As we read down the page today, we move up through the heavens. Following a discussion about the design of the firmament — layers upon layers of sky that make me think the rabbis saw us living in a giant, airy onion (though without that particular smell) — and the enormous creatures that stomp around in the heavens, the rabbis finally ascend to a discussion about that strictly guarded topic that has been alluded to throughout this chapter: the divine chariot.
The mishnah that opened this chapter warned against the study of the merkavah, that fiery, whirling, animal-bedecked throne that transports God through the heavens, and sometimes down to earth. But though it is strictly forbidden to teach about the merkavah to more than one person, and that person must have the wisdom to safely handle it (more on this below), the rabbis spill plenty of ink talking about the fact that one should not talk about it. And indeed, they also reveal exactly what “it” is that we may not discuss.
God’s awesome throne is actually described in the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel: “I looked, and lo, a stormy wind came sweeping out of the north — a huge cloud and flashing fire, surrounded by a radiance; and in the center of it, in the center of the fire, a gleam as of electrum.” (1:4)
What is electrum (chashmal) you ask? Likely a naturally-occurring brilliant mixed metal alloy of gold and silver, plus small amounts of copper and other metals. Many items made of electrum were found in King Tutenkhamun’s tomb. In modern Hebrew, the word means electricity. Ezekiel goes on to describe the merkavah ensconced (dipped?) in this radiant electrum as a chariot surrounded by four figures, each facing one of the cardinal directions and possessing four faces (human, eagle, lion and ox — or perhaps cherub) and four wings: two outstretched to touch one another, and two more covering their bodies. These figures have human hands and their legs are fused together to give the appearance of only one leg (the reason that it is customary to stand with feet together while reciting the Kedushah, during which we imitate the angels). And there is a fiery torch light dancing around, and some complicated combination wheels that can move in any direction without turning, and … well, actually, it’s very exciting but more than a little confusing.
If the merkavah is described openly in the biblical text, why did the rabbis think it should be a secret? To truly understand the merkavah, the rabbis understood, it is not enough to just read Ezekiel — you must be wise enough to unlock the full meaning of those verses for yourself, or you must have a teacher who can help. But to do so is dangerous, as we’ll see in a moment.
Today’s page offers stories of rabbis who sought to learn these secrets, those who feared learning them, those who taught them anyway (sometimes recklessly), and those who refused to. We even learn that some wished to suppress the Book of Ezekiel entirely because its futuristic descriptions of the third Temple contradict other biblical laws about the Temple. But we’re going to jump to the bottom of the first side of the page because that’s where we learn what happens when the secret finds its way into the wrong hands.
An incident occurred involving a youth who was reading the book of Ezekiel in the house of his teacher, and he was able to comprehend the electrum, and fire came out of the electrum and burned him. And they sought to suppress the book of Ezekiel due to the danger it posed. Hananya ben Hizkiya said to them: If this youth happened to be wise, are all people wise enough to understand this book?
In this story, a young scholar who is apparently studying all on his own (though he is in the home of his teacher) figures out what the first chapter of Ezekiel really means and he is burned — literally. At this point, the sages once again consider suppressing Ezekiel. This time, not because of a concern for its incorrect halakhot, but because it contains dangerous secrets that can be unleashed by anyone who takes the time to figure them out. Hananya ben Hizkiya expresses their greatest anxiety: Are all people wise enough to understand this book?
Read all of Chagigah 13 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 22nd, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.