Of Chariots and Palaces: Rabbinical Judaism and Merkabah-Hekhalot Mysticism

ONE important mystic of the First Century was Yohanan ben Zakkai (30-90 CE), a Jewish scholar associated with the Tannaim (‘teachers’) movement that was active between the years 10 and 220 CE. The Tannaim were at the very forefront of early Rabbinism and part of a wider reaction to the increasing corruption taking place among some of Judea’s leading priests, including secret collaboration with the Roman occupation and mismanagement of local government finances.

Those associated with the Tannaim were teachers and guardians of the sacred Oral Law that began with Moses and which was eventually written down in the form of the third-century Mishnah. The Tannaim had inherited the authority of the Zugoth, a line of proto-rabbinical scholars embodying the leadership of Jewish spirituality and who, between 170 BCE and 30 CE, ruled over their brethren in ‘pairs’. Even beyond the Tannaim period itself, this long tradition in matters pertaining to Oral Law survives to the present day and down the centuries it has appeared in various guises under the authority of the Amoraim (200-500 CE), Savoraim (500-600 CE), Geonim (589-1038 CE), Rishonim (1038-1500 CE) and Acharonim (1500 CE onwards).

The founder of the Tannaim was a Babylonian known as Hillel the Elder (110 BCE – 10 CE), who was a descendent of King David on his mother’s side. Yohanan ben Zakkai – one of Hillel’s disciples – was a Pharisee, and as a leading member of a devout separatist group that spurned relations with Gentiles and irreligious Jews he was staunchly in favour of non-assimilation and strict purity laws. Unlike the Sadducees, however, the Pharisees appealed more to the common people and did not confine themselves to the wealthier classes.

Part of the third generation of Tannaim, Zakkai was the first to be accorded the title ‘rabbi’ and, despite living in the small village of Arav, became famous when he was smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin during the Great Jewish Revolt in an attempt to negotiate for peace with the Roman authorities. Not only did he correctly foresee that Vespasian would become emperor, but he also predicted that the Second Temple would be destroyed. Impressed by the bravery of this indomitable Jewish mystic, Vespasian made various concessions to his guest and one of these was related to the preservation of Yavne. Once the Romans had sacked Jerusalem, this little town became an important religious school and it was there that the rabbinical tribunal, or Sanhedrin, was re-established to discuss the future of Judaism in the wake of the immense tragedy that had befallen the Jewish people.

Rabbi Zakkai’s teachings are mainly centred on ritual, including how and when certain observances should take place in the Jewish calendar. Whilst his approach could often be very dogmatic, however, he was also known for his more esoteric utterances that were made in relation to the manner in which people should consider the heavenly realm or understand the hidden meaning behind divine intervention. At the root of Zakkai’s world-view was a committed pacifism that sought to minimise any conflict between the Jews and their Roman masters.

A contemporary of Zakkai, although twenty years his junior, Akiba ben Yosef (50-135 CE) was also a member of the Tannaitic movement and was known as ‘chief of the sages’. He was renowned for his impeccable modesty and spent a great deal of time discussing how people should conduct themselves, particularly those who drifted into intellectual arrogance as a result of their superior education. Like Zakkai, Yosef was immersed in the endless minutiae of religious dogma, but he was also keenly focussed on the interpretation of Biblical texts, or hermeneutics, particularly in relation to ethical behaviour. Among his more controversial views, some of which were later denounced by the early Christians, was the idea that humans are not created in the exact image of God but stem merely from an anthropological prototype. He also suggested that angels were closer to mortals than to God, something that perhaps resonates with the Platonic hierarchy used by Philo of Alexandria.

Many Jews believe that when Moses went to Mount Sinai, God informed him that the ornamental crown of each letter of the Torah would be made an object of halakic interpretation by Yosef himself and it is certainly true that this great sage made a lifetime’s study of the alphabet. However, Yosef’s mystical reputation only really appeared in the wake of his death. Having been executed by the Roman occupation after the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132-136 CE, during which he had promoted the idea that Shimon bar Kosiva (d.135 CE) was the Jewish messiah, Rabbi Yosef’s followers cobbled together a series of colourful legends in which he was given the ability to frequent the realms of heaven and hell at will and release troubled souls from their chthonic torment.

Between 200 and 700 CE, Jewish mysticism experienced a remarkable upturn with the appearance of the Merkabah school. As we have seen, it was often the case that some of the Biblical prophets had visions in which chariots would appear in the heavens, the most notable of these being Ezekiel and his description of an enormous wheeled vehicle that was driven through the sky by four multi-faced creatures. The term ‘Mekabah’ relates to the word ‘cart,’ or an object to ‘ride in,’ and appears no less than forty-four times in the text of the Hebrew Bible that was later produced under the direction of the Masorete Jews between the Seventh and Tenth centuries CE. Merkabah may be regarded as decidedly proto-Kabbalistic in the sense that it was concerned with mankind’s yearning for divine union, attempting to bring such powers down into the earthly realm and then seeking to interpret both the supernatural experiences and the metaphorical associations themselves.

According to Mark Verman, in The Books of Contemplation: Medieval Jewish Mystical Sources (2012), there are four periods of Merkabah mysticism: the visions between 800 and 500 BCE that were witnessed at the time of the prophets themselves; the Apocalyptic literature produced between 300 and 100 BCE; the Rabbinical period dating from around the year 100 BCE onwards and which includes the Tannaim school discussed above; and, finally, the esoteric Merkabah-Hekhalot period between 200 and 1000 CE. Needless to say, all four periods represent a continuous mystical tradition and the Merkabah visions are still referred to in Jewish liturgy during the celebration of the modern-day Jewish festival of Shavuot.

As the world’s foremost expert on Kabbalah explains, this preoccupation with prophetic chariot-lore is not centred around the appearance of God, but on deciphering the meaning behind The book of Ezekiel itself:

The mysteries of the Throne constitute here a particularly exalted subject which to a large extent set the pattern for the early forms of Jewish mysticism. It did not aspire to an understanding of the true nature of God, but to a perception of the phenomenon of the Throne upon its Chariot as it is described in the the first chapter of Ezekiel, traditionally entitled ma’aseh merkabah.[1]

A significant amount of esoteric speculation about the Merkabah mysteries had made its way into the ranks of mainstream Judaism by way of the ‘heretical’ Gnostic sects that were active in Palestine during the first and second centuries CE. Jewish Gnostics were present in the Galilee village of Sepphoris, for example, to which many prominent rabbis had fled in the wake of the Bar Kokhba Revolt and they had gleaned their knowledge of Merkabah from earlier groups such as the snake-worshipping Ophites. The Gnostics had also absorbed these old Hebrew traditions by way of Greek and Aramaic sources and a descriptive image of the ‘Throne of God’ even appears as a hymn in the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran.

The Jewish mystics of the first millennium were so completely in awe of the Divine that they preferred to do their worshipping from a safe distance. Their hymns may have been pompous and extravagant, but they contained such an overriding sense of solemnity that they often brought the entire authenticity of mysticism itself into question. According to Gershom Scholem, this was a great paradox because the mystic’s

attempt to express the magnificence of his vision is also the non plus ultra of vacuousness.[2]

Scholem’s biographer, George Procknik, explained some years later that

these liturgical expressions heap praise upon praise, attribute upon attribute, in repetitive jumbles to reach crescendos of fulsomeness, which express above all the irrepressible nature of God’s alien majesty.[3]

The unbridgeable chasm that exists between the people and the Divine, in other words, led to it being filled with a kind of impenetrable, liturgical padding. The same trend, perhaps, exists in contemporary society between the ruling classes and the masses. One even recalls Frank Baum’s famous novel, The Wizard of Oz, in which the great trepidation and nervousness of Dorothy and her companions heightens as they finally reach the Emerald City, completely overwhelmed by the illusory and well-crafted nature of its ruler’s artificially-projected authority. In many ways, these early Jewish mystics had failed to bridge the theological ravine that appeared to keep them from achieving full union with the beloved and yet mysterious recipient of their endless devotions.

* * *

The Rabbinical era, under the meticulous guardianship of the Tannaim, led to the production of the first major collection of writings that were specifically connected with Oral Law. Known as the Mishnah (‘study by repetition’), these sacred traditions were carefully selected and edited by Judah ha-Nasi (d. 217 CE), or Judah the Prince, a leading rabbi and well-respected pillar of the Jewish community from which he takes his name. His father, Simeon ben Gamliel II, was President (‘Nasi’) of the prestigious Sanhedrin council and an expert on Hebrew law. By assembling his people’s oral traditions, Judah the Prince sought to preserve the spiritual values of the Pharisees from the Second Temple period (536 BCE – 70 CE).

The Mishnah takes the form of six ‘orders’, each of which deal with various aspects of religious jurisprudence: Zeraim (‘Seeds’), Moed (‘Festival’), Nashim (‘Women’), Nezikin (‘Damages’), Kodashim (‘Holy Things’) and Tohorot (‘Purities’). These six, in turn, are further divided into groups of explanatory tractates (masekhot), or treatises. The precise arrangement of the Mishnah is designed to aid the memory and make it easier for students to absorb its spiritual precepts.

Primarily devoted to Written and Oral Law (halakha) and the Commandments of God (mitzvot), the production of the Mishnah was followed by a series of extensive commentaries that were compiled in both Palestine and Babylonia. These appear in the form of the Jerusalem (Talmud Yerushalmi) and Babylonian talmuds (Talmud Bavli):

The Palestinian and Babylonian academics carried on their researches independently, although rabbis passed to and fro between the countries and in this way created an interchange of views.[4]

Further commentaries appeared from the Early Medieval period onwards and continue to this day. However, Judah ha-Nasi’s codification of the Oral Law was not to everyone’s tastes and met with strong opposition from the followers of Karaite Judaism. The Karaites only accept the authority of the Hebrew Bible in the form that it has been handed down to Moses at Sinai as part of the Torah and regard both Oral Law and the accompanying commentaries as superfluous and unreliable. Nonetheless, for the vast majority of Jews the Mishnah retains its status as the received authority of God and it is crucial to the Torah as a whole.

It is also worth mentioning the Tosefta (‘supplement’), which employs none of the innovative memorisation devices used in the Mishnah. A contemporary of the latter, and extending slightly beyond the period in which it had been completed, this text features many of the things that were left out of the Mishnah itself. Judah ha-Nasi had deliberately omitted references to Hebrew angelology, for example, so the Tosefta contains far more of interest for the student of Jewish mysticism. At the same time, whilst

an immense literature has grown up on the subject of these apocrypha, the truth is that no one knows for certain to what extent they reflect views shared by Misnaic authorities. Be that as it may – and even granted that it may be possible to trace the influence of the Essenes in some of these writings – one fact remains certain: the main subjects of the main Merkabah mysticism already occupy a central position in the oldest esoteric literature, best represented by the Book of Enoch.[5]

* * *

Meanwhile, in contrast to Merkabah’s preoccupation with chariots, Hekhalot literature – at least in part – is concerned with celestial palaces, or heavenly dwellings. Not simply in terms of their appearance, but also with regard to the angels that frequent them and the potential for an aspiring mystic to enter into them and penetrate their secrets. Although Ezekiel’s sightings of the chariot are taken into consideration, there is more emphasis on Isaiah’s visions of the Throne.

The main Hekhalot texts, classified as post-Rabbinical, were edited and distributed between the third and ninth centuries CE and include the Hekhalot Zutartey (‘The Lesser Palaces’), the Hekhalot Rabbati (‘The Greater Palaces’), the Ma’aseh Merkabah (‘Account of the Chariot’), the Sepher Hekhalot (‘Book of Palaces’) and the Shi’ur Qomah (‘Measurement of the Body’). This last, as the name suggests, was more controversial in the sense that God is quantified and therefore removed from the usual context of incorporeality. The text even provides the esoteric names of God’s ‘limbs,’ often involving complex number systems that defy comprehension. Other Hekhalot sources include the Re’uyyot Yehezqel (‘The Visions of Ezekiel), the Massekhet Hekhalot (‘The Tractate of the Palaces’), the Sepher Ha-Razim (‘Book of the Mysteries’), the Harba de Moshe (‘The Sword of Moses’) and the Otiot de-Rabbi Akiva (‘Alphabet of Akiba ben Joseph’).

Unlike the deep fascination with the last days that one finds in Apocalyptic literature, or that of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Hekhalot school explored the potential for mystics to undergo a spiritual journey through Seven Heavens and seven throne-rooms. Indeed, this belief in the existence of Seven Heavens (or, alternatively, seven underworlds) often relates to the physical locations of the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Although it can be found in various religious traditions – including Hinduism, Jainism, Christianity and Islam – from a Jewish perspective these heavenly realms are divided into Vilon, Raki’a, Shehaqim, Zebul, Ma’on, Machon and Araboth. The last of these, especially, is said to be the location of the beings encountered in The Book of Ezekiel and the actual Throne of God.

Gershom Scholem describes the intense practicalities of Hekhalot magic thus:

The aspirant placed his head between his knees, a physical position which can induce altered states of consciousness and self-hypnosis. At the same time, he recited hymns of an ecstatic character, the texts of which are extant in several sources, particularly in the Hekhalot Rabbati. These poems, some of the earliest piyyutim known to us, indicate that “Chariot hymns” like these were known in Palestine as early as the third century. Some of them purport to be the songs of the holy creatures (hayyot) who bear the Throne of Glory, and whose singing is already mentioned in Apocalyptic literature.[6]

In many respects, the ability to enter these worlds in a mystical state is similar to the manipulation of the unconscious through what is known as lucid dreaming, but only a small minority of Jews have ever been able to achieve it. Not only must the mystic undergo strict purification, but in order to navigate his way through the highways and byways of the supernatural he must familiarise himself with the appropriate incantations, seals and angelic names required to stave off the destructive power of the darker angels. Again, the powerful Gnostic influence is incontrovertible and many Jews regarded the Hekhalot texts as a form of dangerous transgression. It must be said, too, that out of four leading rabbinic masters one went mad, another died, a third drifted into full-blown heresy and only the fourth – Akiba ben Yosef – went on to find peace and tranquillity.

Hekhalot literature is also strongly focussed on the secret names of God, with such knowledge allowing one to better traverse the Seven Heavens. By the third century CE, Hekhalot writings had even found their way to Babylonia in a reversal of the Jewish escape from captivity and Babylonian Judaism began to produce its own magical incantations that were often inscribed on everyday artefacts such as food bowls and drinking vessels.

Finally, one of the most crucial developments in Jewish Kabbalah was the concept of there being ‘Four Worlds’ in a descending chain of existence – namely Atziluth, Beri’ah, Yetzirah and Assiah – and these first appeared in the Merkabah-Hekhalot writings themselves.


1. Scholem, Gershom; Kabbalah: A Definitive History of the Evolution, Ideas, Leading Figures and Extraordinary Influence of Jewish Mysticism (Meridian, 1978), p.11.

2. Prochnik, George; Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem (Granta, 2017), p.99.

3. Ibid., pp.99-100.

4. Cohen, A.; Everyman’s Talmud (Schocken Books, 1975), p.xxxi.

5. Scholem, Gershom; Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (Schocken Books, 1995), p.43.

6. Scholem, Gershom; Kabbalah: A Definitive History of the Evolution, Ideas, Leading Figures and Extraordinary Influence of Jewish Mysticism, op.cit., p.15.

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