From Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, “Meditation and the Kabbalah” (Jason Aronson or Samuel Weiser editions), pp. 19-22. Although footnotes have been removed, source references have been restored to the text.
With the destruction of Solomon's Temple, the age of the prophets came to a close, and a dark age descended over their heirs. The Biblical canon was sealed, and after this, almost no important literature was produced until the time of he Talmud. Although there are some historical records of this period, the most important being found in the Apocrypha, virtually no mystical literature exists.
Some of the mystical teachings of the prophets had survived, but they were only taught in the narrowest circles, and were most probably confined to small secret societies. Thus, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, a leader in the First Century, taught, “ The workings of the Merkava should not be taught even individually, except to one who is wise, understanding with his own knowledge” (Chagigah 14b). These mysteries were not publicly taught, even within the secret societies but were given over individually, to one worthy disciple at a time.
The term "Workings of the Merkava," as used in the Talmud, refers to the mystery of Ezekiel's vision. Although the term is not found in the vision itself, it does occur in the verse, "Gold for the pattern of the Chariot (Merkava), the Cherubs" (I Chronicles 2:18). The word Merkava is used to describe the Cherubs on the Ark, but Ezekiel himself identifies the Cherubs as the angels seen in his vision (Ezekiel 10:5; Chagigah 13b).
The word Merkava comes from the root rakhav, meaning "to ride," and hence means a "chariot" or "riding vehicle." In general, the concept of riding involves travelling and leaving one's natural place. When the Bible says that God “rides,” it means that He leaves His natural state where He is absolutely unknowable and inconceivable, and allows Himself to be visualized by the prophets. One who “sees” God in this manner is said to experience a Merkava vision.
The term Ma’aseh Merkava or "Workings of the Merkava" refers to the setting up of a Merkava, that is, attaining a state where a Merkava vision can be attained. From the context in which this term is used in the Kabbalah texts, it is obvious that Maaseh Merkava refers to the meditative techniques involved in attaining this mystical experience. The Ari explicitly describes an individual involved in the "Workings of the Merkava" as being engaged in meditation (hitbodedut) (Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh, Ashlag ed., p. 41). The Hekhalot speaks of the individual making a "Chariot of Light," with which he then ascends to the supernal chambers (Heikhalot Rabbati 21).
These mysteries were entrusted to the religious leaders of each generation. Rav Zeira, a sage of the Fifth Century, thus taught, "Even a summary of these mysteries should be given over only to the chief justice of the court" (Chagigah 13a). The chief justices had more than mere judicial authority. Each major community had its own ecclesiastical court, and these chief justices were normatively the religious leaders of their communities. In order to prevent the mysteries from degenerating into heresy, they were safeguarded by the religious leadership, and taught individually only to those considered worthy.
Among the early mystical schools, there is a group that the Talmud cryptically refers to as the "First Hasidim." Among the things that the Talmud says about them is that they were zealous in bringing sacrifice, and scrupulously buried refuse containing sharp objects so as not to cause harm to others (Nedarim 10a, et al.). According to Rabbi Chaim Vital, these First Hasidim were among the important heirs to the prophetic tradition (Sha’arey Kedushah, Introduction).
The Mishnah states that “the First Hasidim would linger an hour and then pray.” To this, the Talmud adds that they would also wait an hour after their prayers, and that the prayer itself would also take an hour (Berakhot 30b). Since there were three daily prayer services, they would spend a total of nine hours each day involved in such devotion.
There is no mention in the Talmud as to what these Hasidim did during the hours before and after prayer, but the Kabbalists explain it in terms of classical meditative techniques (see Sha’ar HaKavanot LeMekubalim HaRishonim, p. 122). In order to place oneself in the frame of mind necessary for successful deep meditation, one must sit calmly beforehand, quietly building up spiritual energy. Similarly, after intense meditation, one must also sit quietly, absorbing the effects of ths experience. This would then clearly indicate that the prayer itself was used as a type of meditation among these First Hasidim.
This is actually easy to understand. In the time of Ezra, shortly after the close of prophecy, the Great Assembly had composed the Eighteen Blessings, a prayer that was to be recited three times daily. This was the prayer said by the First Hasidim. Recited each day, three times, this prayer itself became almost like a mantra. While the words could be said almost automatically, the mind became totally absorbed by the words, inducing a very deep meditative state. The intensity of their concentration is evident, since the Eighteen Blessings can normally be recited in two or three minutes, and the First Hasidim spent an entire hour on them.
Most types of Merkava meditation involved the use of Divine Names. As far back as the time of Hillel, a leader in the First Century B.C.E., we find warnings against using such Names for one's own purposes. Hillel thus taught, “He who makes use of the Crown will pass away” (Avot 1:13). A very early source interprets this to refer to one who makes use of God's names for his own purposes (Avot D’Rabbi Nathan 12:13).
One of the earliest names associated with the Merkava school is that of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. While he is said to have been completely versed in all aspects of the tradition, both mystical and otherwise, he was still considered among the least disciples of Hillel. The greatest of Hillel's disciples, Rabbi Jonathan ben Uziel, was the mystic par excellence, but very little is know of his life. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, on the other hand, is a well-known figure in the Talmud, and a vast majority of its legalistic material is derived from the school that Rabbi Yochanan founded in Yavneh after the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 C.E..
Rabbi Jonathan ben Uziel is mentioned only a few times in the Talmud, but is credited with having authored the Targum, the authorized Aramaic translation, to the books of the Prophets. It is in this context that we see that he had a direct tradition regarding the mystical teachings of the prophets embodied in their books, and was thus one of the greatest students of the esoteric tradition in his generation.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was the most important religious leader after the destruction of the Second Temple. Among his major disciples were Rabbi Eliezer the Great, Rabbi Joshua, and Rabbi Eleazar ben Arakh, who were counted as the greatest sages and religious leaders of their time. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai taught them the mysteries of the Merkava, but did not take these teachings lightly, going to great lengths to teach his disciples proper respect for them.
The Talmud tells us that the main one to whom Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai taught the mysteries was Rabbi Joshua, who in turn taught it to Rabbi Akiba (Chagigah 14b). Besides being the greatest religious leader of his generation and one of its supreme logicians, Rabbi Akiba was also one of the leading mystics of his time. The Talmud tells how, alone of the four greatest sages of his generation, he was able to penetrate the deepest mysteries and remain unscathed.
There are some mystical books attributed to Rabbi Akiba and his school, the most prominent being Otiot de-Rabbi Akiba (The Letters of Rabbi Akiba), which discusses the mystery of the letters of the alphabet. Some also attribute to Rabbi Akiba the present recension of Sefer Yetzira (The Book of Formation), one of the most important and mystical classics of the Kabbalah.
As an adept in the science of meditation, we would expect to find Rabbi Akiba familiar with the various manifestations of the higher states of consciousness. An important experience in high meditative states is synesthesia, where sound is seen and colors are heard. On the verse, "And all the people saw the voices" (Exodus 20:15), Rabbi Akiba states that they saw the sounds and heard visions, a clear example of synesthesia (Mekhilta, ad locum). Since Rabbi Akiba was able to speak of this state, it is also highly probable that he experienced it.