In ancient times, before the word Kabbalah was used, Jewish mystical practitioners were called yoredei merkevah, those who descend in the chariot. They had many other names as well: masters of the mystery, children of the king's palace, those who know wisdom, the understanding ones, those who entered and left in peace, those who reap the field, and so forth.
These mystics were immersed in teachings that collectively were called ma-asey merkevah, the work of the chariot. The teachings were closely guarded secrets and an aura of great reverence was built around merkevah mysticism. As an added preventative to keep the secrets hidden, the mystics let it be generally known that dabbling in these secrets would result in serious illness and possible death. Thus, a spell was cast around Jewish mysticism supported by statements such as the talmudic dictum: "the work of the chariot may not be taught to anyone, unless this person is a sage."
The Talmud teaches a famous story of four scholars who "entered the Pardes" (garden/orchard). The Pardes in this context was not an ordinary garden, but a realm of expanded consciousness; some say Paradise. The experience these four sages had was so overwhelming, one died, one became demented, one gave up his faith, and only one, Rabbi Akiva, survived unharmed. This story, which has been part of Jewish folklore for the last fifteen hundred years, is typical of the general attitude in Judaism toward the pursuit of mystical wisdom. Thus these wisdom teachings were kept well hidden and only in the last half of the twentieth century has the enormous wealth of Jewish mysticism been made more available to the general public.
Essentially, the teachings of the chariot have to do with specific meditative methods that were used to ascend to the highest spiritual realms. Many of these methods were never written down. Some, however, are described in the texts of the Hekhalot (palace chambers). These texts refer to practices that apparently were performed over two thousand years ago. The texts describe in detail the architecture of other realities. They give the names of angelic guardians of the many gates that had to be passed and they provide actual formulas of magical incantations, primarily variations on names of God, used to alter consciousness.
The father of Ecstatic Kabbalah, Abraham Abulafia, is known for contemplative methods that were used to achieve transcendent states of awareness in order to achieve God Consciousness. Abulafia's technique was to sit in a quiet, darkened room gazing at letters of the Hebrew alphabet, mentally permutating them into various words and phrases. The intense concentration required to master this technique leads to high states of ecstasy.
Techniques like these that alter states of consciousness fit under the general heading of "works of the chariot," the chariot being the medium by which layers of awareness are traversed. Modern mainstream Judaism has all but forgotten these methods; indeed, many Jewish teachers today believe that contemplative practices are not acceptable in the Jewish world. The emphasis of twentieth century Judaism has been on the study of Torah, meeting the requirements of Jewish law, and celebrating the holy days. Yet, a clear strand in the weave of Jewish fabric has always emphasized contemplative practices and the goal of attaining states of mind that were categorized as prophesy. It goes all the way back to writings that are included in the Bible.
Ezekiel is viewed in Kabbalah as the prototype of prophetic vision. Although the word "chariot" does not appear in Ezekiel's prophesy, he describes "living creatures" (hayyot) about whom he says: "Their appearance and their work was like a wheel within a wheel. Wherever the spirit [ruach] went, they [the hayyot] moved, and the wheels were lifted up along with them; for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels."
Later, Ezekiel says that the living creatures he saw were cherubs (keruvim), and he uses the same descriptive language as earlier: "When the cherubs moved, the wheels moved with them." The root letters of the Hebrew word for cherub (krv) are identical with that of chariot (rkv).9
In the Holy of Holies of the Temple, the ark was covered in gold. Sculpted over the ark were two golden cherubs facing each other with wings outstretched. The wings symbolized a boundary within which the Divine Presence would reside when communing with mortals. In the Torah, God says: "And I will meet with you there and will speak with you from above the covering [of the ark], from between the two cherubs which are upon the Ark of the Testimony."
The mystical cherubs atop the ark are viewed by Kabbalists as the source of all prophesy. They represent the archetype of the chariot, and within their wings they enclose the secrets of every experience that removes the veils cloaking our awareness. The mystics teach that once we fully realize the true dimension of the inherent light of consciousness dwelling within each of us, we will attain messianic consciousness, a new way of experiencing reality entirely different from reality as we now know it.
Messianic consciousness is the next plateau of human development. Just as we know that there was some kind of paradigm shift from animal consciousness to prehistoric human consciousness, and that human consciousness has gone through stages measured in various ways, such as social awareness, technological development or basic intelligence, Jewish mystics say that there is yet to come a major paradigm shift into an entirely new level of awareness. In this advanced state, pain and suffering as we know it will vanish, war will end, our relationship to each other will dramatically be altered, the lion will lie with the lamb, so to speak, and life will be completely different from anything we might imagine. This is what messianic consciousness is all about.
Today, many of the tools early mystics used in the work of the chariot are forgotten. Many practices, as well, were relevant only to those times. Methods such as living in great austerity, being hermits, chanting secret names of God and being meticulous in specific behavior may not work for people in our day, even if we knew the specifics. But many wisdom teachings have been transmitted in considerable detail through the Talmud and Midrashic literature. All of them are designed to give us access to our inner light. These are the chariots for our day and, perhaps more important, the mystics promise they will lead us to a new world.