Academic journal article Shofar

Pardes Revisited Once Again: A Reassessment of the Rabbinic Legend concerning the Four Who Entered Pardes

Academic journal article Shofar

Pardes Revisited Once Again: A Reassessment of the Rabbinic Legend concerning the Four Who Entered Pardes

Article excerpt

Dedicated to the memory of Dr. Morton M. Axler (Song of Songs 1:4)

ABSTRACT. This paper reexamines the rabbinic narrative concerning the four who attempted to enter Pardes. Earlier scholarship tends to view the narrative as a warning against the study of mysticism and emphasizes the compositional history of the narrative. Interpreters are divided as to whether the narrative is concerned with the study of Gnosticism, mystical experience, or proper biblical interpretation. This study emphasizes the identities and backgrounds of the four major figures included in the narrative and the function of the scriptural passages associated with each. Based on these considerations it argues that the three earlier figures, Shimon ben Azzai, Shimon ben Zoma, and Elisha ben Abuyah (Aher) are presented as antitypes to the ideal Rabbi Akiba, who embodies qualities that each of the others lacks. The narrative therefore presents R. Akiba as the model of the sage who understands his own knowledge (mHag2:1), i.e., the interpreter who is qualified to expound upon texts commonly associated with Jewish mysticism.


The Rabbinic legend concerning the four who entered Pardes plays a particularly important role in scholarly discussion concerning the character of Jewish mysticism and its assessment in the Talmudic period. The legend appears in various forms throughout the ancient Rabbinic literature in the Tosephta (tHagigah 2:3-4), the Jerusalem Talmud (yHagigah 2:1, 77b), the Babylonian Talmud (bHagigah 14b, 15a,b), the Midrash on the Song of Songs (SongR 1:4), and in a paraphrased version in the mystical treatise Hekhalot Zutarti (Schäfer, Synopse §§ 344-345).(1) It expresses the experiences of four Tannaim who attempted "to enter Pardes": Simeon ben Azzai cast a look and died, Simeon ben Zoma looked and was smitten (i.e., with insanity), Aher (Elisha ben Abuyah) cut the shoots (i.e., became a heretic), and R. Akiba entered safely and went out safely. Although the version of the Babylonian Talmud is generally considered to be the normative form of this legend, most scholars maintain that the Tosephta's version is the earliest from which the others are derived.(2) They likewise generally agree that all of the various versions of the tradition express a warning that attempts to dissuade those who might attempt to "enter pardes," i.e., to engage in the study of Jewish mysticism in keeping with Mishnah Hagigah 2:1. Interpreters therefore understand the legend to express Rabbinic Judaism's opposition to mystical speculation, interpretation, or practice.(3) The full version of the Tosephta reads as follows:

Four entered Pardes: ben Azzai, ben Zoma, Aher (i.e., Elisha ben Abuyah), and Rabbi Akiba. Ben Azzai looked and died. About him it is written, saying, "Precious in the eyes of the L-rd is the death of his saints" (Ps 116:15). Ben Zoma looked and was smitten (i.e., became demented). About him it is written, saying, "Have you found honey? Eat (only) what is sufficient for you, (lest you be filled with it and vomit it)" (Prov 25:16). Aher looked and cut the shoots (i.e., of plants; became a heretic). About him it is written, saying, "Do not allow your mouth to cause your flesh to sin" (Qoh 5:5). Rabbi Akiba entered in peace, and he went out in peace. About him it is written, saying, "Draw me after you, let us run, (the king has brought me into his chambers)." (Song 1:4)(4)

Serious disagreements appear, however, in relation to the interpretation of the expression "to enter Pardes." The Hebrew term pardes is a Persian or Greek loan word that means literally "garden," "park," or "enclosure," and frequently refers to "paradise" in Rabbinic literature.(5) Early critical scholars, beginning with Graetz, and more recently Maier, Fischel, and Segal, understand the expression allegorically as a reference to the study or practice of Gnosticism.(6) A second group of interpreters, including Bousset, Scholem, Neher, Goldberg, and Gruenwald, interpret it as a reference to the very real psychological dangers of engaging in ecstatic mystical experience. …

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