The Hebrew word Merkabah (מרכבה "chariot", derived from the consonantal root with general meaning "to ride") is used in Ezekiel (1:4-26) to refer to the throne-chariot of God, the four-wheeled vehicle driven by four "chayot" (Hebrew: "living creatures"), each of which has four wings and the four faces of a man, lion, ox, and eagle.
Several movements in Jewish mysticism, including the Ma’asei Merkavah of the late Greco-Roman period following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and later, students of the Kabbalah, have focused on these passages from Ezekiel, seeking underlying meaning and the secrets of Creation in what they argued was the metaphoric language of the verses. Due to the concern of some Torah scholars that misunderstanding these passages as literal decriptions of God's image might lead to blasphemy and/or idolatry, there was great opposition to studying this topic without the proper initiation. Jewish biblical commentaries emphasize that the imagery of the Merkaba is not meant to be taken literally; rather the chariot and its accompanying angels are analogies for the various ways that God reveals Himself in this world. Hasidic philosophy and Kabbalah discuss at length what each aspect of this vision represents in this world, and how the vision does not imply that God is made up of these forms. Jews customarily read the Biblical passages concerning the Merkaba in their synagogues every year on the holiday of Shavuot, and the Merkabah is also referenced in several places in traditional Jewish liturgy.
In Christianity, the man, lion, ox, and eagle are used as symbols for the four evangelists (or gospel-writers), and appear frequently in church decorations. They also appear in the Tarot card "The World". The creatures are called Zoë (or the Tetramorph), and continuously surround the throne of God in Heaven, along with the twenty-four angelic rulers, the Seraphim, the Cherubim, the seven Archangels, the Ophanim, and countless angels, spirits, and saints, where they sing praises to the Trinity, and beg Christ to have mercy on humankind.
The Bible later makes mention of a third type of angel found in the Merkaba called "Seraphim" (lit. "burning") angels. These angels appear like flashes of fire continuously ascending and descending. These "Seraphim" angels powered the movement of the chariot. In the hierarchy of these angels, "Seraphim" are the highest, that is, closest to God, followed by the "Chayot", which are followed by the "Ophanim." The chariot is in a constant state of motion, and the energy behind this movement runs according to this hierarchy. The movement of the "Ophanim" is controlled by the "Chayot" while the movement of the "Chayot" is controlled by the "Seraphim". The movement of all the angels of the chariot are controlled by the "Likeness of a Man" on the Throne.
One mention of the merkabah in the Talmud notes the importance of the passage: "A great issue—the account of the merkavah; a small issue—the discussions of Abaye and Rava [famous Talmudic sages]. The sages Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai (d. ca. 80 CE) and later, Rabbi Akiva (d. 135) were deeply involved in merkabah exegesis. Rabbi Akiva and his contemporary Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha are most often the protagonists of later merkabah ascent literature.
For example, the secret doctrines might not be discussed in public: "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. It must be studied only by exemplary scholars: "Ma'aseh Bereshit must not be explained before two, nor Ma'aseh Merkabah before one, unless he be wise and understands it by himself, Further commentary notes 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, although Rabbi 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 Isaiah iii. 3 (being experienced in any of five different professions requiring good judgement), and 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).
The merkabah homilies eventually consisted of detailed descriptions of multiple layered heavens (usually seven in number), often guarded over by angels, and encircled by flames and lightning. The highest heaven contains seven palaces (hekhalot), and in the innermost palace resides a supreme divine image (God's Glory or an angelic image) seated on a throne, surrounded by awesome hosts who sing God's praise.
When these images were combined with an actual mystical experiential motif of individual ascent (paradoxically called "descent" in most texts) and union is not precisely known. By inference, contemporary historians of Jewish mysticism usually date this development to the third century CE. Again, there is a significant dispute amongst historians over whether these ascent and unitive themes were the result of some "foreign," usually Gnostic, influence, or a natural progression of religious dynamics within rabbinic Judaism.
The four Chayot angels represent the basic archetypes that God used to create the current nature of the world. Ofannim, which means "ways", are the ways these archetypes combine to create actual entities that exist in the world. For instance, in the basic elements of the world, the lion represents fire, the ox/earth, the eagle/air, and the man/water. However, in practice, everything in the world is some combination of all four, and the particular combination of each element that exist in each thing are its particular Ofannim or ways. In another example, the four Chayot represent spring, summer, winter and fall. These four types of weather are the archetypal forms. The Ofannim would be the combination of weather that exists on a particular day, which may be a winter-like day within the summer or a summer like day within the winter or whatever.
The Man on the throne represents God, who is controlling everything that goes on in the world, and how all of the archetypes He set up should interact. The Man on the throne, however, can only drive when the four angels connect their wings. This means that God will not be revealed to us by us looking at all four elements (for instance) as separate and independent entities. However, when one looks at the way that earth, wind, fire and water (for instance) which all oppose each other are able to work together and coexist in complete harmony in the world, this shows that there is really a higher power (God) telling these elements how to act.
This very lesson carries over to explain how the four basic groups of animals and the four basic archetypal philosophies and personalities reveal a higher, godly source when one is able to read between the lines and see how these opposing forces can and do interact in harmony. A person should strive to be like a Merkaba, that is to say, he should realize all the different qualities, talents and inclinations he has (his angels). They may seem to contradict, but when one directs his life to a higher goal such as doing God's will (the man on the chair driving the chariot) he will see how they all can work together and even complement each other. Ultimately, we should strive to realize how all of the forces in the world, though they may seem to conflict can unite when one knows how to use them all to fulfill a higher purpose, namely to serve God.
Merkava/Hekhalot mysticism began after the end of the Second Temple period following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., when the physical cult ceased to function. The idea of making a journey to the heavenly "hekhal" seems to be a kind of spiritualization of the pilgrimages to the earthly "hekhal" that were now no longer possible.
In medieval Judaism, the beginning of the book of Ezekiel was regarded as the most mystical passage in the Hebrew Bible, and its study was discouraged, except by mature individuals with an extensive grounding in the study of traditional Jewish texts.
The title, “Hekhalot” (palaces), derives from the divine abodes seen by the practitioner following a long period of ritual purification, self-mortification, and ecstatic prayer and meditation. In their visions, these mystics would enter into the celestial realms and journey through the seven stages of mystical ascent: the Seven Heavens and seven throne rooms. Such a journey is fraught with great danger, and the adept must not only have made elaborate purification preparation, but must also know the proper incantations, seals and angelic names needed to get past the fierce angelic guards, as well as know how to navigate the various forces at work inside and outside the palaces.
The literature sometimes includes fantastic and baffling descriptions of the precincts of heaven and its awesome denizens. The highly literal and overly-explicit images of heavenly objects and their numbers (…four thousands of thousand of fiery chariots and ten thousand fiery torches amidst them…) common to this literature may be intended, reductio ad absurdum, to convey the truly ineffable nature of the ecstatic experience. At times, heavenly interlocutors will reveal divine secrets. In some texts, the mystic’s interest extends to the heavenly music and liturgy, usually connected with the angelic adorations mentioned in Isa. 6:3. The mantra-like repetitive nature of the liturgies recorded in many of these compositions seems meant to encourage further ascent. The ultimate goal of the ascent varies from text to text. In some cases, it seems to be a visionary glimpse of God, to "Behold the King in His Beauty." Others hint at "enthronement," that the adept be accepted among the angelic retinue of God and be given an honored (god-like?) seat. One text actually envisions the successful pilgrim getting to sit in God's "lap." Scholars such as Peter Schafer and Elliot Wolfson see an erotic theology implied in this kind of image, though it must be said sexual motifs, while present in highly attenuated forms, are few and far between if one surveys the full scope of the literature. Literary works related to the Hekhalot tradition that have survived in whole or in part include Hekhalot Rabbati (or Pirkei Hekhalot), Hekhalot Zutarti, 3rd Enoch (also known as Hebrew Enoch), and Ma’aseh Merkavah. In addition there are many smaller and fragmentary manuscripts that seem to belong to this genre, but their exact relationship to Ma’asei Merkavah mysticism and to each other is often not clear (Dennis, 2007, 199-120).
A fifth work provides a detailed description of the Creator as seen by the "descenders" at the climax of their ascent. This work, preserved in various forms, is called Shi'ur Qomah ("Measurement of the Body"), and is rooted in a mystical exegesis of the Song of Songs, a book reputedly venerated by Rabbi Akiva. The literal message of the work was repulsive to those who maintained God's incorporeality; Maimonides (d. 1204) wrote that the book should be erased and all mention of its existence deleted.
While throughout the era of merkabah mysticism the problem of creation was not of paramount importance, the treatise Sefer Yetzirah ("Book of Creation") represents an attempt at cosmogony from within a merkabah milieu. This text was probably composed during the seventh century CE, and evidence influence of Neoplatonism, Pythagoreanism, and Stoicism. It features a linguistic theory of creation in which God creates the universe by combining the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, along with emanations represented by the ten numerals, or sefirot.
By making use of the Rabinically paradigmatic figures of Rabbi Aqiba and Rabbi Ishmael in their writings, the generators of the Heikhalot literature, quite arguably, seem to be attempting to show some sort of connection between their writings and the Chariot/Throne study and practice of the Rabbinic Movement in the decades immediately following upon the destruction of the Temple. However, in both the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud the major players in this Chariot/Throne endeavor are, clearly, Rabbi Aqiba and Elisha ben Abuyah who is referred to as "Akher." Neither Talmud presents Rabbi Ishmael as a player in Merkabah study and practice.
In the long study on these matters contained in " 'The Written' as the Vocation of Conceiving Jewishly" [McGinley, J W; 2006] the hypothesis is offered and defended that "Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha" (more often, simply "Rabbi Ishmael") is in fact a Rabbinically sanctioned cognomen for Elisha ben Abuyah who, as is well known, apostasized from the Rabbinic Movement. The argument is that through this indirection Rabbinic offialdom was able to integrate into the Gemaric give and take of argumentation and analysis the huge body of halakhic and hermeneutical teachings of this great Torah scholar without, however, honoring his equally significant apostasy. To be sure, in the accounting of this figure's mystical study and practice the pejorative (in context) "Akher" is used instead of "Rabbi Ishmael." This is because Elisha ben Abuyah's teachings under the heading of "The Work of the Chariot" came to be considered heretical in contrast to his halakhic and hermeneutical teachings which were generally admired -- and whose wieghty influence, in any case, could not be ignored. All of this indicates that the generators of the Heikhalot literature were indeed savvy in choosing "Rabbi Ishmael" as paradigmatic in their own writings as a means of relating their own endeavors to the mystical study and practices of the tannaim in the early decades following upon the destruction of the Temple.
Both Aqiba and the "Ishmaelic Akher" traded upon the "two-thrones"/"two-powers"-in-Heaven motif in their respective Merkabah-oriented undertakings. Aquiba's version is memorialized in the Bavli Gemara to tractate Khaggigah at 14a-ii wherein Aquiba puts forth the pairing of Hashem and "David" in a messianic version of that mystical motif. Immediately after this Aqibian "solution" to the puzzle of thronesS referred to in Song of Songs and the two thrones spoken of in Daniel, Chapter Seven, the text presents Aqiba as being pressured -- and then acquiescing to -- a domesticated version of this twoness theme for the single Jewish God which would be acceptable to Rabbinic officialdom. The text offers Justice [din] and Charity [tsadaqqa] as the middot of God which are enthroned in Heaven. [Again, 14a-ii] Akher's non-Messianic and Metatron-oriented version of this "two-thrones"/"two-powers"-in-Heaven motif is discussed at length in the entry "Paradigmatia" of the above-mentioned study. The generic point in all of this is that by the time of the final editing of the Mishna this whole motif (along with other dimesions of Merkabah-oriented study and practice) came to be severely discouraged by Rabbinic officialdom. Those who still pursued these kinds of things were marginalized by the Rabbinic Movement over the next several centuries becoming, in effect, a separate grouping responsible for the Heikhalot literature.
In the "four-entered-pardes" section of this portion of the Bavli Gemara on tractate Khaggigah, it is the figure of Aqiba who seems to be lionized. For of the four he is the only one presented who ascended and descended "whole." The other three were broken, one way or another: Ben Azzai dies soon after; Ben Zoma is presented as going insane; and worst of all, "Akher" apostasizes. This putative lionization of Rabbi Aqiba occurs at 15b-vi-16a-i of our Gemara section. However, in the author's other publication of 2006 [pages 366-369] something remarkable is revealed about the "prooftexting" offered in support of this putative lionization of Rabbi Aqiba. For a careful analysis of both the prooftexts offered and in whose name they are offered shows that these most curious "prooftexts" are in fact subtle satires of the self-aggrandizing feature of Aqiba's character make-up.
According to Timo Eskola, early Christian theology and discourse was influenced by the Jewish Merkabah tradition.
In Christianity, the man, lion, ox, and eagle are used as symbols for the four evangelists (or gospel-writers), and appear frequently in church decorations (and also in the Tarot card "The World", and in the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, also the "Wheel of Fortune"). These Creatures are called Zoë (or the Tetramorph), and are constantly surrounding the throne of God in Heaven, along with the twenty-four angelic rulers, the Seraphim, the Cherubim, the seven Archangels, the Ophanim, and countless angels, spirits, and saints, singing praises to the Trinity, and begging Christ to have mercy on humankind.