Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. , at sacred-texts.com
ONE Of the points that require investigation is the connexion between the vision of the mercabah and the year, month, and day, and also the place of the vision. A reason must be found for this connexion, and we must not think that it is an indifferent element in the vision. We must consider the words, "the heavens were opened" (Ezek. i. 1); they give the key to the understanding of the whole. The figure of opening, also that of opening the gates, occurs frequently in the books of the prophets: e.g., "Open ye the gates that the righteous nation may enter in" (Isa. xxvi. 2); "He opened the doors of heaven" (Ps. lxx-viii. 23); "Lift them up, ye everlasting doors" (ibid. xxiv. 9); "Open to me the gates of righteousness, I will go into them, and I will praise the Lord" (ibid. cxviii. 19). There are many other instances of this kind. You must further notice that the whole description refers undoubtedly to a prophetic vision, as it is said, "And the hand of the Lord was there upon him" (Ezek. i. 3); and yet there is a very great difference between the various parts of the description, for in the account of the Ḥayyot the prophet does not say four Ḥayyot, but "the likeness of the four Ḥayyot" (ibid. ver. 5); similarly he says, "And the likeness of a firmament was over the heads of the Ḥayyot" (ver. 22); "as the appearance of a sapphire stone, the likeness of a throne," and "the likeness of the appearance of man above it" (ver. 26). In all these instances the word "likeness" is used, whilst in the account of the Ofannim the phrases, "the likeness of Ofannim," the "likeness of an Ofan," are not employed, but they are described in a positive manner as beings in actual existence, with their real properties. The sentence "they four had one likeness" must not mislead you, for here the word "likeness" is not used in the same connexion or in the same sense as indicated above. In the description of the last vision the prophet confirms and explains this view. When he commences to describe the firmament in detail, he says, "the firmament," without adding the words "the likeness of," for he says, "And I looked, and behold, in the firmament that was above the head of the cherubims there appeared over them as it were a sapphire stone, as the appearance of the likeness of a throne" (x. 1). Here the prophet speaks of "the firmament" and not of "the likeness of the firmament," as he does when he connects the firmament with the
heads of the likeness of the Hayyot (i. 22). But, as regards the throne, he says, "the likeness of a throne appeared over them," in order to indicate that the firmament was first perceived and then the likeness of the throne was seen over it. Consider this well.
You must further notice that in the description of the first vision the Hayyot have wings and at the same time human hands, whilst in the second vision, in which the term cherubim is substituted for Ḥayyot, at first only wings were perceived, and later on human hands were seen. Comp. "And there appeared in the cherubims the form of a man's hand under their wings" (x. 8). Here "form" (tabnit) is used instead of "likeness" (demut); and the hands are placed under the wings. Note this.
Consider that in reference to the ofannim, the prophet says, le-‘ummatam, "over against them," although he does not ascribe to them any form.
He further says, "As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory," etc. (i. 28). The substance and true essence of the bow described here is well known. The simile and comparison is in this case very extraordinary, and is undoubtedly part of the prophecy; and note it well.
It is also noteworthy that the likeness of man above the throne is divided, the upper part being like the colour of ḥashmal, the lower part like the appearance of fire. As regards the word ḥashmal, it has been explained to be a compound of two words ḥash and mal, including two different notions, viz., ḥash signifying "swiftness, "and mal denoting "pause." The two different notions are here joined in one word in order to indicate figuratively the two different parts,--the upper part and the lower. We have already given a second explanation, namely, that ḥashmal includes the two notions of speech and silence: in accordance with the saying of our Sages, "At times they are silent, at times they speak," thus deriving ḥash of the same root as heheshethi, "I have been silent" (Isa. xlii. 14); the word ḥashmal thus includes two notions, and indicates "speech without sound." There is no doubt that the words, "at times they are silent, at times they speak," refer to a created object. Now consider how they clearly stated that the divided likeness of man over the throne does not represent God, who is above the whole chariot, but represents a part of the creation. The prophet likewise says "that is the likeness of the glory of the Lord"; but "the glory of the Lord" is different from "the Lord" Himself, as has been shown by us several times. All the figures in this vision refer to the glory of the Lord, to the chariot, and not to Him who rides upon the chariot; for God cannot be compared to anything. Note this. I have thus given you also in this chapter as much of the heads of the sections as will be useful to you for the comprehension of this subject, if you fill out [the sections of] these heads. If you consider all that has been said in this part up to this chapter, the greater part of this subject or the whole of it will be clear to you. except a few points and some repetitions the meaning of which is unknown. Perhaps further study will help to reveal even these things so that nothing will remain unintelligible.
Do not expect or hope to hear from me after this chapter a word on this subject, either explicitly or implicitly, for all that could be said on it has been
said, though with great difficulty and struggle. I will now begin to treat of some of the other subjects which I hope to elucidate in this treatise.