh Nevuchim (II:32).

In his interpretation of R' Yochanan, he denies that R' Yochanan is referring to prophecy at all when he says "God causes his divine presence to rest...". God resting his divine presence on someone is different from His granting someone prophecy. (What exactly "resting His shechina" means is a discussion in itself. Suffice it to say that Abarbanel believes that it has only occurred once with Moshe and will occur once more with Mashiach.)

Therefore, R' Yochanan's next dictum, "All prophets were wealthy..." in which he learns this from Moshe, Shmuel, Amos, and Yonah is a very different issue than his first saying. This, Abarbanel explains, is not to say that wealth is a prerequisite for prophecy, but rather it is a simple observation that prophecy seems to help in acquiring wealth. That is, prophets, as a result of being the objects of "God's attention" in a way, seem to become blessed with prosperity and financial success. (Note that Moshe acquired the precious stones long after he experienced his first prophecy at the burning bush. Shmuel as well, when he experienced his first prophecy was merely a servant to Eli in Shiloh. They only became wealthy much later.)

Just to conclude, Abarbanel believes that there are no physical or material attributes that are conditional to becoming a prophet. (See also his commentary to Shemos 3 and Amos 1.)

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as opposed to the Rambam himself, who does hold that there are prerequisites, including wealth. See his preface to the talmud (about 30 lines down the first column): hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=14284&pgnum=10 – Menachem Dec 29 '11 at 5:17
@Menachem, Yes. Rambam holds that to be a navi, one must be intellectually and philosophically qualified; this is a result of his opinion that prophecy is a natural occurrence. In other words, although God only talks to a prophet when He so wishes, the state of "prophethood" is a natural one, reached by natural means, i.e. philosophical contemplation. I am not so sure, though, that Rambam holds that literal wealth is a prerequisite. (This seems very anti-Maimonidean, besides for the fact that the idea is full of holes.) – jake Dec 29 '11 at 5:29
what does he say about Tall, strong, wise? – simchastorah Dec 30 '11 at 6:00
@simchashatorah, If I recall, those are descriptions given as prerequisites for "God resting his shechina" on someone. As I noted above, this is a separate concept from being a navi. If you're interested in how Abarbanel understands this concept, I suggest you read through his commentary in the link above. – jake Dec 30 '11 at 16:55
Sounds like Abarbanel is in the "consequence, not precondition" camp. Thanks. – Monica Cellio Jan 16 '12 at 1:03

Rabbi Feinhandler explains that physical wealth and money are nessesary for two reasons.

  1. Even though it says that one shouldn't judge people "by the bottle, but by the content", nonetheless, people do judge people by their external attributes. A prophet and a High Priest must be people who will be respected.
  2. So that he has the appropriate self esteem, that (should view himself) as a person who lacks nothing. If feels secure, he will not be scared to influence others.
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If John Doe says something your first response is "so what?". But when Bill Gates, a Rockefeller, a Hilton even independent of their intellectual capabilities people listen. As the golden rule says "he who has the gold makes the rules". Since the prophet's job is to give over to the people a message the prophet needed the money so people listen to the content of the message.

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Tall, strong, wise, wealthy, and yet humble are the ones listed in Sefer Ha-Aggadah. Though it cites Ned. 38a, I don't see "tall" there -- must be somewhere else. – Monica Cellio Dec 29 '11 at 2:52
or I could be wrong but I like your option better – simchastorah Dec 29 '11 at 3:01
dafyomi.co.il/nedarim/insites/nd-dt-038.htm (section 1b) quotes this answer in the name of the D'rashos Haran. (Mirror site.) – msh210 Dec 29 '11 at 3:04
OH Right!!! that is the requirement for a Cohen Gadol for the same reason he has to be tall and good looking in addition to the requirments of the prophet – simchastorah Dec 29 '11 at 3:08

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