Sunday 12 July 2020


Babylonian incantation bowls or 'demon traps' which often made reference to Metatron. 



In early pre-Zoharic mystical writings - known as the Merkavah and Heichalot literature - the angel Metatron is featured as playing a dominant role in Heaven. Metatron is described as such an elevated angel that he is referred to as Y-H-V-H haKatan or the Lesser G-d.

This is an astounding assumption, even for an early mystical literature, as it opens the door for ‘Two Powers in Heaven’ – G-d and Metatron - which poses a serious threat to basic monotheism which subscribes to only ‘One Power in Heaven.’

What comes as even more of a surprise is that the Two Powers in Heaven concept also features in the Babylonian Talmud.

The notion of Two Powers in Heaven is, as one might expect, subject to much scholarly debate.
In this article, I have drawn from various sources including Professors Alan F. Segal[1], Daniel Boyarin[2], Peter Schafer[3] and Adiel Schremer[4].



According to Adiel Schremer of Bar Ilan University, resorting to such an unexpected expression of belief in Two Powers in Heaven was not meant as a theological stumbling block in the way of monotheism, but rather an act of protest against G-d after the destruction of the Second Temple and sprung from a mood of despair.

Schremer writes:

“In contrast to previous interpretations I suggest that Two Powers, as constructed by early rabbinic sources, is one of a variety of theoretical options, which early rabbinic sources view as an expression of existential giving up on God, because of His inability to demonstrate His power, as was exposed in the destruction of the Second Temple and the military defeat of the Jews in the Bar Kokhba revolt. On this reading, Two Powers was not considered by the Rabbis as a threat due to a theological challenge it imposed to the monotheistic principle, as it is frequently seen...

It turns that Two Powers was not conceived of by Palestinian Rabbis as a theologoumenon characteristic of any specific group—either Christianity, as suggested by some scholars, or Gnosticism, as maintained by others. Rather it was understood as an existential response of despair, to what appeared to be God’s refraining from revealing His power.”[5]



Daniel Boyarin takes another approach and writes:

“[F]rom my point of view, the orthodoxy that the Rabbis [of the Talmud][6] were concerned about was an orthodoxy that they were making by constructing ‘Two Powers in Heaven’ as heresy, at just about the same time that bishops were declaring the belief in ‘One Power in Heaven’ – ‘Monarchianism’[7] – a leading heresy of Christianity.”

According to Boyarin, the rabbis were thus drawing a theological line in the sand at the time Christianity was beginning to develop its dogma.

However, as we shall see, it was not so simple to declare the belief in Two Powers in Heaven as heresy - because it persisted to linger in some of the literature.



We will now explore a third and perhaps more literal reading of Two powers in Heaven, with G-d somewhat ‘sharing’ His power with Metatron:


The notion of Two Powers in Heaven is - by far - more dominant in the Talmud Bavli than in the Talmud Yerushalmi. This highlights the fundamental different theologies or Hashkafot within the two Talmudim.

Peter Schafer writes:

“I have repeatedly argued that certain traditions are unique to the very specific historical and cultural context of Babylonian Jewry, and my findings regarding the figure of Metatron confirm this claim.”

In other words - on this view - the Babylonian Jews were more readily prepared to entertain the notion of Two Powers in Heaven than their Palestinian counterparts.

Even without Shafer’s interpretation, this does appear to be the case by a simple reading of the relevant texts from the Bavli.

This is a fascinating position because it shows a great theological divide between the Bavli and the Yerushalmi on such a fundamental principle.

It must be pointed out that it is not only with regard to Matatron that we see such differences in worldview between both Talmudim. Babylonian culture, in general, was steeped in Angelology and Demonology. This is why Angelology and Demonology are mentioned far more frequently in the Bavli than in the Yerushalmi. Clearly, both Talmudim represented different theologies on these esoteric matters.



The earliest Midrashic reference to Metatron is in Sifre Devarim which dates back to the 3rd-century:

Just before Moshe passes away, the Torah tells us that Hashem allows him a glance at the Holy Land:

 “...The Lord addressed Moses as follows: Ascend this mountain of Avarim, Mount Nevo, which is in the land of Moav, across from Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving the Israelites for a possession.” (Devarim 32:48)

R. Eliezer says: “The finger of the Holy what served Moses as metatron, pointing out to him all the cities in the Land of Israel...”[8]


Another slightly later Midrashic source is the Bereishit Rabbah:

This Midrash is based on the verse in Genesis describing the creation of dry land: “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear” (Ber. 1:9) and then that verse is related to another verse in Tehillim (104:7): “At Your rebuke they [the waters] flee; at the sound [voice] of Your thunder they take to flight.

“R. Levi said: ...The voice of the Lord became a metatron to the waters...”

In this second source, it is G-d’s voice not finger that becomes a metatron.


Interestingly the name Metatron is derived from the Latin and Greek word ‘metator’ which means ‘guide’.

Schafer suggests that at this stage these two early Midrashic sources may not necessarily be referring to an angel called Metatron but rather to a power of G-d – His anthropomorphic finger or voice – which serves as a metator or guide.

It was only later, in his view, that medieval scribes replaced metator with Metatron after the well-known angel Metatron who had become popularised in the Babylonian literature.


In a mystical work entitled Re’uyot Yechezkel or Visions of Ezekiel, there is another reference to Metatron. This work described its perception of the seven heavens and who or what inhabits which realms. In the description of the third heaven, called Zevul, R. Levi describes the Sar or Prince sitting before myriads of ministering beings. 

This is followed by a discussion of what the Prince’s name is. Suggestions follow with the names Kimos, Me’atah, Bi’zevul, Atatyah, and finally Matatron. Metatron is described as being connected to Gevurah which is reference to G-d.

Essentially, Metatron emerges from this text as being very similar and close to G-d Himself.
Re’uyot Yechezkel is associated, according to some scholars including Gershom Scholem[9] with the Merkavah literature. However other scholars disagree and Schafer considers it a later Babylonian composition written pseudoepigraphically - something very common in historical times - as if it were an earlier Palestinian mystical work.

This second view is significant to our discussion as it reinforces the hypothesis that Metatron was a Babylonian innovation and not something entertained by the Palestinian rabbis.



According to the Talmud Bavli[10] the great heretic Elisha ben Avuyah, also known as Acher, sees Metatron sitting on a throne and he concludes that there are two Reshuyot or Powers in Heaven. Thus Metatron is more than just an angel but enjoys a higher G-d-like status. 

The narrative continues with Metatron receiving sixty fiery lashes from another divine power, Anafiel, “so that everyone will know who is the master and who is the slave”.[11] Nevertheless, Acher was led to believe that there were two powers in Heaven and he became a heretic because he was raised believing there was only one.


According to another source[12], R. Yishmael ben Elisha haKohen once entered the (heavenly) Holy of Holies and he saw Akatriel Ka Hashem Tzevakot seated on an exulted throne. Akatriel[13] here is clearly not a mere angel but, like Metatron (with whom he is identified in Heichalot sources) enjoys a higher G-d-like status as can be seen by his assuming G-d’s names of Ka and Hashem Tzevakot.
Akatriel asks R. Yishmael to bless Him, which he does and the Talmud concluded that the blessing of a simple person should never be taken lightly as even Akatriel/G-d/Metatron needs to be blessed. 

This text, surprisingly, leaves room for the notion of two powers in Heaven.

In fact, the Sefaria interpretation of this text clearly states that Akatriel is:

“Akatriel...[is] one of the names of G-d expressing his ultimate authority...If God [Akatriel][14] asked for and accepted a man’s blessing, all the more so that a man must value the blessing of another man.”


In another version of this story as told in Heichalot work, Razo Shel Sandalfon, R. Yishmael is identified as Acher and he meets Akatriel similarly sitting on an exulted throne at the entrance to the inner sanctum called Pardes, giving the impression that there are two powers in Heaven. Surprisingly, G-d does not, in this version of the narrative, rebuke Acher for drawing this conclusion but simply tells him not to interfere in G-d’s mysteries!

Amazingly, this Heichalot version of the Talmudic story seems to confirm the notion that Akatriel/Metatron is one of those two powers in Heaven (although here, unlike the Bavli version, he does not seem to be equated directly with G-d).


Another incident relating to R. Yishmael is recorded in Heichalot Rabbati[15] where R. Nechunya ben Hakana adjures R. Yishmael with a ‘great seal’ to protect him from forgetting all the Torah he had studied. The ‘great seal’ belonged to:

 “Zebudiel the Lord, the God of Israel and this is Metatron the Lord Y-H-V-H, the God of Israel, God of heaven and God of earth, God of gods, God of the sea and God of the mainland.”

There is certainly no ambiguity in this source as to who Metatron is.


The Babylonian Talmud[16] records a discussion between Rav Idit and a min or heretic. The min points out that the biblical verse: “And to Moses He said: Come up to the Lord,”[17] should have read: “Come up to Me,” – otherwise it implies another power in Heaven.

Astoundingly Rav Idit responds that in that instance, “the Lord” refers to “Metatron, whose name is like that of his Master.

Rav Idit continues by bringing a scriptural support from another verse describing who should lead the Israelites through the desert during the Exodus:

“Behold I send an angel before you to keep you in the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Take heed of him and obey his voice; do not defy him; for he will not pardon your transgression, for My name is in him.”[18]

The min responds that if so, we should worship Metatron as we worship G-d! The text continues with some to and fro with Rav Idit eventually acknowledging the existence of the ‘Guide’ (be’ farvanka) but clarifying – just on a technicality – that, during the Exodus, we did not accept the other Power (Metatron) but chose only relate to G-d Himself. 

This Guide/Metatron would have led the Jewish People to the Land of Israel but Moses told G-d that if G-d Himself does not accompany the Jewish people they do not want to travel to Eretz Yisrael.
Essentially Rav Idit was admitting that there are two powers in Heaven, and even when the ‘second power’ was offered to us in a biblical verse, we chose G-d instead!


The name Metatron appears on many Babylonian incantation bowls, indicating that his name was well-known and well-used during Talmudic times in Bavel. The bowls were turned upside down and set in the foundations of the houses in order to trap demons and keep them contained therein. Many of these bowls were commissioned by Babylonian Jews between the 6th to 8th-centuries, corresponding to the period of the Babylonian Talmud.

This makes sense as Angelology and Demonology were popular in Zoroastrian Babylonia and comprised a significant component of Babylonian influence on the Babylonian Talmud.
Metatron was often referred to on the incantation bowls as Sara Rabbah or Great Prince, a title commonly used for Metatron in the Heichalot literature.


By stark contrast - as mentioned earlier - Metatron and the idea of Two Powers in Heaven is almost entirely absent from the Yerushalmi and Palestinian sources.
This supports the idea that Angelology was a common feature of Babylonian Jewry but had little influence of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael.

The notion of Metaton and Two Powers in Heaven belong to Babylonian traditions and, although popular, cannot be considered universal Jewish beliefs as evidenced by them being largely ignored by Palestinian Talmudic sources.


Surprisingly we see how, sometimes, even our primary texts flirt dangerously close to ideas that appear as anathemas to basic and pure monotheism. 

The Mishna [Ber. 33b], which preceded the Babylonian Talmud, ruled against an apparent minor matter of saying modim modim (thank You, thank You) in the prayers, as it may appear as if the worshipper was praying to two different entities. Obviously, these were issues that were prevalent within the Jewish community. Yet later, during Gemara or Talmudic times, the Babylonian culture clearly fell foul of Mishnaic rulings such as these.

Perhaps it was because of notions like Two Powers in Heaven that Maimonides, following the Yerushalmi, took a powerful stance against Angelology and Demonology in an attempt to rid Judaism of some of the cultural influences of Babylonia.

The Babylonians sought, as it were, to overpopulate the Heavens with angelic hierarchies, evil entities and even Divine ‘vice-regents’ - while Maimonides theologically ‘depopulated’ the Heavens, removed the esoteric clutter and taught of a clean, open and silent ‘space’ between man and G-d.


[1] Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism (Leiden: Brill, 1977).
[2] Daniel Boyarin, “Two Powers in Heaven; Or, The Making of a Heresy,” in The Idea of Biblical Interpretation: Essays in Honor of James L. Kugel (ed. Hindy Najman and Judith H. Newman; Leiden: Brill, 2004).
[3] Peter Schafer, Metatron in Babylonia.
[4] Adiel Schremer, Midrash, Theology, and History: Two Powers in Heaven Revisited.
[5] Schremer elaborates in a footnote: “In suggesting that for second-century Palestinian Rabbis Two Powers was not a pure theological problem, but rather an existential reaction to concrete historical events of military defeat, I do not wish, in any way, to be understood as claiming that this is the only perspective existing in the entire rabbinic corpus of late antiquity. Change through time is the fate of most human ideas, the one to be discussed here is no exception. Therefore, the possibility that Two Powers retained a different meaning in rabbinic sources of later times should not pose any difficulty to the thesis hereby suggested, which concentrates primarily on the rabbinic sources of late first and second centuries C.E.” He also writes: “the discussion must be confined (at least in its initial stage) to the Tannaitic sources. Later, Amoraic sources will be left aside, in order to avoid the danger of anachronistic projections of notions that may be existing only in late, Amoraic, materials onto the early, Tannaitic, ones.”
[6] Parenthesis mine.
[7] Defined by the Catholic Encyclopaedia as: “A Christian theology that emphasizes God as one person, in direct contrast to Trinitarianism which defines God as three persons coexisting consubstantially as one in being.”
[8] Sifre Devarim 338.
[9] Gershom Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition. 5, 44-45.
[10] Chagigah 15a.
[11] Tosefta Chagiga 2:4.
[12] Berachot 7a.
[13] Or Achtriel.
[14] Parentheses mine.
[15] Heichalot Rabbati 279.
[16] Sanhedrin 38b.
[17] Shemot 24:1.
[18] Shemot 23: 20-21.

1 comment:

  1. Was a little surprised you didn't bring the midrash that Chanoch is Megatron. When Hashem saved him from dor enosh, it means he transcended and evolved into Megatron. (And since he was a man and neshama, he transcended higher than malachim.