An unusual and enigmatic passage in the Mishnah lists several topics that were classified as Top Secret in that they were not to be discussed or taught openly. These subjects include “the account of the beginning” and “the account of the chariot.” The former presumably involves interpretations of the biblical creation story; whereas the latter deals with the bizarre vision described by the prophet Ezekiel of a chariot composed of and drawn by supernatural beings and bearing a royal throne. The ancient sages were so scrupulous about not publicizing these matters that we now know virtually nothing about them. Nevertheless, the Talmud preserves stories about the impressive supernatural pyrotechnics that occurred when prominent rabbis discoursed about the mystical chariot.
In order to demonstrate the need for secrecy, the rabbis told a story of four sages from the early second century who pursued this esoteric lore. All but one came to unfortunate ends. Their fates were described in a famous parable: “Four entered the orchard— ...Ben Azzai peeked and died... Ben Zoma peeked and was maimed... ‘The Other’ peeked and cut the plants... Rabbi Akiva ascended safely and descended peacefully.”
In some traditions, the imagery is explained in greater detail: ”To what may this matter be compared? To a royal orchard that had an upper balcony. A person is permitted to peek at it as long as he does not stare at it for a long time.” Indeed, the Mishnah and other early texts seem to be worried principally about the prospect of people overindulging their desires to gawk too familiarly at the sublime spectacle that is designated for royalty.
Thus, the endeavours of the four rabbis who contemplated the “account of the chariot” were depicted metaphorically as attempts to sneak an illicit peek at a garden that was restricted for the exclusive enjoyment of the king. In keeping with the usual convention in such parables, the king represents the Almighty. Accordingly, for mortals to claim unobstructed access to the celestial throne-room and the angelic chariot was condemned as inappropriate lèse-majesté toward the divine. The same Mishnah that prohibited open teaching of the account of the chariot went on to admonish: “whoever is not sensitive to the honour of his Creator, it would have been better for him if he had never come into this world.”
According to this imagery, each of the four rabbis tried to steal into the walled royal park via the gallery. Two of them came to harm in the course of scaling the wall, one fatally. “The Other”—the infamous heretic Elisha ben Abuya—succeeded in gaining entry to the garden, and he set about vandalizing the trees. As we learn from other accounts in the Talmud, Elisha’s undisciplined contemplation of spiritual mysteries led him to become a heretic and a traitor to his people. In contrast to the other three sages who trespassed into the walled garden with the intention of beholding and admiring its flora, Elisha’s motives were malicious. By destroying the proverbial plants, he left the garden unprotected to the glare of the sun. This is probably a metaphoric allusion to his revealing mysteries that were supposed to remain “shaded” in respectful secrecy. Rabbi Akiva was the only one of the four who emerged unscathed from his respectful visit to the royal orchard.
Allowing for the obscurity of the subject matter, the parable of the orchard comes across as fairly straightforward. However, later commentators introduced additional complication and mystification.
At the root of the matter is the Hebrew word for orchard or vineyard: “pardes.” This is a very commonplace term in rabbinic usage; its meaning is plain, and it has no mystical or supernatural connotations. Quite the contrary, rabbinic literature routinely introduced a pardes into parables that were intended to illustrate how well humans are performing their duties for the Master of the Universe. For these purposes, the Talmud and Midrash (like Christian texts that were produced in similar cultural settings) often employed the metaphor of “labourers in a vineyard” or in an orchard. These parables often specified the diverse tasks that were assigned to the “gardeners” or the criteria according to which their work was rewarded—and several of them made mention of a tower or balcony from which the king kept a vigilant eye on his employees.
Later commentators, however, were alert to the resemblance between the Hebrew “pardes” and the similar-sounding word “paradise” and its cognates in other languages. Indeed, both terms do likely originate in the old Persian “pairidaeza” connoting a walled park. Thus, Rav Hai Ga’on explained that the rabbinic pardes was referring to the garden of Eden: just as the original garden was hidden away after Adam and Eve sinned, so too, this paradise was a hidden celestial locale that houses the souls of the righteous. Through the mediation of prominent medieval commentators such as Rabbis Ḥananel of Kairowan, Nathan ben Jehiel of Rome and Rashi, this interpretation became the dominant one, and the original metaphor of an orchard or park was all but forgotten.
These commentators described how the four ancient rabbis employed secret divine names in order to ascend to the celestial paradise. Indeed, a similar procedure had been cultivated by schools of medieval Jewish mystics who described their spiritual journeys as ascents through multiple levels of palaces; the entry at each level was guarded by menacing angels who demanded to be shown a “seal” consisting of holy names. It was not always clear whether the ascent to paradise was being presented as an actual event, or as a psychological experience that took place within the soul of the mystic.
The evolution of the “pardes” image reached an intriguing new phase toward the end of the thirteenth century when Rabbi Moses de Leon, the author of the Zohar, began to use the four-letter Hebrew word as an acronym for four different modes of Jewish scriptural exposition: P’shaṭ (literal), Remez (allegorical), D’rash (rabbinic midrash), and Sod (esoteric). This usage was subsequently popularized by an anonymous kabbalist whose works were incorporated into the standard editions of the Zohar, and from there it has become a mainstay of Jewish exegetical theory.
De Leon did preserve some of the original botanical associations when he likened the deeper meanings of the Torah to a nut whose edible kernel is wrapped in multiple layers of shell. Some other authors, such as Rabbi Baḥya ben Asher, applied the “Remez” epithet to philosophical allegories.
Scholars have noted the remarkable resemblance between the fourfold Jewish “PaRDeS” scheme and a system that had been formulated earlier by medieval Christian authors. The Christian classification consisted of: History, Allegory, Tropology or Typology (moral homilies) and Anagogy (interpretations related related to the end times). While it is easy to understand how such a framework could have evolved independently out of the native traditions of Hebrew scriptural interpretation, it is unlikely that medieval Jewish scholars would have been entirely oblivious to the Christian version that was enjoying much popularity at that time, especially in Spain.
The original foray of the four sages into the enigmatic pardes;had by now undergone substantial transformations—beginning as a furtive break-in into a walled orchard, changing into a metaphysical ascent to a celestial paradise, and on to its later incarnation as an abstract scholarly acronym.
And so, the tangled branches of this story, so deeply rooted in the rich soil of Jewish tradition, continue to bring forth a tasty assortment of symbolic fruit for the mind and spirit.
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