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.

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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.