Four men entered pardes — Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher (Elisha ben Abuyah), and Akiba. Ben Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma looked and went mad; Acher destroyed the plants; Akiba entered in peace and departed in peace.
The Hebrew word pardes (orchard) is of Persian origin and appears several times in the Bible. Persian is also the source of the word paradise, which entered English via Latin and Greek. See Paradise for more details.
The Aggadah regarding the four Tannaim (Mishnaic Sages of the 1st-2nd centuries CE) is found in the Tosefta (Hagigah 2:2) and in the Talmuds (Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 14b, Jerusalem Talmud Hagigah 2:1). The original context in the Tosefta is the restriction on transmitting mystical teaching concerning the divine Chariot except privately to particularly qualified disciples. The version in the Babylonian Talmud, which is the best-known, may be translated:
The Rabbis taught: Four entered the Pardes. They were Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva said to them, "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 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. Regarding him the verse states, 'Did you find honey? Eat as only much as you need, lest you be overfilled and vomit it' (Proverbs 25:16). Acher cut down the plantings. Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace.
In the commentary printed beside the Talmud text, Rashi says that Ben Azzai died from looking at the Divine Presence. Ben Zoma's harm was in losing his sanity. Acher's "cutting down the plantings" in the orchard refers to becoming a heretic from the experience. Acher means "the other one", and is the Talmudic term for the sage Elisha ben Avuya. Rabbi Akiva, in contrast to the other three, became the leading Rabbinic figure of the era.
Rashi explains that they ascended to Heaven by utilizing the Divine Name, which might be understood as achieving a spiritual elevation through Jewish meditation practices. The Tosafot, medieval commentaries on the Talmud, say that the four sages "did not go up literally, but it appeared to them as if they went up." On the other hand, Rabbi Louis Ginzberg writes in the Jewish Encyclopedia (1901–1906) that the journey to paradise "is to be taken literally and not allegorically". According to another interpretation, PaRDeS-exegesis is an acronym for the 4 traditional methods of exegesis in Judaism. In this sense, they were the four to understand the whole Torah.
Interpretation in Kabbalah
The ancient Saba (an old man) stood up and said (to 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 upper and lower waters why did Rabbi Akiva warn them, "do not say, 'Water! Water!'""
The Holy Lamp (a title for 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. Here there is no spiritual impurity, only pure marble stones, 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, 'and if he take of the Tree of Life (and eat and live forever)' (Genesis 3:22)..."
Moshe Cordovero explains the Zoharic passage in his Pardes Rimonim ("Orchard of Pomegranates"), whose title itself refers to the Pardes mystical ascent (Pardes: Shaar Arachei HaKinuim, entry on Mayim-Water). The meaning of the ascent is understood through Rabbi Akiva's warning. The danger concerns misinterpreting anthropomorphism in Kabbalah, introducing corporeal notions in the Divine. Emanations in Kabbalah bridge between the Ein Sof Divine Unity and the plurality of Creation. The fundamental mystical error involves separating between Divine transcendence and Divine immanence, as if they were a duality. Rather, all Kabbalistic emanations have no being of their own, but are nullified and dependent on their source of vitality in the One God. Nonetheless, Kabbalah maintains that God is revealed through the life of His emanations, Man interacting with Divinity in a mutual Flow of "Direct Light" from Above to Below and "Returning Light" from Below to Above. The Sephirot, including Wisdom, Compassion and Kingship comprise the dynamic life in God's Persona. In the highest of the Four Worlds (Atzilut-Emanation), the complete nullification and Unity of the sephirot and Creation is revealed within its Divine source. Apparent separation only pertains, in successive degrees, to the lower Three Worlds and our Physical Realm. Introducing false separation causes the exile of the Shekhina Divine Presence within Creation from God. From Cordovero's explanation:
The meaning of Rabbi Akiva's warning is that the Sages should not declare that there are two types of water, since there are not, lest you endanger yourself because of the sin of separation...The marble stones represent the letter י yud...a yud at the beginning, and a yud at the end...The first is Wisdom, the second Kingship, which is also Wisdom according to the light that returns from Below to Above. The upper is the yud of the Tetragrammaton (first letter), while the lower is the yud of Adonai (last letter). The latter is "female waters", and the former is "male waters"...the inner and outer aspects...signified by the top and the bottom yuds of the letter א aleph...Each is a stone because its shape is round. White "marble" indicates Compassion, similar to "waters of kindness"...Wisdom is יש "Yesh" Being. Kinship is שי "Shay" (reversed). Combined they form שיש "Shayish" (marble). The letter ש Shin are the dividing emanations. When the two lights combine as "marble", the two yuds combine as one...These waters are completely pure...Through Compassion the daughter (Kingship) is able to ascend "to her father's house as in her youth". The firmament between them ו (letter Vav in the א aleph), which is Compassion, unites them...There is no separation other than in a place of spiritual impurity, but "Here there is no impurity...the Tree of Life" in Atzilut.
- Pardes (Jewish exegesis)
- Elisha ben Abuyah
- Olam Haba
- Gan Eden
- Merkabah mysticism
- Four Worlds
- Jewish eschatology
- Later, Elisha came to be considered heretical by his fellow Tannaim and the rabbis of the Talmud referred to him as Acher (אחר"The Other One").
- Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 14b, Jerusalem Talmud Hagigah 2:1. Both available online in Aramaic: Babylonian Talmud, Jerusalem Talmud. This translation based on Braude, Ginzberg, Rodkinson, and Streane.
- Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 14b
- David J. Halperin, A new edition of the Hekhalot literature (Review of Synopse zur Hekhalot-Literatur by Peter Schäfer), Journal of the American Oriental Society 104(3):543-552.
- A. W. Streane, A Translation of the Treatise Chagigah from the Babylonian Talmud (Cambridge University Press, 1891). p. 83.
- Louis Ginzberg, "Elisha ben Abuyah", Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901-1906.
-  from ascentofsafed.com