A Slice Of Paradise

On Language

By Philologos

Published June 19, 2008, issue of June 27, 2008.
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Writing from San Francisco on June 9, The New York Times’s Edward Rothstein reviewed that city’s new Contemporary Jewish Museum, which has recently opened its doors to the public. “The jagged lights on [its] sloping lobby wall,” he wrote, “form four Hebrew letters that spell ‘pardes.’ That word has the same Persian root as the English word paradise. It alludes to a park, a garden, an orchard, and thus invokes the pastoral promise of Eden as well. This is the kind of esoteric symbol much beloved by the museum’s architect, Daniel Libeskind.”

It is indeed sufficiently esoteric for much of its significance to have eluded both Mr. Rothstein and whoever guided him through the museum. Not that the information given by the Times is incorrect. Pardes in the Hebrew of the Bible and the Talmud indeed means a park, garden or orchard, and can be traced back to ancient Persian paeri daiza, meaning an enclosure or a fenced plot. Borrowed from the Persians by the Greeks as paradeisos, the word was used in the Septuagint translation of the Bible for the Hebrew gan eden or Garden of Eden, which is why English “paradise” and its various cognates in other languages denote a heavenly or divinely beautiful place.

Hebrew pardes, too, took on this sense, but only in mystical literature; otherwise it continued to mean an earthly park, garden or orchard. Its best-known occurrence in a mystical context is in a story in the talmudic tractate of Hagiga that goes:

“Our rabbis taught: Four men entered the heavenly world [pardes]. They were Ben-Azzai and Ben-Zoma and Aher and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva said to them, ‘When you come to the place of the pure marble stones, be sure not to say, “Water, water,” for it is written [in the book of Psalms], ‘He that telleth lies shall not tarry in my sight.’” Ben-Azzai peeked and died, and of him it is said [in Psalms], ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.’ Ben-Zoma peeked and was harmed, and of him it is said [in Proverbs], ‘Hast thou found honey? Eat so much as is sufficient for thee, lest thou be filled therewith and vomit it.’ Aher cut down the young plants. Rabbi Akiva came and went safely.”

What are we to make of this highly cryptic tale? It relates an incident concerning four renowned rabbis of the second-century C.E. (Aher, “the Other,” is the epithet in rabbinic tradition of Elisha ben Avuya, who — so we are informed by other sources — lost his religious faith and gave up the practice of Judaism) who sought together, in a mystical trance vision, to ascend to the throne of God. From the literature of what is known in early rabbinic Judaism as Hechalot or “Palace” mysticism, we know that such visions involved the soul’s perilous journey through the seven heavens or divine palaces, each of which was guarded by a threatening gatekeeper. “At the gate of the sixth palace,” one ancient Hechalot text says, “it seems as though hundreds of thousands and millions of waves of water storm against [the ascending soul], and yet there is not a drop of water, only the ethereal glitter of the marble plates with which the palace is tessellated. But if [the soul] stands before the angels and asks, ‘What is the meaning of these waters?’ they stone it and say, ‘Wretch, can you not see with your own eyes? Art you perhaps a descendant of those who kissed the Golden Calf and are you unworthy to see the King in His beauty?’”

Although the symbolic significance of the marble and the illusory water is murky, the story in Hagiga is clearly about how Akiva, having warned his comrades of the dangers of the sixth palace, alone survived it safely. Ben-Azzai and Ben-Zoma both “peeked” at what they shouldn’t have seen (“the King in His beauty?”) and died, the first apparently in the course of the experience, and the second soon after, while Elisha ben Avuya “cut down the plants” of the “orchard’ and became a heretic.

In the Middle Ages, the Hechalot literature was lost, to be rediscovered only in modern times, and lost with it was the understanding of just what Akiva and his fellow rabbis were up to. In an attempt to make sense of the passage in Hagiga, medieval Judaism interpreted pardes to be an acronym formed from the words p’shat (the literal meaning of a text), remez (the implied meaning), d’rash (the exegetical meaning) and sod (the mystical meaning), and took the story to be about the intellectual adventures of the four men in the maze of sacred literature, from which only one of them emerged with body and mind intact. Pardes shel torah, “the orchard [or garden] of Torah,” has thus become a traditional Hebrew phrase for the many levels on which a sacred text can be read.

One imagines that Daniel Libeskind was well aware of all this when he designed the lobby wall of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. You could hardly get more esoteric if you tried.

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

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