Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. , at sacred-texts.com
THE term rakab, "to ride," is a synonym. In its primary signification it is applied to man's riding on an animal, in the usual way; e.g., "Now he was riding (rokeb) upon his ass" (Num. xxii. 22). It has then been figuratively used to denote "dominion over a thing"; because the rider governs and rules the animal he rides upon; e.g., "He made him ride (yarkibehu) on the high places of the earth" (Deut. xxxii. 13); "and I will cause thee to ride (ve-hirkabtika) upon the high places of the earth" (Isa. lviii. 14), that is, you shall have dominion over the highest (people) on earth; "I will make Ephraim to ride (arkib)" (Hos. x. 11), i.e., I shall give him rule and dominion. In this same sense it is said of God, "who rideth (rokeb) upon the heaven in thy help" (Deut. xxxiii. 26), that is, who rules the heaven; and "Him that rideth (la-rokeb) upon the ‘arabot" (Ps. lxviii. 4), i.e., who rules the ‘arabot, the uppermost, all-encompassing sphere. It has also been repeatedly stated by our Sages that there are seven reki‘im (firmaments, heavens), and that the uppermost of them, the all-surrounding, is called ‘arabot. Do not object to the number seven given by them, although there are more reki‘im, for there are spheres which contain several circles (gilgallim), and are counted as one; this is clear to those who have studied that subject, and I shall also explain it; here I wish merely to point out that our Sages always assumed that ‘arabot is the uppermost sphere. The ‘arabot is also referred to in the words, "who rideth upon the heaven in thy help." Thus we read in Talm. B. Ḥagigah, p. 12," The high and exalted dwelleth on ‘arabot, as it is said, 'Extol Him that rideth upon ‘arabot'" (Ps. lxviii. 4). How is it proved that "heaven" and "‘arabot" are identical? The one passage has "who rideth on ‘arabot," the other "who rideth upon the heaven." Hence it is clear that in all these passages reference is made to the same all-surrounding sphere, concerning which you will hereafter (II. xxiv.) receive more information. Consider well that the expression "dwelling over it," is used by them, and not "dwelling in it." The latter
expression would have implied that God occupies a place or is a power in the sphere, as was in fact believed by the Sabeans, who held that God was the soul of the sphere. By saying "dwelling over it," they indicated that God was separate from the sphere, and was not a power in it. Know also that the term "riding upon the heavens," has figuratively been applied to God in order to show the following excellent comparison. The rider is better than the animal upon which he rides--the comparative is only used for the sake of convenience, for the rider is not of the same class as the animal upon which he rides--furthermore, the rider moves the animal and leads it as he likes; it is as it were his instrument, which he uses according to his will; he is separate from it, apart from it, not connected with it. In like manner the uppermost sphere, by the rotation of which everything moveable is set in motion, is moved by God, who is separate from the sphere, and is not a power in it. In Bereshit Rabba we read that in commenting on the Divine words, "The eternal God is a refuge" (lit., a dwelling, Deut. xxxiii. 27), our Sages said, "He is the dwelling of His world, the world is not His dwelling." This explanation is then followed by the remark, "The horse is secondary to the rider, the rider is not subservient to the horse; this is meant by 'Thou wilt ride upon thy horses'" (Hab. iii. 8). Consider and learn how they described the relation of God to the sphere, asserting that the latter is His instrument, by means of which He rules the universe. For whenever you find our Sages saying that in a certain heaven are certain things, they do not mean to say that in the heavens there are any extraneous things, but that from a certain heaven the force emanates which is required for the production of certain things, and for their continuing in proper order. The proof for my statement you may find in the following sayings of our Sages--"The ‘arabot, in which there are justice, charity, right, treasures of life and peace, treasures of blessing, of the souls of the righteous, of the souls and the spirits of those to be born, and of the dew by which God will at some future time revive the dead, etc." It is clear that the things enumerated here are not material, and do not occupy a place--for "dew" is not to be taken in its literal sense.--Consider also that here the phrase "in which," meaning "in the ‘arabot," is used, and not "over which," as if to say that all the things existing in the universe derive their existence from powers emanating from the ‘arabot, which God made to be the origin and the place of these powers. They are said to include "the treasures of life"; a perfectly true and correct assertion! For all existing life originates in that treasure of life, as will be mentioned below (chap. lxii., and II. chap. x.). Reflect on the fact that the souls of the righteous as well as the souls and the spirits of those to be born are mentioned here! How sublime is this idea to him who understands it! for the soul that remains after the death of man, is not the soul that lives in a man when he is born; the latter is a mere faculty, while that which has a separate existence after death, is a reality; again, the soul and the spirit of man during his life are two different things: therefore the souls and the spirits are both named as existing in man; but separate from the body only one of them exists. We have already explained the homonymity of ruaḥ (spirit) in this work, and also at the end of Sefer ha madda‘ (Mishneh torah Hil. teshubah, viii. 3-4) we treated of the homonymity of these expressions. Consider how these excellent and true ideas, comprehended only by the
greatest philosophers, are found scattered in the Midrashim. When a student who disavows truth reads them, he will at first sight deride them, as being contrary to the real state of things. The cause of this is the circumstance, that our Sages spoke of these subjects in metaphors: they are too difficult for the common understanding of the people, as has been noticed by us several times.
I will now return to the subject which I commenced to explain, in order to bring it to a conclusion. Our Sages commenced to adduce proofs from Scripture for their assertion that the things enumerated above are contained in the ‘arabot. As to justice and right they quote "Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne" (Ps. lxxxix. 18). In the same way they prove their assertion concerning all things enumerated by them, by showing that they are described as being related to God, as being near Him. Note this. In the Pirḳe Rabbi Eliezer it is said: God created seven reki‘im (heavens), and out of all of them He selected the ‘araboth for His royal throne: comp. "Exalt him who rideth upon the ‘arabot" (Ps. lxviii. 4). These are his (Rabbi Eliezer's) words. Note them likewise.
You must know that in Hebrew the collective noun denoting animals used for riding is "mercabah." Instances of this noun are not rare. "And Joseph made ready his chariot" (merkabto) (Gen. xlvi. 29); "in the second chariot" (be-mirkebet) (ib. xli. 43); "Pharaoh's chariots" (markebot) (Exod. xv. 4). The following passage especially proves that the Hebrew merkabah denotes a collection of animals: "And a merkabah came up and went out of Egypt for six hundred shekels of silver, and a horse for an hundred and fifty" (1 Kings X. 21). Hence we may learn that mercabah denotes here four horses. Therefore I think that when it was stated, according to the literal sense of the words, that four Ḥayyot (beasts) carry the Throne of Glory, our Sages called this "mercabah" on account of its similarity with the mercabah consisting of four single animals. So far has the theme of this chapter carried us, and we shall be compelled to make many further remarks on this subject. Here, however, it is our object, and the aim of all we have said, to show that "who rideth upon heaven" (Deut. xxxiii. 26) means "who sets the all-surrounding sphere in motion, and turns it by His power and will." The same sense is contained in the conclusion of that verse: "and in his excellency the spheres," i.e., who in His excellency moves the spheres (sheḥakim). In reference to the first sphere, the ‘arabot, the verb "to ride" is used, in reference to the rest, the noun "excellency," because through the motion of the uppermost sphere in its daily circuit, all the spheres move, participating as parts in the motion of the whole; and this being that great power that sets everything in motion, it is called "excellency." Let this subject constantly remain in your memory when you study what I am going to say; for it--i.e., the motion of the uppermost sphere is the greatest proof for the existence of God, as I shall demonstrate. Note this.