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Beholders of Divine Secrets

Mysticism and Myth in the Hekhalot and Merkavah Literature

Vita Daphna Arbel

Publication Year: 2003

A wide-ranging exploration of the Hekhalot and Merkavah literature, a mystical Jewish tradition from late antiquity, including a discussion of the possible cultural context of this material's creators. Beholders of Divine Secrets provides a fascinating exploration of the enigmatic Hekhalot and Merkavah literature, the Jewish mystical writings of late antiquity. Vita Daphna Arbel delves into the unique nature of the mystical teachings, experiences, revelations, and spiritual exegesis presented in this literature. While previous scholarship has demonstrated the connection between Hekhalot and Merkavah mysticism and parallel traditions in Rabbinical writings, the Dead Sea Scrolls, apocalyptic, early Christian, and Gnostic sources, this work points out additional mythological traditions that resonate in this literature. Arbel suggests that mythological patterns of expression, as well as themes and models rooted in Near Eastern mythological traditions are employed, in a spiritualized fashion, to communicate mystical content. The possible cultural and social context of the Hekhalot and Merkavah mysticism and its composers is discussed.

Published by: State University of New York Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication Page

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pp. iii-v


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p. vii

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p. ix

This book emerged from a doctoral thesis, written in Hebrew, which I submitted to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1997. In the course of further research, revision and translation, however, the book has taken on a new form. In it I examine mystical notions present in the enigmatic Hekhalot and Merkavah literature, the manner in which these are expressed through...


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. 1-5

This question is posed by Rabbi Akiva, a central figure of the Hekhalot and Merkavah literature of late antiquity. In it we find mentioned several claims and aspects which distinguish the mysticism found in this literature. We hear of “contemplation,” “ascent to heaven,” and “vision of divine palaces.” We learn that a human being can cross traditional boundaries between the phenomenological and the...

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1. The Hekhalot and Merkavah Literature and Its Mystical Tradition

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pp. 7-20

The title of this chapter associates mysticism with the Hekhalot and Merkavah literature, suggesting that this literature includes records of a mystical tradition. Before attempting an examination of this proposal, it is important to clarify the following. What is the Hekhalot and Merkavah literature? What is meant when applying the debated and ambiguous term mysticism in this context? Which...

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2. Hekhalot and Merkavah Mysticism

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pp. 21-50

The current chapter will examine mystical notions of the Hekhalot and Merkavah literature. From a literary-penomenological perspective, it will seek to distinguish the specific mystical characteristics of this tradition, in light of current observations and methodological premises in the study of mysticism. The discussion will first classify significant aspects present in Hekhalot and Merkavah...

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3. Mythical Language of Hekhalot and Merkavah Mysticism

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pp. 51-66

As many studies of mysticism have observed, mystical phenomena are often distinct from concrete situations of everyday life. Moreover, they frequently evolve outside the conventional realms of normative religions. Thus, by their very nature, specific mystical notions of various traditions often stand beyond common verbal expression and familiar vocabulary. Nonetheless, even mystical notions...

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4. Mystical Journeys in Mythological Language

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pp. 67-103

The mystical journey is the focus of this chapter. The discussion will examine the modes in which its various aspects are stated, with particular emphasis on two issues: use of mythological patterns of thought and expression, and adoption of biblical and Mesopotamian mythological themes. As chapter 2 has shown, many Hekhalot and Merkavah accounts depict an inner processes of crossing...

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5. The Concept of God: Mystical and Mythological Dimensions

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pp. 105-138

Abstract images of spirit and soul are employed to express the essence of God in Hekhalot and Merkavah mysticism. Many statements, likewise, convey God’s inconceivable and sublime nature, beyond human or angelic perception. Other descriptions, in sharp contrast, denote the divine in figurative, tangible, and corporeal images. God is portrayed as an anthropomorphic mighty king. Draped in regal...

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6. Literary, Phenomenological, Cultural, and Social Implications

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pp. 139-156

At the beginning of this study we looked at Rabbi Akiva’s question as a framework for this analysis of Hekhalot and Merkavah mysticism of late antiquity. Rabbi Akiva asks: Who is able to contemplate the seven palaces and behold the heaven of heavens and see the chambers of chambers and say: “I saw the chamber of YH?”1 Thus far the discussion has addressed several aspects of this question. It examined the nature of the meditative process which leads the Merkavah...


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pp. 157-210


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pp. 211-235

Index of Passages Discussed

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pp. 237-245

Index of Authors

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pp. 247-248

General Index

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pp. 249-250

E-ISBN-13: 9780791486856
E-ISBN-10: 0791486850
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791457238
Print-ISBN-10: 0791457230

Page Count: 262
Publication Year: 2003

OCLC Number: 794701275
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Beholders of Divine Secrets

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Mysticism -- Judaism.
  • Hekhalot literature -- History and criticism.
  • Merkava.
  • Jewish mythology.
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