Merkabah Mysticism or Ma'aseh Merkavah

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MERKABAH MYSTICISM or MA'ASEH MERKAVAH (Heb. מַעֲשֵׂה מֶרְכָּבָה), the name given to the first chapter of Ezekiel in Mishnah Ḥagigah, 2:1. The term was used by the rabbis to designate the complex of speculations, homilies, and visions connected with the Throne of Glory and the chariot (merkavah) which bears it and all that is embodied in this divine world. The term, which does not appear in Ezekiel, is derived from i Chronicles 28:18 and is first found with the meaning of Merkabah mysticism at the end of Ben Sira 49:8: "Ezekiel saw a vision, and described the different orders of the chariot." The Hebrew expression zanei merkavah should possibly be interpreted as the different sights of the vision of the chariot in Ezekiel, chapters 1, 8, and 10 (according to S. Spiegel, in: htr, 24 (1931), 289), or as the different parts of the chariot, which later came to be called "the chambers of the chariot" (ḥadrei merkavah). It has been suggested (by Israel Lévi in his commentary on Ben Sira, L'Ecclesiastique, 1 (1898), and 2 (1901)) that the text be corrected to razei merkavah ("secrets of the chariot"). The divine chariot also engrossed the Qumran sect; one fragment speaks of the angels praising "the pattern of the Throne of the chariot" (Strugnell, in: vt, 7 supplement (1960), 336). In Pharisaic and tannaitic circles Merkabah mysticism became an esoteric tradition (see *Kabbalah) of which different fragments were scattered in the Talmud and the Midrash, interpreting Ḥagigah 2:1. This was a study surrounded by a special holiness and a special danger. A baraita in Ḥagigah 13a, which is ascribed to the first century c.e., relates the story of "A child who was reading at his teacher's home the Book of Ezekiel and he apprehended what Ḥashmal was [see Ezek. 1:27, jps "electrum"], whereupon a fire went forth from Ḥashmal and consumed him." Therefore the rabbis sought to conceal the Book of Ezekiel.

Many traditions relate to the involvement of Johanan b. *Zakkai, and later of *Akiva in this study. In the main, details about the conduct of the rabbis in the study of Merkabah are found in the Jerusalem Talmud Ḥagigah 2 and the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 80b. According to the manuscript of the latter source the prohibition on lecturing to a group was not always observed and the tradition adds that a transgressor, a Galilean who came to Babylonia, was punished for this and died. In the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 28a, Merkabah mysticism was put forward as a major subject (davar gadol) in contrast to the relatively minor subject of rabbinic casuistry. Traditions of this type are found, for example, in Berakhot 7a, Ḥullin 91b, Megillah 24b, and at the beginning of Genesis Rabbah, Tanḥuma, Midrash Tehillim, Midrash Rabbah to Leviticus, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. Several traditions are preserved in Seder Eliyahu Rabbah and in small tractates, such as Avot de-Rabbi Nathan and Massekhet Derekh Ereẓ. In contrast with the scattered fragments of these traditions in exoteric sources, books, and treatises collecting and developing Ma'aseh Merkavah according to the trends prevailing in different mystic circles were written at the latest from the fourth century on. Many of the treatises include early material but numerous additions reflect later stages. Re'iyyot Yeḥezkiel, the major part of which was found in the Cairo Genizah (published in S.A. Wertheimer, Battei Midrashot, 2 (19532), 127–34), depicts historical personalities and the context is that of a fourth-century Midrash. Scraps of a second- or third-century Midrash on the Ma'aseh Merkavah were found in pages of the Genizah fragments. These sources do not yet show any sign of the pseudepigraphy prevailing in most surviving sources; in these the majority is formalized, and most of the statements are attributed to Akiva or to Ishmael. Several of the texts are written in Aramaic, but most are in Mishnaic Hebrew. A great deal of material of this type has been published (mostly from manuscripts) in collections of minor Midrashim such as A. Jellinek's Beit ha-Midrash (1853–78), S.A. Wertheimer's Battei Midrashot, E. Gruenhut's Sefer ha-Likkutim (1898–1904), and H.M. Horowitz' Beit Eked ha-Aggadot (1881–84). Sefer Merkavah Shelemah (1921) includes important material from the manuscript collection of Solomon Musajoff. Some of the texts included in these anthologies are identical, and many are corrupt.

The most important are:

(1) Heikhalot Zutrati ("Lesser Heikhalot") or Heikhalot R. Akiva, of which only fragments have been published, mostly without being recognized as belonging to the text. The bulk of it is in a very difficult Aramaic, and part of it is included in Merkavah Shelemah as "Tefillat Keter Nora."

(2) Heikhalot Rabbati ("Greater Heikhalot," in Battei Midrashot, 1 (19502), 135–63), i.e., the Heikhalot of Rabbi Ishmael, in Hebrew. In medieval sources and ancient manuscripts the two books are at times called Hilkhot Heikhalot. The division of Heikhalot Rabbati into halakhot ("laws") is still preserved in several manuscripts, most of which are divided into 30 chapters. Chapters 27–30 include a special tract, found in several manuscripts under the title Sar Torah, which was composed much later than the bulk of the work. In the Middle Ages the book was widely known as Pirkei Heikhalot. The edition published by Wertheimer includes later additions, some of them Shabbatean (see G. Scholem, in Zion, 7 (1942), 184f.). Jellinek's version (in Beit ha-Midrash, 3, 19382) is free of additions but suffers from many corruptions.

(3) Merkavah Rabbah, part of which is found in Merkavah Shelemah, mostly attributed to Ishmael, and partly to Akiva. Perhaps this work contained the most ancient formulation of Shi'ur Komah ("the measurement of the body of God"), which later was copied in manuscripts as a separate work that developed into Sefer ha-Komah, popular in the Middle Ages (see G. Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism… (1965), 36–42).

(4) A version of Heikhalot which has no name and was referred to in the Middle Ages as Ma'aseh Merkavah (G. Scholem, ibid., 103–17). Here statements of Ishmael and Akiva alternate.

(5) Another elaborate treatise on the pattern of Heikhalot Rabbati, but with differing and partly unknown new details; fragments have been published from the Cairo Genizah by I. Greenwald, Tarbiz, 38 (1969), 354–72 (additions ibid., 39 (1970), 216–7);

(6) Hekhalot, published by Jellinek (in Beit ha-Midrash (vol. 1, 19382), and later as iii Enoch or the Hebrew Book of Enoch (ed. and trans. by H. Odeberg, 1928). Unfortunately Odeberg chose a later and very corrupt text as a basis for his book, which he intended as a critical edition. The speaker is R. Ishmael and the work is largely made up of revelations about Enoch, who became the angel Metatron, and the host of heavenly angels. This book represents a very different trend from those in Heikhalot Rabbati and Heikhalot Zutrati.

(7) The tractate of Heikhalot or Ma'aseh Merkavah in Battei Midrashot (1 (19502), 51–62) is a relatively late elaboration, in seven chapters, of the descriptions of the throne and the chariot. In the last three works a literary adaptation was deliberately made in order to eradicate the magical elements, common in the other sources listed above. Apparently they were intended more to be read for edification rather than for practical use by those who delved into the Merkabah.

(8) The Tosefta to the Targum of the first chapter of Ezekiel (Battei Midrashot, 2 (19532), 135–40) also belongs to this literature.

A mixture of material on the chariot and creation is found in several additional sources, mainly in Baraita de-Ma'aseh Bereshit and in Otiyyot de-Rabbi Akiva, both of which appear in several versions. The Seder Rabbah de-Bereshit was published in Battei Midrashot (1 (19502), 3–48), and in another version by N. Séd, with a French translation (in rej, 3–4 (1964), 23–123, 259–305). Here the doctrine of the Merkabah is connected with cosmology and with the doctrine of the seven heavens and the depths. This link is also noticeable in Otiyyot de-Rabbi Akiva, but only the longer version contains the traditions on creation and the Merkavah mysticism. Both extant versions, with an important supplement entitled Midrash Alfa-Betot, were published in Battei Midrashot (2 (19532), 333–465). M. Margaliot discovered additional and lengthy sections of Midrash Alfa-Betot in several unpublished manuscripts. Again, these works were arranged more for the purposes of speculation and reading than for practical use by the mystics. The doctrine of the seven heavens and their angelic hosts, as was developed in Merkabah mysticism and in cosmology, has also definite magical contexts, which are elaborated in the complete version of Sefer *ha-Razim (ed. by M. Margalioth, 1967), whose date is still a matter of controversy.

In the second century Jewish converts to Christianity apparently conveyed different aspects of Merkabah mysticism to Christian Gnostics. In the Gnostic literature there were many corruptions of such elements, yet the Jewish character of this material is still evident, especially among the Ophites, in the school of Valentinus, and in several of the Gnostic and Coptic texts discovered within the last 50 years. In the Middle Ages the term Ma'aseh Merkabah was used by both philosophers and kabbalists to designate the contents of their teachings but with completely different meanings – metaphysics for the former and mysticism for the latter.


Scholem, Mysticism, 40–70; idem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism and Talmudic Tradition (1965); P. Bloch, in: mgwj, 37 (1893); idem, in: Festschrift J. Guttmann (1915), 113–24; Néher, in: rhr, 140 (1951), 59–82; J. Neusner, Life of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai (1962), 97–105; M. Smith, in: A. Altmann (ed.), Biblical and Other Studies (1963), 142–60; B. Bokser, in: paajr, 31 (1965), 1–32; J. Maier, Vom Kultus zur Gnosis (1964), 112–48; E.E. Urbach, in: Studies in Mysticism and Religion presented to G.G. Scholem (1968), 1–28 (Heb. section).

[Gershom Scholem]