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The angel Metatron (or Matatron) was accorded a special position in esoteric doctrine from the tannaitic period on. The angelology of apocalyptic literature mentions a group of angels who behold the face of their king and are called "Princes of the Countenance" (Ethiopic Book of Enoch, ch. 40, et al.). Once Metatron's personality takes a more definitive form in the literature, he is referred to simply as "the Prince of the Countenance."
In the Babylonian Talmud Metatron is mentioned in three places only (Hag. 15a; Sanh. 38b; and Av. Zar. 3b). The first two references are important because of their connection with the polemics conducted against heretics. In Hagigah it is said that the tanna Elisha b. Avuyah saw Metatron seated and said, "perhaps there are two powers," as though indicating Metatron himself as a second deity. The Talmud explains that Metatron was given permission to be seated only because he was the heavenly scribe recording the good deeds of Israel. Apart from this, the Talmud states, it was proved to Elisha that Metatron could not be a second deity by the fact that Metatron received 60 "strokes with fiery rods" to demonstrate that Metatron was not a god, but an angel, and could be punished. This image recurs frequently in different contexts in Gnostic literature and is associated with various figures of the heavenly realm. It is however thought that the appearance of Metatron to Elisha b. Avuyah led him to a belief in dualism.
The story in Sanhedrin also confers on Metatron a supernatural status. He is the angel of the Lord mentioned in Exodus 23:21 of whom it is said "... and hearken unto his voice; be not rebellious against him... for My name is in him." When one of the heretics asked R. Idi why it is written in Exodus 24:1 "And unto Moses He said 'Come up unto the Lord,' " instead of "Come up unto Me," the amora answered that the verse refers to Metatron "whose name is like that of his Master." When the heretic argued that, if that were so, Metatron should be worshiped as a deity, R. ldi explained that the verse "be not rebellious against ((תמר Him" should be understood to mean "do not exchange (תמירני) Me for him." R. ldi added that Metatron was not to be accepted in this sense even in his capacity as the heavenly messenger. Underlying these disputations is the fear that speculations about Metatron might lead to dangerous ground. The Karaite Kirkisani read in his text of the Talmud an even more extreme version: "This is Metatron, who is the lesser YHWH." It is quite probable that this version was purposely removed from the manuscripts.
The epithet "lesser YHWH" is undoubtedly puzzling, and it is hardly surprising that the Karaites found ample grounds for attacking the Rabbanites over its frequent appearance in the literature they had inherited. The Karaites viewed it as a sign of heresy and deviation from monotheism. The use of such an epithet was almost certainly current before the figure of Metatron crystallized.
The explanations of this epithet given in the latter phases of the Heikhalot literature (Hebrew Book of Enoch, ch. 1 2) are far from satisfactory, and it is obvious that they are an attempt to clarify an earlier tradition, then no longer properly understood. This tradition was connected with the angel Jahoel, mentioned i n the Apocalypse of Abraham (dating from the beginning of the second century), where it is stated (ch.10) that the Divine Name (Tetragram) of the deity is to be found in him. All the attributes relating to Jahoel here were afterward transferred to Metatron. Of Jahoel it is indeed appropriate to say, without contrived explanations, that his name is like that of his Master: the name Jahoel contains the letters of the Divine Name, and this therefore signifies that Jahoel possesses a power exceeding that of all other similar beings. Apparently, the designation "the lesser YHWH" (יהוה הקטן) or "the lesser Lord" (אדני הקטן) was first applied to Jahoel. Even before Jahoel was identified with Metatron, designations such as "the greater Jaho" or "the lesser Jaho" passed into Gnostic use and are mentioned in various contexts in Gnostic, Coptic, and also in Mandean literature, none of which mentions Metatron. The name Yorba (יורבא) in Mandean in fact means "the greater Jaho" but he has there been given an inferior status as is characteristic of this literature in its treatment of Jewish traditional concepts.
Two different traditions have been combined in the figure of Metatron. One relates to a heavenly angel who was created with the creation of the world, or even before, and makes him responsible for performing the most exalted tasks in the heavenly kingdom. This tradition continued to apply after Jahoel was identified with Metatron. According to this tradition, the new figure took over many of the specific duties of the angel Michael, an idea retained in certain sections of the Heikhalot literature up to and including the Kabbalah in the literature of which the primordial Metatron is sometimes referred to as Metatron Rabba.
A different tradition associates Metatron with Enoch, who "walked with God" (Gen. 5:22) and who ascended to heaven and was changed from a human being into an angel - in addition he also became the great scribe who recorded men's deed. This role was already delegated to Enoch in lhe Book of Jubilees (4:23). His transmutation and ascent to heaven were discussed by the circles who followed this tradition and elaborated it. The association with Enoch can be seen particularly in the Book of Heikhalot, sometimes also called the Book of Enoch, of R. Ishmael Kohen ha-Gadol, or the Hebrew Book of Enoch (H. Odeberg's edition (see bibl.) includes an English translation and a detailed introduction). The author links the two traditions and attempts to reconcile them. But it is clear that chapters 9-13 allude to the primordial Metatron, as Odeberg points out.
The absence of the second tradition in the Talmud or the most important Midrashim is evidently connected with the reluctance of the talmudists to regard Enoch in a favorable light in general, and in particular the story of his ascent to heaven, a reluctance still given prominence in the Midrash Genesis Rabbah. The Palestinian Targum (Gen. 5:24) and other Midrashim have retained allusions to Metatron in this tradition. Instead of his role of heavenly scribe, he sometimes appears as the heavenly advocate defending Israel in the celestial court. This transposition of his functions is very characteristic (Lam. R. 24; Tanh. Va-Ethannan; Num. R. 12,15). A number of sayings of the sages, in particular in Sifrei, portion Ha'azinu, 338, and Gen. R. 5, 2, were explained by medieval commentators as referring to Metatron on the grounds of a corrupt reading "Metatron " instead of meta tor ("guide").
In certain places in Merkabah literature. Metatron completely disappears and is mentioned only in the addenda that do not form part of the original exposition, such as in Heikhalot Rabbati. The descriptions of the heavenly hierarchy in Massekhet Heikhalot and Sefer ha-Razim also make no mention of Metatron. On the other hand, Metatron is a conspicuous figure in the Book of the Visions of Ezekiel (fourth century) although he is mentioned without any reference to the Enoch tradition. This source mentions a number of the other secret names of Metatron, lists of which later appear in special commentaries or were added to the Hebrew Book of Enoch (ch. 48). Explanations of these names in accordance with the tradition of the Hasidei Ashkenaz are given in the book Beit Din of Abraham Hammawi (1885), 196ff, and in another version in the Sefer ha-Heshek (1865). According to the traditions of certain Merkabah mystics, Metatron takes the place of Michael as the high priest who serves in the heavenly Temple, as emphasized particularly in the second part of Shiur Komah (in Merkavah Shelemah (1921), 39 ff.).
One can thus detect different aspects of Metatron's functions. In one place he is described as serving before the heavenly throne and ministering to its needs, while in another he appears as the servitor (na'ar, "youth") in his own special tabernacle or in the heavenly Temple. (The title na'ar in the sense of servant is based on biblical usage.) In the amoraic period the duty of the "prince of the world" formerly held by Michael was transferred to him (Yevamot 16b). This conception of Metatron's role as the prince of the world since its creation contradicts the concept of Metatron as Enoch who was taken up to heaven only after the creation of the world.
It is already observed in Shi'ur Komah that the name Metatron has two forms, "written with six letters and with seven letters", ie. מטטרוך and מיטטרון.. The original reason for this distinction is not known. In the early manuscripts the name is almost always written with the letter yod. The kabbalists regarded the different forms as signifying two prototypes for Metatron. They reintroduced the distinction between the various components that had been combined in the Hebrew Book of Enoch in their possession. They identified the seven-lettered Metatron with the Supreme emanation from the Shekhinah, dwelling since then in the heavenly world, while the six-lettered Metatron was Enoch, who ascended later to heaven and possesses only some of the splendor and power of the primordial Metatron. This distinction already underlies the explanation given by R. Abraham b. David to Berakhot (see G. Scholem, Reshit ha-Kabbalah (1948), 74-77).
The origin of the name Metatron is obscure, and it is doubtful whether an etymological explanation can be given. It is possible that the name was intended to be a secret and has no real meaning, perhaps stemming from subconscious meditations, or as a result of glossolalia. To support the latter supposition are a number of similar examples of names with the suffix on: Sandalfon (סנדלפון), Adiriron (אדירירון), etc. while the doubling of the letter t (טט) is characteristic of names found in the Merkabah literature, e.g., in an addition to Heikhalot Rabbati, 26:8. Among numerous etymological derivations given (see Odeberg, 125-42) three should be mentioned: from matara מטרא)), keeper of the watch; from meta tor (מיטטור), a guide or messenger (mentioned in Sefer he-Arnkh and the writings of many kabbalists); from the combination of the two Greek words meta and thronos, such as metathronios, in the sense of "one who serves behind the throne". However, the duty to serve the heavenly throne was associated with Metatron only at a later stage and does not agree with the earlier traditions. It is highly doubtful whether the "angel of the Countenance" entering "to exalt and arrange the throne in a befitting manner" mentioned in Heikhalot Rabbati (ch.12) can in fact be Metatron, who is not mentioned at all in this context. The Greek word thronos does not appear in talmudic literature. The origin of the word, therefore, remains unknown.
In contrast to the lengthy description of Metatron found in the Hebrew Book of Enoch, in later literature the material relating to him is scattered, while there is hardly a duty in the heavenly realm and within the dominion of one angel among the other angels that is not associated with Metatron. This applies particularly to kabbalistic literature (Odeberg, 111-25). Extensive material from the Zohar and kabbalistic literature has been collected by R. Margalioth in his angelological work Malakhei Elyon (1945, 73-108). In books dealing with practical Kabbalah there are almost no incantations of Metatron, although his name is frequently mentioned in other incantations. Only the Shabbatean emissary Nehemiah Hayon reportedly boasted of having conjured Metatron (REJ 36 (1898), 274).
- Chapter 17, "Kabbalah", by Gershom Scholem