Rabbi Joshua, who was on such “intimate” terms with the prophet Elijah and with the angel of death, once decided to visit Paradise and Gehenna. He spoke of this to the angel of death who was not at all pleased with this request. The angel of death complained to the then Nasi, Rabban Gamliel the Third, but Rabban Gamliel declared that Rabbi Joshua was right in his request and he commanded the angel of death to escort Rabbi Joshua. Rabban Gamliel also instructed the angel of death to request Rabbi Joshua to send a complete description of what he saw to the Nasi. The Nasi was particularly curious to know whether there were any Jews in Gehenna or any pagans in Paradise.
In his description what he saw, called “Massecheth Gan Eden,” Rabbi Joshua relates that he went throughout the length and breadth of Paradise which was divided into seven different parts. In one part of Paradise he found Elijah and the Messiah of the House of David, who asked him what the Jews were doing. Rabbi Joshua replied: “They are waiting for your coming,” whereupon Messiah wept bitterly and all the saints wept with him.
Rabbi Joshua further relates that he was not admitted into Gehenna, but was merely allowed to stand at the gate and to observe that which went on within.
“I have measured the area of Gehenna,” Rabbi Joshua wrote, “and I found it to be one hundred miles long and fifty miles wide. Fiery lions are stationed everywhere and whoever falls into Gehenna is devoured by these lions and is afterward recreated in his previous form. Later I measured a second part of Gehenna and I found it to be of the same dimensions as the first. I then asked: ‘For whom is the first part set aside?’ and I was informed that it was set apart for ten nations, and that among them was also Absalom, the son of king David, who rebelled against his father. One nation says to another: ‘We have sinned in not accepting the Torah; what have you done?’ and the other nation replies: ‘We have committed the same sin that you have committed.’ Then they all turn to Absalom and ask: ‘What was your sin?’ and Absalom replies: ‘I have sinned against my father.’”
“An angel then beats them all with fiery rods and the name of the angel is Kushiel. He throws them into fire until they are burned and then they come out in their previous form. Finally the angel is ready to chastise Absalom, but a Bath Kol announces: ‘Do not beat him, for he is descended from a people which promised at Mount Sinai to obey God’s commandments before they even knew what these commandments would be.’”
“After all the sinners are chastised and burned, they emerge from the fire as if nothing had happened. This occurs seven times during each day and three times during each night. Only Absalom is neither chastised nor burned and his punishment consists in observing the others’ chastisement.”
Of the second chamber of Gehenna Rabbi Joshua related the same as of the first. It also contained ten nations which were punished in the same manner as those in the first. Together with them was Doeg the Edomite who had been a guard of king Saul. The avenging angel was named Lahatiel and he did not chastise Doeg because of his Jewish descent. In the third chamber there were another ten nations and the name of the angel was Shaftiel. Korach and his congregation was found among these, but he also escaped chastisement and merely had to observe the punishment of the others.
The fourth chamber contained ten nations and Jerobeam ben Nebat. The punishing angel was Machtiel. Jerobeam escaped punishment because of his knowledge of the Torah and because of his descent. The fifth chamber was similar to the preceding ones and it contained Ahab, king of Israel. The name of the angel was Chutriel. The sixth chamber contained Micah who built the famous idol of Micah. He was punished together with the others by an angel named Pusiel. The seventh chamber also contained ten nations and Elisha ben Avuyah. The name of the angel was Dalkiel.
Of his visit in Paradise Rabbi Joshua also related the following:
“There are two gates of clear crystal and on top of each there stand six hundred thousand angels each of whose faces shines like the sky. When a saint enters they remove the garments in which he was buried and they dress him with eight new garments made out of clouds. Two crowns are then placed upon his head, one made out of precious stones and the other of pure gold; in addition they place eight strands of myrtle in his hands and they say to him: ‘Go eat your bread in gladness.’”
“He is then led to a place of rivers surrounded with flowers. A canopy of gold is erected and from the canopy there flow four rivers: one of oil, one of milk, one of wine and one of honey. Every canopy has a golden vine on top of it from which hang thirty pearls which shine like the morning star. To every canopy is attached a table laden with precious stones and pearls and sixty angels stand ready to serve every saint and they say to him: ‘Eat your honey and drink your wine, for it has been prepared for you since the six days of the creation.’ Even the least of the saints equals Rabbi Jochanan in beauty and is endowed with grace like that of Joseph.”
“There is no night in Paradise, and each day is divided into four parts. During the first part God comes to the children and plays with them as one would with children; during the second part God comes to the young men and plays with them as one would with young men; during the third part God comes to the middle aged men and plays with them as one would with middle aged people; during the fourth part of the day God comes to the aged and converses with them as one would with aged people.”
“There are eighty thousand trees in every corner of Paradise and the least of them is more beautiful than incense trees. There are also six hundred thousand angels in every corner and they all sing the praise of the Creator.”
“In the very center of Paradise there stands the Tree of Life whose branches cover all of Paradise. Its fruits have five hundred thousand tastes and each taste differs from all the others and each odor differs from all the others. Above the Tree of Life there float seven sacred clouds; breezes blow from all four sides through the leaves of the Tree of Life and its odors are wafted from one end of the world to the other.”
“The saints in Paradise are subdivided into seven groups. One group consists of martyrs such as Rabbi Akiba and his colleagues and disciples; the second group consists of those who were drowned for the sanctification of the name of God such as the four hundred young men and the four hundred maidens who jumped into the sea when the enemy wished to sell them to a life of shame; the third group consists of people like Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai and his colleagues; the fourth group consists of people whom the enemy wanted to defame after their death and a cloud descended and covered them; the fifth group is made up of penitents; the sixth group consists of young men who never sinned, and the seventh group includes modest people who suffered humiliation without replying in kind.”