Mysticism during the Talmudic Era: Sources

Table of Contents

  • The Biblical Vision of the Chariot
  • Secret Teachings
  • Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Eleazar ben 'Arakh
  • Four Entered the Orchard
  • The Vision of Rabbi Ishmael
  • The Biblical Vision of the Chariot (Maaseh Merkavah)

    Ezekiel Chapter 1

    1 Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth [month], in the fifth [day] of the month, as I [was] among the captives by the river of Chebar, [that] the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.

    2 In the fifth [day] of the month, which [was] the fifth year of king Jehoiachin's captivity,

    3 The word of the LORD came expressly unto Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the LORD was there upon him.

    4 And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness [was] about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.

    5 Also out of the midst thereof [came] the likeness of four living creatures. And this [was] their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.

    6 And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings.

    7 And their feet [were] straight feet; and the sole of their feet [was] like the sole of a calf's foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass.

    8 And [they had] the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings.

    9 Their wings [were] joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward.

    10 As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.

    11 Thus [were] their faces: and their wings [were] stretched upward; two [wings] of every one [were] joined one to another, and two covered their bodies.

    12 And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; [and] they turned not when they went.

    13 As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance [was] like burning coals of fire, [and] like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning.

    14 And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning.

    15 Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces.

    16 The appearance of the wheels and their work [was] like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work [was] as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel.

    17 When they went, they went upon their four sides: [and] they turned not when they went.

    18 As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings [were] full of eyes round about them four.

    19 And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up.

    20 Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither [was their] spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature [was] in the wheels.

    21 When those went, [these] went; and when those stood, [these] stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature [was] in the wheels.

    22 And the likeness of the firmament upon the heads of the living creature [was] as the colour of the terrible crystal, stretched forth over their heads above.

    23 And under the firmament [were] their wings straight, the one toward the other: every one had two, which covered on this side, and every one had two, which covered on that side, their bodies.

    24 And when they went, I heard the noise of their wings, like the noise of great waters, as the voice of the Almighty, the voice of speech, as the noise of an host: when they stood, they let down their wings.

    25 And there was a voice from the firmament that [was] over their heads, when they stood, [and] had let down their wings.

    26 And above the firmament that [was] over their heads [was] the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne [was] the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it.

    Isaiah Chapter 6:

    1 In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.

    2 Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.

    3 And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, [is] the Lord of hosts: the whole earth [is] full of his glory.

    4 And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.

    5 Then said I, Woe [is] me! for I am undone; because I [am] a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.

    6 Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, [which] he had taken with the tongs from off the altar:

    7 And he laid [it] upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.

    8 Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here [am] I; send me.


    Secret Teachings

    Mishnah Hagigah 2:1:

    Tosefta Hagigah 2:1:

    The laws of incest may not be expounded before three persons,
    "The laws of incest may not be expounded before three persons"
    • --however they may be expounded before two.
    nor the Account of the Creation before two,

    "Nor the Account of the Creation before two"
    • however it may be expounded before one.

    nor the Chariot before one

    unless the person is wise and able to understand on his own.

    Anyone who meditates upon four things, it would be preferable for them if they had not come into the world:
    1. what is above
    2. what is below
    3. what is before
    4. and what is after.
    And anyone who has no regard for the honour of their Creator, it would be preferable for them if they had not come into the world.

    Palestinian Talmud Hagigah 2:1:

    "The laws of incest may not be expounded before three persons"

    Rabbi Ba in the name of Rav Judah: This is the view of Rabbi Akiva, however according to Rabbi Ishmael... he teaches the matter.

    This can be deduced from the fact that Rabbi 'Ami was sitting and teaching "There is an admonishment against the active partner as well as against the passive partner."

    This proves that the law follows Rabbi Ishmael.

    "Nor the Account of the Creation before two"

    Rabbi Ba in the name of Rav Judah: This is the view of Rabbi Akiva, however according to Rabbi Ishmael they expound the matter.

    This can be deduced from the fact that Rabbi Judah ben Pazi sat and expounded "In the beginning the world consisted of water in water."

    This proves that the law follows Rabbi Ishmael.

    "Nor the Account of the Chariot before One"

    Is this also the view of Rabbi Akiva?

    It is the view of all, in order that one should know how to have regard for the honour of one's Creator.

    Did not Rav say: "A person may not speak against his teacher unless he has observed and served him"?


    How should he behave? In the beginning his teacher introduces the beginnings of verses and he confirms it.

    Rabbi Hiyya in the name of Rabbi Johanan: Rabbi had an experienced student, and he expounded one lesson in the Account of the Chariot, which did not agree with Rabbi's understanding; and he was stricken with leprosy.

    Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 11b:

    ...Rav Ashe says: What does "The laws of incest may not be expounded before three persons" mean? --The secrets of the laws of incest may not be expounded before three persons.

    What is the reason? --It stands to reason: When two who are sitting before their teacher, one will be discussing it with his teacher while the other is paying attention to them.

    But if there are three, then one will be discussing with the teacher while the other two are discussing with one another, and they will not know what their teacher said. This might lead them to permit a prohibited sexual relation...

    Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 13a:

    Rabbi Hiyya taught: But the headings of chapters may be transmitted to him.

    Rabbi Zera said: The headings of the chapters may be transmitted only to the head of a court and to one whose heart is anxious within him.

    Others say: Only if his heart is anxious within him.

    Rabbi 'Ami said: The mysteries of the Torah may be transmitted only to one who possesses five attributes: "

    1. The captain of fifty,
    2. and the honourable man,
    3. and the counsellor,
    4. and the cunning artificer,
    5. and the eloquent orator"
    (Isaiah 3:3).


    Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Eleazar ben 'Arakh

    Tosefta Hagigah 2:2

    Mekhilta deRabbi Simeon ben Yohai (p. 158; to Exodus 21:1):

    Palestinian Talmud Hagigah 2:1

    Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 14b:

    Once Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai was riding on a donkey,

    and R. Leazar ben 'Arakh was driving the donkey behind him.

    He said to him: Rabbi, teach me one lesson in the Account of the Chariot.

    He said to him: Have I not told you previously that the Account of the Chariot is not expounded before one person unless the person is wise and able to understand on his own!

    [Lacuna in manuscript]It happened once that Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai was traveling on the road riding a donkey,

    and Rabbi Eleazar ben 'Arakh was walking behind him.

    He said to him: Rabbi, teach me one lesson in the Account of the Chariot.

    He said to him: Did the Sages not teach as follows: "Nor the Account of the Creation before two, unless the person is wise and able to understand on his own"!

    Our Rabbis taught:

    Once Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai was riding on a donkey,

    and R. Leazar ben 'Arakh was driving the donkey behind him.

    He said to him: Rabbi, teach me one lesson in the Account of the Chariot.

    He said to him: Have I not told you previously that the Account of the Chariot is not expounded before one person unless the person is wise and able to understand on his own!

    He said to him: Hence I shall expound before you.[...] If not, then grant me permission to speak before you.He said to him: Rabbi, allow me to say something before you.

    He said to him: Rabbi, permit me to say before you something which you taught me.
    He said to him: Speak! He said to him: Speak!He said to him: Speak!
    R. Eleazar ben 'Arakh commenced expounding the Account of the Chariot.   
    Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai alighted from the donkey and wrapped himself in his robe. Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai alighted from the donkey.Immediately Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai alighted from his donkey and wrapped himself up.
    And the two of them seated themselves on a rock under an olive tree, They went and seated themselves under a certain tree. And he seated himself on a rock under an olive tree.
      He said: It is not proper that I should be hearing the Honour of my Creator while riding on a donkey.He asked him: Rabbi, why did you alight from the donkey?

    He said: Is it possible that you should be expounding on the Account of the Chariot, and the Divine Presence is among us, and the Ministering Angels are acompanying us--

    and I should be riding on a donkey!

    while he expounded before him.Rabbi Eleazar ben 'Arakh was expounding

    until a flame was burning all around him.

    And a fire descended from heaven and surrounded them.

    And the Ministering Angels were leaping about them like guests at a wedding rejoicing before the bridegroom.

    One angel spoke from out of the fire and said: The Account of the Chariot is precisely as you described it, Eleazar ben 'Arakh!

    Immediately all the trees opened their mouths and began to sing "Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy"! (Psalms 96:12).

    Immediately, Rabbi Eleazar ben 'Arakh began the Account of the Chariot

    and he expounded,

    and a flame descended from heaven and encompassed all the trees in the field.

    All broke out in song.

    Which song did they utter?

    • "Praise the Lord from the earth, ye sea-monsters, and all deeps...fruitful trees and all cedars...Hallelujah" (Psalms 148:7, 9, 14).

    An angel answered from the flame and said: This indeed is the Account of the Chariot!

    He stood up and kissed him on his head.As soon as Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai beheld that there was a fire flaming all around,

    he alighted from the donkey and kissed him

    When Rabbi Eleazar ben 'Arakh concluded the Account of the Chariot,

    Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai stood up and kissed him on his head

    Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai stood up and kissed him on his head.
    And he said to him: Blessed is the Lord God of Israel who has given to our father Abraham such a one who knows how to expound and understand for the sake of the honour of his Father in Heaven.

    There are those who can expound beautifully but not fulfil beautifully; and those who can fulfil beautifully, but not expound beautifully.

    How fortunate is are you, our father Abraham, that Eleazar ben 'Arakh issued from your loins, who knows how to understand and to expound for the sake of the honour of his Father in Heaven.

    And he said to him: Rabbi Eleazar ben 'Arakh! Fortunate is she who bore you! Fortunate are you, our father Abraham, that such a one has issued form your loins.

    He used to say: If all the sages or Israel were placed on one side of the scale and R. Eleazar ben 'Arakh on the other side, he would tip them all!

    And said: Blessed is the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who has given to our father Abraham a wise son who knows how to expound for the sake of the honour of our Father in Heaven

    There are those who can expound beautifully but not fulfil beautifully; and those who can fulfil beautifully, but not expound beautifully.

    Eleazar ben 'Arakh can expound beautifully and fulfil beautifully!

    How fortunate are you, our father Abraham, that Eleazar ben 'Arakh issued from your loins, who knows how to understand and to expound for the sake of the honour of his Father in Heaven.

    and said to him: Blessed is the Lord God of Israel who has given to our father Abraham such a one who knows how to expound and understand for the sake of the honour of his Father in Heaven.

    There are those who can expound beautifully but not fulfil beautifully; and those who can fulfil beautifully, but not expound beautifully.

    How fortunate are you, our father Abraham, that Eleazar ben 'Arakh issued from your loins.

    When Rabbi Joseph the Priest and Rabbi Simeon ben Nethanel heard it,

    they commenced the Account of the Chariot.

    They said: It was on a midsummer day, and the earth trembled and the rainbow was visible in a cloud.

    And a Heavenly voice issued and said to them: A place has been set aside for you, and the banquet-hall is prepared for you.

    You and your disciples are assigned to the third section.

    And when these things were related before Rabbi Joshua,

    he and Rabbi Jose the Priest were walking on the way.

    They said: We too shall expound the Account of the Chariot.

    Rabbi Joshua commenced his exposition.

    And that day was a midsummer day.

    The heavens became filled with clouds,

    and there was appearance like a rainbow in a cloud.

    And the Ministering Angels gathered together and came to see the rejoicing of the bride and bridegroom.

    Rabbi Jose the Priest went and related these things before Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai.

    And he said: Fortunate are you and fortunate are those who bore you, and fortunate are my eyes that have beheld this!

    Even you and I, in my dream, were reclining together on Mount Sinai,

    and a Heavenly Voice issued from the sky:

    Rise up to here, rise up to here!

    Great banquet halls and beautiful couches have been laid out for you,

    and you and your disciples and your disciples' disciples are assigned to the third section.


    Four Entered the Orchard

    Tosefta Hagigah 2:3-4:

    Four entered the orchard:
    • ben 'Azzai and
    • ben Zoma
    • and the Other
    • and Rabbi 'Akiva.
      • One peeked and died.

      • One peeked and was injured.

      • One peeked and chopped down the plants.

      • And one went up safely and came down safely.

    • Ben Azzai peeked and died.
      • Concerning him Scripture says: "Precious in the sight of the Lord [is] the death of his saints" (Psalms 116:15).
    • Ben Zoma peeked and was injured.
      • Concerning him Scripture says: "Hast thou found honey? eat so much as is sufficient for thee, lest thou be filled therewith, and vomit it" (Proverbs 25:16).
    • Elisha peeked and chopped down the plants.
      • Concerning him Scripture says: "Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin; neither say thou before the angel, that it [was] an error: wherefore should God be angry at thy voice, and destroy the work of thine hands?" (Ecclesiastes 5:5).
    • And Rabbi Akiva went up safely and came down safely.
      • Concerning him Scripture says: "Draw me, we will run after thee: the king hath brought me into his chambers: we will be glad and rejoice in thee, we will remember thy love more than wine: the upright love thee" (Song of Songs 1:4).

    To what is this analogous?

    To a king who owned an orchard, over which was built an upper chambre.

    What may a person do? He may peek, provided that his eye does not linger upon it.

    They formulated an additional parable:

    To what is this analogous?

    To a main thoroughfare that passes between two paths: one of fire and one of snow.

    If one leans to the one side, they will be burned by the fire.

    If one leans to the other side, they will be burned by the snow.

    What ought a person do?

    He may go in the middle, provided that he does not stray in either direction.



    The Vision of Rabbi Ishmael

    Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 7a:

    It was taught:

    Said Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha: Once I entered into the inner sanctum to offer incense.

    And I beheld Akatriel Yah LORD of Hosts sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up.

    And he said to me: Ishamel my son, bless me.

    I said to him: May it be thy will

    • that your compassion should overcome your anger
    • and your mercy should prevail over your other attributes
    • and you shall treat your children according to the standard of mercy,
    • and you shall act for their sake beyond the letter of the law.

    And he nodded his head to me.


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