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Four Sages

by Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis
Tractate Chagigah 14b relates the cryptic story of four Sages who entered Paradise. The Four sages were: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha Ben Abuyah, and Akiba ben Joseph. Exactly what "entering pardes" means is the greatest of all the mysteries associated with this story. Some say it involved mystical ascent. Others say it involved esoteric interpretations of the Torah. Whatever the reality behind the event, it proved catastrophic for three of the four. Ben Azzai "looked and died." Ben Zoma "looked and lost his senses." Ben Abuyah "cut the root," and became known only as Acher, while Akiba alone emerged "whole/in peace."

One tradition elaborates on the story thusly: Ben Azzai was so captivated by what he saw he could not give it up and refused to return to his body. Ben Zoma became so immersed in the mysteries he had seen that he ceased to be able to function in life. Ben Abuyah saw Metatron. Thinking he had seen another deity besides God, he declared "there are two powers in heaven" (he became a Gnostic) and turned against the Torah.

(Chag. 15a; P. Chag. 77; Lev. R. 16; S of S R. 1:10)

Article copyright 2004 Geoffrey Dennis.


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