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Ma'aseh Merkabah, Hebrew "Work of Chariot," is one of the oldest branches of Jewish mysticism, which consists of theory and practice based upon the description of the chariot of God in the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel. Within the system of Ma'aseh Merkabah this chariot was believed to be the spiritual world itself, divided into seven heavens and staffed by various wonderful angelic powers. The structure of the chariot was describes in handbooks distributed during the heyday of the Ma'aseh Merkabah, which lasted from about 300 BCE until the Middle Ages.
The several surviving handbooks indicate they were to be used with oral instruction. Many details of the theory were unclear. What was clear, though, was that the Merkabah mystics were not content to steady and meditate on the structure of heaven, but they were equally interested in going there through visionary journeys which are described in detail in various accounts.
Practicing Merkabah was considered to be both holy and dangerous. In the Talmud it is related that a child was studying the scriptures his teacher's home, and he comprehended the secret meaning of the word clashmal, radiance, suddenly a fire came forth from the clashmal and consumed him.
The Ma'aseh Merkabah was still practiced in some circles during the first
development of the Kabbalah,
and its practice emerged into the latter. But unlike the Ma'aseh Merkabah
the Kabbalah relies on meditation to achieve spiritual development rather
than ecstatic visionary experiences. A.G.H.
Greer, John Michael. The New Encyclopedia of the Occult.
St. Paul, MN, Llewellyn Worldwide. p. 285.