The Secret of the Ma'aseh Merkava According to Maimonides
Introduction: A Mishna about Secrets
One does not delve:
Into sexual matters in the presence of three [people],
ולא במעשה בראשית בשנים
Nor into the account of creation in the presence of two,
ולא במרכבה ביחיד
And not into the chariot in the presence of one,
אלא אם כן היה חכם ומבין מדעתו
unless that person is wise and understands independently. (m. Chagigah 2:1)
These are the secrets of the Bible (סודי התורה). The Mishna states that the chariot is not even to be used as a haftara, but we nevertheless read Ezekiel’s first chapter on Shavuot. It’s no surprise that this Mishna has stirred up much speculation. The promise of hidden knowledge, locked away only for the initiates is very tantalizing.
What are these elite groups looking at? No simple answer is evident. Even though the secrets are given names inspired by biblical passages, their deeper, esoteric meanings are not stated. Maybe it’s safe to assume that “the account of the beginning (מעשה בראשית)”—a reference to Genesis 1—has something to do with creation. But “the account of the chariot (מעשה מרכבה)”—a reference to Ezekiel 1—is so obscure that even identifying the subject matter is difficult.
Maimonides’ Interpretation of the Chariot: Metaphysics
“The philosophers,” among them Maimonides, claimed that the chariot stands for the most difficult and important kind of philosophical knowledge. Classical and medieval philosophy believed in a two-step progression of knowledge. The student of philosophy would begin with “the exact sciences,” logic and the mathematical sciences, which train the mind for more advanced topics. These advanced topics included natural sciences (physics) as well as divine science (metaphysics and theology), which includes study of what can and cannot be known about God and why.
Noting the two basic types of advanced topics, Maimonides wrote that the “account of the beginning” stands for natural science and the “account of the chariot” for divine science. The latter form of knowledge is even more esoteric than the former, requiring extensive training for which most people have neither time nor inclination. In the Guide, Maimonides reiterates that the chariot stands for divine science (metaphysics).
So why must it be kept secret? Perhaps mystification is the point. Divine science has a special place in the order of study. God’s essence is entirely unknowable, a “fearful and fascinating mystery,” and you can neither reveal nor keep secret what you do not know. If the merkavah—the divine chariot—is about divine science, and includes teachings about God and the angels, it would be fitting if it were to lead a person to acknowledge how far beyond his or her understanding such matters are.
The Chariot is not about God
Although Maimonides says the chariot is about metaphysics, he is also clear that it is not about God at all (Guide 3:7). God appears nowhere in the text as Maimonides understands it, and, if Maimonides is right, isn’t even part of the deeper meaning of the text. So if the divine mysteries are not included in Ezekiel’s vision, what is the vision about and in what way is it metaphysics?
Unravelling Maimonides’ Hints
Maimonides is purposefully opaque when writing about the chariot in the Guide. Maimonides is here following the dictates of the Mishna forbidding teaching about this subject. His preferred solution was to write in hints, in such a way as to ensure that only those who read the Guide and other books carefully enough will understand his interpretation; the unsophisticated will not see how he has clarified anything at all.
Guide to the Guide
How are we to put the clues together, and understand what Maimonides is really saying about the merkavah? Maimonides himself addresses this problem in the instructions he offers at the beginning of the Guide:
If you wish to grasp everything that it [the Guide] contains, so that nothing escapes you, combine its chapters one with another.… You ought to learn everything that ought to be learned and constantly study it.
The way to work out what Maimonides’ hints indicate is to follow both of these instructions:
- Read around to work out to what he might be alluding.
- Try to connect hints that appear in these chapters to explanations that he scatters in earlier parts of the Guide.
Once the puzzle has been pieced together, the picture that emerges is one of the cosmos as a whole. In other words, the vision of Ezekiel is about astronomy and the composition of the universe. What makes the matter so complicated, is that Ezekiel’s understanding of the universe—in Maimonides’ view—is actually different than Maimonides’ own understanding of the universe. In Maimonides’ reading, Ezekiel presents an account of the whole of natural science, what he understands about the world and what he understands about the heavens. But it is a highly idiosyncratic account, as a comparison with some of Maimonides’ other explanations of the cosmos shows.
We will discuss the implications of this in a later section, but first let’s take the opportunity to unpack some of Maimonides’ hints and see how exactly he reads the vision. We will use the meaning of the four beasts (Ezekiel 1:5) as our example.
Unpacking Maimonides Interpretation
Four Creatures = Four Spheres
Four living creatures carry Ezekiel’s chariot. What does this number represent? In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides likens the solar system to an onion, with its concentric layers representing the different planets. At the time, it was thought that the earth is a globe situated at the center of the universe and the planets are embedded in the strata above the earth, each planet belonging to a separate sphere. Maimonides states that, aside from the earth, there are nine spheres, an opinion shared by contemporary astronomers.
In Part 2 of the Guide, Maimonides’ goes into detailed descriptions of the spheres in a number of chapters. He flags their importance by calling them “a lamp illuminating the hidden features of the whole of this treatise,” and he repeats that when he discusses cosmology, and science generally, his purpose is to explain the accounts of the beginning and the chariot.
At one point in these chapters, Maimonides argues that it is possible to describe a universe with only four spheres above the earth, rather than the nine that he and others generally posit. Here is an example of how Maimonides left clues in one chapter that hint toward another chapter: Ezekiel, Maimonides hints, is one of those who counts four spheres instead of nine. Using the cosmology section as a “lamp” to shed light on the rest of the book, we can reasonably posit that, in his interpretation of the chariot, Maimonides connects each one of the four creatures to one of the heavenly spheres.
In this light, it’s possible to understand an enigmatic passage about the chariot.
Allegorizing the Living Creatures
Ezekiel describes four living creatures, each of which has four faces. One of the faces is human, one is that of a lion, a third is of an ox, and the fourth is an eagle (1:10). In the opening of the first seven chapters of part three of the Guide, which Maimonides dedicates to explaining the chariot vision, he explains the significance of the four faces as follows.
It is known that there are people whose faces resemble those of other animals, so that you see some people who look like lions and others who look like bulls and so on. According to the tendencies of their shapes the people are nicknamed. This is why he says “the face of an ox, the face of a lion, and the face of an eagle,” all of them are “human faces” that tend to the forms of these species (Guide 3:1).
It’s not immediately clear how this comment is supposed to aid us in understanding the deeper meaning. However, assuming that the creatures represent the four heavenly spheres helps us unpack the meaning of this passage.
The Spheres as Intelligent Creatures
Astronomers considered the spheres to be a genus and each of the spheres, and the planets in them, to constitute a single species. In the same way as humans and cats are different species both belonging to the genus “animal,” the planets are each different species of the genus “star.” Maimonides therefore draws attention to the fact that each of the creatures is depicted as alternative specie.
What of his peculiar claim that the living creatures are really humans that look like animals? This too makes sense when understood against the background of contemporary astronomical theories.
In order to explain how it can be that the spheres move, it was posited that they are rational beings, as they would need to be able to represent a thought about what they were moving for. It’s therefore fitting that they be represented by human faces, since the specific difference of humans, i.e., what makes the human species different from any other animals, was thought to be reason. Since Maimonides takes the animals to represent the spheres, he hints that each of them possesses the same property that is characteristic of humans, intellect.
Why is this a Secret?
If Ezekiel’s vision is simply astrophysics, why did the Sages insist on keeping it a secret? Why is it so potentially disturbing? I suggest that the key lays in the differences between Maimonides’ worldview and that which he assumes to be that of Ezekiel.
To make this point clear, we first need to look at Maimonides’ view on two crucial ancient scientific beliefs: astrology and the music of the spheres.
Maimonides’ View of Astrology
Maimonides fiercely attacked astrologers, arguing that astrological practices are idolatrous and also that their predictions are simply false since they are based on false premises. Today, many think of astrology as connected with magic and superstition. But in Maimonides’ time, it was considered a science, although far less certain than other forms of natural science.
The idea was that the heavens move in ordered and intelligible ways. In doing so, they influence what happens down here on earth. Working out the precise motions of the stars, and the ways in which they can influence the lower world, could provide information about what should happen here on earth.
In his total rejection of astrology, Maimonides may have rejected aspects of astrology that many in his time considered scientific, including thinkers such as ibn Ezra and Gersonides. His rejection even seems to have a religious tinge to it, since it goes together with his emphasizing the role that God’s will plays in creation.
Medieval scientific astrology presumes a mechanistic and deterministic world. One can predict what will happen because there is a precise, known connection between what happens in one part of the heaven and what happens in our world. There is an intelligible cause and effect between the two realms.
By contrast, Maimonides argues that the heavenly motions are not intelligible. The way they appear to us can be described, but they cannot be understood because their movements do not appear to follow any intelligible pattern. He considers this to be evidence, although not conclusive proof, that the world is how it is because God wills it to be so. That is, God is not compelled to create the world in a way that runs along a course determined by the fixed laws of nature. There are, therefore, aspects of creation that are not understood and might not be open to scientific investigation.
Maimonides may be understood, therefore, as rejecting the role and function of heavenly spheres not only because he found it philosophically or empirically unsatisfactory but because it limits God’s role as creator and maintainer of the universe.
Music of the Spheres
One of the underpinnings of the science of astrological prediction was the belief that the heavens are ordered in a (literally) harmonious fashion, i.e., that the heavens make a beautiful sound. For Pythagoras, as Aristotle reports, the intervals between the respective spheres are rational and correspond to mathematical distances between musical notes. And so began a long tradition of belief in the music of the spheres, which Maimonides rejected.
He states the Jewish sages and Aristotle debated the matter. The sages followed Pythagoras and argued that the heavens make music but Aristotle refuted them. Maimonides explains that whenever there is a conclusive scientific demonstration, that demonstration ought to be accepted, no matter the stature of the rejected authorities, and thus we must reject the Sages and accept Aristotle.
Although not the main message of the above account, it is illuminating the think about Maimonides point in light of another passage in the chariot account, one not glossed by Maimonides in the Guide.
When they moved, I heard the sound of their wings like the sound of mighty waters, like the sound of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army (Ezek 1:24).
Although Maimonides does not say so explicitly, it seems that he attributes the belief that the spheres make music to Ezekiel as well as to other sages. He hints at this by placing the chapter on the spheres’ music in the section that explains the vision.
The Secret: Ezekiel’s Vision is Wrong
Putting all this together, I would like to suggest that the secret Maimonides is keeping from all but his most enlightened readers is that Ezekiel’s vision reflects and incorrect, outdated view of the universe. Ezekiel is working with a four-sphere model; the correct model is nine spheres. Ezekiel believes in the music of the spheres and, therefore, astrology. Maimonides denies the truth of this way of thinking.
As Maimonides point out, in cases of scientific fact and theory, even the Talmudic rabbis could make mistakes. This could be true of prophets as well. This explosive claim, that prophets could err, and the great “account of the chariot” is simply an allegorical presentation of an outdated and inaccurate system of astrophysics, could very well be why Maimonides went to such great lengths to keep the “real meaning” of the vision well hidden.
Conclusion – Relevance of the Study for Modern Times
All of this will probably strike most readers as recondite and unimportant. The medieval picture of the universe has now been completely overturned, so why should we pay attention to what Maimonides has to say about cosmology? And what, if anything, can we take from his interpretation of Ezekiel?
One reaction might be to point that Maimonides explanation is far from peshat. He is reading everything through the lens of a medieval philosopher and has no conception of the worldview of a sixth century BCE Judahite living in Babylon.
Should we simply write off Maimonides’ interpretation of the chariot as incorrect (similar to what Maimonides does to Ezekiel himself)? I suspect that if Maimonides were around today, he would have no problem saying that he got it wrong, at least in its details. After all, he claims to have come up with the interpretation through his own insights and conjectures, not through divine revelation.
It is possible that he would have interpreted it in an entirely different way or even refrained from explaining it altogether. Nevertheless, it is also possible that he would wish to retain the general message, and suggest that one way to read Ezekiel is to connect it with the kinds of spirituality that he objected to, whether because they place too much emphasis on an emotional connection with a false God or because they are based on superstition or pseudoscience.
No doubt, detractors can still object, arguing that Maimonides did not understand the vision. Presumably, the mystically inclined among them would say that the content is far deeper than Maimonides imagined, only perceived by few in a generation, if any, and they would keep their secrets to themselves.
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May 1, 2015
January 18, 2021
Dr. Daniel Davies is a Research Associate in the PESHAT project based at the University of Hamburg. His Ph.D. is from the University of Cambridge and he is currently working on medieval Hebrew translations of Arabic philosophical works. He is the author of Method and Metaphysics in Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed.
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