Merkavah Mysticism

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MERKAVAH MYSTICISM is a term used in modern scholarship for the phenomenon behind the Jewish visionary literature of late antiquity. This literature, composed in Hebrew and Aramaic between the third century and the eighth century ce, is known as heikhalot literature and is preserved in manuscripts written mostly in medieval Germany and the Mediterranean. This literature describes journeys to heaven undertaken by rabbis such as ʿAqivaʾ and Yishmaʿeʾl through the seven "palaces" (heikhalot) to the divine throne-room, where God is seated on his chariot-throne (merkavah). Some of these texts also describe the conjuration of an angel who imparts to the conjurer a prodigious memory and profound wisdom. This literature is often considered to be the first stage in the history of Jewish mysticism.

Merkavah is the Hebrew word for chariot. The word appears in 1 Chronicles 28:18 to describe the superstructure of the Ark of the Covenant in the ancient Temple, which constituted a kind of earthly throne for God. In this structure, two angelic creatures called cherubs framed the ark with their outstretched wings. However, the term was later used to identify the traveling throne of God seen by Ezekiel in his vision in Ezekiel 13. Merkavah is used in this way in the book of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) 49:8. In the Angelic Liturgy in the Dead Sea Scrolls the term is used in the context of the heavenly temple. In the heikhalot literature, the merkavah is the grand throne in the highest layer of heaven on which God is seated, surrounded by angelic hosts, as in Ezekiel 13 and Isaiah 6.

Gershom Scholem, who brought this literature to the attention of scholars in his monumental studies of Jewish mysticism (Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 1941, chap. 2 and Jewish Gnosticism, Merkavah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition, 1965), argued that these texts reflected a practice of cultivating ecstatic visions of an anthropomorphic God. In recent decades, students of this literature have questioned this thesis, asking whether these texts constituted stories to be read and recited, liturgical texts, or magical texts for achieving specific practical goals.

Antecedents and Parallels

Merkavah mysticism has precedents in apocalyptic literature, which abounds in stories of ancient heroes who took guided tours to heaven. However, in apocalyptic texts such as the books of Enoch these ascents are undertaken at God's initiation, whereas the ascents in merkavah mysticism are taken by the traveler himself. The Dead Sea Scrolls include an intriguing Angelic Liturgy known as the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, in which the liturgist depicts a heavenly temple where angels officiate. This liturgy has many affinities with heikhalot texts, especially Ma ʿaseh Merkavah, but here too the worshiper does not ascend but simply describes the workings of the heavenly temple.

The merkavah is mentioned in several places in rabbinic literature. One of the most prominent texts is based on the law given in Mishnah agigah 2:2 that "The merkavah may not be expounded before one person unless he is a sage and understands of his own knowledge." Given the context, the Mishnah would seem to be speaking of exegetical traditions about Ezekiel chapter 1. But the Tosefta, a supplementary collection of extra-Mishnaic traditions, adds several curious details. The most striking of these is a cryptic story about four sages who entered the orchard (Heb., pardes). Of these, Ben ʿAzzʾai glimpsed and died; Ben Zoma glimpsed and went mad; (the heretical Rabbi) Elishaʿ ben Avuyah "cut the shoots"; and ʿAqivaʾ ascended and descended safely (t. agigah 2:3). This enigmatic tradition is given no further explanation, but merkavah tradition took it to mean that there were dangers inherent in visiting the divine pre-cinct. An equally puzzling statement in the Babylonian Talmud (b. agigah 14b) relates this to a warning given by Rabbi ʿAqivaʾ not to cry "water, water" when one sees marble palaces. A similar text in Heikhalot Zutarti, one of the texts of merkavah mysticism, relates this warning to the ascent to the merkavah. Based on these parallels, Scholem and others have suggested that merkavah mysticism, that is, cultivation of visions of ascent to heaven, stemmed from the central circles of early rabbinic leadership. David Halperin's study of these traditions, however, shows that the earliest stages of rabbinic literature do not yield evidence for such a practice.

The Ascent Texts

The heikhalot texts appear in their most complete form in manuscripts transmitted from the fourteenth century to the sixteenth century by scribes associated with the German Jewish pietists known as the Ashkenazic asidim. Fragments of the texts also appear in the Cairo Genizah, a collection of discarded manuscripts from medieval Egypt. Traces of the literature and the phenomena they represent can be found in Jewish magical literature, Talmud and midrash, and the Jewish controversial literature of the early Middle Ages. The major works have been published in two pioneering synoptic editions by Peter Schäfer. The texts can be divided into two types: ascent texts that describe how a rabbi traveled to the divine throne-room, and adjuration texts that provide instructions for conjuring an angel known as the Prince of the Torah (Sar ha-Torah ) or Prince of Wisdom (Sar ha-okhmah ), who will grant the practitioner wisdom and skill in learning the Torah. Related to the ascent texts are the Shiʿur Qomah texts, which describe in graphic detail the measurements of God's body. Although they are attributed to rabbis who lived in the second century ce, they were almost certainly not written by those rabbis.

The paradigmatic ascent text is Heikhalot Rabbati (The greater [book of the] palaces). In the core narrative of this text Rabbi Yishmaʿeʾl relates how he, with a company of colleagues, including his teacher Rabbi Naunyaʿ ben ha-Qanah, learned the secrets of ascending (a process that is paradoxically described sometimes as "descending") to "see the King in his beauty." The text proceeds to describe the wonders, dangers, and rewards of this journey. The cosmology underlying the narration is that of a celestial abode of God surrounded by seven palaces (heikhalot ). At the gate to each palace stand fearsome angelic guards who are waiting to attack anyone who is not properly qualified to enter. The traveler succeeds in entering each palace by having in his possession elaborate divine names (sometimes known as "seals"), which he presents to the angelic guard, and by having esoteric knowledge of the heavenly topography and the names and characteristics of specific angels. One prevailing motif of the ascent narrative is the awe and terror that grips the traveler as he confronts the angels or witnesses the rivers of fire or vast chambers of the divine realm. At the same time, the adept is rewarded and assured if he does manage to gain admission to the next hekhal. A passage from Heikhalot Rabbati illustrates this dynamic. The passage depicts the moment when a man who wishes to descend to the merkavah arrives at the gate of the seventh hekhal. He is met by the angel Anafiel, who opens the gate for him. However, when the ayot, the holy creatures described in Ezekiel 1:512, cast their five hundred and twelve eyes on him, "he trembles, quakes, recoils, panics, and falls back fainting. But the angel Anafiel and the sixty-three guards of the seventh palace assist him and say, 'Do not fear, son of the beloved seed! Enter and see the King in his beauty. Your eyes will see, you will not be slaughtered, and you will not be burned!'" (Schäfer, 1981, sec. 248).

Another important component of the ascent texts is hymnology. The major ascent texts are embellished by hymns praising God or, in the case of a set of poems in Heikhalot Rabbati, singing of the dangers and rewards of the vision. One heikhalot text, Maʿaseh Merkavah (The work of the chariot), consists largely of esoteric prayers framed by narrative of the vision of the heavens and the cultivation of the Sar-Torah. Heikhalot Rabbati contains two distinctive types of hymns. One type consists of hymns of praise in an elaborate style, replete with profusions of synonyms for praise. When the traveler reaches the seventh hekhal, the divine throne-room, the text breaks into a long list of adjectives describing God as king: "He is a righteous king, a faithful king, a gentle king, a humble king, a just king, a loving king, a holy king, a pure king," and so on (Schäfer, 1981, sec. 249). This passage may have been placed at this strategic point in the narrative of Heikhalot Rabbati to illustrate the angelic liturgy in which the traveler participates. Another style follows a more complex pattern and contains allusions to the journey itself. These also culminate in the recitation of the liturgical qedushah, the doxology sung by the angels in Isaiah 6:3. One such hymn addresses the angels directly (Schäfer, 1981, sec. 158):

You who annul the decree, who dissolve the oath, who repel wrath, who turn back jealousy why is it that you sing praises, and at times you rejoice, and you are fearful, and at times you recoil? They said, "When the wheels of the divine glory of the Merkavah darken, we stand in great dread, but when the radiance of the Merkavah gives light, we are very happy," as it is said, "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts, the fullness of the earth is his glory." (Is. 6:3)

A third style, found in other texts, especially Maʿaseh Merkavah, draws from the earliest stage of post-biblical Hebrew liturgical poetry, called piyyut. This style uses parallelism (the prevailing characteristic of biblical poetry), as well as a steady rhythm, usually of four feet, to convey the praise of God and the participation of both angels and humans in this praise. One hymn in Maʿaseh Merkavah expresses it this way:

Angels stand in heaven, and the righteous are sure in their remembrance of You, and Your name hovers over them all. (Schäfer, 1981, sec. 587)

This hymn emphasizes that God (especially the divine name, which plays an important role in the text) transcends both the angelic community in heaven and the human worshipers (the "righteous"). This reinforces the idea prominent in the text that humans have the right to praise God in correspondence with the angelic liturgy. In the texts themselves, prayer and hymnology have several functions. For Heikhalot Rabbati, which emphasizes the ascent through the seven palaces, extravagant praise of God is the duty and privilege of the traveler when he reaches the divine chambers. For the ascent texts in Maʿaseh Merkavah, prayer actually causes the divine vision. Rabbi ʿAqivaʾ declares, "When I recited this prayer I saw 6,400,000,000 angels of glory facing the throne of glory" (Schäfer, 1981, sec. 551).

While the culmination of the ascent texts is clearly the vision of God, the end result of this vision is not always made clear. For Heikhalot Rabbati, "seeing the king in his beauty" may be sufficient. But there are hints that according to some of these texts, the human traveler is to be transformed into an angelic being himself. This is what happens to the biblical Enoch in Sefer Heikhalot (The book of the palaces), also known as 3 Enoch. In this late fusion of heikhalot and apocalyptic narrative traditions, Enoch relates to Rabbi Yishmaʿeʾl how he ascended to heaven, and, having resisted the challenge of angelic guards of the divine presence, was transformed into Metatron, the archangel who stands at God's right hand. In a fragment from the Cairo Genizah, each person who qualifies to enter the seventh hekhal is seated "on a seat that has been reserved before the Throne of Glory." If the traveler does not actually become an angelic being, he is at least allowed to participate in the angelic divine service of God's praise.

The Sar-Torah Texts

Another important sector of this literature is found alongside the ascent texts but concerns quite a different subject: the conjuration of an angel, the Prince of the Torah (Sar ha-Torah ) or Prince of Wisdom (Sar ha-okhmah ), who will grant the individual prodigious powers of memory, intelligence, and skill in the study of Torah, thus transforming any simpleton into a great rabbi. Like the ascent texts in the heikhalot corpus, these texts are attributed to rabbinic heroes such as Rabbi Yishmaʿeʾl and his teacher Naunyaʿ ben ha-Qanah. But unlike them, these texts do not concern an ascent to heaven but the process of bringing an angel down to earth. These texts are an indication of the centrality of memory in the scholastic society formed by rabbinic Judaism. At the same time, they draw on the extensive Jewish magical tradition, which preserves other rituals and incantations for the improvement of memory.

The texts, like the ascent texts, are cast as narratives. However, the narrative serves to introduce ritual instructions and to attest to the effectiveness of the ritual. These instructions usually involve extensive rituals of preparation. The practitioner is instructed, sometimes by an informing angel, to purge himself of all traces of ritual impurity by elaborate rituals of seclusion, fasting, ablution, and avoidance of infinitesimal traces of menstrual impurity (niddah ). These rituals go well beyond those prescribed in rabbinic law for ritual purity. The object of these rituals of purification is to prepare the individual for the encounter with the angel, who will tolerate no contamination in his presence. Another important feature is the recitation of prayers and incantations that include elaborate magical names. These, like the "seals" of the ascent texts, provide the assurance to the intermediaries that the practitioner's request carries with it divine authority.

When the angel does arrive and grant the practitioner the skill in learning that he desires, the narrative relates the miraculous transformation of the ordinary student into a great scholar. In a Sar-Torah text appended to Heikhalot Rabbati, Rabbi Yishmaʿeʾl attests that "I did not believe [in the effectiveness of the incantation] until I brought a certain fool and he became equal to me" in learning (Schäfer, 1981, sec. 305). In addition to these abilities, the practitioner acquires cosmic secrets and the specific esoteric knowledge transmitted by the magical tradition.

The Shiʿur Qomah

Another distinctive genre within heikhalot literature is the Shiʿur Qomah, or "Measurement of the Body." The Shiʿur Qomah consists of enumerations of the dimensions of the body of God. Each part of the divine body is given a specific measurement, given in parsangs (Persian miles), as well as an esoteric name: "The left ankle of the Creator is named 'TRQM,' may he be blessed. It is 190,000,000 parsangs tall from his ankles to the knee of the Creator is called GMGY, may he be blessed, and has a height of 600,000,080 parsangs " (Cohen, 1985, pp. 3031). It is explained that one of the divine parsangs equals 1,640,000,025,000 terrestrial parsangs. The text seems to have been written for the purpose of liturgical recitation and also contains several hymns. This text represents an extreme example of anthropomorphic tendencies prevalent in heikhalot literature, as well as its tendency to ascribe gargantuan dimensions to heaven and its inhabitants.

However, in heikhalot ascent texts God rarely speaks directly to humans, even if they visit in his throne room. He is portrayed anthropomorphically but not anthropopathically, distinguishing this genre from apocalyptic literature, in which God initiates the encounter with the human who is snatched up to heaven, and delivers a message (by himself or through an angelic informant) concerning the secrets of history and the destiny of Israel. In heikhalot literature, God simply radiates splendor from his throne. He is there to be adored by angels and humans.

Merkavah Mysticism as a Religious Phenomenon

Exactly what gave rise to merkavah literature and what is its purpose is a matter of debate. The term mysticism was first used to describe this phenomenon in the nineteenth century by scholars such as Heinrich Graetz and Phillip Bloch but was developed most fully by Gershom Scholem. In describing the phenomenon as merkavah mysticism Scholem argued that these stories of ascent derived from a practice of cultivating ecstatic visions of God through the chanting of numinous hymns and the rituals of preparation, which include social isolation, fasting, and ritual immersion. The rabbis of the narratives, by this account, were pseudepigraphic stand-ins for the authors, whose visions of God and the heavenly array were then recorded as the journeys undertaken by Rabbi ʿAqivaʾ and Rabbi Yishmaʿeʾl. Scholem further argued that the repetitious style, the rhythm, the profusion of synonyms, and the numinous descriptions of God and the angels in the hymns were meant to induce a state of trance in the mystic who chanted the hymns and thus were instrumental in producing the vision recorded in the texts. Scholem also argued that this phenomenon arose in the central circles of early rabbinic Judaism in the first few centuries ce.

Since the latter decades of the twentieth century, Scholem's thesis has come under question. While some scholars, such as Ithamar Gruenwald, maintain that heikhalot literature reflects a practice of ecstatic vision of the heavens, Martha Himmelfarb, in her study of ascent to heaven in ancient Judaism, asked whether this literature constitutes stories to be recited rather than rituals to be practiced. David Halperin, in his book The Faces of the Chariot (1988), argued that the ascent traditions in heikhalot literature were ancillary to the Sar-Torah traditions and that they were based on the midrashic motif of Moses' ascent. Michael Swartz has focused on the liturgical and ritual aspects of the literature and found that rituals of preparation accompany the Sar-Torah texts and not the ascent texts. Schäfer's synoptic edition of the major manuscripts shows that the texts take a wide variety of forms in various recensions, which argues against seeing each text as a unified account of an individual's experience. It has also been pointed out, by Himmelfarb and others, that there are distinct echoes of priestly piety in the literature. Scholem's thesis about the social location of the literature has also been questioned. Halperin argues that the authors were members of the lower classes (corresponding to what the Rabbis called ʿAm ha-ʾareó ), while Swartz is inclined to locate them in circles of a secondary elite. Whether or not the heikhalot literature yields direct evidence for an ancient mystical practice, it deserves attention as a rich source of myths, rituals, and conceptions of the divine and human that vary in significant ways from the classical literature of rabbinic Judaism.

See Also

Apocalypse, articles on Jewish Apocalypticism to the Rabbinic Period and Medieval Jewish Apocalyptic Literature; ʿAqivaʾ ben Yosef; Ashkenazic Hasidism; Elishaʿ ben Avuyah; Gnosticism; Rabbinic Judaism in Late Antiquity; Yishmaʿeʾl ben Elishaʿ.


The major heikhalot texts are edited in Peter Schäfer, Synopse zur Hekhalot-Literatur (Tübingen, Germany, 1981) and Genizah-Fragmente zur Hekhalot-Literatur (Tübingen, Germany, 1984). Schäfer has translated most of the heikhalot corpus into German: Übersetzung der Hekhalot-Literatur, 4 vols. (Tübingen, Germany, 19871995). Not all of the texts have been translated into English. Reliable translations include Philip Alexander, "3 (Hebrew Apocalypse of) Enoch," in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by J. H. Charlesworth, vol. 1, pp. 223315 (Garden City, N.Y., 1983); Maʿaseh Merkavah, in Michael D. Swartz, Mystical Prayer in Ancient Judaism, pp. 224251 (Tübingen, Germany, 1992); Martin S. Cohen, The Shiʿur Qomah: Texts and Recensions (Tübingen, Germany, 1985); and Michael D. Swartz, "The Seal of the Merkavah," in Religions of Late Antiquity in Practice, edited by Richard Valentasis, pp. 322329 (Princeton, 2000). There are also many translations of individual units in the studies cited below.

Gershom Scholem's foundational accounts of merkavah mysticism are chapter 2 of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, pp. 4079 (New York, 1941), and his Jewish Gnosticism, Merkavah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition, 2d ed. (New York, 1965). The study of merkavah mysticism has flourished since the early 1980s. A very good up-to-date introduction to heikhalot literature is Peter Schäfer, The Hidden and Manifest God: Some Major Themes in Early Jewish Mysticism (Albany, N.Y., 1992). Ithamar Gruenwald, Apocalyptic and Merkavah Mysticism (Leiden, 1980), analyzes the main texts and seeks to show relationships with apocalyptic literature. An interesting survey of the idea of ascent in late antiquity is Martha Himmelfarb, Ascent to Heaven in Jewish and Christian Apocalypses (Oxford, 1993). David J. Halperin's study of rabbinic sources on the merkavah, The Merkabah in Rabbinic Literature (New Haven, 1983), paved the way for a reexamination of the historical context of the phenomenon. In his Faces of the Chariot (Tübingen, Germany, 1988), he argues for the centrality of the Sar-Torah practices to the purpose of the whole literature. Michael D. Swartz, Scholastic Magic: Ritual and Revelation in Early Jewish Mysticism (Princeton, 1996), studies the Sar-Torah literature and its rituals and traditions as a distinct phenomenon. Another sophisticated study of ritual and magic in heikhalot literature is Rebecca Macy Lesses, Ritual Practices to Gain Power: Angels, Incantations, and Revelation in Early Jewish Mysticism (Harrisburg, Pa., 1998).

Michael Swartz (2005)