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Merkabah Mysticism and Neo-Sabbatian Kabbalah

Yakov Leib haKohain

According to Rabbi Nathan of Gaza, Sabbatai Zevi's chief Prophet and exegete, "A man who busies himself with matters pertaining to AMIRA"H [Sabbati Zevi], even by telling stories only, is considered like one who studies the Merkabah." That is, "busying oneself" with Sabbatai Zevi is a "substitute" for the study of Merkabah Mysticism. Gershom Scholem considers this one of Nathan's "most important" pronouncments (Mystical Messiah, page 925)? But why? To answer this question we must first understand what Merkabah Mysticism is, and the spiritual rewards that are claimed for participating in it.


Merkabah, the contemplation of the Divine Chariot seen by Ezekiel in his vision of God (Ez 1:4), is possibly the oldest-known and most-powerful form of Jewish mysticism. Of it, the Talmud states, "The subject of . .. the work of the chariot [may not be expounded] . . . unless [one] is a sage who has innate understanding [of it]. Whoever speculates on [the work of the chariot], it would have been better if he had not come come into the world." (Mishnah Hagigah 2:1) It then goes on to relate the story of when R. Eleazar asks R. Johanan to teach him the secrets of the Merkabah:

"They seated themselves under a tree. A fire descended from heaven and encompassed them; the ministering angels danced before them as the attendants of a wedding canopy do to bring rejoicing to a groom. One angel called out of the fire: 'The work of the chariot is indeed in accord with your exposition, Eleazar b. Arakh.' At once the trees opened in song: 'Then shall all the trees sing before the Lord' (Pa 96:13).  When R. Eleazar completed his discourse on the work of the chariot, R. Johanan ben Zakkai stood up and kissed him on the head and said: 'Praised be the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who has given Abraham our father a wise son who knows to expound the work of the chariot. (TJ Hagigah 2:1)

It is for this experience of Merkabah, and the following spiritual gifts it brings, that Nathan claims "telling stories only" of Sabbatai Zevi is a substitute.



According to one mystical text, the rewards of contemplating the Merkabah (which Nathan says are also the rewards of "busying oneself with matters pertaining to AMIRAH") are the following:

"1. Said R. Ishamel: [What are the rewards to] one who desires to contemplate the mysteries of the chariot, to enter upon it in peace and return in peace?

"2. The greatest of his rewards is that it brings him into the celestial chambers and places him before the divine throne and he becomes knowledgable of all future events in the world: who will be thrust down and who will be raised up, who will be weakened and who will be strengthened, who will be impoverished and who will be made affluent, on whom will be decreed death and on whom life, from whom will be taken away an inheritance and to whom will be given an inheritance, who will be endowed with Torah and who with wisdom.

"3. Greater than this is that he becomes knowledgeable of human behavior. If a person commits adultery he knows it; if a person commits murder he knows it; if he is suspected of having relations with a woman during her menstrual period, he knows it. Greater than these is the fact that he becomes a savant in the arts of magic.

"Greater than this is that whoever should raise his fist at him and hit him would be covered with leprosy. Greater than this is the fact that whoever should slander him would be smitten with wounds and growths which produce festering boils on the skin.

"Greater than this is that he becomes distinguished among all people in his behavior and is honored among higher and lower beings. Whoever should inadvertently injure him will suffer injury; and misfortunes will descend on him by heavenly decree, and whoever should raise his hand against him will suffer retribution from the heavenly tribunal." (Pirkei Hekhalot Rabbati 1:2-5)

Told in the Service of Sabbatai Zevi,

Yakov Leib haKohain, Ph.D.
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"Was it not a great opportunity missed, rather than a big lie? A victory
of the hostile powers, rather than the collapse of a vain thing?"

                             -- Professor Gershom Scholem

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uploaded on 25 October 1999