The Degree of Super Excellent Master
By Companion Scott A. Schwartzberg, Guest Author
Submission to the General Grand Council Education Committee

Scott A. Scwartzberg
Companion Scott A. Schwartzberg

The degree of Super-Excellent Master is is not allied to the other two degrees of the Cryptic Rite, as far as its teachings and traditions are concerned. It is required to be conferred in some jurisdictions, while in others it is only an honorary degree.

The Super-Excellent Master degree features Biblical prophecy highlighting the destruction of the first Temple and the construction of the second Temple. In this degree, it is found that catastrophe overtakes the unfaithful, whether he be prince or pauper, and that without fidelity, success is impossible.

As previously discussed, in the article on the degree of Royal Master, Albert Mackey discusses the American Rite in Manual of the Council. Mackey limits this Rite to nine degrees, from the Entered Apprentice through Select Master, and does not include the degree of Super-Excellent Master, explaining that although it is not a recent invention, none of the traditional ritualists, such as Webb or Cross, include it in their collections. Mackey agrees that it should remain an honorary or detached degree. He does, however, believe that it is useful. It contains commentary on and exemplification of part of the Royal Arch. Including it within the Rite would ruin the symmetry, a circle of nine degrees of Masonic science, which begins and ends in the search for the TRUE WORD.

The degree begins on the last day of the siege of Jerusalem by the army of Nebuchadnezzar. Mackey explains that the time frame of the degree makes it an exemplification of the part of the Royal Arch degree dealing with the destruction of the Temple. King Zedekiah, tributary to Nebuchadnezzar, monarch of the Chaldeans, is guilty of perfidy and rebellion. This degree is designed to inculcate the Masonic virtue of fidelity to one’s vows.

The presiding officer in this degree is styled Most Excellent King, and represents Zedekiah, the 20th and last king of Judah. The second officer represents Gedaliah. Mackey discusses two of the people named Gedaliah in the scripture, and concludes that the writer of the degree has erred in which one he selected to portray. Gedaliah, son of Pashur, is known to have been present at the destruction of Jerusalem. Gedaliah, son of Ahikam was appointed Satrap of the province of Yehud1 after the destruction of the city.

This second Gedaliah is supposed to be the second officer of the Council, but as Mackey points out, even in a fictional, apocryphal degree, consistency should demand that the second officer be Gedaliah, son of Pashur2.

The ceremony of reception into this degree starts with a scriptural reading to set the scene, from the Book of Lamentations:

How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people! How is she become as a widow! She that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary! She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks: among all her lovers she hath none to comfort her: all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they are become her enemies.

The authorship of this text is ascribed to the Prophet Jeremiah, during the conquest of Jerusalem. The history of the region is discussed, with the wars leading to the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel. The remnant of the ten tribes that made up that kingdom were taken into Assyria and Media, in 721 B.C.E. The Kingdom of Judah remained, consisting of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, with the capital at Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian Emperor, defeated the Kingdom of Judah in a series of wars. After capturing several kings, Nebuchadnezzar placed Zedekiah on the throne, exacting an oath of fidelity and allegiance. Zedekiah “rebelled against king Nebuchadnezzar, who had made him swear by God3”.

The degree is set at a council of princes and nobles of the court of Zedekiah, discussing a method of escape from the impending danger. The Prophet Jeremiah, present during the siege, wrote of the attempted escape and the aftermath4.

In the degree, the charge given to the candidate is intended to instill a sincere devotion to the GREAT I AM, in contraindication to the worship of idols; a symbolical expression for the reverence of truth and the abhorrence of falsehood. The violation of vows will not only cause us to forfeit the respect and friendship of our companions, but will also destroy our own peace of mind.

Allyn discusses the degree as dating back as early as 1825, incorrectly identifying Zedekiah as the last king of Israel. His book does include a version of the degree. The story is related to Gedaliah by the heralds of the court. While Jerusalem is under siege, Zedekiah escapes through a gate near his gardens. He is captured by the Chaldeans, his sons slain in front of him, and his eyes taken out, after which he is carried to Babylon in chains. Companion Gedaliah calls for the remaining officers to repair to the Altar, to pledge their faith in God, and to renew the vows of Brotherhood. The Pass Word is given as “Sxxx, fxxxx kxxx ox Ixxxxx,” while the Grand Word is “Nxxxx Zxxxx Bxxx5”.

I was able to obtain several versions of the degree, to be discussed. The first of these is dated 1995. The presiding officer represents Gedaliah, and is styled Most Excellent Companion. In this version, the candidate is conducted to the West, when there is an alarm at the door. The herald informs those assembled as to the fate of Zedekiah, and Gedaliah calls for all to circle the Altar, to pledge their faith in God and to renew the vows to God and to each other.

Gedaliah has all form a square about the Ark of the Covenant, representing the encampment of the Israelites, with three tribes on each side, naming those in each direction. He then has all form a triangle about the Ark of the Covenant, representing the Omniscience, Omnipresence, and Omnipotence of Deity, and the triple duty owed to God, our neighbors, and ourselves. He then has all form a circle about the Ark of the Covenant, emblematical of friendship, and the circle of our moral virtues as inculcated in the Entered Apprentice degree. It is also an emblem of eternity, having neither beginning nor end.

The words for this degree are given. Those given when entering or leaving a Council of Super-Excellent Masters, or when addressing Most Excellent Gedaliah are “Nxxxx Zxxxx Bxxx,” explained as “the Key to Hidden Treasure6”. The Pass Word is given as Sxxxxx, signifying “Peace7.” The words exchanged when giving the real grip are “Sxxx, txx fxxxx Kxxx ox Ixxxxx,” answered with “Zxxxxxxx, txx lxxx Kxxx ox Jxxxx.” Gedaliah then explains the history behind the degree. We are told that “the object of this degree is to inculcate true devotion to the Most High, to strive to enlighten our minds and purify our hearts, that they may become wiser and better, shining more and more unto the perfect day.”

Another version is dated 2003. This version is similar to that which I observed when I received this degree. The degree consists of several scenes acted out. The presiding officer is the Illustrious Master, as this is a degree of the Council. The Conductor of the Council brings in the candidates, and speaks for them. They are asked if Jehovah is the only and true God, and if they have worshiped other gods or bowed down to graven images. They are asked if they observe the vows previously taken as a Mason.

The newly obligated Super Excellent Masters are then instructed in the Signs, Grips and Words of the degree. The words accompanying the hailing sign are “Zx-hxx-lx-hxx-bxx,” which signifies “remember the destruction8.” The Pass Word is given as Sx-lxx-mx. The words exchanged when giving the real grip are the same as the other version. The symbol of the degree is explained as in the earlier version, though a different explanation is given for the square. The four equal sides and perfect angles are to symbolize the four Cardinal Virtues, and the square of truth and virtue.

In the first scene, the Jews are captive in Babylon. They have been working in the fields, and at the close of day, return to camp, where the Prophet Ezekiel reads from the sacred writings, in an attempt to console them9. The narrator explains that this scene showed the plight of the displaced Jews in Babylon, but that the other two scenes will explain what led to that exile.

The second scene takes place in the court of Zedekiah, last King of Judah. The city of Jerusalem has been under siege from Nebuchadnezzar for eighteen months, and this scene depicts the final day of that blockade. Zedekiah, his council and concubines are in the court. A herald delivers a scroll to Gedaliah, who reads it and reports to the King that the forces of Nebuchadnezzar are approaching, leaving devastation in their wake. Pashur, a deputy chief priest of the Temple, assures the King that these reports are false, that the army of Judah and their allies the Egyptians have overwhelmed the Babylonians. The Prophet Jeremiah enters, having escaped from prison, with an urgent message for the King. He informs the King that his advisors have lied to him about the state of affairs, that Egypt has been routed, the army of Nebuchadnezzar is close, and he has been kept drunk and satiated with harlots and concubines.

Jeremiah and Zedekiah
Jeremiah and Zedekiah
Photo Credit: New World Encyclopedia

He foretells destruction of the Temple and the loss of the Shekinah10 from Israel. He prophesies that Zedekiah will see his sons slain before his eyes, will be bound in chains, and carried to Babylon. He portends that this will happen unless the King repents. Zedekiah, told by his advisors that the Prophet is mad, complains that Jeremiah never predicts good news, only doom and gloom. Jeremiah asks the King to repent, that the darkness he sees coming be averted, that the prophecy of Ezekiel be turned back. That scroll11 is read, showing that Ezekiel said that Zedekiah would not see Babylon. This gives the King’s courtiers the opportunity to ask how both Prophets can be correct. The King refuses to repent, and as he leaves, Jeremiah turns and explains how Zedekiah can be bound in chains, carried to Babylon, and not see that city. The King and his courtiers flee through a gate near the gardens, and are overtaken by the Chaldean army.

The final scene takes place in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, at Riblah, where he had come to await the capture of Jerusalem, and where the captured King of Judah is brought for punishment. The previous two Kings of Judah had submitted without conflict when attacked by Nebuchadnezzar. He placed Zedekiah on the throne, exacting an oath that he would be a faithful vassal, that he would not ally with the Egyptians, an oath that was broken. The God of Zedekiah has delivered him into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, lacking the brightest jewel in the crown of a Monarch – fidelity. Zedekiah has mocked the messengers of God, imprisoning Prophets. Nebuchadnezzar decrees that the sons of Zedekiah shall be slain in front of him, his eyes put out, and he be bound in chains and delivered to Babylon.

There are additional, optional scenes, from the Feast of Belshazzar. This expands on the Book of Daniel, recounting the fall of the Babylonian empire, ending with the soldiers of Darius taking Belshazzar captive, Jeremiah celebrating the upcoming release of the Jews12.

The Scottish degree which I found was similar to the 1995 version. Additional details are given as to the meaning of the Square as an emblem. The separation of the tribes of Israel into four divisions of three tribes each is discussed, as a formation in which they marched during the forty years of wandering. The standards under which each division of three marched are similar to those of the Royal Arch degree13. The four standards, Man, Lion, Eagle, and Ox, also represent the Cherubim, as described by Ezekiel and John of Patmos14. Cherubim symbolize the protecting care of Deity.

Footnotes

1Governor of the province which was the former kingdom of Judah.
2Mackey supposes that Gedaliah, son of Ahikam, was born in the Chaldean empire, and earned favor there, much as Daniel did. It is not likely that a member of the defeated court would find such favor, especially after the former king was guilty of treachery.
3Chronicles 36:13
4Jeremiah 39:1-9
5A possible Hebrew translation is “relocating Zabod the builder”.
6If translated from the Hebrew, it may mean “feeding Zazon’s builders.”
7Likely a misspelled transliteration of the traditional “Shalom.”
8A possible transliteration of the phrase “זכור את ההרס"
9Readings are from Psalms 137, the same quotation from the Book of Lamentations as in the earlier version, with additional readings from Lamentations and Jeremiah.
10The Divine Presence of God, traditionally found within the Temple. Often described as dwelling between the outstretched wings of the Cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant, the “Mercy Seat”.
11Ezekiel 12:13
12Literary license is taken here, Cyrus was the Persian who overthrew the Babylonian Empire, Darius was the third King of the Persian Empire, who arranged for the return of the exiled Jews.
13The listing of Standards is given as Judah – Lion, Ephraim – Ox, Reuben – Eagle. Only three are specified in this version of the degree. According to most sources, Reuben’s Standard was a Man, while that of the tribe of Dan was the Eagle.
14Cherubim were described as having four heads – that of man, of a lion, of an ox, and of an eagle. These were attached to a human body with four wings, four hands under the wings, and the feet of an ox.

Sources

Allyn, Avery. Ritual of Freemasonry. 1865.

Blaisdell, Ron, P.M., “The Rituals of American Freemasonry,” June 16, 2001, http://www.themasonictrowel.com/ebooks/fm_freemasonry/Blaisdell__The_Rituals_of_American_Freemasonry.pdf accessed on February 20, 2012.

Blaisdell, Ron. Personal communication.

Cryptic Masons – our lessons. http://www.rsmmi.org/lessons.html accessed on February 20, 2011.

Degrees, http://yorkrite.com/degrees/ accessed on February 21, 2012.

Mackey, Albert G. Cryptic Masonry: A Manual of the Council; Or Monitorial Instructions in the Degrees of Royal and Select Master. With an Additional Section on the Super-Excellent Master’s Degree. 1867.

Macoy Publishing & Masonic Supply Co., Cryptic Masonry.

Richardson, Jabez. Richardson’s Monitor of Freemasonry. 1860.

Spiedel, Frederick G., The York Rite of Freemasonry: A History and Handbook. Presented by Hugh DePayens Commandery No. 30, K.T. and associated York Rite Bodies in Erie County, NY. 1978.

Royal and Select Masters, “Ritual for Super Excellent Master”. 1995

“Super Excellent Master”. 2003.

The Feast of Belshazzar: Scenes Compiled as an Optional Amplification to the Super-Excellent Master Degree. 2002.

The Cryptic Degrees: Super Excellent Master. Scotland, N.D.