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James R. Davila


School of Divinity




SBL Annual Meeting - PSCOsession 2004


(c) 2004:  reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the author




I use the term "descenders to the chariot" to refer to the practitioners of ritual power who are portrayed in and who presumably wrote the Hekhalot literature.  Their floruit was in late antiquity and probably extended well into the Middle Ages.  Most of the Hekhalot documents use, at least from time to time, the curious idiom "to descend to the chariot" as a description of the otherworldly journey of the Hekhalot practitioner to the celestial throne-chariot of God.  Some, but not all of the documents also call these practitioners the "descenders to the chariot."  Without attempting to explain just what the idiom means, in this paper I will refer to the Hekhalot practitioners as descenders to the chariot on the grounds that this is the main name the authors of the texts use for them.  Others prefer to call them "Merkavah mystics," that is, people who had a mystical experience involving ascent to the Merkavah, again, God's celestial throne chariot.  But mysticism is a notoriously imprecise word and I have explained in my book, Descenders to the Chariot , why I am inclined to avoid it.[1]


                        Ancient natal astrology drew inferences about an individual's personality and fate based on the positions of the seven planets and the twelve signs of the zodiac in relation to the twelve "houses" into which the circle of the ecliptic is divided.  I am not an expert in ancient Jewish astrology, but my research on the Hekhalot literature and the Dead Sea Scrolls has led me to pay some attention to it.  My main general source for it is a document known as Baraita di-Mazzalot , the External Tractate of the Constellations.[2]   It is written in Hebrew and can be dated sometime after c. 600 C.E., since it knows the Babylonian Talmud, and before the eleventh century, the date of our earliest manuscript.  It gives details of the seven planets and the twelve signs of the zodiac and their possible configurations with one another, along with some guidelines for working out their astrological significance.  As far as I know, it has not been translated into any modern European language.  This is a work that deserves more attention than it has received up to now and it sometimes illuminates the documents I am about to discuss.


                        When we turn to the Hekhalot literature, the strange mass of traditions set pseudepigraphically in the time of the Tannaitic rabbis which purports to instruct the initiant on the proper rituals to use to ascend to the heavenly realm and to compel angels to do one's will, we find two major sources for the texts.  The first is a group of some dozens of medieval manuscripts, most of which passed through the editorial hands of the H 9 aside Ashkenaz .[3]   The second is an earlier corpus of very fragmentary manuscripts preserved in the Cairo Geniza.[4]   I shall consider both corpora in turn.


                        The astrological material in the well-preserved medieval manuscripts can be described succinctly:  as far as I can tell, there is none.  There are not a few references to stars, luminaries, constellations, and heavenly bodies, but these are generally either references to their place in creation or comparisons of the stellar phenomena with the splendor of angels.[5]   So far I have found perhaps one exception in a divine hymn to the four angelic living creatures under the throne of God (the H 9 ayyot ) in Hekhalot Rabbati ß173, in which God says of them, "Blessed be the hour when I created you!  Exalted be the constellation in which I formed you!"[6]   Conceivably this poetic bicolon could refer to the astrological significance of the hour and the sign of the zodiac in which the living creatures were created, but if so, the reference is very attenuated, and it seems difficult to get much traction out of the idea of casting a natal horoscope for the H 9 ayyot .


                        The Hekhalot literature also refers to rituals that are meant to be performed at a particular point in the Jewish calendar.  The Hekhalot Zutarti (ßß422-24) prescribes a 40-day "praxis of the ascent and descent to the chariot" to be timed starting thirty days before the New Year and concluding with the Day of Atonement.  The Merkavah Rabba (ßß659-70) presents a ritual for the invocation of angels which is keyed to festivals in the Jewish calendar.  These may imply the numinous power of the Jewish festivals, but they show no influence from astrology as traditionally understood.


                        Does this mean that the descenders to the chariot did not make use of astrology in their ritual practices?  If we had only these later, complete manuscripts, we would be tempted to draw this conclusion.  But the evidence of the earlier Geniza fragments hints at a different story.  The most striking example is T.-S. K 21.95.L (G12 in Sch¿fer's edition[7]), a text that runs parallel to 3 Enoch chapters 1 and 43-44 (Synopse , ßß1-2 and 61-62).  This is our earliest fragment of 3 Enoch and it comes to us in a form that is arguably redactionally more primitive than our complete text of 3 Enoch .  It bears the title "A Good Omen."[8]   In it, R. Ishmael is taken by the angel Metatron on a tour of the souls in the preexistence.  After showing him the twelve constellations and their signs of the zodiac, Metatron launches into an account of a particular person or type, "he who is born in the constellation of Libra on the first day, in Jupiter or in the moon."[9]   This child seems to be small and sickly and has other physical peculiarities, but nevertheless "and he is one of the good"[10] and, if we accept a plausible emendation, he is characterized as a "ready scribe,"[11] a phrase borrowed from Ezra 7:6.  (Incidentally, according to the Baraita di Mazzalot , the planet Jupiter is appointed over Torah.)  In other words, the fragment draws explicitly on two closely related traditions.  The first is physiognomy, which purports to infer information about people's personalities and futures based on their physical characteristics such as lines on the hands (chiromancy) or on the foreheads (metoposcopy) or their voices, height, facial features, etc.  The second tradition, of course, is astrology.


                        Two other Hebrew texts, one also from the Cairo Geniza, present what look suspiciously like traditions about descenders to the chariot and the closely related Sar-Torah practitioners as specimens identifiable through physiognomy or through a combination of physiognomy and astrology.  One is the Physiognomy of R. Ishmael , published by Gershom Scholem and the other is the Geniza fragment T.-S. K 21.88, published by Itamar Gruenwald.[12]   The Physiognomy of R. Ishmael gives various physical indicators of wicked and righteous types, at least one of whom is characterized by a mark on his forehead called the "binding of crowns"[13] (an angelic feature found in the Hekhalot literature) which tells us that "so, he ascends"[14] (ß32).  Another is "of the inhabitants of the Garden of Eden"[15](ß15), which brings to mind story of the four who entered Paradise, which is very important for the Hekhalot traditions.


                        The Geniza fragment combines physiognomy and natal astrological data to infer information about the personalities and fates of various people, including a number who have special facility in Torah study.  Of one of these it says "anything that his companions learn in two days, he shall learn in one day,"[16] (A2 16-17) bringing to mind the supernaturally gifted Hekhalot practitioners who draw on the power of the angelic Prince of Torah.  The combined information in these three documents points to a stratum of early Hekhalot-related traditions (that is, a stratum that existed before the editing by the H 9 aside Ashkenaz ) in which astrology and physiognomy played a far more direct part in the activities of the descenders to the chariot than we might guess from the later manuscripts.


                        It may be that this stratum of Hekhalot praxis is far more ancient than these manuscripts from the 11-12th century.  There is a Qumran text in Hebrew (4Q186) which is written in secret code and which combines physiognomic and astrological features to describe personality types and the balance of light and darkness contained within them, thus anticipating the main features of T.-S. K 21.88 by many centuries.  Another Qumran text (4QMess ar ã 4Q534) describes physical features of someone (some argue he is Noah) who seems to be involved in a celestial ascent.[17]   A genetic connection between the Qumran material and the Hekhalot and related traditions of a millennium or more later is so far unsupported by intermediate evidence, but such evidence is worth keep an eye out for.


                         There are good reasons for thinking that the surviving manuscripts of 3 Enoch , apart from the Geniza fragment, stem from a manuscript tradition that been tampered with by an editor or editors who disapproved of both theurgical ritual practices and the work's highly unorthodox deification of Enoch as the angel Metatron, the "Little YHWH."  Chapter 16, which humiliates Metatron and demotes him from his heavenly throne, seems to be a later addition to the original core of chapters 3-15.  And sometimes the orthodox editing has rendered even this original core incoherent; for example in 4:1, where the expected discussion of the seventy names of Metatron seems to have been deleted.[18]   Geniza fragment 12 now gives us positive evidence for such a purging of the traditions found in 3 Enoch .  And astrology is one element that was purged.


                        So in the case of the Hekhalot traditions about Enoch there is compelling evidence that astrological material has been deleted.  To what degree can this conclusion be generalized to include the other major Hekhalot texts?  It is very difficult to say.  In general the Geniza fragments of the Hekhalot literature do demonstrate that some of the material has undergone intrusive editing.  The premier example is a passage found in Hekhalot Rabbati ßß224-28, the larger context of which is a meeting of practitioners in which R. Nehuniah ben HaQanah describes in detail the process of "descending to the chariot."  The passage in question is a description of a ritual used to awaken R. Nehuniah from his descent to the chariot in order for him to answer some very obscure questions about angelic attacks on the descenders to the chariot.  This passage jars with its context and is obviously secondary on redaction-critical grounds, but a Geniza fragment published by Peter Schäfer preserves what is clearly the original text, which lacks this interlude.[19]


                        Thus, the later Hekhalot manuscripts have been both edited and interpolated to reflect the sensibilities of later tradents and at least some of these tradents removed astrological material.  We certainly cannot rule out a similar purge in Hekhalot texts apart from 3 Enoch , although we have no positive proof of it at present.  We can only hope that the long-promised fourth volume of Schäfer and Shaked's Magische Texte aus der Kairoer Geniza , which is to be devoted to astrological and divinatory texts, will give us new evidence on this question when it is published.[20]




Note:  the special fonts SPAtlantis and SPTiberian used in this paper can be downloaded from the Society of Biblical Literature website.


[1] James R. Davila, Descenders to the Chariot:  The People Behind the Hekhalot Literature (JSJSup 70; Leiden:  Brill, 2001), 25-32.


[2] The Hebrew text of Baraita di Mazzalot has been published by Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer and Abraham Joseph Wertheimer in Batei Midrashot:  Twenty-Five Midrashim Published for the First Time from Manuscripts Discovered in the Genizoth of Jerusalem and Egypt (2nd, enlarged edition; Jerusalem:  Ktab Yad Wasepher, 1968), 2:7-47.  See also Gad B. Sarfatti, "An Introduction to Barayta de Mazzalot," in Bar Ilan:  Annual of Bar-Ilan University, Studies in Judaica and the Humanities III (Jerusalem:  Kiryath Sepher, 1965), 56-82 (Hebrew).


[3]    Peter Schäfer, "Handschriften zur Hekhalot-Literatur," in Hekhalot-Studien (TSAJ 19; T¸bingen:  Mohr Siebeck, 1988), 154-233.  The principle publication of the major Hekhalot manuscripts is Peter Schäfer et al., Synopse zur Hekhalot-Literatur (TSAJ 2; T¸bingen:  Mohr Siebeck, 1981).


[4] Peter Schäfer, Geniza-Fragmente zur Hekhalot-Literatur (TSAJ 6; T¸bingen:  Mohr Siebeck, 1984).


[5] Schäfer, Synopse , ßß105, 124, 125, 184?, 233, 251, 288 290, 320, 371, 384, 411, 581?, 634; 3 Enoch 5:8 (Synopse , ß8) 13:1 (ß16) 14:4 (ß18) 17:4-6 (ß22) 21:4 (ß32); 26:4-7 (ß41) 38:1 (ß56) 40:2 (ß58) 41:1 (ß59) 46:1 (ß66).


[6] wb Mkt) ytrcy# lzmh Mmwry Mkt) yt)rb# h(# Krbtt .


[7] Schäfer, Geniza-Fragmente ,135-39.


[8] bw+ Nmys .


[9] hnblb w) qdcb Nw#)r Mwyb Mynz)m lzmb dlwnh .


[10] Mybw+h Nm dx) )whw .


[11] ryhm < rpws >.


[12] Scholem, "Physiognomy and Chiromancy," in Sepher Assaf (Festschrift for Simha Assaf) (ed. M. D. Cassuto et al.; Jerusalem:  Mossad HaRav Kook, 1953), 459-95 (Hebrew); idem, "Ein Fragment zur Physiognomik und Chiromantik aus der Tradition der spätantiken j¸dischen Esoterik," in Liber Amicorum:  Studies in Honour of Professor Dr. C. J. Bleeker (Leiden:  Brill, 1969), 175-93; Gruenwald,  "New Passages from Hekhalot Literature," Tarbiz 38 (1968-69): 354-72 (Hebrew).


[13] Myrtk yr#q .


[14] hlw( Nk .


[15] )wh Nd( yb#wym .


[16] dx) Mwyb dmly )wh Mymy yn#b wdmly wyrybx# lk .


[17] For a brief discussion of 4Q186 and extensive treatment 4Q534, see James R. Davila, 4QMess ar (4Q534) and Merkavah Mysticism," Dead Sea Discoveries 5 (1998):  367-81.


[18]   P. S. Alexander, "The Historical Setting of the Hebrew Book of Enoch," Journal of Jewish Studies 28 (1977):  156-80.


[19] Schäfer, "Ein neues Hekhalot Rabbati- Fragment," in Hekhalot-Studien , 96-103.


[20] Peter Schäfer and Shaul Shaked, Magische Texte aus der Kairoer Geniza (3 vols.; TSAJ 42, 64, 72; T¸bingen:  Mohr Siebeck, 1994, 1997, 1999).  For the fourth volume see the comments in vol. 1, p. 8 and vol. 3, p. 2.


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