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Zohar

Category: Books sutras and myths

 

The Zohar (Hebrew: זֹהַר, lit. "Splendor" or "Radiance") is the foundational work in the literature of Jewish mystical thought known as Kabbalah.  In the Bible the word "Zohar" appears in the vision of Ezekiel and is usually translated as meaning Light. It appears again in Daniel 12:3 "The wise ones will shine like the Light of the firmament".

 It is a group of books including commentary on the mystical aspects of the Torah (the five books of Moses) and scriptural interpretations as well as material on mysticism, mythical cosmogony, and mystical psychology. The Zohar is mostly written in Aramaic. Aramaic was the day-to-day language of Israel in the Second Temple period (539 BCE – 70 CE), was the original language of large sections of the biblical books of Daniel and Ezra, and is the main language of the Talmud.

The Zohar first appeared in Spain in the 13th century, and was published by Moses de Leon. De Leon ascribed the work to Shimon bar Yochai ("Rashbi"), a rabbi of the 2nd century during the Roman persecution.  In the following quote, however, from the 20th century religious historian Gershom Scholem, you will see that there is a belief that De Leon was the actual author.  Whatever its provenance, it is important to realise, however, that the Zohar is seen as an authentic book of mysticism passed down from the 2nd century. 

Academic studies of the Zohar show that it uses the Talmud, various works of midrash, earlier Jewish mystical works, the Bible, commentaries written by medieval rabbis, early mystical texts such as the Sefer Yetzirah and the Bahir, the early medieval writings of the Hasidei Ashkenaz and the Treatise on the Left Emanation, written by Jacob ha-Cohen.  The Jewish religious community debate long and hard about its ‘authenticity’, but for the purposes of this site, it is an interesting book in its own right encapsulating great knowledge and wisdom.

Zohar – The Book of Splendour – edited by Gershom Scholem

The book of Zohar, the most important literary work of the Kabbalah, lies before us in some measure inaccessible and silent, as befits a work of secret wisdom. Whether because of this, or in spite of it, among the great literary products of our medieval writings, however much clearer and more familiar than the Zohar many of them seem to us, not one has had an even approximately similar influence or a similar success. To have determined the formation and development over a long period of time of the religious convictions of the widest circles in Judaism, and particularly of those most sensitive to religion, and, what is more, to have succeeded in establishing itself for three centuries, from about 1500 to 1800, as a source of doctrine and revelation equal in authority to the Bible and Talmud, and of the same canonical rank - this is a prerogative that can be claimed by no other work of Jewish literature.

 

For a hundred years and more it elicited scarcely any interest to speak of. When it came on the scene, it expressed (and therefore appealed to) the feeling of a very small class of men who in loosely organized conventicles strove for a new, mystical understanding of the world of Judaism, and who had not the faintest notion that this particular book alone, among the many which sought to express their new world-view in allegory and symbol, was destined to succeed.

Soon, however, the light shadow of scandal that had fallen upon its publication and initial appearance in the world of literature, the enigma of the illegitimate birth of a literary forgery, disappeared and was forgotten. Very slowly but surely the influence of the Zohar grew; and when the groups among which it had gained dominion proved themselves in the storms of Jewish history to be the bearers of a new religious attitude that not only laid claim to, but in fact achieved, authority, then the Zohar in a late but exceedingly intensive afterglow of national life came to fulfil the great historical task of a sacred text supplementing the Bible and Talmud on a new level of religious consciousness. This inspirational character has been attached to it by numerous Jewish groups in Eastern Europe and the Orient down to our own days, nor have they hesitated to assert that final conclusion which has since earliest times been drawn in the recognition of a sacred text, namely, that the effect upon the soul of such a work is in the end not at all dependent upon its being understood.

 

The Zohar in its external literary physiognomy seems far from being conceived and constructed as a unified composition. Still less can it be regarded as any kind of systematic exposition of the world-view of the Kabbalah, like many such which have come down to us from the period of the Kabbalah's origin and even more from later times.

It is rather, in the printed form that lies before us, a collection of treatises and writings that are considerably different from one another in external form. Most of the sections seem to be interpretations of Bible passages, or short sayings or longer homilies, or else often artfully composed reports of whole series of homilies in which Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, a famous teacher of the 2nd century, and his friends and students interpret the words of Scripture in accordance with their hidden meaning, and, moreover, almost always in the Aramaic language.

Other sections, though these are few, have been presented in the form of anonymous and purely factual accounts in which there can be recognized no such settings of landscape and persons as those described with so much care elsewhere in the work, often in highly dramatic fashion.

Externally, also, many parts are set off from the rest by special titles as more or less independent compositions, and this not without very good reason.

Madonna has shown great interest in the Zohar

The main part of the Zohar, which is arranged by Pentateuch portions, purports to be an ancient Midrash, and in many details it imitates the form of the ancient midrashic works of the first centuries CE. On the whole, indeed, it breaks through this form and assumes the quite different one of the medieval sermon. Such extended compositions, constructed on a definite plan, as we find in the Zohar to the length of fifteen or twenty or even forty Pages, are quite foreign to the ancient Midrash. Here a different principle of composition obtains. The same is true of the Parts called Midrash ha-Neelam (The Secret Midrash) and Sitre Torah (Secrets of the Torah), which in a large number of Pentateuch portions, especially in the first book, provide parallel pieces to the "main parts."

The Secret Midrash, to be sure, has much to say about Simeon ben Yohai and his circle, but almost completely avoids genuinely mystical and theosophical trains of thought; instead, in its most important sections, it presents radical allegorisations of the patriarchal stories as indicative of the fate of the soul before and after death. These allegories very clearly reveal their kinship to the philosophical homiletic of the 13th century. The Secrets of the Torah, on the other hand, which in the main was composed without the use of the Midrash form or the addition of names, represents the transition from philosophical-eschatological allegory to genuinely mystical exegesis.

 

The ldra Rabba (The Great Assembly) describes, on an excellently constructed plan, the mystical "figure" of the Deity in the symbol of Primal Man, and Simeon ben Yohai treats the same theme a second time in a monologue before his death, an event which is most vividly described in ldra Zutta (The Small Assembly). Anonymous "Mishnayot" and "Toseftot," intended as introductions to other, longer sections, expound oracles concerning the world and the soul. In Raya Mehemna (The Faithful Shepherd), Moses and Rabbi Simeon converse about the hidden reasons for the commandments. The Tikkunim again give a detailed interpretation of the first section of the Pentateuch, and thus we have more than a total of ten great and small parts that are evidently separate units. It is no wonder, therefore, that the question of the unity of the Zohar has found very uncertain answers.

The theory that "primitive" sources and documents have been preserved in the Zohar, although admittedly in revised form, is today widespread.  Thus the Zohar (and this is undoubtedly what has gone to make this view so attractive though it lacks all proof would really be even in its external beginnings, a deposit of the creative folk-spirit and, like the Bible and Talmud, the anonymous work of centuries.  And it may be taken as an indication of the enduring influence of the school of Ahad Haam, that the lack of proof for this theory - and in its behalf not even the shadow of philological critical evidence has been brought forward – has in no way seriously hindered its spread.  What is plausible can do without proof.

 

The Zohar is, in the main, a unified book….. Among the separate parts there are no strata or ancient material from mystical Midrashim unknown to us; on the contrary, these parts came out of the heads of their authors just as they are, except that many parts are undoubtedly missing, having disappeared from the manuscripts as early as the 14th century. Much of the printed text is wrongly arranged, where the manuscript, however, retains the correct order. Finally, a few shorter pieces were added still later in the I4th century. The separate parts do not relate to a corresponding number of strata or authors, but the whole corpus of Zohar literature was in origin made up of three strata. These, in themselves predominantly unified, are:

1) Midrash ha-Neelam.

2) The main part of the Zohar with the ldra Rabba, Idra Zutta, Sitre Torah, and most of the other short treatises.

3) Raya Mehemna and the so-called Tikkune Zohar, both of which had a single author.

Certain it is that the author of the third stratum. who had the second before him in completed form and cites it and rather unsuccessfully imitates it, is not the author of the first two. Everything speaks against this being so: the linguistic character of the third, its strongly apocalyptic tendencies, its laborious construction, its divergent views, and its way of using sources. One might perhaps propose the rather hazardous thesis that we are here dealing with the work of the old age and decline of the chief author, whose early talents had left him and who was imitating himself, were it not for the fact that too much of an independent nature inheres in the book Tikkunim to make this thesis tenable. This last group of writings was composed around 1300.

 

The first two strata, on the other hand, are in all probability by a single author, whose development from the composition of the first to the second is still clearly traceable, and thus it becomes gratuitous to assume any break in the identity of the person who stands behind the whole production. The Secret Midrash, which has hitherto been customarily regarded as the latest part of the whole work because of its free use of philosophical terminology as well as its partial use of the Hebrew language, is in all probability the earliest part.

Behind the whole stands the living personality of a mystic who, starting with the philosophical and talmudic education of his time, lets himself be ever more deeply drawn to the mystical and gnostic ideas of the Kabbalah, and finally gives up his philosophical interests altogether, developing instead a truly astonishing genius for mystical homiletics; indeed, half a millennium had to elapse before Jewish literature was again able to show anything comparable. For such is the author of these most important parts of the Zohar – no redactor or collector but a homiletic genius. It was Kabbalah, as it had developed before his time, and having become his spiritual home, which he, with unexpected and impressive power, constructed from out of the text of Scripture and the ancient haggadic motifs of the Midrash.

Thus although his world of thought and concept was not novel, his mystical sources were by no means forgotten tomes and apocrypha from obscure centuries. They were the literature of the Kabbalah to the time of Moses ben Nahman (1195-1270) and his circle, a literature which has been in large part preserved and is today quite well known. The manner in which this Zohar author's mystical world was constructed reveals to us very precisely the only period of time in which he is to be correctly placed in the development of the Kabbalah; in addition to which a whole series of linguistic and factual criteria, quite independent of one another, point to exactly the same time. It was certainly around 1280 that these main parts of the Zohar were composed in Spain by a kabbalist who had not seen Palestine. In ever new guises and externally different literary and stylistic forms this work erupts from an author who seems to have deeply experienced his conversion to kabbalism. But in spite of all the masks which he is fond of putting on, the inner form and the personal style are always identical.

….. was Moses de Leon in fact the author of this very Zohar, as even his own contemporaries long ago suspected?  We may now say with a fair amount of philological certainty that Moses de Leon must indeed be considered the actual author of the book. True, while much former evidence bolstering that hypothesis has been disproved, there has now come to light certain entirely new evidence to speak decisively for Moses de Leon's authorship. This much is certain: Moses de Leon was in possession of the original work and circulated it from 1280 on, so that a countryman of his, Isaac ibn Sahula of Guadalajara, read The Secret Midrash as early as 1281.

From 1286 on, Moses de Leon composed his "own" writings in very considerable number. These books reveal an author who lives and moves wholly in the specific world of the Zohar and not merely in the general world of the contemporary Kabbalah, so that we have only the choice of saying either that he entirely surrendered himself to the stronger personality of the nameless author of the Zohar to the extent of giving up his own personal traits, or that he himself was the author.

 

 The Zohar assumes that the Bible can be interpreted in four main ways, leading from  the literal to the more mystical:

  1. The simple, literal meaning of the text: Peshat
  2. The allusion or hinted/allegorical meaning: Remez
  3. The rabbinic comparison through sermon or illustration and metaphor: Derash
  4. The secret/mysterious/hidden meaning: Sod

The initial letters of these words (P, R, D, S) form together the word PaRDeS ("paradise/orchard"), which became the designation for the Zohar's view of a fourfold meaning of the text, of which the mystical sense is considered the highest and most important.  In very summarised form the main books and their contents, attributable to Moses de Leon, are as follows:

  • Midrash haNe`elam/The Hidden Midrash (מדרש הנעלם)   Midrash haNe`elam is located within the body of the Zohar.  It is principally about the Higher spirit called in the Zohar the neshamah  as well as the Creation, and ‘the days of Mashiach, and Olam Haba’
  • Sitrei Torah/Secrets of the Torah  - Sitrei Torah are drashas [a critical explanation or analysis of a text] of verses from the Torah regarding matters of the soul and the secret of Divinity, and they are in Zohar Vol. 1
  •  
    Sifra diTzni`uta/Book of the Hidden (ספרא דצניעותא) - This small "book," three pages long, -- the name of which, "Book of the Hidden," attests to its 'veiled and cryptic character'—is considered one of the most important and concentrated parts of the Zohar. Its enumerations and anatomical references are reminiscent of the Sefer Yetzirah, the latter being remazim (hints) of divine characteristics.  "Sifra diTzni`uta includes all the wisdom of Kabbalah... and is the `little that holds the much' .
  • Idra Rabba/The Great Assembly (אדרא רבא) - The Idra Rabba is found in the Zohar Vol. 3, “Idra" is a sitting-place of sages, usually circular, and the word "Rabba/Great" differentiates this section from the section Idra Zuta.  Both are symbolic.  It is told allegorically by using a discussion of nine of Rashbi's ‘friends’, who gathered together to discuss “great and deep secrets of Kabbalah” and the terms used in the Sifra diTzni`uta.   "Fortunate are you Rabbi Shimon! and fortunate is your portion and the portion of the friends who remain alive with you! For it has been revealed to you that which has not been revealed to all the upper hosts."
  • Idra Zuta/The Smaller Assembly (אדרא זוטא) - The Idra Zuta is found in the Zohar Vol. 3.  In the Idra Zuta, Rashbi's colleagues convene again, this time seven in number.
  • Tosefta - Tosefta are short paragraphs/summaries on the wisdom of the Kabbalah of the Zohar, and it is dispersed in all three volumes of the Zohar.
  • Idra deVei Mashkana  - Idra deVei Mashkana ("Assembly of the House of the Tabernacle") deals mainly with the secrets of prayer
  • Heikhalot  - Heikhalot ("Palaces") describes the symbolic palaces of Gan Eden, and Gehinom,
  • Raza deRazin  - Raza deRazin ("Secret of Secrets") deals with revealing the essence of a man.
  • Saba deMishpatim  - Saba deMishpatim ("The Elder on Statutes") is the commentary of Rav Yiba Saba regarding transmigration of souls – reincarnation and judgement

 Thus as you can see these texts are essentially mystic texts covering the layout of the Egg along with essential symbolism.  In the final part which Gershom Scholem considers was not written or compiled by Moses de Leon we have what are in essence theological rather than mystical texts

  • Synagogue
    Ra`aya Meheimna/The Faithful Shepherd (רעיא מהימנא) - is by far the largest "book" included in the Zohar.  It is what Moshe, the "Faithful Shepherd," teaches and reveals to Rashbi and his friends, of the Torah —‘ roots and deep meanings of mitzvoth – the commandments’. Ra`aya Meheimna is distributed throughout the Zohar, in Vols. 2 and 3 of the Zohar, but not in Vol. 1.
  • Tikunei haZohar/Rectifications of the Zohar (תיקוני הזוהר) - Tikunei haZohar, was printed as separate book, and includes seventy commentaries called "Tikunim" (lit. Repairs) and an additional eleven Tikkunim.

There is a constant underpinning in the Zohar of the mystical marriage/chemical wedding - somewhat aligned with Hindu thought and many other eastern and indigenous peoples' thinking - the marriage of male and female in order to gain access to the Higher spirit - Eros - the Lovers.

And to sum up, a quite wonderful quote:

The Jewish Encyclopedia
... the Zohar was censured by many rabbis because it ..... produced a host of mystical dreamers, whose overexcited imaginations peopled the world with spirits, demons, and all kinds of good and bad influences.

sounds good to me!

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