The Gemara on our daf quotes a baraita that tells of “arba she-nikhnisu ba-pardes” – four tanna’im who embarked on the study of esoteric secrets of the Torah: Rabbi Akiva, Aḥer (literally “the other,” but here referring to the Tanna Elisha ben Avuya), ben Azzai and ben Zoma. Rabbi Akiva, the eldest of the group, warned the others of the dangers involved in such an experience – for example, not to be taken in by illusions when engaged in this study. He told them that when entering the higher worlds and gazing on the pure marble, they should not shout out “water, water,” for even though it appears to be water, it is an illusion, and someone who utters a falsehood will not be allowed entrance into the higher realms (see Tehillim 101:7).
The expression pardes – which, in modern Hebrew, simply means “an orchard” – is mentioned in Tanakh (see Shir haShirim 4:13). Its source is apparently ancient Persian, where it meant “an enclosed area surrounded by a fence.” Variations of the word appear in many languages; English speakers may be most familiar with it as the source of the word “paradise,” which is the way the term Gan Eden is translated in the Septuagint. In our story in the Gemara, the pardes is, among other things, “the garden of God.”
In the end, each of the four participants in this study had different reactions to it:
- Ben Azzai died, and the Sages ascribed the passage in Tehillim 116:15 to him.
- Ben Zoma lost his sanity, and the Sages ascribed the passage in Mishlei 25:16 to him.
- Aḥer lost his faith.
- Rabbi Akiva survived the ordeal peacefully.
Shimon ben Azzai and Shimon ben Zoma were among the Sages of the generation immediately following the destruction of the Second Temple. Although we find a number of statements of halakha in the Talmud in their names, neither of them received formal semikha (Rabbinic ordination), most likely because of their youth.