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The Talmud’s Mysticism Is Too Mindblowing Even for Its Students

Tread carefully, the rabbis warn, when seeking to understand creation or envision God

Adam Kirsch
September 23, 2014
(Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine; photo from Internet Archive Book Images)

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Last week, Daf Yomi readers made the acquaintance of two angels: the Angel of Death, who shepherds the generations to the grave, and Duma, who rules over souls in the underworld. But this week, as we started chapter 2 of Tractate Chagiga, we plunged much deeper into the murky realms of the supernatural, as the rabbis pondered the two great secrets of Jewish mysticism: the account of Creation and the account of the Chariot. These subjects, the Talmud warns, are not to be taught promiscuously; they are so profound, and so potentially disturbing, that they can only be studied under strict limits. The “act of Creation,” we read in Chagiga 11b, can be taught only to one student at a time, and the Chariot—the name for the prophet Ezekiel’s baroque vision of the Godhead—cannot be taught at all. It must be studied alone, and then only if the student is “wise and understands on his own.”

To drive home the point that mystical speculation is dangerous, the rabbis warn: “Whoever looks at four matters, it would have been better for him if he had never entered the world: What is above and what is below, what was before and what will be after.” This world is the limit of our knowledge; to ask about what is beyond the world is to transgress on God’s province, to insult his honor. And “anyone who has no concern for the honor of his Maker deserves to have never come to the world.” Yet this stern prohibition is no sooner issued than the Gemara goes on to violate it, speculating on exactly these kinds of supernatural subjects: the dimensions of the universe, the attributes of Creation, the hierarchy of heavenly beings. This tension, between the desire to reveal and the need to conceal, would go on to define Jewish mysticism throughout the ages.

Maimonides, when he came to deal with this passage from Chagiga in the Guide of the Perplexed, did his best to defuse its mystic charge. The account of the Creation, he insisted, was simply the rabbis’ term for knowledge of nature, and the account of the Chariot was what they called knowledge of God. The substance of these mysteries was no different from what Aristotle taught under the names of physics and metaphysics. If the rabbis concealed them, Maimonides believed, it was because philosophical truths have the potential to unsettle a naive faith, since they often seem to conflict with the plain sense of the Torah.

To read Tractate Chagiga, however, is to see just how much Maimonides had to gloss over in order to make this naturalistic and rational argument. Take, for instance, Rabbi Yosei’s cosmology as outlined in Chagiga 12b. “Woe to them, the creations, who see and know not what they see; who stand and know not upon what they stand.” “Upon what does the earth stand?” Yosei asks and goes on to explain, by citing biblical verses, that the earth rests on pillars, which rest on waters, which rest on mountains, which rest on the wind, which rest on a storm, which hangs on the “arm of the Holy One.” It would be a mistake, of course, to take this imagery as a literal, scientific description, as if the universe were like a Rube Goldberg contraption, one thing perched on another. Rather, this seems like an allegory, but one whose key remains hidden.

The tendency to multiply entities and levels of creation can be seen again a little later on, when Reish Lakish explains that there are seven firmaments in ascending order, each with its own name: Vilon, Rakia, Shechakim, Zevul, Ma’on, Makhon, and Aravot. These names, each taken from a different biblical verse, seem to correspond to the spheres of the heavens as imagined in classical astronomy, but they also evoke mystical hierarchies. Vilon, “curtain,” “does not contain anything”; Rakia, “firmament,” is where the sun, moon, and stars are fixed; Shechakim, “heights,” is where “mills stand and grind manna for the righteous”; Zevul, “abode,” is the location of the Heavenly Temple, where the angel Michael offers sacrifices to God; Ma’on, “habitation,” is where choirs of angels sing at night; Makhon, “dwelling place,” is where God keeps “harmful dews,” “drops,” and storms and mists.

Finally, at the top of the ladder, is Aravot, “skies,” where all of God’s blessings are stored: “righteousness, justice, charity, the treasuries of life, the treasuries of peace, the treasuries of blessing, the souls of the righteous, the spirits and souls that are to be created, and the dew that the Holy One, Blessed be He, will use to revive the dead.” This kind of multiplication of levels and entities returns in still more florid profusion in the medieval Zohar, the central book of Kabbalah.

If the account of Creation includes speculations about the structure of the universe, the account of the Chariot, which tries to explicate Ezekiel’s almost psychedelic visions, speculates more boldly still. That is why, according to Rabbi Chiya, it is permitted to teach only the outlines of the subject to a worthy individual—preferably, according to Rabbi Ami, one who is “the captain of 50,” that is, 50 years old. Indeed, the Gemara tells the story that Rabbi Yochanan once offered to teach the Chariot to Rabbi Elazar, but Elazar declined, saying that he wasn’t yet old enough. This was prudent, since there was once “a certain youth” who “expounded the electrum”—that is, he explained the mystic significance of the electrum, hashmal, in Ezekiel’s vision of God. The result was that “fire came out and consumed him”: To reveal such secrets is to risk immediate divine punishment.

It is odd, then, that just a few lines later the Gemara goes on to do just what destroyed the young sage, explaining that the hashmal refers to “speaking animals of fire.” “At times they are silent; at times they speak. When the divine speech emerges from the mouth of the Holy One, Blessed be He, they are silent; and when the divine speech does not emerge from the mouth of the Holy One, Blessed be He, they speak.” These animals of fire are not the only supernatural creatures in God’s retinue. In Chagiga 13b we read about the angel Sandalfon, “who stands on the earth and its head reaches the divine creatures … he stands behind the Chariot and weaves crowns for his Maker.”

The Gemara objects to this detail, but not, as we might expect, on the grounds that God does not have a head. In fact, the Talmud has already shown itself willing to imagine God as possessing a body (an idea that infuriated Maimonides, who insisted that God was incorporeal). Way back in Tractate Berakhot, we read about a sage who saw God in the Temple binding tefillin on his head and arm. No, what bothers the rabbis is not the idea of God wearing a crown, but rather the idea that Sandalfon knows God’s place, which is a secret. To solve the problem, the rabbis come up with another solution: Sandalfon doesn’t actually put the crown on God’s head, but says “a name for the crown,” creating it by magic, whereupon it “goes and sits on God’s head of its own accord.”

Reading these pages, I couldn’t help wondering what the effect of reading Chagiga must have been on generations of Talmud students. Almost all of the Talmud, at least all that I’ve read so far, is extremely rational, lucid, and mundane. It approaches law with the tools of logic and strrives relentlessly for clear, full explanations of problems. No one could read, say, Tractate Eruvin and get carried away by spiritual raptures: You’re too busy trying to visualize right angles and calculate distances. Imagine spending years of your youth learning to think in this way and then coming upon Chagiga: It would be like entering a different world, in which logic flies out the window and all is allegory, vision, and dream. The accounts of the Creation and the Chariot feed a religious appetite that most of the Talmud seems designed to starve. What excitement these pages must have offered, what stimulus to imagination!

Too much stimulus, in fact—which is why the rabbis insisted so much on the need to restrict mysticism to the most sober and mature students. In Chagiga 14b, we read one of the most famous anecdotes in the whole Talmud, the one about the four sages who “entered the orchard”—that is, delved into supernatural mysteries—and what happened to them. Ben Azzai “glimpsed” God and immediately died; Ben Zoma glimpsed God and lost his mind; Elisha ben Avuya “chopped down the shoots,” meaning that he became an apostate. (His name is never mentioned in the Talmud, where he is referred to only as Acher, “the other.”) Only “Rabbi Akiva came out safely,” able to live with the divine knowledge he had gained. Clearly, the odds are stacked against the Jewish mystic. But in a tradition built around the pursuit of knowledge, it’s no wonder that so many generations of Jews refused to remain content with ignorance and made their ways, in fear and trembling, into the orchard.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.