MA'ASEH BERESHIT; MA'ASEH MERKABAH (literally, "work of Creation" and "work of the Chariot"):
Talmudic terms for the esoteric doctrine of the universe, or for parts of it (comp. Cabala). Ma'aseh Bereshit, following Gen. i., comprises the cosmogony of the Talmudic times; Ma'aseh Merkabah, based on the description of the Divine Chariot in Ezek. i., and on other prophetic descriptions of divine manifestations, such as that in Isa. vi., is concerned with the theosophic views of those times. The secret doctrine might not be discussed in public. Ecclesiasticus (iii. 21-22) inveighs against its study: "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." Ḥag. ii. 1 says: "Ma'aseh Bereshit must not be explained before two, nor Ma'aseh Merkabah before one, unless he be wise and understands it by himself"; Ḥag. 13a then goes on to explain that the chapter-headings of Ma'aseh Merkabah may be taught, as was done by R. Ḥiyya. According to Yer. Ḥag. ii. 1, the teacher read the headings of the chapters, after which, subject to the approval of the teacher, the pupil read to the end of the chapter. R. Zera said that even the chapter-headings might be communicated only to a person who was head of a school and was cautious in temperament. According to R. Ammi, the secret doctrine might be entrusted only to one who possessed the five qualities enumerated in Isa. iii. 3. 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).Creation Mystery.
Ḥag. 11b states that it is permissible to inquire concerning the events of the six days of Creation, but not regarding what happened before the Creation. In no case, then, is the entire cosmogony included in the term "Ma'aseh Bereshit," but only its more mystic aspects, nor can all the passages of the Talmud and the Midrash dealing with these problems be considered as parts of the doctrine. Thus, ideas like those regarding the ten agencies by means of which God created the world, or questions as to whether heaven or earth was first created, or concerning the foundations of the world, or as to whether there are two heavens or seven (all these problems being mentioned in connection with the interdiction against teaching the Ma'aseh Bereshit to more than one person), do not belong to the doctrine itself, for such arguments are forbidden by the dictum, "Thou mayest speak of the seven heavens, but of the things thereafter thou mayest not speak." The views which are found scattered throughout the Talmud, and especially in Gen. R. i.-xii., are generally haggadic in character; indeed the question arises whether anything more than mere allusions may be expected therein regarding the Ma'aseh Bereshit in so far as it is esoteric in content. Some information seems to be given, though only by intimation, in the well-known story in Ḥag. 14b-15b of the four scholars that entered paradise (that is, penetrated the mysteries of the secret doctrine), of whom only R. Akiba remained uninjured. R. Akiba's words at the beginning of the story (14b), "When ye reach the shining marble stone do not cry out 'Water, water,'" seem to point to those theories of Creation which assume water to be the original element.
Ben Yoma is represented as interested in the determination of the space between the upper and lower waters. Ḥag. ii. 1 also indicates this in the story of R. Judah b. Pazzi, who opened his discourse on Ma'aseh Bereshit with the words, "In the beginning the world was water in water." Thus the question of the primal elements undoubtedly belongs to this field. Here again one must distinguish haggadic and devotional from mystic and philosophical thought, and must not teach views such as that the world was created out of "tohu" and "bohu" and "ḥoshek," or that air, wind, and storm were the primal elements, as component parts of the doctrine of Creation. In like manner the cosmogonic conceptions of the Apocrypha and of geonic mysticism must not be considered as indications of the secret teachings of the Ma'aseh Bereshit.Chariot of Fire.
Somewhat simpler is the question regarding the nature of the Ma'aseh Merkabah, which is designated as "an important matter" in the Talmud (Suk. 28a) and which, perhaps, occupies on the whole a more prominent position than the Ma'aseh Bereshit. Just as in the case of the latter, the purely haggadic explanations of Ezek. i., as found, for instance, in Ḥag. 13b, must not be taken into consideration. Thischapter of Ezekiel, it is declared, may be studied even by young pupils, because a boy can seldom recognize the doctrines implied therein. The object, therefore, was to find special secrets in these verses. R. Akiba is said (Ḥag. 15b-16a) to have gathered his mystic deductions from Deut. xxxiii. 2 ("and he came with ten thousands of saints"), Cant. v. 10 ("the chiefest among ten thousand"), Isa. xlviii. 2 ("The Lord of hosts is his name"), and I Kings xix. 11, 12 (Elijah's great theophany). The Ma'aseh Merkabah, therefore, dealt with esoteric teachings concerning the visible manifestations of God, and hence with angelology and demonology, though not to the same degree as in Talmudic literature. As the story of R. Akiba indicates, the other theophanies mentioned in the Bible were used in the Ma'aseh Merkabah; Ḥag. 13b shows, e.g., that this was the case with Isa. vi.Practical Applications.
The Ma'aseh Merkabah seems to have had practical applications. The belief was apparently current that certain mystic expositions of the Ezekiel chapter, or the discussion of objects connected with it, would cause God to appear. When R. Eleazar b. 'Arak was discoursing upon the Ma'aseh Merkabah to R. Johanan b. Zakkai, the latter dismounted from his ass, saying, "It is not seemly that I sit on the ass while you are discoursing on the heavenly doctrine, and while the Divinity is among us and ministering angels accompany us." Then a fire came down from heaven and surrounded all the trees of the field, whereupon all of them together began to recite the hymn of praise. R. Jose ha-Kohen and R. Joshua (according to Yer. Ḥag. ii. 1, R. Simon b. Nathanael) had similar experiences. The belief in the appearance of God is indicated also in the popular idea that all who inquire into the mysteries of the Ma'aseh Merkabah without being duly authorized will die a sudden death. Such a divine interposition is expressly mentioned in connection with the "story of the Creation" in Sanh. 95b. Rab Hananiah and Rab Hoshaiah studied the "Sefer Yeẓirah" and the "Hilkot Yeẓirah" respectively every Sabbath evening and succeeded in creating a calf as large as a three-year-old ox.
This esoteric tendency, originating in pagan conceptions in connection with certain Bible stories, must have led often to pessimistic and nihilistic views, as is shown by the accounts of Aḥer or Elisha b. Abuyah (Ḥag. 15a, b), and the Mishnaic passage, "He who speaks of the things which are before, behind, above, and below, it were better he had never been born."
According to a tradition handed down by Jose b. Judah, a tanna of the second half of the second century (Tosef., Ḥag. ii. 2; Ḥag. 14b; Yer. Ḥag. ii. 1), Johanan b. Zakkai was the founder of the secret doctrine. In the same passage, in both Talmuds, it is said, however, that he refused to discuss it, even in the presence of a single person, although, as already stated, R. Eleazar b. 'Arak discoursed on it with him and was extravagantly praised by him; two other pupils of his, R. Joshua and R. Jose ha-Kohen, also discussed it with him. According to tradition, the second one to give instruction in these matters was R. Joshua, vice-president of the Sanhedrin under R. Gamaliel. He was succeeded by R. Akiba, and the last to teach them was R. Neḥunya b. ha-Ḳanah. R. Jose the Galilean and Pappus discussed the subject with R. Akiba (Ḥag. 14a; Gen. R. xxi.). The tradition, quoted above, of the four who studied the secret doctrine mentions, besides Akiba, Simeon b. 'Azzai, Simeon b. Zoma, and Elisha b. Abuyah. The fate of the last-named, who was driven from Judaism by his experience, is said to have given rise to restrictive measures. The study of profane books was forbidden (Sanh. 100), and an interdiction of the public discussion of these subjects was issued, only R. Ishmael objecting. In the time of R. Judah, R. Judah b. Pazzi and Bar Ḳappara delivered public discourses on these mysteries (Yer. Ḥag. ii. 1; Gen. R. i.). R. Levi regarding this as inadmissible, R. Ḥiyya declared that the chapter-headings might be taught. R. Judah ha-Nasi was at this time the authority to whom, as formerly to R. Johanan, such matters were referred. In later times the interdiction against public discussions of the story of the Creation was accepted without protest, but by way of warning this saying (Ḥag. 16a) of Resh Laḳish was added: "His eyes shall be dull who looketh on three things—the rainbow [because it resembles Ezekiel's vision], the king [because he resembles God in majesty], and the priest [because he utters the name of God]."Source of Doctrines.
This Talmudic doctrine may well be connected with the old Jewish esoteric teachings of the time of the Second Temple, as partly preserved in the Apocrypha and the pseudepigrapha; but the theosophic and cosmogonic portions of this literature can not with certainty be regarded as the source of the Talmudic doctrine, nor can the literature of the so-called geonic mysticism, crystallized in the Ma'aseh Bereshit and the Ma'aseh Merkabah and designated in its literary form by these names, be regarded as the immediate continuation of Talmudic mysticism. Although much of the material found in the former may belong to the Talmud, yet the entire doctrine of the heavenly halls, angelology, and the doctrine of the Creation as it is found, for instance, in the "Sefer Yeẓirah," must not be regarded as Talmudic in origin. The very fact that there are so many Talmudic and midrashic parallels to the conceptions of the geonic period leads to the conclusion that they contain only a limited amount of original material from the ancient esoteric teachings. It may be mentioned, finally, that Maimonides interprets Ma'aseh Bereshit as referring to physics and Ma'aseh Merkabah as referring to metaphysics. See also Merkabah.
- Hamburger, R. B. T. ii., s.v. Geheimlehre;
- Zunz, G. V. 2d ed., v. 171-173.