The Talmud tells a well-known tale about four second-century Jewish sages who entered a “garden” (pardes, literally “orchard” or “paradise”). The story is short and peculiar. It begins cryptically with Rabbi Akiva warning his three companions that when they reach stones of pure marble, they must not say “Water, water” because “He who speaks untruth shall not stand before my eyes” (Ps. 101:7). The story continues, telling that only Akiva entered the “garden” safely and left in peace, because he was worthy. Ben Azzai saw and died. Ben Zoma saw and became afflicted. And the “Other” (Elisha ben Avuya) “cut the shoots” (B. Hagigah 14b).
The earliest versions of this enigmatic tale omit Rabbi Akiva’s warning and may have been a parable that taught about the fate of the soul after death. However, the later versions assume that these four men undertook a meditative journey, a mystical quest, which ended in a wonderful divine vision only for Rabbi Akiva, whose soul and intentions were pure. It ended badly for the other three, who were not worthy of the divine vision. One lost his life, one lost his mind, and the third lost his faith.1
Versions of this story, dating from the fifth or sixth century, detail the men’s path to the divine realm. The mystics required esoteric knowledge of hymns and adjurations to pass through seven heavily guarded gates to reach the divine figure on the throne of glory and gain revelation. From the late talmudic period onward, mystics set out on this dangerous meditative path to the supernal realm