By Howard Schwartz

Oxford University Press, 2004






God sits in the center of a high and exalted throne, exceedingly majestic, suspended in the

highest heaven, Aravot. Some say that one-half of the throne is made of fire, and the other half

of snow. Others say that the entire throne consists of fire. A resplendent crown of glory rests

upon God’s head, and upon His forehead are written the four letters of His Name, YHVH.

God’s eyes overlook all of the earth; on His right is life, on His left, death. In His hand

is a scepter of fire. Fire surrounds the Throne of Glory, and beneath it sapphires glow. The

throne stands upon four legs, with four holy creatures attached to it. On each side are

four faces and four wings. Clouds of glory surround the throne, filled with six-winged

seraphim singing praises to the Lord.

   God’s Throne of Glory is fused with a chariot of fire. It has never set foot on the floor of the

seventh heaven, but hovers like a bird there. Each day the Throne of Glory sings a hymn

before God, and thrice daily the throne prostrates itself before God, saying, “God of Israel, sit

upon me in glory, for Your burden is most dear to me and does not weigh me down.”

Rivers issue forth from under the Throne of Glory: rivers of joy, rivers of rejoicing,

rivers of jubilation, rivers of love, rivers of friendship. They strengthen themselves and

pass through the gates of the seventh heaven.

   While God sits upon His throne, high and exalted, and looks down upon the earth, the

wheels of the chariot roll through the heavens, causing lightning and thunder, as well as

earthquakes. The chariot is led through the heavens by a swift cherub, who flies upon

wings of the wind.


   This is one of many rabbinic myths that elaborates on Isaiah’s vision of God seated

on a heavenly throne (Isa. 6:1-8). Here the description of the throne adds four holy

creatures (hayyot) attached to it. The throne itself is said to be moving through the

heavens as if it were some kind of fiery chariot. This image is one of the central paradoxes

of Jewish mysticism—that God’s throne is also such a Merkavah, a fiery chariot,

both fixed in place in the highest heaven and also traveling through heaven like a

comet at the same time. This comes directly from the vision of Ezekiel (Ezek. 1:1-28).

God is described in elemental terms, seated on a throne half fire, half snow. According

to one version, the snow beneath the Throne of Glory was used by God to

create the Foundation Stone; according to another version, it was used to create the

whole earth. See the note to “The Work of Creation” p. 90.

   In Masekhet Hekhalot, one of the Hekhalot texts describing heavenly journeys, the

size of the throne is given in physical terms: “Its length is 800,000 myriads of parasangs,

and its width is 500,000 myriads of parasangs, and its height is 300,000 parasangs, and

it reaches from one end of the world to the other.”

   In the hymns of Hekhalot Rabbati, one of the most important of the Hekhalot texts,

God’s Throne of Glory is personified, singing a creation hymn before God and prostrating

itself before God three times a day.



Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 3, 6; Sefer ha-Zikhronot 1:11, 1:6; Midrash Tehillim 4:12; Hekhalot

Rabbati 8, 10; Masekhet Hekhalot in Beit ha-Midrash 2:40-47; Midrash Konen in Beit

ha-Midrash 2:25; Sefer ha-Komah, Oxford Ms. 1791, ff. 55-70.



The Faces of the Chariot by David J. Halperin.





On the very day King Solomon completed the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, God

and His Bride were united, and Her face shone with perfect joy. Then there was joy for

all, above and below.

   As long as the Temple stood, it served as the sacred bedchamber of God the King and

His Bride, the Shekhinah. Every midnight She would enter through the place of the Holy

of Holies, and She and God would celebrate their joyous union. The loving embrace of

the King and His Queen assured the well-being not only of Israel, but also of the whole


   The King would come to the Queen and lie in Her arms, and all that She asked of Him

he would fulfill. He placed his left arm under Her head, His right arm embraced Her, and

He let Her enjoy His strength. Their pleasure in each other was indescribable. He made

His home with Her and took His delight between Her breasts. They lay in a tight embrace,

Her image impressed on His body like a seal imprinted upon a page, as it is written,

Set me as a seal upon Your heart (S. of S. 8:6).

   As long as the Temple stood, the King would come down from his heavenly abode

every midnight, seek out his Bride, and enjoy her in their sacred bedchamber. But when the

Temple was destroyed, the Shekhinah went into exile, and Bride and Groom were torn apart.


   This explicit myth portrays the interaction of God and His Bride as a highly eroticized

coupling, a sacred copulation (zivvug ha-kodesh). This is a primal image of the

sacred marriage (hieros gamos). In Zohar 1:120b, this is referred to as “the one total

coupling, the full coupling, as is proper.” Zohar 3:296a expands on this: “The Matronita

(the Shekhinah) united herself with the king. From this, one body resulted.” This illustrates

the strong sexual dimension of kabbalistic thought, especially in the Zohar. It

also demonstrates the direct correlation between the unity and union of God and His

Bride and the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem. The destruction of the Temple

brings about the separation of God and the Shekhinah and sends the Shekhinah into

exile. All of this comes about because of the sins of Israel. When Israel sins, these sins

give power to the forces of evil, preventing the Shekhinah from uniting with Her husband,

and forcing the divine couple to turn away from each other. When Israel repents,

God and the Shekhinah turn back to each other.

   So important is the coupling of God and the Shekhinah that in Zohar 3:296a, Rabbi

Shimon bar Yohai, the principal speaker in the Zohar describes it as the deepest of all


   According to B. Ta’anit 16a and Song of Songs Rabbah 1:66, one of the names for the

place where the Temple was built was “the bedchamber.”



   Zohar 1:120b, 3:74b, 3:296a; Zohar Hadash, Midrash Eikhah, 92c-92d.





After God dismissed His Bride, the Shekhinah, from His presence, at the time of the destruction

of the Temple, God brought in a maidservant to take Her place. Who is this

maidservant? She is none other than Lilith, who once made her home behind the mill,

and now the servant is heir to her mistress, as it is said, A slave girl who supplants her

mistress (Prov. 30:23). She rules over the Holy Land as the Shekhinah once ruled over it.

Thus the slave-woman has become the ruler of the House, and the true Bride has been

imprisoned in the house of the slave-woman, the evil Lilith. There the Bride is held in

exile with her offspring, whose hands are tied behind their backs, wearing many chains

and shackles. That is a bitter time for the exiled Bride, who sobs because Her husband,

God, does not throw His light upon Her. Her joy has fled because She sees Her rival,

Lilith, in Her house, deriding Her. And when God sees his true Bride lying in the dust

and suffering, He, too, will become embittered and descend to save Her from the strangers

who are violating Her.

   So it is that in the days to come news will come to God’s consort, Lilith, that the time

has come for her to go. Then she who plays the harlot will flee from the sanctuary, for if

she were to come there when the woman of worth was present, she would perish.

Then God will restore the Shekhinah to Her place as in the beginning, and God and His

true Bride will again couple with each other in joy. As for the evil slave-woman, God will

no longer dwell with her, and she will cease to exist.


   This startling myth describes the ascent of the demoness Lilith, in which she becomes

God’s consort after His separation from his Bride. It is based on an interpretation

of the verse A slave girl who supplants her mistress (Prov. 30:23). The identification

of Lilith as once living behind a mill is based on the verse about the slave girl who is

behind the millstones (Exod. 11:5). In folk tradition, Lilith was especially likely to be

found in places such as a ruin or behind a mill. Here a strong contrast is made between

her low beginnings and her ascent to become God’s consort.

   This myth represents the apex of Lilith’s ambitions, but it is also understood that

her position is only temporary—until God’s true Bride, the Shekhinah, returns at the

time of the coming of the Messiah. The ruling presence of the demonic Lilith over the

Holy Land, as she takes the place of her predecessor, is offered to explain the long

exile of the Jews that followed the destruction of the Temple and subsequent exile.

Note that in this version of the separation of God and the Shekhinah, God is described

as having dismissed Her rather than an alternate version, also found in the

Zohar (1:202b-203a), in which the Shekhinah and God have a confrontation about the

fate of the Temple and the children of Israel sent into exile, and she decides to leave on

Her own. See “The Exile of the Shekhinah,” p. 57.

   It is impossible to read this myth without seeing a parallel to the story of Abraham

and Hagar. Hagar was Sarah’s maidservant, but when Sarah remained barren, Abraham

conceived Ishmael, his first child, with Hagar, And when she saw that she had conceived,

her mistress was lowered in her esteem (Gen. 16:4). The enmity between Sarah and her

maidservant is thus parallel to that of God’s Bride and the maidservant Lilith.

   The Zohar (3:97a) adds a fascinating explanation for the link between Lilith and the

Shekhinah: “This recondite mystery is that of two sisters.” In kabbalistic mythology, the

Shekhinah represents the feminine aspect of the side of holiness, while Lilith represents

the feminine aspect of the side of evil. Thus they are tied together, like two sisters.

The myth ends by predicting the reunion of God and the Shekhinah and the end of

Lilith’s existence. It is unstated but understood that this will take place at the time of

the coming of the Messiah.



Zohar 2:118a-118b, 3:69a, 3:97a; B’rit ha-Levi 7; G. Scholem, Tarbiz, vol. 5, pp. 50, 194-95.


The Hebrew Goddess by Raphael Patai, pp. 96-111, 221-254.