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Pardes revisited once again: a reassessment of the Rabbinic legend concerning the four who entered pardes.

Dedicated to the memory of Dr. Morton M. Axler (Song of Songs 1:4)

ABSTRACT. This paper reexamines the rabbinic narrative concerning the four who attempted to enter Pardes. Earlier scholarship tends to view the narrative as a warning against the study of mysticism and emphasizes the compositional history of the narrative. Interpreters are divided as to whether the narrative is concerned with the study of Gnosticism, mystical experience, or proper biblical interpretation. This study emphasizes the identities and backgrounds of the four major figures included in the narrative and the function of the scriptural passages associated with each. Based on these considerations it argues that the three earlier figures, Shimon ben Azzai, Shimon ben Zoma, and Elisha ben Abuyah (Aher) are presented as antitypes to the ideal Rabbi Akiba, who embodies qualities that each of the others lacks. The narrative therefore presents R. Akiba as the model of the sage who understands his own knowledge (mHag2:1), i.e., the interpreter who is qualified to expound upon texts commonly associated with Jewish mysticism.

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I.

The Rabbinic legend concerning the four who entered Pardes plays a particularly important role in scholarly discussion concerning the character of Jewish mysticism and its assessment in the Talmudic period. The legend appears in various forms throughout the ancient Rabbinic literature in the Tosephta (tHagigah 2:3-4), the Jerusalem Talmud (yHagigah 2:1, 77b), the Babylonian Talmud (bHagigah 14b, 15a,b), the Midrash on the Song of Songs (SongR 1:4), and in a paraphrased version in the mystical treatise Hekhalot Zutarti (Schafer, Synopse [section][section] 344-345). (1) It expresses the experiences of four Tannaim who attempted "to enter Pardes": Simeon ben Azzai cast a look and died, Simeon ben Zoma looked and was smitten (i.e., with insanity), Aher (Elisha ben Abuyah) cut the shoots (i.e., became a heretic), and R. Akiba entered safely and went out safely. Although the version of the Babylonian Talmud is generally considered to be the normative form of this legend, most scholars maintain that the Tosephta's version is the earliest from which the others are derived. (2) They likewise generally agree that all of the various versions of the tradition express a warning that attempts to dissuade those who might attempt to "enter pardes," i.e., to engage in the study of Jewish mysticism in keeping with Mishnah Hagigah 2:1. Interpreters therefore understand the legend to express Rabbinic Judaism's opposition to mystical speculation, interpretation, or practice. (3) The full version of the Tosephta reads as follows:
    Four entered Pardes: ben Azzai, ben Zoma, Aher (i.e., Elisha ben
    Abuyah), and Rabbi Akiba. Ben Azzai looked and died. About him it is
    written, saying, "Precious in the eyes of the L-rd is the death of
    his saints" (Ps 116:15). Ben Zoma looked and was smitten (i.e.,
    became demented). About him it is written, saying, "Have you found
    honey? Eat (only) what is sufficient for you, (lest you be filled
    with it and vomit it)" (Prov 25:16). Aher looked and cut the shoots
    (i.e., of plants; became a heretic). About him it is written,
    saying, "Do not allow your mouth to cause your flesh to sin" (Qoh
    5:5). Rabbi Akiba entered in peace, and he went out in peace. About
    him it is written, saying, "Draw me after you, let us run, (the king
    has brought me into his chambers)." (Song 1:4) (4)


Serious disagreements appear, however, in relation to the interpretation of the expression "to enter Pardes." The Hebrew term pardes is a Persian or Greek loan word that means literally "garden," "park," or "enclosure," and frequently refers to "paradise" in Rabbinic literature. (5) Early critical scholars, beginning with Graetz, and more recently Maier, Fischel, and Segal, understand the expression allegorically as a reference to the study or practice of Gnosticism. (6) A second group of interpreters, including Bousset, Scholem, Neher, Goldberg, and Gruenwald, interpret it as a reference to the very real psychological dangers of engaging in ecstatic mystical experience. (7) A third group of scholars, including Goshen-Gottstein, Urbach, Halperin, and Dan, on the other hand, understand it as a reference to the proper exposition of biblical literature, particularly the interpretation of the Creation narrative in Genesis 1 (Maaseh Bereshit; the "Work of Creation") and Ezekiel's account of his vision of G-d's throne chariot in Ezekiel 1 (Maaseh Merkavah; the "Work of the Chariot"). (8)

Unfortunately, most scholarly discussion of this legend has focused primarily on attempts to identify the earliest version of the narrative. Efforts to interpret the narrative are therefore concerned with reconstructing the history of its literary development. Consequently, there has been relatively little effort to interpret the narrative features of the legend. Three major features of the narrative that remain relatively constant throughout its various forms require our attention. The first and most important is R. Akiba's successful entry into and exit from pardes, in contrast to the experiences of his three predecessors. Akiba's successful completion of his journey suggests that the purpose of the story might not be limited to warning those who would "enter pardes" of the dangers of such an enterprise; instead, it might provide a model or criteria for its realization. (9) The second pertains to the identity of the Rabbis who appear in the legend. The rationale for the inclusion of R. Akiba and Elisha ben Abuyah (Aher) seems clear, in that they are antitypes in Rabbinical literature; Akiba is the quintessential sage of Talmudic tradition, whereas Elisha ben Abuyah is the quintessential heretic who abandoned Judaism to pursue Greek philosophy later in life. The roles of Simeon ben Azzai and Simeon ben Zoma are less clear, however, in that they are evaluated positively elsewhere in Rabbinical literature, which describes them as the most "diligent student" and the greatest "expounder" of Torah, respectively (mSotah 9:15). Nevertheless, their failure to enter pardes indicates that like Aher, they function as foils in relation to the successful R. Akiba. Indeed, neither is ordained, which suggests that like Elisha ben Abuyah, they too embody some shortcoming in relation to R. Akiba, and thereby contribute to his idealization in this legend.

Finally, each Rabbi is associated with a specific verse from Scripture which relates to some especially pertinent action or characteristic. (10) The function of the verses associated with Akiba and Aher is clear in that they point to the contrasting role of each Rabbi in the narrative, but the issue is less clear in the cases of Simeon ben Azzai and Simeon ben Zoma. In both cases, it is evident that the scriptural verses point to some characteristic feature of each, but it is not entirely clear how these characteristics function in relation to the presentation of R. Akiba. In any case, clarification of the role and function of Simeon ben Azzai and Simeon ben Zoma in the narrative would certainly contribute to its overall interpretation.

These considerations demonstrate the need to reassess the narrative concerning the four who entered pardes, especially with regard to the inclusion of Simeon ben Azzai and Simeon ben Zoma and their respective functions within the narrative. Based upon an examination of the contrasting experiences of Akiba and the other three Rabbis, the roles and functions of Simeon ben Azzai and Simeon ben Zoma in the narrative, and the biblical quotations associated with each, I propose a revised understanding of the narrative. Indeed, the narrative warns those who would attempt to "enter Pardes" or engage in the study of Jewish mysticism, but it defines the qualities necessary for a successful entry. R. Akiba is presented as the exemplar of one who would successfully enter pardes, in that he embodies specific qualities that each of the others lacks. Furthermore, clarification of the roles played by each of the Rabbis in this narrative, and the function of the biblical quotations associated with them, demonstrates that the expression "to enter pardes" refers to proper biblical interpretation in the Rabbinic tradition. Overall, the narrative speaks to the concern of the Mishnah (mHagigah 2:1) that one who would expound the "work of the chariot" (i.e., Ezekiel 1) be "a sage who understands his own knowledge," like R. Akiba. (11)

II.

One of the fundamental elements of the legend concerning the four who attempted to enter pardes is R. Akiba's successful completion of the journey. It is expressed differently among the various traditions. According to the version of the Babylonian Talmud, Akiba "went out in peace" (bHag 14b) or "ascended in peace and descended in peace" (bHag 15b); Talmud Yerushalmi states that Akiba "entered in peace and went out in peace" (yHag 2:1, 77b); and the Tosephta states that Akiba "ascended in peace and descended in peace" (tHag 2:3-4). (12)

Although the meaning of the pardes experience is understood and expressed differently in the various versions of the tradition, the traditions consistently present R. Akiba as the only one of the four who successfully experiences pardes, whatever that experience may be. This is significant in that R. Akiba is one of the most celebrated and idealized figures in all of Talmudic tradition. (13) Although he was originally an illiterate shepherd, an 'am ha'ares, who boasted that he would "maul (a scholar) like an ass" (bPesahim 49b), his love for Rachel, the daughter of his employer, prompted him to learn to read and to become a scholar. When she gave up the inheritance of her wealthy father to marry Akiba, she did so on the condition that he devote himself to the study of Torah so that he might teach their children (bNedarim 50a; bKetubot 62b). Although Akiba apparently faltered in his initial attempts, the need to educate their son prompted him to pursue his studies so that he might teach him as well (Abot de Rabbi Nathan I:6).

As a result, Akiba became one of the greatest sages of Talmudic tradition. The Jerusalem Talmud describes him as "one of the fathers of the world" (ySheqalim 3:1, 47b), and credits him with systematizing the principles upon which the tradition of Rabbinic biblical interpretation, the Midrash halakhot and aggadot, are built (ySheq 3:1, 48c). Akiba laid the foundations for much of Rabbinic midrashic biblical exegesis by maintaining that all features of the text of the Torah have meaning, no matter how insignificant they may seem. (14) The Tosephta describes him as one who "arranges halakhot," i.e., as one who organizes, clarifies, and explains the reasons for Rabbinic laws (tZabim 1:5). The Rabbinic commentaries on the biblical books of the Song of Songs (Song Rabbah 8:2) and Ecclesiastes (Qohelet Rabbah 6:2) describe several early collections of Mishnah teachings, including those of R. Hiyya the Elder, Hoshaia, Bar Qappara, and R. Akiba, which apparently provided the basis for the compilation of the Mishnah by Judah the Prince. The Babylonian Talmud likewise acknowledges Akiba's role in defining the legal interpretations or halakhic midrashim: "The author of an anonymous Mishnah is R. Meir; an anonymous Tosephta, R. Nehemiah; an anonymous Sifra, R. Judah; in the Sifrei, R. Simeon; and all are taught according to the views of Akiba" (bSanhedrin 86a). Essentially, Rabbinic tradition regards Akiba as one of the leading figures in the foundation and teaching of Rabbinic biblical interpretation (Midrash) and Rabbinic law (Halakhah). The regard in which he was held is illustrated by the tradition that G-d brought Moses into Akiba's classroom to show him the results of his teachings. When Moses complained that he was unable to understand Akiba's teachings, his mind was set at ease when Akiba explained a teaching as a halakhah given to Moses at Sinai (bMenahot 29b).

The idealization of R. Akiba likewise appears in relation to his death as a martyr at the hands of the Romans during the Bar Kochba revolt of 132-135 C.E., in which the Roman army, led by the emperor Hadrian, slaughtered approximately half a million people and forbade the practice of Judaism in the land of Israel. Indeed, Hadrian's persecution brought an end to Jewish life in the land of Israel, which he renamed Palestine to eradicate any memory that Jews had once lived there until the reestablishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948. Rabbi Akiba is consistently listed among the martyrs of Hadrian's persecution. (15) Following his arrest and imprisonment for violating Hadrian's decree forbidding the teaching and practice of Judaism, the ninety-eight-year-old Akiba was tortured by the Romans, who tore his flesh from his body with iron combs. Despite the pain and suffering, Akiba maintained his adherence to Torah by stating that his suffering finally enabled him to understand the command expressed in Deut 6:5, "and you shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart and with all your might ... even if you must pay for it with your life" (bBerakot 61b). He therefore died with the words of the Shema from Deut 6:4ff, "Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is one ...," on his lips.

Given the great regard with which Akiba is held in Rabbinic tradition, it seems unlikely that the tradition of the four who entered pardes is intended only as a warning for those who would attempt a similar experience. Rabbi Akiba is one of the greatest and most admired of the Talmudic Rabbis. His successful experience of pardes in this legend thereby indicates that such experience, however it is defined, is possible. R. Akiba therefore serves as the exemplar of one who is able and qualified to experience pardes. (16)

III.

The other constant elements in the story are the inclusion of the three Rabbis who failed to experience pardes successfully and the biblical citations associated with them. The three include Simeon ben Azzai, who is associated with Ps 116:15, "Precious in the sight of the L-rd is the death of His saints"; Simeon ben Zoma, who is associated with Prov 25:16, "Have you found honey? Eat so much as is sufficient for you, lest you be filled and vomit it"; and Aher or Elisha ben Abuyah, who is associated with Eccl/Qoh 5:5, "Do not allow your mouth to cause your flesh to sin."

Relatively little attention has been given to the reasons for the inclusion of these particular individuals or for the citations of these particular verses. Scholars have generally recognized that the verses express some aspect of the character of each figure, but they have not analyzed the biblical citations as a significant element in the interpretation of the narrative. Otherwise, they have assumed that the three were included because they were engaged somehow in mystical study or practice, but this is hardly an adequate explanation. Rabbinic tradition associates three of our figures with various forms of mystical practice, i.e., Akiba engages in theurgic or magical practice (bSan 68a), (17) Simeon ben Zoma engages in speculation concerning the creation of the cosmos (bHag 15a; Genesis Rabbah 2:4), and Aher or Elisha ben Abuyah engages in the study of forbidden books (bHag 15b), but Simeon ben Azzai's association with such practices is questionable (SongR 1:10). (18) Furthermore, other prominent figures who were well known for their engagement with mysticism, such as R. Yohanan ben Zakkai (bHag 14b) (19) or R. Simeon bar Yohai (bShabbat 33b), (20) were not included in our story.

In keeping with the overall interest in the narrative to present a contrast between the experiences of R. Akiba and the other three, it seems appropriate to consider the possibility that Simeon ben Azzai, Simeon ben Zoma, and Elisha ben Abuyah are included in order to serve as antitypes to the figure of R. Akiba. This certainly seems to be the case with Elisha ben Abuyah. As noted above, Akiba is idealized in Rabbinic literature as the epitome of the Talmudic sage who lays the foundations for Rabbinic law and biblical interpretation or halakhah and midrash. Elisha ben Abuyah, on the other hand, is presented in Rabbinic literature as the epitome of the heretic, whose apostasy is so great that he will never be able to repent of his sins and thereby gain a share of the world to come. (21) The traditions of the Babylonian Talmud are adamant on this point. At three different points, the mystical collection in the Babylonian Talmud (bHag 15a) relates the call to repentance from Jeremiah 3:22, but denies the possibility of repentance to Aher: "Return you backsliding children--except Aher." It likewise presents Elisha ben Abuyah as violating the observance of Shabbat by tearing a radish out of the ground while negotiating with a prostitute and by riding a horse; thirteen different schoolboys recite biblical verses to his face that condemn his evil; and it raises questions as to whether Elisha ben Abuyah's daughter should claim him as her father. The Talmudic tradition does relent to some extent in that it acknowledges Elisha ben Abuyah's teaching of Torah before his apostasy, and maintains that one can learn from his earlier teachings even though he later proved to be a heretic. In the end, R. Meir and R. Yohanan are said to have interceded with G-d on Aher's behalf, resulting in his eventual forgiveness.

In searching for the cause of Aher's actions, the Babylonian Talmud points to his study of Greek literature or forbidden books: "But what of Aher?--Greek song did not cease from his mouth. It is told of Aher that when he used to rise [to go] from the schoolhouse, many heretical books used to fall from his lap" (bHag 15b). The Jerusalem Talmud relates three reasons, including his observation of arbitrary reward or punishment for two men who took eggs from a mother bird's nest in violation of Deut 22:6-7; his witness of the execution of R. Judah Nahtum by the Romans in which the dead Rabbi's tongue, which had uttered so many beautiful teachings, was carried off in the mouth of dog; and his mother's smelling of pagan incense (yHag 2:1). In each case, the tradition points to reasons for Elisha ben Abuyah's lack of faith in Jewish tradition. This stands behind the narrative in the Jerusalem Talmud which relates Elisha ben Abuyah's apostasy when he succeeded in entering pardes or the throneroom of G-d. Upon seeing G-d's chief angel, Metatron, seated on the divine throne, Elisha ben Abuyah declared "there are two powers (in heaven)!," i.e., there is not one, but two gods. He therefore abandoned the most fundamental teaching of Jewish tradition, i.e., belief in one and only one G-d. When Metatron was punished for his actions, he was also given permission to strike out the merits of Aher. In this regard, the citation of Ecclesiastes/Qohelet 5:5, "Do not allow your mouth to cause your flesh to sin," expresses Elisha ben Abuyah's shortcomings in this narrative. He studied and expressed the ideas of forbidden literature, which led him to question Jewish tradition and eventually to become a heretic by his statements.

In view of the attention given to Aher's apostasy, it seems clear that he is intended to function as an antitype to the ideal figure of Akiba in the narrative. Akiba is the ideal Rabbinic sage, who not only defines Rabbinic law or halakhah and biblical interpretation or midrash but maintains his adherence to Judaism by dying as a martyr with the words of the Shema on his lips. Elisha ben Abuyah, although he was a Rabbinic sage in his own right, abandoned the most fundamental principle of Judaism, belief in one G-d, as a result of his interest in Greek literature. Consequently, Aher's lack of faith in Rabbinic tradition leads him to outside sources and results in his apostasy. Akiba's adherence to Rabbinic tradition throughout his life and death, on the other hand, demonstrates his faith and qualifies him to experience pardes. Furthermore, Akiba's dying statement of the Shema expresses his adherence to Judaism, whereas Aher's last statement results in his condemnation. (22)

The situation with Simeon ben Azzai and Simeon ben Zoma is not so clear, however, in that each is honored in Rabbinic tradition. According to the Mishnah, "all the diligent students ceased" when Simeon ben Azzai died, and "there were no more expounders (of the Torah)" when Simeon ben Zoma died (mSotah 9:15). Both are quoted in mAboth 4:1-3, which indicates their status among the most respected of the early Tannaim. (23)

Despite ben Azzai's stellar reputation as a pious sage, (24) however, Rabbinic tradition indicates that he had one major shortcoming, i.e., he never married and he never produced children. The Babylonian Talmud (bYebamot 63b; cf. tYeb 8:7) relates a discussion in which R. Eliezer asserts that failure to produce children is like shedding blood, and R. Jacob asserts that it diminishes the Divine image. When ben Azzai combines the opinions of these two Rabbis, stating that the failure to produce children constitutes both the shedding of blood and the diminution of the Divine image, his colleagues object that he preaches well but he does not act well in that he has neither married nor produced children. Ben Azzai's response, "What shall I do, seeing that my soul is in love with the Torah; the world can be carried on by others," is scandalous in that it demonstrates his failure to observe the first and most fundamental halakhah or law in Jewish tradition: "be fruitful and multiply" (Gen 9:16). Not only does ben Azzai himself equate such action with the shedding of blood and diminishing the Divine image, but Abba Hanan in the name of R. Eliezer states in the same context that one who fails to produce children deserves the penalty of death. (25)

There is some indication that R. Akiba's daughter may have followed her mother's example in marrying and supporting ben Azzai (bKet 63a), but the tradition is not entirely clear. In any case, it is clear that ben Azzai never had children. Consequently, he never reproduced physically nor did he have children to whom he could pass on his knowledge of Torah. This is in striking contrast to Akiba, whose marriage to Rachel and the birth of his children not only fulfilled the most fundamental command of Jewish tradition, but led him to become one of the greatest sages of Talmudic tradition precisely so he could teach his son. Ben Azzai's failure to reproduce physically corresponds to his punishment upon attempting to enter pardes, i.e., he dies and suffers physical punishment of the body precisely because he failed to fulfill his duty to produce children and to teach them Torah. (26) Furthermore, it explains the citation of Psalm 116:15 in relation to ben Azzai, "Precious in the sight of the L-rd is the death of His saints." The term "precious," yaqar, is best translated as "costly," and indicates that ben Azzai's lack of children at his death cost the world dearly in lost potential.

Simeon ben Zoma enjoyed a distinguished reputation as one of the foremost aggadic expounders of Torah, (27) but like his colleague ben Azzai, he was never ordained as a Rabbi. This means that despite his reputation as an aggadic preacher, he never completed his full education in halakhah or Jewish law. This is important in the present context in that the mystical collection in the Babylonian Talmud (bHag) contains various references to ben Zoma's interpretation of scripture, but they demonstrate that he was frequently in error and therefore not a scholar in his own right. For example, ben Zoma holds that the high priest may marry a pregnant maiden, citing R. Samuel who held that the maiden may have become pregnant in a bath without sexual intercourse (bHag 14b-15a). But the text continues with a statement from R. Samuel that contradicts this ruling; only a spermatic emission that "shoots forth like an arrow" can cause pregnancy, i.e., only sexual relations can cause pregnancy. A second tradition relates that ben Zoma failed to stand before his teacher R. Joshua ben Hanania because he was so lost in thought, and thereby failed to show proper respect. When asked what he was thinking, ben Zoma replied that he was considering the division between Heaven and Earth in relation to Gen 1:2, "and the wind of G-d hovered over the face of the waters." He concluded on the basis of this verse, therefore, that there must be only be three fingers breadth between them. R. Joshua then pointed out to his disciples the fallacy in ben Zoma's thinking; the wind of G-d hovers on the first day, but the division between heaven and earth did not take place until the second day. His statement that ben Zoma is "still outside" may mean either that he has lost his mind or that he has stepped outside the bounds of proper interpretation. (28) In either case, the tradition points to the deficiency in his reasoning while interpreting scriptural texts. Again, this presents ben Zoma in striking contrast to R. Akiba. Whereas ben Zoma never completed his ordination and errs repeatedly in biblical interpretation, Akiba defined the very bases of Rabbinic halakhah. It is therefore no accident that ben Zoma goes insane upon his attempt to experience pardes. For lack of a completed education, his mind was not prepared, (29) and he cannot be considered a scholar in his own right. Furthermore, the citation of Prov 25:16 in relation to ben Zoma, "Have you found honey? Eat so much as is sufficient for you, lest you be filled and vomit it," is significant here. The throne chariot text in Ezek 3:1-3 portrays the prophet Ezekiel's reception of G-d's words with the imagery of his eating a scroll that tasted like honey. Whereas Ezekiel was capable of understanding properly the message that he ingested, ben Zoma was not.

IV.

Clearly, Simeon ben Azzai, Simeon ben Zoma, and Aher or Elisha ben Abuyah each lacks a quality that prevents him from successfully experiencing pardes. Furthermore, the scripture citations associated with each somehow expresses his shortcomings. When viewed in relation to R. Akiba, the shortcomings of the three emphasize Akiba's ability to engage in the experience of pardes in that he possesses each of the qualities that the other three lack. Unlike Simeon ben Azzai who had no children, Akiba's wife and children prompted him to learn to read and eventually to become a sage. Unlike Simeon ben Zoma who failed to master Rabbinic learning in its entirety, Akiba laid the foundation for Jewish law or halakhah and biblical interpretation or midrash. Unlike Aher who failed to adhere to Rabbinic tradition and eventually uttered the heretical words that led to his condemnation, Akiba held firm to Judaism up to the moment of his martyrdom, and died with the words of the Shema on his lips. Clearly, the Rabbinic legend of the four who entered Pardes defines the qualities of one would enter pardes. He should be an ideal Rabbinic figure, like R. Akiba.

The biblical verse associated with Akiba in the tradition, "Draw me after you, let us make haste, (the king has brought me into his chambers)" (Song 1:4) metaphorically expresses Akiba's success at entering pardes. The citation of this verse and those associated with the other three Rabbis have important implications for understanding meaning of the expression, "to enter pardes," in that they point to the character of the experience as the proper interpretation of scripture rather than as an actual mystical ascent. The Mishnah elsewhere (mYadayim 2:5) reports that R. Akiba considered the Song of Songs to be the most important biblical book revealed to Israel. He refers to it as the "Holy of Holies," employing the same language used for the innermost chamber of the Temple where the Ark of the Covenant was kept in First Temple times. The context indicates that Akiba's statement is made in relation to a discussion concerning whether or not Song of Songs should be considered Holy Scripture. Song of Songs portrays the relationship of two lovers, which would raise questions concerning its character. But because it is understood in Rabbinic tradition as a metaphorical portrayal of the relationship between G-d and Israel, it is accepted as Holy Scripture. This indicates Akiba's concern with the proper interpretation of Song of Songs. The citation of Song 1:4 likewise indicates a concern with scriptural interpretation in that the verse is interpreted allegorically to express Akiba's qualifications to enter pardes. Because he is a father who teaches his son, the founder of Rabbinic law or halakhah and biblical interpretation or midrash, and a faithful adherent to Rabbinic tradition even to his death, he understands Jewish tradition properly, and therefore he enters pardes safely.

In contrast, Simeon ben Azzai, Simeon ben Zoma, and Aher or Elisha ben Abuyah all violate Jewish tradition in way or another, and therefore do not understand it or apply it properly. In each case, a verse of scripture, properly interpreted, is applied to express their respective shortcomings. The association of scriptural verses with each Rabbi to express an outstanding characteristic that disqualifies him from entering pardes, therefore, highlights the issue of scriptural interpretation, and suggests that the original meaning of the expression, "to enter pardes," relates to the proper exposition of scripture. (30) Given the potentially heretical character of much of the mystical, theurgical, and hekhalot literature of the early Talmudic period, (31) this suggests that the purpose of the legend concerning the four who entered pardes is to attempt to gain some control over the proper exposition of the mystical texts, the account of creation in Genesis 1 (Ma 'aseh Bereshit) and the account of Ezekiel's vision of G-d in Ezekiel 1 (Ma 'aseh Merkavah). (32) By defining R. Akiba as the epitome of one qualified to expound upon these texts, the legend attempts to insure that they will be interpreted in accordance with Rabbinic tradition. When considered in relation to the Mishnah's statement that one who would expound the mystical texts be "a sage that understands his own knowledge," i.e., a Rabbi fully versed in Jewish tradition, the story of the four who attempted to enter pardes indicates that R. Akiba is the example of the person who is qualified to undertake such an exposition. (33)

(1) For the texts of Hekhalot Zutarti, see Peter Schafer, ed., Synopse zur Hekhalot-Literatur (TSAJ 2; Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1981) [section][section] 335-374, 407-426, 496-497. For current discussions of the sources for this narrative, surveys of scholarship, and detailed treatments of its problems, see Alon Goshen Gottstein, "Four Entered Paradise Revisited," HTR 88 (1995): 69-133; David Halperin, The Merkabah in Rabbinic Literature, AOS 62 (New Haven; American Oriental Society, 1980), pp. 86-92; and Ithamar Gruenwald, Apocalyptic and Merkavah Mysticism, AGAJU 14 (Leiden and Koln: E. J. Brill, 1980), pp. 82-92.

(2) Joseph Dan, "The Religious Experience of the Merkavah," Jewish Spirituality: From the Bible Through the Middle Ages, Arthur Green, ed. (New York: Crossroad, 1988), pp. 289-307, esp. p. 293. For critical editions of the Tosephta text, see Saul Lieberman, ed., The Tosephta, 4 vols. (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1955-88); M. S. Zuckermandel, ed., Tosephta, based on the Erfurt and Vienna Codices (Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1970), p. 234.

(3) In addition to the works cited above, see Joseph Dan, The Ancient Jewish Mysticism (Tel Aviv: MOD Books, 1993), p. 93.

(4) Translation mine from the above-cited Zuckermandel edition of the Tosephta (see note 2 above).

(5) Marcus Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature (Brooklyn: P. Shalom, 1967), p. 1216; Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, eds., A Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1907), p. 825.

(6) Heinrich Graetz, Gnosticismus und Judenthum (Krotoschin: Monasd & Gohn, 1846), p. 59 (see also his History of the Jews. Volume 3: From the Revolt against the Zendik [511 C.E.] to the Capture of St. Jean d'Acre by the Mahometans [1291 C.E.] [Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1894], p. 549); Johann Maier, "Das Gefahrdungsmotivbei der Himmelsreise in der judischen Apokalyptik und 'Gnosis'," Kairos 5 (1963): 18-40; Henry A. Fischel, Rabbinic Literature and Greco-Roman Philosophy: A Study of Epicurea and Rhetorica in Early Midrashic Writings, SPB 21 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973); Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism, SJLA 25 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1977), pp. 60-73.

(7) W. Bousset, "Die Himmelsreise der Seele," Archiv fur Religionswissenschaft 4 (1901): 145-157; Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken, 1961), pp. 52-3; Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1965), pp. 14-19; Andre Neher, "Le voyage mystique des quatre," RevHistRel 140 (1951): 59-82; Arnold Goldberg, "Der verkannte G-tt. Prufung und Scheitern der Adepten in der Merkawamystik," ZRGG 26 (1974): 17-29; Gruenwald, Apocalyptic, p. 86.

(8) Goshen Gottstein, "Four Entered Paradise Revisited"; Goshen Gottstein, The Sinner and the Amnesiac: The Rabbinic Invention of Elisha ben Abuya and Eleazar ben Arach (Contraversions; Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), esp. pp. 47-61; Ephraim E. Urbach, "The Tradition concerning the Mystical Torah in the Age of the Tannaim," Studies in Mysticism and Religion (Fest. G. G. Scholem; Jerusalem: Magnes, 1967), pp. 1-28 (in Hebrew; see also his The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs [Jerusalem: Magnes, 1979], 1:193, 417); Halperin, The Merkabah, pp. 92, 167, 175, 180-1; Halperin, The Faces of the Chariot: Early Jewish Responses to Ezekiel's Vision, TSAJ 16 (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1988), pp. 23-37; Dan, "The Religious Experience," p. 296.

(9) Cf. Ithamar Gruenwald, "Two Types of Jewish Esoteric Literature in the Time of the Mishnah and Talmud," From Apocalypticism to Gnosticism: Studies in Apocalypticism, Merkavah Mysticism and Gnosticism, BEATAJ 14 (Frankfurt am Main, Bern, New York, Paris: Peter Lang, 1988), pp. 53-64, esp. p. 62, who maintains that the warning is directed to those who are not "qualified or fit" to engage in the subject. See also Gruenwald, Apocalyptic and Merkavah Mysticism, p. 88.

(10) Akiba is associated with Song 1:4; Aher with Qoh 5:5; ben Azzai with Ps 116:15; and ben Zoma with Prov 25:16. The Talmud Yerushalmi and various manuscripts of the Tosephta associate Ps 116:15 with ben Zoma and Prov 25:16 with ben Azzai (Halperin, The Merkabah, pp. 86-7). For treatment of these verses in relation to the respective Tannaim, see below.

(11) This would account for the literary contexts of the Tosephta, Babylonian Talmud, and Talmud Yerushalmi, all of which build upon mHagigah 2:1. Note also that each includes the tradition concerning R. Eleazar ben Arakh's exposition of Maaseh Merkavah before R. Yohanan ben Zakkai. In each case, R. Yohanan approves of Eleazar's exposition and kisses him on the head. Cf. SongR 1:4 which likewise presents the narrative in relation to the proper interpretation of scripture in that it relates the narrative as part of its exposition of Song 1:4.

(12) Note that the Erfurt manuscript of the Tosephta states that he "entered in peace and went out in peace." Halperin argues that the statement concerning Akiba's successful "ascent" and "descent" constitutes partial evidence that the Babylonian Talmud is the latest tradition, and that it attempts to portray the entry into pardes as an actual mystic ascent rather than as the correct exposition of scripture (The Merkabah, p. 92). Several features of the Babylonian Talmud tradition, however, undermine this interpretation: the literary context indicates that the story is meant to explain the Mishnah's statement that one who "expounds" upon Maaseh Merkavah must be "a sage who understands his own knowledge"; the Babylonian Talmud also includes a tradition that explains Akiba's safe ascent to pardes as the result of his correct exposition of scripture (bHag 15b-16a); the Babylonian Talmud includes the readings of both the Tosephta and the Talmud Yerushalmi. These factors indicate that indeed the Babylonian Talmud contains the latest version of the tradition, but it appears to be a harmonization of the older traditions that include both extant versions. The Babylonian Talmud thereby includes both understandings of the experience, i.e., as an actual mystic ascent and as the exposition of scripture.

(13) For a detailed survey of the traditions concerning R. Akiba, see Wilhelm Bacher, Die Agada der Tannaiten. Erster Band. Von Hillel bis Akiba, 2nd ed. (Strassburg: Karl J. Trubner, 1903), pp. 263-342. See also Louis Finkelstein, Akiba: Scholar, Saint and Martyr (New York: Atheneum, 1981), which presents a critically constructed account of R. Akiba's life in narrative form.

(14) Consequently, the accusative particle 'et in Gen 1:1, which can also mean "with" in other contexts, indicates that "heaven and earth" are not names of G-d, but refer to the actual heaven and the actual earth, i.e., Heaven and Earth are not the subjects of creation, but the objects (bHag 12a-b). Likewise, the appearance of 'et in Deut 6:13 indicates that scholars are to be respected together with G-d (bPes 22b).

(15) See now Gottfried Reeg, Die Geschichte von den Zehn Martyren, TSAJ 10 (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1985).

(16) Such concern with the qualifications of one who would experience pardes likewise call to mind the eight qualities necessary for successful descent on the Merkavah as defined in the Hekhalot Rabbati, including adherence to all the positive and negative commands of Rabbinic tradition (15:2).

(17) Apparently, this tradition plays a role in the identification of Akiba as the author of various theurgic works, such as the Shi'ur Qomah or the Sefer Yetzirah. See Martin Cohen, The Shi'ur Qomah: Liturgy and Theurgy in Pre-Kabbalistic Jewish Mysticism (Lanham, New York, and London: University Press of America, 1983), pp. 84-5.

(18) In SongR 1:10, fire surrounds ben Azzai when he expounds upon scripture, but he denies that he is engaged in the mysteries of the merkavah. Cf. Fischel, Rabbinic Literature, pp. 8-9, who denies any association of ben Azzai with mysticism, and contends that he was included in the tradition of the four who attempted to enter pardes because of his celibacy. On ben Azzai's celibacy, see below.

(19) On the Merkabah traditions associated with R. Yohanan ben Zakkai, see Jacob Neusner, Development of a Legend: Studies on the Traditions Concerning Yohanan ben Zakkai, SPB 16 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1970), pp. 247-252, 265-301. Neusner notes that the Babylonian Talmud's version of the tradition associating Yohanan ben Zakkai with Merkabah mysticism is the most highly developed and therefore the latest version. He also notes that although there is an attempt to employ the Merkabah theme to shape the image of Yohanan in relation to that of the mystic Elazar ben Arakh (pp. 276-7), the preservation of the Merkabah theme in Akiban circles indicates that it was probably related to Yohanan's life and thought (p. 299).

(20) Simeon bar Yohai survived the war by hiding in a cave with his son for thirteen years. According to bShab 33b, they studied Torah while sitting naked up to their necks in sand throughout this period, and when they emerged, fire from their eyes consumed whatever they saw. This tradition later became the basis for identifying Simeon bar Yohai as the author of the Zohar (see Scholem, Major Trends, pp. 156-204). For discussion of the Talmudic narratives concerning Simeon bar Yohai, see most recently, Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), pp. 105-138.

(21) For discussion of the traditions concerning Elisha ben Abuyah, see Bacher, Die Aggada der Tannaiten, pp. 430-434; Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories, pp. 64-104; Goshen-Gottstein, The Sinner and the Amnesiac, pp. 21-229.

(22) Note also Akiba's statement in time of adversity, "Whatever G-d does is for the best" (bBer 60b).

(23) N.b., Ben Azzai is also known for advocating the teaching of Torah to one's daughter so that she might know her merits in case of trial (mSotah 3:4).

(24) For a survey of traditions concerning Simeon ben Azzai, see Bacher, Die Aggada der Tannaiten, pp. 406-422; cf. Fischel, Rabbinic Literature, pp. 90-97.

(25) Elsewhere, R. Huna maintains that a man who is not married by the age of twenty spends his days in sin, or at least in sinful thoughts (bQiddushin 29b). Ben Azzai's failure to observe the first commandment is in striking contrast to his insistence that even minor commandments be observed (Abot R. Nat. 1:25).

(26) Note the New York manuscript of Hekhalot Zutarti (JTS 8128) emphasizes that ben Azzai's body was not able to endure the experience of the sixth palace (Schafer, Synopse, [section] 345).

(27) For discussion of the traditions concerning Simeon ben Zoma, see Bacher, Die Aggada der Tannaiten, pp. 422-430; Fischel, Rabbinic Literature, pp. 51-89; Samson H. Levey, "The Best Kept Secret of the Rabbinic Tradition," Judaism 21 (1972): 454-469.

(28) Note that the versions of this story recorded in tHag 2:6, yHag 2:1, and Genesis Rabbah 2:4 on Gen 1:7 do not include R. Joshua's reference to ben Zoma's fallacy. Furthermore, they tie the story to ben Zoma's death. Cf. Levey, "The Best Kept Secret," who argues that ben Zoma may have been an early convert to Christianity.

(29) The New York manuscript of Hekhalot Zutarti (JTS 8128) emphasizes that although ben Zoma's body endured the experience of the sixth palace (in contrast to ben Azzai), his knowledge was not able to endure (Schafer, Synopse, [section] 345).

(30) Akiba's initial statement in the version of the Babylonian Talmud, "When you arrive at the stones of pure marble, do not say, 'Water, water!' For it is said, 'He that speaks falsehood shall not be established before my eyes' (Ps 101:7)," is also relevant to the issue of scriptural interpretation. Not only does the tradition associate this statement with Psalm 101:7, but Neher, "Le voyage mystique," pp. 64-68, ties it to the image of the restored Temple in Ezek 47:1-12, from which water gushes out to create a new garden throughout the world. As in Ezekiel 1, the Temple symbolism dominates the surfaces images of this text, but its true significance lies in interpreting the meaning of the text that is conveyed by its surface symbolism. Here, water serves as an image in the text that points to the new creation symbolized by the erection of the new Temple. The interpreter must penetrate this image to understand the significance of the text and avoid speaking falsehood.

(31) So Halperin, The Faces of the Chariot, passim, who maintains that much of the mystical literature from this period expresses interpretation of Ezekiel's vision that was in opposition to Rabbinic tradition in the early Talmudic period.

(32) Cf. Ira Chernus, "Revelation and Merkabah Mysticism in Tannaitic Midrash," Mysticism in Rabbinic Judaism: Studies in the History of Midrash, SJ 11 (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1982), pp. 1-16, who notes the similarities between language pertaining to the revelation of Torah and that pertaining to Merkabah mysticism in Tannaitic midrash. After surveying the relevant texts, he concludes that this represents "the ability and desire of the rabbis to incorporate esotericism into their religious community without changing the community's basic principles" (p. 16). Chernus also notes that the Israelites respond to the revelation of Torah on Sinai by singing the Song of Songs as a hymn to G-d, "so that they may learn the divine teachings which have hitherto been unknown to human beings" (p. 11). Note that in SongR 1:12, R. Akiba interprets the statement, "while the king was still at his table" (Song 1:12) in reference to the statement in Exodus 24:16, "And the glory of the L-rd dwelt upon Mount Sinai."

(33) This is a revised version of a paper presented under the title, "Paradise Revisited: The Talmud and Jewish Mysticism," as the Eighteenth Annual Stone Lectureship in Judaism at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, March 21, 2002. I would like to thank Professors Robert D. Haak and Eleanor Ferris Beach for their invitation to present this lecture and for their kind hospitality during my stay at Augustana. Earlier versions of this paper have been presented at the American Academy of Religion Southeastern Regional Meeting (Gainesville, Florida, March 1995) and the University of Miami Religious Studies Colloquium (Coral Gables, Florida, March 1995). I would like to thank the members of the Religious Studies Department of the University of Miami for their invitation to lecture in my former department. I would also like to thank Prof. David S. Williams, University of Georgia, and Prof. Lewis M. Barth, Hebrew Union College--Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles, for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Of course, they are not to be held responsible for the views put forth here. The paper is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Morton M. Axler, a retired pediatrician and enthusiastic student, who contributed considerable insight while auditing my classes at the University of Miami. Special thanks go to an anonymous reader of this paper who turned out to be a patient of Dr. Axler in the 1950s!

Marvin A. Sweeney

Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate University
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