The earliest writings of Merkavah mysticism date back to the second century C.E. The word Merkavah literally means “chariot,” and this mystical study is named after the surreal vision at the beginning of the biblical Book of Ezekiel, in which “the heavens were opened,” and “four winged creatures…like burning coals of fire” emerged, surrounding a heavenly chariot. Some have speculated that this vision was brought on by drugs or guided meditation. An episode of the science-fiction TV show Doctor Who suggested that the creatures were aliens.
But the Merkavah mystics had a different interpretation. They believed that the vision was a glimpse into the domain of Heaven. It provided them with a look into the supernal world, allowing people to fulfill the commandment to “know the ways of God.” At its highest level, Merkavah followers regarded Ezekiel’s vision as an instruction manual–or a map.
They sought to follow this map and mystically travel to the heavenly realms where the winged creatures came from–”a dangerous experience,” according to Rabbi Barry Freundel, since Jewish mystics who tried to attain these heights sometimes died or went insane. But, according to Freundel, “the visions and experiences were worth the risk for those who succeeded.”