The Talmud (Chagiga 14b, Zohar I, 26b and Tikunei Zohar, Tikun 40) reports the following incident regarding four Mishnaic Sages:
The Rabbis taught: Four [Sages] entered the Pardes [literally "the orchard."]. Rashi explains that they ascended to heaven by utilizing the [Divine] Name [i.e., they achieved a spiritual elevation through intense meditation on G-d's Name] (Tosafot, ad loc). They were Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher [Elisha ben Avuya, called Acher-- the other one -- because of what happened to him after he entered the Pardes] and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva said to them [prior to their ascension]: "When you come to the place of pure marble stones, do not say, 'Water! Water!' for it is said, 'He who speaks untruths shall not stand before My eyes' (Psalms 101:7)." Ben Azzai gazed [at the Divine Presence - Rashi] and died. Regarding him the verse states, "Precious in the eyes of G-d is the death of His pious ones" (Psalms 116:15). Ben Zoma gazed and was harmed [he lost his sanity -- Rashi]. Regarding him the verse states, "Did you find honey? Eat only much as you need, lest you be overfilled and vomit it up" (Proverbs 25:16). Acher cut down the plantings [he became a heretic]. Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace.
Ramak now cites the Tikunei Zohar which adds some details not mentioned in the Talmud.
The ancient Saba [an old man] stood up and said [to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai], "Rabbi, Rabbi! What is the meaning of what Rabbi Akiva said to his students, "When you come to the place of pure marble stones, do not say, 'Water! Water!' lest you place yourselves in danger, for it is said, 'He who speaks untruths shall not stand before My eyes.' But it is written, "There shall be a firmament between the waters and it shall separate between water [above the firmament] and water [below the firmament]" (Genesis 1:6). Since the Torah describes the division of the waters in to upper and lower, why should it be problematic to mention this division? Furthermore, since there are [in fact] upper and lower waters, why did Rabbi Akiva warn them, "do not say, 'Water! Water!'"
The Holy Lamp [a title accorded to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai] replied, "Saba, it is proper that you reveal this secret that the chevraya [Rabbi Shimon's circle of disciples] have not grasped clearly."
The ancient Saba answered, "Rabbi, Rabbi, Holy Lamp. Surely the pure marble stones are the letter yud -- one the upper yud of the letter aleph, and one the lower yud of the letter aleph [an aleph in script is formed by an upright yud at the top to the right, and an upside-down yud at the bottom to the left, joined by a vav, the diagonal line between them]. Here there is no spiritual impurity; only pure marble stones, and so there is no separation between one water and the other; they form a single unity from the aspect of the Tree of Life, which is the vav in the midst of the letter aleph. In this regard it states, "[lest he put forth his hand] and if he take of the Tree of Life [and eat and live forever]…(Gen. 3:22)
Ramak now begins to analyze these passages.
The meaning of Rabbi Akiva's exhortation is that the Sages should not declare that there are two types of water. Since there are not [two types of water] one would be causing a separation. This is the meaning of "do not say, 'water, water'" -- do not say that there are two types of water, lest you endanger yourself because of the sin of separation. For this reason the old man asked two questions, both of which are real questions: "There shall be a firmament between the waters and it shall separate…" (Genesis 1:6). Thus there are two types of water and a separation between them. In this case, does it not appear to be permissible to refer to two types of water? Even more problematic is that the Torah itself states, "It shall separate between water and water" -- the water above the firmament and the water below the firmament. This is a complete separation.
The marble stones represent the letter yud.
The old man asked a second question -- the waters are in fact of two types: water of the firmament and water below the firmament [in rivers, lakes and seas]. Why then did Rabbi Akiva exhort them not to say "water, water, lest they endanger themselves?" On the contrary; it should be permitted to mention two types of water, for this is no worse than the language used by the Torah, and this is also the situation in fact!
Now Rabbi Shimon did not wish to explain this matter himself; he wanted his disciples to hear it from the old man. The old man explained that each of the marble stones represents the letter yud. As we have explained elsewhere this means a yud at the beginning, and a yud at the end, according to the mystical explanation of "I am first and I am last" (Isaiah 44:6). The first yud represents chochma, and the second yud represents malchut, which is also chochma according to the mystical explanation of the light that returns from below to above (called or chozer). The upper yud is the yud of the Tetragrammaton (Yud-Hei-Vav-Hei) while the lower yud is the yud of the Name Alef-Dalet-Nun-Yud.
The latter is the concept of "female waters" (Mayin Nukvin), and the former the concept of "male waters" (Mayin Dechurin). They are called "female waters" because they receive from below, from the performance of the commandments, and through them a person has the ability to affect the higher worlds so that the light will shine forth and become clothed in them, as in a palace. Thus the light that is elicited [by the performance of the commandments is like] a king in his palace.
These are also the keys to the inner and outer aspects. The inner aspect is the light of the Tetragrammaton, which undoubtedly descends as or yashar from above to below. The outer aspect is that which returns according to the mystical explanation of or chozer. This is the meaning of the statement in regard to the sefirot "from below to above, and from above to below," as explained elsewhere. This is signified by the top and the bottom yuds of the aleph. This is also the secret of the intertwining (shiluv) of the two Names --Yud-Alef-Hei-Dalet-Vov-Nun-Hei-Yud -- with the upper yud at the beginning and the lower yud at the end.
These two yuds are referred to in the passage "pure marble stones." Each of the yuds is a stone because its shape is round like a stone. It is called "marble" because marble is generally white, which is indicative of the attribute of Mercy (in Hebrew rachamim). In this sense it is also similar to water [which represents kindness]. Now since these two yuds are the aspect of compassion, just like water, which is called "waters of kindness," they are therefore referred to as "marble," as we just explained.
We can also explain this by way of [the science of] tzeiruf (letter combinations and permutations): The sefira of chochma is called yesh -- "being" [since it is the first immanent sefira], spelled Yud-Shin in Hebrew. The lower chochma [i.e., malchut] is called shai [Shin-Yud -- the identical letters, but in reverse order]. When both words are combined they form the word shayish -- Shin-Yud-Shin ("marble"). The yud is chochma, the source, and the shin is the emanation of its branches [i.e., the branching out into sefirot according to the mystical explanation of or yashar]…Malchut is called shai according to the mystical explanation of the light that reverses (or chozer). When these two words, signifying these two types of light, are combined to form the word shayish (the two yuds combine into one).
They are the letter yud...the upper and lower yuds of the aleph are joined by a diagonal vav
They are called "pure," for there are a number of different types of water [mentioned in the Torah]; one of these is mei nida -- literally waters of impurity [because they are used to purify a person after he became contaminated by contact with the dead. Water from a living spring is mixed with the ashes of the red heifer and is then sprinkled upon the impure person]. Separation and division is mentioned in regard to this type of water, as will be explained. These waters [of the pure] marble stones are completely pure and pertain to Atzilut.
"They are the letter yud -- one the upper yud of the letter aleph…" We already explained above that the Name Yud-Alef-Hei-Dalet-Vav-Nun-Hei-Yud has the upper and lower aspects of chochma [represented by the two yuds] and six letters in between, alluding to the letter vav [which has a numerical value of 6. Note that the upper and lower yuds of the aleph are joined by a diagonal vav. This is the way a scribe traditionally writes the letter א]. This symbolizes tiferet, which branches out into six extremities [tiferet is the central sefira of the six sefirot of Zeir Anpin]. The vav is situated between the yuds in order to join them. That is to say, through tiferet the daughter [malchut] is able to ascend "to her father's house as in her youth."
It is for this reason that Rabbi Akiva warned them not to say that those two marble stones were separated from one another, G-d forbid, for this is not true. On the contrary, the firmament between them, which is tiferet, actually unites them and through it they are joined together. There is no separation other than in a place of spiritual impurity, as it is written, "to separate between the impure and the pure" (Leviticus 11:47). But in a place of purity -- pure marble stones -- "do not say, 'water, water." This is what the old man was explaining, "Here there is no spiritual impurity… they are from the aspect of the Tree of Life…" These waters are in Atzilut and therefore there is no separation between them… on the contrary, the firmament unites them….
[Translation and commentary by Moshe Miller from Pardes Rimonim, Sha'ar Arachei HaKinuim, s.v. Mayim]
To read the Ari's commentary on The Four Who Entered Paradise, click here