Sunday 26 January 2020


The 1921 collection of R. Shlomo Moussaiff's Merkavah texts not meant for public consumption.



This purpose of this article is to present a brief overview of the dominant mystical literature that existed prior to the publication of the Zohar in around 1280 - with specific focus on how certain early books were regarded as being ‘dangerous’ if not approached correctly.

I have drawn extensively from the research of Professor Gideon Bohak,[1] a specialist in Jewish magic in Antiquity and the Middle ages, as well as in the textual fragments from the Cairo Geniza.

Many are somewhat familiar with the Kabbalah of the Zohar (and its system of Sefirot or spheres and Kelipot or unclean husks) but not much is known of the earlier mystical literature which falls into the category of Heichalot (-where one ‘ascends’ to the Heavenly Palaces) and Merkavah (-where one ‘descends’ into the Chariot).

Today, the modern student of mysticism or Chassidut is often presented with a model of Kabbalah that is almost clinical and made to resemble a version of religious ‘quantum physics’ – but the origins of this literature present as a very different style entirely.

NOTE: Some Readers may find certain references from quoted texts to be sexist and possibly offensive. No offence is meant.


There is much scholarly debate as to whether this form of Heichalot and Merkavah mysticism originated in Palestine or Babylonia, let alone as to when it started - but there is concrete evidence it was in existence from around the 5th or 6th-century CE.[2]

For the next few centuries the Heichalot and Merkavah mysticism most likely circulated as an oral tradition - but certainly around the 9th or 10th-century it became available in manuscript form.

Bohak points out that reports from various Jewish communities at that time show that:

“...the manuscripts in which this literature was transmitted were not seen as standard manuscripts of Hebrew literature, but as special manuscripts, which may only be approached in a state of purity. Failing to observe this rule could lead to great danger...”

The 12th and 13th-century Chassidei Ashkenaz were also interested in this Heichalot and Merkavah literature. [See These Are Not Superstitions.]


An early text which gives some insight into the style and content of Heilchalot and Merkavah literature is the Scroll of Achima’atz, written by Achima’atz ben Paltiel (1017-1060).

The Scroll of Achima’atz, also known as Megillat Yuchasin, was written in rhymed Hebrew prose with extensive vocabulary and takes the form of a chronicle. This thousand-year-old work was discovered by accident in a Spanish library and published in 1895.

According to Achima’atz, his family descended from the captives taken by Titus to Rome after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

Achima’atz was a chronicler from southern Italy and his writing, often drawing from earlier accounts going back to the 9th-century, gives one a window into the beliefs and practices of that the time when this particular mystical literature was popular.

Bohak writes that the strange and incredulous events portrayed in the Scroll of Achima’atz:

“...often stretch the modern reader’s credulity far beyond the breaking point.”

Achima’atz describes an ancestor of his, R. Amittai and his three sons who are:

 “...learned persons and poets, educators and teachers to decent pupils...who understand secrets...[and are] adept in the mysteries...well versed in Sefer ha-Yashar [a book on angelology and magic], [and] gazers onto the secret of the Merkavah.”[3]

The Scroll of Achima’atz also informs us that the family had a spiritual heirloom which was preserved for at least four generations, and that was the Sefer haMerkavah.

But a strange fate awaited that book. The fourth-generation custodian of the Sefer haMerkavah was Baruch who was no longer pious or observant. The following event is related in the Scroll and Baruch, due to his negligence, is held to be responsible:

“[I]t happened one day on the eve of the Sabbath... when the day grew dark, and the daylight darkened, and the one who had to light the candle was not there, to light it before the Book of the Chariot [Sefer haMerkavah].”

Apparently, a candle was kindled in the presence of this holy book every Shabbat. On one occasion, it seems that the regular person tasked with kindling the candle was not present, perhaps due to Baruch’s negligence and lack of observance.

“And a certain woman stood there, and she was menstruant, this cursed woman ‒ may she be erased from the book of life, and may she be wiped out from the world to come ‒ and she lit the candle before the Torah [which is what Sefer haMerkavah is referred to[4]] and the wrath of God was upon the family, and many died in that plague, only a few survived out of the many they were.

And there was there an understanding Jew, who realized and understood the event that had happened. He took the book and placed it in a vessel of lead, to sink it in the depths of the sea; and the sea retreated [in fear], for about a mile it receded; and the Jew [walked that mile out to sea and] cast the vessel into the sea, and the sea returned to its place; at once the terrible ordainment was voided and the plague came to an end. 

And the memory of Baruch ceased to exist, his candle faded and was extinguished, for he left behind him none to engage in the One who reanimates, as he had no son, only one daughter.”[5]

The placing of an object, possessed by something perceived to be unclean or evil, also occurs in another section of the Scroll of Achima’atz. One of Achima’atz’s ancestors, R. Shefatiah was said to have exorcised a demon from the king’s daughter. He placed the demon in a vessel and sealed it with lead and also cast it into the ocean.[6]


Bohak writes:

“The Scroll of Ahimaaz is not the most sober of historical chronicles, and its story about a Hekhalot manuscript that ended up in the Mediterranean Sea may be taken with more than a grain of sea-salt. 

In fact, it would have been easy to dismiss this story as utterly farfetched, were it not for the fact that the main assumptions that lie behind it are reflected in a much more sober text, written at about the same time in a very different Jewish community.”

Bohak is referring to a Teshuva or Responsum from Rav Hai Gaon (939-1038) who was the head of the Academy in Pumbedita (Fallujah) in answer to questions from the rabbis Kairouan (Tunisia), about the use of the Divine Name for practical (magical) benefit.

The original questions and the Responsum have been lost but evidently, the Kairouan rabbis weren’t satisfied with Rav Hai Gaon’s original answer so they wrote to him again. This second letter is extant. The questions and the answers give us a parallel and corroborating insight into the spirituality at that time.

The Kairouan rabbis claimed to have many books containing literature dealing with Divine and other powerful names.

They wrote:

“And we have several books among us, in which are written some of the Names, and some names of angels, and form(s) of seals, and they (i.e.,these books) say, Whoever wants to perform so and so, or to succeed in so and so, should write so and so like this (i.e., as shown in the book), on (material) so and so and should do thus, and the deed will come true for him.

And the elders and the pious people, when they would see these books they would fear them and would not approach them, and say that a certain man performed a deed so and so like that which is written in the books, and the deed did come true, but his own eyes were blinded, and some did not live through the year, and some did not live through the week, since they were not in a state of purity when they recited that Name.”[7]

The letter is pages long and goes on to quote relevant sections of the Babylonian Talmud which deal with similar matters. For some reason, the Heichalot and Merkavah texts are not specifically mentioned by the rabbis of Kairouan.

Rav Hai Gaon’s correspondingly lengthy response informs his questioners that he is well aware of the circulation of these popular magical books advocating such practices but in his view, it is all nonsense. 

However, on his own accord, he proceeds to distinguish between those popular magic books and a second category of what he regards as genuine mystical literature – the books of the Heichalot and Merkavah:

a) In the first category of what he considers to be magical (theurgical) and nonsensical works, he includes Sefer haYashar (on angelology), the Sword of Moshe and Razza Rabba (The Great Secret), including other:

“...fragments and individual passages, which are endless and without number...
many have spent much effort and wasted many years and found no truth in the matter.”

b) In the second category, however, it is clear that Rav Hai Gaon has great regard for what he considers to be genuine mystical (theosophical) Heichalot and Merkavah literature. He even refers to these mystical writings as Mishnayot (Mishnaic literature)[8]:

“[T]here are books and Names and seals and  Hekhalot Rabbata  and  Hekhalot Zeirata, and Sar Torah and other mishnayot, that whoever sees them becomes frightened, and so were our forefathers, and so are we, that we only approach them in purity and fear and trembling.

And we also heard persistent claims that some who have dealt with them perished quickly, and all this because of the sanctity of the Name and the sanctity of the Shekhinot  and of the angels who are around them, and the sanctity of the Merkabah, and that whoever deals with this deed, the angels swarm all around him...”

Thus Rav Hai Gaon disregards the folk magic but has high regard, if not awe, for Heichalot and Merkavah mysticism.

Rav Hai Gaon’s interesting reference to Heichalot literature as Mishnayot is paralleled in the Heichalot texts themselves which often refer to its own teachings as Mishnayot. And since Rav Hai Gaon says ‘whoever sees them’ it is clear that by that stage they were written texts and not oral transmissions.

Bohak points out that essentially Rav Hai Gaon maintains the same position as that portrayed in the Scroll of Achima’atz:

“[W]hat we saw should suffice to convince us that his attitude towards the Hekhalot / Merkabah literature was not that different from that of Ahima’atz and his ancestors.”


Having established that both Achima’atz and Rav Hai Gaon believed that Heichalot and Merkavah texts are dangerous and can only be approached in purity, Bohak shows how these warnings are also prevalent in the actual texts themselves:

According to a Heichalot text fragment found in the Cairo Geniza, dated around the 11th-century, which would be contemporaneous to both Achima’atz and Rav Hai Gaon, the following practice is prescribed:

 “How does he use it (i.e., one of God’s powerful Names)? He goes and sits in a house by himself, and keeps fasting the whole day, and does not eat the bread of (i.e., made by) a woman, and looks neither at a man nor at a woman, and when he walks in the market he hides his eyes from all creatures, and does not look even at a day-old baby. And he immerses himself (in water) from evening to evening[9], and recites this thing after the evening Shema prayer, each and every day...”

And the text proceeds with a warning that a certain mystical incantation must be recited precisely 111 times otherwise:

 “...his blood is upon his head.”


[See The Cairo Geniza - 1000 Years of Torah on African Soil.]


The textual fragments found in the Cairo Geniza reveal some fascinating clues as to the structure and status of the original Heichalot manuscripts. On inspection, some fragments reveal how they were written in columns of uniform width.

Bohak explains:

“This is an extremely unusual find, since by the ninth and tenth centuries, which is when these manuscripts probably were copied, only Torah-scrolls were written in this archaic format.
Using such a format for Hekhalot literature clearly implied the great sanctity of these texts in the eyes of their copyists and users.” 


Another unusual characteristic of some of these fragments is how they are neatly divided into chapters and paragraphs. This corroborates Rav Hai Gaon’s reference to Heichalot literature as Mishnayot. Apparently they were also considered to have similar status to Mishnaic texts.


A much later fragment from the Cairo Geniza was discovered, which reveals something of great interest. It is a fragment of Heichalot writing, but this time not resembling a horizontal Torah text.

Rather, it is in the form of a vertical scroll known as a Rotulus and written on paper, not parchment. A Rotulus was cheaper to make and easier to transport because it was rolled from top to bottom.
A Heichalot text appearing in a Rotulus format would indicate a downgrading of its status at that time.

This Rotulus fragment is dated from the 13th-century and was significantly produced in Cairo.


Bohak does not suggest this but perhaps this was a result of more rational influences from Rambam (d. 1204) who lived in Cairo at around that time. Rambam had no time for magic and mysticism and did not believe in forces of good and evil (in keeping with the idea that G-d prohibited the eating of the fruit of the tree of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ – so that humans would not create categories of ‘good’ and ‘evil’  – yet the first thing they did was create such realms).

Furthermore - and perhaps in keeping with this hypothesis - is the listing of a Heichalot codex in a 12th-century (inventory) booklist (the latter being common finds in the Cairo Geniza).

In this particular listing, now for the first time, a Heichalot work is simply referred to as a diftar which means a common book!

This again indicates a possible downgrade in Rambam’s Cairo in the status of Heichalot literature from what we saw started out as a Torah, then a Mishna and now just a common diftar.


In 1921, a Bukharan (today the area around Uzbekistan) Jew and collector of manuscripts, by the name of Shlomo Moussaieff, published a series of Heichalot texts from his own collection under the title Merkavah Shleima.

In his introduction, he writes at length about the dangers of this literature if not approached respectfully. But he adds another very interesting stipulation - not to sell the book to people who would use the work to show Jews in a bad light.

He writes:

“[O]ne should sell this book only to Torah disciples and God-fearing persons, and one should guard it and study it in purity, and not approach the holy at all times[10].”

Ironically, the book is now available online here.

[1] Gideon Bohak, Dangerous Books; The Hekhalot Texts as Physical Objects.
[2] This is based on the emergence, in Babylonia, of Aramaic incantation bowls which represent the ethos of this literature at that time.
[3] Klar, Megillat Ahimaaz, p. 12.
[4] It is interesting that to this day, some Chassidim do not hesitate to place their signature mystical works on top of a Chumash. And kindling a light before the Torah is also observed today by the ner tamid or eternal light which burns in synagogues in front of the Ark which houses the Torah scrolls.
[5] Klar, Megillat Ahimaaz, p. 30.
[6] This may have been based on an idea in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 64a and Yoma 69b) where the evil inclination, in the time of Zecharia, was described as a fiery lion cub which was caught and also sealed in a lead vessel to prevent its voice being heard when it roared.
[7] S. Emanuel, Newly Discovered Geonic Responsa (Jerusalem and Cleveland: Ofeq Institute, Friedberg Library, 1995), p. 125. 
[8] Rav Hai Gaon writes: “[T]here are two mishnayot which the Tannaim (the rabbis of the Mishnaic period (0-200CE) recite about this, and they are called Hekhalot Rabbati and Hekhalot Zutarti, and this thing is widely known.” 
[9] Literally ‘between the suns’ which is the time between sunset and nightfall.
[10] A play on Lev. 16:2.

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