That the story of the four rabbis [who entered the garden/paradise] should be sandwiched between two laws that forbid teaching and meditating upon mystical realia only reinforces the mystical nature of this orchard, and the story seems to function as a cautionary tale. In fact, Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak (“Rashi”) comments upon this passage as it appears in the Babylonian account, by noting that “entering the orchard” means “ascending to the firmament by means of a [divine] name”. This accords with an extra detail found in the Babylonian version (although found in neither the Palestinian Talmud nor in the Tosefta), in which Rabbi Akiva warns his comrades about what to say when they “reach the stones of pure marble”. It also accords with a genre of extra- and post-Talmudic literature that is known as Heikhalot (“palace chambers”), in which Rabbi Ishmael guides the reader through the various chambers of God’s divine palace, before arriving at the throne room and beholding his majesty.The Hekhalot texts to a large degree consist of instructions for ritual practices that promise to give the user access to and some control over the spiritual realm. This is pretty close to the generally accepted understanding of meditation as a mental or spiritual discipline. There is an influential school of modern scholarly thought that regards the Hekhalot texts as exegetical tractates rather than practical ones, but I think (and have argued extensively in print) that this is correct in what it asserts but wrong in what it denies. The Hekhalot literature, like all meditation traditions, is deeply rooted in exegesis of its native scriptures and mythologies, but it is also much concerned with spiritual ritual practices. For more on this and related issues, see my earlier posts here, here and here.
So much for Rashi’s interpretation; significantly, the “Tosafot” disagree. Nobody knows with certainty which of these scholars were responsible for Tractate Hagigah, but with the majority of the Baalei haTosafot being from France, there may be good reason for suggesting one of the French academies. They stress in their commentary that the four sages didn’t really ascend to the firmament, but that “by means of a divine name” they made it appear to themselves as though they had. And so it is worth asking the important question: were the Tosafot suggesting that Rabbi Akiva and his three colleagues were meditating?
This question is not so strange. Contemporary with the later generations of the Tosafot was a rabbi in south-eastern France known as Yitzhak the Blind (Yitzhak “Sagi Nahor” – “Too Much Light”). The son of Rabbi Avraham ben David (“the Raavad”), Yitzhak the Blind contributed greatly towards early kabbalistic philosophies that pertain to the sephirot: divine emanations that bridge the distance between the transcendent godhead and his finite creation. Unsurprisingly for a man who was completely blind, Yitzhak believed that one could ascend these sephirot and approach his creator through mystical contemplation. This idea was to prove very influential amongst later generations of kabbalists – most notable Nachmanides, whose teacher was Yitzhak’s disciple.
But it wasn’t until the expulsion from Spain that these ideas gained widespread currency. Almost grudgingly, European scholars admitted the sanctity of a 13th century Iberian text called Sefer haZohar, which was attributed to the authorship of a second-century Palestinian rabbi named Shimon ben Yohai. Ben Yohai’s transformation is recorded in Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud, and served Jews of the sixteenth century with an origin story for the Zohar. A collection of mystical midrashim on the Torah, the Zohar not only constitutes a development of the sephirot philosophy of Yitzhak the Blind, but a profound testament to the development of experiential, introspective Judaism.
I am not a specialist on the Kabbalah, which is a much larger corpus than the Hekhalot literature, and I cannot speak to the balance in the Kabbalah between exegesis, mythology, and ritual praxis. It seems to vary a great deal from text to text and from author to author. Praxis seems especially important, for example, in the work of Abraham Abulafia. For past posts on the Zohar, the best-known and probably most influential Kabbalistic document, see here.