Merkabah (מרכבה: Hebrew for "chariot"), refers to the throne of God, described in Ezekiel (1:4-26), which is said to be a four-wheeled chariot driven by four "living creatures" ("chayot"). Each of these creatures has four wings with the four faces of a man, lion, ox, and eagle.
Students of Jewish mysticism have focused on these passages from Ezekiel, seeking to understand their deeper meaning. Jewish biblical commentaries emphasize that the animal imagery of the Merkabah is not meant to be taken literally; rather it provides analogies for the various ways that God reveals Himself in this world. (Maimonides, in his "Thirteen Principles of Faith," emphasizes that God is not limited to any particular form, as this prophesy might seem to imply.) Hasidic philosophy and Kabbalah discuss at length what each aspect of this vision means. In medieval Judaism, the beginning of the book of Ezekiel was regarded as the most mystical passage in the entire Hebrew Bible, and its study was discouraged, except by mature individuals with an extensive grounding in the study of traditional Jewish texts. Today,Jews customarily read the biblical passages concerning the Merkaba in their synagogues every year on the holiday of Shavuot, and the Merkabah is also referenced in several places in traditional Jewish liturgy.
In Christianity, the man, lion, ox, and eagle are used as symbols for the four evangelists (or gospel-writers), and appear frequently in church decorations. They also appear in the Tarot card, "The World." The creatures are called Zoë (or the Tetramorph), and continuously surround the throne of God in Heaven, along with the twenty-four angelic rulers, the Seraphim, the Cherubim, the seven Archangels, the Ophanim, and countless angels, spirits, and saints, where they sing praises to the Trinity, and beg Christ to have mercy on humankind.
According to the verses in Ezekiel and its attendant commentaries, the Merkaba consists of a chariot made of many angels being driven by the "Likeness of a Man." Four angels form the basic structure of the chariot. These angels are called the "Chayot" חיות (lit. "living creatures"). Their bodies are like that of a human being, but each of them has four faces, corresponding to the four directions the chariot can go (north, east, south, and west). The faces are of a man, a lion, an ox (later changed to a child or cherub) and an eagle. Since there are four angels and each has four faces, there are a total of sixteen faces. Each Chayot angel also has four wings. Two of these wings spread across the length of the chariot and connected with the wings of the angel on the other side. This created a sort of "box" of wings that formed the perimeter of the chariot. With the remaining two wings, each angel covered its own body. Below, but not attached to the feet of the "Chayot" angels are other angels that are shaped like wheels. These wheel angels, which are described as "a wheel inside of a wheel," are called "Ophannim" אופנים (lit. "wheels, cycles," or "ways"). These wheels are not directly under the chariot, but are nearby and along its perimeter. The angel with the face of the man is always on the east side and looks up at the "Likeness of a Man" that drives the chariot. The "Likeness of a Man" sits on a throne made of sapphire.
The Bible later makes mention of a third type of angel found in the Merkaba called "Seraphim" (lit. "burning") angels. These angels appear like flashes of fire continuously ascending and descending. These "Seraphim" angels powered the movement of the chariot. The movement of the "Ofanim" is controlled by the "Chayot" while the movement of the "Chayot" is controlled by the "Seraphim." The movement of all the angels of the chariot are controlled by the "Likeness of a Man" on the Throne.
The earliest Rabbinic commentaries on the merkabah passages were exegetical expositions of the prophetic visions of God in the heavens, and the divine retinue of angels, hosts, and heavenly creatures surrounding God. One mention of the merkabah in the Talmud notes the importance of the passage: "A great issue—the account of the merkavah; a small issue—the discussions of Abaye and Rava [famous Talmudic sages]." The sages Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai (d. ca. 80 C.E.) and later, Rabbi Akiva (d. 135 C.E.) were deeply involved in merkabah exegesis. Rabbi Akiva and his contemporary Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha are most often the protagonists of later merkabah ascent literature. Evidence suggests that merkabah homiletics did not give rise to ascent experiences—as one rabbinic sage states: "Many have expounded upon the merkabah without ever seeing it."
The Talmudic interdictions concerning merkabah speculation are numerous and widely held. Discussions concerning the merkabah were limited to only the most worthy sages, and admonitory legends are preserved about the dangers of overzealous speculation concerning the merkabah. It was said that Merkabah texts must be studied only by exemplary scholars. The secret doctrines might not be discussed in public: "Seek not out the things that are too hard for thee, neither search the things that are above thy strength. But what is commanded thee, think thereupon with reverence; for it is not needful for thee to see with thine eyes the things that are in secret."
According to R. Ammi, the secret doctrine might be entrusted only to one who possessed the five qualities enumerated in Isaiah iii. 3, and a certain age is, of course, necessary. When R. Johanan wished to initiate R. Eliezer in the Ma'aseh Merkabah, the latter answered, "I am not yet old enough." A boy who recognized the meaning of (Ezek. i. 4) was consumed by fire (Ḥag. 13b), and the perils connected with the unauthorized discussion of these subjects are often described (Ḥag. ii. 1; Shab. 80b).
Beyond the rabbinic community, Jewish apocalyptists also engaged in visionary exegeses concerning the divine realm and the divine creatures, which are remarkably similar to the rabbinic material. A small number of texts unearthed at Qumran indicate that the Dead Sea community also engaged in merkabah exegesis. Recently uncovered Jewish mystical texts also evidence a deep affinity with the rabbinic merkabah homilies.
The merkabah homilies eventually consisted of detailed descriptions of multiple layered heavens (usually seven in number), often guarded over by angels, and encircled by flames and lightning. The highest heaven contains seven palaces (hekhalot), and in the innermost palace resides a supreme divine image (God's Glory or an angelic image) seated on a throne, surrounded by awesome hosts who sing God's praise.
When these images were combined with an actual mystical experiential motif of individual ascent (paradoxically called "descent" in most texts) and union is not precisely known. By inference, contemporary historians of Jewish mysticism usually date this development to the third century C.E. Again, there is a significant dispute amongst historians over whether these ascent and unitive themes were the result of some "foreign," usually Gnostic, influence, or a natural progression of religious dynamics within Rabbinic Judaism.
Maimonides' twelfth century work, Guide for the Perplexed, is in part intended as an explanation of the passages Ma'aseh Bereshit and Ma'aseh Merkabah. In the third volume, Maimonides commences the exposition of the mystical passage of the mystic doctrines found in the merkavah passages, while justifying this crossing of the line from hints to direct instruction. Maimonides explains basic mystical concepts via the biblical terms referring to Spheres, elements, and Intelligences. In these chapters, however, there is still very little in terms of direct explanation.
Hasidic philosophy explains that the Merkaba is a multi-layered analogy that offers insight into the nature of humanity, the ecosystem, the world, and teaches us how to become better people.
The four Chayot angels represent the basic archetypes that God used to create the current nature of the world. Ofannim, which means "ways," are the ways these archetypes combine to create actual entities that exist in the world. For instance, in the basic elements of the world, the lion represents fire, the ox/earth, the eagle/air, and the man/water. However, in practice, everything in the world is some combination of all four, and the particular combination of each element that exists in each thing are its particular Ofannim or ways. In another example, the four Chayot represent spring, summer, winter and fall. These four types of weather are the archetypal forms. The Ofannim would be the combination of weather that exists on a particular day, which may be a winter-like day within the summer or a summer like day within the winter.
The Man on the throne represents God, who is controlling everything that goes on in the world, and how all of the archetypes He set up should interact. The Man on the throne, however, can only drive when the four angels connect their wings. This means that God will not be revealed to humanity when looking at all four elements (for instance) as separate and independent entities. However, when one looks at the way that earth, wind, fire, and water, which all oppose each other are able to work together and coexist in complete harmony in the world, this shows that there is really a higher power (God) telling these elements how to act.
This very lesson carries over to explain how the four basic groups of animals and the four basic archetypal philosophies and personalities reveal a higher, godly source when one is able to read between the lines and see how these opposing forces can and do interact in harmony. A person should strive to be like a Merkaba, that is to say, he should realize all the different qualities, talents and inclinations he has (his angels). They may seem to contradict, but when one directs his life to a higher goal such as doing God's will (the man on the chair driving the chariot) he will see how they all can work together and even complement each other. Ultimately, people should strive to realize how all of the forces in the world, though they may seem to conflict can unite, may help to fulfill a higher purpose, namely to serve God.
Ma’asei Merkavah, the first distinctly mystical movement in Jewish history, appeared in the late Greco-Roman period, after the end of the Second Temple period following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. It is a form of pre-Kabbalah Jewish mysticism, that teaches both of the possibility of making a sublime journey to God and of the ability of man to draw down divine powers to earth; it seems to be an esoteric movement that grew out of the priestly mysticism already evident in the Dead Sea Scrolls and some apocalyptic writings. Hekhalot ("palaces") writings are the literary artifacts of the Maasei Merkavah.
Hekhalot mysticism began after the end of the Second Temple when the physical cult ceased to function. The idea of making a journey to the heavenly "hekhal" seems to be a kind of spiritualization of the pilgrimages to the earthly "hekhal" that were now no longer possible. The main interests of all Hekhalot writings are accounts of mystical ascents into heaven, divine visions, and the summoning and control of angels, usually for the purpose of gaining insight into Torah. The loci classicus for these practices is the biblical accounts of the Chariot vision of Ezekiel (Chap. 1) and the Temple vision of Isaiah (Chap. 6). It is from these, and from the many extra-canonical apocalyptic writings of heavenly visitations, that Hekhalot literature emerges. Still, it is distinctive from both Qumran literature and Apocalyptic writings for several reasons, chief among them being that Hekhalot literature is not at all interested in eschatology, largely ignores the unique status of the priesthood, has little interest in fallen angels or demonology, and it "democratizes" the possibility of divine ascent. It may represent a "rabbinization" of these earlier priestly ideologies.
The title, “Hekhalot” (palaces), derives from the divine abodes seen by the practitioner following a long period of ritual purification, self-mortification, and ecstatic prayer and meditation. In their visions, these mystics would enter into the celestial realms and journey through the seven stages of mystical ascent: the Seven Heavens and seven throne rooms. Such a journey is fraught with great danger, and the adept must not only have made elaborate purification preparation, but must also know the proper incantations, seals, and angelic names needed to get past the fierce angelic guards, as well as know how to navigate the various forces at work inside and outside the palaces.
The literature sometimes includes fantastic and baffling descriptions of the precincts of heaven and its awesome denizens. The highly literal and overly-explicit images of heavenly objects and their numbers common to this literature may be intended, reductio ad absurdum, to convey the truly ineffable nature of the ecstatic experience. At times, heavenly interlocutors will reveal divine secrets. In some texts, the mystic’s interest extends to the heavenly music and liturgy, usually connected with the angelic adorations mentioned in Isa. 6:3. The mantra-like repetitive nature of the liturgies recorded in many of these compositions seems meant to encourage further ascent. The ultimate goal of the ascent varies from text to text. In some cases, it seems to be a visionary glimpse of God, to "Behold the King in His Beauty." Others hint at "enthronement," that the adept be accepted among the angelic retinue of God and be given an honored (god-like?) seat. One text actually envisions the successful pilgrim getting to sit in God's "lap." Literary works related to the Hekhalot tradition that have survived in whole or in part include Hekhalot Rabbati (or Pirkei Hekhalot), Hekhalot Zutarti, 3rd Enoch (also known as Hebrew Enoch), and Ma’aseh Merkavah. In addition there are many smaller and fragmentary manuscripts that seem to belong to this genre, but their exact relationship to Ma’asei Merkavah mysticism and to each other is often not clear.
The ascent texts are extant in four principal works, all redacted well after the third but certainly before the ninth century C.E. They are: 1) Hekhalot Zutartey ("The Lesser Palaces"), which details an ascent of Rabbi Akiva; 2) Hekhalot Rabbati ("The Greater Palaces"), which details an ascent of Rabbi Ishmael; 3) Ma'aseh Merkabah ("Account of the Chariot"), a collection of hymns recited by the "descenders" and heard during their ascent; and 4) Sepher Hekhalot ("Book of Palaces," also known as 3 Enoch), which recounts an ascent and divine transformation of the biblical figure Enoch into the archangel Metatron, as related by Rabbi Ishmael.
A fifth work provides a detailed description of the Creator as seen by the "descenders" at the climax of their ascent. This work, preserved in various forms, is called Shi'ur Qomah ("Measurement of the Body"), and is rooted in a mystical exegesis of the Song of Songs, a book reputedly venerated by Rabbi Akiva. The literal message of the work was repulsive to those who maintained God's incorporeality; Maimonides (d. 1204) wrote that the book should be erased and all mention of its existence deleted.
While throughout the era of merkabah mysticism the problem of creation was not of paramount importance, the treatise Sefer Yetzirah ("Book of Creation") represents an attempt at cosmogony from within a merkabah milieu. This text was probably composed during the seventh century C.E., and evidence influence of Neoplatonism, Pythagoreanism, and Stoicism. It features a linguistic theory of creation in which God creates the universe by combining the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, along with emanations represented by the ten numerals, or sefirot.
In Christianity, the man, lion, ox, and eagle are used as symbols for the four evangelists (or gospel-writers), and appear frequently in church decorations (and also in the Tarot card, "The World," and in the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, also the "Wheel of Fortune"). These Creatures are called Zoë (or the Tetramorph), and are constantly surrounding the throne of God in Heaven, along with the twenty-four angelic rulers, the Seraphim, the Cherubim, the seven Archangels, the Ophanim, and countless angels, spirits, and saints, singing praises to the Trinity, and begging Christ to have mercy on humankind. According to Timo Eskola, early Christian theology and discourse was influenced by the Jewish Merkabah tradition.
This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.
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