FROM TREE OF SOULS: THE MYTHOLOGY OF JUDAISM
By Howard Schwartz
Oxford University Press, 2004
FROM BOOK ONE, MYTHS OF GOD
3. GOD’S THRONE OF GLORY
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.
70. THE SACRED BEDCHAMBER
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.
78. LILITH BECOMES GOD’S BRIDE
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.