Why do translators translate "to prophesy" as to "speak in ecstasy"?

Why do the Jewish translators, for example, in the Sefaria translation of the below passages, translate "to prophesy" as to "speak in ecstasy"?

What do the rabbis say? What does it mean to "speak in ecstasy"?

Shmuel I 10:10-12.
Shmuel I 19:22-24.

  • 2
    For an earlier instance of the construct להתנבּא, which is translated that way as well, see Num. 11:25. – Isaac Moses Jun 12 at 16:31
  • It's just a secondary meaning of the word "ecstasy" as found in the dictionary. 'An emotional or religious frenzy or trancelike state.' Ecstasy also has a connotation of extreme joy which relates to one of the requirements for experiencing a revelation of G-d's presence (Shechina). One must be joyful or it doesn't happen. – Yaacov Deane Jun 12 at 20:23

According to Merriam-Webster, “ecstasy” means, among other things:

1a: a state of being beyond reason and self-control

3: TRANCE especially: a mystic or prophetic trance

Prophecy seems to fit the bill quite nicely, as when one is in a state of prophecy (Moshe Rabbeinu aside) he’s in a trance-like state. Consider Bereishis Rabbah 44:17, which refers to prophecy as a type of slumber:

רַב אָמַר שְׁלשָׁה תַּרְדֵּמוֹת הֵן, תַּרְדֵּמַת שֵׁנָה, וְתַרְדֵּמַת נְבוּאָה, וְתַרְדֵּמַת מַרְמִיטָה.

Rav said: There are three types of slumber – the slumber of sleep, of prophecy, and of marmita.

(What a marmita is is subject to debate among the commentaries there and its parallel in 17:5, and is irrelevant to the point at hand.)

Another definition of “ecstasy”:

2: a state of overwhelming emotion especially: rapturous delight

Prophecy fits this bill as well. Consider Shabbos 30b:

אין שכינה שורה לא מתוך עצבות ולא מתוך עצלות ולא מתוך שחוק ולא מתוך קלות ראש ולא מתוך שיחה ולא מתוך דברים בטלים אלא מתוך דבר שמחה של מצוה שנאמר ועתה קחו לי מנגן והיה כנגן המנגן ותהי עליו יד ה׳

The Divine presence doesn’t rest amidst sadness, laziness, laughter, frivolity, speech, or idle matters, but rather amidst a matter of joy of a Mitzvah, as it says, “‘And now, get for me a musician.’ And it was as the musician played that the hand of Hashem was upon him.”

Why don’t they translate prophecy as prophecy? I don’t know – ask whoever wrote the translation. But translating prophecy as “speaking ecstatically” is not a bad translation, per se, as it does describe prophecy fairly accurately.

  • a good answer, but it could be better if rather than quoting Merriam-Webster for a definition, we could find a rabbinic definition. – ninamag Jun 13 at 16:39
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    @ninamag If they’re translating it into English, presumably they’re using whatever the word means in English. Rabbinic definitions are necessarily going to be in Hebrew, and the correspondence between “ecstasy” and “prophecy” is based on Talmudic-era sources. I’m not sure what more you’re expecting. – DonielF Jun 13 at 17:12
  • I want to know what constitutes ecstatic prophesying. To prophesy means to speak a prediction. How do the ancient rabbis describe ecstatic speaking? What did it sound like? Was it coherent? Or a combination of coherent and incoherent words? Was it staccato speaking or monotonic, etc...? – ninamag Jun 13 at 17:56
  • @ninamag That’s not what you asked here. If you meant to ask what it sounds like when a person is prophesying aloud, you should ask that separately. – DonielF Jun 13 at 17:57
  • I considered all these to be included in what I wrote, which was, 'What does it mean to "speak in ecstasy"?' – ninamag Jun 13 at 18:47

Some additions to Doniel's answer:

  1. In Hebrew, the form of התפעל is commonly translated as "to act upon oneself" like להתלבש - dress oneself, so the verb להתנבא can be translated not as "prophesizing" but as "preparing oneself for prophecy" or "achieving a state close to prophecy", which can be interpreted as extasy.

    Because G-d initiates a prophecy, or "G-d makes one prophesize", a proper verb in Hebrew would be in the form of פועל - i.g. הוא נובא על ידי ה'. See Rambam in Yesodey Hatorah "מִיסוֹדֵי הַדָּת לֵידַע שֶׁהָאֵל מְנַבֵּא אֶת בְּנֵי הָאָדָם" - "It is a fundamental part of religion to acknowledge that God bestows prophecy upon the sons of men."

  2. I recall that in the times of the prophets there were special schools that taught prophecy - reaching a certain psycho-spiritual level (being "high", in trance) and waiting for the prophecy to come down. There were thousands of בני נביאים that practiced and even reached a spiritual level of getting some רוח הקודש but not really נבואה - G-d didn't speak to them. To remind, there were only 48 real prophets.

    However, the Tanach does not make this distinction and uses להתנבא for all those wanna-be prophets, referring to their mental/spiritual state of extasy, ready to receive the divine instructions.

    So when a translator does not want to tell that G-d actually spoke to a person (what real prophecy means), they translate it as "the person has reached the extasy state of being close to prophesy and awaiting G-d's signs".

But in fact, I'd agree that the translation is weird, giving the fact that no commentator is hinting on only "reaching extasy" and not "actually prophesizing", as in Num 11:25 (thanks to Isaac)

  • @Al_Berko, did the rabbis give any procedure how to be '"high", in trance'? For example, when I am in schul, and I listen to how the Torah is chanted (about a mile a minute, where the average listener is unable to follow the words), I begin to wonder if the reader is "high in trance" or wants to be. – ninamag Jun 14 at 3:57
  • As I said (check it with more knowledgeable Rabbis) those school had an approach to systematic training toward accepting (being fit) real prophecy. In short, it means התפשטות הגשמיות - exalting to high spiritual levels by freeing oneself from physical needs. – Al Berko Jun 14 at 7:11

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