Jerusalem Talmud Hagigah 2:1 (77a): Merkavah Speculation


Talmudic tradition alludes to Rabbis who experienced mystical visions of the Ma‘aseh ha-Merkavah, the divine throne. From the descriptions in these texts, it appears that these visions are to be understood in light of the Hekhalot mystical texts collected in the early Middle Ages but including a core of traditions which may date back to the amoraic period. Precursors of such notions have even been found in Second Temple texts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some Rabbis, we can conclude, understood the biblical descriptions of God and His retinue as the basis for a continuing tradition of mystical revelation.

There is a story concerning Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai that he was going on the way, riding the ass; and Rabbi Eleazar ben Arakh was walking after him.

He said to him, “Rabbi, teach me one segment of Ma‘aseh ha-Merkavah.” 211

He said to him, “Did not the sages teach, ‘Nor the Merkavah, unless he is a scholar, understanding on his own?’”

He said to him, “Rabbi, give me permission to speak a word before you.”

He said to him, “Speak.”

When Rabbi Eleazar ben Arakh opened his discourse concerning Ma‘aseh ha-Merkavah, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai descended from the ass. He said, “It is not fitting that I should hear the Glory of my Creator while I am mounted on the ass. They went and sat beneath a tree. And fire descended from heaven and surrounded them. And the ministering angels were leaping before them, like a wedding party rejoicing before a bridegroom.

One angel answered from the midst of the fire and said, “In accordance with your words, Eleazar ben Arakh, so is Ma‘aseh ha-Merkavah!” 212

Thereupon all the trees opened their mouths and uttered song- “Then all the trees of the forest shall shout with joy” (Ps. 96-12).

When Rabbi Eleazar ben Arakh finished [his discourse] concerning Ma‘aseh ha-Merkavah, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai arose, and kissed him on his head, and said- “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who gave to Abraham our father a wise son, who knows to expound the Glory of our Father in Heaven. You have those who expound properly but do not practice properly, those who practice properly but do not expound properly; Eleazar ben Arakh expounds properly and practices properly. Happy are you, Abraham our father, that Eleazar ben Arakh emerged from your loins!”

And, when Rabbi Joseph Ha-Kohen and Rabbi Simeon ben Nathanel heard, they also opened discourse concerning Ma‘aseh ha-Merkavah.

They said, “It was a summer day; and the earth shook, and the rainbow was seen in the cloud. And a heavenly voice went forth and said to them- The place is cleared for you, and the couch is spread for you! You and your disciples are designated for the third set. 213

210. Trans. D. J. Halperin, The Merkabah in Rabbinic Literature (American Oriental Series, 62; New Haven- American Oriental Society, 1980), pp. 108-9.

211. The account of the divine Chariot in Ezekiel 1.

212. You have correctly expounded this difficult topic.

213. You are among those who merit a vision of the divine Presence.

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