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THE BOOK OF ELKESAI AND MERKABAH MYSTICISM

JOSEPH M BAUMGARTEN
I n contemporary schol arshi p E l kesai and the movement which he
i ni ti ated i n the 2nd cent. are studi ed pri mari l y wi thi n the
matri x of J ewish C hri sti ani ty. The work of Brandt, who
stressed the J ewish character of E 's doctri nes, and that of
Al on, noti ng the Shi 'ur Qomah el ements i n hi s book, has not
been extended by hi stori ans of J udaism.
The i mportance of E, has been enhanced by the recent pub l i
cati on of the Cologne Mani codex. Thi s Greek text shows
that the practi ces of the E . community i n the 3rd cent.
were s t i l l remarkably cl ose to the Halakha from which
they had emerged more than a cent. earl i er. Thus, they
s t i l l hel d str i c tl y to the prohi bi ti on of hel l eni kos ar
tos, known i n the Talmud as pat kuti m, which j ust about
that ti me was bei ng rel axed by R.J udah ha-N asi . The El ke
sai tes carri ed f urther the obsessi on wi th puri ty of the
Qumranites. The J ewish character of thei r practi ces i s
f urther el aborated by the haeresi ol ogi sts: ci rcumci si on,
marri age, Sabbath observance, and prayer i n the di recti on
of J erusal em. E 's pecul i ar l eni ency i n excusi ng outward
i dol atry wi th reservati o mental i s ref l ects the perse
cuti ons of hi s ti me and was j usti f i ed by exegesi s ex
pl ai nabl e, though not sancti oned, by mi drashi c tradi ti on.
Halakhi c standards, however, do not suf f i ce to def i ne
the i deol ogi cal ori entati on of a rel i gi ous movement.
Thi s w ri ter's i nterest i n E. was aroused by a passage pre
served though not properl y understood by Epi phani us. The
excerpt from the Book of E . i s preceded by the fol l owi ng
di sti nctl y pej orati ve eval uati on:
"Behold the madness of thi s decei ver. For on the one hand
he curses the sacri f i ces and the cul t as thi ngs bei ng
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J O S E P H M . B A U M G A R T E N
strange to God and havi ng not been of f ered to God at al l ,
as appears from the F athers and the Law, but on the other
hand he says that one has to pray i n the di recti on of J e
rusal em, where had been the al tar and the sacri f i ces, re
f usi ng to eat meat, l i ke the J ews, and other thi ngs and
rej ecti ng the al tar and f i r e as bei ng abhorrent to God.
Wi th these words he says that water i s acceptabl e to God
but f i r e i s strange to Him?
'Chi l dren, do not go to the appearance of f i r e (to ei dos tou
pyros) f or i n that case you shal l err. For thi s i s an
error. For, he says, you see i t as somethi ng qui te near,
but actual l y i t i s very f ar away. Do not go to that but
rather to the sound of water (epi t n phnn tou hydatos)!
I t i s cl ear how Epi phani us understood the f oregoi ng admo
ni ti on. F i re represents the sacri f i ces which E, l i ke the
E bi oni tes, hel d to be abhorrent to God. I n thi s i nterpre
tati on, Epi phani us has been unani mousl y fol l owed by modern
schol ars. They add onl y that water represents bapti sm,
the central r i te i n E. practi ce. However, the contradi cti on
between the repudi ati on of the Temple and the qi bl a toward
J erusal em remai ns unresol ved. I n view of the otherwi se
tr adi ti onal ori entati on of E, Brandt resorted to the du
bi ous premi se that E. was speci f i cal l y addressi ng hi msel f
to heathen converts, admoni shi ng them not to return to
pagan sacri f i ces. The deci si ve obj ecti on to the af ore
menti oned i nterpretati on i s the f act that the excerpt
does not ref er to sacri f i ces at al l . Even granti ng the
possi bi l i ty of usi ng f i r e as asymbol f or burnt of f eri ngs,
i t i s not of f i r e that E. speaks, but the appearance of
f i r e (to ei dos tou pyros). The f i r e appears as qui te near,
but actual l y i t i s very f ar away. Correspondi ngl y, the
desi rabl e di recti on i s i ndi cated by the sound of water.
Qui te cl earl y we are deal i ng wi th the percepti on of a
vi si on. The unschool ed vi si onary i s warned of bei ng mi s
l ed by one el ement which i s descri bed as decepti ve. Those
who fol l ow the f i r e wi l l stray af ter an i gni s f atuus.
The sound of water, on the other hand, i s depi cted as a
trustworthy i ndi cator of the ri ght di recti on. Students
of mysti ci sm and esoteri c l i ter atur e wi l l readi l y recog-
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- ni se thi s as a f ragmentary al l usi on to peri l s of the ki nd
associ ated wi th the heavenl y ascent. At certai n poi nts i n
hi s j ourney the vi si onary i s conf ronted wi th tests whi ch
may determi ne not onl y the outcome of hi s quest but hi s
very survi val . One i l l ustr ati o n i s found i n the wel l -
known rabbi ni c story of the four who entered the pardes.
A ccordi ng to the versi on found i n bHag 14b, R.Aki ba warned
hi s col l eagues bef ore thei r ascent: "When you come to the
pl ace of the pure marbl e pl ates, do not say Water! Water!
For i t i s sai d: He that tel l eth l i es shal l not tarry i n
my si ght. " I n hi s def i ni ti ve studi es Scholem has shown
that thi s warni ng i s to be understood i n the l i ght of
the Hekhal ot texts which ref er to the i l l usi on of waves
of water seen by the ascensor at the gates of the si xth
pal ace. I n the Book of E . f i r e, rather than water,i s de
pi cted as i l l usory, but the admoni ti on i s drawn from the
same conceptual context. I n Ez 1 both the 'noi se of
great waters' and the 'appearance of f i r e' f i gure i n the
di vi ne vi si on; si mi l arl y i n the Enoch l i ter atur e.
I t i s natural to ask why i n the rabbi ni c sources water
was depi cted as i l l usory, whi l e E. attri buted thi s to
the si ght of f i r e. Rather than seei ng thi s as the ex
pressi on of a bi as agai nst sacri f i ces, Bousset made the
pl ausi bl e suggesti on, that E, whose book i s sai d to
have ori gi nated i n Parthi a, may be pol emi ci si ng agai nst
the Mazdean f i r e cul t, whi l e underl i ni ng the r i tual
central i ty of water. Thi s would al so expl ai n the ob
trusi ve absence of f i r e from the l i s t of el ements i n
voked as wi tnesses at the ti me of bapti sm. However
thi s may be, the admoni ti on i n our passage opposes
the appearance of f i r e to the sound of water. Thi s
would suggest that the si gni f i cant contrast may be
between what the mysti c sees wi th hi s eyes and the
sounds he hears. The l atter hypothesi s gai ns strength
from a Hekhal ot text recentl y publ i shed by Gruenwal d.
A l though the Geni zah Mss i s j udged to be from the
11th cent., and i ts text l ater than the L esser and
Greater Hekhal ot from whi ch i t ci tes, i t cl earl y
bel ongs to the genre of Merkabha whose anci ent
roots are becoming mani f est. The f ol l owi ng excerpt
i s taken from the i nstructi on to those who aspi re to
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'go down' to the Merkabha. We have fol l owed Gruenwal d's
readi ngs except f or one i mportant emendati on whi ch wi l l be
i ndi cated. The transl ati on i s mi ne:
"And l earn wel l , O f ri end, the warni ng si gnal s f or the si xth
Hekhal , that i t may be accessi bl e to you l i ke the others
and you be not destroyed. Behol d the f i r es whi ch storm
out of the seventh Hekhal to the si xth: gl owi ng f i re,
streami ng f i r e, bl azi ng f i re, and sweet f i r e. L i ke ar
rows they go f orth and enter . . . When (the f i res) go
f orth from the seventh Hekhal to go i nto the si xth, l et
the mark of thei r sound (read ql an f or qal n) be known
to you so that you wi l l not be confounded. For they are
at a di stance of 80,000,000 pharsangs, from the entrance
of the seventh Hekhal to the pl ace where you stand.
And when they emi t (thei r) sound one toward the other
. . . pl ug you ear, nose, and anal ri ng, so that your
soul be retai ned and not expi re bef ore I reach you . . .
Whoever desi res to descend to the Merkabha, i n your
generati on or i n others, at each Hekhal l et him menti on
my name and cal l me i n a low voi ce, and no creature
wi l l do him harm nor reach hi m."
Thi s text concerns the peri l s at the entrance to the
si xth heaven, whi ch i s al so desi gnated as a pl ace of danger
i n other Hekhal ot composi ti ons. However, i n b. Hag. and
paral l el s the danger i s connected wi th the i l l usi on of
water; here the threat i s posed by the f i r es. As i n the
Book of E. the f i res appear to be near, but actual l y they
are very f ar away. The vi sual percepti on i s not a
rel i abl e gauge of thei r di stance; rather, one must l earn
to recogni se the mark of thei r sound. The f act that E.
si mi l arl y bade hi s f ol l owers to fol l ow the 'sound of
the waters' may i ndi cate a pref erence f or heari ng i n
the vi a mysti ca of Merkabha teachi ng.
We note f urther that the Geni zah text i s i n the f i r s t
person whi ch i s that of Uzhaya, the angel of the Pre
sence and gui de of those who descend to the Merkabha.
The l atter are cal l ed 'f r i ends', whi l e E. addresses them
as 'chi l dren.' He, too, was concerned wi th thei r protec
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ti on as we know from another excerpt from E s book pres
er ved by E pi phani us: "Nobody must look f or the si gni f i cance,
but he must say the fol l owi ng words i n hi s prayer: abar
ani d moi b nochi l e daasim ane daasim nochi l e moib ani d
abar sel am. " Epi phani us hel d thi s to be empty babbl e, but
i t was found that when read from the mi ddle outward we ob
tai n a qui te i ntel l i gi bl e Aramaic formul a, which for
greater theurgi c ef f ect i s repeated i n reverse order:

"I w i l l testi f y on your behal f on the Day of the Great
J udgment." The ' Day of the Great J udgment' i s an eschato
l ogi cal term found i n the earl y strata of the Enoch l i te
rature. R el ated to i t i s the i dea of a wi tness who might
appear i n the cel esti al court as ei ther k atgoros or
syngoros. I n a Shi ' ur Qomah tex t ci ted by Scholem M etat
ron i s cal l ed .
The f act that E l kesai was f ami l i ar wi th Shi 'ur Qomah
emerges from yet another excerpt ci ted by Epi phani us:
"He (E.) descri bes the Messiah as a power of whom he
al so gi ves the di mensi ons: hi s l ength i s 24 schoi noi ,
that means 96 mi l es, hi s breadth i s 6 schoi noi , which i s
24 mi l es... A l so, the Holy S pi ri t i s sai d to be l i k e the
Messiah, but she i s a female bei ng, l i k e a statue ri si ng
above the cl ouds and standi ng between two mountai ns."
I n Merkabha Shelemah the uni t used f or Shi 'ur Qomah
measurements i s the parasang, which i s equi val ent to
the schoi nos. The schoi nos i s reckoned as havi ng four
mi l es, l i ke the parasang i n tal mudi c tex ts; Merkabha
Shelemah curi ousl y has onl y three mi l es per parasang.
The mal e-f emal e pai ri ng i n the di vi ne real m i s, as
f ar as I know, unparal l el ed i n the Hekhalot w ri ti ngs.
I t can, however, be found i n the Gnosti c specul ati ons
concerni ng the male and female aeons which make up
the world of the pl eroma.
E 's af f i ni ty wi th the di f f use and complex phenomenon
of Gnosti ci sm requi res new assessment, as exempl i fi ed
by the venerati on of the el ements. E l kesai enj oi ned hi s
fol l owers to take a sacred oath wi tnessed by 7 el e
ments,whi ch Hyppolytus descri bed as "the astoni shi ng.
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i nef f abl e, and great mysteri es of El kesai which be re
veal s to worthy pupi l s." Whi l e thi s need not i mpl y an
actual mystery cul t of the el ements, i t i s si gni f i cant
that a warni ng agai nst tradi ti ons "centered on the el e
ments of the worl d" (stoi chei a tou kosmou) , angel worshi p,
and "the thi ngs he saw when goi ng i n" (ha heoraken emba
teuon) i s contai ned i n Col oss. 2. M. Smith suggests that
"the thi ngs he saw when goi ng i n" al l udes to magi cal tech
ni ques f or heavenl y ascensi on.
I n sum, our purpose i s to di rect attenti on to E 's con
necti ons wi th the sphere of mysti ci sm. From the great
and i nef f abl e mystri a of hi s book there remai n i nstruc
ti ons concerni ng the vi si on of f i r e and water, descri p
ti ons of the measurements of angel i c bei ngs i n terms
of Shi 'ur Qomah, and the promi se of support at the
Great J udgment.
As to the cl assi f i cati on of the E l kesai tes as a J ewi sh,
J udaeo- chri sti an, or Gnosti c movement, thi s i s a
reducti oni st questi on. Epi phani us answered i t by descri
bi ng them as "nei ther C hri sti ans, nor J ews, nor Greeks,
keepi ng to the mi ddl e way they are actual l y nothi ng."
The Rabbi s mi ght have been more generous. I n terms of
Hal akha E. was s t i l l substanti al l y wi thi n the frame
work of J ewi sh practi ce. However, i n hi s i deol ogi cal
stance, he evi nced a tendency toward accomodati on wi th
exi sti ng bel i ef s. He was recepti ve to astrol ogy, some
form of C hri sti an messi ani sm, and a mal e-femal e
syzygi sm aki n to Gnosti c thought. I n rabbi ni c terms,
he may perhaps be characteri zed as one who entered
the Pardes, cut down i ts pl ants, and attempted to
root them i n other orchards.
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