In Seventh Heaven

By Philologos

Published July 10, 2007, issue of July 13, 2007.
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Forward reader Nochum Elek inquires:

“I would like to know whether the Yiddish expression in zibnten himl [in seventh heaven] is a translation from the English, or whether it is the other way around and the English ‘seventh heaven’ comes from the one mentioned in the tractate of Hagigah in the Talmud, where it says: ‘There are seven heavens: Vilon, Rakia, Shehakim, Zevul, Ma’on, Makhon, [and] Aravot.’ And if so, what is so special about the seventh heaven?”

The idea that the heavens are multiple and stacked one above another was widespread among the ancient cultures of the world. Perhaps this came from a natural tendency to ask what lay above the dome of the sky and to imagine a hierarchy of additional skies in which the gods dwelled. But the number of heavens one finds in the world’s ancient mythologies was not necessarily seven. Lesser and greater numbers were imagined, too. The number of seven, or sometimes eight, first took hold in the Near East and eastern Mediterranean world as a blend of Babylonian astronomy and early Greek science.

It was the Babylonians who first charted astronomically the precise trajectories of the seven visible celestial bodies — the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter — that did not move in tandem with the fixed stars; the Greeks first came to the conclusion that each of these bodies must be situated on a circular plane of its own that revolved independently of the others. In his “myth of Er” in “The Republic,” Plato, writing in the fourth-century BCE, imagined the universe as a spinning top, with the earth at its bottom and eight inner wheels (the eighth carrying the fixed stars) rotating above the earth at different speeds. Each of these wheels in effect constituted a separate heaven, with the sides of the top forming the outer limits of the universe that enclosed them all. Eventually, this conception was given a sophisticated mathematical form by second-century C.E. astronomer Ptolemy, and the “Ptolemaic system,” different versions of which posited seven to 11 celestial spheres, prevailed in Europe until overthrown by Copernicus.

Because in Jewish sources the idea of seven heavens is not found in the Bible and first occurs in the early centuries C.E. in the rabbinic literature of Palestine, a country then heavily under the influence of Greek culture, it stands to reason that the rabbis borrowed the idea from the Greeks. They probably settled on seven heavens because of the special importance of the number seven in Jewish tradition — think, for example, of the Sabbath day — and imaginatively peopled each with angels, ranging from the lowest-ranking in the first heaven to the highest-ranking in the seventh.

It is true that, of the names for the seven heavens given by the tractate of Hagigah, all but the first, Vilon (which means “curtain” in rabbinic Hebrew), occurs in the Bible as a term, or part of a term, for God’s dwelling place. The word raki’a, generally translated as “firmament,” is found in the account of Creation in the first chapter of Genesis. Shehakim, which probably originally referred to clouds, is rendered by the King James Bible as “heaven” in the verse from Psalms, “Who in the heaven [ba’shehakim] can be compared unto the Lord.” Zevul means “mansion” or “habitation,” as when Isaiah calls upon God, “Look down from heaven and behold from the habitation of thy holiness [zevul kodshekha],” etc. Yet, in the Bible these are basically all synonyms. Nowhere do we find the idea that each refers to a specific heaven distinct from the others.

This concept we find only in rabbinic literature, where it plays an important role, especially in the early form of Jewish mystical thought known as “Hechalot” or “Palace” mysticism. In the Hechalot tradition, it is the task of the mystical initiate to ascend by meditative techniques through the seven heavens one after another, overcoming angelic challenges in each, and then to pass safely through the seven “palaces” of the seventh heaven in order to reach the base of God’s throne. Similar beliefs, each with a complex angelology, existed among various Gnostic sects in the Roman Empire and had some currency in early Christianity, too, at least to judge by Paul’s remark in Corinthians II that “I knew a man in Christ… [who was] caught up to the third heaven.” From Judaism and/or Christianity the idea also spread to Islam, so that we read in Sura 71 of the Quran, “See you not how Allah has created the seven heavens one above another, and made the moon a light in their midst and made the sun a lamp?”

To be in “seventh heaven” is thus to reach the pinnacle of bliss. The expression has been around in English for a long time, although whether it got there from indigenous Christian sources, Jewish ones or Muslim ones, I don’t know. It almost certainly doesn’t come from in zibnten himl, since it’s older than the late 19th-century Yiddish-speaking immigration to the United States. Yet neither does in zibnten himl, which derives from internal Jewish traditions, come from it. Both go back to ancient beliefs that are thousands of years old.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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