THE first chapter of Ezekiel has played a most fruitful part in the mystical speculations of the Jews. The lore of the heavenly Throne-chariot in some one or other of its multitudinous implications is everywhere to be met with. Whence Ezekiel derived these baffling conceptions of the Deity, and what historical or theological truths he meant to portray by means of them, are themes with which the scholars of the Old Testament have ever busied themselves. But the Jewish mystic sought no rationalistic explanation of them. He took them as they were, in all their mystery, in all their strange and inexplicable fantasy, in all their weird aloofness from the things and ideas of the everyday life. He sought no explanation of them because he was assured that they stood for something which did not need explaining. He felt instinctively that the Merkabah typified the human longing for the sight of the Divine Presence and companionship with it. To attain this
end was, to him, the acme of all spiritual life.
Ezekiel's image of Yahve riding upon the chariot of the 'living creatures,' accompanied by sights and voices, movements and upheavals in earth and heaven, lying outside the range of the deepest ecstatic experiences of all other Old Testament personages, was for the Jewish mystic a real opening, an unveiling, of the innermost and impenetrable secrets locked up in the interrelation of the human and the divine. It was interpreted as a sort of Divine self-opening, self-condescension to man. The door is flung wide open so that man, at the direct invitation of God, can come to the secret for which he longs and seeks. This idea is a supreme factor in the mystic life of all religions. The soul is urged on to seek union with God, only because it feels that God has first gone out, on His own initiative and uninvited, to seek union with it. The human movement from within is but a response to a larger Divine movement from without. The call has come; the answer must come.
The Chariot (Merkabah) was thus a kind of 'mystic way' leading up to the final goal of the soul. Or, more precisely, it was the mystic 'instrument,' the vehicle by which one was carried direct into the 'halls' of the unseen. It was the aim of the mystic to be
a 'Merkabah-rider,' so that he might be enabled, while still in the trammels of the flesh, to mount up to his spiritual Eldorado. Whether, as has been suggested, the uncanny imagery of the Merkabah lore is to be sought, for its origin, in the teachings of Mithraism, or, as has also been suggested, in certain branches of Mohammedan mysticism, one can see quite clearly how its governing idea is based on a conception general to all the mystics, viz. that the quest for the ultimate Reality is a kind of pilgrimage, and the seeker is a traveller towards his home in God.
It was remarked, on a previous page, that the mystic neither asked, nor waited, for any rationalistic explanation of the Merkabah mysteries. He felt that they summarised for him the highest pinnacle of being towards the realisation of which he must bend his energies without stint. But yet, from certain stray and scattered Rabbinic remarks, one takes leave to infer that there existed in the early Christian centuries a small sect of Jewish mystics--the elect of the elect--to whom certain measures of instruction were given in these recondite themes. There was an esoteric science of the Merkabah. What its content was we can only dimly guess--from the Rabbinic sources. It appears to have been a confused angelology, one famous angel Metatron playing a conspicuous part.
[paragraph continues] Much more is to be found in the early Enoch-literature as well as--from quite other points of view--in the mediæval Kabbalah. Let us give some illustrative sayings from the Rabbinic literature.
In the Mishna, Ḥaggigah, ii. 1, it is said: "It is forbidden to explain the first chapters of Genesis to two persons, but it is only to be explained to one by himself. It is forbidden to explain the Merkabah even to one by himself unless he be a sage and of an original turn of mind." In a passage in T.B. Ḥaggigah, 13a, the words are added: "but it is permitted to divulge to him [i.e. to one in the case of the first chapters of Genesis] the first words of the chapters." In the same passage another Rabbi (Ze‘era) of the 3rd century A.D. remarks, with a greater stringency: "We may not divulge even the first words of the chapters [neither of Genesis nor Ezekiel] unless it be to a 'chief of the Beth Din' 1 or to one whose heart is tempered by age or responsibility."
Yet another teacher of the same century declares in the same connection: "We may not divulge the secrets of the Torah to any but to him to whom the verse in Isaiah, iii. 3, applies, viz. the captain of fifty and the honourable man, and the counsellor and the cunning artificer and the eloquent orator."
[paragraph continues] (The Rabbis understood these terms to mean distinction in a knowledge and practice of the Torah.)
This insistence upon a high level of moral and religious fitness as the indispensable prelude to a knowledge of the Merkabah has its counterpart in the mysticism of all religions. The organic life, the self, conscious and unconscious, must be moulded and developed in certain ways; there must be an education, moral, physical, emotional; a psychological adjustment, by stages, of the mental states which go to the make-up of the full mystic consciousness. As Evelyn Underhill (Mysticism, p. 107) says: "Mysticism shows itself not merely as an attitude of mind and heart, but as a form of organic life. . . . It is a remaking of the whole character on high levels in the interests of the transcendental life."
That the Rabbis were fully alive to the importance of this self-discipline is seen by a remark of theirs in T.B. Ḥaggigah, 13a, as follows: "A certain youth was once explaining the Ḥashmal (Ezekiel, i. 27, translated 'amber' in the A.V.) when fire came forth and consumed him." When the question is asked, Why was this? the answer is: "His time had not yet come" (lāv māti zimnēh). This cannot but mean that his youthful age had not given him the opportunities for the mature self-culture necessary
to the mystic apprehension. The Ḥashmal, by the way, was interpreted by the Rabbis as: (a) a shortened form of the full phrase ḥāyot ěsh mē-māl-lē-loth, i.e. 'the living creatures of fire, speaking'; or (b) a shortened form of ‘ittim ḥāshoth ve-‘ittim mě-mălle-lōth, i.e. 'they who at times were silent and at times speaking.' In the literature of the mediæval Kabbalah, the Ḥashmal belongs to the 'Yetsiratic' world (i.e. the abode of the angels, presided over by Metatron who was changed into fire; and the spirits of men are there too). 1 According to a modern Bible commentator (the celebrated Russian Hebraist, M. L. Malbim, 1809-1879) the word signifies "the Ḥayot [i.e. 'living creatures' of Ezekiel, i.] which are the abode [or camp] of the Shechinah [i.e. Divine Presence] where there is the 'still small voice.' It is they [i.e. the Ḥayot] who receive the Divine effluence from above and disseminate it to the Ḥayot who are the movers of the 'wheels' [of Ezekiel's Chariot]."
Many more passages of a like kind might be quoted in support of the view that the attainment of a knowledge of the Merkabah was a hard quest beset with ever so many impediments; that it pre-supposed, on the one hand, an exceptional measure of self-development, and, on the other, an extraordinary
amount of self-repression and self-renouncement.
But the mention of fire in the preceding paragraph leads us to the consideration of an aspect of the Merkabah which brings the latter very much into line with the description of mystical phenomena in literature generally. Every one knows how the image of fire dominates so much of the mysticism of Dante. The mediæval Christian mystics--Ruysbroeck, Catherine of Genoa, Jacob Boehme, and others--appeal constantly to the same figure for the expression of their deepest thoughts on the relations between man and the Godhead. The choice of the metaphor probably rests on the fact that 'fire' can be adapted to symbolise either or both of the following truths: (a) the brightness, illumination which comes when the goal has been reached, when the quest for the ultimate reality has at last been satisfied; (b) the all-penetrating, all-encompassing, self-diffusing force of fire is such a telling picture of the mystic union of the soul and God. The two are interpenetrated, fused into one state of being. The soul is red-hot with God, who at the same time, like fire, holds the soul in his grip, dwells in it.
Examples are the following: In the Midrash Rabba on Canticles, i. 12, it is said: "Ben ‘Azzai [a famous Rabbi of the 2nd century A.D.] was once sitting expounding the
[paragraph continues] Torah. Fire surrounded him. They went and told R. ‘Akiba, saying, 'Oh! Rabbi! Ben ‘Azzai is sitting expounding the Torah, and fire is lighting him up on all sides.' Upon this, R. ‘Akiba went to Ben ‘Azzai and said unto him, 'I hear that thou wert sitting expounding the Torah, with the fire playing round about thee.' 'Yes, that is so,' replied he. 'Wert thou then,' retorted ‘Akiba, 'engaged in unravelling the secret chambers of the Merkabah?' 'No,' replied he." It is not germane here to go into what the sage said he really was engaged in doing. The quotation sufficiently shows how in the 2nd century A.D. the imagery of fire was traditionally associated with esoteric culture.
Here is another instance, in T.B. Succah, 28a. Hillel the Elder (30 B.C.-10 A.D.) had eighty disciples. Thirty of them were worthy enough for the Shechinah to rest upon them. Thirty of them were worthy enough for the sun to stand still at their bidding. The other twenty were of average character. The greatest among them all was Jonathan son of Uziel (1st century A.D.); the smallest among them all was Joḥanan son of Zaccai (end of 1st century A.D.). The latter, smallest though he was, was acquainted with every conceivable branch of both exoteric and esoteric lore. He knew 'the talk of the ministering angels and the talk of the demons and the talk of the palm-trees
[paragraph continues] (děkālim).' He knew also the lore of the Merkabah. Such being the measure of the knowledge possessed by 'the smallest,' how great must have been the measure of the knowledge possessed by 'the greatest,' viz. Jonathan son of Uziel! When the latter was sitting and studying the Torah (presumably the esoteric lore of the angels and the Merkabah) every bird that flew above him was burnt by fire. These latter words are the description of the ecstatic state, the moments of exaltation, the indescribable peace and splendour which the soul of the mystic experiences when, disentangling itself from the darkness of illusion, it reaches the Light of Reality, the condition so aptly phrased by the Psalmist who said: "For with thee is the fountain of life; in thy light shall we see light" (Psalm, xxxvi. 9). The bird flying in the environment of this unrestrained light, must inevitably be consumed by the fire of it.
The monument which Jonathan son of Uziel has left us in perpetuation of his mystical tendencies, is his usage of the term Memra ('Word') to denote certain phases of Divine activity, in the Aramaic Paraphrase to the Prophets which ancient Jewish tradition assigned to his authorship, but which modern research has shown to be but the foundation on which the extant Aramaic Paraphrase to the Prophets rests.
Another illustration of the mystic vision of light consequent on the rapture created by an initiation into the Merkabah mysteries is related in T.B. Ḥaggigah, 14b, as follows:
"R. Joḥanan son of Zaccai was once riding on an ass, and R. Eliezer son of Arach was on an ass behind him. The latter Rabbi said to the former, 'O master! teach me a chapter of the Merkabah mysteries.' 'No!' replied the master, 'Have I not already informed thee that the Merkabah may not be taught to any one man by himself unless he be a sage and of an original turn of mind?
'Very well, then!' replied Eliezer son of Arach. 'Wilt thou give me leave to tell thee a thing which thou hast taught me? 'Yes!' replied Joḥanan son of Zaccai. 'Say it!' Forthwith the master dismounted from his ass, wrapped himself up in a garment, and sat upon a stone beneath an olive tree. 'Why, O master, hast thou dismounted from thy ass?' asked the disciple. 'Is it possible,' replied he, 'that I will ride upon my ass at the moment when thou art expounding the mysteries of the Merkabah, and the Shechinah is with us, and the ministering angels are accompanying us?' Forthwith R. Eliezer son of Arach opened his discourse on the mysteries of the Merkabah, and no sooner had he begun, than fire came down from heaven and encompassed
all the trees of the field, which, with one accord, burst into song. What song? It was 'Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons and all deeps; fruitful trees and all cedars, praise ye the Lord' (Psalm, cxlviii. 7, 9). Upon this, an angel cried out from the fire, saying, 'Truly these, even these, are the secrets of the Merkabah.' R. Joḥanan son of Zaccai then arose and kissed his disciple upon the forehead, saying, 'Blessed be the Lord, God of Israel, who hath given unto Abraham our father a son who is able to understand, and search, and discourse upon, the mysteries of the Merkabah.' . . .
"When these things were told to R. Joshua [another disciple of Joḥanan], the latter said one day when walking with R. José the Priest [another disciple of Joḥanan], 'Let us likewise discourse about the Merkabah!' R. Joshua opened the discourse. It was a day in the height of summer. The heavens became a knot of thick clouds, and something like a rainbow was seen in the clouds, and the ministering angels came in companies to listen as men do to hear wedding music. R. José the Priest went and told his master of it, who exclaimed, 'Happy are ye, happy is she that bare you! Blessed are thy eyes that beheld these things! Indeed I saw myself with you in a dream, seated upon Mount Sinai, and I heard a
heavenly voice exclaiming, Ascend hither! Ascend hither! large banqueting-halls and fine couches are in readiness for you. You and your disciples, and your disciples' disciples, are destined to be in the third set' [i.e. the third of the three classes of angels who, as the Rabbis taught, stand continually before the Shechinah, singing psalms. and anthems]."
There are several points which need making clear in this remarkable passage. The objection to discuss the Merkabah while sitting on the animal's back, and the fact of sitting upon a stone under an olive tree, point to the necessary physical and tempera-mental self-discipline which is the sine quâ non of the mystic's equipment in all ages and among all nations. He must not be set high on the ass, lest his heart be lifted up too. He must be cleansed of every vestige of pride, lowly and of contrite spirit. It has been mentioned in the previous chapter how meekness was one of the unfailing qualities of the Zen‘uim. The proud man, said the Rabbis, "crowds out the feet of the Shechinah." "Whosoever is haughty will finally fall into Gehinnom." Pride, to the Rabbis, was the most terrible pitfall in the path of the religious life. Its opposite, humility, was the starting-point of all the virtues. If such was the premium placed upon meekness in so far as it concerned the
life of the ordinary Jew, how enormous must have been its importance for the life of the mystic--for him who aimed at knowing Eternal Truth? Everything that savours of evil, of imperfection, of sin, must vanish. The primary means of this self-purification is the culture of humility.
The remark that 'the Shechinah is with us and the ministering angels are accompanying us' emphasises two salient features of Rabbinic mysticism. Firstly, the Shechinah is the transcendent-immanent God of Israel; Israel's environment was saturated with the Shechinah whose unfailing companionship the Jew enjoyed in all the lands of his dispersion. "Even at the time when they are unclean does the Shechinah dwell with them," runs a passage in T.B. Yoma, 57a. How unique, how surpassingly vivid must have been the consciousness of this accompanying Shechinah-Presence to the Merkabah initiates, to those who had raised themselves so high above the level of the ordinary crowd by the pursuit of an ideal standard of self-perfection! Secondly, the 'ministering angels' play a large part in all the Merkabah lore, as is seen from the following Rabbinic comments.
Ezekiel, i. 15, says, "Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces." R. Eliezer said, "There is one angel
who stands upon earth but whose head reaches to the 'living creatures' . . . his name is Sandalphon. He is higher than his neighbour 1 to the extent of a five-hundred years' journey. He stands behind the Merkabah wreathing coronets for his Master" (T.B. Ḥaggigah, 13b).
Another passage reads: "Day by day ministering angels are created from the stream of fire. They sing a pæan [to God] and then pass away, as it is said, 'They are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness' (Lamentations, iii. 23). . . . From each word that comes forth from the mouth of the Holy One (blessed be He) there is created one angel, as it is said, 'By the word of the Lord were the heavens made and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth'" (Psalm, xxxiii. 6).
The Rabbis obviously understood the phrase 'the host of them' to refer, not as we suppose, to the paraphernalia of the heavens, i.e. the stars, planets, etc., but to the angelic worlds. The idea of the Word of God becoming transformed into an angel, and hence accomplishing certain tangible tasks among men, here on earth, bears strong resemblances to the Logos of Philo as well as to the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel.
The phrase to 'listen as men do to hear wedding music' (or literally 'the music of bride and bridegroom') is a reminiscence of
the large mass of Rabbinic mysticism clustering round the love overtures of bride and bridegroom in the Book of Canticles. The book, on the Rabbinic interpretation, teaches the great truth of a 'spiritual marriage' between the human and the Divine, a betrothal between God and Israel. "In ten places in the Old Testament," says Canticles Rabba, iv. 10, "are the Israelites designated as a 'bride,' six here [i.e. in the Book of Canticles] and four in the Prophets . . . and in ten corresponding passages is God represented as arrayed in garments [which display the dignity of manhood in the ideal bridegroom]."
To the minds of the Rabbis, the super-abundant imagery of human love and marriage which distinguishes Canticles from all other books of the Old Testament, was the truest symbol of the way in which human Israel and his Divine Father were drawn near to one another. The intimate and secret experiences of the soul of the Jew, the raptures of its intercourse with God in senses which no outsider could understand, were best reflected in the language of that august and indefinable passion which men call love.
The remark 'ascend hither! ascend hither! large banqueting halls and fine couches are in readiness for you,' etc., points to another prominent phase of Rabbinic mysticism. It was strongly believed that the pious could, by means of a life led on the highest plane,
free themselves from the trammels that bind the soul to the body and enter, living, into the heavenly paradise. The idea was obviously a development of a branch of Old Testament theology. But the latter gets no further than the conception that heaven may be reached without dying, the persons translated thither having finished their earthly career. The experiences of Enoch (Genesis, v. 24) and of Elijah (2 Kings, ii. 11) are illustrations. A development of the doctrine is the thought that certain favoured saints of history are, after death and when in heaven, given instruction concerning the doings of men and the general course of events here below. The Apocalyptic literature (see especially Apocalypse of Baruch, by Dr. Charles) deals somewhat largely in this idea; and there are traces of it in the Rabbinical literature. But these saints, however true the teachings and revelations vouchsafed to them may eventually have turned out to be, are dead as far as the world is concerned.
A further development is seen in the theory that certain pious men may temporarily ascend into the unseen, and, having seen and learnt the deepest mysteries, may return to earth again. These were the mystics who, by training themselves to a life of untarnished holiness, were able to fit themselves for entering a state of ecstasy, to behold visions and hear voices which brought them into
direct contact with the Divine Life. They were the students of the Merkabah who, as a result of their peculiar physical and mental make-up, were capable of reaching the goal of their quest. "There were four men," says the Talmud (Ḥaggigah, 14b), "who entered Paradise." They were R. ‘Akiba (50--130 A.D.), Ben ‘Azzai (2nd century A.D.), Ben Zoma (2nd century A.D.), and Elisha b. Abuyah (end of 1st century and beginning of 2nd century A.D.). Although this passage is one of the puzzles of the Talmud, and is variously interpreted, we may quite feasibly lay it down that the reference here is to one of those waking visits to the invisible world which fall within the experiences of all mystics in all ages.
Fragments of what was a large mystic literature of the later Rabbinical epoch (i.e. from about the 7th to the 11th century, usually known as the Gaonic epoch) have descended to us. Of these, one branch is the Hekalot (i.e. 'halls'), which are supposed to have originated with the mystics of the fore-mentioned period who called themselves Yōrědē Merkabah (i.e. Riders in the Chariot). As Dr. Louis Ginzberg says (see art 'Ascension' in Jewish Encyc. vol. ii.), "these mystics were able, by various manipulations, to enter into a state of autohypnosis, in which they declared they saw heaven open before them, and beheld its mysteries. It was believed that he only could undertake this
[paragraph continues] Merkabah-ride, who was in possession of all religious knowledge, observed all the commandments and precepts and was almost superhuman in the purity of his life. This, however, was regarded usually as a matter of theory; and less perfect men also attempted, by fasting and prayer, to free their senses from the impressions of the outer world and succeeded in entering into a state of ecstasy in which they recounted their heavenly visions."
Much of this belief survives in modern Jewish mysticism, whose chief representatives known as Ḥasidim are to be found in Russia, Poland, Galicia, and Hungary.
Although it was stated above that the large volume of this phase of mystic literature originated in the period from the 7th to the 11th century, modern research has clearly proved that its roots go back to a very much earlier date. In fact, it is very doubtful whether its origin is to be looked for at all in the bosom of early Judaism. Mithra-worship is now taken by scholars to account for much of it. But it is hazardous to venture any final opinion. It must never be forgotten that the first chapter of Ezekiel worked wonders on the old Hebrew imagination. Commentaries on almost every word in the chapter were composed whole-sale. In all likelihood, the mysticism of the Merkabah-riders is a syncretism. Mithraic
conceptions in vogue were foisted on to the original Jewish interpretations; and, in combination with Neo-Platonism, there was evolved this branch of Jewish mysticism which, though by no means abundant in the Talmud and the Midrashim, occupies a considerable place in the ideas of the mediæval Kabbalah, as well as in the tenets of the modern Ḥasidim.
36:1 Literally 'House of Judgment,' the technical name for a Jewish Court of Law.
38:1 There were four such 'worlds' in the mediæval Kabbalah. They will be alluded to further on.
46:1 Sandalphon = Greek συνάδελφος = co-brother.