Ma’aseh merkavah, which means “the workings of the chariot,” was among the earliest movements in Jewish mysticism, along with ma’aseh bereshit (see below). The two movements first arose in the first century B.C.E. Ma’aseh merkavah was based on a vision experienced by the prophet Ezekiel, which is recorded in the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament. While standing by a river in Babylon, Ezekiel saw a throne spinning through the heavens, accompanied by four winged figures. Seated on the throne was a shadowy figure that looked like a man. Ma’aseh merkavah mystics set out to interpret what the vision meant and revealed about God. Eventually the vision became their way of describing the “upper” world of God, above the material reality that humans know. The early mystics—the predecessors of kabbalists—meditated on the image of the fiery chariot to develop a fuller understanding of God.
Ma’aseh merkavah mystics described the path through the upper world to the chariot as dangerous and terrifying. It led past seven palaces filled with armies of angels. Rivers of fire flowed out of the sky as angels drew the chariot through the air. The goal of meditating on the chariot was to overcome the obstacles en route to the chariot itself and then to see the figure seated on the throne. Reaching the throne required extensive religious education, extreme concentration, and a strong dedication to God. Though mystics apparently followed a strict set of instructions on how to see the figure on the throne, ma’aseh as we know it is merely a series of speculations referred to in various other texts.
Though ma’aseh merkavah precedes Kabbalah, it does reveal several practices and theories later used in Kabbalah. Ma’aseh merkavah introduces the idea of the ecstatic experience, in which one communes with God on a physical and emotional level. This notion of close communication with God forms the core of all kabbalistic thought. Ma’aseh merkavah also introduces the idea that close encounters with God could be dangerous to untrained minds. In the Torah, faithful Jews could communicate directly with God without risk. Kabbalists believed that contact with a force as vast and powerful as God could lead to madness. For this reason, kabbalists initially limited study of Kabbalah to married men over forty who had studied the Torah and the Talmud.
Ma’aseh merkavah also introduced physical risks as well. Mystics believed certain body positions could assure meditators a glimpse of the throne. One required the meditator to place his head between his knees, a posture that can lead to fainting or even stroke if held for too long. Mystics believed visions had to be both emotional and physical experiences that would overwhelm the soul and the body. Followers of Kabbalah later embraced the idea that communication with divinity had to be both a physical and intellectual experience.
The angels that accompany the chariot in Ezekiel’s vision are a source of widespread speculation in Kabbalah. Some argued that each angel was a specific theological idea or one of God’s Commandments. Others argued that each Angel was a different aspect of God’s identity. But most agreed that the angels served as messengers who communicate God’s will to the “lower realms,” the material world that humans inhabit. In Kabbalah, the ten sefirot replace these angels. Though the idea of the sefirot did not arise until sometime between the third and sixth century, the angels in ma’aseh merkavah served as a kind of blueprint for their role in Kabbalah. One major difference distinguishes later kabbalistic beliefs from ma’aseh merkavah: whereas kabbalists would attempt to understand the true nature of God, ma’seh merkavah mystics aimed merely to glimpse the appearance of God.