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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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.