Since at least the time of the Mishnah, interpretation of the ma’aseh merkavah (Ezekiel, chapter 1) has represented the most esoteric part of Jewish teaching. The Mishnah on Hagigah 11b prohibits teaching it to non-expert students, and even then, not to more than one at a time. Maimonides states (Guide II:29 and III:Introduction) that a primary aim in writing the Guide of the Perplexed was to explain what could be explained of ma’aseh merkavah (the Biblical Account of the Chariot). In deference to the strictures of the Mishnah in Hagigah, he states that he will address the topic only indirectly and through allusions. Nevertheless, most of his allusions are immediately apparent to anyone familiar with the entirety of the Guide.
Maimonides presents his primary exposition of ma’aseh merkavah (Guide III:1-7)
[I]n such a way that anyone who heard that interpretation would think that I do not say anything over and beyond what is indicated by the text, but that it is as if I translated words from one language to another or summarized the meaning of the external sense of the speech. On the other hand, if that interpretation is examined with a perfect care by him for whom this Treatise is composed and who has understood all its chapters—every chapter in its turn—the whole matter, which has become clear and manifest to me, will become clear to him so that nothing in it will remain hidden from him.
Despite his attempt to keep his understanding of ma’aseh merkavah esoteric, the classical commentaries on the Guide uncover each of the references. While they never, to the best of my knowledge, explicitly address how they can do so without violating the Mishnah’s prohibition, I follow their lead in entering into these topics.
Friedlander, in his introduction to his translation of the Guide, concludes his discussion of this section by pointing out the apparent contradiction between Maimonides’s stated desire to keep the section esoteric and the transparency of his allusions:
At the conclusion of this exposition Maimonides declares that he will, in the subsequent chapters, refrain from giving further explanation of the ma‘aseh mercabah. The foregoing summary, however, shows that the opinion of the author on this subject is fully stated, and it is indeed difficult to conceive what additional disclosures he could still have made.
Indeed, remarkably little has been written on these chapters in the 100+ years since Friedlander wrote this, despite the central place Maimonides gives them in understanding the overall purpose of the Guide. Yet the question remains, if the allusions he makes are so apparent, what is it he was trying to hide with the esoteric nature of these chapters? If we take the classical commentaries at their word, each part of the exposition of ma’aseh merkavah alludes to some philosophical doctrine he dealt with explicitly in some other part of the Guide. Why even attempt to keep the interpretation esoteric if its hidden meaning is an idea he had no problem stating explicitly elsewhere?
Shlomo Pines famously argued that a defining feature of the Guide of the Perplexed is its relative skepticism with regard to Aristotelian metaphysics in general, and the separate intelligences in particular, when compared with Maimonides’ earlier writings. I submit that it is this rejection of (or at least skepticism towards) Aristotelian metaphysics (as interpreted by the medieval Islamic peripatetics) that lies at the heart of Maimonides’ understanding of ma’aseh merkavah. He keeps it secret because ma’aseh merkavah is not a mere metaphor for the Aristotelian metaphysics he propounded elsewhere. Rather, Maimonides intimates other sections of the Guide in ways that subtly undermine his commitment to those very doctrines expressed there and in his earlier works.
Ma’aseh Merkavah in the Guide vs. Ma’aseh Merkavah in Mishneh Torah
To begin to make this case, I first present Friedlander’s summary of how these chapters in the Guide were interpreted by the classical commentaries (primarily Shem Tov and Efodi):
According to Maimonides three distinct parts are to be noticed, each of which begins with the phrase, “And I saw.” These parts correspond to the three parts of the Universe, the sublunary world, the spheres and the intelligences. First of all the prophet is made to behold the material world which consists of the earth and the spheres, and of these the spheres, as the more important, are noticed first. In the Second Part, in which the nature of the spheres is discussed, the author dwells with pride on his discovery that they can be divided into four groups. This discovery he now employs to show that the four “hayot” (animals) represent the four divisions of the spheres. He points out that the terms which the prophet uses in the description of the hayot are identical with terms applied to the properties of the spheres. For the four hayot or “angels,” or cherubim, (1) have human form; (2) have human faces; (3) possess characteristics of other animals; (4) have human hands; (5) their feet are straight and round (cylindrical); (6) their bodies are closely joined to each other; (7) only their faces and their wings are separate; (8) their substance is transparent and refulgent; (9) they move uniformly; (10) each moves in its own direction; (11) they run; (12) swift as lightning they return towards their starting point; and (13) they move in consequence of an extraneous impulse (ruaḥ). In a similar manner the spheres are described:–(1) they possess the characteristics of man, viz., life and intellect; (2) they consist like man of body and soul; (3) they are strong, mighty and swift, like the ox, the lion, and the eagle, (4) they perform all manner of work as though they had hands; (5) they are round, and are not divided into parts; (6) no vacuum intervenes between one sphere and the other; (7) they may be considered as one being, but in respect to the intellects, which are the causes of their existence and motion, they appear as four different beings; (8) they are transparent and refulgent; (9) each sphere moves uniformly, (10) and according to its special laws; (11) they revolve with great velocity; (12) each point returns again to its previous position; (13) they are self-moving, yet the impulse emanates from an external power.
In the second part of the vision the prophet saw the ofanim. These represent the four elements of the sublunary world. For the ofanim (1) are connected with the hayot and with the earth; (2) they have four faces, and are four separate beings, but interpenetrate each other “as though it were a wheel in the midst of a wheel” (Ez. 1:16); (3) they are covered with eyes; (4) they are not self-moving; (5) they are set in motion by the hayot; (6) their motion is not circular but rectilinear. The same may almost be said of the four elements (1) they are in close contact with the spheres, being encompassed by the sphere of the moon; earth occupies the centre, water surrounds earth, air has its position between water and fire; (2) this order is not invariably maintained; the respective portions change and they become intermixed and combined with each other (3) though they are only four elements they form an infinite number of things; (4) not being animated they do not move of their own accord; (5) they are set in motion by the action of the spheres; (6) when a portion is displaced it returns in a straight line to its original position.
In the third vision Ezekiel saw a human form above the hayot. The figure was divided in the middle; in the upper portion the prophet only noticed that it was hashmal, (mysterious); from the loins downwards there was “the vision of the likeness of the Divine Glory,” and “the likeness of the throne.” The world of Intelligences was represented by the figure; these can only be perceived in as far as they influence the spheres, but their relation to the Creator is beyond human comprehension. The Creator himself is not represented in this vision.
To bring the aims of Maimonides’s presentation of ma’aseh merkavah in the Guide into full relief, it is worth summarizing what Maimonides says about ma’aseh merkavah in Mishneh Torah and highlighting how it differs from his presentation in the Guide. This will make Maimonides’s shifting approach toward Aristotelianism unmistakeable. While one could no doubt point out small details of difference, his presentation in Mishneh Torah is, by and large, consistent with Aristotelian (or Farabian) metaphysics. In his presentation in Mishneh Torah, all three of the celestial beings from Ezekiel’s vision (hayot, ofanim, hashmalim), along with seven other words denoting angels that he culled from elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (er’elim, seraphim, mal’akhim, elohim, benei elohim, keruvim, ishim), represent separate intelligences (Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:3-8). He thus arrives at the ten intelligences common to the Neoplatonized Aristotelianism of his day, akin to what could be found in Al-Farabi. In contrast, in the Guide, he discusses only the three celestial beings explicitly mentioned in Ezekiel’s vision. The first two of these, the hayot and ofanim, as understood by the classical commentaries on the Guide (as summarized by Friedlander above), do not even refer to separate intelligences, but to aspects of the material world, namely the celestial spheres and the material elements. Maimonides hints at this in his digression in Guide III:5 into the Talmudic debate (Hagigah 13a) about exactly which sections of Ezekiel’s vision fall under the prohibition to expound publicly. He cites approvingly the opinion that only the third vision (the vision of the Hashmal) falls into this category. In separating the first two visions (the hayot and the ofanim), he is hinting to us that the content of these visions really belongs to the realm of ma’aseh bereishit (physics) rather than ma’aseh merkavah (metaphysics). In limiting the separate intelligences to just the hashmal, he is already indicating skepticism towards the details of Al-Farabi’s presentation, if not the concept of separate intelligences altogether.
Disillusionment with Aristotelian Astronomy in the Vision of the Hayot
Even in Maimonides’ presentation of the visions of the hayot and the ofanim, which he associates with celestial and terrestrial physics, respectively, he does so in a way which highlights his disillusionment with Aristotle. In discussing the hayot (Guide III:1-2), he repeatedly emphasizes the significance of it having four faces. A reader familiar with Aristotelian physics would immediately see in the number four a reference to the four terrestrial elements. It would then be logical to assume that the ofanim, whose name literally refers to circularity, are a reference to the circular spheres of the heavens. Maimonides explicitly excludes this possibility by ascribing it to Jonathan ben Uziel, and indicating his disagreement with it (Guide III:4). This forces the reader to recognize that the number four, which he emphasized with regard to the hayot, is a reference not to the four terrestrial elements, but to the four-sphere conception of the heavens that he endorses in Guide II:9. This is significant because his four-sphere conception of the heavens is a departure from the standard nine-sphere peripatetic cosmology, which he himself had embraced in Mishneh Torah (Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 3:1). Thus, the very beginning of his presentation of ma’aseh merkavah alludes to his departure from the very Aristotelian doctrines he had taught in his younger days.
The Vision of the Hashmal as a Rejection of the Aristotelian Notion of God as Intellect
Though Maimonides hints at his departures from Aristotle in his presentation of the hayot and ofanim, as discussed in the previous section, the secrets that Maimonides believes to be the real point of ma’aseh merkavah come out in his presentation of the hashmal. As stated earlier, the hashmal is the only part of Ezekiel’s vision that he truly regards as ma’aseh merkavah and falling under the restrictions of the Talmud.
It is significant, also as mentioned above, that there is only one hashmal in Ezekiel’s vision. What is more telling, though, is what Maimonides tells us about the hashmal. The hashmal has human form. This is no doubt a reference to human intellect. Maimonides clearly states (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:3) that angels/Intelligences have intelligence without a body, so he surely does not believe they possess a human physical form. Next, Maimonides wants to make sure we know that the hashmal is “a created thing” (Guide III:7). “The likeness of a man that was on the throne and that was divided, is not a parable referring to Him, who is exalted above all composition.” It is the hashmal who possesses the likeness of man. God does not possess the likeness of man. This stands in stark contradiction with the very first chapter of the Guide, where Maimonides discusses what it means for man to be created in the image of God. He asserts that it was “because of the divine intellect conjoined with man, that it is said of the latter that he is in the image of God and in His likeness.” This would seem to indicate a fundamental similarity between the human intellect and the Divine intellect. Were this the case though, Maimonides would have no problem portraying God with the likeness of man in a prophetic vision. By making it clear that the man in Ezekiel’s vision is the hashmal and not God, he makes it clear that only the hashmal’s intellect shares any similarity with the human intellect, but God is beyond any human form. Many have noted that Maimonides’ negative theology (Guide I:58-60), essentially Neoplatonist in nature, is incompatible with his Aristotelian description of God as eternally self-cognizing intellect (Guide I:68 and Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:10). In denying to God even the intellectual form of man, Maimonides is using the ma’aseh merkavah to convey to us his ultimate rejection of the Aristotelian notion of God as intellect.
Further Skepticism Regarding Aristotelian Metaphysics and the Actual Symbolism of the Hashmal
Rejecting the notion of God as intellect does not necessarily indicate Maimonides’ skepticism regarding the existence of separate intelligences as a creation of God. It is thus necessary to look further at how Maimonides describes the hashmal. At the beginning of Guide III:7, Maimonides highlights that the prophet uses the word “likeness” when describing the hayot and the hashmal, but not when describing the ofanim. Shem Tov and Efodi (ad loc.) both assert that this is because we can have certain knowledge of the ofanim, as they represent the terrestrial elements. The hayot and hashmal, however, represent celestial physics and the separate intelligences, respectively, so certain knowledge of them is not achievable except through prophetic vision. That Maimonides would put this into his discussion of ma’aseh merkavah already buttresses Pines’ claim that his skepticism with regard to Aristotelian metaphysics and celestial physics should be seen as a major theme of the Guide.
Regarding the hashmal itself, Maimonides highlights that the prophet refers to it as having “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord,” and not, as stated above, the likeness of God Himself. The phrase “glory of the Lord” clearly references the reader back to Guide I:64, where he discussed three possibilities for what this phrase can mean: 1) “the created light that God causes to descend in a particular place in order to confer honor upon it in a miraculous way,” 2) God’s “essence and true reality,” 3) “the honoring of Him, may He be exalted.” The first one is relevant only to a few specific narratives in the Torah and would not provide any meaningful insight in this context. The second one Maimonides already explicitly excluded by emphasizing that the hashmal has only the likeness of the glory of the Lord, and not the likeness of God, as I stated above. This leaves open only the third possibility, namely that the hashmal represents that which conveys honor to God. Thus, examining what he said about this third understanding of the “glory of God” in I:64 will provide the clues to understand what Maimonides means in III:7 when he says the hashmal has the likeness of the glory of God. It is this comparison that will fully demonstrate his departure from the doctrine of separate Intelligences.
The first thing Maimonides tells us in I:64 about that third understanding of the “glory of God” is, “In fact, all that is other than God, may He be exalted, honors him.” This corresponds with what Maimonides wrote in III:7, that “[E]verything to which the parables contained in these apprehensions refer is only the glory of the Lord.” In both passages, he tells us everything may be seen as part of the glory of the Lord, even if it is more apparent in some parts than others. Furthermore, the parallel between the vision of the chariot and “all that is other than God” indicates that the vision of the chariot is supposed to convey all that Maimonides believes exists in reality other than God. While the entire vision refers to the glory of God, the hashmal is nevertheless specifically singled out as being in the likeness of the glory of God. I:64 gives us the clue to understand this as well.
For the true way of honoring God consists in apprehending His greatness. Thus everybody who apprehends His greatness and His perfection, honors him according to the extent of his apprehension. Man in particular honors Him by speeches so that he indicates thereby that which he has apprehended by his intellect and communicates it to others.
According to Maimonides, the part of creation that is uniquely singled out to honor God is man. It can thus be understood that the hashmal possesses the likeness of man because it is truly man. It is ultimately man himself, and not some separate intelligence, that sits atop the chariot bringing the honor of God to the world.
A further parallel between III:7 and I:64 supports this contention. There, Maimonides notes a possible explanation of the meaning of the word hashmal as possessing the two contradictory notions of “speech and silence.” This parallels Maimonides’ statement in I:64 that man “honor[s] God, either by means of articulate utterance, or without it if speech is not permitted him.” Furthermore, these dual modes of honoring God, through speech and silence, echoes what Maimonides wrote in I:59, that “Whatever we say intending to magnify and exalt, on the one hand we find that it can have some application to Him, may He be exalted, and on the other we perceive in it some deficiency. Accordingly, silence and limiting oneself to the apprehensions of the intellects are more appropriate.” Additionally, as stated above, Maimonides emphasized the composite nature of the hashmal (in distinction with God, who is beyond all composition). The vision is divided in two, with only the upper half having human form. This composite image of the hashmal corresponds with the composite nature of the human soul into its various faculties, with only the highest, the rational faculty, being truly the “human form.” All of the parallels I have discussed between these two chapters clearly demonstrate that Maimonides sees the hashmal as representative of humanity, and not some separate Intelligence. Thus, separate Intelligences have no place in Maimonides’s ultimate understanding of physical and metaphysical reality, as portrayed in his exposition of ma’aseh merkavah.
The Real Angel Who Speaks with Prophets
The fact that the primary vehicle for bringing God’s honor to the world is man would not necessarily preclude the existence of separate intellects who also honor and perceive the greatness of God. One cannot say definitively whether Maimonides outright rejects this aspect of Aristotelian metaphysics, or is merely skeptical about it. Even Pines only goes as far as claiming Maimonides is agnostic on this point. The point here is that their existence is not in any way key to Maimonides’ understanding of the operation of the universe. In other words, separate intelligences may or may not exist; we ultimately have no way of knowing, and either way it is not particularly religiously or philosophically relevant. However, this conceptualization might be challenged by what Maimonides writes in III:45, where he argues that:
It is known that the fundamental principle of belief in prophecy precedes the belief in the Law. For it there is no prophet, there can be no Law. The prophet receives prophetic revelation only through the intermediary of an angel…Consequently, it has been made clear that the belief in the existence of angels precedes the belief in prophecy, and the belief in prophecy precedes the belief in the Law.
At first glance, one might be tempted to assume that the angel Maimonides refers to here as the intermediary between God and the prophets, whose existence is necessary to belief in prophecy, and ultimately, belief in the Law, is a reference to the Active Intellect. Indeed, in II:36, Maimonides describes prophecy as coming through the intermediary of the Active Intellect. This is contradicted, however, by II:45:
You have counted among the degrees of prophecy the degree in which the prophet hears speech coming from God who addresses him as in the cases of Isaiah and Micaiah. How can this be in view of the fact that our principle states that all prophets hear speech only through the intermediary of an angel, the sole exception being Moses our Master…Know then that this is in fact so, and that in these cases the intermediary is the imaginative faculty.
Here Maimonides makes clear that the only angelic intermediary necessary to belief in prophecy is not a separate Active Intellect, but a part of the human soul. This confirms, once again, the interpretation that hashmal of the merkavah vision refers not to some separate intellect. Rather, it refers to the various faculties of the human soul, presumably the lower part to the imaginative faculty and the upper part, as I stated earlier, to the rational faculty. Once a separate Intelligence is no longer necessary to Maimonides’s understanding of prophecy, there are no further barriers to the claim that he sees the question of their existence as religiously irrelevant.
I have demonstrated here how Maimonides’s entire presentation of ma’aseh merkavah is laden with allusions that point to his skepticism or denial of Aristotelian metaphysics. He begins by challenging the accepted number of spheres in the standard cosmology of his day. From there, he contests the number of angelic beings, before finally indicating that the only angelic being necessary to his religious scheme is the human soul. In doing so, Maimonides makes clear to the astute reader that he no longer subscribes to the philosophy he once wholeheartedly endorsed in Mishneh Torah. This, in turn, enables the reader to properly understand other contradictions in the Guide not as pointing towards Aristotelian ideas, but as pointing away from them.
Why did Maimonides want to keep his move away from Aristotelianism secret? It is hard to say with certainty. Perhaps he was afraid of losing his credibility with the philosophical community. Perhaps he thought Aristotelian metaphysics was a perfectly good belief system for the masses and there was no need to challenge its foundations unnecessarily. Or perhaps Maimonides simply wanted to guide the reader along the same philosophical journey he took. Regardless of his ultimate reason, revealing his departure from Aristotle is as crucial today as concealing it was in the medieval period. Nowadays, Aristotelian metaphysics is no longer in vogue. Few believe in separate intelligences unless they got it on Maimonides’s authority, and no one’s faith is going to be undermined if there’s no Active Intellect. Kabbalistic Judaism has managed to shed its medieval philosophical garb to present an authentic spiritual vision to the modern Jew, and Maimonidean Judaism, if it is to remain relevant, must do the same. Nothing will help Maimonideanism shed the image of being just outdated Greek philosophy in a Hebrew garb more than the realization that Maimonides himself, through his own spiritual journey, ultimately left Aristotelianism behind.
 Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 416.
 M. Friedlander, introduction to Moses Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, trans. M. Friedlander (London: Routledge, 1904), lvi.
 See Shlomo Pines, “The Limitations of Human Knowledge According to Al-Farabi, ibn Bajja, and Maimonides,” in Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature, ed. Isadore Twersky (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), 82-109 and Shlomo Pines, “The Philosophical Purport of Maimonides Halachic Works and the Purport of the Guide of the Perplexed,” in Maimonides and Philosophy, eds. Shlomo Pines and Yirmiyahu Yovel (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1986), 1-14.
 Friedlander, lv-lvi.
 See Pines, “The Philosophical Purport of Maimonides Halachic Works and the Purport of the Guide of the Perplexed,” 5-6.
 It is perhaps worth noting that even the order of the celestial beings is different. In Mishneh Torah, the Hayot are the highest, while in the Guide, the Hashmal is on top.
 In classical Aristotelian thought, God (i.e. the First Intellect or Unmoved Mover) is the cause of motion in the universe, but not of the existence of the universe. Medieval Aristotelians, however, generally adopted a Neoplatonized version of Aristotelianism where God was also thought of as the cause of the existence of the universe through a series of emanations of successively lower intelligences, the last of which gave rise to the material world.
 Abu-Nasr Al-Farabi, On the Perfect State, trans. Richard Walzer, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 39-41, 101-105. See also Sarah Pessin, “The Influence of Islamic Thought on Maimonides,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, (Spring 2016), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/maimonides-islamic/.
 See the commentary of Shem Tov on Guide III:5.
 Pines, “The Limitations of Human Knowledge According to Al-Farabi, ibn Bajja, and Maimonides,” points out that Al-Farabi himself, in other works, may have expressed skepticism about the system of separate intelligences he laid out in On the Perfect State.
 See Pines, “The Limitations of Human Knowledge According to Al-Farabi, ibn Bajja, and Maimonides,” for further discussion of Maimonides’ skepticism with regard to Aristotelian astronomy. See also Charles Manekin, “Possible Sources of Maimonides’ Theological Conservatism in His Later Writings,” in Jay Harris, ed., Maimonides After 800 Years: Essays on Maimonides and His Influence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Center for Jewish Studies, 2007), 220.
 See Shem Tov on III:7.
 430 in Pines.
 23 in Pines.
 See Shlomo Pines, introduction to Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed (Vol. 1), trans. Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), xcvii-xcviii; Julius Guttman, Philosophies of Judaism, trans. David Silverman (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1964), 164; and Diana Lobel, “’Silence Is Praise to You’: Maimonides on Negative Theology, Looseness of Expression, and Religious Experience,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 76, no. 1 (2002): 31-58.
 Unlike in Aristotelian metaphysics, where the highest ontological reality is mind/intellect, in Neoplatonist metaphysics, intellect is the first emanation of the One, which is beyond being. Maimonides’ description of a God nothing can be accurately said about is reminiscent of the Neoplatonist One.
 156 in Pines.
 157 in Pines.
 Maimonides already expresses the idea that the “Glory of God” is a reference to the human intellect in his commentary on Mishnah Hagigah 2:1
 139-140 in Pines. See Jose Faur, Homo Mysticus, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999), 6-23 and Lobel, “Silence is Praise to You” for elaborations on the significance of praise and silence in Maimonides’s thought
 See Maimonides’ Eight Chapters, chapter 1.
 See Guide I:1, where Maimonides refers to the intellect as the form of man.
 576 in Pines.
 403 in Pines.
 Maimonides’s deep skepticism regarding Aristotelian metaphysics should not force us to Pines’s conclusion in “The Limitations of Human Knowledge According to Al-Farabi, ibn Bajja, and Maimonides” that Maimonides was a radical agnostic with regard to the existence of God as well. Radical negative theology, taken to its logical extreme, ultimately must result either in radical agnosticism, or in radical apophatic mysticism. If one cannot know God rationally, one can either not know God at all (agnosticism) or can know God only through direct experience (mysticism). Pines’s apparent unwillingness, in “The Limitations of Human Knowledge According to Al-Farabi, ibn Bajja, and Maimonides,” to consider the latter, led him to conclude the former. For further discussion of the possibility of seeing Maimonides as a mystic see David Blumenthal, “Maimonides’ Philosophic Mysticism,” in David Blumenthal, Philosophic Mysticism: Studies in Rational Religion (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2006), 128-151. Available at: http://davidblumenthal.org/Maimonides’%20Philosophic%20Mysticism.htm and my previous piece at the Lehrhaus on Maimonides and mysticism: https://thelehrhaus.com/scholarship/mysticism-and-its-alternatives-rethinking-maimonides/.