MERKABAH (lit. "chariot"):
The Heavenly Throne; hence "Ma'aseh Merkabah," the lore concerning the heavenly Throne-Chariot, with especial reference to Ezek. i. and x. The conception of
"R. Eleazar ben 'Arak was riding on a mule behind R. Johanan b. Zakkai, when he asked for the privilege of being initiated into the secrets of the Merkabah. The great master demanded proof of his initiation into the gnosis, and when Eleazar began to tell what he had learned thereof, R. Johanan immediately descended from the mule and sat upon the rock. 'Why, O master, dost thou descend from the mule?' asked the disciple. 'Can I remain mounted upon the mule when the telling of the secrets of the Merkabah causes the Shekinah to dwell with us and the angels to accompany us?' was the answer. Eleazar continued, and, behold, fire descended from heaven and lit up the trees of the field, causing them to sing anthems, and an angel cried out, 'Truly these are the secrets of the Merkabah.' Whereupon R. Johanan kissed Eleazar upon the forehead, saying, 'Blessed be thou, O father Abraham, that hast a descendant like Eleazar b. 'Arak!' Subsequently two other disciples of R. Johanan b. Zakkai walking together said to each other: 'Let us also talk together about the Ma'aseh Merkabah'; and no sooner did R. Joshua begin speaking than a rainbow-like appearance [Ezek. i. 28] was seen upon the thick clouds which covered the sky, and angels came to listen as men do to hear wedding-music. On hearing the things related by R. Jose, R. Johanan b. Zakkai blessed his disciples and said: 'Blessed the eyes that beheld these things! Indeed I saw myself in a dream together with you, seated like the select ones [comp. Ex. xxiv. 11] upon Mount Sinai; and I heard a heavenly voice saying: "Enter the banquet-hall and take your seats with your disciples and disciples' disciples, among the elect, the highest ('third') class"'"
Obviously this is a description of an ecstatic state in which the pictures that the mind forms are beheld as realities (comp. Tosef., Meg. iv. 28 and Meg. 24—"Blind ones saw them"). The study of the Merkabah was theosophy; to the initiated the Ḥayyot and the Ofannim around the Heavenly Throne became beings that lived and moved before their eyes (see Joël, l.c. p. 152). It was in fact considered perilous to penetrate into these mysteries. "A youth who studied the 'Ḥashmal' [Ezek. i. 27, Hebr.] was consumed by the fire which sprang forth from it" (Ḥag. 13a; comp. Shab. 80a). Only the older men dared to be initiated into those mysteries. "I am not old enough," said R. Eleazar when R. Johanan b. Nappaḥa wished to instruct him in them. They were to be imparted in suggestions ("initial sentences," "rashe peraḳim") rather than in complete chapters (Ḥag. 13a). "The bird that flew over the head of Jonathan b. Uzziel as he studied them was consumed by the fire surrounding him" (Suk. 28a; comp. Meg. 3a). "Ben 'Azzai was seated meditating on the Torah, when, behold, a flame encircled him; the people told R. Aḳiba, and he went to Ben 'Azzai, saying, 'Art thou studying the mysteries of the Merkabah?'" (Cant. R. i. 10; Lev. R. xvi.). "In the future Ezekiel will come again and unlock for Israel the chambers of the Merkabah" (Cant. R. i. 4).
Glimpses of the mysteries of the Merkabah may be discerned in such rabbinical sayings as the following: "The angel Sandalfon towers above the rest of the angels the length of a five hundred years' journey; his feet touch the earth while his head reaches the holy Ḥayyot. He stands behind the Throne-Chariot binding wreaths for his Master" (Ḥag. 13b). To R. Ishmael b. Elisha is ascribed the saying that when offering the incense in the Temple as high priest he beheld the angel Akatriel ("the wreath-binding one"; Sandalfon?) seated on the Throne and asked him for a blessing (Ber. 7a; comp. Bacher, "Ag. Tan." i. 267). One of these great archangels is said to equal in size a third part of the world (Ex. R. iii.). Concerning the lion, the ox, the eagle, and the man as the four faces of the Ḥayyot, see Ḥag. 13b; on account of these four, which carry God's Throne-Chariot, the latter is called also "Tetramoulon"="Quadriga" (Ex. R. iii. 3; comp. Jellinek, "B. H." iii. 92-95).In the Enoch Literature.
The Merkabah mysteries, which remained the exclusive property of the initiated ones, the "Ẓenu'im" or "Ḥashsha'im" (see Essenes), have been preserved chiefly in the Enoch literature of the pre-Christian centuries, and in the "Hekalot" of the geonic time, known also as the "Merkabah" and "Enoch Books" (see Jellinek, "B. H." ii. 40-47, 114-117, and Introduction xiv.-xvii., xxx., xxxii.; iii. 83-108, 161-163, and Introduction xx.-xxv.; v. 170-190 and Introduction xli.-xliii.; Wertheimer, "Batte Midrashot," ii. 15-28; see Hekalot). Part of it has been embodied in the "payyeṭan-ḳedushshah" literature and has found its way also into other ancient apocrypha, such as the Testament of Abraham, the Ascensio Isaiæ, etc. Besides the descriptions of the seven heavens with their hosts of angels, and the various storehouses of the world, and of the divine throne above the highest heaven, the most remarkable feature is that the mysteries rest on the belief in the reality of the things seen in an ecstatic state brought about by ablutions, fasts, fervent invocations, incantations, and by other means. This is called "the Vision of the Merkabah" ("Ẓefiyat ha-Merkabah"), and those under this strange hallucination, who imagine themselves entering the Heavenly Chariot and floating through the air, are called "Yorede Merkabah" (= "those that go down into the ship-like chariot"; Jellinek, "B. H." iii. 90, 94 et seq.). In this chariot they are supposed to ascend to the heavens, where in the dazzling light surrounding them they behold the innermost secrets of all persons and things, otherwise impenetrable and invisible.
Particularly significant is the warrior-nature of the angels surrounding the Throne-Chariot; flames dart forth from their eyes; they ride upon fiery horses (comp. Zech. vi. 1-8) and are armed with weapons of fire (Jellinek, l.c.). In order to be allowed to pass these terrible beings the Merkabahrider must provide himself with amulets or seals containing mysterious names ("Hekalot," l.c.xvii.-xxii., xxx.), and in order to be able to step before the Throne he must recite certain prayers until God Himself addresses him, if he be worthy. The "Hekalot" mention especially either R. Aḳiba or R. Ishmael, and their associates of the Bar Kokba time, as types of the "Yorede Merkabah."
The central figure and chief actor in the theophany, however, is the "Prince of the Face," Meṭaṭron, the one next to the Throne, whose name, or whose seventy names, are like God's, and who is none else than Enoch translated to heaven and transformed into the highest angel. He is the one who imparted to man all the knowledge of heaven and of the past and the future (see especially Jellinek, l.c. v. 170-176), exactly as Enoch did in the Ethiopic and Slavonic Books of Enoch.Origin of the Conception.
Concerning the origin of the Merkabah-ride, Jellinek ("B. H." iii. p. xxii.) expressed the opinion that Persian Sufism gave rise to its peculiar notions, and Bloch ("Monatsschrift," 1893, pp. 18-25, 69-74, 257-266, 305-311) endeavored to trace them all back to Arabic mysticism. But recent researches concerning the Mithra worship and the Mithra liturgy have cast altogether new light on the whole Merkabah lore. Mithra, the heavenly charioteer, with his Quadriga, a chariot drawn by four horses, who was worshiped in ancient Persia as the god of light and regarded in early Roman times as the prime mover of the world, formed of the four elements (Dio Chrysostomus, "Oratio," xxxvi.; see Cumont, "Die Mysterien des Mithra," 1903, pp. 87-88; Windischmann, "Zoroastrische Studien," 1863, pp. 309-312), was invoked under mysterious rites as the mediator between the inaccessible and unknowable Deity, in the ethereal regions of light, and man on earth (Cumont, l.c. pp. 95, 122). These rites bear such a striking resemblance to those by means of which the Merkabah-riders approached the Deity that there can scarcely be any doubt as to the Mithraic origin of the latter (see Dieterich, "Eine Mithrasliturgie," 1903, pp. 7-15). The only difference between them is that while the Mithra-worshipers, at least those of Roman times, had the coming forth of Mithra as the highest god their aim, the Merkabah-riders have the seeing of the Lord on high as their goal, Meṭa-ṭron-Mithra, the archangel, being the divine charioteer who ushers them into the presence of God. Otherwise there is the same hallucination at work which makes the ecstatic imagine that he is lifted up from the earth to heaven to see the sun, stars, and winds come forth from their places; to behold the sun (or sun-god) and the entire celestial household, the seven rulers of the celestial poles, or the archangels; and finally to gaze at the luminous youthful Mithra in all his beauty—the youthful Meṭaṭron of the Jewish mystics (see Cumont, l.c. pp. 117, 151, et al.).
Such spiritualistic experiences through mystic rites had their origin in Egypt rather than in Persia. Jamblichus ("De Mysteriis," iii. 4, 5) describes the optic and acoustic illusions under which the Egyptian mystic labored as if they were realities, and at the same time he states that in the ecstatic state brought about by magic songs and proper environment the soul is encompassed by a chariot of light and ether (αἰθεριωδές χαὶ αῦγοειδὲς ὄχημα), on which it beholds the heavenly things in the light reflected from above (iii. 14; see Von Harless, "Das Buch von der Aegyptischen Mysterien," pp. 53-54, 65-66). Neoplatonic ideas, accordingly, aided in rendering the Mithra worship the center of the mystic belief in which the world of antiquity sought relief during the period when the gods of classical antiquity were losing their authority and divinity; and Jewish wisdom, following the tendency of the age, embodied it, under the name of Enoch Meṭaṭron, as secret lore in its system (see Meṭaṭron).
Philo took the idea of the Merkabah with its charioteer Meṭaṭron and applied it to his Logos ("De Somniis," i. 25; "Quis Rerum Divinarum Heres Sit," §§ 42, 48; "De Profugis," § 19; "De Confusione Linguarum," § 28; "De Monarchia," i. 1; comp. Plato, "Phædrus," ii. 46). Maimonides ("Moreh Nebukim," iii. 1-7), in his antagonism to mysticism, went so far as to dissolve the whole Merkabah theophany of Ezekiel into mere physics, notwithstanding the rabbinical warning against disclosing these mysteries (see Pes. 119a). All the stronger, therefore, grew the zeal of the mystics, as is evidenced in the renewed form of the Cabala, which lent to the Merkabah lore and all the ecstatic visions and mystic operations connected therewith new life and vigor; of this the Book of Raziel and the later Cabala are ample proof. See Ma'aseh Bereshit.