Rabbinic Mysticism

By :  Eitan Fishbane Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On Apr 2, 2024 / 5784

After the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis built on Biblical mystical practice. Through both Talmudic and Midrashic creativity, the rabbis of this period expanded and developed new models of mysticism. They also created boundaries for this practice, establishing the ein dorshin (one must not expound on) in Mishnah Hagigah 2:1, limiting the content around work of Creation and the work of the Chariot to those who are wise who understand their own mind. After expanding on these elements, Dr. Fishbane engages the story of the Pardes, the four scholars who enter the orchard and what happens after a revelatory experience.

Show Notes

Further Reading:

Connections to Seeing the Unseeable: Kabbalistic Imagery from the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary

Ilan known as Magnificent Parchment, first created in Italy around the year 1500. This small sketch depicts the four rabbis in the Pardes.


Announcer: Welcome to Exploring Kabbalah—a JTS podcast with Dr. Eitan Fishbane, professor of Jewish Thought. Throughout this seven-part series, we’ll trace the evolution of Jewish mysticism—from Biblical and Rabbinic times, to the explosive creativity of the Medieval period, to the Hasidic movement in Eastern Europe. Join us for a tour through time and space in which Professor Fishbane provides insight into the thinkers, texts, and concepts that became central not only to the Jewish mystical tradition but to the fabric of Judaism itself. In our introductory episode, we’ll introduce key concepts and explore the mysticism of the Bible.

Dr. Eitan Fishbane: 

In our last episode, we explored some of the defining features of Jewish mysticism, in particular, and mysticism more generally. We also delved into some of the core texts from the Hebrew Bible, particularly Ezekiel 1 and Isaiah 6 that may be characterized as “mystical,” and which served as foundation stones for the development of Jewish mysticism.  

In this episode, I will reflect on the ways in which the rabbis built on the Biblical tradition, leading us to the famous story of Pardes. The era of late antiquity saw the development of Talmudic and midrashic creativity.

Though much mystical thinking and contemplative experience was developed and articulated in the centuries of Second Temple Judaism that preceded the tannaitic period, we return to the the highly influential statement found in Mishnahagigah 2:1, known as the “ein dorshin” or, “one must not expound upon” — a passage which specifies, albeit with great brevity, the subjects that must not be taught or transmitted to more than a few people at a time. To quote the Mishnah:

One may not expound [upon the biblical passages concerning] forbidden sexual relations (ʿarayot) before three [or more people]; nor The Account of Creation (maʿaśeh bereishit before two [or more people]; nor [The Account of] the Chariot (merkavah) before [even] one person, unless that person is a wise individual who understands from his own mind (ela im kein hayah akham u-mevin mi-daʿato).

Referring implicitly to several biblical texts that should not be publicly taught  (Leviticus 18, Genesis 1, and Ezekiel 1), the Mishnah here mentions three topics that were considered mysticism (if not by that name) already in tannaitic times, at least partly defined by the very nature of their hidden status in the domains of religious knowledge. It was maʿaśeh bereishit, the Work of Creation, and maʿaśeh merkavah, the Work of the Chariot were most defining of classical rabbinic mysticism. We will return to these categories in future episodes.

Various mythic reflection on the mysteries of creation, on maʿaśeh bereishit, are found in the later development of rabbinic thought:

Including the speculation of hidden light of primordial times, the notion of a pre-existing of metaphysical Torah through which God created the world, and the ideas formulated in Sefer Yetzirah that the building blocks of the universe are the letters of the holy Hebrew language and the ten sefirot… In contrast to the rhetoric of Genesis 1, which features God creating through speech (God said…and it was…), Sefer Yetzirah depicts the primordial act of creation, of the mystery of origins as acts of divine engraving into the spiritual ether of primordiality—there God “writes” the world into being.

This book is usually dated to the to rabbinic period.

In the famous talmudic passage from Masekhet (Tractate) Ḥagigah, it is said that the first light of Creation—one that preceded the creation of the sun and the moon (the me’orot, in biblical parlance)—was so bright and powerful that one could theoretically gaze through it from one end of the world to the other (mi sof ha-olam ve-ad sofo). But God became worried that the wicked would abuse this precious spiritual and metaphysical light, and He therefore decided to hide it away for the righteous in the time to come (la-Tzadikim ba-atid lavo).

According to this rabbinic text, God hid this powerful primordial light away within the Torah that already existed in its spiritual form at this dawn of Creation. Only in the time to come would that light be revealed to the righteous ones.

Now let’s return to the other major pillar of rabbinic era mysticism, The Account of the Chariot (Maʿaśeh Merkavah), discussed in most especially in the compilations known as Heikhalot Rabbati and Heikhalot Zutarti. Maʿaśeh Merkavah is grounded in a great expansion of several sections of the Hebrew Bible, most prominently Ezekiel chapters 1 through 3. These uses of Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Exodus for that matter, are reflections on the seeds of the visionary-contemplative character of what would become rabbinic mysticism.

It is the dramatic expansion of this core vision, and the ascent of the mystic through the celestial heavens, guarded by fiery angels and magical divine names and passwords, that constitutes the narrative and devotional core of Heikhalot/rabbinic mysticism. It is deeply experiential and visionary in character, centering upon the perceived experience of an ascent to the heavenly realm by the earthly mystic. Key paradigmatic rabbinic characters such as rabbis Aqiva, Yishmael, and Neḥunyah ben Haqanah become central to these narratives, which contain particularly striking correlations of major canonical rabbinic figures with otherworldly mystical experiences that center upon the visionary revelation of Divinity to the mystic on his quest. In the context of classic rabbinic literatures, the Babylonian Talmud famously reports a stunning narrative in which R. Yishmael beholds God sitting on the divine throne in the Temple (Berakhot 7a).

The centrality of the ascent-visionary nature of this mysticism is perhaps most famously articulated in the anecdote[1] about the four mystic ascenders (most commonly, and perhaps paradoxically, referred to in the Heikhalot literature as yordei ha-merkavah, “descenders to the chariot”) are depicted as having entered the heavenly Pardes (the “orchard”), a realm that has been argued to be a supernatural place reached by the mystics or perhaps a state of spiritual consciousness, or even a metaphor for a condition of revelatory experience. 

In the classic pardes tale, four individuals entered this orchard – Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Aer (which literally means “other,” and is a reference to Elisha ben Abuya), and Rabbi Aqiva. However, only R. Aqiva who “entered in peace and exited in peace” (nikhnas be-shalom ve-yatsa be-shalom), or in other versions, who “went up safely and went down safely” (ʿalah be-shalom ve-yarad be-shalom). In this instance, Rabbi Aqiva stands as the ideal mystic, one who is able to withstand the dangerous mystical ascent safely. Between Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma one looked and died, one looked and lost his mind. The heretical Elisha ben Abuya—known as the ultimate heretic, Aer—, is described as having cut the plantings or shoots (qitsetz ba-netiʿot), the rabbinic (and then, later, kabbalistic) euphemism for having committed theological heresy—in this case having likely beheld the archangel, Metatron, and declared that he was a second power, a second deity in heaven.

So we have explored the major features of mysticism in rabbinic times, its secrecy surrounding, and the content of, its reflections about the two great pillars of ancient Jewish mysticism, Maʿaśeh Bereishit (the Work of Creation) and Maʿaśeh Merkavah (the Work of the Chariot). Both the ein dorshin prohibition and the story of Pardes point to elitism and secrecy around this rabbinic mystical practice

In Episode 3 we will continue to our adventure through the history of Jewish mysticism, turning to the rise of a new form of mysticism in Judaism in medieval Europe known as the Kabbalah—a form of spiritual thinking that would forever reshape the intellectual and practical landscape of Jewish mysticism, from the Middle Ages to the present day.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to Exploring Kabbalah with Professor Eitan Fishbane, a JTS podcast. It was recorded and produced by Ellie Gettinger, with editing assistance from Sarah Brown. I’m Rabbi Julia Andelman, JTS’s Director of Community Engagement. The music for this series is Yah Notein Binah by sixteenth-century Kabbalist Israel Najara, from the album Seeds of Song, produced by JTS. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and leave a review wherever you listen to podcasts. For those who want to dig deeper, visit jtsa.edu/podcasts, where you’ll find sources, archival material, and more in the Exploring Kabbalah show notes—along with the complete library of JTS podcasts.

[1] See tHag 2:3 [ed. Lieberman].