The Hebrew Bible contains descriptions of many visions, especially those of God and His angel (or angels). When the appearance of God is mentioned as part of the biblical narrative, it is difficult to say if, in that specific case, the author thought that it was reality or a vision. The idea developed already at a very ancient period of Judaism that God has no shape, and, therefore, the appearance of God and His angels to the prophets was evidently understood by them as a vision (see
). This is surely so in the case of Ezekiel's vision of God and the heavenly world. Prophets, however, have also seen visions of simple or imaginary objects and persons, which they interpreted in a symbolic way, the persons or objects themselves having already acquired a symbolic meaning. At the beginning of the Second Temple period visions were often interpreted to the prophets by an angel. This is also the manner of visions and their interpretation by angels in the later apocalyptic literature.
It may be asked if the later prophets at the beginning of the Second Temple period really believed they saw what they describe and interpret, or if visions merely became a literary form for prophecy or teaching. Sometimes, such descriptions
evidently contained only a grain of actual vision (cf. the apocalyptic literature), and sometimes there was obviously no actual foundation (cf. the Vision of Seventy Shepherds in the Book of Enoch). In many cases (e.g., in the Fourth Book of Ezra), the question of an actual basis for a symbolic vision cannot be clearly answered, because this often depends on the extent to which the true author persuaded himself. The literary convention overcomes the religious or visionary experience in apocalyptic literature, because the authors did not write in their own names, but in the names of biblical persons of the past. A special type of vision in the apocalyptic literature is celestial journeys of biblical personalities, during which they visited both heaven and earth (heavenly paradise and hell). The oldest book which contains such visionary trips is the Book of Enoch; this book is thus the beginning of a chain leading to Dante. Chapter 14 in the book contains a description of God's heavenly palace, where Enoch sees the Glory of God. This is the oldest example in the tradition of visionary ascents to God's dwelling place following similar descriptions by biblical prophets, the earliest precursors of the heikhalot and the
. A fragment describing God's dwelling place in the same spirit is also preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Jewish mystics in antiquity, as well as other persons, definitely had visionary experiences. Josephus refers to John Hyrcanus, who saw God announcing to him which of his sons would be his heir. Both Josephus and rabbinic literature relate that John Hyrcanus heard a heavenly voice in the Temple announcing the victory of his sons. This heavenly voice (
) is often attested in rabbinical literature; the incidents referred to are both from the Second Temple period and later. Rabbinic literature often mentions the appearance of the prophet Elijah (see
*Elijah in the Aggadah
); the oldest reference comes from Ben Sira (48:11; "blessed is he who sees him"). The Second Book of Maccabees often speaks about visions of angels, especially as signs for future victory. The story of the appearance of angels to Heliodoros and punishment meted through them, narrated in this book, are also famous.
In Medieval Hebrew Literature
Following the prophetic visions in the Bible, and the frequent appearance of angels and other divine beings in talmudic and midrashic literature, medieval literature contains many descriptions of different kinds of visions. They appear chiefly in mystical works, but they are also to be found in the fiction of the period (see
) as well as in its popular literature. The fundamental Jewish tenet that God and His guardian angels are always close to man served as a basis for the belief in the objective reality of such visions. There prevailed, moreover, a profound belief in the existence of
, which were also held to reveal themselves supernaturally.
The earliest body of Hebrew mystical works – the heikhalot and the Merkabah literature – is essentially devoted to visions. The mystics who make the ascent to the Divine Chariot, a practice usually attributed in these texts to R. Akiva and R. Ishmael b. Elisha and their circle, behold and then describe the glory of the heavenly world, the hierarchy of the angels and other heavenly beings, the Throne of Glory (kisse hakavod), and the songs of praise sung by the angels. The visitors are usually guided by an angel, very often
, the angelic incarnation of the mortal Enoch, who did not die but was translated to heaven and became one of the greatest angels in the divine hierarchy. This motif of a visionary "guided tour" in the divine world reappears in the literature of the Middle Ages.
Early Middle Ages
In the literature of medieval Europe, visions were most commonly seen in a dream; they might either occur spontaneously or be deliberately invoked. Whoever wished to invoke a vision would purify himself before going to sleep, and then ask she'elat ḥalom ("a question asked of a dream"), believing that his question would be answered by the nature of the dream that he was about to have. It was customary to make a she'elat ḥalom not only for matters relating to mysticism but also in connection with practical problems; and even questions of halakhah were answered in this way. A collection of such answers by
*Jacob of Marvège
is still extant, and it is known that other halakhists made similar compilations. The answer in the dream was frequently, although not always, accompanied by a vision.
Neither the mystic nor the ordinary Jew doubted the objective reality or the authenticity of angelic and demonic visions; even philosophers and Ashkenazi ḥasidic scholars (see
) devoted lengthy treatises to the nature of such visions, and also to those witnessed by the prophets. But most of the philosophers, and some of the Ḥasidim, believed the visions, albeit inspired by God, to be a product of the imagination of the individual. This view, however, was not widely accepted and both scholars and simple folk told and retold numerous stories of visions reported to have been seen.
One of the most common beliefs concerned the prophet Elijah, who did not die but ascended to the heavens. Following the pattern of talmudic literature, countless medieval folktales recount how he appeared to human beings in order to assist or to punish them. For scholars and mystics his most important role was that of teaching to mortal beings hidden truths which were known only to the
*Academy on High
. Thus, contemporaneous with the initial development of the Kabbalah in Provence in the 12th century are stories describing how Elijah appeared in the schools of the rabbis who were teaching the new ideas there.
At the same time, it was commonly believed, especially among the Jews of medieval Germany, Northern France, and Central Europe, that demons and the spirits of the dead appeared in visions to the living, either when they were awake or else in a dream. Many descriptions of such visions have been preserved in
and other works written by the Ḥasidei Ashkenaz. The object of the visions was not always the
same. Sometimes the dead appeared in order to request the completion of an act which they had begun in their lifetime but had not lived to finish; sometimes it was to pay a debt, or to complain of a fault in the way or the place in which they were buried. Sometimes they spoke of the other world, of the way that the righteous were rewarded and the wicked punished. Demons made their appearance either when invoked by magical means in order to perform a certain task, or else to punish those who had dealt too much in magic. One of the methods most widely used to invoke such visions was to pour oil upon a bright surface, whereupon the demons appeared and were obliged to answer any request asked of them. This practice was used even for such purposes as catching a thief or finding a lost article.
Later Middle Ages
There are manifold descriptions of visions in the kabbalistic literature written after the 13th century. The prophetic kabbalism of
Abraham b. Samuel *Abulafia
and his followers is merely one example; many other kabbalists had mystical experiences – sometimes when awake, sometimes when in a state of dream or trance – and in these visions they were granted revelations of hidden truths from the heavenly spheres.
*Isaac b. Samuel
of Acre describes in detail the frequent visitations which he received from Metatron, some in dreams and some while he was in the state between sleeping and waking; he also had revelations from even higher Sefirot. The 14th-century author of
relates numerous stories describing how esoteric knowledge was revealed to members of the devout Kanah family, many of whom were mystics. The Castilian kabbalists that gathered around Jacob ha-Kohen b. Mordecai Gaon and his sons and disciples in the second half of the 13th century also give accounts of such contacts with higher beings.
contains numerous descriptions of visions revealed to Simeon b. Yoḥai and his followers. For example, while the mystics were sitting and studying the Kabbalah, heavenly fire surrounded them, the
rested upon them, and they saw allegorical visions of hidden truths. Some of these revelations also intimate the appearance of evil powers representing Satan, the sitra aḥra. Later kabbalistic writings, modeling themselves upon the Zohar and the descriptions which it gave, also narrated occurrences in the higher spheres as if they were visions actually witnessed by the kabbalists.
Visions of a completely different nature appear in some literary works, and particularly in Hebrew maqamāt and prose narratives, for instance in Ibn Zabarra or Al-Ḥarizi, or in some polemic writings, such as the Mostrador de Justicia of the Converso Abner de Burgos, where "a big man" appears in dreams for explaining the "craziness and stupidity" of the Jews that do not recognize the truth. Something equivalent appears also in a rhymed prose composition written as an answer to it by Samuel ibn Sasson, a poet from Carrion and a contemporary of
*Santob de Carrion
The motif of visionary ascents to higher spheres, with an angel or some other divine being as a guide, appeared very frequently in Hebrew literature after the works of Dante became popular, and after
*Immanuel b. Solomon
of Rome followed Dante in describing a visit to heaven and hell (although even before Dante,
Abraham *Ibn Ezra
had dealt with a similar theme in his Ḥai Ben Mekiẓ). In Italy from the Renaissance on, many Hebrew writers composed works of a similar nature, one of the most notable being Abraham b. Hananiah de
's Sefer Gei Ḥizzayon ("Book of the Valley of Visions"). The author, who was in prison at the time, relates how his dead father visited him and took his soul upon a visionary tour of the heavens. There many secrets were revealed to them, different spirits told them stories, and answers were given to their theological questions.
The Shekhinah, Metatron, and other heavenly beings appear frequently in the later Kabbalah, usually in order to reveal divine secrets. After the 16th century they were often described as
(heavenly mentor), and important kabbalistic works were written as if dictated by them, as for example
's Maggid Meisharim and
Moses Ḥayyim *Luzzatto
's Zohar Tinyana.
Visions constituted an important element in the
founded by the prophet
*Nathan of Gaza
, and many of its adherents described the different messianic visions that were revealed to them. Belief in visions persisted in the ḥasidic movement as late as the 18th century, and several stories of
*Israel b. Eliezer
Ba'al Shem Tov describe how his soul ascended to heaven and the visions he experienced there.
Scholem, Mysticism, 119–56 and passim; idem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism and Talmudic Tradition (1960); E. Gottlieb, in: Fourth World Congress of Jewish Studies, Papers, 2 (1968), 327–34; R. Margaliot, She'elot u-Teshuvot min ha-Shamayim (1957); R.J.Z. Werblowsky, Joseph Karo; Lawyer and Mystic (1962), 38–83; J. Dan, in: Tarbiz, 32 (1963), 359–69; A.Z. Aescoly (ed.), R. Ḥayyim Vital, Sefer ha-Ḥezyonot (1954).
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