Merkavah Mysticism in Rabbinic Literature

In the Talmud and midrash, visions of the Divine Throne are achieved by studying the Torah.

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Heikhalot literature—texts which describe mystical travels into the palaces that house the Divine Throne—is usually thought of as the primary source of merkavah mysticism. These texts and the mysticism associated with them are esoteric. Their teachings and the mystical methods they endorse are distinct from the normative Jewish tradition and are only accessible to a select group of individuals. Traditional rabbinic literature—the Talmud and midrash—also contains texts which discuss the merkavah, but the rabbinic merkavah tradition is not as esoteric. Visions of the divine throne are accessible to anyone who studies the Torah and Talmud and, according to scholar Moshe Idel, may in fact be the goal of this study. In this article, Idel highlights and analyzes some of these rabbinic texts. It is reprinted with permission of The Gale Group from Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Midrash Mishlei, Chapter 10:

“Said Rabbi Ishmael…If one appears [at Judgment Day], who possesses proficiency in the study of Talmud, the Holy One, Blessed be He, asks him, ‘My son, since you did occupy yourself with the study of the Talmud, did you gaze upon the merkavah? For in my world there is no real pleasure except when sages are sitting occupied with the words of Torah and gaze and look, behold and meditate upon this: The Throne of Glory, where does it stand? What is the function of the first leg [of the Divine body], what is the function of the second leg, and hashmal [silent speech], how does it function…Greater than these [questions] is the deep deliberation on the Throne of Glory: How is it constructed? What is the distance between one gate and the next?—And when I pass through what gate should I use?…Greater still: What is the measure from the nails of My toes to the top of My skull? How do I stand? What is the measure of My arm, what are the dimensions of the toes of My feet? Greater still: My Throne of Glory, how is it constructed? What [winds, spirits] does it use? What [winds, spirits] does it use on the third day of the week—or on the fourth? What [wind, spirit] carries it? Is this not what constitutes My Beauty? This is My Greatness. This is the splendor of My Beauty, when the sons of man recognize My Distinction…’ From here, Rabbi Ishmael used to say, ‘Happy is the scholar who is secure in his studies, so that he has an open mouth to answer the Holy One, Blessed be He, on the Day of Judgment.’”

In this passage we do not find Rabbi Ishmael mentioning another literary level of study beyond that of the Talmud. The student of the Talmud is required to attain the mystical experience not through the study of a particular body of literature (such as the Heikhalot, which was written after the tannaitic era [which ended about 200 CE]), but through contemplation of the merkavah and the divine Majesty. What is referred to is the mystical visionary experience of the divine realm, and it is assumed that this vision is secured through assiduous study of the Talmud. Upon the student‑sage rests the obligation—in the course of his study of the Talmud—to “peer” into the divine mysteries.

These statements bespeak the transformation of the exoteric text [the Torah and Talmud], as a result of in‑depth study, into the spiritual vision of the Divine, the experience of which enables the sage to attain to the epitome of his religious culture.

Whoever is suited to the in‑depth study of the law, which brings with it the mystical vision of the merkavah, also merits an additional benefit: “His studies remain with him,” meaning that he overcomes the blight of “forgetfulness.” For it is said that when one merits through his study of Torah a vision of the merkavah, he attains a level where his mind expands to the extent that he is no longer subject to forgetfulness.

In this connection it is written with regard to Rabbi Ishmael, who said of his teacher Rabbi Nehunya ben ha‑Kanah:

“Upon being revealed the secrets of the Torah, immediately his heart was illuminated by the Eastern Gates and [his] eyes beheld the unfathomable depths, and all of the pathways of the Torah were open to [him]. Since then, nothing was ever lost from [his] memory…Said Rabbi Ishmael, upon hearing the words of my great master the entire world changed for me and became purified. My heart felt as if I had entered into a new dimension, and each day my soul likens itself within me, to when I was standing before the Throne of Glory.” (Merkavah Shelemah 4b)

The experience of the revelation of the secrets of the Torah brings about a mystical transformation that allows the sage to be constantly aware of his proximity to the Throne of Glory. This heightened awareness is, in turn, conducive to the further revelation of the secrets of the Torah.

On the basis of this understanding we may explain the talmudic passage: “A great issue—the account of the merkavah; a small issue—the discussions of Abaye and Rava [famous Talmudic sages]” (Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 28a). For the merkavah mystic, the process of halakhic decision making [i.e. legal analysis] is secondary to the understanding of the account of the merkavah, and this process of understanding is perhaps secondary to the actual experience of gazing at the merkavah.

Thus far we have considered a unique form of Torah study, which brings the student to the mystical experience in the forms of reception of the secrets of the Torah, the infusion of the holy spirit, and the vision of the divine form. These experiences are brought about by the sage’s deep concentration on the important normative works of the Jewish exoteric tradition—the Talmud and midrash. Most of the texts quoted thus far are of the classical rabbinic corpus. Further, these texts assume that the practice of this mystical form of study is incumbent upon all those who dedicate themselves to the study of the Torah and that this mode of Torah study does not involve an esoteric technique reserved for an elite few.

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Moshe Idel

Moshe Idel is Professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and one of the foremost contemporary experts on kabbalah.