Andrei A. Orlov


 Priestly and Liturgical Roles of Metatron

[an excerpt from A. Orlov, The Enoch-Metatron Tradition (TSAJ, 107; Tuebingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2005), pp. xii+383. ISBN 3-16-148544-0.]



…. In one of his recent publications, Philip Alexander traces the development of Enoch’s image in Jewish literature from the Second Temple period to the early Middle Ages. He notes that these developments point to a genuine, ongoing tradition that demonstrates the astonishing persistence of certain motifs. As an example of the consistency of some themes and concepts, Alexander points to the evolution of Enoch’s priestly role, already prominent in the early Second Temple materials, which later receives its second embodiment in Metatron’s sacerdotal duties. He observes that “Enoch in Jubilees in the second century B.C.E. is a high priest. Almost a thousand years later he retains this role in the Heikhalot texts, though in a rather different setting.”[1] Pointing to one possible example of the long-lasting association of Enoch-Metatron with the sacerdotal office, Alexander directs attention to the priestly role of this exalted angel attested in 3 Enoch 15B where Metatron is put in charge of the heavenly tabernacle.[2]  The passage from Sefer Hekhalot reads:

Metatron is the Prince over all princes, and stands before him who is exalted above all gods. He goes beneath the throne of glory, where he has a great heavenly tabernacle of light, and brings out the deafening fire, and puts it in the ears of the holy creatures, so that they should not hear the sound of the utterance that issues from the mouth of the Almighty.[3] 

The first significant detail of this description is that the tabernacle is placed in the immediate proximity of the Throne, below the Seat of Glory. This tradition does not appear to be peculiar to 3 Enoch’s description since Hekhalot writings depict the Youth, who is often identified there with Metatron, as the one who emerges from beneath the Throne.[4] The proximity of the tabernacle to the Kavod also recalls early Enochic materials, specifically 1 Enoch 14, in which the patriarch’s visitation of the celestial sanctuary is described as his approach to the Kavod. Both traditions (Enochic and Merkabah) appear to stress Enoch-Metatron’s role as the celestial high priest, since he approaches the realm where ordinary creatures, angelic or human, are not allowed to enter. This realm of the immediate presence of the Deity, the Holy of Holies, is situated behind the veil represented by heavenly (dwgrp) or terrestrial (tkrp) curtains.[5] 

Another important sacerdotal function mentioned in 3 Enoch 15B and other materials includes the duties of preparation and arrangement of the angelic hosts who participate in the liturgical praise of the Deity. In this respect Metatron is also responsible for the protection of the celestial singers: he guards their ears so that the mighty voice of God would not harm them.[6]

The traditions about Metatron’s liturgical duties inside and near the heavenly tabernacle are not limited to the aforementioned description from Sefer Hekhalot. Thus, one Mandean bowl speaks about Metatron as the one “who serves before the Curtain ()dwgrp).”[7] Alexander proposes that this description “may be linked to the Hekhalot tradition about Metatron as the heavenly High Priest (3 Enoch 15B:1), and certainly alludes to his status as ‘Prince of the Divine Presence.’”[8]

Gershom Scholem draws attention to the passage found in Merkabah Shelemah in which the heavenly tabernacle is called the tabernacle of Metatron (Nwr++m Nk#m). In the tradition preserved in Numbers Rabbah 12:12, the heavenly sanctuary again is associated with one of Metatron’s titles and is called the tabernacle of the Youth (r(nh Nk#m):[9]

R. Simon expounded: When the Holy One, blessed be He, told Israel to set up the Tabernacle He intimated to the ministering angels that they also should make a Tabernacle, and when the one below was erected the other was erected on high. The latter was the tabernacle of the youth (r(nh Nk#m) whose name was Metatron, and therein he offers up the souls of the righteous to atone for Israel in the days of their exile.[10]

The intriguing detail in this description of the tabernacle is that it mentions the souls of the righteous offered by Metatron. This reference might allude to the imagery often found in early Enochic materials which refer to the daily sacrifice of the angelic hosts bathing themselves in the river of fire streaming beneath the Throne of Glory, the exact location of the tabernacle of the Youth.

The priestly functions of Metatron were not forgotten in later Jewish mysticism. The materials associated with the Zoharic tradition also attest to Metatron’s duties in the heavenly tabernacle. Zohar II, 159a reads:

We have learned that the Holy One, blessed be He, told Moses all the regulations and the patterns of the Tabernacle, each one with its own prescription, and [Moses] saw Metatron ministering as High Priest within. … he saw Metatron ministering…. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: Look at the tabernacle, and look at the boy….[11]

The significant detail of this passage from the Zohar is that it refers to Metatron as the High Priest. It should be noted that not only this relatively late composition, but also the earlier materials associated with the Hekhalot tradition, directly identify the exalted angels with the office and the title of the celestial High Priest. Rachel Elior observes that Metatron appears in the Genizah documents as a High Priest who offers sacrifices on the heavenly altar.[12] She calls attention to the important witness of one Cairo Genizah text which explicitly labels Metatron as the High Priest and the chief of the priests:

I adjure you [Metatron], more beloved and dear than all heavenly beings, [Faithful servant] of the God of Israel, the High Priest (lwdg Nhk), chief of [the priest]s (M[ynhkh] #)r), you who poss[ess seven]ty names; and whose name[is like your Master’s] … Great Prince, who is appointed over the great princes, who is the head of all the camps.[13]

As has been already mentioned, Metatron’s service behind the heavenly Curtain, Pargod, recalls the unique function of the earthly high priest, who alone was allowed to enter behind the veil of the terrestrial sanctuary.[14] It was previously explained that the possible background for this unique role of Metatron can be traced to 1 Enoch 14; in this text, the patriarch alone appears in the celestial Holy of Holies while the other angels are barred from the inner house.[15] This depiction also agrees with the Hekhalot evidence according to which only the Youth, videlicet Metatron, is allowed to serve behind the heavenly veil.

It appears that Metatron’s role as the heavenly High Priest is supported in the Hekhalot materials by the motif of the particular sacerdotal duties of the terrestrial protagonist of the Hekhalot literature, Rabbi Ishmael b. Elisha, to whom Metatron serves as an angelus interpres. In view of Enoch-Metatron’s sacerdotal affiliations it is not coincidental that Rabbi Ishmael himself is the tanna who is attested in b. Ber. 7a as a High Priest.[16] Rachel Elior indicates that in Hekhalot Rabbati, this rabbinic authority is portrayed in terms similar to those used in the Talmud, as a priest burning an offering on the altar.[17] Other Hekhalot materials, including 3 Enoch, also often refer to R. Ishmael’s priestly origins.[18] The priestly features of this visionary might not only reflect the heavenly priesthood of Metatron,[19] but also allude to the former priestly duties of the patriarch Enoch known from 1 Enoch and Jubilees, since some scholars observe that “3 Enoch presents a significant parallelism between the ascension of Ishmael and the ascension of Enoch.”[20]

The possible parallel between R. Ishmael and Enoch leads again to the question of the hypothetical roots of Metatron’s role as the priest and the servant in the heavenly tabernacle. Previous parts of this study have demonstrated that already in the Book of the Watchers and Jubilees, the seventh antediluvian hero was portrayed as a priest in the heavenly sanctuary. In another Enochic text, 2 Enoch, the descendants of the seventh antediluvian patriarch, including his son Methuselah, are depicted as builders of an altar on the place where Enoch was taken up to heaven. The choice of the place might underscore the peculiar role of the patriarch in relation to the heavenly prototype of this earthly sanctuary. The same pseudepigraphon portrays Enoch in the sacerdotal office as the one who delivers the sacrificial instructions to his children. These connections will be closely examined later in this study.

Although the prototypes of Metatron’s sacerdotal duties can be traced with relative ease to the early Enochic traditions, some scholars argue that other early traditions might have also contributed to this development. Scholem suggests that Metatron’s priestly duties in the heavenly tabernacle might be influenced by Michael’s role as the heavenly priest.[21] He observes that “according to the traditions of certain Merkabah mystics, Metatron takes the place of Michael as the high priest who serves in the heavenly Temple.…”[22] Scholem’s insights are important since some talmudic materials, including b. H9ag. 12b, b. Menah. 110a, and b. Zebah. 62a, suggest that the view of Michael’s role as the heavenly priest was widespread in the rabbinic literature and might constitute one of the significant contributing factors to Metatron’s sacerdotal image.

Finally, one more element of Metatron’s priestly role must be highlighted. The passage from 3 Enoch 15B introduced in the beginning of this section shows that one of the aspects of Metatron’s service in the heavenly tabernacle involves his leadership over the angelic hosts singing their heavenly praise to the Deity.[23] Metatron can thus be seen as not only the servant in the celestial tabernacle or the heavenly High Priest, but also as the leader of the divine worship. Martin Cohen notes that in the Shi(ur Qomah materials, Metatron’s service in the heavenly tabernacle appears to be “entirely liturgical;” he “is more the heavenly choirmaster and beadle than the celestial high priest.”[24]

The descriptions of Metatron’s functions in directing angelic hosts in the presence of the Deity occur several times in the Hekhalot materials. One such description can be found in Hekhalot Zutarti (Synopse §390) where one can find the following tradition:

One hayyah rises above the seraphim and descends upon the tabernacle of the youth (r(nh Nk#m) whose name is Metatron, and speaks with a loud voice. A voice of sheer silence…. Suddenly the angels fall silent. The watchers and holy ones become quiet. They are silent, and are pushed into the river of fire. The hayyot put their faces on the ground, and this youth whose name is Metatron brings the fire of deafness and puts it into their ears so that they could not hear the sound of God’s speech or the ineffable name. The youth whose name is Metatron then invokes, in seven voices, his living, pure, honored, awesome… name.…[25]

Metatron is portrayed in this account not only as a servant in the celestial tabernacle or the heavenly High Priest, but also as the leader of the heavenly liturgy. The evidence unfolding Metatron’s liturgical role is not confined solely to the Hekhalot corpus, but can also be detected in another prominent literary stream associated with early Jewish mysticism, represented by the Shi(ur Qomah materials. The passages found in the Shi(ur Qomah texts attest to a familiar tradition in which Metatron is posited as a liturgical servant. Sefer Haqomah 155–164 reads:

And (the) angels who are with him come and encircle the Throne of Glory. They are on one side and the (celestial) creatures are on the other side, and the Shekhinah is on the Throne of Glory in the center. And one creature goes up over the seraphim and descends on the tabernacle of the lad whose name is Metatron and says in a great voice, a thin voice of silence, “The Throne of Glory is glistening!” Immediately, the angels fall silent and the (irin and the qadushin are still. They hurry and hasten into the river of fire. And the celestial creatures turn their faces towards the earth, and this lad, whose name is Metatron, brings the fire of deafness … and puts (it) in the ears of the celestial creatures so that they do not hear the sound of the speech of the Holy One, blessed be He, and the explicit name that the lad, whose name is Metatron, utters at that time in seven voices, in seventy voices, in his living, pure, honored, holy, awesome, worthy, brave, strong and holy name.[26]

A similar tradition can be found in Siddur Rabbah 37–46, another text associated with the Shi(ur Qomah tradition where the angelic Youth, however, is not identified with the angel Metatron:

The angels who are with him come and encircle the (Throne of) Glory; they are on one side and the celestial creatures are on the other side, and the Shekhinah is in the center. And one creature ascends above the Throne of Glory and touches the seraphim and descends on the Tabernacle of the lad and declares in a great voice, (which is also) a voice of silence, “The throne alone shall I exalt over him.” The ofanim become silent (and) the seraphim are still. The platoons of (irin and qadushin are shoved into the River of Fire and the celestial creatures turn their faces downward, and the lad brings the fire silently and puts it in their ears so that they do not hear the spoken voice; he remains (thereupon) alone. And the lad calls Him, “the great, mighty and awesome, noble, strong, powerful, pure and holy, and the strong and precious and worthy, shining and innocent, beloved and wondrous and exalted and supernal and resplendent God.[27]

These passages indicate that Metatron is understood not just as a being who protects and prepares the heavenly hosts for praise of the Deity, but also as the one who leads and participates in the liturgical ceremony by invoking the divine name. The passage underlines the extraordinary scope of Metatron’s vocal abilities, allowing him to sing the Deity’s name in seven voices.

It is evident that the tradition preserved in Sefer Haqomah cannot be separated from the microforms found in Synopse §390 and 3 Enoch 15B since all these narratives are unified by a similar structure and terminology. All of them also emphasize the Youth’s leading role in the course of the celestial service.

It is also significant that Metatron’s role as the one responsible for protecting and leading the servants in praise of the Deity is not restricted only to the aforementioned passages, but finds expression in the broader context of the Hekhalot and Sh(iur Qomah materials.[28] Another similar depiction, which appears earlier in the same text (Synopse §385), again refers to Metatron’s leading role in the celestial praise, noting that it occurs three times a day:

When the youth enters below the throne of glory, God embraces him with a shining face. All the angels gather and address God as “the great, mighty, awesome God,” and they praise God three times a day by means of the youth ….[29]

It also appears that Metatron’s duties as the choirmaster or the celestial liturgical director are applied to his leadership not only over the angelic hosts but also over humans, specifically the visionaries admitted to the heavenly realm. In Synopse §2, Enoch-Metatron appears to be preparing Rabbi Ishmael for singing praise to the Holy One: “At once Metatron, Prince of the Divine Presence, came and revived me and raised me to my feet, but still I had not strength enough to sing a hymn before the glorious throne of the glorious King….”[30]

It has already been noted that the priestly duties of Metatron might plausibly find their early counterparts in the seventh antediluvian hero’s affiliations with the sacerdotal office. This background suggests that Metatron’s liturgical role as the celestial choirmaster might also have its origins in early Enochic materials. Entertaining this possibility of the Enochic origins of Metatron’s role as the leader of the divine worship, one must turn to the passage from 2 Enoch 18 in which the patriarch is depicted as the one who encourages the celestial Watchers to start the liturgy before the Face of God. The longer recension of 2 Enoch 18:8 relates:

And I [Enoch] said, “Why are you waiting for your brothers? And why don’t you perform the liturgy before the face of the Lord? Start up your liturgy, and perform the liturgy before the face of the Lord, so that you do not enrage your Lord to the limit.”[31]

It is significant that, although Enoch gives advice to the angels situated in the fifth heaven, he encourages them to start the liturgy “before the Face of the Lord,” that is, in front of the divine Kavod, the exact location where Metatron conducts the heavenly worship of the angelic hosts in the later rabbinic and Hekhalot materials. In view of the aforementioned conceptual developments, the tradition found in 2 Enoch 18 might represent an important step towards the defining and shaping of Enoch-Metatron’s sacerdotal office as the servant of the heavenly tabernacle and the celestial choirmaster…...[32]



[1] Alexander, “From Son of Adam to a Second God,” 107.

[2] Crispin Fletcher-Louis observes that in comparison with the early Enochic materials, “in 3 Enoch the priestly tradition is somewhat more muted ... which is unsurprising given that its ‘rabbinic’ life setting is far removed from the strongly priestly world which nurtured the Enoch tradition towards the close of the Second Temple period. However, Enoch’s priestly credentials are not forgotten. In 3 Enoch 7 Enoch is stationed before the Shekinah ‘to serve (as would the high priest) the throne of glory day by day.’ He is given a crown which perhaps bears God’s name as did that of the high priest (12:4–5) and a ly(m like that of the high priest (Exod 38:4, 31, 34 etc).” Fletcher-Louis, All the Glory of Adam, 24.

[3] Alexander, “3 Enoch,” 303.

[4] See, for example, Synopse §385: “when the youth enters beneath the throne of glory.” Schäfer et al., Synopse, 162.

[5] On the imagery of the Curtain, see also: b. Yoma 77a; b. Ber. 18b; Synopse §64.

[6] The inability of the angelic hosts to sustain the terrifying sound of God’s voice or the terrifying vision of God’s glorious Face is not a rare motif in the Hekhalot writings.  In such depictions Metatron usually poses as the mediator par excellence who protects the angelic hosts participating in the heavenly liturgy against the dangers of direct encounter with the divine presence. This combination of the liturgical duties with the role of the Prince of the Presence appears to be a long-lasting tradition with its possible roots in Second Temple Judaism. James VanderKam notes that in 1QSb  4:25 the priest is compared with an angel of the Face: Mynp K)lmk. J. C. VanderKam, “The Angel of the Presence in the Book of Jubilees,” DSD 7 (2000) 383.

[7] W. S. McCullough, Jewish and Mandean Incantation Texts in the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967) D 5–6.

[8] Alexander, “The Historical Settings of the Hebrew Book of Enoch,” 166.

[9] It should be noted that the expression “the tabernacle of the Youth” occurs also in the Shi(ur Qomah materials. For a detailed analysis of the Metatron imagery in this tradition, see Cohen, Liturgy and Theurgy in Pre–Kabbalistic Jewish Mysticism, 124ff.

[10] Midrash Rabbah, 5.482–3.

[11] Tishby, The Wisdom of Zohar, 2.645.

[12] Elior, “From Earthly Temple to Heavenly Shrines,” 228.

[13] L. H. Schiffman and M. D. Swartz, Hebrew and Aramaic Incantation Texts from the Cairo Genizah (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992) 145–7, 151. On Metatron as the High Priest see  Schiffman et al., Hebrew and Aramaic Incantation Texts from the Cairo Genizah 25–28; 145–47; 156–157; esp. 145; Elior, “From Earthly Temple to Heavenly Shrines,” 299, n. 30. Ya(qub al-Qirqisani alludes to the evidence from the Talmud about the priestly function of Metatron. See Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, 6.74; L. Nemoy, “Al-Qirqisani’s Account of the Jewish Sects and Christianity,” HUCA 7 (1930) 317–97.

[14] On the celestial Curtain, Pargod, as the heavenly counterpart of the paroket, the veil of the Jerusalem Temple, see: Halperin, The Merkabah in Rabbinic Literature, 169, note 99; Morray-Jones, A Transparent Illusion, 164ff.

[15] David Halperin argues that in 1 Enoch “the angels, barred from the inner house, are the priests of Enoch’s heavenly Temple. The high priest must be Enoch himself, who appears in the celestial Holy of Holies to procure forgiveness for holy beings…We cannot miss the implication that the human Enoch is superior even to those angels who are still in good standing.” Halperin, The Faces of the Chariot, 82.

[16] See also b. Ketub. 105b; b. Hul. 49a.

[17] Elior, “From Earthly Temple to Heavenly Shrines,” 225.

[18] See, for example, Synopse §3: “Metatron replied, ‘He [R. Ishmael] is of the tribe of Levi, which presents the offering to his name. He is of the family of Aaron, whom the Holy One, blessed be He, chose to minister in his presence and on whose head he himself placed the priestly crown on Sinai.’” 3 Enoch 2:3. Alexander, “3 Enoch,” 257.

[19] Nathaniel Deutsch observes that in 3 Enoch “likewise, as the heavenly high priest, Metatron serves as the mythological prototype of Merkabah mystics such as Rabbi Ishmael. Metatron’s role as a high priest highlights the functional parallel between the angelic vice-regent and the human mystic (both are priests), thereas his transformation from a human being into an angel reflects an ontological process which may be repeated by mystics via their own enthronement and angelification.” Deutsch, Guardians of the Gate, 34.

[20] Alexander, “From Son of Adam to a Second God,” 106–7.

[21] Gershom Scholem notes that “Michael as High Priest was known to the Jewish source used in the Gnostic Excerpta ex Theodoto, 38; only ‘an archangel [i.e. Michael]’ enters within the curtain (katape&tasma), an act analogous to that of the High Priest who enters once a year into the Holy of Holies. Michael as High Priest in heaven is also mentioned in Menahoth 110a (parallel to H9agigah 12b) and Zebahim 62a. The Baraitha in H9agigah is the oldest source.” Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition, 49, n. 19.

[22] G. Scholem, “Metatron,” EJ, 11.1445.

[23] Daniel Abrams draws attention to another important passage from Sefer Ha-Hashek, where Metatron commands the angels to deliver praise to the King of the Glory. Abrams, “The Boundaries of Divine Ontology,” 304.

[24] Cohen, Liturgy and Theurgy in Pre-Kabbalistic Jewish Mysticism, 134.

[25] Schäfer et al., Synopse, 164.

[26] M. Cohen, The Shi(ur Qomah: Texts and Recensions (TSAJ 9; Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1985)162–4.

[27] Cohen, The Shi(ur Qomah: Texts and Recensions, 162–4. On the relation of this passage to the Youth tradition see: Davila, “Melchizedek, the ‘Youth,’ and Jesus,” 248–74.

[28] This tradition is not forgotten in later Jewish mystical developments. Daniel Abrams notes that in Sefer Ha-Hashek “Metatron commands the angels to praise the King of Glory, and he is among them.” Abrams, “The Boundaries of Divine Ontology,” 304.

[29] Schäfer et al., Synopse, 162–3.

[30] 3 Enoch 1:9–10. Alexander, “3 Enoch,” 256.

[31] Andersen, “2 Enoch,” 132.

[32] It is intriguing that a similar, perhaps even competing, development can be detected in the early lore about Yahoel. Thus, the Apocalypse of Abraham 10:9 depicts Yahoel as the one who is responsible for teaching “those who carry the song through the medium of man’s night of the seventh hour.” R. Rubinkiewicz, “Apocalypse of Abraham,” OTP, 1.694. In chapter 12 of the same text, Abraham addresses Yahoel as the “Singer of the Eternal One.”