Merkavah Mysticism developed from the visions like those described in Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1,8 and 10, though when merkavah mysticism appeared on the literary scene, it did so in a more complex manner than its historical forefathers. The earliest post biblical traces of MM are found in Apocalyptic Literature and in some of the texts discovered at Qumran.
The literature that gives a full-scale presentation of MM is called the Hekhalot (Divine Palaces) literature, mainly composed in Eretz-Israel at the time of the Talmud and the beginning of the Ge'onic period (200 - 700CE).
Other traces of such mysticism are found in the rabbinical writings.
As a creative literary stream the Merkavah tradition ended some time in the Ge'onic period, but references to that tradition are also made in the writings of Jewish medieval mysticism, the Kabbalah.
The German Hasidim (12 -13CE) engaged in MM and contributed in an important way to the preservation of the Hekhalot literature in manuscripts.
MM derives from the Hebrew term Ma'aseh Merkavah (works of the Divine chariot).
It appears that the mystical speculations about the merkavah were first developed in the circle of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and his pupils (2nd half 1st CCE) though it has been said that traces of MM are already present in Qumran literature.
In rabbinic writings, the Ma'aseh Merkavah go hand in hand with the Ma'aseh Bereshit (The Works of the Creation of the World), that is, Jewish Cosmology, and together they form the 2 branches of esoteric teachings of ancient Judaism.
Reading through the various parts which compose the Ethiopic Book of Enoch (1 Enoch) one easily observes, that the revelations of all kinds of cosmological secrets occupy a prominent part in the apocalyptic experiences of the writers.
The apocalyptic visionaries are said to ascend to heaven and there, with the guidance of different interpreting angels, to see and learn about the operations of a number of natural phenomena.
The apocalyptist says that he has been taken to see "the places of the illuminaries, and the treasures of the stars and of the thunder ... and all the lightnings."
... He saw "the mouths of all the rivers of the earth and the mouth of the deep" ... all in all, it may be said that he receives a pretty comprehensive view of the cosmos.
The visionary learns the laws and rules by which all the phenomena operate: "And I saw the chambers of the sun and the moon, whence they proceed and wither they come again ... how one is superior to the other, ... their stately orbit...
The visionary is translated into heaven and there is instructed about the rules and laws of nature, referred to in terms of measurement, weight, quantity and proportion.
Apart from the fact that in some instances (1 Enoch: the Book of the Heavenly Luminaries) the revelation of astrological secrets come to further the idea of the sectarian solar calendar, the whole idea is meant to induce the impression of order and regularity in Nature. Where there is disorder there is either wickedness- as 1 Enoch introduction implies- or else the coming of the day of G-D.
Professor Scholem lists Reuyot Yehezkel or the Visions of Ezekiel, as the earliest Merkavah text we possess.
The work enumerates the various things, which Ezekiel allegedly saw in his Merkavah vision. It is a mystical midrash on the first chapter of Ezekiel. All the name of the rabbinical sages quoted belong to Ezetz Yisrael and thus there is good reason to believe that the book was composed and edited there.
The mystical part of the book begins with the statement: "G-D opened to Ezekiel seven divisions of the lower world and as Ezekiel was looking at them, he saw everything that was in the heaven."
The divisions mentioned here by their names are sub terrestrial "earths" (chakras), that is, layers of 7 earths which correspond to the 7 heavens.
It is said that all the prophets gazed on 9 mirrors while Moses gazed upon 1, and that Moses gazed upon a shining mirror while the other prophets gazed upon an opaque mirror. Ezekiel was looking at the water of the River Chebar, when the seven heavens were opened to him.
Looking at the waters of the River, Ezekiel is said to see the "Holiness" opening to him the seven heavens and thus giving him an opportunity of seeing the "Gevurah" (the Dynamis). Furthermore, it is said that Ezekiel not only saw the Divine Glory but also all the heavenly creatures as they were tied to the Merkavah.
The names of the 7 heavens are given: Shamyim, Shemei Shamayim, Zevul, 'Arafel, Shehaqim, 'Aravot and Kisse Kavod.
Also listed as Raqi'a, Shemei Ha-Shamayim, Zevul, 'Arafel, Shehaqin, Makhon, 'Aravot, Kisse Ha-Kavod.
In comparison to the first list, this list mentions Raqi'a (instead of Shamayim) as the first heaven and adds the name Makhon, bringing the total to 8.
The 8th heaven is the place where G-D abides while He is not sitting on his Throne in the 7th palace/heaven. What is also unique in the 7 heavens doctrine as it is displayed in Re'uyot Yehezkel is the idea, which is quoted in the name of Rabbi Me'ir, to the effect that G-D created 7 heavens and there are 7 chariots (meravot) in them." This statement, which apart from its clear reference to the existence of 7 heavens, is reminiscent also of the idea which we met in Ascensio Isaiae, namely that a throne is placed in every heaven.
The Holy’s measurement rises with the heavens measurement.
Thus did the Holiness, Blessed be He, say to Ezekiel: "I am showing the Chariot to you on condition that you expound it to Israel.... But you should convey them to the people only as much as the eye can see and the ear hear."
Note: No special demand for secrecy.
Introductory remark by Rabbi Yizhaq: "From the earth to Raqi'a there is a distance of 500 years walk." The biblical verse quoted as supporting this measure is Deuteronomy 11:21 "That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which the Lord swore unto your fathers to give them, as the days of the heaven upon the earth."
Note: 500 is the earthy level width of the sanctuary
The measurement of 500 years walk is repeated in Re'uyot Yehezkel as the regular distance between each of the heavens. If we may learn anything from the description of the space between the first and the second heaven, then all the spaces between the heavens are filled with water. It is said: "And the water which is above Raqi'a is 500 years of walk", and there are good reasons to believe that the same could be said of the other "inter celestial" spaces too.
Note: When reading water, read river of light 'Shekinah". Levels of light fill the earthly 500 x 500 platform, the 1st heaven and the levels of that space above it relating to the structure.
The angels who recite the Qedushah are said to be in the 2nd heaven. Generally, these angels are described as being in the 5th heaven. Considering the 7-heaven system in Reuyot Yehezkel, it is noteworthy that the sanctifying angels are located in the 2nd heaven, while the 7th heaven contains, in addition to the Merkavah, only the hooves of the Living Creatures and their wings.
Note: The hooves are on the earth, 1st heaven, yet directly connected to the 7th, of heads and wings.
It is also said of the sanctifying angels that their existence in the 2nd heaven is not permanent. They are renewed each day.
Note: These are the entering worshippers, renewed every hour.
In the 3rd heaven, Zevul, one finds the Sar, the Heavenly Prince. He is described as filling with the presence the whole of that heaven, and thousands upon thousands are said to serve Him.
Daniel 7:9-10, supports the idea and one might ask whether the author of Re'uyot Yehezkel did not think that the 'Atiq Yomin described in Daniel was identified with the Sar of the Heaven Zevul.
The 2 names that are of interest here are Komes- the minister in the Kings Court, and the other is Metatron.
Professor S Lieberman has suggested that Metatron reflects the older form of synthronos, that is G-D enthroned alongside with the major deity.
The next heaven, Arafel, contains the "canopy of the Law" and the Merkavah in which G-D descended on Mount Sinai.
Note: Underside of the political crown
The 5th heaven, Shehaqim, contains the Heavenly Jerusalem and all the vessels of the temple.
Note: Perambulatory level, one of the crowns, the Temple radial structure starts here.
Makhon is the next heaven and contains the treasures of snow and hail, and the future rewards for the righteous and the wicked.
Note: Instruction level, the place of acceptance or rejection, designed like a snowflake.
'Aravot contains the treasures of the souls.
Highest heaven, Kisse' Ha-Kavod, contains the hoofs of the Hayyot and the edges of their wings as well as the big Merkavah in which G-d descends in order to judge the nations. The text ends with the remark that G-D is above the wings of the Hayyot.
Hekhalot Zutreti is probably the oldest hekhalot text we possess. It is a collection of short merkavah passages, some in Aramaic. Professor Jonas Greenfield locates it in Eretz Israel, probably 2-3 CCE. Professor Gershom Scholem agrees, who on analysis regards it as representing merkavah lore of the Tannaitic, possibly early Amoraic period.
"If you want to be singled out in the world and that the secrets of the world and the mysteries of wisdom should be revealed to you, you should study this mishnah and be careful about it till the day of your death...."- one of the rare claims for secrecy in Hekhalot literature.
"This book is (a book of) wisdom, sagacity, and knowledge, and inquiries about the things above and below, the hidden things of the Torah and of heaven and earth, and the mysteries that G-D gave Moses, and revealed it to him at Mount Horeb, and by the means of which the world is sustained. By means of this book, Moses performed all the wonders and miracles in Egypt and with its help he beat the Egyptians. It is the fire of the Burning Bush.
And Metatron revealed Himself to Moses..."
Note: Metatron is identified as the fire that did not consume, from within.
This passage maintains a secret revelation of a certain mystical or magical book to Moses on Mount Sinai, like the Book of Jubilees. (Revealed to Moses at Sinai).
3rd paragraph of Hekhalot Zutreti introduces the Name which was revealed to Rabbi 'Akiva when he contemplated Ma'aseh Merkavah.
A central place in the Hekhalot Zutreti is occupied by the story of the 4 who entered the Pardes.
The sixth palace is mentioned. this is considered to represent the true meaning and possibly the original setting of Rabbi 'Akivas saying in Bavli Hagigah 14b, "When you reach the pure marble stones, do not say: Water, water".
1: Ben 'Azai said; "These waters, what are they?" He died.
2: Ben Zoma went out of his mind.
3: Rabbi 'Akiva said: "Ben 'Azai was found worthy and stood at the gate of pure marble stones. They cut off his head and threw upon him 11000 iron bars.
Rabbi 'Akiva was left alone.
The text continues with a long discussion of the question how it is possible to have a physical vision of G-D when it explicitly said that no man can see G-D and live. Rabbi 'Akiva settled the subject saying: "It is as if he resembles us, but He is greater than everything else, and that is His glory which is hidden from us.
And Moses says to those and to those: "Do not reflect on your own words, since He, Blessed be He, is in His place." The reference here is to Ezekiel 3:12 which in Midrashic literature is interpreted as indicating the fact that G-Ds real place of dwelling is completely unknown."
This is the major Hekhalot tractate we possess. The main body is 26 chapters, while the last 4 or 5, appended to them belong to Sar-Torah speculation. (The secret technique of the study of the law and its memorisation)
The text begins: "What are the incantations which should be recited by him who wants to behold the vision of the Merkavah, to descend and ascend safely."
1: Technical aspects of descending and ascending are asked.
2: Mystical incantations play an important part in the journey.
3: Those incantations were learnt by a mystic (Rabbi 'Akiva) during a heavenly ascent.
The idea of the mystics sharing the song of the angels comes close to the idea expressed by the Qumran sectarians that the special merit of the believers was to enjoy partnership with the angels.
Chapter 3 begins with a short dialogue between G-D, who is here called Zoharariel (G-D of the Shining Light) and the mystic as to why the mystic is so terrified. He says that he has called G-D for 6 hours a day, and the angels drag him to his knees till he reaches the Divine Throne.
He proceeds to describe the Divine Throne, described as hovering ever since the creation of the world.
The creatures carry it but they do not place their feet on the firmament.
What the Throne here is described as doing and saying implies that G-D is not always present on His Throne in the Divine Palace. When G-D is absent from the 7th hekhal, he resides in the 8th heaven which is above the heads of the creatures.
The 7th is therefore the official Court of G-D. He attends there, 2-3 times a day, corresponding to the prayer times of the People of Israel.
Excerpts from Apocalyptic and Merkavah Mysticism
Copyright of Brill 1980