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ASCENSION:

The translation to heaven of a few chosen ones, either to remain there in lieu of dying, or merely to receive revelations and then to return to earth. The ascensions of Enoch (Gen. v. 24) and Elijah (II Kings ii 11) were of the former nature. Among the Babylonians and the classic peoples of antiquity the belief was wide-spread that extraordinarily pious men who had led blameless lives were permitted by God to leave the world without suffering death. The Babylonian legends tell of Xisuthros that he was caught up into heaven because he found favor in the sight of God (Berosus, ed. Richter, 1825, p. 57; Eusebius, [Armenian] ed. Mai, p. 14), and of Etana-Gilgamesh riding on an eagle to heaven, "whence the earth appears as a hill and the sea as a basin" (see Harper, in Delitzsch and Haupt's "Beiträge zur Assyriologie," ii. 391-408; and Jastrow, "Religion of Babylon and Assyria," pp. 520-522); the latter reappears in the Alexander legend (see Yer. 'Ab. Zarah iii. 42c; Meissner, "Alexander und Gilgamos," p. 17). The Biblical accounts of the ascensions of Enoch and Elijah do not therefore contradict the different theories on death found in Genesis (compare Death), which latter do not exclude exceptions. In addition to the first two mentioned, other personages are spoken of in post-Biblical accounts as not tasting death (II Esd. iv. 26). The apocryphal literature includes Baruch among such men ("Apocalypse [Syriac] of Baruch," xiii. 3), and so does the rabbinical literature (compare Baruch, in Rabbinical Literature), as well as Ezra (II Esd., end) and Moses ("Assumptio Mosis," x. 12), and this notwithstanding that the latter's death is definitely mentioned in the Bible.

In Rabbinical Literature.

The following list of persons who were taken up into heaven is found in rabbinical literature: Enoch (Biblical); Elijah (Biblical); Eliezer, Abraham's steward; Ebed Melek, Zedekiah's Ethiopian slave, who rescued Jeremiah from death (Jer. xxxviii. 7 et seq.); Hiram of Tyre, the builder of Solomon's Temple; Jabez (I Chron. iv. 10 et seq.); Serah, Asher's daughter; Bithiah (I Chron. iv. 18); Pharaoh's daughter, the foster-mother of Moses; and of later times the amora Joshua b. Levi, and a grandson of Judah ha-Nasi, whose name is not given (Yalḳ., Gen. 42; Ezek. 367; Derek Ereẓ Zutta i. end; compare Epstein, "Mi-Ḳadmoniyot," pp. 111, 112, and Kohler, "The Pre-Talmudic Haggada" in "Jew. Quart. Rev." v. 417-419). According to the Rabbis, all these personages are in paradise, which in later times was supposed to be heaven; therefore, the Bible may well say that Elijah ascended into heaven; see also Jonah, in Rabbinical Literature.

In addition to these there are others who ascended into heaven temporarily, returning after a time to the earth. The Biblical prototype of these is Moses, who went up unto God in order to receive the Torah; and the later legends mention several pious men, who, like Moses, received instruction and revelation in heaven, accounts of which are given in the apocryphal works The Apocalypse of Abraham, Testament of Abraham, Apocalypse [Greek] of Baruch. In post-Biblical times, also, persons received revelations in paradise. Paul is not the only one who believed himself to have been taken up into heaven; for a generation later the Jews spoke of the four rabbis who entered paradise. Although various attempts were made to interpret this passage(Ḥag. p. 14b; Tosef., ib. ii. 3) allegorically or figuratively, as early as the gaon Samuel b. Hophni, who was followed, mutatis mutandis, by Grätz in modern times, the expression ("to enter paradise")—exactly corresponding to the phrase ("to enter the garden of Eden") (compare Ab. R. N. xxv., ed. Schechter, p. 40)—means nothing else than that these four men, Elisha b. Abuyah, 'Akiba, Ben 'Azzai, and Ben Zoma, actually entered into the heavenly paradise.

The Later Midrashim.

Later Midrashim mention the Ascension of Ishmael b. Elisha, said to have been one of the martyrs during the Hadrianic persecutions. These men, together with Akiba and his teacher NeḦunyah b. ha-Ḳaneh, were known in the mysticism of the time of the Geonim as the triumvirate of the ("the riders in the heavenly chariot"). Hai Gaon narrates that during this period a certain class of mystics were able, by various manipulations, to enter into a state of autohypnosis, in which they declared they saw heaven open before them and beheld its mysteries. It was believed that he only could undertake this "Merkabah-ride" who was in possession of all religious knowledge, observed all the commandments and precepts, and was almost superhumanly pure in his life ("Hekalot Rabbati," xiii., xiv., xx.). This, however, was regarded usually as a matter of theory; and less perfect men also attempted by fasting and prayer to free their senses from the impressions of the outer world, and succeeded in entering into a state of ecstasy in which they recounted their heavenly visions.

Ḥasidism.

A more modern form of this kind of Ascension is the (Ascension of the Soul) of the Ḥasidim. The founder of Ḥasidism, Israel Baal Shem-Ṭob, speaks of his Ascension—a belief that appears still more pronounced among later representatives of that sect, who, in their state of ecstasy, either believed or pretended to believe that they had been caught up into heaven. Compare Cabala, Enoch, Ḥasidism, Merkabah-Riders, Moses.

Bibliography:
  • Charles, Apocalypse of Baruch, 1896, p. 73note 7;
  • Bloch, in Monatsschrift, xxxvii. 20-25.
K. L. G.
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