The Aleinu Prayer and the Pardes Story: Major Trends in Hekhalot Literature Research by Shlomo Brody
The prayer Aleinu, which plays a central role in the Rosh Hashana liturgy, first appears within the Hekhalot literature, a large corpus of mystical writings and experiences which emerged in late antiquity. This literature, full of narratives of Sages ascending to the Heavens – including the famous Pardes story also found in the Talmud – has become a growing topic of research in academic Jewish studies. Following the pioneering studies of Gershom Scholem, numerous scholars from across the globe have dedicated essays and books to deciphering these cryptic mystical texts. This paper attempts to summarize the results of the scholarly efforts in dating these texts, determining their relationship to Talmudic beliefs, and understanding their social background.
I. Origins and Dating: What is the Connection to Talmudic Writings?
Gershom Scholem: Amoraic or Tanaitic Periods?
Like all other research into Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem’s works form the basis for contemporary scholarship. Scholem’s first goal in Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition sought to establish the antiquity of the Hekhalot literature. In his groundbreaking earlier work, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Scholem assumed that much of this extensive corpus stemmed from no earlier than the 4th and 5th centuries C.E., decades after the tana’im and many of the amoraim lived (Major Trends, 57-61). In dating this literature as post-Tannaitic, Scholem followed the lead of the 19th-century historians H. Graetz and P. Bloch, although they dated this corpus to a much later date, the 8th and 9th centuries. Nineteenth-century Jewish historians dismissed mysticism in general as peripheral to Judaism, and discarded the Hekhalot literature as a late, post-Islamic phenomenon far removed from the Rabbinic mindset (Ancient 15-16).
By the 1960s, however, Scholem concluded that the Hekhalot literature emerged in the first centuries of the Common Era, contemporaneous with the tana’im. In claiming that these mystical works stemmed from the Tanaitic period, Scholem followed Rav Hai Gaon (969-1038), who wrote to a correspondent,
You may be aware that many of the sages were of the opinion that an individual possessing certain explicitly defined qualities, who wishes to look at the merkabah and to peer into the palaces [hekhalot] of the celestial angels, has ways to achieve this. He must fast for a specified number of days, place his head between his knees, and whisper to the earth many prescribed songs and hymns. He thus peers into the inner rooms and chambers as if he were seeing the seven palaces with his own eyes, and he observes as if he were going from palace to palace and seeing what is in them. There are two mishnayot that the Tannaim have taught on this subject; they are called Hekhalot Rabbati and Hekhalot Zutarti. This much is widely known. (Translated in Halperin 6, emphasis added).
Scholem did not agree that the historical tana’im actually wrote the Hekhalot literature, believing that they were pseudopigraphically attributed to central tana’im. Yet he asserted that historical, linguistic, and conceptual similarities link the Hekhalot literature and the Talmudic corpus, to the point where passages in the latter could only be understood based on the existence and knowledge of the former.
Shiur Komah & Shir Ha-Shirim
The dating of Shiur Komah served as one of Scholem’s central proofs of the antiquity of the Hekhalot literature. Shiur Komah, pseudopigraphically attributed to R. Akiva and R. Yishmael, is a short work, comprised of three lists enumerating God’s organs, their names, and their measurements. In Yosef Dan’s assessment, it represents “the fullest and most acute expression of anthropomorphism in Jewish sources,” and served as the basis for mystic depiction of God by later mystics (Ancient 64-65). As a basis for this anthropomorphism, Shiur Komah metaphorically interprets the limbs of the lover in Shir Ha-Shirim (5:10-16) to be describing the body of God. The author(s), who begin the work by asserting that they have seen God sitting on His throne, promise a long life in this world and the good life in the world to come to those who learn the measurements.
Scholem, with the help of Saul Lieberman, contended that this esoteric comprehension of Shir Ha-Shirim stems from Tanaitic times. Writing in the beginning of third century, the early Christian theologian Origen describes how the Jews postpone teaching four texts to their children, “The beginning of Genesis, where the creation of the world is described; the beginning of the prophecy of Ezekiel, where the doctrine of angels is expounded; the end [of the same book] which contains the description of the future temple; and this book of the Song of Songs” (translated in Jewish Gnosticism 38). The first three documents represent passages with well-known mystical interpretations, indicating that that Jews similarly understood Shir Ha-Shirim. Scholem asserts that Origen’s statement must refer to Shiur Komah, which not only existed in his time, but was well entrenched as a fundamental esoteric teaching within the Jewish community (39-40). Lieberman, in a Hebrew appendix to Scholem’s work, further showed that many midrashic sources, particularly in the name of R. Akiva, connect Shir Ha-Shirim to the revelation at Sinai as well as the merkavah (121-126). Using Shiur Komah to explain many rabbinic statements, Lieberman concluded that Shiur Komah constitutes an early midrash on Shir Ha-Shirim that should be included in the rabbinic corpus. He further documented that numerous medieval figures shared this belief. Scholem and Lieberman thus not only proved the antiquity of these texts, but further declared that they represent a central element of classic Rabbinic thought.
Observance of Halakha and Hymnology: Parallels to Classic Rabbinic Thought
The fastidiousness to Halakhic observance in the Hekhalot literature further connects their authors to the Rabbinic world. Chapter 20 of Hekhalot Rabbati asserts that one who descends to the Chariot “reads the bible and studies Mishnah, Midrash, Halakhot, and Aggadot… and fulfills all which is written in the Torah and keeps all the prohibitions of statue and judgments and law which were declared on Sinai.” In other writings, moreover, the teachings seek to help the mystic attain perfect knowledge of the Torah, including both its exoteric and esoteric elements (12-13). In one particularly significant passage, R. Yishmael performs an obscure course of action to recall R. Nehuniah b. Hakanah from his state of ecstasy in the palace of God. Scholem deduced, and Lieberman later thoroughly documented (Gruenwald 241-244), that R. Yishmael’s complex maneuvers sought to avoid violating the strictest laws of purity. These mystics clearly shared the Rabbinic belief believed that loyal observance of the legal intricacies constituted an essential prerequisite to spiritual achievement.
Scholem also cited strong similarities between the Hekhalot hymnology and the Talmudic tradition as further proof of their intimate connection. The famous prayer Aleinu Le-Shabeach, which played a prominent role in the Rosh Hashana holiday liturgy since Talmudic times, appears almost in full in the text Ma’aseh Merkavah (published in Jewish Gnosticism 105-106). Moreover, the terminology it uses to describe God, such as yotzer bereishit and moshav yekaro, appears throughout Hekhalot literature (28). Furthermore, in Avodah Zarah 24b, a 3rd century Palestinian amora recites a song strongly resembling the words and rhythm of Hekhalot hymns. Based on these strong affinities, Scholem asserts, we must conclude that the Hekhalot literature stems from the early Talmudic era and grew out of a worldview in Eretz Yisrael that the Tannaim shared.
The Four Who Entered Pardes
Scholem’s final and most famous example relates to the story of the four who entered Pardes. In Talmudic literature, this story appears in the Tosefta, Yerushalmi, and Bavli to tractate Chagiga. Already in his earlier work, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Scholem cited this story and its parallels in the Hekhalot literature as proof of the strong correlation between the two traditions (Major Trends 52-53). Scholem contends that the cryptic Talmudic story remains incomprehensible without studying the more developed parallels in the Hekahlot literature. The Bavli, for example, makes numerous references to the dangers of the ecstatic journey, such as R. Akiva’s exhortation that his colleagues should not scream “Water! Water!” when seeing the marble plates. When read through the eyes of the more descriptive Hekhalot literature, however, the detailed warnings of the dangers threatening the yordei merkavah become eminently clear. The Talmudic stories are therefore only shorter versions of the Hekahlot versions, understandable when seen in their original context.
Scholem’s presentation remains slightly ambiguous with regard to the order of influence in the different versions of the Pardes story. In some places, he seems to state that the authors of the Hekhalot literature represent later mystics who understood perfectly the intent of the Talmudic tradition (Jewish Gnosticism 14, for example). This position is slightly modified by Ithamar Gruenwald, who agreed with Scholem’s textual analysis but asserted that the words attributed in the Bavli to different sages were “were virtually taken from what already was, or was soon to become, the established Hekhalot tradition (Gruenwald 88). However, Joseph Dan (in numerous writings) and David Halperin (Halperin 5-7) understood the assertion that the Talmudic passages represent an abbreviation or condensation of the Hekhalot tradition to reflect Scholem’s own position. This order certainly fits for Scholem’s analysis of Shiur Komah. Be that as it may, Scholem clearly believed that the Talmudic worldview greatly shared many mystical elements with the Hekhalot literature.
Ephraim Urbach: The Pardes Story Has Different Meaning in Talmudic Literature
Scholem’s contention that the Talmudic sages, including the tana’im, fully embraced the tradition of yordei merkavah found in the earlier Hekhalot literature, was first challenged by Ephraim Urbach. In a 1968 festschrift honoring Scholem, Urbach argued that the Talmudic versions of the Pardes story possess an entirely different meaning than that found in the Hekhalot literature. Urbach correctly noted that in addition to the pardes story, other Talmudic passages relate to ma’aseh merkavah, each of which must be individually analyzed to explore whether Chazal shared the ecstatic mystical experience of the yordei merkavah.
Understanding the Passage in Chagiga: Does it Include Public Expositions or Active Mystical Experiences?
The first mishna in Chagiga (2:1) reads as follows:
אין דורשין בעריות בשלשה ולא במעשה בראשית בשנים ולא במרכבה ביחיד אלא אם כן היה חכם ומבין מדעתו כל המסתכל בארבעה דברים ראוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם מה למעלה מה למטה מה לפנים ומה לאחור וכל שלא חס על כבוד קונו ראוי לו שלא בא לעולם:
The authors of the mishna clearly feared not only public expositions regarding the first chapter of Ezekiel, but even wanted to limit private contemplation to a select few. R. Yochanan b. Zakkai, in four other Talmudic texts, beginning with the Tosefta, affirms this rule, and refuses to teach anything relating to ma’aseh merkavah. His students, however, achieved this knowledge on their own, and begin to expound on the merkavah, brining their teacher great joy. The Tosefta (2:1-2) relates:
אין דורשין בעריות בשלשה אבל דורשין בשנים ולא במעשה בראשית בשנים אבל דורשין ביחיד ולא במרכבה ביחיד אלא אם כן היה חכם מבין מדעתו.
מעשה ברבן יוחנן בן זכיי שהיה רכוב על החמור והיה ר’ לעזר בן ערך מחמיר אחריו אמ’ לו ר’ שנה לי פרק אחד במעשה מרכבה אמ’ לו לא כך אמרתי לך מתחילה שאין שונין במרכבה ביחיד אלא אם כן היה חכם מבין מדעתו אמ’ לו מעתה ארצה לפניך אמ’ לו אמור פתח ר’ לעזר בן ערך ודרש במעשה מרכבה ירד רבן יוחנן בן זכיי מן החמור ונתעטף בטליתו וישבו שניהם על גבי האבן תחת הזית והרצה לפניו עמד ונשקו על ראשו ואמ’ ברוך ה’ אלהי ישראל אשר נתן בן לאברהם אבינו שיודע להבין ולדרוש בכבוד אביו שבשמים יש נאה דורש ואין נאה מקיים נאה מקיים ואין נאה דורש לעזר בן ערך נאה דורש ונאה מקיים אשריך אברהם אבינו שאלעזר בן ערך יצא מחלציך שיודע להבין ולדרוש לכבוד אביו שבשמים
ר’ יוסה בן יהודה או’ ר’ יהושע הרצה לפני רבן יוחנן בן זכיי ר’ עקיבא הרצה לפני ר’ יהושע חנניה בן כינאי הרצה לפני ר’ עקיבא
Significantly, in this version of the story, as well as the versions found in the Yerushalmi, the Bavli, and Mekhlita De-Rashbi, the students never reveal any of the content of their expositions. Yet unlike in the Tosefta, the other versions add miraculous details to the stories. Particularly noteworthy are the inclusions of rainbows appearing in summertime clouds as well as fire burning and angels rejoicing around the sages. The Yerushalmi (מסכת חגיגה פרק ב דף עז ), for example, includes the following additions:
… הלכו וישבו להן תחת אילן אחד וירדה אש מן השמים והקיפה אותם והיו מלאכי השרת מקפצין לפניהן כבני חופה שמיחין לפני חתן נענה מלאך אחד מתוך האש ואמ’ כדבריך אלעז’ בן ערך כן הוא מעש’ המרכבה מיד פתחו כל האילנות פיהן ואמרו שירה אז ירננו עצי היער…וכשנאמרו הדברים לפני רבי יהושע היה הוא ורבי יוסי הכהן מהלכים בדרך, אמרו: אף אנו נדרוש במעשה מרכבה. פתח רבי יהושע ודרש. ואותו היום תקופת תמוז היה, נתקשרו שמים בעבים ונראה כמין קשת בענן, והיו מלאכי השרת מתקבצין ובאין לשמוע, כבני אדם שמתקבצין ובאין לראות במזמוטי חתן וכלה.
These embellished stories about R. Yochanan ben Zakai’s students clearly contain an experience of the mysterium tremendum. Yet as Yosef Dan sharply delineated, these esoteric Talmudic teachings do not necessarily share the active mysticism found in the Hekhalot literature. To achieve the latter, these expositions would need to include the “dynamic involvement of the mystic in the process and his ascent to the world of the Chariot” (Ancient 29). Do these Talmudic stories contain such active mystical experiences?
Urbach decisively answered in the negative by highlighting that the types of miracles found in the later versions of the story are prevalent in other rabbinic passages unrelated to the merkavah. In particular, the theme of singing angels and descending fire around sages signifies moments of divine revelation similar to Sinai (Urbach 2-11). In the Bavli version of the story (Chagiga 14b), R. Yochanan explicitly claims that his students’ esoteric expositions re-enact Sinai, as he proclaims,
ואף אני ואתם בחלומי מסובין היינו על הר סיני, ונתנה עלינו בת קול מן השמים: עלו לכאן, עלו לכאן!
The embellishments found in the later Rabbinic sources confirm the revelatory and esoteric nature of the ma’aseh merkavah expositions, but contain no active mysticism attempting to descend to the Chariot.
Regarding the pardes story, Urbach again utilizes its different versions to prove minimal active mysticism around ma’aseh merkavah in the Talmudic literature. Once again, the Tosefta (2:3-5) presents the simplest version of the story. Following the stories about R. Yochanan ben Zakkai and his students, we read:
ארבעה נכנסו לפרדס בן עזיי ובן זומא אחר ור’ עקיבא אחד הציץ ומת אחד הציץ ונפגע אחד הציץ וקיצץ בנטיעות ואחד עלה בשלום וירד בשלום בן עזיי הציץ ומת עליו הכת’ או’ יקר בעיני ה’ המותה לחסידיו בן זומא הציץ ונפגע עליו הכת’ או’ דבש מצאת אכול דייך וגו’ אלישע הציץ וקיצץ בנטיעות עליו הכתו’ אומ’ אל תתן את פיך לחטיא את בשריך וגו’
ר’ עקיבה עלה בשלום וירד בשלום עליו הכתו’ או’ משכני אחריך נרוצה וגו’
משל למה הדבר דומה לפרדס של מלך ועלייה בנויה על גביו מה עליו על אדם להציץ ובלבד שלא יזין את עיניו ממנו ועוד משלו משל למה הדבר דומה לאיסתרטא העוברת בין שני דרכים אחד של אור ואחד של שלג הטה לכן נכוה באור הטה לכן נכוה בשלג מה עליו על אדם להלך באמצע ובלבד שלא יהא נוטה לא לכן ולא לכן
As Urbach notes, the Tosefta reveals minimal information about the incident. We learn that entering the pardes clearly endangers people, as the parable in the last paragraph and the fate of R. Akiva’s colleagues clearly attest. Comparing the words הציץ וקיצץ בנטיעות to other examples of the terms in Rabbinic literature, Urbach deduces that Elisha sinned with his mouth, as the verse from Kohelet (5:5) cited by the Tosefta implies, by revealing that which he saw (Urbach 14-15). The esoteric meaning of ma’aseh merkavah must not be revealed; hence, the Talmud never records the content of the expositions of R. Yochanan b. Zakai’s students. Beyond these warnings to minimize and conceal these expositions, however, the Tosefta contains no hints of the ecstaticism or active mysticism. The paltry details of this story, compared with the marvelous details found in the Hekhalot and apocalyptical literature, highlight the absence of active mysticism in the Tosefta’s traditions relating to ma’aseh merkavah.
Yet as with the case of R. Yochanan ben Zakkai’s students, the Bavli’s version embellishes the story with many esoteric details. As noted by Scholem, the Bavli (Chagiga 14b) relates that before entering the pardes, R. Akiva warned his colleagues from proclaiming, “Water! Water!”
אמר להם רבי עקיבא: כשאתם מגיעין אצל אבני שיש טהור אל תאמרו מים מים! משום שנאמר +תהלים ק”א+ דובר שקרים לא יכון לנגד עיני.
Scholem cited the parallel language used in the Hekhalot to prove that the Bavli condensed the former’s version. Urbach dismisses this hypothesis as mere speculation, arguing that water symbolizes here, as it does in Ezekiel, higher knowledge. R. Akiva’s warning not to ecstatically proclaim “Water! Water!” represents a figurate admonition to eschew ecstatic mysticism (Urbach 17). Here and elsewhere, the Bavli discourages active human attempts to see God, and displays no desire for extending esoteric knowledge into the realm of active mysticism. The later Hekhalot literature, Urbach contends, usurped these Tannaitic statements and attached practical mystical significance to them (16). Their authors, as we previously saw, remained committed members to the world of rabbinic halakha (25). To innovate and justify their new mystical theology, they transformed esoteric rabbinic teachings and appropriated major Tanaitic figures to display their ecstatic revelations.
Urbach acknowledges that elements of active mysticism entered into other passages in the Talmudic corpus. He cites a few examples, including the famous story of the martyr R. Yishmael b. Elisha, who lived after the destruction of the Temple, entering the Holy of Holies and reciting a prayer before Akatriel (Brachot 7a). Urbach believes that these stories represent a later accretion into rabbinic thought. While the earlier tana’im vociferously opposed ecstatic mysticism, some late amoraim were drawn to such activity by the contemporaneous schools of the Hekhalot literature (Urbach 22-27). However, this reciprocal relationship, which flourished in an era of increased use of magic and speculative powers, represents a late development in rabbinic thought. Urbach thus concluded that the Hekhalot literature comprises a response, and not a source, to Tanaitic esoteric teachings.
David Halperin: Evolution of Ma’aseh Merkavah Mysticism
Following in Urbach’s footsteps, David Halperin performed the most thorough analysis of the relationship between the Talmudic sources and the Hekhalot literature. First in his dissertation, The Merkabah in Rabbinic Literature (1980), and especially in his The Faces of the Chariot (1988), Halperin employed a dizzying array of sources to document the evolution of ma’aseh merkavah mysticism amongst the Sages. These detailed and nuanced studies do not lend themselves to an easy synopsis, and therefore we will only present a basic summary.
Halperin’s research focuses on the use of the merkavah in liturgy and homiletics. In an unrelated discussion about rituals regarding the recitation of the Shema, the Tosefta (Megilla 3:28) remarks, “.הרבה דרשו במרכבה ולא ראו אותה מעולם” The statement clearly distinguishes between delivering homilies and sensually experiencing the merkavah, testifying to a prevalent tradition of expounding on the cryptic passage from Ezekiel. Yet elsewhere the Talmudic tradition displays a tendency to de-legitimize the public exposition of ma’aseh merkavah. The Tosefta (Megilla 3:34) specifically mentions the merkavah chapter in a list of Biblical passages permitted to read and translate in public, indicating that some questioned the appropriateness of this chapter in the synagogue. The mishna (Megilla 4:10), moreover, cites a dispute over whether the merkavah can be read as a haftorah, although the amoraim later accept it as a legitimate reading for the holiday of Shavu’ot (Bavli Megilla 31).
Halperin believes that originally the Merkavah served as a springboard for magnificent homilies about God’s revelation, particularly on the festival of Shavuot, which the rabbis attached to the theophany of Sinai. Ma’aseh Merkavah contained an esoteric doctrine about the divinity, as the stories of R. Yochanan b. Zakkai’s students showed, and thus became most appropriate to discuss on this holiday (Halperin 14-23). The orators used the merkavah passage from the Haftorah as a springboard for their homilies (115-156). The miraculous traditions regarding R. Yochanan b. Zakkai’s students, preserved by the amoraim in the two Talmuds, originated with these homilies.
Yet later in Tanaitic times, the rabbis, suspicious of popular use of the chapter to probe esoteric secrets, attempted to limit expositions of this Biblical chapter. While they continued to allow it to be translated, they attempted to ban it from public reading on Shavuot. This is the meaning of the mishna in Chagiga 2:1, which banned readings of suspect passages on popular, festive occasions (24-25). Thus the Tosefta suppressed the miraculous stories of R. Yochanan b. Zakkai’s students to conceal popular use of these passages. Halperin thus agrees with Urbach that the expositions of R. Yochanan b. Zakkai’s students focused on divine esoteric revelations to elite scholars, and not on active mysticism (18-19). Yet unlike Urbach, who believed that the Tosefta version preserves the earliest and authentic tradition, Halperin believes that the miraculous elements found in the Talmuds reflects their origins as synagogue homilies.
Similarly, Halperin contends that active ecstatic mysticism only emerged amongst Babylonian amoraim, but unlike Urbach, believes that they used the ma’aseh merkavah itself for these purposes. The Talmud elsewhere hints to this phenomenon in its rewording of Tosefta Megilla 3:28, quoted above. Whereas the Tosefta simply stated that many expounded on the chariot without seeing it, the Bavli (Megilla 24b) rhetorically notes that many attempt to doresh be-Merkavah but do not succeed.
סומא פורס על שמע וכו’. תניא, אמרו לו לרבי יהודה: הרבה צפו לדרוש במרכבה ולא ראו אותה מימיהם
It would seem that in amoraic times, to doresh the merkavah became a difficult task achieved only by a select few. Most significantly, Halperin points to the additional details, such as the presence of oxen and rainbows and the warning of “Water! Water!” related in the Babylonian version of the pardes story. These cryptic references are not polemics against ecstaticism, as Urbach claimed, but rather reflect amoraic incorporation of the mystical teachings used by the Hekhalot mystics. In addition, the Bavli also omits certain introductory lines that transform the pardes story from an esoteric parable into a mystical ascension (34-37). Scholem erred by grouping the entire Talmudic corpus as one organic tradition (26). In truth, the interpretation of ma’aseh merkavah underwent a major transformation from an esoteric synagogue homily in early Tanaitic times to a mystical experience in the later Amoraic era. Thus Halperin dedicates many chapters of his book interpreting the Bavli in light of its mystical nature.
Additional Evidence?: The Continuing Debate
Since no conclusive evidence exists to confirm whether the Hekhalot literature preceded or followed the Talmudic literature, a firm resolution to this debate has not yet emerged. Ithamar Gruenwald, both in his 1980 study Apocalyptic and Merkavah Literature, as well as in his later From Apocalypticsm to Gnosticism, defended Scholem’s view. Additional possible evidence to an earlier date stems from the strong similarities between the Hekhalot literature and the scrolls written by the Dead Sea sects in the first centuries before the Common Era. Already in the early 1960s, when fragments of the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifices had begun to be published, Scholem himself noted strong resemblances between the corpuses and suggested that the Hekhalot literature represent a development of the earlier writings (Jewish Gnosticism 128). Most recently, Rachel Elior has greatly expanded this thesis, documenting the strong affinities between the two literatures in their linguistics, patterns of reference, and general spiritual outlook (Elior 233). Elior postulates that following the destruction of the Temple, the power struggle between the priestly sects and the Sages lost its relevance, allowing the spiritual ideas of Dead Sea writings to re-emerge into rabbinic Jewish life. The yordei merkavah elevated the rabbinic heroes R. Akiva and R. Yishmael as their main protagonists, but their spiritual outlook reflected an updated version of the myth of the angelic priests (260-264). As such, the Hekhalot literature should be seen as an attempt to recreate the Temple service, at least in Heaven, soon after the Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E.
However, a contrary trend in the research points to a later date for this literature. Peter Schafer – in numerous essays and his book The Hidden and Manifest God – agrees with Urbach and Halperin that the Hekhalot literature was produced after the Tanaitic period. Schafer contends that large strands of this corpus were composed in Babylonia, and not in Israel. Moreover, he also believes, although more tentatively, that much of the material post-dates the entire Talmudic corpus, placing it in the late 5th- 6th centuries (159-160). Nonetheless, Halperin and Schafer strongly disagree over the social status of the authors of the Hekhalot literature. Halperin believes that the Sar Torah adjurations attempting to achieve Torah knowledge, which he places at the center of the Hekhalot literature, reflect an attempt by the uneducated masses (amei ha-aretz) to match rabbinic power with this wisdom (Halperin 429-446). Schafer, in a 1986 published lecture, dismisses this claim as baseless speculation. If anything can be said about their social status, he contends, we must conclude that the Hekhalot authors represent a post-Rabbinic elite seeking to use the heavenly journey and magical adjurations “to proceed to God directly or to force God down to earth” (as quoted in Davila 18). In his 1992 book, however, Schafer hesitates to draw any direct conclusions regarding their social status, reflecting the speculative nature of such hypotheses.
Yosef Dan: Hectic Period of Mystical Activity
Yosef Dan has provocatively offered a third possibility regarding the relationship of the Talmudic corpus with the Hekhalot literature. Instead of trying to determine which preceded the other, we should
“view all the material as a group of traditions that reflect a long, hectic period of mystical activity in the Judaism of the period between the first century BCE and the third century CE, during which many mystical sects developed different concepts and symbols. Both our sources are actually random collections of some of these images and symbols, whereas most of the details and systematic presentations of the teaching of these many sects were lost” (Jewish Mysticism 304).
The multiplicity of mystical activity, much of which is lost, would explain why we do not understand many of the symbols in the stories and the relationship between the two corpuses. Thus, he concludes, “We should not… try to harmonize and group together the various traditions, because originally they were not connected; they were produced, independently, by different groups of ancient mystics” (304). Yet Dan ultimately rejects this thesis as speculative and without concrete basis. Dan notes, like many scholars, that the sources we possess seem to display different historical “layers,” which might indicate that these works were composed over a long period of time. Yet no evidence exists indicating the actual existence of these alleged various groups of earlier mystics. This thesis would be no more that a convenient “creation” of historians to solve this complex riddle (305). Dan concludes that the most reasonable assessment accepts, with Urbach and Halperin, that the Hekhalot literature elaborate, interpret, and creatively follow the earlier Talmudic traditions.
II. Historical and Cultural Background
Scholem: Jewish Gnosticism?
Beyond exploring the relationship between the Hekhalot literature and the Rabbinic sages, much research focuses on the historical-cultural background of its ideas. In different writings, Scholem postulated that the Hekhalot mystics not only influenced the Rabbinic sages, but also comprised a version of “Jewish Gnosticism” parallel to the Gnostic movement that flourished in the first centuries C.E. Scholem highlighted their shared emphasis on the dangers of the heavenly ascent, and more importantly, the similar cosmological structures in Gnosticism’s “pleroma” and the “throne world” of the Hekhalot literature (Major Trends 44). Nathaniel Deutsch has noted that Scholem even suggested that the Merkavah mystics imposed the cosmic notion of the Gnostics into Ezekiel’s ma’aseh merkavah to hide the foreign origins of the idea (Deutsch 69). Scholem, of course, understood that non-Jewish Gnosticism differed greatly from its Jewish counterpart with regard to the former’s dualism and antinomianism. Nonetheless, Scholem called his monograph on the Hekhalot literature Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition since he believed that these phenomenon were intrinsically related, and dedicated the last chapters to documenting the similarities between the “Jewish” (orthodox) sources and their non-Jewish (antinomean) counterparts. Indeed, Scholem also compared the pardes story to New Testament passages of Paul’s ascent to heaven, arguing that the New Testament as well shared a place in this complex matrix.
In subsequent years of scholarship, numerous scholars challenged this characterization of the Hekhalot literature. Many problems have plagued this debate, as Nathaniel Deutch has shown, including the fact that Scholem presented his views differently in tone and substance in various works (Deutsch 1-17). More significantly, one must first properly define the term “gnosticism,” both as a noun and an adjective. In other words, one must seek to delineate the connection between historical Gnosticism in the first and second centuries C.E. with Christianity and Judaism, as well as explore the links in theology between within the Gnostic-type religious phenomenon. With regard to the former, our knowledge of the origins and development of Gnosticism remain too sparse and murky to draw any definitive conclusions, despite the finds of the Nag-Hammadi library. Yosef Dan, in his survey of the scholarship, concluded, “One cannot therefore doubt the existence of some type of a link between ancient Gnosticism and a certain part of the Jewish world (possibly the part that was assimilated into Hellenism), but we are unable to give a decisive historical definition about the roots of Gnosticism and its relationship to Judaism at the beginning of its development” (Ancient 56, emphasis added). Dan’s cautious description is praiseworthy for its humility, yet highlights the tentative state of the scholarship.
Regarding the relationship of Jewish mysticism to phenomenological Gnosticism, a difficulty lies in defining the core characteristics of this movement. Dan, in his attempt to describe the common theological elements of historical Gnosticism, lists four basis characteristics, but then notes, “It is difficult to find even a single historical view which clearly includes all these principles” (57-59). He cautiously emphasizes a basic link that Gnosticism, Judaism, and Christianity all represent the products of a “religious and spiritual explosion of great power” which took place in roughly the same area in the first two centuries of the Common Era.
Another problem with this question lies in the question of the centrality of the heavenly ascent in the Hekhalot literature, which Scholem used to attest to its relationship to gnosticism. David Halperin charged that Scholem’s view was biased by his focus on Hekahlot Rabbati, which indeed highlights the yeridah le-merkavah as a central religious goal. Yet in the rest of this literature, primacy is given to magical-theurgic adjurations to obtain command of the Torah (Halperin 384-385). Schafer moderates Halperin’s argument, contending that both are important phenomenon but neither can be cited as the “one explanation for the entire Hekhalot literature” that is multifaceted and not uniform (Schafer 152, emphasis in original). By minimizing the role of the ascent to Heaven, Halperin and Schafer critically damage Scholem’s definition of Merkavah mysticism as Jewish Gnosticism.
Scholem’s thesis, of course, might be defended if one defines the religious Gnostic phenomenon more generically. In a later writing, Origins of the Kabbalah, Scholem blurred the religious typology of Gnosticism by describing it as merely esoteric (cited in Deutsch 24). This definition, of course, allows one to easily define historical Gnosticism and Merkavah mysticism with the same semantics, but as Deutsch points out, frustrates the entire academic project of identifying phenomenological links. Indeed, Deustch concludes his study by arguing that research should focus less on origins and definitions, and instead treat the sources on their own terms (151). He cites, for example, the problem of comparing the link between exegesis and experience in the different literatures, arguing that one cannot assume the same relationship in different literary genres. Nonetheless, comparative research must be made on “the roles of myth and spirituality in both phenomenon” (152). Unfortunately, he does not delineate how to define either of these terms to make a meaningful comparison, and one wonders why those studies as well should not treat their sources on their own terms.
Social Functions of These Practices
A final aspect of Hekhalot research focuses on the social function of these practices and their practitioners. As we noted above, Halperin and Schafer strongly disagree with regard to the social status of the Hekhalot authors, with Halperin asserting that they represent the uneducated masses and Schafer countering that they are post-rabbinic elite scholars. In his introduction to III Enoch (also known as Sefer Hekhalot), P. Alexander precedes Schafer by noting that these texts point to the Merkavah mystics working in “small, closely guarded conventicles” (239). Comparing their rituals to shamansitic trances, Alexander contends that the Merkavah trances sought to boost the authority of the rabbis and attribute to them the power needed in their pivotal societal role of mediating between God and man (238-239). The social utility of these practices, Alexander believes, helps explain how Merkavah mysticism thrived for so long.
Like Alexander, James Davila seeks to describe the social function of the mystics using the anthropological model of shamanism. From this perspective, he highlights the roles that hereditary and asceticism play in the mystic’s selection, the nature of their spiritual experience, and the roles they serve in their human community (Davila 306-308). Davila’s analysis, of course, includes the Hekhalot texts, which he believes contains strands from both 3rd-4th century Palestine as well as 5-7th century Babylonia. Yet beyond examining texts, Davila importantly cites Babylonian incantation bowls from the 5th-7th centuries that reflect a clear affinity to Hekhalot mysticism (216-238). From these comparisons, Davila concludes, “The religious functionaries portrayed in the Hekhalot texts… were real people, practitioners of the rituals described in the Hekhalot literature and the writers of that literature” (254-255). He also conjectures that the writers were members of an influential guild of skilled scribes who were well educated in Bible, their own mythological traditions, and to a lesser extent, Talmudic texts (248). Their goals were practical, aiming to assist the masses in mediating between the divine and human realms. They assisted, on the one hand, with achieving supernatural knowledge of the Torah and acted as guides on other-worldly journeys, and on the other hand, helped protect and heal the people (255).
Like Davila, Rachel Lesses focuses on the functional nature of these rituals, which she too views as a product of Palestinian origin that blossomed in Babylonia. Yet unlike Davila, who highlighted the social hierarchy inherent in the literature, Lesses focuses on the “magical” nature of the merkavah rituals. Following other philosophers of religion, who eschew the term “magic” because it is viewed as being divorced from genuine religion, Lesses terms the mystics’ services as “ritual practices to gain power “ (Lesses 55-60). In the case of the yordei merkavah, they sought the power to bring holiness down to earth (374). Following Rachel Elior, Lesses notes that this goal was particularly significant following the destruction of the Temple, which served as the impetus for them in trying to “keep open the channels between earth and heaven” (373). Comparing the merkavah rituals to Greco-Egyptian adjurations, Lesses highlights the practical quality of the rituals in fulfilling human needs by forcing the angels to obey their wishes (374-378). Scholars thus must understand the hekhalot texts not merely as literature, but rather as ritual performances that combine adjurations, asceticism, and action to achieve specific goals.
Daphna Arbel, however, believes that we can only understand mystical phenomena through literary analysis. The hekhalot and merkavah passages are not records of “pure, unmediated mystical experiences or revelations,” but rather comprise “a rich tapestry of theoretical literary descriptions… of first, second, or third hand pseudepigraphical testimonies of visionary experiences and revelations, which demonstrate certain mystical characteristics” (Arbel 14). As such, their study should not use anthropological methods of studying ritual, but rather must draw primarily from literary, philological, and exegetical analysis. Arbel’s literary analysis highlights the personal, unmediated experience of God achieved by the yordei merkavah, whose journey is described as either a mental-contemplative process, or a spiritual ecstatic-voyage (141). Using her literary, phenomenological analysis, Arbel seeks to understand the cultural-social background of these mystics. Highlighting their erudite knowledge, their emphasis on initiating personal encounters with the heavenly realm, and the value they attribute to recording and transmitting distinct knowledge, she postulates that these authors were “scribes, sages, and wise men associated with classes of priests and with temple traditions” (148). This conclusion, as Arbel notes, dovetails nicely with Elior’s studies that highlighted the similarities between the Hekhalot mystics and the B.C.E. authors of the Judean Desert scrolls.
The debate between Arbel and Lesses regarding the primacy of studying the Hekhalot texts through literary or anthropological lenses reflects the ambiguous state of research in this field. On the one hand, it represents an advanced discussion debating the use of different cross-cultural sources and inter-disciplinary techniques to study this rich literature. Yet at the same time, basic information such as the dating and authorship of this corpus remains elusive. Despite all of the advances made in research since Scholem’s time, much work remains to be done.
Alexander, P., “3 (Hebrew Apocalypse of) Enoch,” The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Volume 1, ed. James H. Charlesworth, New York: Doubleday, 1983.
Arbel, Vita Daphna, Beholders of Divine Secrets, Albany: SUNY, 2004
Dan, Joseph, The Ancient Jewish Mysticism, Tel Aviv: Ministry of Defense Books, 1993.
Dan, Joseph, Jewish Mysticism, Volume 1: Late Antiquity, Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1998.
Davila, James, Descenders to the Chariot: The People Behind the Hekhalot Literature, Leiden: Brill, 2001.
Deutsch, Nathaniel, The Gnostic Imagination: Gnosticism, Mandaeism, and Merkabah Mysticism, Leiden: Brill, 1995.
Elior, Rachel, The Three Temples: On the Emergence of Jewish Mysticism, Oxford: Littman Library, 2004.
Gruenwald, Ithamar, Apocalyptic and Merkavah Mysticism, Leiden: Brill, 1980.
Halperin, David J., The Faces of the Chariot: Early Jewish Responses to Ezekiel’s Vision, Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1988.
Lesses, Rachel, Ritual Practices to Gain Power, Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 1998.
Schafer, Peter, The Hidden and Manifest God: Some Major Themes in Early Jewish Mysticism, Albany: SUNY, 1992.
Scholem, Gershom, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (2nd Edition), New York: JTS, 1965.
Scholem, Gershom, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, New York: Schocken, 1946.
Urbach, Ephraim, “The Tradition about Torat Ha-Sod in the Tannaitic Period” (Hebrew), Studies in Mysticism and Religion Presented to Gershom G. Scholem on His Seventieth Birthday by Pupils, Colleagues, and Friends, ed. Ephraim Urbach et al, Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1967.
 Urbach agrees that entering the pardes refers to seeing the merkavah, although he disputes the idea that the word “pardes” in rabbinic literature refers to the Heavenly Temple, Gan Eden, or some apocalyptic vision. Print This Post